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The Golden Curl In A Purple Shell

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Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009-

            Tomorrow we are going to the tidal pools for a school trip. We have to write an essay about one of the sea creatures we see there. I like the tidal pools more than the open ocean, so this should be a lot of fun! Aradia and I are hoping that the teachers will let us go into the nearby sea caves, but we’re not sure that she will. I’ll bring my seashell box anyways, so that I can collect more pretty ones. I’ll write about what I find tomorrow, and probably have drawings too. Goodbye!

 

Thursday, September 24th, 2009-

            We went on the school trip today, and I got a lot of pretty seashells!

The teacher didn’t let us into the sea caves, but Aradia said that we can visit them later if our parents are okay with it. Dad said I can go, so I’m going later after I finish my homework.
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            We saw something weird at the caves today. Sollux said it was probably just a seal or baby dolphin that got stuck, but it didn’t really look like one. We could only really see its tail before it went underwater, but it looked really funny looking. Aradia and I want to go back again after dinner to see if it’s still there.

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            We went back, but we couldn’t find it anywhere. But, we did find a really pretty necklace!

Sollux says it’s not real gold, but I think it is. And, even if it’s not, it’s still really pretty. I’m going to bed now. We stayed out really late and Dad was kind of upset. Goodnight!



***


            Tavros closed his journal and cleaned off his desk before standing up and pushing in his chair. He picked up the necklace he and his friends’ had found in the sea cave earlier that night. It really was pretty; a thick abalone shell with speckles that shined brighter than any other one he’d collected yet. There was a golden symbol in the curve of the abalone, shaped like like a lowercase N, but with a few extras lines and a swirl. The cord of the necklace was a thin, but strong purple twine twisted tight. It was snapped though, implying that it had been ripped off or torn away from its owner’s neck.
             He tilted the necklace to see it reflect its rainbow light onto his bedroom wall one more time before going to bed. He opened his jewelry box, placing the necklace gently inside, and switched off his desk lamp. His room was still illuminated by the pale blue moonlight shining through his window and the nightlight plugged in by his closet. He shuffled over to his bed, and got ready for the night. He was already in pajamas; fleece button ups with Pokémon polka dotted across them, and he’d brushed his teeth earlier. He pulled out a CD from the shelf under the window and inserted it into his stereo. After turning it on, the speakers played soothing melodies of flutes and chimes; perfect for falling asleep to. He pulled down the sheets, and, wrapping the comforter over him, snuggled into his pillow and the pile of stuffed animals that lay on top and around him.
            He wiggled underneath his sheets, knocking a few plush toys to the ground as he found the most comfortable position for the night. Nose peeking out over the comforter, he finally settled in. He looked down at the wooden floor, the soft luminescence of the moon drifting across the pale, salmon planks. The atmosphere of his room became surreal, the soft zen music mixing with the aura of the night; an air of magic surrounded him.

            Finally, Tavros closed his eyes and exhaled deeply as he fell asleep. He hoped that tomorrow, he and Aradia could go back to the caves, to try again and find the sea creature. It had a really pretty tail, and he wondered what the rest of it looked like. His imagination set to work while he slept, thinking up every possibility as to the sea creature’s presentation.
            He really wanted to see it again.

 

Chapter Text

          The fresh, morning silence was broken the next day by a chirping tone from the alarm clock on Tavros' nightstand. It rung out, loud and sharp, echoing through the room.
          Tavros groaned into his pillow and buried himself deeper into his cozy mountain of bed sheets and stuffed animals. He had finally managed to block out the alarm when the comforter was pulled away from him, bringing all the piled up plush toys down to the ground with it. Tavros jerked at the sting of air on his skin, though the room was not cold. He twisted in place to try and warm himself again, stopping to look up at the perpetrator. Tavros groaned and blinked his eyes wearily.

          "Dad... I'm getting up, okay?" He sighed and dropped his head into his pillow. "Please go... I'll be right there..." He mumbled into the muffling fabric.

          Tavros' father shook his head and bent down on his knees to Tavros' level. "Yeah, sure you will." He placed a hand on Tavros' shoulder and started to shake him side to side, just enough to make the boy dizzy. "Get up, lazy, you gotta get dressed, kid. Come on."

          Tavros groaned louder, irritation very evident. "Daaaaad, stooooop..." He rolled away from his father's hold and sat up quickly, his upper body drooping forward as he rubbed at his eyes. "I'm up, I'm up already..."

          His father leaned over and gently shook Tavros' head, chuckling. "You're not up until I see you standing out of bed, lazy."

          "No, being 'up' just means being awake..."

          "Not in my book. Now get up, Tavros, or you're gonna have to skip breakfast."

          Tavros rolled onto his stomach and got up onto his knees. He then immediately fell forward, falling face first onto his mattress. "Noooo, I want fooood..."

          "Well, you'll have to get up then, Tav," He tugged loosely at the collar of his son's pajama shirt. "You won't have time if you don't."

          Tavros merely moaned once more into the mattress.
          His father sighed and stood up, cracking his back and the rolling his shoulders. "Do I have to carry you to the bathroom and brush your teeth myself?"

          "No, you brush too hard."

          "That's 'cause I actually care about health."

          "I do too..."

          "Then why aren't you getting ready?"

          "Uggggghhh..." Tavros pushed himself up into a crouch and fell back on his butt, his legs loosely resting in front of him. "Alright, alright, I'm getting up, I'm getting up..."

          He dragged himself to the edge of the mattress and threw his legs limply over the edge. He slid off and onto the wood floor, stretching himself out in an attempt to rouse the drowsiness away.
          His father chuckled as Tavros let out a big yawn and blearily looked up at him; his expression one in a complete daze.

          “Okay, Vi, now get dressed and don’t go back to sleep, you got it?”
Tavros nodded his head weakly and started to slowly stumble over to his closet, bumping into his father on the way.

          “Okay…”

          He opened the closet and went to picking out his attire, hanging his choices on the knob of the door. His father took one last glance at him before leaving the room to go make breakfast.
          Tavros contemplated what to wear, briefly comparing shirts before deciding on a simple blue tank top with a pale yellow floral design and a grey short sleeved button up jacket to go over it. He grabbed matching grey shorts and got dressed in the complete outfit. He moved to his desk to pull out his jewelry box and add a little something extra to the ensemble. He reached in for an orange flower bracelet, when the necklace from yesterday caught his eye. He took the bracelet and grabbed the necklace along with it, tying it around his neck. He decided he’d wear it to school today.
          After he brushing his teeth and fixing his hair, Tavros hopped down the stairs to the kitchen. His father had cooked a quick batch of eggs and hash browns with bacon for breakfast, and he was now waiting outside at the table out on the kitchen balcony. Tavros went to the kitchen counter and grabbed his plate and a glass of orange juice before going out to sit with him.

          “Hey! Looks like someone stayed awake.”

          Tavros chuckled. “Heh, of course I got up Dad.” He placed his plate and glass on the table and pulled out the chair. He plopped down in the seat and scooted forward. “There was food downstairs, what was I supposed to do?”

          “Just go back to bed I suppose.”

          His father had brought out the seasonings and toppings for breakfast and set them on the table. Tavros reached for the bottle of Tabasco and uncapped it, shaking little squirts of the hot sauce onto his hash browns.

          “Haha, that’s really funny Dad. I’m not that lazy.”

          He put back the Tabasco, swapping it out with the salt to sprinkle on his hash browns and then the pepper to season his eggs. His father had already begun eating before Tavros arrived, but he was just now finishing up his eggs.

          “Could’ve fooled me.” He said playfully through a mouthful of egg whites. He swallowed the food and looked over at Tavros, pointing his fork in the direction of his son’s chest, “So that’s the necklace you found yesterday?”

          Tavros looked down at the necklace and lifted it from his chest to show it off. “Yeah, we found it stuck in-between rocks in a pool during just before high tide kicked in.”

          “It looks really nice.”

          “Yeah, and even though Sollux says it’s not,” Tavros pointed to the ‘N’ shaped symbol in the shell, “I think this part here is real gold.”

          His father leaned over to get a better look. He hummed in thought before pulling away to lean back in his chair. “Eh, well, I wouldn’t get your hopes up about that.”

          "Why not?”

          “Well, it’s just unlikely that it’s real gold, so don’t get yourself excited just to be disappointed.”

          "Oh..." Tavros frowned. He slid a finger along the curve of the symbol. “Well, it’s still pretty, regardless…”

          His father perked up, sensing Tavros’ falling enthusiasm. “Oh, yes, of course, it’s a beautiful necklace! Looks pretty charming on you too, you handsome devil.”

          Tavros giggled and dropped the necklace back to hang loose from his neck. “No it doesn’t. It’d probably look more, uh, charming on you, Dad.”

          His father shook his head, smiling. “Tavros, it looks great on you and I mean it. You gonna show it off at school?”

          “I do kind of want to show the others what we found, yeah…”

          “Well, I’m sure they’ll love it, Vi. That’s really something you found there.” His father looked behind him to see through the kitchen window and check on the time. The kitchen clock showed that it was almost time for Tavros to head to school.

          “Oh! Well, it’s about time you start heading out, kid!” He stood up and began to pick up the emptied plates and glasses and stack them up in his arms. “You go grab your bag and get your shoes on, I’ll be right there.”

          “Okay.” Tavros stood up and speed walked through the kitchen to the entrance-way. He grabbed his brown, closed toe sandals and slipped them over his socks and velcroed them into place. He snagged his backpack from off the ground by the doorway and grabbed his key lanyard from off the hook by the door.
          His father came jogging over to him and slipped his arms under Tavros and lifted him up into the air in a twirl. They shared in a moment of laughter before he lowered Tavros in his arms and gave him a kiss on the forehead.

          “You have fun today, alright?”

          “You’ve got it, Dad.”

          He bent down and lowered Tavros back onto his feet and opened the front door for him. Tavros walked out with a little bounce and looked back as he started to head down the porch stairs.

          “Goodbye, I love you!” He shouted at his dad.

          His father waved at him from the doorway, one arm supporting him as he leaned against the doorjamb. “Have a good day today! I love you too, Vi!”

          They waved once more before they broke eye contact and Tavros went skipping down the street.
          He skipped along the sidewalk and ghosted his hand along the round, stone wall separating the street from the beach. Looking up ahead at a crossroad, he could see Sollux waving his dads goodbye while dragging his feet down his porch stairs to meet up with Aradia who waited at the bottom.
          Tavros sped to catch up with them, his key chains jangling as his backpack bounced up and down. 

          “H-Hey guys!”

          Sollux and Aradia turned to see Tavros waving them down. Aradia smiled brightly and walked forward to meet him, Sollux following behind.

          “Good morning, Tavros!” Aradia cheerfully greeted.

          “Morning.” Sollux shuffled up next to her side, clearly tired from a lack of sleep.

          “Uh...” Tavros looked questioningly at Sollux. “Are you okay? You seem tired.”

          “Very much so.” Sollux muttered with a severe lisp. He rubbed his eyes, his glasses pushing up against his fingers. “Your guys’ little adventure threw off my sleeping schedule.”

          “You didn’t have to come, grumpy pants.” Aradia piped in.

          “Yes I did, you guys guilt tripped me.”

          Tavros tilted his head to the side and responded, “Uh, no we didn’t? You said you wanted to come with us.”

          “No I didn’t.”

          There was a small awkward silence in the air before Aradia spoke up, “Well, wake up and come on, we’re going to school one way or another today.”

          Sollux sighed and trudged after her. “Fine…”

          Tavros smiled at the two and followed next to Aradia. She looked over at him and noticed the necklace around his neck. She looked up at him with a grin.

          “So you’re going to wear it to school?”

          “Yeah, it looks really pretty…”

          “I bet you Kanaya will like it.”

          “Oh yeah, she would, wouldn’t she?”

          Sollux spoke up with a mutter, “Just don’t go telling her it’s real gold.”

          Tavros pouted in Sollux’s direction and said, “Well, unless we get it inspected, by a professional that is, there’s not really a way to say for sure.” He thumbed the gold symbol in the abalone. “If it’s really real gold or not would only be up to said professional, I suppose.”

          Aradia laughed and elbowed Sollux, “Of course it’s real gold! It’s probably some ancient pirate treasure, and we’ll get paid hundreds of dollars for it and get to have our names on a plaque in a museum!“

          “You’re not serious, are you AA?”

          “Of course I’m serious, Sollux.”

          “Yeah,” Tavros stepped in front of the two other and held the necklace out with a mischievous grin. “We’re gonna be famous, Sollux. Uh, but only Aradia and I. Because, you are, how shall I say, a very boring and cynical person. One who would not get credit because of you doubting the true value of this necklace, which is inlaid with real gold, as you will, in this scenario, come to understand.”

          Tavros chuckled as he continued to walk backwards down the sidewalk. Aradia giggled along, but Sollux merely tossed his head back and groaned.

          “Remind me why I’m friends with you two?”

          Aradia and Tavros spoke in unison, “Because you love us!” They both laughed at the timing of their words.

          Sollux sighed and walked past them, purposefully bumping into them slightly.

          “I’m going to get to school losers, see you there.” He muttered through his lisp.

          Aradia made a silly face at Sollux’s backside as he walked on, Tavros laughing at her playful teasing.
          They all eventually made it to the schoolyard, where everyone else was running about on the play-gym and sport courts. Backpacks were lined up on the classroom number dots, thrown against the walls of the classroom entrances and scattered around the poles supporting the canopy above the playground.
          Tavros immediately spotted his other friends at their usual locations on the playground. Kanaya was sitting on a stone bench against one of the walls, gently thumbing the edge of the page of the book she was reading and Nepeta was swinging around on the monkey bars, going about her usual methods of crawling all over the play-gym; usually to end up in trouble for putting herself in a dangerous position, even though she never got hurt. Off to the side of a basketball court, Karkat was getting into an argument with Terezi over the rules of some game they were playing, though Terezi was grinning, clearly enjoying Karkat’s tantrum.
          Upon entering the schoolyard gates, Sollux immediately went over to tell Karkat what a big baby he was being, and join in with Terezi in watching him consequently explode over it.
          Tavros and Aradia had gone to their class’ dot and placed down their backpacks. With a happy little hum, Tavros noticed he’d actually managed to get near the front the line this time. Turning to the playground, Aradia looked over at Nepeta, who was narrating her own adventure as she explored the play gym.

          “Hey, Tavros, let’s go play with Nepeta.”

          Tavros looked over at the little, dark skinned girl hanging upside down from the playground pull up bars, her short Havana twist braids dangling down and her blue cat ear hat lying beneath her on the the ground. She gasped when she saw Tavros and Aradia and frantically waved her hands.

          “Hi, Ta-furr-os! Aradia! Wanna come purr-ay?”

          Aradia smiled and walked over to where Nepeta hung down from. Nepeta always found a way to incorporate cat puns into her speech, and had a variation of nearly all her friends’ names that involved cats in some way or another.

          “Of course, Nepeta! Tavros?” She looked over at Tavros, who was facing away like he was contemplating something.

          “Ta-furr-os? Do you wanna purr-ay?” Nepeta asked again.

          “Oh, uh,...“ He looked down at his necklace and then up at Kanaya, sitting besides the wall. “Actually, I was hoping I could show Kanaya the-”

          “Ohh! What a purr-etty necklace!”

          Nepeta reached up for the bar and swung herself around and flipped off, landing on the ground with bent knees. Immediately after, she made a beeline for Tavros and skidded to a stop mere inches from his chest.

          “Ooooohhh! It’s so shiny! Where did you get that? Can I buy one? I want a purr-etty green one; or blue one!” She poked and prodded at the necklace, tracing the golden lines on the interior of the shell.

          “Oh, uh, Aradia, Sollux and I found it in one of the sea caves by the tidal pools.”

          Nepeta made little murmurs of awe as she continued to inspect the jewelry piece,er eyes focused nowhere but on the rainbow gloss of the abalone shell and the shimmer of the strange symbol inside.

          “Is this real gold?” She asked Tavros, though not meeting his eyes.

          “Uhm, it might be.” He responded

          “So cool!” Still holding the necklace with one hand, Nepeta began to pull Tavros along with her other. “Come on, I wanna show Karkat!”

         “Oh, uh, okay. We can show him.” Tavros muttered, stumbling after her, trying to keep the distance between them short so as to avoid snapping the necklace cord again.

          Nepeta squealed loudly from across the playground and waved down her brother as she dragged Tavros over to him. “Kar-kitty!! Look at this purr-etty necklace Ta-fur-os found!!”

          Karkat stopped mid-sentence in his conversation with Terezi and Sollux and groaned as he slapped his hands to his face, his body both loosening and tensing in annoyance at the same time.

          "Nepeta, I thought I told you to never call me that ever again.” He put heavy annunciation on the word, ‘ever’. “And, God, please lower your voice for once. I don’t care that we’re outside, even when we’re inside you still screech like a dying cat that got ran over by a spiked tire of cement.”

          Nepeta frowned at him and weakly punched his shoulder. 

          “Oh, shut up, you’re just being grumpy, Kitty.” Her mouth blossomed back into a playful smile as she lifted up the necklace from Tavros' neck for him to see. “Look at what Ta-fur-os found! Isn’t it just beautiful!”

          Despite the scowl permanently glued to his face, Karkat did indeed look impressed by the piece of jewelry. He took a step forward to look at the necklace.

          “What, is it plastic or something? Where did you even get this from?”

          Tavros went to speak up, but Nepeta interrupted his explanation with her own. “He and Aradia and Paw-llux found it at the beach!”

          “In a sea cave.” Sollux threw in. “We found it in the sea cave by the tidal pools.”

          “Uh…” Tavros mumbled, “Yeah.”

          “Oh.” Karkat went to grab it. “Let me see it.”

          “Uhm, okay.” Tavros pulled the necklace over his head and handed it to him. “Here.”

          “Hmm…” Karkat looked at it analytically for just a second before he decided that he didn’t really care for it. “Yeah, I got no clue. Doesn’t feel like plastic at least. Hey, maybe it’s actually worth something.” He handed it roughly back to Tavros. “Now, all of you losers can keep gawking at a dead sea animal carcass made into sparkly ladies’ wear, but I’m going to go line up so I’m first inside.”

          With that, he shoved his way past and headed straight for the classroom backpack line. The bell would be ringing soon.

          “Rude!” Nepeta called after him. “Come on Tav, let’s show everyone else before the bell rings!”

          “Uh, okay.” Tavros grinned. "Yeah, that sounds good."

          The two children went around, showing off Tavros’ necklace to everyone they met. Nepeta even waved down people walking down the sidewalk outside the schoolyard fences and eagerly presented it to them. Tavros was a little more than uncomfortable with all this frantic running about and the attention he was recieving, but it was cute seeing Nepeta get all excited about stuff like this. If he had to admit it, it was kind of fun getting to see everyone's reactions as well.

          “Oh! Cat-nya! Cat-nya! Look at what Tav-fur-os found!” Nepeta yanked on Tavros’ arm, pulling him to where Kanaya sat, reading her book.

          She looked up at them with a curious expression. “What did you find?”

          “Oh…” Tavros began to speak, when, yet again, Nepeta shouted over him.

          Slipping a bookmark into place, Kanaya closed her book and held up a hand to silence Nepeta.

          Looking up at the two, she calmly spoke. “Nepeta, please let Tavros speak.”

          “Huh?” Nepeta turned to the quiet Tavros. “Oh!” She gasped, putting her hands up to her mouth. “I'm so sorry Tavros! Please, go ahead, you tell Kanaya!”

          Tavros smiled at her and slowly began to speak, as though he was expecting another interruption. He looked down at Kanaya, who nodded and gave a hand motion for him to continue.

          “Uhm, heheh, okay, uh…” he held out the necklace and examined it as he spoke. “Uh, yesterday, I went out with Aradia and Sollux, and we found this in one of the tidal pools near the sea cave. It was broken, but…” he brought the back of the necklace cord around to the front of his throat so that Kanaya could see the repair, “I fixed it so that it could be worn.”

          He ended his speech, and waited awkwardly for a reply. Nepeta was bouncing in place, barely restraining herself from another outburst.

          “So… what do you think?” Tavros asked.

          Kanaya nodded and held out a hand. “May it see it? It looks very lovely.”

          “Yeah,” He unclipped the necklace and placed it in her outstretched palm. “Here you go.”

          Kanaya brought the necklace closer to her face, handling it as delicately as one might a fragile flower constructed of the thinnest, most elegant glass. She tilted it and gently brought her fingers to the shining surface of the inner part of the shell and carefully stroked the golden lines. Subconsciously, Tavros noted how pretty the necklace looked against her tanned skin and green dress; the purple and gold complemented her perfectly.

          "It's in an incredible condition, considering how you found it. I wonder if it's real gold?” She pondered aloud.

          “Yeah, everyone's been wondering that.” Added Tavros.

          “Do you think it belongs to someone?” Nepeta spoke up softly, worried she might get too rowdy again.

          “Most likely. It's obviously only recently been dropped, and it was found near town.” Kanaya nodded and handed the necklace back to Tavros. “Perhaps we should ask around? It seems valuable.”

          “Oh…” Tavros returned the necklace to it's proper place and adjusted it to face forward on his chest. “Yeah… I guess we should.”

          He didn't really want to find the owner though. It was a beautiful necklace and Tavros really liked it. He supposed it could also go for a lot of money, if it was really as valuable as it seemed, but really, Tavros just wanted to keep it for himself as, well, a necklace.
          But, if someone lost it, he imagined they'd be just as sad without it as he would. Not to mention, it probably held more meaning to them, since it was likely an expensive family heirloom or something of a similar caliber.

          “Where would I take it? Uh, to return it to the owner I mean.”

          “The police station.” Kanaya responded. “File a report for a found item.”

          “Okay, I guess I’ll do that later then.” He muttered, looking back at the necklace's charm.

          “Awww…” Nepeta frowned, “But it’s pretty!”

          "Yes, Nepeta, but we really should return it to it’s owner.” Kanaya pointed out.

          Nepeta pouted and crossed her arms, her posture reminiscent of her very own grouchy big brother. “Alright, fine then. I guess that’s the right thing to do.”

          Just then, the early bell rang out from the speaker at the upper corner of the wall behind Kanaya. The white noise of the playground suddenly escalated as a crowd of children all rushed to line up for class.

          “Well,” Kanaya stood up gracefully from her bench and looked out over the sea of children. “Time to go now.” 

          “Come on, Tav!” Nepeta pulled on the flap of Tavros’ jacket,  “Let’s see if we can beat Karkat and get you in front!”

          Tavros looked at her with a blank expression, unmoving despite her efforts. “Uh, but, didn’t Karkat go to the line early?”

          “He purr-obably got caught up in an argument with someone and got distracted! I bet we’ll make it!”

          Tavros didn’t think they would, but they had to get to the line anyway, so he decided to follow along with her. “Okay, sure, let’s go then.”

          “Yay!” She cheerily cried out.

          Kanaya smiled softly and chuckled at them. “Well, you two hurry then. Lord knows Karkat will have a fit if you beat him.” She turned to head to her class, which was on the other side of the building, since she was a grade above them.

          “I’ll see you two after school then.” Kanaya waved goodbye as she walked off.

          Nepeta fervently waved her arm and began to skip backwards to her line. “Goodbye!” 

          “Bye, Kanaya!” Tavros called to her.

          Nepeta then turned around and yanked Tavros, who yelped in surprise, off to the line. She pushed past people playfully while Tavros lingered just behind, apologizing to every person he bumped into.
          As they got closer to the line, Tavros could see that, just as he suspected, Karkat already stood at the front of the line, his arms bent close to his side and his hands squeezed tight around his backpack straps. His whole posture screamed a tense, dominant look that appeared all too hilarious on such a short, young child.

          “Aww!” Nepeta cried.

          Tavros suddenly was knocked backwards as he ran straight into Nepeta, who had come to an immediate halt, and, rather humorously, bounced off her back. She stumbled forward a little bit, but she was not bothered.

          “No fair!” She shouted as she took childish strides over to Karkat. “Tavros and I were gonna be fur-st!”

          Karkat sneered at her and stomped one foot down on the asphalt teasingly. “Well, maybe you should’ve taken the initiative and come early! The first one here is the first one here! Nothing much you can do about the rules, Nepeta.”

          Nepeta pouted. “You’re so mean, Kar-kitty. Why are you so mean?”

          “I’m not mean, Nepeta, I’m fair. This is fair. I was here first.”

          Tavros came forward and tapped on Nepeta’s shoulder. “It is fair Nepeta. We’ll just, uh… we’ll just have to beat him to it next time.”

          Nepeta turned to Tavros with a determined smile. Just as she went to excitedly shout in agreement, she was cut off by another speaker.

          “Yeah! Just try harder next time!” Said a voice, mocking and mean.

          All three children were caught off guard as Karkat was suddenly shoved aside, tripping over the backpacks still left in line by those who had not yet arrived. Further down the line, the arriving children were now paying attention to the feud starting at the front of the line.

          With a growl, Karkat quickly rebalanced himself and confronted his assailant. “What the hell, Vriska?!”

          The younger, yet taller girl crossed her arms as she planted her feet firmly on the dot indicating the start of the line. “Trying harder, just like Nepeta suggested.” She smirked and casually flipped her long, dark hair. “A lot harder.”

          Nepeta made a noise of irritation before she stepped away from Tavros and over to Vriska. Vriska was an oddly intimidating girl. Her being taller than Karkat wasn't anything special, as he wasn’t especially tall and neither was she. She was actually an inch shorter than Tavros, and over a year younger too. Aside from the makeup she applied daily in an attempt to look older, she in no way appeared anything more than an average 5th grader. At first glance, she didn't look like a tough bully. No, she didn’t look the part at all, but you could just feel it somehow. Maybe it was something in the way her eyes bore into you, like she could read your mind.

          Despite it all, Nepeta stomped up to Vriska and looked her straight in those sharp blue eyes.

          “Hey!” She yelled, “Why’d you push Kar-kitty?!”

          The other girl smirked and put a hand on Nepeta’s shoulder. “Because, “ She casually moved Nepeta aside. “He was in my spot.”

          “That’s not your spot!” Nepeta came back to her, Karkat moving besides her. He shoved Vriska violently.

          “Like hell it is! I was here first, asshole!” He yelled.

          Vriska gasped and put a hand put to her open mouth in false shock. “Karkat! Watch you mouth!” She sarcastically commented. “I’ll have to tell the teacher on you if you do that again!”

          “Yeah right, ‘cause she’ll believe you of all people. You cause all the problems she ever has to deal with!”

          “That doesn’t mean you’re allowed to cuss, Karkat. You should really pay more attention to the rules, they're really valuable.”

          Karkat threw his hands up and groaned. “Ugh! You’re not even following the rules!”

          “Really? How so?”

          Shouts of anger and snippy remarks, both accompanied by shoves and ugly glares, were tossed between the two battling parties.
          Everyone was lined up now, but there was a noticeable gap between the front and the remainder of the line. New arrivals to the scene would quickly and carefully approach the line to grab their bag and return to the group at the back of the line. The other lines were simply waiting for the teachers like usual, but their attention was glued on Karkat and Vriska.

          Everyone was watching.

          Nepeta was still arguing alongside Karkat, but she remained more to the side of the fight.
          Tavros had not yet taken his place in line. Instead, he stood in the space between his line the line for the next class over. While he certainly didn’t like seeing his friends in a fight, that wasn’t the real reason why he was apparently frozen in place.
          No, Tavros had not gotten into line because he still couldn’t reach his backpack. He’d placed it right after Karkat’s when he first arrived at school, and now his bag was right at the feet of the three people engaged in this turbulent affair.
          Watching them bicker some more, Tavros choose to wait to grab his bag until the teachers arrived to bring them inside. But when Karkat accidentally backed up and stepped on it, Tavros tensed up.

          “Uh…” he mumbled as he took a nervous step forward, reaching out for his bag. “Uh, hey… guys?” He tried to speak up, eying the three kids in front of him. “Can I, uh… can I grab my bag real quick?”

          They couldn’t hear Tavros’ quiet muttering through all their arguing and they showed no signs of doing anything about his bag. Once again, it was stepped on in the heat of angry shoving and tripping.

          “H-hey, g-guys,” He stuttered, his nerves blocking up his throat. He tried once more to speak, but instead, it came out as a helpless sounding shout of concern. “Hey! G-guys!”

          Once he’d realized what he’d done, Tavros quickly shut his mouth. He’d hoped no one had noticed, but it was no use.
          Karkat, Nepeta, and Vriska all instantly silenced themselves and turned to look Tavros dead in the eyes, a different look of curiosity on each of their face. As their attention shifted, so did the rest of the playground. Everyone now waited for him to take action.

          Vriska glanced Tavros over nonchalantly, an annoyed expression on her face as she looked him up and down. “Yes, Tavros? You have something to say?”

          Now everyone's attention was brought to Tavros, who froze up completely under the intensity of the many stares.

          “Uh, I…” he muttered quietly, unable to speak and unable to break eye contact with Vriska. “I just… uhm…”

          Vriska leaned forward tauntingly, a cruel grin spread across her face as she teased him, “You just, what? Come on, sparkle dust, speak up, why don't ‘cha?”

          Nepeta frowned and took a step towards her friend. “Tavros, what is it? What's wrong?”

          “I-” He began, when Karkat yelled out over him.

          “He's probably just sick of this awful fighting. I know I am.”

          “Oh! Do you concede?” Vriska chimed in cheerfully, turning her attention briefly to Karkat

          “Like hell I con-!”

          “Shut it!” Nepeta yelled. “Let him talk!”

          They all returned their focus on Tavros.

          Nervously, he stiffened his stance and pointed to the bag at their feet. “I just want to grab my bag. You guys, uh…” He lost his words for a moment. “You guys keep stepping on it.”

          Nepeta gasped and bent down to grab his bag. “I'm so sorry, Tavros!” She lifted it up and began to walk over to bring it to him.

          Tavros smiled and took a step forward to meet her. "Thank you."

          She grinned happily. “Here! Now we wo- ah!”

          The backpack was yanked out of her hands before she could take two steps.
          Now, Vriska held the backpack casually in the air, eying it lazily with a slight smirk. Tavros shrunk back and quietly watched Vriska, feeling irritated and helpless in the endeavor. She looked back to him with a mischievous glint in her eye.

          “You want this back?” She swung the backpack side to side. “What’ll you give me for it?”

          “Uh… nothing? It's my bag.” He argued.

          “Yes, and now I have it, and I demand a ransom.”

          “You want…” Tavros lowered his gaze and quirked an eyebrow in her direction “A ransom? For my backpack?”

          “Well, duh!” Vriska shrugged her shoulders in an exaggerated motion. “I’m not just going to give it to you!” Her cocky smile shifted into a prideful sneer as she crossed her arms and shut her eyes, shaking her head.  “Nothing in life is free, pixie puff.”

          She opened her eyes and examined him briefly, looking for anything she might want to get from him. She stopped when something caught her eye and she noticed the necklace around his neck.

          “I’ll give it back to you if you give me that necklace.”

          “But…” Tavros put a hand to the necklace as if shielding it from her view. “This is mine.”

          “So is this backpack, but that certainly doesn’t matter right now, does it?”

          Tavros protested in weak indignation, trying to convince her to give back his backpack, but she was insistently against it.
          Annoyed by the situation and Vriska, Nepeta and Karkat spoke up.

          “Vriska, stop being such a jerk and just give him back his stupid bag.” Karkat spat out.

          “Vriska, just give it to him!” Nepeta growled at her.

          Ready to fire out a response, Vriska suddenly stopped before she could get any words out. Just as she opened her mouth, she was suddenly aware of Aradia standing behind the pair of siblings before her.
          Aradia's eyes could rival even Vriska's, as she looked on impassively, gazing into Vriska’s very soul.

          “Vriska. Why do you have Tavros’ backpack?” Aradia poised the dangerous question with a hint of false curiosity.

          Vriska squinted at Aradia, sneering at her very presence. But she quickly composed herself and slipped Aradia a knowing grin.

          "He lost it. I found it for him.” She nodded in Tavros’ direction and dramatically scoffed. “And he refuses to even say thank you! Can you believe it?”

          “Uh…” Tavros spoke up and approached her, feeling more confident with Aradia nearby. “That’s not what happened… a-at all.”

          Vriska flashed a hateful glare at Tavros. She stayed like that a moment before she walked up right up to Tavros’ face. Not too close to him though; she didn’t want to make it obvious that he was taller. She held out his bag and dropped it on his feet. Tavros jumped back at the impact, the weight of the backpack hitting his toes hard. He bent down to hold his hurt foot and looked up at Vriska as he reached out for his bag. She stared down at him for a second later and then turned away to take her place in line again. She was silent and did not move.
          Tavros picked up his bag and quickly went to the back of the line, Aradia following after him. Karkat stayed behind Vriska at the front, grumbling as Nepeta tried to keep him from having a fit.
          Tavros kept his eyes on the ground as he lined up in the back, zoning out slightly and feeling all too aware of all the people whose eyes still rested on him. He was brought back to reality by a strong grip on his shoulder. He looked up to see the comforting sight of Aradia smiling sympathetically, though her expression had a hidden tinge of anger in it. Not aimed at Tavros, obviously.

          “Hey, I’m sorry I wasn’t there. Are you okay?”

          Tavros’ glanced back down at his feet as he spoke, his face heating up a little in embarrassment. “Yes, I’m fine.”

          “You sure?”

          “Yeah.”

          She didn’t speak up, but she still watched as he fiddled in place, eyes on the asphalt. She moved her hand from his shoulders to his hand and he peered back up at her with a smile. She smiled back with an intentionally goofy smirk and made Tavros chuckle. Feeling a little better, he stood straight and watched the other classes start going inside.
          The teachers had come out almost immediately after the whole debacle had ended and began bringing in their respective students inside to the classrooms.
          From the entrance to the 5th grade quad, Tavros’ teacher, Ms. Peregrine, came out smiling at the children lined up.

          “Okay, kids!” She smiled brightly at the line. “Does everyone have their backpacks! No one left anything on the playground?”

          After receiving a collection of affirmative shouts and noises of confirmation, Ms. Peregrine nodded happily. “Alright then. Let’s head on inside now…” She paused and left her words fade away as she looked down at someone and giggled in amusement.

          “Oh, Nepeta, this isn’t your line sweetheart. Remember?” She got down to Nepeta’s height and took Nepeta’s hand in her her own and pointed off to the right with her other. She guided the girl to turn and face the direction she was pointing “Your class is the one over there on the end, the one closest to the wall. Do you see it?”

          “Yes, I see it. I’m sorry Ms. Purr-egrine, but I wanted to stay with Kar-kitty and Ta-fur-os until class started.”

          “Yes, but class is starting now, so you need to hurry up and get inside!”

          “Okay, I know miss!” Nepeta nodded and bounced out of line, waving Karkat a farewell that he scoffed at. She looked over at Tavros and waved. “Bye Ta-fur-os! I’m sorry about what happened! I’ll see you at recess!”

          Tavros waved her goodbye as she skipped off to follow her class. Aradia joined in with him.

          “Bye Nepeta!”

          "Goodbye Nepeta!”

          Once Nepeta was gone, Ms. Peregrine guided the class into the quad and to the classroom. She went to her desk to get ready for the start of class and all the students hurried to unstack their chairs and get situated at their desks. Tavros waited till most of the other children had finished before moving to his desk, so as to avoid the crowd that inevitably gathered around the chair stacks.
           When the room became a little less overwhelming, he went over to get his chair and unpack at his desk. The desks were arranged in a square formation around the classroom, leaving an empty area in the center for hands-on group projects and other activities that involved a wide space. Tavros was seated next to Aradia, which was his favorite place in the whole class to be. He liked being with Karkat too, even though he was constantly grumpy, but being seated next to anyone else left Tavros feeling awkward. He just didn’t feel comfortable with them. Not that they were mean kids; most of them were very nice. Tavros just wasn’t able to open up to them like he could Aradia and Karkat, so things were always very awkward when he was around them. It'd be nice if all of his friends shared the same as him.

          As he pulled out his homework, Tavros and Aradia they both laughed together at the jokes she whispered to him, their eyes shut tight in humorous joy. Tavros opened them and looked up at the desks while his laughter faded into soft chuckles. He made the briefest eye contact with Vriska from across the room and quickly returned his attention to Aradia.
          Yes, being seated with the other kids was awkward, but being seated next to Vriska was just awful.
          Ms. Peregrine knew better than to have them near each other, so whenever she rearranged the classroom, she made sure they were always on opposite ends of the room.
          Now, while, that never stopped Vriska’s attempts at antagonistic digs at Tavros, it certainly made the situation easier to handle.
          The final bell rang, signaling that school had officially started and that it was time quiet down and let the teacher begin the lessons.
          Tavros ignored Vriska’s glare and instead chose to focus on Ms. Peregrine as she went over the lesson plan for the day. He reached up thoughtlessly and fiddled with his necklace; rubbing his index finger along the bumpy ridges of the shell’s outside and thumbing the smooth inside.
          He continued to do this throughout the remainder of the school day.

Chapter Text

          At lunch time, all the fourth and fifth graders were released from their classrooms. Half of the classes went to recess while the other half ate, and then when thirty minutes had passed, the two groups switched places. Tavros’ class was one that went to lunch first.

          Lunch was held in the multipurpose room, with rows of tables arranged by class. While this usually would mean Tavros could only sit with those in his class, that didn’t stop kids from sneaking into the rows that their friends were in.
          Thusly, Sollux had snuck over to him, Aradia, and Karkat, while Vriska had snuck off to be with Terezi. Every lunch, Karkat would usually try to find a way to sit with Terezi, but his ploys were always spoiled by Vriska when she managed to sit by her first. Karkat knew Vriska would hog all the attention, so what was the point?
          Unfortunately, Kanaya was in the next lunch period with the sixth and third graders and Nepeta was the second half of fourth graders group, so they were unable to join them during lunch.
          Tavros sat on the end of the row. Having an open side with nobody next to him felt more comfortable, plus, he knew that Sollux really liked to be near Aradia and that Karkat liked to be near Sollux. Not that they didn't like to or wouldn't sit by him, but Tavros felt like it would be selfish to make them sit by him when they’d rather be by someone else. They were all together as a group anyways, so it didn’t matter much.

          All of them had brought their own lunch, except for Karkat who had left his at home out of spite due to a fight he and his mother had the day before. Tavros didn’t mean to pry, but he didn’t think that was a good enough of a reason to forgo a perfectly good homemade meal; especially Karkat whined about the school lunch anyway.
          Tavros looked down at his own lunch. He father had made him a bowl of chili with a plastic container of chopped cilantro, onions, and scallions to mix in and a toasted slice of baguette bread to dip. He had eaten half the chili already, but now Tavros found himself carelessly poking at the chili with his spoon.

          “Hey, Aradia.” He spoke up, eyes on his food.

          “Oh, yes?” She answered.

          “You, uh… do you wanna go out again tonight?”

          Aradia gave him a funny look as she took a spoonful from her clam chowder. She let the chowder warm her mouth before swallowing it and giving Tavros a proper answer.

          “Again? But, I thought you got in trouble for staying out late last time?”

          "Well, yeah, but…” Tavros stirred his chili idly, making figure eights in the bowl. “I don’t know, I just really want to go again.”

          Aradia put her spoon back in her chowder and placed her attention on him. “Maybe we should go earlier this time. So that you don’t get in trouble.”

          Tavros looked off to the side, away from her, still stirring. “No… I want to go at the same time as yesterday.”

          “Is that because of that seal we saw?” Someone else spoke up.

          Tavros leaned over to see the source of the interjection: Sollux, who was on the left side of Aradia in the lunch row. He scoffed and took a big bite of his sandwich, mustard squishing out the back and dripping onto his plate. Smacking loudly, he attempted to continue speaking despite the impediment of both his lisp and a mouthful of food.

          “Do you really think it’ll be there again?” He smacked with all the grace of a pig.

          Tavros lazily lifted a spoonful up into the air and examined it as though it was a strange, alien creature. “Yeah, maybe.” He frowned when he realized what Sollux had said exactly. “Hey, wait a minute, it wasn’t a seal though.”

          “Yeah, it was.” Sollux said between bites.

          “No, it couldn’t have been.” Tavros put down the spoon. “It just didn’t look like one.”

          “Then,” Sollux stopped and swallowed his mouthful before he sputtered out the rest of his words. “It was a baby dolphin.”

          “No, it wasn’t.”

          “Then what was it, Tavros?” Sollux sneered with irritation.

          “I don’t know what it was.” Tavros raised his voice at that, but quickly lowered it when he realized he’d nearly shouted. “I don’t know okay, but, I do know that it wasn’t a seal or dolphin or whatever you think it was.”

          It was at this point that Karkat leaned over to look down at them all. He held a ruined pudding cup in his hand, likely crushed out of frustration towards something or someone.

          “What are you guys bickering like babies over this time?”

          “They don’t fight that often Karkat.” Aradia responded before either Tavros or Sollux could. “Besides, it’s really just Sollux being the baby here.”

          "What?!” Sollux shouted, chunks of chewed bread and ham splattering out onto the table.

          Karkat grimaced at the mess and pulled his resting hand away from the area of impact.

          Sollux leaned over to Aradia and began his defense. “How am I being the baby? Tavros is the one insisting it’s something else, and knowing him, he probably thinks it’s some water fairy or something.”

          “No…” Tavros muttered, feeling slightly embarrassed. “The chances of it being a nymph or sprite are, very low, seeing as to how, they aren’t really real…”

          “Tav.” Sollux looked him dead in the eyes with disbelief. “Since when has that stopped you from thinking so.”

          “Hey, let’s be nice here.” Aradia interrupted their fighting and placed a hand on Sollux’s shoulder, gently coaxing him to sit down. “None of us know what it was. We are completely blind in that department.”

          She smiled and, closing her eyes, took in a deep breath. “So…” She breathed out. “Why don’t we go again to find out.”

          Tavros smiled brightly and leaned closer to Aradia. “You will?”

          “Yes, though I still want to ask your dad about it and get his permission. My grandma will be okay with it, of course.” She turned to Sollux. “Sollux, will you ask your uncles if you can come?”

          Sollux sighed and finally placed his sandwich down. “Yeah. Sure, why not.”

          “Wait- pah!” Karkat began, but stopped when a bit of chocolate milk dribbled from his mouth.

          Tavros and Aradia couldn't help but chuckle and Sollux gave the widest grin. He likely would've given Karkat crud over it had Karkat not hastily swallowed and started again.

          “Wait, you guys are going to beach?” Karkat successfully asked this time.

          “Yeah, and the big sea cave down there.” Tavros said excitedly.

          Karkat wiped the milk from his chin. “That’s where you got that necklace?”

          "Yeah!”

          “Hmm…” Karkat thought on it. “Well, you guys have fun with that then. I’ll be doing something productive while you guys dink around in the sand.”

          Aradia and Tavros shared a funny smile at Karkat’s grumpy demeanor.

          “Well,” Aradia spoke. “That’s alright, you don’t have to. But, we’ll be inviting Nepeta, if you don’t mind.”

          “If she doesn’t invite herself.” Tavros added with a chuckle.

          “Nepeta will hunt us down. She can smell stupid activities from ten miles away.” Sollux said. “She loves being involved in stupid stuff like this.”

          “So do you.” Aradia said as she drooped her head on Sollux’s shoulder playfully.

          Sollux grumbled. “Only because you make me.”

          “Sure, sure.” She giggled and lifted herself off of him, her smile brightening everything around her.

          Tavros laughed softly, spirits uplifted by his friends. Even Sollux’s arguing was oddly pleasant and relaxing. Tavros supposed it was endearing. The same went for Karkat and his constant irritation with everything and everyone. All of it was a comforting norm that Tavros felt pride in being apart of. Of course, Aradia’s smile topped it all, and that was something they all could agree on.
          Really though, Tavros couldn’t help the tinge of eagerness all this had. He felt like he never could have been so excited for a simple beach trip before; he simply couldn’t have.

          Suddenly, Tavros was tugged back to reality as the bell buzzed throughout the cafeteria. The clamoring of the room picked up as children began packing up their lunch boxes and gathering their trash. At the end of each row was a trashcan, and when all the teachers came to the end of the row and instructed their class to stand and follow them, the children would throw away their trash as they went down the row to return to class.
          Before the teachers could reach their class’ row and count the students, all the kids who had left their class hurried away to their assigned lunch row. Being one of those kids, Sollux quickly threw everything into his lunch bag, grabbed his soda and scrambled off the bench, nearly tripping over it.
          However, the soda bottle’s cap was loose and consequently left the soda spilling out all over the floor.

          Sollux stepped straight into the bubbly puddle and slipped.

          "Shit!” Sollux shouted, his lisp making the word sound more like a random noise. 

          He fell back and caught himself on the bench, preventing himself from cracking his skull on it. Carefully adjusting his legs to face away from the puddle, Sollux pulled himself back up so he could safely move again.

          “See you guys.” He muttered as he ran off, his sneakers squeaking on the floor from the sticky soda that had gotten on the bottom of them. With each frantic step, one could hear the squelching sounds as the syrup on his soles was ripped away from the tile below.

          The whole ridiculous scene unfolded before Tavros, Aradia, and Karkat’s eyes too fast for them to respond. Instead, they all found themselves laughing uncontrollably. Karkat went so far as to shout at Sollux from across the room, calling him a 'squeaking bumblebee', to which Sollux shouted back at him with a not-so-nice word. He was then promptly scolded by a teacher for his language, which Karkat got a kick out of.
          Tavros only laughed further at what his two friends got into, but his laughter halted when felt something cold and wet splatter across his back. He swiftly turned around to see a single serve milk carton on the floor, soaking in a puddle of its own milk. Droplets fell from where he sat and Tavros could feel that they fell from his back too.

          Someone had thrown a milk carton at him.

          Tavros looked up just in time to see someone pass by, roughly slamming into him as they did so. His shoulder was crushed against the table and he cried out, the nerves in his upper arm having been struck in a way that stung sharply. He hissed and rubbed his shoulder tenderly. Aradia turned to see what was the matter and quickly used her napkins to help clean Tavros up.

          He didn’t bother to look after the person who’d pushed him. He didn’t really need to.

          The teachers had come and taken the classes back to class. Tavros had dried his shirt as best he could, but it was still soggy and it squished uncomfortably when he sat back in his chair. There wasn’t much he could do to keep from feeling moist and uncomfortable.

          But, at the same time, he refused to let it ruin his day.

          He was going to go to the sea cave again, and hopefully, he would see the see creature again.

Chapter Text

          Later in the day, the playground flooded with children racing for home. Most of the children walked to school. The town was big, but the area around the school was mostly residential, and all the children lived nearby. Karkat ran out of the room as soon as he was to allowed in an attempt to beat Sollux and Terezi, but Tavros always preferred leaving last. Of course, he never left alone, as Aradia always waited for him. This was nice not only because Tavros had someone to walk with, but also because it meant that Vriska wouldn’t pick on him as much, since she wasn’t too fond of bothering Aradia. Vriska really did prefer to avoid her, but sometimes she’d try something anyways,
          Today was one such day.

          “Hey Tavros!”

          Tavros had only just left the room when Vriska called out to him. He looked over his shoulder to see that Vriska had stayed behind in the room for some reason. Aradia turned as well, giving Vriska a look that was as impassive as it was threatening.

          Vriska strode over to them and leaned against the door jam. “I heard you guys were going somewhere after school?”

          Tavros got nervous. He didn’t want Vriska following after him, that would ruin the entire night. There was a silence between the two as Tavros was unsure on how to respond. He just couldn’t think of a good lie on the spot, and for some reason, the phrase, 'nowhere', didn’t seem like it’d cut it.
     Luckily, he was spared the pain of answering, as Aradia answered, or lied, for him.

          “We’re just going to Kau’li’s Hawaiian Frost like usual. We always go there on Fridays.”

          Vriska pouted and squinted her eyes. She knew Aradia was lying, but she also wasn’t going to get anything from them if Aradia kept shielding Tavros. Tavros would eventually crack under pressure. He always did. But Aradia wouldn’t spill. She was unbreakable. Vriska had to find some other way to get her information.
          Suddenly, an idea came to her mind and she grinned devilishly.

          “Oh yeah!” She chirped cheerfully. “That’s right! Terezi invited me to come with you guys!”

          Tavros shrunk back. “She did? But wait, I don't think we invited her.”

          “Well, someone invited her." Vriska drawled out the flase accusation. "And, yeah! She thought it’d be sweet to hang out with her best friend! You know how sisters are.” She curled her lips on that last part.

          Tavros looked at her questioningly. “I thought…” He muttered. “Didn’t your guys’ moms divorce?”

          “Not yet, dummy!” Vriska rolled her eyes and spoke with greatly exaggerated mouth movements, drawing out every other vowel. “But, even if they do, sisters are sisters forever!”

          Tavros frowned. “So, she’s still your sister? Then what am I?”

          Vriska's lip twitched, but she quickly covered it up with a mocking laugh.

          "What? You want to be my sister too? That might be hard, considering a couple of things regarding your physiology." She motioned at Tavros in a rude and somewhat inappropriate manner. "And I'm not talking about you being fat, in case you don't get it."

          "I'm not fat." Tavros flushed in embarrassment. "And, no, that's not what I meant. What I meant was, why does she get to be your sister, but I can't be your br-"

          Before he could finish, Vriska groaned loud enough to silence him. Swimming in annoyance, she pushed herself away from the doorframe, once again, greatly exaggerating her motions as she dragged her hands down her face. 

          “Oh my Gooooooood!” She drew out the words and moaned them into her palms. “I thought we agreed to forget about us ever being related!”

          “Well, yes we did, or, it was mostly really you threatening me to never bring it up again, but…” Tavros looked down at the colorful, tiled floor of the quad. “I mean, it’s a fitting topic to go over… considering the subject.”

          “No.” Vriska spat out. “No, it never an acceptable subject. Ever. Do you understand?”

          “Uhm…” Tavros dared to glance back up at Vriska, who was glowering at him. “I don’t see why we can’t talk about it. I don’t understand why you-”

          “Oh, just shut up!” She shouted at him, throwing her arms back. It echoed throughout the quad and what few lingering students remained looked over at them curiously.
     Vriska and Tavros were trapped in each other’s eyes, unable to look anywhere else.

 

***

 

          Tavros’ father, Rufioh, and Vriska’s mother, Aranea, were lovers once upon a time, and though neither they nor their children would admit it, they still were, to an extent.

          They had an interesting relationship, one that seemed as much a partnership of love as it did a rivalry of hate; constantly at odds with one another and constantly enamored as well. Eventually though, their bond slowly became more and more a traditional shade of romance, complete with all the cheesy, fluffy declarations of love one comes to expect from a couple soon-to-be married. They had known each other since their early adulthood, and their relationship had lasted several years before they even married. Soon after they were, they had their first child: Tavros.
          Unfortunately, it was only a few months after he was born that they divorced. The issues had started months before he was born, but the two lovers had started to fall apart. They had fallen back into their couple’s rivalry, only this time, they'd fallen back so far that it had turned sour, becoming too intense to be considered a healthy partnership. They divorced mere days after Tavros’ birth.

          Both parties were intensely aggressive against the other for reasons not known to others, and Aranea dove headfirst into several relationships immediately after the divorce, none of which lasted more a month, just to spite Rufioh. She became pregnant and gave birth to Vriska nineteen months after Tavros.
          However, despite the rocky relationship between them, Aranea and Rufioh both loved their son very much. Both paid for child support, both made the efforts to be there for him on holidays, and they always put aside their differences for his sake. They made certain to have equal parts in his life, though he lived with his father and in his house most of the time. Aranea would have him over at her house most often during the summer.
          Tavros was never bothered by this. He knew his parents had problems, but he also loved them both very much, and he knew they loved him. The only problem that had really come of it was the relationship between Tavros and his half-sister, Vriska.
          Vriska was the child of Aranea and one of her short term boyfriends she had so many of at one point. Despite not being related to Rufioh in any way, Vriska was loved by him and her mother just as much as Tavros. While not responsible for her financially, Rufioh still watched over Vriska like she was his own daughter. Aranea had decided that it was only fair that both her children got to know each other after all, so she let her stay with Rufioh on a cycle much like Tavros, and Tavros had grown very close to Vriska

          In her youth, Vriska was very similar to how she was now; confident, resourceful, clever, secretive, intense, and determined. Tavros and Vriska actually had a very good relationship when they were younger; they’d play imaginary games and Tavros would tell Vriska his favorite stories. Vriska had become very fond of storytime with Tavros, and always yelled and bounced in excitement whenever he’d come over. Their parents, mother and guardian in Vriska’s case, adored watching them, and could never find it in themselves to feel anything but joy in their presence. In fact, it was through their children that Rufioh and Aranea had begun repairing their relationship.
          It was only when Vriska starting recognizing the relationship their parents shared that she began to show cruelty towards Tavros. When she was five, Vriska had begun to realize that Tavros was the better child. She didn’t think so in behavior or demeanor though. Sure, Vriska was easily the more troublesome child, with her rowdiness and recklessness, but neither her mother nor Rufioh truly thought of Tavros as superior to Vriska. No, Vriska saw him as the better child due to the fact that he was actually their child; both of their child. Vriska saw Rufioh as her father, if she had to be honest, and it had started to hurt that she wasn’t really his daughter. But Tavros was really his son; Aranea's too.
          It wasn’t fair that Tavros was both Rufioh’s and Aranea’s child, but Vriska only really belonged to Aranea; and that started to really burn Vriska up.

          She grew cold towards Tavros, though she didn’t really dislike him, she was simply jealous. Hating these conflicting feelings, Vriska started picking him apart to find and latch onto any attributes that could be considered negative. Teasing him about his own qualities helped Vriska concentrate more on Tavros and not the emotional situation stirring within herself.
          She wasn’t mean to him because she was jealous; she was mean because Tavros was simply someone made to be mean to!
          It was that simple! Or it was in her mind at least.

          Ever since, the bond between them had become something laborious and emotionally taxing, especially on Tavros’ end. Though, Vriska was just as affected, she just refused to admit it and, on some level, didn’t even realize it herself. She was always good at burying her emotions, sometimes so deep that even she couldn’t find them.
          Tavros was confused by Vriska. He liked her, and he wanted to be friends with her again, but he also wanted nothing to do with her.
          It was hard. It was hard and no one could understand. Not even he understood it.
          He couldn’t decide on where to go with her.
          So, he instead vouched for simply watching himself around her instead of avoiding her entirely. He still wanted her as a friend.

 

***

 

          Finally, after the seconds went by like hours, Vriska ended up giving one last squinting glare before she sighed and crossed her arms.

          "Whatever. I know you're not even going to that frost shop anyway. I lied. See you later you dorks.”

          Without another word, Vriska turned and walked out of the quad and down the hall off to places unknown, leaving a silent, addled Tavros and an impassively smiling Aradia.

          “Well, she's gone.” She happily perked up, “Shall we get going? We should ask your Dad if you can stay over.”

          “Oh… yeah,” Tavros muttered up, returning to reality. “Can you, uh, call or text him? Maybe we can just head straight to your house.”

          “Okay.” She said, pulling out her phone. She had Tavros’ home number and his dad’s mobile number in her phone as, ‘Tavros (HOME)’ and ‘Mr. Nitram’, respectively. Not having a phone himself, Tavros would use Aradia’s phone to talk to his dad whenever he was with her, such as moments like this.
     Aradia quickly shot a text to Mr. Nitram requesting that Tavros be allowed to stay the night. He responded by requesting he talk to Tavros first. Of course, Aradia dialed up the phone and passed it to Tavros so he could use it.

          “Hey Dad.” Tavros greeted into the cellphone.

          “Hey Tavi. So you’re having a sleepover?”

          “Well, only if you’re okay with it, of course?” Tavros shrugged his shoulders and played with the lobe of his ear while talking, feeling a little shy and embarrassed for reasons he couldn’t identify.

          “I’m fine with it!” Laughter rang through the phone’s speaker, “Just promise me you’re not gonna stay out too late this time.”

          “Don’t worry, I promise.” Tavros smiled and nodded his head.

          “Okay then, bud, I’ve got no problem with it! Will you be staying over tomorrow?”

          “Maybe ‘till noon, yeah. I’ll call before I come home.”

          “Sounds good to me, bud. I’ll get a bag ready for you when you come home, okay?”

          “Okay, sounds good. Thanks Dad. I love you.”

          “Love you too, Tavi.”

          They both blew a kiss into the phone and hung up.

          Tavros handed the phone back to Aradia. “He said yes.”

          “I heard.” She began messaging someone. “I’m going to shoot an invite to everyone. I’ll let them know that we plan to go down to the beach.”

          “Oh yeah, let’s do that.”

          She tapped away at her phone screen for a few seconds more before clicking the power button and put putting the device into sleep mode.

          "Well then,” She tucked the phone into her pocket. “Let’s go!”

Chapter Text

          With the slam of the front door, Sollux arrived in his house. Sighing, he locked the door and dropped the keys in the glass dish on the entryway table.

          “I’m home!” He shouted out for the house to hear.

          Almost instantaneously, thumping footsteps were heard from the hallway before him and one of his uncles rushed forward and took Sollux up in tight squeeze of a hug.

          Sollux squeaked from the embrace and sputtered out a response. “Hello, Uncle Bion.”

          Uncle Bion released Sollux and pulled back to look down at him, a large ear splitting grin on his his face with his eyes closed up in an expression of pure joy. “Welcome home, little bee-by!” He ran his hand over Sollux’s hair repeatedly, making Sollux bob his head in rhythm.

          “Uncle Bion,” Sollux shut an eye as his uncle pet him. “I’m not a baby, please don’t call me that.”

          Sollux waited for his uncle to respond as he continued stroking Sollux’s head. It took a moment for him to come around, but after a moment, Uncle Bion stopped his motions and opened his eyes to look back at Sollux.

          “Oh, right! Sorry, little bee-by, I forgot.” Uncle Bion looked off in space for a moment before sharply inhaling and exhaling. “I mean Sollux!”

          Sollux sighed and smiled up at his uncle. He couldn’t ever find himself annoyed at him, even with these little nuances in his behavior.

          “It’s okay Uncle Bion.” Sollux patted him on the shoulder. He had begun to walk past his uncle to the stairs, but he stopped and turned back to him. “Oh! Hey, Uncle Bion? Can I go over to AA’s place tonight?”

          “That’s that girl, Aradia, right?”

          “Yeah.”

          “I’m okay with it!” Uncle Bion put his arms on his hips and leaned on his left leg. “You’ll have to check with Cyprus, just to be sure.”

          “Okay.” Sollux turned back to the stairs and took a step up. “We both know he’ll say yes, though, so I’m gonna go pack a bag.”

          “Yes.” Uncle Bion chuckled. “Cy will, but it’s only polite!”

          “Yup.” Sollux marched his way upstairs. “I’ll be back down!”

          Once he got up to his bedroom, Sollux kicked shut his door and threw his backpack onto a beanbag in the main area of the room. With a sigh, he slumped onto his bed and leaned back onto the crumpled up sheets. He fiddled his shoes off with the his toes and flung them onto the floor with a flick of his foot. He reached over to his nightstand to grab at a headset, and he plugged them into his phone. When he went to open up his music app, he remembered the message from Aradia. Curious, Sollux instead opened his messenger app and chose to ask who else was coming.

-- twinArmageddons [AT] began pestering apocalypseArisen [AA] --

AT: 2up AA.
AT: 2o, who are all the lo2er2 comiing over toniight.
AA: hey s0llux!
AA: well as 0f right n0w 0nly tavr0s and nepeta have c0nfirmed
AA: kanaya says shes w0rking 0n a pr0ject and terezi already planned 0ne with vriska
AA: karkat hasnt resp0nded
AT: well, four lo2er2 i2 enough for me.
AT: i 2tiill dont get why terezii hang2 out wiith that eviil chiick.
AT: and ii e2peciially dont get why tavros doesnt beg hii2 dad two di2own her.
AT: vrii2ka2 awful
AA: y0u kn0w terezi likes vriska and just wants t0 see her bec0me a better pers0n
AA: and y0u sh0uld als0 kn0w tavr0s has similar reas0ns
AT: god, hii2 famiily dynamiic ii2 2o me22ed up.
AT: ii dont even wanna thiink about iit.
AA: d0nt put s0 much th0ught int0 it its just h0w things are
AT: whatever.
AT: anyway, iim comiing over, 2o when2 a good tiime?
AA: whenever
AT: 2ound2 chiill.
AT: be there when ii can.
AA: 0h 0ne m0re thing
AA: can y0u bring s0me extra cameras?
AT: 2ure ii gue22.
AA: thank y0u
AA: cant wait!
AA: 0u0
AT: god, ii hate that face.
AA: me too
AA: see y0u there!
AT: see ya.

-- twinArmageddons [AT] ceased pestering apocalypseArisen [AA] --

          After his short conversation with Aradia, Sollux checked his unread messages before he clicked the phone off. Rolling onto his side, Sollux practically tumbled off of his bed and onto the floor. He stood up and began pulling clothes out of his dresser; a pair of pajamas, which was nothing more than gym shorts and a T-shirt, and a change of clothes for tomorrow. While he was at it, he went and pulled his sleeping bag out of his closet and stuffed it into the duffel bag as well.
          He went down the hall to the bathroom and quickly grabbed his Dopp kit that his uncles insisted he had ready to go for whenever he stayed somewhere overnight. It contained a spare toothbrush, a mini tube of toothpaste, floss, and all other sorts of tools used in oral hygiene. There was also face and acne cream, as Sollux had the misfortune of hitting puberty earlier than most kids.
          Running back to his room, Sollux tossed the Dopp kit on top of the duffel bag stuffed with clothes and a sleeping bag. He went around his room, adding in extra luggage to his bag. His DSi, his headset, a small plush, and his mouth guard for night time, as he had a tendency to grind his teeth in his sleep.
          He zipped up the duffel bag and threw it onto his bed for later.
          Picking up his shoes that he’d tossed carelessly onto the floor, Sollux made his way out of his bedroom and downstairs to the living room. He passed by the entryway and deposited his shoes on the mat, knowing that his uncles would flip if they knew that he’d worn them inside.
          Once he’d finished with that task, he turned into the living room where Uncle Bion was watering the planter in the window.

          “Hey, Uncle Bion, when’s Cyprus getting home?”

          “Oh, he's just got here bee-by!”

          Sollux lower lip twitched at the nickname. It often slipped Uncle Bion’s mind that Sollux wasn’t fond of it, despite reminders. Sollux took a step further into the living room and leaned in towards the kitchen, where he figured his Uncle Cyprus would be.

          “Uncle Cyprus?”

          Sollux’s uncle, an olive skinned man with short black hair a little messier than Sollux’s and a evened out body and a height only a foot taller than Sollux. Short for an average man. He turned around from the refrigerator and gave Sollux a welcoming smile.

          “Heya, humble bumble, Bion said you’re staying the night at Aradia’s?”

          With a sigh, Sollux hung his head past his drooping shoulders. These cutesy nicknames were something he'd gotten used to over the years, but he could never shake off the cringe he felt when he heard the sappy phrases.
          He quickly got over it and continued the conversation. “Yeah. You okay with it?”

          “Yes, of course, but you'll bring your homework?”

          “Uncle, it’s Friday, I can do my homework this weekend.”

          “Oh, but you just study a little, right?”

          “Uncle…”

          From the living room, Uncle Bion piped up as he finished tending the flowers. “Cy, let him have fun, he can work later!” He closed the window and wandered over to the kitchen entrance. He put the watering can on a side table near the archway. “You just leave all your school work here, Sollux, no school bag, no nothing.”

          Sollux chuckled and flashed Uncle Bion a smile. “Sounds good to me.”

          Uncle Cyprus placed down some vegetables from the refrigerator onto a cutting board on the countertop. “Oh, okay. You don't have to. But you do need to pack-”

          “I've already packed in my travel bag.” Sollux interrupted.

          “You packed your Dopp kit?”

          “Yeah, I packed it.”

          “Well, it sounds like you're all set then.” Uncle Cyprus started prepping the ingredients for dinner, pulling out cutlery and dishes. “Do you need anything else before you go?”

          “No.” Sollux responded as he watched his uncle go through the kitchen drawers and pantry. “I'm good.”

          “Okay!” Uncle Bion clapped his hands besides Sollux, startling him. “I'll walk you there then!”

          “What? No.” Sollux turned to him and shook his head in distaste. “Uncle Bion, I can walk there on my own, I do it all the time.”

          “Oh, well…” His uncle’s words drifted off as he fiddled with the edge of his shirt, seemingly distracted while he tried to speak. Sollux gave him a moment to collect himself. Uncle Bion suddenly looked back up, though his hands were still on his shirt. “I guess you're old enough!”

          Sollux chuckled and started to walk out of the kitchen. “Yeah. Well,” He moved to the living room entryway. “I'm gonna go grab my stuff and head out.”

          “Okay, Sollux!” His uncles both called out in unison.

          With one last smile, Sollux ran upstairs and grabbed his bag and pillow, throwing them over his shoulder and under his arm respectively. Returning back downstairs, he was greeted with both of his uncles catching him in a good-bye hug, one that lasted a little too long for Sollux's tastes, but just as long as he expected.
          Slipping on his shoes, Sollux grabbed his keys and ran out into the porch, waving good bye as he hopped down the stairs.
          When his feet hit grass, he turned onto the sidewalk and started walking in the direction of Aradia’s house. He looked back after a block to see that his Uncle Bion was still watching from the front door.
          He shook his head and chuckled at how positively gushy his uncle was. Well, both of his uncles really.
          It was only a moment later that his uncle finally shut the door and returned inside.

***

          After a ten minute walk through the suburbs, Sollux finally arrived at the apartment complex that Aradia and her grandmother lived in.
          The complex wasn't anything particularly stellar. It was gray and made of concrete, though it wasn’t trashy or dirty; just plain. The entrance had stairs and a ramp that lead to the first row of apartment entrances, each with a small front section like a tiny porch. Outdoor table sets, chained up bikes, children’s toys, surfboards, piles of sandals, and towels left out to dry littered the porches and the alleyway, the various furniture pieces and belongings giving only a hint to the people and families that lived inside.
          The walkway was also particularly sandy, but that was due to its close proximity to the beach. People would go to and from here and the beach, and no matter how much the cleaning staff swept, the cement always had tiny speckles of grainy sand.
          Sollux turned to a set of nearby stairs and climbed them to the second floor of three; Aradia’s floor.
          He found her door number and gave a heavy knock. The doorbell was unnecessary, both Aradia and her grandmother could easily hear a visitor’s knock from anywhere in the apartment. Anywhere but from the back balcony, that is, but they usually left the door to it open anyway so that they could.
          It was but a moment before the click of locks being released sounded from behind the front door and it swung open with an energetic vibe that was foreign for Aradia or her grandmother.
          Of course, this was due to the fact that Sollux’s receptionist was none other than a bouncy Nepeta whose eyes lit up when she saw him.

          “Paw-llux!” She shouted jubilantly. “You’re here! Hey guys!” She shouted into the apartment. “Paw-llux is here!”

          There was a set of response that echoed out of the room from across the tiny kitchenette down the hall in the back. Oddly enough, Sollux could make out more than Aradia and Tavros’ voices.

          “The heck?” He looked down at Nepeta. “Did you manage to drag KK along?”

          The little girl giggled and backed away from the entrance to allow Sollux room to enter. “Purr-haps!” Her voice held a mischievous, peppy note on the consonant. Halting the current topic, Nepeta bounced back and swung her arms to motion Sollux inside. “Come in, come in!”

          Sollux stepped into the living room and turned to see Aradia’s grandmother sitting on the sofa with a book held loosely in her wrinkled hands. She turned to greet Sollux with a soft, elderly smile. 

          “Hello, Sollux.” She nearly whispered, her voice ripe with enthusiasm, yet creaking with age. “Are you spending the night too?”

          “Yes, Ms. Megido.” He muttered, his lisp getting the best of him and making him slur the whole sentence. He made a spitting motion with his mouth and frowned as he tried to reconfigure his mouth to properly speak, or speak as properly as was physically possible.

          “Yes, Ms. Megido. I am.” He managed to say with better pronunciation.

          The thin, frail lady put a hand up to her mouth and chuckled out a tender, hollow laugh. Her white hair was held up in a bun, but the hair hanging down from the sides of her face swayed as she gently shook in her laughter. “Wonderful, dear. I see that mouth of yours is getting the best of you still.”

          "Yeah, it’s a real pain.” Sollux sighed, briefly looked over the apartment as he sauntered over to Aradia’s room.

          The immediate room of the apartment was a small living space with a large sofa on the wall to the left of the front door and an armchair facing the far left wall, creating an L shape with the sofa. There was a side table in-between them, one with a lace tablecloth and an antique lamp and a stack of coasters. The left wall had no furniture but was instead covered in family portraits of all shapes and sizes. The photographs appeared to be organized like a family tree, from top to bottom, the picture frames in groups that branched out. The wall across from the sofa held the entrance to the bathroom and closet, as well as a built in shelf on the right corner of the wall that had a small flat screen TV placed on top. In all honesty, Sollux couldn’t understand how Aradia dealt with that tiny thing; it was so far away from the sofa that Sollux could barely handle watching movies in the living room.

           The room to the right had a large folding door that allowed it be open to the living room or closed off to be more private. Right now it was open and Sollux could see inside of it. He already knew that this was Aradia’s grandmother’s room, with a metal framed full bed made with thick quilts that she’d had since a young age. The room was the best choice for her grandmother who had a hard time moving around, so the open wall made it easier for her to get around or to call for Aradia.

          The hall directly across from the front entrance was narrow and only just big enough to spin around in. On the left side was the kitchenette, which contained, in order of closest to furthest from the entrance, a small, tall, rectangular pantry, a refrigerator, a sink and countertop, and oven and stovetop that was directly against the back wall, just under a square, curtained window. The back wall held the door to the back porch, which Sollux knew was little more than a small wooden table, two cushioned chairs and a laundry line.
          To the right of the tiny hall, though, was a thin doorway that lead to Aradia’s room; a simple thin rectangular room with a large window and a small sliding door closet.

          Araida peaked out from the room and grinned brightly at the sight of her new visitor.

          “Sollux! There you are!” She walked up to him and took his hand as she lead him back to her room. “So, we started up a D&D game, but, then again, we also just started, so I’m sure we can squeeze you in.”

          “Oh no,” Sollux dropped his smile. “You're gonna make me play that dorky game?”

          “Yes, and you'll like it.”

          She pulled him over to where Tavros sat looking over a game board that he, Aradia, Terezi, and Nepeta had made a year back. It was their first custom D&D board, and was quite impressively set up, even by Sollux’s judgement. But he wasn't all that big of a fan of D&D in the first place.

          “Oh, hey Sollux!” Tavros looked up at him and patted the space besides him. “Do you wanna play?”

          “No, I'd rather not. This game’s stupidness physically hurts me.” Sollux intentionally let his lisp slip and dissolve his words into indecipherable noises for effect. “See, just being in the same vicinity as it makes my tongue go nuts.”

          “Aw, come on!” Nepeta begged as she pounced over to Tavros, bumping into Sollux and knocking him aside on the way. She sat down beside him and held her hands up like kitty paws and smiled sweetly like an adorable kitten.

          “Please!” She drew out her plea.

          Just as Sollux was about to respond, a loud, muffled, drawn out groan sounded from underneath a thick blanket on top of Aradia’s bed. 

          “Ugh, Nepeta!” An impossibly grumpy Karkat grumbled as he rolled over and threw the blanket off to the side. Moaning, he leaned up and moved to the edge of the bed, looking up at them with baggy eyes and tangled hair. “Stop trying to get him involved in your role-plays, let the man keep his sanity, geez!”

          Nepeta huffed and crossed her arms as she twisted her head to face away from him. “You're no fun. I'm only trying to get him to have fun.”

          “No fun?” He squinted at her. “If I'm no fun, then why'd you force me to come to this boring dork reunion?!”

          “I brought you so you'd have fun!”

          Karkat merely groaned and facepalmed so hard, there was a bright red handprint across his face when he pulled back his hand “Nepeta, what made you think I'd have fun with this?”

          “You're so mean, Karkitty.” Nepeta pouted.

          Sollux sighed at the two sibling’s bickery and flopped down on the floor. “Jeez, if I’d known you’d get in a fight over it, I would’ve said yes from the start.”

          Nepeta gasped and turned herself back to Sollux, bouncy on her knees. “Oh, yay! More team mates!” Nepeta pulled up her notebook and began writing down Sollux’s character form. “Okay, so, tell me what you want your character to be.”

          “Mage.” Sollux stated simply. “And his name is Kickass Bastard, greatest bastard of them all.”

          Nepeta gasped and stared incredulously at him. “Sollux!” However, she did not scold him on his language. Instead, she smirked and began writing it down.

          “What a great name!” She chuckled.

          “You can’t even say it right, asshole!” Karkat piped up, mimicking Sollux’s lisp.

          “Karkat!” Nepeta shouted. “Language!”

          “What the heck?! Why me and not him!”

          “Because you’re a jerk!”

          Sollux laughed and turned to Karkat. "KK, I was kind of joking; that name is incredibly cheesy. But if it brings you oh so much joy, I will declare it to truly be his official, God given name."

          Karkat responded only with a series of grumbles as he settled back onto the bed. Meanwhile, Nepeta continued scribbling down all of Sollux’s stats and handed him his character sheet.

          Aradia sat down and prepared to get yourself back in the gaming spirit. “Are you sure you don’t wanna play Karkat?” She questioned.

          “Certain.”

          “But,” Tavros started up. “It’ll be pretty fun, I think.”

          “Nope.”

          There was a silence for a moment before Sollux broke it. He picked up the dice and tossed it into the air, catching it as it fell back down.

          “Okay, losers, let’s get this party started.”

***

          A couple hours later, the party of children had gone through a barrage of chips, sodas, and an overall unhealthy amount of snack food items. It was 6:12 p.m. now, and Tavros had only just realized, as he looked over at Aradia’s clock, that they hadn’t even come close to finishing up the game. He was getting concerned that they might not have time to go down to the beach.

          “You come across a huge furr-ocious beast, with a pointed set of ears and sharp deadly fangs! It’s fluffy tail swings hungrily as he approaches you…” Nepeta narrated, wrapping herself up in a blanket and flashing her teeth as she stuck her fingers up on top of her head to look like cat ears, all to serve the purpose of appearing like the monster she described. “What do you do?”

          “Hey, Nep.” Sollux said. “Isn’t this, like, the sixth cat monster we’ve fought?”

          “It’s a cat dungeon!” She shouted, rushed up close to Sollux in an attempt to frighten him. “A dangerous labyrinth full of feline predators, ready to attack at any given moment! With a furr-enzy of slashing claws...” She leaned up onto her knees, nearly losing balance as she pretended to scratch at the air. “They’ll slice you up in an instant!” She performed one last imaginary slash as she bared her fangs to her friends.

          They all simply watched her, Tavros giggling with a dumb smile on his face and Aradia grinning, happily enjoying Nepeta’s display.

          Sollux was unimpressed.

          “Nepeta, please. No more cat monsters.” He pleaded with an irritable tone.

          She frowned and sunk back down on her butt. “You’re no fun, Sollux…”

          “Uh, I… don’t mean to interrupt, but…” Tavros spoke up. They all turned their attention to him. He looked down at his character sheet and crinkled the edges anxiously. “Uh… I mean… um…”

          It wasn’t that he was worried about his friends being upset with him, it was just that Tavros had an innate feeling that he was a bother whenever he spoke up, especially when others were talking. He didn’t always feel this way, but he did now, and it took him a moment to speak up. 

          “I was thinking… shouldn’t we go down to the beach soon?”

          “Oh!” Aradia responded. “Yes, you’re right.” Aradia smiled at him and moved to push herself up and out of her criss cross. She stood up and cracked her back with a grunt, sighing when she heard the satisfying sound of popping joints and looking down at them when she finished. “I’ll just go ask my grammy what the rules are.”

          “Okay.” Tavros spoke.

          With a smile, Aradia turned to leave and talk with her grandmother. Tavros waited, while Nepeta and Sollux continued their argument over cat monsters, only for Aradia to arrive a few minutes later.

          "So, Grammy said that we can stay out till eight o'clock, but no later." Aradia said as she walked through the door. "Also, we can have dinner whenever."

           Tavros looked over his shoulder at her. "Oh, it's already six. Should we get going?"

          "Sure, if you'd like."

          "What? Wait, are we at least gonna finish this stupid game?" Sollux bemoaned.

          "Yeah, I'd like to finish purr-aying too." Nepeta chimed in.

          "Don't worry, we can finish the game if you'd like." Aradia explained as she strode over to the small, low table. "Or we could do it later as well." Aradia looked over to Tavros. "Though, I think it's fair that Tavros gets the final say, since I think we can all agree this is a bigger deal to him."

          Tavros stuttered at his sudden return to the spotlight. "Uh, well, I mean... I would like to go now, in all honesty, but, I wouldn't want to inconvenience anyone or make someone upset."

          "Well, Karkitty's gonna be grumpy regardless, so you’re safe there!"

          "I'm only here because you guilt tripped me!"

          "No, you're here because, deep, deep down, you like being with us!"

          "Nepeta, I have never heard such untrue words before. I tolerate you; at best."

          Sollux smirked and threw a remark to Karkat while fiddling with his D&D sheet. "What's the matter, KK? Are you too scared to go out on an adventure?"

          "What the heck has that got to do with it? Listen, I only came here because Nepeta wouldn't stop whining and I couldn't stand having to eat another asparagus stuffed dinner." Karkat sneered at Sollux. "You guys can go on your quest for the mermaid without me. I'll be eating all the Hawaiian chips while you're out."

          "No, we're bringing those with us." Nepeta purred happily.

          "Aw, what? Why do you have to take the good stuff!"

          "Winners aren't quitters!"

          "I'm not quitting on anything. I never agreed to do anything."

          "Fine, but you still are being a grumpy puss!" Nepeta bounced over to Karkat and got on her knees, down to his level. "Come on! Come with us!"

          Karkat pushed Nepeta away, causing her to whimsically roll on the ground. "No."

          "Karkat...!"

          "No."

          This went on while the other three continued their discussion.

          "So," Sollux began. "What are we doing?"

          "It's up to Tavros." Aradia smiled at him brightly. "Tavros, do you want to go now or later?"

          Tavros was still unsure of how to answer, but, now that even Sollux seemed to be in a good mood, he felt like they wouldn't object to his choice. "I would like to go now. We can play 'till midnight, but, we can't go out past nine. So, I say we do it now."

          Aradia nodded in response. "Yes, excellent. Let's get our stuff ready."

          "Okay." Sollux stood up from his chair. "I'll grab the cameras so that we can try and get a picture of the seal, or whatever it is you wanna pretend it is."

          "Got it." Aradia looked over at the bickering siblings. "We're going out now, Nepeta."

          Nepeta's head swiveled around at the speed of light to look at Aradia, her face lit up. "Yay! Let's go!"

          She leapt up and snagged her bag up, stuffing her plush animal back in. She also snatched up the Hawaiian chip bag and a six-pack of soda bottles and shoved them into the bag as well. Doing a quick inventory of her bag, she made sure they had everything. "Do we have cameras?"

          Sollux tossed two digital cameras onto her duffel bag. "I've got those, yeah."

          "Great!" She chirped as she zipped the bag up. "Now let's go!"

          Aradia chuckled. "Okay, okay, we're coming." She walked over to the door, where Nepeta was bouncing in excited impatience. Looking back over the room, she motioned Tavros and Sollux over as well.

          Karkat? It's your last chance." She called out to him.

          "Whoopdee doo, I don't care. Just go play with your seashells, I'm not coming."

          "Karkat!" Nepeta whined.

          "It's okay, Karkat." Tavros interjected. "I don't wanna pressure you. You don't have to come."

          "Oh my gosh! Look at this!" Karkat dramatic motioned his arms towards Tavros. "Behold! Tavros Nitram; The one last person on Earth with common decency! Thank you, Tavros!"

          “You’re welcome, I guess?” Tavros chuckled as he walked over to the others by the door. “Well, I guess we’ll see you later then.”

          “See ya later, fellas’.” Karkat sarcastically spat out.

          With a series of snarky goodbyes, the four kids shut the door and made their way out of the apartment, waving to Ms. Megido on the way out. Nepeta hopped step-by-step down the stairs and spun around once she hit the bottom, eagerly awaiting her friends to follow after her.

          “Come on!” She yelled as she ran down the main apartment stairs to wait on the sidewalk.

          “Hold on, Nepeta, dear God.” Sollux muttered as he marched down after her.

          Meanwhile, Tavros looked over at the ocean, the beach far off but still in his line of sight. He fiddled with his necklace as he walked down the steps. “Aradia. We’ll see it right?” He asked, his voice soft and, in a way, hopeful.

          “Maybe.” She stated. “For your sake, I hope we do!”

          Chuckling, Tavros smiled and looked down at his necklace. “Yeah, me too.”

          He walked slower as he admired the shining, golden lined seashell, eventually stopping on the steps all together.
          However, he was drawn away from his daze when Sollux shouted at him from the base of the stairs. Tavros snapped out of it and looked to see even Aradia had reached the bottom.

          “Oh!” He shouted out with a stutter. “Sorry!”

          Flying down the stairs, Tavros met up with them as they started off on the sidewalk, headed towards the beach with the sea cave.

Chapter Text

          On the beach at the edge of town, drawn by the light of the moon, the ocean waves lapped at the skirt of sand that separates land from sea. The beach was long and was capped on both ends by tall cliffs that stretched far out into the water; and at the base of these cliffs was a series of sea caves, large and small. Most were filled with water throughout the day and night, but one was connected directly to beach and had a pathway that went from soft sands to sharp rocks and lead down into the water of the cave. The water level was low in the daytime, but even at night, it was still easy to walk down into the cave from the beach.

          It was large and secluded with very few above water entrances, and all but two were small in size: the one that lead to the beach and the one that lay at the end of long tunnel and lead into the ocean. There were holes in the upper parts of the ocean facing walls, and at night, the moon rays would shine through and light up the water in a way that was simply magical. The light would bounce all around the cave, reflecting off the water and onto the walls, a pale blue aura filling the rocky room.
          The cave was protected from the disturbance of major waves, the low entrances that they came through would eliminate most of the force before they could enter the cave. The ripples from the tiny waves that managed to slip in would stretch out across the crystal clear water, disturbing the smooth surface of it in a delicate pattern until they bounced against the walls and back into each other.
In the very center of the cave was a large rocky island that was never submerged in water,not even by the high tide. It was rocky around all sides but one that had a stair-like pathway leading up to the flat top. From atop the island, one could bathe in the placating tempo of the gentle movements of water as the make their way through the eerie silence.
          The cave was huge and grand, and while it’s roof reached high up from the water’s surface, it stretched almost as far beneath. It went down till a rocky expanse served as the floor, but tunnels of all shapes and sizes were scattered along it. They twisted and turned in all forms of underwater mazes, eventually leading back into the open ocean.

          Making his way through one such tunnel, a young boy broke the still surface of the water and fell back down into it, floating along with the waves his body made on contact. He dipped under again and swam over to the island in the center of the cave. Gripping onto the first of the stair-like rocks, he pulled himself up and out of the water and landed with a ‘plop!’ on the smooth stone. Letting out a breath of air, he hunched over and relaxed for a moment, taking in the echoes of the waves born from his presence. Thick, black curly hair soaked with salt hung messily around his head, the damp strands sticking to the frame of his face. He pulled them away from his skin and fixed them up so that they did not obscure his vision. He blinked rapidly and shook his head to dry out his hair as best as he could. Once he felt comfortable with it’s state of dryness, the young boy pulled his lower body out from the water and brought it against his side on the stone staircase. His name was Gamzee, and he had no legs; only a long, purple tail whose scales shimmered in the pale reflection of moonlight.

          * Gamzee reached out and ran his hand over his tail that grew out from his waist downwards; patches of smooth white fur sprouting out on the areas of his waist and hips, where skin met scale. With a frown, his face creased in concentration as he leaned back on his arms, his back against the stone staircase. He closed his eyes and scrunched up his nose and he bent his tail in towards him and began to stretch it out as one might to alleviate tense muscles. He squirmed and wriggled as he continued to twist and contort his tail until he could feel his bones bending and stretching and his flesh and tissue pull at the tension of them. He groaned in pain, the method of transformation not being a pleasant one. His arms were sore from holding him as his entire lower half tightened and loosened constantly, shifting from make room for new appendages.*
           It took only a few minutes, but it felt like hours had gone by that the young makara had undergone the painful process of his terrene transformation. His long scaled tail like that of a fish had shrunk and moved to bend back behind him at the base of his spine and was all but vestigial in its current form. From his tail he had also grown two spindly legs like that of mountain goat, the fur of which was a dark white with speckles of lilac.
           Exhausted from the physical strain, he flopped down onto the stone, breathing heavily, his face flushed and wan. He allowed one of his arms to hand lazily off the side, the water lapping at his fingertips. He lay like that for a few minutes more.
When the time had come, he felt restored of energy and he lifted himself up into a kneeling position. Wobbly on his newly formed legs, he clutched the higher edge of the island for support.

          “Come on now…” He muttered to himself, the words aimed at the lack of cooperation in his legs. “You’ve done this twice before… you can do it again.”

          He steadily took a step up the stones and half walked, half crawled up to the top of the island. He knelt down and leaned over the side, examining the clear waters below him. He scanned every inch as best you could, but he failed to find what it was he was searching for.

          “Come on… where are you?”

          He looked over the area twice more before he became doleful at his failure. He muttered to himself as he crawled back down the stairs and sat down, his hooves dipping into the water. He swung his legs out and pushed off the island, landing with a splash into the water. The water came up to his waist when it finally settled. Looking out around the cave, Gamzee, began wading, clumsily maneuvering along the rocky floor as it dropped and rose, bumps and holes riddling the ground.

          “Where is it, where is it…” He eyed every nook in the ground in hopes of finding what he came for. “I know it’s here…”

          Eventually, he had made his way around the entire main area of the cave, and had searched endlessly in vain.
          At a loss, Gamzee sat down at the edge of the water, just below entrance to the beach. He gazed into the waters, his own despondency reflected back at him.

          “Dang it…”

          He looked up at the entrance, the rising night sky shining just beyond the horizons of tree and buildings. The moon had begun to shine about the beach.
          For just a moment, Gamzee contemplated walking out onto the beach, even for just a minute. He argued that it would only to be search for his necklace; that maybe the tide had carried higher up and dropped it near the entrance to the beach.
          He slowly brought one leg out of the one and onto the edge of the rocks, and he slowly began to lift the other when his ankle was suddenly wrapped in the tight grip of someone’s hand.

          “Gamzee.”

          Gamzee squealed in surprise and twisted away, stumbling frantically along the rocks. His hooves were caught in the bumps of the ground and he fell down on his back, bruising himself against the hard, rough rocky floor.

          “Aaaah… o-ow…” He groaned, reaching around to rub the spot where he'd hurt himself.

          “Oh! I apologize for causing you alarm, sir…” The new arrival hastily 

          Gamzee weakly lifted his head from the ground to peek at his visitor. At the edge of the water, another boy his age with dark long hair that fell down around and past his shoulders. His eyes were a bright yellow with black ovalular pupils, and the skin beneath them was a bright blue that faded into the rest of his skin tone; a pale reddish tan with speckles of blue. A stripe of spinal and soft rays ran down his back, a thin, translucent film stretched across. He leaned onto the rocky shore and lifted himself slightly, revealing a lower half like that of centaur, but where a centaur’s hind legs would be, a curled fish tail twisted in the water. The strangest aspect of it all though, was the ghostly smoke-like energy that drifted off of him.
          Gamzee shook his head and smiled at his friend. “Equius, bro, you can’t keep doing this to me… you’re all sneaky like and shit, what’s up with that?”

          “Sir, you shouldn’t speak like that. It’s unbefitting of you.”

          “Come on, you’re not supposed to judge me, Eq…” Gamzee smiled weakly.

          “It is just that you should learn proper noble customs, as is appropriate.”

          Gamzee twisted around to face Equius directly. "Yeah, well…” He laid flat on his stomach, crossed his arms and leaned down on them with his chin. “My dad’s all up and spewing that nastiness what's much more than I ever do, bro. Heheh… and you don’t get up on his case about it.”

          Equius flushed a little and looked down at the water. “Well… that is because... it is not my place to do do.” He returned his attention to Gamzee, a determined look set on his face. “Where as for you, it is my job to protect you and to keep you safe, from impure habits as much as from enemies.”

          “Ain’t it my dad that decides on what habits are ‘impure’ for me?”

          “Well, yes… but, there are- unwritten rules in place and it is most wise to follow suit with and-”

          Gamzee cut him off with a loud chuckle that echoed throughout the cave. Equius stared at him blankly, silencing himself. Gamzee had leaned back and laughed up at the ceiling of the cave. After Gamzee’s laughter drifted away, he looked back to Equius. “Eq, you gotta stop being so uptight. It’s all messing you up when you should be up and having fun!”

          “Fun is not my job.” Equius argued.

          “It’s no one’s job. It ain’t supposed to be, jobs aren’t fun. What’s fun is doing what all your job don’t let you.”

          “I am not sure where you are trying to go with this.”

          Gamzee got up in Equius’ face, a little too close for comfort for the ichthyocentaur. “You wanna go up on the beach?”

          Equius gasped and pulled away into the water, “What?!” He paused and quickly pulled himself back together, flattening his facial features to recompose his impassive appearance. “Er, no. That would be not only against the rules but, it would also be…” He held his breath. “Pardon me for criticizing you sir, but it would also be stupid.”

          Gamzee chuckled once more before becoming a little more serious as he broached the topic. “Well, yeah, sure maybe, but, uh…” He rolled his eyes and rested his cheek on his arm propped on the ground. “Well, you know that necklace that I got, right?”

          “Yes.”

          “Well, you see, I, uhh…” Gamzee rolled over onto his back and looked up at Equius. “I lost it.”

          Equius did not reply, and the cave held silent. The tiny drips echoed louder than before, it seemed. “You… lost it.”

          “Uh-huh.”

          “When?”

          “A couple a days ago or so. Not real sure, to be honest.”

          “And… you lost it here?”

          “Yeah.”

          Equius sighed and squeezed the bridge of his nose. “I had noticed that it was not on your person, but I really just thought you’d left it at home or something.”

          “Uh oh, are you upset? You’re using those words of yours in your not-so-fancy way, bro.”

          “No, I am not upset. I cannot be upset with you.”

          “Eq, bro, that’s a real honest lie, right there, and I think you’re getting your lie on even with yourself, man.”

          Equius squinted in confusion as Gamzee spoke. “What does that even mean?”

          “You’re pissed, ain’t you?” Gamzee responded plainly.

          “Sir, please refrain yourself from using that word.”

          “Aw, don’t be bringing this up again.”

          Equius sighed for must’ve been the hundredth time since this conversation began. Which was the lowest record on count out of all his interactions with Gamzee thus far. “Yes sir. But, back to the topic of your necklace, which is the most important heirloom of your family’s bloodline, a priceless artifact as old as your heritage itself.” Equius looked around the immediate area. “You said it was lost here in this cave, correct?”

          “Well, I mean, I think so.”

          “So…” Equius held his breath to refrain himself from another sigh, “You are not even certain of where it might be located.”

          “Well, I mean, this was where I last remember having it.” Gamzee held eye contact with Equius as the other boy stared him down, his eyes holding an tired, intimidating glare. Gamzee smiled sheepishly and played with his hair that had dried enough to partially regain it’s curls. “I have absolutely no clue where it is.”

          Equius finally let out yet another sigh. This was about the point in the conversation where Equius gave up any and all attempts at formality and sensibility, as there would be none of that with Gamzee as the second party.

          “Okay. I will assist you in finding it.”

          Gamzee flipped from off his back and stood up in a rush on into his hooves, wobbling in his stance, his face drawn up in a childish, eager grin, his eyes sparkling at Equius. “You really mean it?!”

          “I don’t really have a choice here, do I?”

          “Awww, bro, you don’t know how much this all means to me!” Gamzee got down on his knees and snatched Equius up into a hug. The other boy was pulled partly up out of the water, his lower body dragged up against the edge as he awkwardly squirmed while trying to keep some semblance of balance in the water. His legs were floundering and bumping into the rough rocks as his tail flailed in and out of the water.

          “Uh, yes, it must be excellent for you, but, sir, I am very uncomfortable in this position.” Equius paused to see if Gamzee would get the message, but, per the norm, he did not. “Gamzee, this is really hurting me, please let go.”

          Gamzee looked up from his painful embrace, and noticed the klutzy way Equius had been forced up on the edge by him. “Oh, my bad bro.” He let go of the hug and dropped him.
          With a yelp, Equius fell into the water, scrambling to pull himself back to the surface. Gamzee watched idly as Equius fixed himself and adjusted to get onshore.

          “So… you gonna get changed, or…?”

          “I prefer to change in water.” Equius responded, slight irritation present in his voice, “It’s much more comfortable that way. No rocks scratching you.”

          “Oh yeah…” Gamzee muttered, blankly staring up at the roof of the cave. “I guess that all makes some sort of sense.” He bobbed his head back down to look at Equius. “So you gonna up and change, or…?”

          Equius sighed and turned away. “Yes, I will, but, I am very conscious of the process.”

          “Oh… I see, bro! It's all cool, I just up and forgot is all!” Gamzee leaned back against a nearby boulder and covered his eyes. “Don't you worry, I ain't looking at nothing.”

          Equius lingered on Gamzee for a moment before he went to start his transformation. For support, Equius gripped onto the ledge and purchased his fingers into the rocky holes in it. He had done this more times than Gamzee, so he could undergo the process faster, but it still hurt to do.
          * He bent forward against the ledge and pulled himself flush against it, leaving his legs and tail drifting in the swaying water. His legs bent in to his lower body as his tail curled and twitched as it morphed forward. The lower portion of his spine twisted to shorten, the remaining bits of bone gifting into new shapes; merging together.*
          In a minute, Equius had a fully equine lower half, like that of a centaur. The ghostly wisps still drifted from and about him, and his hooves were wide with thin layers of film across them, but his scales and dissolved to reveal more fur in a navy-gray hue. He stopped to breath and looked down to examine himself.

          “I thank you for keeping my privacy. You may look now.”

          Gamzee peaked out through his fingers and rolled forward onto his butt. After nearly tipping himself over, Gamzee balanced himself and turned to Equius. “Looking good, my sea horsey bro.”

          “I am not a sea horse.” Equius frowned. “I am a ichthyocentaur.”

          “But like,” Gamzee twirled his finger in Equius direction. “You got those horsey legs and then you got the fishy tail in the water and all that.” He lifted his finger and started twirling it towards the roof. “You’re a sea horsey, bro.”

          Equius furrowed his brow further. “I am not a sea horse. I am an ichthyocentaur.”

          “Well...” Gamzee grunted as he got up to his feet. “I never did understand why fancy Mr. Ampora gets called a sea horse. He don’t even look like a horse; not at all.”

          Equius stuttered nervously. “It’s… just what we call the animal… it’s a sea horse.”

          “And what all does icky-theo-centy-o-saur even mean?” Gamzee idly mentioned.

          “It means…” Equius suddenly stopped talking and slowly shut his mouth. “It means that I appear as half-humanoid and... half... fish horse.”

          “So you mean…” Gamzee tilted his head with a blank expression. “A sea horse.”

          Equius couldn’t find the words to respond with. After an awkward moment of silence, he decided to bring their conversation back to it’s original purpose. With a noticeable rush in his voice, Equius quickly changed the subject. “So, is this form suitable for the task?”

          Gamzee chuckled, completely oblivious to the intentional change in topic. “Yeah, bro. It’s dark out enough, I doubt anyone’s gonna be all walking around and about this late at night. There ain’t no need to be getting all double legged on me, you can keep your fine horsey legs.”

          “Very well then,” Equius clambered up onto the rocky shore and shook off the water from himself, his new tail, one made of strands of hair, flicking about. “Shall we embark on our search?”

          “Yeah, bro, let’s all go and find that necklace!” Gamzee turned and skipped out of the cave’s entrance, galloping like an eager goat kid. Equius quickly chased after him, having been caught off guard at his sudden escape. Gamzee tripped as his hooves hit sand, but was only briefly thrown off by the unsteady ground. Ignorant of any and all possible dangers or threats, Gamzee danced about on the beach, giggling childishly like the child he was. Equius reached the cave’s entrance and waited in it’s archway, looking around constantly as if all he could see was possible danger. He called out to Gamzee, but only raising his voice as loud as need be.

          “Sir, I do believe that your choice of action is a most concerning one.”

          Gamzee stopped abruptly, his hooves skidding into the sand.

          “You are likely to draw attention that way,” Equius explained. “And it would really put a damper on things if we were caught by any humans.”

          Gamzee shuffled over to Equius, keeping his hooves in the sand, dragging them along through it. “Nah, bro, those human fellows are what up and really makes the land interesting, bro.” Gamzee motioned to the town only yards away. “They’re the ones that all up and build those buildings, bro. And they come on out and they build these little baby buildings in the sand all like this.” Gamzee sat down and began piling sand into a makeshift tower. He continued speaking as he built it. “And like, they bring all this mighty delicious smelling food down here. Smells like all kinds of miraculous things.” Gamzee fiddled with his poorly built tower before he slid onto his stomach and rolled around on the sand. “I don’t know man, they seem pretty chill is all.”

          With a frown on his face, the same one that seemed to never leave, Equius trotted over to Gamzee. “Sir. While I would love to elaborate on all the reasons to elude oneself from human contact, we are in the midst of search, remember?”

          “Ah, yes!” Gamzee shouted as he played in the sand. “We’re all searching for that necklace of mine.” Gamzee got to his knees and patted them eagerly as he looked around from where he sat. “So…” He mumbled. “Where do you think it is?”

          “I have not a single hint as to it’s whereabouts.” Equius stated, feeling like this should have been an assumed fact of the matter.

          “Yeah, bro, same here.” Gamzee scooped up a handful of sand and let it fall through his fingers. “Maybe it got all lost in this here sand, you think?”

          “Yes, that is an idea for sure.”

          “Well then,” Gamzee muttered as he stood back up. “Let’s get to looking!”

Chapter Text

            The beach on this side of town was long, though only a certain part of it was considered valuable to the tourists. The four children scurried down the sandy woody stairs as they came to this section of the beach. There beach felt clean and sterile, smooth, silky sand, incredibly pale in hue, spread across the beach, with little to no debris left behind by the ocean waves. Even human trash was hard to find, as the maintenance crew took pride in their ability to sweep the beach clean.
            Nepeta was the first one off the sidewalk and onto the beach, her feet touching down in the sand, grains of it gathering in the space between flip-flop and skin. Shouting for her friends to follow, she happily skipped through the sand, kicking up piles of it as she did.
Sollux and Aradia stopped besides Tavros on the steps leading down, watching Nepeta in her reverie.

            "Tavros, do you want to go to the cave now?"

            The sea cave was way down to the left side of the beach, just after the long stretch of sand became rocks tidal pools, Despite how beautiful it was, the sea cave was rarely seemed out by tourists because of the complicated path leading to it. The wide shore with its soft sand eventually turned little rougher, rockier, and narrow. Once you managed to walk around the big cliff side, there was a tiny little beach with an entrance that lead into the cave.
            Once they decided to go to the cave, it'd probably be enough of an effort that they'd go home afterwards, or just set on the beach.
            Tavros decided that it was probably best to go and play here first, to get it out of their system. 

            "Well, since the cave is kind of a big deal, maybe we should wait till later. Save the best for last?"

            Aradia nodded. "Yes, that sounds good. Let's just play for now."

            "Okay then," Sollux mumbled, his words partially muffled as he began pulling his shirt off over his head. He squirmed out of it as he spoke, but Sollux's lisp combined with the shirt that blocked at his voice, made it hard to understand him.

            "I'm going to go swimming."
             
            Tavros tilted his head questioningly at Sollux, with a slight smirk showing his intent to tease. "You're gonna go thingy?"

            With a flip of his head, Sollux popped out of his shirt and tossed it forward, down into the sand. He looked over at Tavros, taking a breath as he prepared to run.
            "Frick you, Tav."

            And with that, Tavros' grin increased ten-fold, a chuckle bubbling out. Sollux frowned and bolted off through the sand. "You know what I meant!" He yelled back as he ran past Nepeta and collided with a wave that had just hit shore.

            Tavros felt a little embarrassed for mishearing Sollux, but tried to push it away by focusing on how funny Nepeta was as she pounced like a cat, clawing at the waves as they landed. Once she saw Sollux, she began rapidly splashing him, to which he wasn't too pleased, since he still had his glasses, but he decided to forgo that and splash back at her.
            Aradia went past Tavros and down the wooden steps onto the beach. He quickly followed after her as she dropped the duffel bag onto the sand and began unpacking.
            She took out a long pink, blue, and orange colored beach towel that was designed with the shapes of ocean waves, sand dollars, and hibiscus flowers in various patterns.
            She settled herself onto it and pulled out the food and drinks. With a twist, she popped the lid from a jug of soda, the carbonation hissing as it escaped confinement. Once it had stopped foaming, Aradia poured it into two plastic cups with clip-on lids and she handed one to Tavros as he sat down next to her.

            “Do you want some chips too?” She asked while passing him the cup.

            “Ah, no…” He responded, gingerly taking the cup from her and sliding open the drinking hole on the lid to take a sip. “I think I'm good. Maybe later, I don't know. I kind of want to eat the pot roast your grandma made.”

            “You're not gonna fill up on this, I'm sure.” She pulled out the chips and tore them open, reaching in for tiny bit. “But if you insist.”

            She munched down on them, rubbing her finger to get the dust of, but not cleaning them completely, as she would still go in for more.
            Tavros just watched her eat for a while before he turned away to look around the beach and the way it was lit up by the pale yellow-pink of the setting sun.
            He leaned back on the beach towel, eventually sliding down flat on his back. He looked up at the sky; it was a fading pool of evening pastels.
            Drifting into a little daze, Tavros relaxed and waited as the others went about their time in the sand.

 

***

 

            “Tavros… Tavros… Tavros, come on, wake up.”

            Tavros scrunched his face and rolled his nose around tiredly. He leaned up, groaning, and rubbed his eyes. He yawned and adjusted his eyes so he could look over at Aradia.

            “What?” Tavros made a face of tired realization. “Oh no, did I fall asleep? Is it too late?”

            Aradia shook her head and got up from the towel. “No, but we were all about to get going and start looking for your sea creature.”

            “Oh…” Tavros said. He turned in the direction of the path to the sea cave. “Okay. Well, uh, let’s get going I guess.”

            He too stood up from the towel. Aradia smiled at him. “I’m going to start packing up, you can go on ahead of me though.”

            “Oh, are you sure?” Tavros questioned.

            “Yeah, you’d better hurry. Nepeta and Sollux are getting restless.”

            Tavros looked over his shoulder and saw Nepeta eagerly swinging her arms as she balanced on a rock. Sollux stood besides the rock, his posture showing impatience and irritability.

            “Tav, come on already!” He shouted.”I'm tired, so let's just get this over with.”

            “Ah, right.” Tavros said as he quickly gathered up their layout. “Here, it'll be faster if I help, Aradia.”

            “Oh, well thank you, Tavros!” Aradia smiled at him.

            After stuffing the duffel bag full, Aradia slung it over her shoulder and went to Sollux and Nepeta with Tavros.

            “Jeez, I was about to just leave.” Sollux muttered. “Well, come on the. Let's go see your magic dolphin or whatever.”

            Tavros smirked with a hint of discomfort. “Yeah, well, you never really know, I guess.”

            “If it is a magic dolphin,” Nepeta exclaimed, “Then wouldn't that be paws-itively amazing!!”

            She leapt down from the rock and twirled in the sand, skipping towards the sea cave. “Come on, guys!” She called back to them.

            “Oh, be right there, Nepeta!” Tavros responded as he followed after her.

            Aradia fell in line behind him, as did Sollux, with a reluctant sigh.
            The group was quiet as they went through the sand, with only the sound of lapping waves and Nepeta’s humming as it bounced of the cliff side to accompany them.
            They went along the pathway, the one that would soon bring them to the large sea cave where the mysterious creature was spotted.

 

***

 

            Equius trodded along the base of the cliff one last time before he sighed in defeat. This necklace was not making itself shown, and it seemed as though it wouldn't any time soon.
            He looked over at Gamzee, who had been digging the same hole in the same spot of sand for a while now. Despite his irritation at the situation and Gamzee, it was still with great reluctance and embarrassment that Equius called to him.

            “Sir, I am afraid that I have come to the conclusion that your necklace is nowhere to be found.”

            Gamzee looked up from his digging with a soft look, like a child who'd been told an upsetting truth.

            Which, in all honesty, Gamzee was a child who'd just been told an upsetting truth.

            “No bro, it's somewhere here in this sandy spot, Equius, it's got to be.”

            “Sir, I was uncertain to place my complete trust in the suggestion of it being found out here from the start.” Equius began to walk over to Gamzee. “It is within my own belief that the necklace could not have left the cave, even when high tide is taken into consideration.”

            Gamzee rubbed the back of his neck.

            “Well, shit Equius bro, I was just getting to thinking that same thoughts as well.” He rolled onto his butt and began kicking sand back into the hole. He held himself up with his arms as support. “But, I still thought it’d be pretty wicked if it had ended up in this golden fuzzy beach area here, by some kind of miracle.”

            “So…” Equius started, “You had no logical basis for the necklace’s location?”

            Gamzee shrugged and dropped his head onto his shoulder, tilting it slightly to the side to face Equius.

            “Nope.”

            "Really?” It wasn’t a question so much as Equius subtly stating his annoyance.

            “Yup.”

            They two held each other’s gaze for a moment longer.

            Really, these silent moments of theirs were becoming increasingly commonplace and increasingly uncomfortable.

            Finally, Equius sighed and leaned down towards Gamzee, holding his hand out for him. “Sir, it would be within both of our interests to return to our homes before sunset. It would cause suspicion for the two of us to be absent when the others have awakened.”

            “But…” Gamzee, looked out at the ocean. After a moment’s consideration, he rolled onto his stomach and fiddled with the sand. He lazily swung his legs in the air. “I don’t know bro, I don’t wanna get a scolding at. That won’t be any sorts of fun at all.”

            Equius rubbed his eyes impatiantly. It was understandable that Gamzee didn’t want to fail in anyone’s eyes, Equius understood the sentiment well enough, but a scolding was not something to be so upset over. The way Equius saw it, scoldings put you in your place and teach you what not to do in the future. They were an embarrassing, but completely necessary part of life.
            Though, if he had to admit it, Equius would claim that he did actually enjoy being berated every once in awhile. But no one else would understand that.

            “Gamzee,” Equius spoke, breaking his composure of servitude. “Have you considered that The Grand Highblood will not notice the missing presence of your necklace?”

            “Well, no, I didn’t get to thinking that.” Gamzee mumbled.

            “Sir, I would suggest that you not bring attention to it and pray that he not notice. If he does, however, the truth is most certainly the best option.” 

            Equius wasn't lying, but he wasn't entirely confident on his own suggestion. Gamzee's father was an interesting case. He'd usually berate his son when berating was needed, but he was no opposed to blaming others for his son's errors as well. Or, more like he dragged others into it along with his son. Equius supposed he could just as easily get in trouble for not keeping on eye on Gamzee, but the circumstances were in place that he could easily go about finding it. Were the situation different or time sensitive, that would be different.
            Honestly though, Equius just wanted a break.
            Gamzee thought on it for a while, continuing running his hands through the sand as he did.

            Eventually, he responded.

            “Alright, bro. If that’s what you’re thinking is my action I should be getting to doing.” Gamzee rolled onto his back and kicked his legs up into the air, swinging them down as he threw his body forwards and up. He landed flat on his feet, releasing a breath as he landed.

            “Hey bro?” Gamzee went over and patted Equius on the arm. “Could you be giving me some advice as to how I could be going about this whole lost necklace ordeal?”

            “You mean you wish for me to advise you on your next course of action?”

            “Yeah, bro.” Gamzee nodded.

            “Very well. Then I would suggest that-”

            Equius froze, and his head turned sharply to the side. Gamzee flinched, taken aback by his friend’s sudden movement.

            “Bro? You all good there?”

            Equius did not respond though. He simply continued to stare off in that direction.

            “Sir.” He finally spoke. “We should head back now.” Equius began nudging Gamzee in the direction of the nearby sea cave’s entrance with his knee.

            “Well, sure thing, bro, but can we at least get to talking about-”

            “Please silence yourself, sir.”

            “Hmm?” Gamzee mumbled, confused as to why Equius was like this. They had reached the cave when Gamzee stopped to look up at Equius. He could tell the other was nervous, but Gamzee didn’t know why.

            “What are you all getting your nerve on for, bro?”

            Almost the exact moment Gamzee finished talking, a shrill scream like that of a sharp toned alarm sounded from behind the two of them.

 

***

 

            Soon, the pathway narrowed and the ocean moved in closer and closer, overtaking the shoreline, closing in to kiss the rocky cliff wall. The next section was a more difficult one to tread, but it was the best available way to the sea cave. The cave had plenty of underwater entrances, but this was the only one connected to the land.

            “This is stupid.” Sollux muttered, the first to speak in ten minutes.

            “Oh, hush.” Aradia said. “You're perfectly fine.”

            “Maybe, but this is still stupid.”

            “No one asked for your opinion, Sollux.” Tavros retorted, the expedition sparking enough excitement and confidence in the young boy to do so.

            “Yeah!” Nepeta giggled. “Stop complaining! We've already made it this far!”

            Sollux cringed and sighed, “I’ve gotta stop going out with you guys.”

            “Sollux, you say that every time.” Aradia pat Sollux on the shoulder. “Yet, you always come-”

            Suddenly, she was cut off by a shrill squeal from Nepeta. The young girl was bounding with energy. She bounced in the sand and frantically waved her pointed finger about at the beach just around the cliff side corner.

            “Did you guys see that?!” She exclaimed with hyperactive rigor. Her energetic outburst made it difficult for her to speak through her eager muttering.

            The other three children were suddenly on guard, but Tavros especially felt a rush of adrenaline, his face tense with anticipation.

            “W-what is it?!” He stuttered as he tried to trod through the water to Nepeta. “What do you see?”

            Nepeta had starting running over to the beach, seemingly chasing after an unseen target.

            “A horsey! There was a little horsey!”

 

***

 

            Gamzee had not even a moment to look for the source of the squeal before he was swiftly lifted from the ground and into Equius’ arms.
            All he could feel in that moment was the drop in his stomach at the sudden descent in elevation as Equius galloped down the hill at the cave’s entrance.

            Before Gamzee knew it, he was struck by the sensation of cold salt water assaulting his skin as he landed in the cave’s pool. It has gotten extremely cold in the time Gamzee had been out.
            He flailed in water, completely inept at swimming with his legs. Instincts kicked in and Gamzee immediately began shifting back into his aquatic form. Shifting back was a much swifter and less painful process. In fact, it was an amazingly relaxing one that relieved Gamzee’s muscles and nerves, much like resting after a stretch.

            Still, Gamzee barely had a moment to collect himself.

            Everything continued to go by in a frenzy and Gamzee was practically dragged under the current by Equius, who had also shifted back.
            Once submerged, Equius jerked Gamzee aside into a rocky alcove hidden away around the side of the cave. He roughly shoved Gamzee inside and sat at the front, obscuring himself as much as possible from any prying eyes.
            Finally, Gamzee could let his brain run its course. He breathed and gave himself a moment to rest. However, he still had no idea what was going on, so he recovered as quick as he could.
            To fit in the alcove, they had to be squished up against each other. This limited Gamzee’s movement, as he was pushed to the back.

            “Bro?” Gamzee managed to put a hand on Equius’ shoulder. “Hey man, what was all that hectic crazy about? My head was spinning like dizzy drifting.”

            Equius did not turn towards Gamzee, his eyes did not even twitch in his direction. He could only be bothered to stare intently at the rippling layer of water separating the land and sea.

            “We were seen, sir, and it is with my upmost respect that I demand you silence yourself.”

            “Seen? I didn't get a look at nothing, what was it? Was it a land guppy?”

            “What?” Equius had no clue what a land guppy was, but it did not care. “No, it was a human. A rather shrill one at that.”

            “Oh…” Gamzee whispered. He chuckled lightly. “And here I thought that sound what stabbed my hearing sharp was you.”

            “I kindly and respectfully request that you not compare my voice to that of the one just heard prior.”

            Gamzee smirked, his fright and concern about the situation slowly slipping away. “Aw, alright, alright.”

            Gamzee wiggled and pulled both arms up and draped them around Equius’ shoulders. He leaned against him, hoping to see past the alcove wall and get a glance at the humans above.
            Equius reacted with a gruff breath, allowing Gamzee to dangle his arms around him, but refusing to budge from his place.

            “Sir…”

            Gamzee pushed a little more and began to crawl up over Equius.

            “Sir, what are you doing?”

            “Just sight seeing, bro.”

            “Sight seeing.”

            “Yup.”

            Equius glanced back up at the cave. He could see that the humans were gathered together by the edge now.

            “Are you referring to… the humans, sir?”

            “Maybe.” Gamzee rested his head against Equius’. “I don't see ‘em all to often. I ain’t never seen ‘em from too close a distance in too.”

            “Sir, I cannot condone going near them.”

            “Oh, no no, bro.” Gamzee shook his head. “I just wanna see the lil’ things, is all.”

            “Unfortunately, the problem at hand is too fragile a situation to do so. We will depart as soon as possible.”

            “Oh…” Gamzee pouted. As much as he wanted to abide by Equius’ advice (He was a very smart and reasonable friend, after all.), Gamzee also really wanted to just sneak a peek.

            Maybe if he could manage to sneak away from Equius…

 

***

 

            “A horse?” Sollux questioned.

            “Yes!” She screamed as she disappeared into the cave.

            “Nepeta, what are you doing?” He yelled to her just as he was pushed aside by Tavros. “Hey!”

            Tavros ignored him, frantically running after Nepeta into the cave, desperate to see whatever it was she saw. He wasn't sure why he was so excited; after all, a horse couldn't have possibly been what he saw that night. But it was something unusual and Tavros was just dying for something to show up.
            He practically leapt down the rocky slope into the cave, his shoes scraping against the rough ground. He nearly fell over twice after he’d get stuck in a hole or trip over himself, but he reached the base with his camera pulled out.
            He saw Nepeta staring at a spot in the water over by the rocky island center of the cave.

            “Nepeta?” Tavros asked, stopping to take a breath. But he quickly turned to the sound of a large splash. Multiple splashes it might've been.

            But he didn't care.

            Because he absolutely saw something.

            He turned his camera to it and snapped as many shots as he could in that direction; a paparazzi’s worth of flashes lighting up the cave.
            It all happened in a flash (pun fully intended) and soon the cave was left in a state of unwinding tension.
            Tavros suddenly realized how quiet the cave was; was it this quiet before? Everything seemed so loud just moments earlier.

            “Tavros? Nepeta?”

            Tavros spinned around in the direction of the voice.

            Aradia and Sollux were standing at the cave’s entrance, both looking confused.

            “What happened?” Aradia asked.

            Nepeta, who'd been staring at the same spot all this time, turned and leapt into her feet.

            “A horse just jumped into the ocean!” Her voice was full of awe and shock.

            “A horse?” Aradia quizzically glanced over at the water.

            “Well, yes! A horse! A horsey was on the beach and it just…” Nepeta waved her arms about, trying to gather her words. “Jumped! It just jumped right into the water! Right there!”

            Everyone looked over at the spot where she pointed, the same spot Tavros had photographed.
            Tavros stared at the still ocean water, convinced that the creature just might pop back up.
            There was something else on his mind though.
            He saw something alright, and it did look like a horse. But, there was another creature; he was certain of it.

            “I, uh…” He stuttered. “I saw something else.”

            Nepeta tilted her head curiously. “Oh? What did you see, Tavros?”

            “Well, I did see a horse. Or, something like a horse. That’s for sure. But…” He looked down at the camera in his hands. “I could've sworn I saw another creature too.”

            “Another one?” Nepeta said. “Are you sure?”

            “Yeah, uh…” Tavros fiddled with the camera’s buttons to open the digital menu. “It looked more like a person, or person shaped, at least.”

            Aradia and Sollux walked down to where the other two children stood.

            “You actually managed to get a picture in the middle of all that running and yelling?” Sollux asked, sounding slightly impressed. He put his hands on his hips. “It's probably blurry as hell.”

            Aradia elbowed Sollux, to which he responded with a yelp.

            “AA, what the heck?”

            “That's better.” She commented with a grin and a raised chin.

            Sollux simply scoffed and turned back to Tavros, who had managed to open up the photo menu.

            “Yeah, they are pretty blurry.” Tavros tilted the camera in his hands, trying to get the screen at different angles in the light in hopes that the picture would come out cleaner.

            Unfortunately, all the pictures were pretty messy.
            They weren't indecipherable though.
            Tavros picked out the clearest photo he'd taken and he held it up for everyone to see.

            “Look, if you look right here…” He pointed to an area in the photo. “This part looks like the back of a horse, but this part here, it looks like… something else. I'm not sure what it is though, but, it kind of looks like another animal's hind legs.”

            The other three children were crowding around him to see the picture. Nepeta gasped softly, having not noticed a second creature. Aradia merely nodded her head at the observation. Sollux, however, had objections.

            “Wait a second,” He backed up and looked directly at Tavros. “I thought you said that you saw a person- bah! Frick!”

            Sollux had stumbled over his words, lisping them messily. He made strange shapes with his mouth, angrily trying to readjustment his tongue to speak more properly.
            With great irritation, he finally fixed his tangled tongue.

            “You good, Sollux?” Nepeta asked.

            “I'm fine. Just… ignore that.” 

            With closed eyes, he sighed and took a breath before restarting his previous attempt at talking.

            “Okay.” He said plainly, holding his hands out. He opened his eyes and returned his attention to Tavros. “So, anyway, I thought you said it looked human.” Sollux stated clearly, his lisp barely present. He motioned to the image on the camera screen “But that’s clearly an animal.”

            “Yeah, but, I mean it was…” Tavros trailed off. “Don't make fun of me, but, I mean in looked like it was… standing like a human.”

            Sollux looked at him with a resting frown.

            “What, like some sort of goat-man thingy? What is it called?”

            “A satyr?”

            “Is that the thing with goat legs?”

            “Yes.”

            “Then that.”

            Tavros frowned and looked back down at the camera. “Well, I'm not certain if it’s goat legs but… yes, I'm certain it was standing like a person.”

            “Did you see that upper half?” Aradia questioned.

            Nepeta responded quicker than Tavros could ever hope to. “No, not really, it was too fast, but it’s head seemed funny shaped.” She clapped her hands together, suddenly. “Oh, I'm talking about the horsey by the way!” She quickly added on.

            “Funny shaped?” Sollux and Aradia asked in near unison.

            “I don't know, it just looked weird at a glance!”

            “Tavros, can I see the camera?” Aradia put her hand out.

            “Yeah, okay.” Tavros handed it to her.

            She flipped through the photo menu, analyzing each one quickly. “Well, I can't really see it's head, so I don't know what to say about that. Tavros, what did you see?”

            “He said it was human on the upper half.” Sollux answered.

            Tavros frowned, irritated at Sollux’s interruptions. “No, I said it stood like one. I didn't really get a good view of its chest or anything.”

            Aradia hummed in thought. Everyone was quiet and waited for her final verdict,
            It seemed like an hour, but within just a few seconds, Aradia spoke.

            “Yup. That's weird alright.” She handed Tavros back the camera. “But what are we going to do about it, huh?” Aradia turned to head back to the entrance. “It's late enough, we can't go out looking for water horses and satyrs. So let's head back.”

            “Yes, please.” Sollux followed after her. “Come on, guys.”

            “But, wait!” Nepeta shouted. “Is no one else wondering what that was?”

            “No, I am absolutely invested in figuring this out.” Aradia said. “But I am also invested in not staying out late.” She looked over to Tavros and gave a little sympathetic smile.
            “Come on, Tavros. We can make a better plan next time”

            Tavros nodded with a smile. “Yeah, we can.”
            Aradia grinned brightly and turned to leave the cave. “Well, let’s go now.”
            Sollux walked behind her, leaving as well.
            Nepeta pouted and dangled her arms limply. “But I wanna find the horsey…” She reluctantly dragged herself up the slope to the entrance, looking back at Tavros once she stood at the top.

            “Tavros, are you coming?”

            He was looking at the water of the cave, entranced by it. He shook himself from his daze and began putting his camera into his pocket. “Yeah, just give me a minute; I'll be right there.”

            He climbed up to where Nepeta was, looking back one last time before he too left the cave.

Chapter Text

          Gamzee waited for Equius to let him out. Gamzee never felt impatient, but this just seemed like such a long wait. He was so pent up, they had been here forever!

          In reality, it was no longer than five minutes.

          “Bro, surely it’s all good up there now, right?” Gamzee asked with a hint of querulousness not usually found in his laid back tone. 

          “Yes, maybe…” Equius mumbled numbly, his attention held steady on the view of the water's edge up above. He did not even glance at Gamzee.

          Gamzee accepted that as a sign that they would be stuck here for another five minutes.
          At least, that was until Equius actually moved out of the alcove.
          Eagerly, Gamzee followed Equius out, floating through the water towards him. Now to distract the little sea horse.

          “So… we all good to get going on now, bro?” Gamzee held his hands low and clasped together, drifting forward in a curve, seeming like a child asking his mother for a candy bar. Though, even more befitting of the mother son metaphor was how Equius was completely unaware that Gamzee intended to do something other than asked.

          “Yes, I do believe it is clear for us to leave now.” Equius said. He turned around and began to head further along a larger tunnel that lead out to open ocean. “Let us leave, sir.”

          Gamzee peeked over his shoulder, looking up at the cave’s rocky shore. “Yeah, bro. Be right there.”

          Without another word, Gamzee flipped his tail quickly and as quiet as possible, swimming right back through the tunnel and straight to the water's surface. Equius did not so much as even feel the disturbance of the water as Gamzee escaped, continuing done the tunnel as though his troublesome friend was still with him.

          “Yes, and then, once we return , I can give you advice on your missing item situation, if you so demand.” Equius went on. “That is what you requested earlier, correct, sir?”

          No response.

          “Sir?” Equius turned around, stared into the empty dark space of the tunnel and couldn't help but notice the lack of a lazily drifting Gamzee in it's water. Gamzee was nowhere to be seen. 

          “Shoot.”

***

 

          Gamzee quietly popped the top of his head out of the water, just behind the middle rock, to avoid being seen. He heard no noise, so he slowly drifted around the rock to the side so he could see the shoreline. He jumped back though, when he thought he saw someone still standing there.

          “Did they see me?” He thought.

          He waited for a bit longer. Listening for movement.
          Finally he peeked out from the behind the rock very, very carefully.
          There was still someone there, but luckily, they were turned away, talking to someone just outside the entrance. The human looked like someone his age though. At least, that’s what Gamzee thought. Gamzee hadn’t ever seen any little humans, just the big ones on boats that would crash during storms. Sometimes it was his dad that crashed the boats though. Most of the time.
          The little human had pretty light brown skin, a warm and bright tone like that of bronze, nothing like anything Gamzee or his friends had. The human also had dark soft, fluffy looking hair. Gamzee did find it weird that it’s hair only grew down the middle of it’s head though. Was all human hair like that? He could barely remember the smaller details of what the big humans looked like.
          It’s clothing was colorful and Gamzee could see it’s feet and tiny little human toes through the weird flat things with straps it wore. Those were shoes right? He thought shoes cover human's toes though. How weird! Those things were just so weird! The feet or the flat strapped shoes? Both.

          “Wow!” Gamzee thought. “They look like Dad when he goes on land!

          Subconsciously, Gamzee started drifting closer to the shore, wanting to get a closer look. He had never seen as actual human close before.
          He edged away from the rock some more, but then the human turned in his direction.
          Gamzee scurried backwards, splashing than he should have. He wasn’t too loud though.

          “Tavros, are you coming?” Said a voice from around the shore.

          Gamzee frowned. Was that the human?

          “Yeah, just give me a minute; I’ll be right there.” Said another.

          Wait, was that the human? Where there two? Had he missed one? Which one was which? What if that one had seen him?

          Gamzee couldn’t help it. He tried peeking, just one more time.
          There was another human, up by the entrance, a smaller one with skin much, much darker than the other. However,it looked like this one had blue hair? That wasn’t so odd to him has the fact that this human appeared to have a face on it’s head where it’s hair was, and some sort of animal ears on the top of it's head. How strange. This human was very weird indeed. Was it even human?
          The human he had been watching earlier was leaving the cave now, following after this blue one, much to Gamzee’s sadness. He didn’t even get to figure out which voice belonged to that one.

          But, Gamzee looked a little closer at it now.

          It was hard to really make it out, since the human wasn’t fully facing him, but… Gamzee could’ve sworn that the human had his necklace, or at least a very similar looking one.
          The human looked back one last time though, making Gamzee jump back once more as well.
          But he’d caught a glimpse, a shimmer of gold on purple, and it was.

          The human had his necklace.

 

***

 

          Gamzee waited it out for a minute before checking. He hadn't heard anyone come back into the cave, perhaps they were all gone, though Gamzee really did want to see more of them.

          No one was there now, except for him.

          Oh, and Equius.

          “Sir.”

          Gamzee yelped and flailed pathetically back under water. Equius merely sighed and dove down after him.

          “Please sir, we really need to go back. With all respect, what you just pulled was very dangerous.”

          Gamzee shook his head and stopped his flailing. “Aw, I know bro, but I just had to see ‘em.”

          “Sir, it is incredibly dangerous to be near humans.”

          “I don’t know bro, they looked really small. Like, smaller than the ones we all seen.”

          “What do you mean?”

          “I think these were baby humans. Or maybe more looking like our age, I suppose."

          “Oh.” Equius responded flatly. He thought for a moment, ever so curious, though in denial of the fact. “Really?”

          “Yeah, bro.” Gamzee nodded. "I mean, I think. How do humans age again? How itty bitty is the babies?”

         Equius frowned. "I regret to inform you that I am unaware of the answer to your inquiry. But I believe humans age similarly to us for the first few years of their lives."

          "Well, I guess it don't really matter all to much." Gamzee waved off the topic. “And anyway, there was this really little pretty one and this even littler one with a face on it’s head. I mean, like, not where one's face is all supposed to be getting it's business on, you know? I mean, it had one of those faces too, but there was another face and it was on it's head. The top part.”

          Equius made a face of concern mixed with disgust and a tinge of horror. “There was… a face… on it’s head?”

          “Yeah, it was kinda weird, I gotta say.”

          “Interesting.” Equius stated plainly. Slowly gaining interest in this, despite his better judgment.

          That was all that the two exchanged for a while. Gamzee and Equius floated in the water, both deep in thought about the curious creatures they’d seen.

          “I want to see them again.” Gamzee said. “They looked like what yours and my dad look like when they all go up onto the land.”

          “Yes, that is indeed a similarity we share with humans." Equius began, monologuing self indulgently. "Those of us that can shape shift from aquatic adapted forms to terrene ones can reach a fully humanoid form with enough energy and strength.”

          Gamzee’s eyes widened in realization. He stopped in his track and pulled Equius to a halt with him.

          “Wait, wait, wait, bro. What? I thought that just some kind of special thing our Dads could do.”

          Equius raised an eyebrow. “Sir... did you... are you really unaware of our ability to do such a thing?"

          Gamzee shook his head, leaving Equius with many questions. Had his father really never taught him this? It made sense that he would not go about teaching Gamzee how to achieve a full transform yet, but to not tell him it was even possible? Not to cast judgment on the higher class, but that seemed like a poor education choice to Equius.

          "No, that is something that even we could do. But, the adults tend to have more energy and experience-”

          “Teach me how.” Gamzee interrupted.

          Equius gaped at the Gamzee.

          “Teach you how?” He said. “Sir, I am afraid that I have only done it one time-”

          “You have?!” Gamzee exclaimed. “Oh, come on bro, why don’t you just get to teaching me already?”

          Gamzee gasped and grabbed Equius’ hand. “Oh bro, heck, Let’s do it right now.”

          Equius grimaced in discomfort and pulled his hand away gently. “Sir, I really don’t think now is the best time to-”

          “Come on, bro. Just this once? If you teach me a bit, I’ll just go and figure it all out on myself I guess, but it’d be downright miraculous if you did me this favor all of once, bro.”

          Equius did not respond to Gamzee’s clamoring, half out of indecision and half out of the fear of being interrupted again.

          “Sir. I don’t think-”

          “Oh, yeah, and one of them had my necklace.”

          Equius stopped.

          “They had what?”

          “My necklace bro. The one I lost?”

          That was it for Equius. The situation was at a point where he’d either be breaking the rules set by one noble in order to assist another, or he’d be following the rules and leading Gamzee into trouble with his father. Which happened enough, but never at Equius' hands. 

          Either way, he’d be simultaneously obeying and disobeying those above him.

          However, Equius realized that Gamzee had not commanded him to teach, so, Equius would not be disobeying by saying no, but Equius knew that Gamzee wanted it, he was just pathetic enough of a noble to not demand it.

          In the end, Equius knew he’d have to follow the rules of the domain if Gamzee did not make him do otherwise. Honestly, Equius just wanted this necklace issue resolved. He knew it could easily derail into a situation where Equius was made a part of the blame for not monitoring Gamzee enough and losing such a valuable relic could mean big punishment. He shuddered to think of it.

          But, if what Gamzee was requesting was made into a demand...

          Immediately, Equius quickly went into fixing this problem so it left him with only one option.

         "This is so idiotic." He thought before he spoke, “Sir. This is order, am I correct?”

          “Uh…” Gamzee drawled out. “No. Not really. I mean, it’d be all awesome if you said yes and all, but, I ain’t forcing you none.”

          “So, do you or do you not want me to show you.”

          “Uh… yes. I do.”

          “Alright. Fine. Then, please. Exercise your rights as a noble.”

          “And how are you meaning that?”

          “Command me to do so.”

          Gamzee gave Equius a weird, almost exasperated expression. “Bro, why are always like this? Fine. I command you to teach how to be all walky walky like my Dad can do and what’s all that goes with it, I guess.”

          Equius sighed in relief. Excellent; that was an excellent fix to the problem.

          “Yes, your majesty, as you command.”

          Gamzee cringed. “Ew, no bro, why are you getting along with ‘your majesty’ again? Just use my name or sir if that’s what you’re feeling, but, you don’t need to go that far.”

          “I apologize.” Equius bowed. “It was instinctual.”

          “Equius, my serving bro, these are the times where you got me getting concerns for your head, man.” Gamzee turned away and looked down at the tunnel leading out of the cave. Maybe it was time to go. 

          “Actually, how about we get to doing that later. You’re probably right thinking about heading out now so we don’t get what’s all troublesome with our dads” 

          “Yes.” Equius agreed, getting himself out of his little fix. “I am in full concurance with you, sir.”

          Gamzee nodded, grabbed Equius by the wrist and started dragging him along the tunnel. 

          “Come one, bro. Let’s get you home to rest your crazy head commands for a second or so.” He told Equius.

          The two merfolk left the cave, setting out with plans of returning and hopefully, finding a way to get on land.

          This time, going a little further in than just the cave and the beach.

 

 

Chapter Text

          “Wait, what the hell do you mean you saw something?”

          “I mean what I mean, Karkat! Tavros and I saw a water horse!” Nepeta was back at it again, arguing her truth against Karkat’s skepticism.

          “Uh, it's actually not a water horse, Nepeta.” Tavros intervened. “It was  probably a, uh, maybe a kelpie? Or I guess it could've been a unicorn, you know, with the seafoam and all…”

          Karkat groaned and shook his head. “I don't care what it's called, I'm not believing this!” He hastily and agressively tapped the camera he’d been handed. “And this isn't any decent proof at all!”

         "Hey, don't break my stuff." Sollux spat.

         "Shut up, Sollux." Karkat growled, disregarding him soon thereafter.

         Meanwhile, Nepeta looked heartbroken and lost.

          “But it’s not even blurry…” She whined.

          “I don't care!” Karkat tossed the camera onto Aradia’s bed. “I won't believe this bullshit until I see it for real!”

          Nepeta gasped, but was cut off by Karkat before she could get a word out.

          “Oh, shut it with the gasping, it's just a word.” He grumbled, crossing his arms over his crest with a huff.

          “Hey, I don't want my grandma on our backs for your abnormally loud cussing, Karkat.” Aradia scolded as she was gathering the bowls from dinner that were scattered around the room. “Besides, if you don't believe us, that's fine. But there was definitely something there. Even Sollux thinks so, right?”

          Sollux looked up from his spot on the floor, where he was setting up a movie on his laptop.

          “Yeah, KK. I don't know what, but, even I agree that there's something there. I wouldn't jump to the childish conclusions these guys are, but, still, it's pretty weird.”

          Karkat facepalmed himself. Hard. He was done.

          “You're all hopeless sacks of idiodicy, filled to the brim with the collective juices of whatever brains you maybe once might have had, melted down and compiled into mush while you were all tripping out at the beach after chugging gallons upon gallons of sea water, getting high and or drunk as a major consequence.”

          Rant complete, Karkat rolled up into his sleeping bag and shoved his face in his pillow.

          “Goodnight!” He mumbled as he yanked the zipper to block himself out from the rest of the world.

          Nepeta huffed in response and whacked him hard with her stuffed cat. He yelped out a particularly strong cuss.

          “Jerk…” She muttered, then shouting, "And a potty-mouth, too!"

          After a moment of silence from everyone, Karkat included, Sollux chuckled and whispered.

          “Hey, let's watch his favorite rom-com without him, heheh, he'll be so pissed!”

          “Language!” Nepeta aggressively whispered, almost seeming serious about it this time.

          Sollux responded with a grin and a, “No.”

         Nepeta merely smiled with a sigh.

         However, they all jolted when Aradia alerted them with the creak of the bedroom door.

          “Okay, I'm gonna go dump these in the sink, and then we can start the movie. I'm assuming you all already took your showers and brushed your teeth, yes?”

         "No, I'm too tired to shower. Jeez, AA, you sound like my mom." Sollux sneered endearingly. "Even if I don't have one. AA. AA, will you be my mom?"

         "Aradia is the only one of us qualified fur motherhood." Nepeta noted in concurrence with Sollux. "Aradia, purr-lease be my second mom!"

         "Sure," She happily responded. "You're all grounded."

         Both Sollux and Nepeta moaned sadly. "Aww, man..."

         "None of you showered, so you're all being punished."

         “Well, I took a bath, actually.” Tavros said.

         “Same thing, Tavros.” Sollux retorted.

         “Oh.” Tavros went quiet.

         Aradia, however, grinned brightly. “Well, that's good, Tavros! You're the only one not grounded!"

          "Aww, what?!" Sollux exclaimed "You're playing favorites, mom!"

          "Shut up, Sollux." Aradia smiled. "Now everyone actually get yourself set up for bed, I'll be right back. Any drinks you want me to grab you guys?”

          There was a series of head shaking and Aradia concluded she was good to go.

          After she returned from the kitchen, Aradia tiptoed over the pile of sleeping bags, futons, blankets, and pillows to reach her bed.

          “Hey, AA.” Sollux called to her, a smirk on his face. She had a very sudden moment of recollection upon which she pondered over all the times he didn't say that while smirking. There were not many.

          “Yes, Sollux?” She asked, settling herself down next to him for the time being.

          With a snicker, he placed the laptop on a stool and turned it to face them all. The screen showed the DVD menu of a romantic comedy movie; one of Karkat’s favorites.

          “What do you think?”

          "Oh my gosh, do you even like that movie?” Aradia chuckled.

          “No, but I like imagining the fit he'll throw when he wakes up and sees the end credits.”

          “You're mean, Paw-llux.” Nepeta rolled onto her belly, bunching up her blankets. She giggled mischievously. “But, it might be just a little bit funny.”

          “I don't know…” Tavros spoke, barely tilting his head toward Sollux. “I think it might not be very funny, especially for him.”

          “That's the point, Tavros.” Sollux said. “I'm doing it.”

          He clicked the menu and started the movie, one last chuckle escaping him as he lowered back down onto his messy nest of blankets.

“It's alright, Tavros.” Aradia whispered down at him. She stepped around him and plopped onto her bed, leaning over to look down at him as he was laying right next to the side of her bed. “The laptop will go black after the movie ends, anyway."

          “Yeah.” Tavros nodded. “Hey, Aradia?”

          “Yeah?”

          “Do you, uhm…” he faltered, looking to the side to avoid eye contact.

          “Yes, Tavros?”

         "Do you... you do believe when I say that Nepeta and I really did see something, right? I mean, I know you wouldn't lie to me, even if it was just to make me feel better, but you think it might be... something... unusual, right?"

          "Tavros, I have no idea what this thing is, but what I do know is that it's something unusual, like you said, and it's something that's going to lead us to adventure." She grinned almost evilly. "And it's gonna be fantastic, Tavros."

          "Yeah, you know what. You're right! Well, probably? Maybe? No, you're probably right." Tavros yawned. "That'll be fun..."

          "We can't go on any adventures if your tired though, Tavros." She reached down and nestled his hair affectionately. "Go to sleep, it's getting late, and I know you don't want to stay up watching this romantic comedy."

          Tavros held his sleepy eyes open just enough to look at Aradia and flash a tired, but impish grin. "Oh yeah? And, uh, what if I want to watch this considerably terrible movie of the romantic comedy? I might even sneak out and grab some soda just to stay awake for it, you know, because I just gotta see this movie. 10 out of 10, Aradia. Haha, it's 10 out of 10." He starting mumbling halfway through his quippy rant, eyes drooping at a heavier gravity level of fatigue.

          Aradia chuckled and nudged his head a little to make him turn and lay on the pillow awkwardly. "Goodnight, Tavros."

          He squirmed in his sleeping bag and yawned, smacking his lips before turning away from her and snuggling into his blanket.

          "Good night, Aradia.” He mumbled, already half asleep.

          After smiling at him one last time, and chuckling at his admitably cute, drowsy yawn, Aradia got cozy in her own bed.

          “Good night, Tavros.”

 

***

 

          “Wait, what do you mean, now?"

          “I mean what I mean, bro, come on up to my place and let's get to training.” Gamzee was whispering to Equius as they swam through the corridor leading to Gamzee's chambers. “Just go tell your dad you're going out for some midnight practice. It's ain't exactly a lie, brother.”

          “No, it is just that I merely thought our plan had been to return to the palace and for us to initiate our training procedures at a later appointed time period. Such as tomorrow or the following day.”

          Gamzee gave a nervous little smile. “Yeah, I know what we all agreed on, but, I was thinking that maybe, we could just go and get all leggy with this nonsense.”

          Equius stopped mid-fin stroke and stared at Gamzee.

          “Leggy?”

          “Yeah, brother. Like the lil’ kicky kicks those land dwellers get all walky with. Them legs. Leggy.”

          Equius was silent.

          “Sir. Please. Let's never use that term again.”

          “But it sounds all cute like…”

          “Fine, then I humbly beseech you not use it in my presence.”

          “A’ight bro.”

          Equius began swimming again, going along with Gamzee until they reached his chamber door.

          “So, no training, I guess?” 

          “No, sir. We can begin tomorrow.” And with that, Equius pulled the door up to allow Gamzee access.

          The door was like that of a garage, only it was built of thick stone, a mixture from crumbled pieces of shells and coral mixed with other ocean rocks. It was then shaped and then coated with a dye that colored the stone. The Makara emblem was intricately carved into the center, the remaining surface with depictions of the majestic sea creature the family had descended from.

          “Okay, Eq, bro.” Gamzee looked up at him as he held the door, though it was unnecessary, as the door would stay in place. “Guess I'll see you in the morning.”

          “I find that circumstance to be unlikely. You are undoubtedly tired from the events of today, I imagine you will be sleeping in until noon.”

          Gamzee chuckled and waved as he went into his room. “Nah, bro, I'll be up bright and early! For our leggy training.”

          Equius rolled his eyes. “Goodnight, sir.”

          “Goodnight, my brother.”

          With their goodbyes exchanged, Equius drifted down to floor, pulling the door shut.
          He took a moment to breath. He took in all the suddenness of the day, including the promise he'd taken up.
          It was bad enough he'd helped his sire go out onto land without prior permission, but now he'd promised to help his sire go even further onto land, this time with a complete, humanoid terrene form.

          “How will I even manage that?” Equius mumbled under his breath.

          He knew how, but the truth was, he knew the process varied from family to family. He had not realized this when he spoke to Gamzee, but now Equius was concerned. He could not simply break his promise to his master. That was not a choice. But what was?

          Equius stopped once more, and looked down through the webbed, coral floor.

          The hallway below held the doorways to the library.

          Equius drifted backwards in contemplation.

          “Yes.” He thought. “That should do excellently.”

          He quickly swam to the end of the hall and down the tunnel to the lower corridor.
          The library doors were heavy and connected to a pulley that was activated by a mechanism at the bottom. Equius scoffed as he flipped the pulley’s switch. He was easily capable of lifting this himself, but doing so would damage the mechanism. As it was, Equius respected the hand that crafted it, however, so he did no such thing.
          When the door was open, Equius swam in and instantly went along the shelves, searching for the correct section.
          He was used to the shelves the held the instruction guides and informational texts, and he hoped that one on aquatic and terrene forms would be there.
          After ten minutes of searching, Equius had gathered a table full of texts both directly and vaguely associated on the topic.
          It should be noted that aquatic libraries do not partake in the usage of paper and ink. Of course, any reasonable person would have instantly assumed so.
          No, the texts that Equius had gathered were a special type of way that merfolk record their information. That is to say, it is literally a type of recording.
          Using the shells of large clams, merfolk archive their records by imbuing the shells with a type of magic that echoes back the words spoken into it when opened. The words are incorporated into vibration wavelengths in the water that is understandable as a second type of language.
          The reader does not read so much as feel the text, or the beat, as would be a more appropriate way of putting it.
          It is almost like a form of one-way echolocation.
          However, for as long as we could discuss the amazing way merfolk create strange, Braille-echolocation audio books, I believe it is safe to assume the reader, this time in reference to you and not some theoretical merfolk library goer, would rather get back to the story.
          Now, Equius had already laid out a structured course of action for tackling this study session, and he planned to execute it immediately.
          He was challenged to not only teach Gamzee how to fully transform into his humanoid terrene form, but he was going to do even better than the Grand High Blood himself.

          Not that he would ever dare to say that out loud.

          In fact, just then, Equius decided that he had never even dared to think such a thing.

          With that out of the way, he dove straight into the books, or clam shells, and got to work.

Chapter Text

            That night, Gamzee had slept in until noon.

            Much to Equius' expectancy.

            Equius himself had spent nearly all the night and early morning preparing for their training session the next day. Leaving out all the details on humanoid terrene transformation, such a reason was easily explainable to Equius’ father and he didn’t even bat an eye at the effort Equius put out to please his young master.
            Not that Gamzee would see it for the true art of dedication and loyalty that it is, which irritated Equius to no end. That and Gamzee’s habit to never wake up unless one were to physically yank him up from his sleep chamber.

            Even then, it was debatable if he’d actually come to.

            Gamzee’s sleeping chamber was best described as a large, raised, hollowed out boulder with a crystal-like window in the side; the natural design of the window swirled like that of an ammonoidea shell.
            The chamber would be considered relatively big, by human standards, but it was more akin to a queen sized bed for merfolk. The chambers contained nothing exceptionally amazing; the water was exactly the same as that outside of it and there was no furniture inside or anything. The smoothed, polished walls were to prevent scratches that might be gained whilst drifting unconsciously inside.
            No, the conditions where exactly the same as the outside, for the only purpose of these chambers was to keep sleepy merfolk from drifting off to who knows where in their sleep. The only downside being that one would occasionally flex their tail too hard in their sleep and send themselves flying into the their chamber walls, harshly waking them with a good blow to the skull.
            Such was the life of merfolk.
            Under most circumstances, to open the lid at the top of another’s chamber would be considered rude. However, the many knocks on the transparent window in the side of the had done nothing for Equius, thus far.
            Or Gamzee.
            With a sigh, Equius swam to the top and removed the lid.

            “Sir. Sir.” He asked the sleeping Gamzee. “Sir, I am afraid that you must wake up now, sir.”

            No response.
            Equius frowned.

            “Sir Gamzee, if you want to begin your training, I advise you wake up this very instant.”

            “Honestly…” Equius thought to himself. “I shouldn’t have even waited this long.

            Despite his adherence to the rules of decency, Equius grabbed Gamzee gently by one of his horns and pulled him up out of his sleep chamber and into the space of his room.
            Equius then nudged Gamzee through the water, getting enough pressure going to send Gamzee rolling through the water of his own living quarters.
            For some reason, the rolling about always seemed to wake Gamzee up, and by the time he slowed to a stop on the other side of the room, Gamzee was stretching and yawning groggily.
            He rested mid-float for a moment before turning around, already assuming it’d be Equius swimming towards him.

            “Heeeeeeeeeey, Equius…”

            Equius took the time to do a proper greeting bow, though his irritation shone through the strictness of the motion ever so slightly.

            “Good morning, your highness. It is time for us to depart for your training.”

            Gamzee gave a lazy grin and leaned back, drifting as he stretched out his arms.

            “Sure thing, brother!” He drew out the words. “Can’t wait to get all our freaky transformation games on.”

            “Yes, of course.” Equius gently pulled Gamzee by the elbow and lead him out of the room. He spoke in just a low enough voice as to not attract attention from any unseen ears. “We will be moving outside for this engagement. I have selected a quiet and inconspicuous cavern for us to practice in.”

            “Sounds good to me, bro.”

 

***

 

            The two boys promptly made their way to leave the castle grounds, only stopping by the kitchen to pack food for the day. They both wanted to be out earlier than everyone else, so they skipped the general breakfast and decided a generous lunch would do good enough while they were out.
            They left, and with both lesson clam shell and lunch in hand, Equius and Gamzee finally arrived at their new training location.
            The cavern was far away from the castle grounds and from any nearby settlement and, as far as Equius knew, it was not near any dwellings out on their lonesome. Along with this, it went deep back and had a slim entrance, not one easily peeked through by a passing glance. It was nice and dark, and overall, very well hidden.
            Equius placed everything down and turned to Gamzee, who had drifted down to rest on the floor.

            “So what now, brother?”

            Equius pulled out his lesson clam shell and opened it up, quickly perusing it’s vibrations to read up on the plan. Nodding his head in affirmation, he shut the clam and returned it to the floor.

            “Now we will begin with a foreword.” He supposed it was only fair that he warn Gamzee after his revelation the other night. “I, in fact, do know how to go about complete humanoid terrene transformation. However, it occurred to me that the process varies slightly from family to family and that I am only 100% an expert of my own clan’s methods. That being said, I have done extensive research and have come to as best a conclusion as possible in learning the Makara transformative process.”

            Equius took in a breathe as he continued his speech.

            “We will begin by practicing your simple terrene transformations. I know that you struggle with it and that it consumes a lot of your energy. In order for you to be able to reach a fully humanoid state, your endurance needs to be stronger. You will transform in and out of your terrene and aquatic form until you can do so in a minute.”

            Gamzee looked taken aback. “Whoa, man, that sounds like… heh, that sounds like quite the workout.”

            “Indeed it is.” Equius stated plainly.

            “You know…” Gamzee twirled his hair on his index finger. “Maybe we can do two minutes instead?”

            “No.” Equius insisted, taking these moment to recognize himself as a teacher in this instant and not a servant. “One minute. No more.”

            Pouting, Gamzee lowered himself all the way to the cave’s floor and laid his face flat to the ground. “Fine…”

            “Excellent.” Equius went back to his lecture. “You may begin now. I can practice with you if you would like.”

            With a sigh, Gamzee pushed himself off the ground and put his hands on his hips with a smile. “That sounds like one wonderful deal, Equius!”

            After a moment more of coaxing, the two boys both began taking turns in their transformations, each critiquing the other, even if Gamzee’s critiques were entirely compliments of admiration and awe.
            But Equius was strict on his master and pupil, correcting both his posture and the manner in which he engaged the process.

            “You stiffen your spine too much, you need to relax and let your weight settle in hips.” He advised.

            “Don’t bend in on yourself, stretch outwards, it gives your body more room to adjust.” He informed.

            “You need to focus on one step at a time, don’t focus on transforming your feet until you’ve worked your tail to be fully split and the remnants pushed back.” He commanded.

            By the very end of the day’s session, Equius could safely say that they had taken Gamzee’s five minute transformation sequence down to a three minute one. This was an impressive feat, for sure. Equius had not expected Gamzee to respond so well to their training, rather, he had figured the young master would not take the lesson serious enough to make any improvement. Usually, Gamzee would take up interest in something, only to immediately ignore it once it proved to be too much effort.
            Equius was not certain if this was entirely because Gamzee was lazy or just far too distractible.
            But this time, things were different. Even when he was being a little sluggish or inattentive, Gamzee very clearly showed a desire to improve. It was as if he had found something that he really and truly wanted to accomplish.
            Equius hadn’t seen that before in his young master.

            “You did an excellent job today, your highness.” He said to Gamzee. “I am impressed by the improvement you’ve shown.”

            Gamzee flushed lightly. “Aw, thanks, it ain’t nothing, bro.”

            “On the contrary, it is quite something. I really am proud, as you might put it.” Equius said, trying to really cement Gamzee’s success. “I would not be surprised if by tomorrow, you reached our goal of one minute.”

            “Jeez,” Gamzee mumbled as he reached for the food basket. “You really think so?”

            “Yes.” Equius reached over took out his food after Gamzee claimed his own. “And perhaps you will master a completely humanoid terrene form soon enough.”

            Taking Equius by surprise, Gamzee lifted his head and beamed brightly at Equius, a light of excitement shimmering in his eyes.

            “You really think so?!” Bits of food were spat from Gamzee’s mouth and deposited into the water around them as he shouted with his mouth very, very full.
            Equius grimaced at the sight. “Er, yes. I do.”

            Gamzee closed his eyes with a look of complete euphoria spread across his face. “Man, Equius, that’s some motherf**king miraculous news, brother!”

            “Gamzee!” Equius hissed loudly at him.

            Both of them immediately silenced themselves.

            Equius sighed and soft in a soft voice. “Language. Please.”

            Gamzee chuckled softly. “Heheh… alright, bro. I’m keep my lips all sewn shut at those rude words what I up and say now and then.”

            “Good.” Equius huffed out. “I apologize for my transgressions then.”

            “Transgressions? Bro, you were just fixing up my word use and all, what’s so bad there?”

            “I should not be correcting you in such a manner, but, I do think… that it may be in your best interest, as a future member of the royal court to refrain from such language.”

            “Eq, as much as I’m all up for taking part in your crazy censors, I could’ve sworn that we up and did this talk in the past times.”

            “Yes, yes, I know.” Equius sighed yet again. “You are not nearly the fountain of… profanity that is your father.”

            “Heh, yeah.”

            The two of them paused for several seconds before Gamzee chuckled and reached again to pull out another snack from the basket.

            “Well, guess we better finish up all this sick, delicious nutritional yummies.” Gamzee said.

            With his unsteady grip and clumsy fingers, Gamzee took to ripping open a small clam to get at it’s delicious core. The silence was broken by the sharp crack of the shell as it snapped at the hinge. Following it was the gross sound of slurping as Gamzee sucked up the meat and juice inside the clam.

            Hmm. As uncouth as it was, Equius admitted to himself that a fresh clam would be incredibly filling right now.

            Following suite, Equius pulled one out and cracked it easily. He put the shell to his lips and gracefully sipped it out. 

            “Yes, we shall head back after this.” Equius said after finishing off his clam, reaching for another.

            Quite delicious indeed.

Chapter Text

            “So, you’re telling me that you actually all saw something in the sea caves?”

            “Well, I wouldn’t say I really saw anything, but, I did see the pictures Tavros took.” Sollux responded. “I wouldn’t say it’s a magic sea horse, but, it’s something.”

            “Hmm…” Kanaya nodded. “That is interesting. And you cannot determine what it might be from the photographs?”

            “Nope.” Sollux shook his head. “And, yeah, the pictures are blurry, but they aren’t, like, crazy blurry.. It’s not like I can’t see anything in it.”

            “This is stupid, Kanaya, don’t fall for their blurry photograph Bigfoot bullshit, you’re better than this.” Karkat grumbled.

            “Maybe I could take a look?” Kanaya asked, ignoring Karkat’s complaint.

            “Yeah, sure.” Sollux replied.

            Karkat threw back his head in exasperation. “Oh my God…”

            Sollux turned to Tavros, who was sitting to his left, just across Aradia. “Hey, Tav, give Kanaya your camera.”

            Tavros quirked his head quizzically at Sollux. “Uhm, isn’t it, your camera?”

            Sollux sighed and twirled his hands around to emphasize his irritation. “Well, no duh, but you’re the one holding it right now, so just give it to her, geez.”

            “Yeah, Tavros, just give her the camera already.” Karkat mimicked Sollux, sarcastically, lisp and all.

            “Okay, sorry.” Tavros appologized.

            Tavros leaned over and reached for the bag sitting by the side of the booth. He pulled it up into his lap and manuvered his hands around the bag to open it and recover the camera. Having little space between the table, the bag, and himself, Tavros struggled with it for a bit before finally retrieving and placing the camera down onto the table. He gingerly shut the bag and dropped it back to the floor.

            “Uh, here you go, Kanaya.” Tavros quickly pulled up the menu and scrolled down to the images in question before he slid the device over to Kanaya. “It’s number 45-57, uhm, on the camera roll, that is.”

            With a quick nod of her head, Kanaya took the camera. “Thank you, Tavros.” She said.

            With the exception of the occasional exhagerrated sigh from karkat, no one talked while Kanaya examined each picture taken. She hummed and mumbled under her breath as she made notes of her findings.
            While she did so, the waiter came by with a tray of the Hawaiian Frost cups they all had ordered.

            “Hey, kids!” The waiter boy said eagerly. “You guys are so quiet today, something the matter?”

            “My friends are idiots.” Said Karkat. Nepeta promptly elbowed him.

            “No, we’re just being super serious right now.” Nepeta said, uncharacteristically calm and composed. But she quickly dropped her placid composure and gave a mischievous grin to the waiter boy. “We’re on a mission, Isaiah. Purr-ivate investigations and secret services and other cool stuff.” She wiggled her fingers at him and smirked.

            “Well,” Aradia smiled at Nepeta, then to Isaiah. “I’m not sure what would be mission-like about it, but we are in a pretty serious mode, I guess.”

            “Of course it is!” Nepeta cheered.

            “Yes, of course it is, Nepeta. Cool stuff for a cool cat.” He patted her on the head. “So, is this a school project?” Isaiah asked while he slid each kid’s order over to them.

            “No, it’s just for stupidity’s sake.” Karkat quickly blurt out.

            “No,” Tavros said. “It’s just for fun.”

            “Don’t listen, Isaiah, it’s just stupid.” Said Karkat angrily.

            Isaiah gave Tavros a confused smirk and chuckled a bit at that statement. “It’s just for fun, but it’s also serious?”

            “Sometimes it be like that, Isaiah.” Sollux interjected.

            “Oh my God, why is nobody listening to me?” Karkat shouted. Unsurprisingly, he was paid no attention.

            “Shut up, Karkat. Now, Isaiah,” Sollux reached a hand out towards Isaiah’s tray of soft serve heaven-in-a-cup. “Pass me that strawberry vanilla whatsit before I lose it.”

            “Here ya go bud.” He slid the soft serve over in Sollux’s direction.”

            Sollux caught it in his hand and took up the spoon, taking a scoop and holding it up for all to see. He nodded his head towards Isaiah. “Thanks, man.” And he promptly ate the icy spoonful.

            “I would smash that in your face if you weren’t literally as far away from me as you can be in this stupid booth.”

            Isaiah finished passing out the kids treats. He passed Aradia her island coffee frost and Tavros his strawberry banana frost. He then moved to the left side of the booth and slid Kanaya her lychee frost, Karkat his chocolate coconut frost, and placed down Nepeta’s honeydew melon frost in front of her. All the kids exchanged their thanks, except for Kanaya, who was still busy scrolling through the photos.

            Isaiah leaned with a hand on his hip as he raised a brow at Kanaya. “Hey, Kanaya, whatcha’ doing there?”

            “Analyzing.” She said slowly and plainly. Without looking, she reached out for her frost and took up a small scoopful. “Thank you, Isaiah.”

            “Heh, you’re welcome, lil’ guys.” Isaiah sighed and took an energized breath. “Welp! Guess I better get back to the counter. It’s early now, but you know how Saturday’s get.” He turned away and strolled back to this position. “Good luck on your mission, kids!”

            “Bye!” Nepeta called out.

            “See ya, Isaiah.” Tavros said with a proper indoor voice. The others vocalized a similar goodbye.

            The kids all ate up their soft serves, Nepeta and Sollux shoveling theirs down after challenging each other to an eating contest. One which, Nepeta easily won. Sollux got a brain freeze not even ten seconds in, which left him incapacitated for the remainder of the contest. Aradia and Tavros ate theirs at a decent pace, enjoying the display put on by their friends. Karkat simply called Sollux out on being an idiot, claiming that he should’ve known he would lose. Thus, a comeback contest was issued between the two of them.
            Suddenly, Kanaya spoke up.

            “Okay. I am done.”

            “Geez, I was wondering when you were gonna finish.” Sollux hissed, holding his head as he lay on the table. “It was just twelve fricking photos.”

            “I wanted to be thorough.” She argued. She looked back down the camera. “It seems pretty clear to me that there is definitely something there. But I am not sure I could safely pin down any suspected identity for the creatures shown here in these photographs.”

            “So, in other words, you have contributed nothing to this mystery.” Sollux mumbled into the table.

            “Oh hush now, did you seriously think I could just magically figure this out by looking at the exact same photos as you all did? I’m not even a marine biologist, for goodness’ sakes.”

            “How can you possible contribute more to this hot mess?” Karkat pointed out.

            “You too, Karkat. Hush.” Kanaya pat him on the shoulder, receiving a mumble in response.

            Sollux lifted his head just enough to make eye contact with her. “Sorry, Kanaya, it’s just my head hurts now… ugh.” He fell back to the table.

            Tavros decided to cut off their bickering. “It’s okay Kanaya, I know you just wanted to see them. The photographs, I mean. Well, maybe you wanted to see the actual creatures that are in the photographs as well, but, that’s not what I think we were talking about just now.”

            “Shut up, Tav. My head hurts.” Sollux groaned.

            “How about we all shut up, Sollux?” A remark, yet again, from Karkat.

            “Or…” Kanaya started up, bringing everyone to attention. “We could investigate the matter in a manner that is more productive than just going down to the beach to try and catch these creatures on film.”

            “What should we do then, Kanaya?” Nepeta perked up.

            “Well, we could first check in at the library. First, go through the local marine life and compare the photographs to our findings. Then, if we are unsuccessful, might I suggest we research the local legends?”

            Karkat went about his usually whining, but Sollux spoke up over him. “And you really think that whatever we saw might be some mythical creature?”

            “Well,” Kanaya spoke with a smile, “Is it really all too out of the range of possibilities that you might have found proof of an old legend? Not all folk tales are tall tales, Sollux. A good many have a chance to be real with no stretch of the imagination.”

            “But, that’s just dumb.” Sollux frowned. “It’s not actually a mermaid horse or whatever that other thing was. There’s no way it’s some fairy tale thing come to life. 'Cause that's dumb."

            “I am simply giving you advise.” Kanaya placed the camera back on the table. “There’s not much else you can do, anyways. All you have are two eye witnesses, whose accounts are shaky at best, and some blurry photos.”

            Though they both tried to hide it, Tavros and Nepeta’s disappointment was evident across their faces.

            “Sorry about the, uh, shaky accounts. I got there as fast as I could.” Tavros muttered.

            “Tavros, no one’s upset at you.” Aradia comforted him. “Really, it’s not a big deal.”

            “It’s not even a little deal, Ta-furr-os!” Nepeta squeaked, quickly regaining her bright demenour. “We’ll have the best accounts next time!”

            “Do you guys seriously plan on going out there again?” Karkat asked.

            “Yes.” Aradia stated. Tavros looked at her in surprise.

            “Oh, really?” He said, “That would really be great, Aradia. Thank you.” He traced circles over the table top. “That was actually… I wanted to ask that last night, actually, but, I got caught up in another, different question of an alternate, yet related, subject, so... thank you for that response to a not-really-asked request. Not that you knew that that would be a response, of course, but, still.”

            Aradia smiled at him with empathy. “Of course, Tavros, it’s no problem.”

            “On the contrary,” Sollux said, “The problem is that you could not have worded that in a more convoluted manner.”

            “Sorry.” Tavros casually said. He wasn’t that concerned by it. He felt good right now. “So, do you guys want to go to the library after this?” He asked.

            “I’m down for it.” Aradia answered.

            “I’ll come!” Nepeta shouted, gaining a hush from Kanaya. “Oh, sorry.” Nepeta replied. “I’ll come!” She whispered excitedly.

            “I’m afraid I have a project to work on this weekend, and I already have a schedule in place for today involving it. I don’t really have any time to go out this weekend.” Kanaya said.

            “That’s okay.” Tavros assured her. “Karkat, I assume you won’t come.”

            Karka nodded with a huff. Tavros nodded back.

            “Okay then,” He said, “How about you, Sollux?”

            Sollux groggily lifted himself up, looking a little better now that his headache was wearing off. “I don’t know, Tavros. My head feels better, but I kind of promised my uncles I’d actually do my homework this weekend.”

            “You get it done so fast though!” Karkat mockingly lauded. “That’s such a weak excuse.”

            “Yeah, well, it’s not an excuse. It’s a reason.” Sollux corrected. “And what’s it to you how fast I finish, I got in trouble for skipping it last weekend.”

            “What loser has weekend homework in 5th grade?”

            “A loser in G.A.T.E..” Sollux smirked at Karkat, waggling his eyebrows in a bout of pure ego.

            “So, it's just me, Aradia, and Nepeta then?” Tavros asked.

            “Yeah.”

            “Okay, so, I guess we should get going then?”

            “I'm done here, so I'm leaving.” Karkat said, pushing Nepeta to nudge her out of the way. “You just stay with them, okay?”

            “Got it, grouchy pants.” Nepeta snickered as she stood up to allow Karkat an exit.

            Karkat slipped out of the booth and sighed, “Come on Kanaya, better get out while Nepeta’s moved.”

            “Right.” She slipped out and wiped down her skirt of any wrinkles. “Sollux, would you like us to walk you home?”

            “Yeah, yeah, I’m coming…” He looked up at the realization that he was at the back of the booth. With a sigh, he said, “Well, I guess everyone needs to get up now.”

            “Yeah.” Tavros and Aradia mumbled as the scoot out of the booth to let Sollux out.

            With all six of them out of the booth, they gathered up their bags and, with a final goodbye to the employees, tossed out their garbage on their way out of the restaurant.
            Tavros, Aradia, and Nepeta headed out to the library, while Sollux, Karkat, and Kanaya left for their respective houses.
            Sollux had let Tavros hold onto his camera for the time being, saying that he’d email everyone HD photos on Monday when Tavros returned it. Well, he said he’d make keep them as HD as possible. It seemed like they had a whole group involved in this now. Well, it could be debated if Karkat was actually ‘involved’, but they definitely had five confirmed ‘investigators’ as both Nepeta and Aradia put it.

            “Looks like we’ve really got the ball rolling now, don’t we?” Nepeta chirped as she skipped down the sidewalk.

            “Yeah, I didn’t even know this would grow so big!” Aradia cheered. “This is very exciting! I can’t wait to find out what all this is about!” She turned to Tavros. “So, do you really think it’s a legend come to life?”

            Tavros was shaken from his thoughts and replied, “Well, I mean, that would be pretty cool, but, I know that that is incredibly unlikely, as cool as it would be for it to be a real life fairy tale sea creature. So, it probably is just some sort of rarely spotted wildlife. Most likely." He quickly added on.

            “Well, alright.” Aradia faced forward with a smile. “Regardless of what we all want it to be, I think we’ll find something to help us out here.” She pointed out the library up ahead, Nepeta already pouncing up the steps.

            Aradia took Tavros’ hand and tugged on it gently. “Come on! Nepeta’s getting ahead!”

            Tavros yelped as Aradia ran off after Nepeta. He stumbled over his feet while following her, until he tripped and landed on her when they reached the library entrance.

            "Ah, sorry…” He appologized.

            “No problem!” Aradia laughed and pushed herself up. She offered a hand to Tavros. “Get up, she’s gonna beat us!”

            “Already did!” Called out Nepeta who was bouncing and waving her hands from the front entrance doorway. She ran off inside and the door shut behind her.
            Tavros smiled and took Aradia’s hand and she helped pull him up to his feet. They both followed after Nepeta and entered the library.

 

***

 

            The library wasn’t immensely huge. In fact, it was rather small. It was comprised mostly of adult novels, with a decent section of children’s books. Unfortunately, the young adult section was the smallest of all, which had proved a disappointment to Tavros and his friends on a multitude of times.

            This time however, the library did not fail to provide.

            Tavros was going down a row of town history books, looking for anything documenting the local myths, legends, and other assorted folk tales. Aradia was flipping through newspaper catalogues and Nepeta was checking the online databases.
            When consulting the marine life textbooks and articles, they had come out empty handed. Not a single fauna matched up completely with the photographs; either the size would be off, the color incorrect, or the shape just flat out different. One would think there would be at least fish in the sea with a similar tail, at least.

            But no, there was truly nothing that they could safely say was correct.

            So onto cryptid hunting it was.

            Stepping onto a stool, Tavros reached up to pull out a couple of books that seemed promising. And a couple was all there was on the subject. There was the tiniest section of local myths, just half a shelf’s worth, and Tavros was going to take it for all it had.
            In hindsight, this sort of topic was most likely to be covered in the departments Aradia and Nepeta were checking out. After all, their town was a small one, so not many books would be published about it in particular.
            This most definitely appeared to be the case, as none of the books Tavros had pulled out focused on the tiny town of Golden Sand. But, they all were about the general area around town, and, seeing as to how they were located near the local history section, they had to have some information on the town’s local folk tales.
            He spread them out on the table they’d staked out and began going through the indexes, searching for usefuls content.

The books he found were:

 

  • Legends of Hawaii: Oahu Island
  • Stories of Oahu: Local Folk Tales and Myths
  • Hidden Myths of Hawaii’s Islands
  • The Collected Stories of Oahu Myths and Legends
  • Lesser Known Hawaiian Fairy Tales

 

            He had also gathered books on Hawaii as a whole, but these five focused on his specific island, which was probably best for finding a folk tale that wasn’t well known. All the big books on Hawaiian legends would just focus on the big legends that tourists were interested in. They were the fanservice of folk tale books. ‘What a disgrace’, Tavros might have thought. He takes his myths and legends very seriously.
            He opened up the first book, and flipped to the page listed. This section focused more on Golden Sand’s area. There were listing upon listing of legends, but, unfortunately, none seemed to match up with the sighted creatures. Not even the legends about shapeshifters seemed to match, though Tavros supposed it was truly impossible for humans to have seen and recorded all the forms of a shapeshifter.

            Still, he continued on.

            He moved on through the next book. This one had more niche, town to town stories and urban legends, but still, nothing quite right.

            He moved on to the third book. No dice. There was nothing good here.

            The fourth book. Still nothing.

            The fifth book? Nothing there either.

            With a deep sigh, Tavros slumped in his chair, closing the last book and tossing it with the others. He considered going through the folk lore fanservice books, but, he felt that would be an effort made in vain.
            He took a moment to contemplate his next move, but before he could take any action, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

            “Hey, Tavros.” A voice whispered. It was Aradia. “Hey, Tavros, check this out.”

            She moved from behind him and sat down in the chair to his right. She laid out a newspaper article, an issue from May 1987. A local newspaper, too.

            “Look at this picture.” She pointed out a blurry photo featured in the front page. For the era, the photo would have been considered high definition, but it wasn’t nearly up to snuff with today’s definition of high definition. Still, it could be made out that the photo detailed a shot of the local beach at sunset, and out in the distance, a large blue tail curved out from the water.
            Tavros brought the article closer to his eyes, as though the image would become more clear. He would agree, though, that the noticeable details of the tail where eeriely similar to that of the one they’d caught on camera. The design of the scales, the shape of the fin, and the color seemed like a close match. But what was more was that he could’ve sworn that there was something wrapped around it’s tail. It looked unnatural, like some sort of tail bracelet that would be worn on it. If it was, there was a notable charm on the band. The charm’s design could be described as an arrow headed cross.
            Tavros looked down at his necklace. Another piece of jewelry, another strange symbol

            “This is...” Tavros softly whispered, “Aradia, this is what we saw, isn’t it?”

            “Maybe.” She said. “It looks the same. Can you pull up the photograph?”

            “Ah, yes. Here.”

            He pulled out the camera and brought up the photograph from the menu. Aradia compared the two images. Indeed, though the angles were different, even through the blurriness, one could safely identify these as matching.

            “This was what you guys recognized as a water horse, correct?”

            “Well, maybe a type of water horse. Nepeta was calling it a sea horse, of course, but really, it looked like it could maybe have been a kelpie or an ichthyocentaur, mythologically speaking. Though, Nepeta saw it running, and ichthyocentaurs aren’t usually described as having hind legs, whereas kelpies do. But, also, kelpies don’t really have human body parts, like an ichthyocentaur, which does.”

            “Okay, so, it’s one of those.”

            “Yeah, maybe, I guess, but…” Tavros elaborated, “Neither of those belong to Hawaiian folk lore. So, don’t you think it’s unlikely that they would show up here?”

            “Tavros." Aradia stated bluntly. "You know just as much as I do that merre human accounts of mythological creatures can never be trusted. What do we know about these mystical beings?”

            “Uh, but, aren’t we kind of trusting human records right now? How else would we know any of this?”

            “You know what I mean. I mean that a kelpie or an something-something centaur could live somewhere outside of their legend’s origins.”

            “So, there could be ichthyocentaurs in Hawaii?” Tavros questioned with uncertainty.

            “Yeah!”  Aradia exclaimed.

            “Uh, we need to be quiet.” Tavros motioned for her to lower her voice.

            “Right, but, yeah. Tavros.” Aradia smiled eagerly at him, a thirst for adventure shining in her eyes. “Maybe there are. Who knows?”

            Tavros nodded, doubt flooding his thoughts. As much as he’d like to believe that, there was a part of him that was encouraging that he not. That wasn’t very fun. Or adventurous. But he wanted to have fun and adventure.

            “So, what is the article actually about? Was this a hoax?” He asked, bringing the attention back to the newspaper.

            “Well, it was never proven, so of course, the go to answer for the photograph was that it was a fake. But, that doesn’t really prove that it’s a hoax.” Aradia said. “Simple answer is, nobody knows.”

            Aradia tapped on the camera screen. “But maybe they might soon.”

            “Are we… going to go back for more pictures?”

            Aradia stood up from her chair, pushing it back with enough force to nearly knock it over. “Oh yes, absolutely. We’ll take video too. We’ll set up a full paparazzi and get shot after shot of it. The whole shebang.”

            “How do we know we’ll see it again?”

            “Oh,” Aradia grinned a smile, so mischievous it would put anyone on edge. “They came twice, they have to come for a third time. It’s just how these things go. Patterns are patterns, all creatures follow patterns.” She kneeled down to Tavros’ level and wrapped an arm around his shoulder. “And if not, then oh well, we tried. Tavros, we’re going to do this, trust me.”

            It was evident that Tavros was beginning to feel pumped up. Aradia’s mini-speech was exciting and he wanted nothing more than to be apart of it. Who cares about the specifics of mythological facts. He was really starting to think there was a chance this was real!

            “You know what,” He said. A smile spread across his face, mischievous enough to match up perfectly with Aradia. “Yeah. I think we are!”

            This was a moment of pure connection between them. One of those moments where two souls were so aligned in one purpose, you’d almost say they were a hive mind. The energy and excitement in the air was utterly tangible!

            Even when a third party was suddenly dropped in the equation.

            “Think we are what?” Nepeta popped in between the two of them. “What are we? Besides grrr-eat detectives!"

            Tavros and Aradia moved apart to make room for Nepeta.

            “Oh, we were just talking about our plans for next time.” Aradia explained.

            “Next time? Next time we purr-use the beach?” Nepeta purred.

            “Yup.”

            “Oh, purr-fect!” Nepeta rubbed her hands together in a catlike motion. “Because I found something about the sea horsey!”

            “Oh, you did?” Tavros asked.

            “Yes!” Nepeta slapped down a printed web page. Aradia and Tavros leaned over to read it.

            “Uhm… Nepeta…” Tavros pouted. “This is just... “

            “Nepeta.” Aradia looked her dead in the eyes. “This is the Lock Ness Monster.”

            “Yup!” She smiled, beaming proudly. “That is certainly what I found!” Suddenly, her face shrinked into a small expression of realization. “Oh, was that…”

            She lowered down into a crouch, she pull gingerly on the ears of her hat, mimicking a passive cat. “Was that not what you meant by ‘water horse’?”

            Tavros and Aradia shared a smile and they both put their arms around Nepeta.

            “Oh, Nepeta.” Aradia lovingly spoke. “Oh poor, sweet, dear, precious Nepeta.”

 

***

 

            “Aradia.” Tavros suddenly spoke.

            Aradia turned to face him. It was late in the day and they were steadily approaching his house to drop him off. Nepeta had already split off to head for her house.

            “Yes, Tavros?”

            “Uhm, I had meant to bring this up in the library, but we kind of got caught up in the moment.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Though, I suppose this topic would technically have fit in with the moment, but, regardless, it never got brought up.”

            He lifted his necklace so as to show it off to Aradia. “So, we found this in the tidal pools by the beach, not to far from the sea cave where we saw those creatures.”

            “Yes?”

            Tavros traced over the golden symbol with his fingers. “Well, I was thinking. In the library, that newspaper article… In that photograph, the tail had some sort of, band on it? It was like, a bracelet, but, for a tail, I guess. At least, that’s what it looked like.”

            He motioned at his necklace. “But, it had some sort of symbol on it. I guess what I’m saying is, it didn’t look natural. It looked man-made, like jewelry.”

            “I think I remember something like that.” Aradia pulled out the copy of the newspaper that she had printed at the library.

            “Hmm… I can see what you mean.” She looked at him. “But, the symbol here isn’t the same as the one on your necklace. Assuming you’re trying to make a connection between the two.”

            “Well, no, they aren’t the same, but, they both share similarities, such as, uh, being jewelry, having symbols, and, also both being tied to the ocean.” Tavros turned over the necklace to examine the outside of the shell. “I guess what I’m thinking is…”

            “You saw two creatures.” She finished for him, taking a deep breath.

            Tavros made direct eye contact with Aradia.

            “Yes.” He stated.

            “So, you think, just like how the one in the newspaper had a tail bracelet, the other one might own this necklace?”

            “That is exactly what I was thinking, yeah.”

            They both paused, considering the implications of the proposed scenario.

            “Tavros.” Aradia broke the silence. “We may very well be deeper in this than we thought.”

            “Yeah, I don’t think we’re just running into these creatures on accident.” Tavros tilted his necklace, the gold glinting in the sunlight. “They are probably looking for this.”

            Aradia smirked slyly as a switch went off so clearly in her mind.

            “We have a lure, Tavros.” her smirk turned into a devilish grin. “Looks like we’re no longer passive participates in this, are we?”

Chapter Text

            As soon as they got home, Tavros and Aradia logged online to message the others about their findings at the library. They explained their theory about Tavros’ necklace and it’s potential relation to the sea creatures they had been seeing.
            To her surprise, convincing Sollux to go allow with the mythological creature idea was much easier than Aradia had expected. He said it was because he was bored and wanted something to do, even if it made no sense and was sort of ridiculous. Aradia argued that he was genuinely interested in the possibility. Of course, he disagreed.
            What he did agree on, however, was that all their research and evidence had to be gathered together into a catalogue.
            Aradia scanned in her copy of the newspaper article, and Sollux instructed Tavros on uploading the pictures from the camera. Using the photographs and mythological descriptions as references, Nepeta added in her artistic renderings of what the ichthyocentaur might look like. The bright crayon drawings provided a rather playful air to the whole thing.
            Aradia insisted Sollux store it with the other documents.

            Everything was gathered in a shared online folder by Sollux, who, with a great deal of disbelief, proceeded to explain to everyone how to use online document sharing services. He could not believe at how out of date his friends were with technology. It was pitiful.
            Once everything was in place, they all choose to work out a plan.
            Research could only take them so far, and considering how lackluster the results were at the library, the kids decided a investigation trip was only option for their next step.

 

-- twinArmaggedeons [TA] 2:02 HOURS AGO opened public bulletin board “2tupiid faiiry tale bull2hiit.” --

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

-- TA 2:02 HOURS AGO opened memo on board “2tuiid faiiry tale bullshiit” --

TA: 2o, who ii2 goiing two help me iin2tall the 2ecuriity 2y2tem?

-- adiosToreador [AT] 2:02 HOURS AGO responded to memo. --
AT: uH,,, sECURITY SYSTEM?
TA: yeah, 2ecuriity 2y2tem.
TA: ii’m 2ure ii could fiigure out 2ome way two 2et up video cameras iin and around the sea cave.
TA: that way we can catch any 2u2piiciiou2 actiiviity goiing on over there.
TA: and maybe prove that thii2 ju2t a couple of dolphiin2 2tiil.

-- arsenicCatnip [AC] 2:02 HOURS AGO responded to memo. --
AC: XOO < i dont understand how you still think this is just some plain old normal animals!
AC: >:33 < this is clearly something else, so furr-get about all that baby dolphin nonsense!
TA: ii’m not even re2pondiing to that.

-- apoccalypseArisen [AA] 2:02 HOURS AGO responded to memo. --
AA: i am n0t entirely certain that drilling cameras into public pr0perty is legal
TA: who 2aiid ii wa2 goiing two driill anythiing?
AT: aRE YOU JUST GOING TO USE TRIPODS?
TA: well that’2 one way two do iit.
TA: actually, ii was goiing two liiterally do that yes.
AT: }:I
TA: you 2top that.
AC: :?? < will they stay up? wont they fall down?
TA: iit’2 not liike iit get2 2uper wiindy iin there, they’ll be fiine.
AA: what if s0me0ne else finds it and disturbs the setup
TA: gah, you guy2, the plan ii2 2tiil iin the work2!
AT: wELL, iF ANYONE CAN FIGURE OUT a, uH, sECURITY SYSTEM IN a SEA CAVE, iTS PROBABLY sOLLUX,
AA: that is true
AC: :33 < agr33d!
TA: thank you for gettiing off my a22.
TA: ii’ll have iit set up before the end of the week.
AC: :33 < purr-haps we should go back to the beach next furr-iday?
TA: yeah, 2ure.
AA: s0unds g00d
AT: oKAY,
AC: X33 < yay!
AC: :33 < oh! ta-furr-os!
AT: yES?
AC: :33 < lets use your necklace as bait!
AT: ,,,wHAT?
AT: wHY?
AT: i MEAN, i AM PRETTY SURE i KNOW WHY, bUT, wHY DO WE, hAVE, tO DO THAT?
AC: ;33 < to lure in the water horse, of course!!!
AT: uH, aCTUALLY, iT IS PROBABLY AN ICHTHYOCENTAUR, oR, mAYBE a KELPIE, bUT, mOST LIKELY, iT IS THE FORMER,
AT: aND, i THINK THE NECKLACE ACTUALLY, dOESNT BELONG TO THE ICHTHYOCENTAUR, aND THAT, mAYBE IT BELONGS TO, tHE OTHER ONE,
AT: tHE OTHER SEA CREATURE, i MEAN,
TA: wouldn’t iit 2erve the 2ame purpo2e no matter whiich one own2 iit?
AT: i GUESS,
AC: :33 < then lets do it!
AT: oH, bUT, i WOULD ACTUALLY, rATHER NOT,
AC: :(( < but tavros…
AA: i think he d0esnt want t0 l0se it nepeta
AT: uH, yEAH, tHAT IS DEFINITELY a FACT THAT IS TRUE,
AC: :(( < aw i guess so…
AT: sORRY, nEPETA,
AC: :OO < oh no, dont be! Im not furr-ious or anything!
TA: ii 2ure hope not. fury would be a major overreactiion.
AC: :33 < hey sollux, shut up
AC: :33 < i have a job to do here
TA: and that ii2?
AC: :33 < making puns, so shut it, purr-ease
AA: yes s0llux purr-ease shut it
AT: hAHA, yEAH, sOLLUX, jUST SHUT IT, pURR-EASE,
AT: }:D
TA: ii’m out. 

-- twinArmaggedon [TA] has ceased pestering “2tupiid faiiry tale bull2hiit" memo -- 

AC: X33c < h33h33h33!!!
AA: well then
AT: sO, uH, i GUESS THATS IT FOR THE, uH, sECURITY SYSTEM?
AA: n0 he is pr0bably w0rking 0n it right n0w
AA: we can keep talking but i am n0t sure what else there is t0 say 0n 0ur current t0pic
AC: :33 < i wish there was something to dooo right nooow! DD:
AA: y0u c0uld g0 catch bugs
AC: :DD < !!!
AC: X33 < yeah!!!
AC: :33 < thats a grrr-eat idea aradia!
AA: y0ure welc0me ^_^
AC: :33 < im going to go now! Goodbye!
AT: bYE, nEPETA!
AA: g00dbye nepeta ^_^ 

-- arsenicCatnip [AC] has ceased pestering “2tupiid faiiry tale bull2hiit" memo --

AT: wELL, i GUESS WE SHOULD PROBABLY GO TOO, nOW,
AA: its alm0st dinner here s0 that might be best
AT: yEAH, sAME THING FOR ME,
AT: uH, aRADIA?
AA: yes
AT: i, uH,
AT: iM NOT REALLY SURE, wHAT WE ARE SUPPOSED TO DO, fROM HERE,
AA: what d0 y0u mean
AT: wELL, i MEAN, yEAH, sOLLUX IS GOING TO SET UP THE CAMERAS, aND WERE GOING TO GO BACK TO THE CAVE, pROBABLY REGULARLY, fOR MAX LIKLINESS OF ENCOUNTERS, bUT, iM NOT ENTIRELY SURE STILL, tHAT, uH,
AA: y0ure n0t sure that any 0f this will actually w0rk
AT: uH, yEAH, kIND OF,
AT: tHAT, aND, i AM STARTING TO DOUBT THE, uH,
AT: pURPOSE BEHIND ALL OF THIS,
AT: i KNOW THATS ITS JUST FOR FUN, bUT, i DONT WANT TO, uH, wEAR YOU GUYS OUT WITH ALL MY USUAL SILLY FAIRY TALE SHENANIGANS,
AA: tavr0s we even managed t0 wrangle s0llux int0 being interested in this
AA: i d0nt think any0ne is getting w0rn 0ut anytime s00n
AT: iF YOU SAY SO,
AA: i d0 0u0
AT: hA, wELL, oKAY, }:)
AT: i GUESS WE SHOULD BOTH GO EAT DINNER NOW,
AA: yes ill talk t0 y0u later tavr0s
AT: gOODBYE!
AA: bye ^_^ 

-- adiosToreador [AT] ceased pestering “2tupiid faiiry tale bull2hiit” memo --

-- appocalypseArisen [AA] ceased pestering “2tupiid faiiry tale bull2hiit” memo --

-- twinArmageddons [TA] began pestering “2tupiid faiiry tale bull2hiit” memo --

-- twinArmageddons [TA] closed memo. --

***

 

            A smash sounded out as some large, plastic device fell onto the rocky floor.

            “Shit!” Sollux yelled.

            He had been tripping over all these wires and tripods for the past ten minutes. This was a choice he was beginning to severely regret.

            “This is a sucky idea, why did I even think it was good, frick. I hate this.”

            “Maybe I should’ve asked for help.” He thought, “No, then there’d be four of us tripping like idiots.”

            Adjusting the fallen camera back onto its stand, Sollux made  certain it was screwed in tight. He backed up carefully away from the tangle of wires on the ground and examined his current setup.
            It definitely wasn’t the prettiest looking amalgamation of cameras and motion sensors, but at least it was functional.

            Or perhaps it is best to say it was mostly functional.

            Decently functional.

            Sollux hummed to himself in thought.

            Maybe it was just, ‘adequate.’

            “Yeah, no, this really does suck.” He sighed and moved back to the forest of tripods. “This needs to be over here more.”

            He picked up one with a video camera attached and he looped the motion sensor cord around his arm and dragged it all further away from the rest to get a different angle.

            He smoothed the cord along the edge of the cave wall. “Now we can see more of this side, I guess.”

            After doing so test wiggles to assess its balance, Sollux left to grab another pair of tripods and move their cameras over to other varied locations around the cave. The more angles he get, the better.
            It was easier said than done though, as he had to keep the equipment far enough from the water to avoid getting sprayed, but close enough to actual snap a decent photo. The sea caves waves weren’t usually particularly strong; the water was calming swaying most of the time. But every once in awhile, a storm would whip up and some decent waves would wind up inside the cave and splash up the sides onto the shore.
            Having finally settled on a final setup that he (mostly) liked, Sollux finished it off by securing the engine to the farthest point away from the edge. This engine would keep the cameras up for two days before it needed to be charged. Unfortunately, beggars can’t be choosers, and to Sollux’s absolute shock, there were, surprisingly, no outlets to be found in the rocky, half-submerged sea cave.

            “Okay, this is it. A somewhat decent security system.” He frowned. “Why do I even call this pathetic gathering of cords that?”

            He walked over to the engine and brought the machine to life, it’s power in turn awaking the many other devices in the room. Sollux looked over the general vicinity for one last check before leaving, and he found the one of the camera’s was turned just a little too close to the wall. Suddenly dissatisfied with previously satisfying position, he went over to fix it, temporarily shutting off the motion sensor on it so that he wasn’t blinded by a flash when he got in front of the camera
            The camera he had faced towards the right side of the cave was currently covering about half of the back wall in its view. Sollux readjusted the angle so that the photo would catch anything on that side or the back of the small, rocky island in the center of the cave.

            “That’s perfect.” He happily said to himself, almost feeling prideful in the whole endeavor.

            “Okay now,” Ducking below the camera and motion sensor, Sollux held up the switch to activate the sensor again. “Let’s turn you on again.”

            And he flicked the switch with a click.

            And a flash immediately went off just above his head.

            “Aah!” He yelled out, the light just hitting the corner of his eyes. “Shit!”

            Sollux fell backwards and hit his shoulder hard on the rough ground below. A dull pressure struck the side of his neck as he landed, causing him to cough out a choked gasp of air. He groaned in pain; everything become around him became disoriented.
            His head was spinning and shook up, but he recognized that his head itself had not hit any surface. He was caught right at the edge, his head dangling above the water. He took a moment to appreciate the fact that he had not had his skull smashed against the rocks, but could not ignore the aching pain his neck had received from the whiplash of landing on the edge.
            He wanted to get up, roll over or something, but it was too much effort. He experimentally wiggled his body.

            “At least I’m not paralyzed.” He mentally muttered to himself, “That would really make coming down here a bitch.”

            He still didn’t feel like making any effort to move. Eventually, however, as the blood started rushing his head, Sollux did decide on pulling himself away from the edge to prevent himself from getting a worse headache, or passing out even.
            Laying down for a few minutes, Sollux contented himself with watching the grace with which the water curved and refracted the sunlight that rose up through it from the small hole at the base of the back wall.

            It was while regarding this gentle light that he had a revelation about his incident with a much stronger one.

            “Wait… if I was out of the way of the sensor… then why did the camera flash?”

Chapter Text

            Gamzee shut the door to his room after a long day a practice and eating dinner. That really was all that happened today, wasn’t it?
            With a flip of his tail, Gamzee closed his eyes and flung himself backwards into the center of his room, swirling in loop-de-loops and letting loose air bubbles as he did.
            He laughed to himself and drifted slowly down to the floor, his fluffy hair splaying out around him. He felt proud of what he and Equius had managed today! Even though Equius could already perform a full terene transformation,  Gamzee still saw it as a group achievement!
            But more importantly, it was step in the right direction for getting to meet those humans!
            Gamzee opened his eyes suddenly and checked himself.

            “Yeah, Gamzee bro, I just wanna get that pretty little shell off that one cute human is all.”

            Wait.

            Darn it.

            Actually, Gamzee supposed that wasn’t necessarily a bad thought he had just then. It’s not like the description of the particular human who has his necklace was a big deal.

            “All it is is a simple little fact of truth, you know how that truth shit gets kicked. Truth is what is and all that sweet miracle truth just so happened to be up and applying itself to a land brother.” Gamzee argued with himself. “Sister? Best frond? Heh, that’s funny. They can’t be up on the best frond zone yet; you gotta hug a fellow before you can say they’re a best frond, heheh.”

            While Gamzee pondered and daydreamed over his current object of attention (the necklace, of course), there was a knock at his door. Gamzee could’ve sworn he’d already said goodnight to Equius. Maybe he just wanted to check in with Gamzee. When they were really little, Equius wouldn’t let Gamzee go anywhere alone, not even to his own bedchamber. But with a little persistent insistence, Gamzee had convinced Equius of only following him mostly everywhere. Equius used to check in and ask how he was doing whenever he didn’t escort Gamzee to his room that night, but he hadn’t done that in a while.

            “Aww, is my brother coming to give me a good-night hug?” Gamzee swam over to the door. “You haven’t gone and done that since we was just a little pair of  flippers.”

            Gamzee opened the door with the expectation of see blue finned friend, but, that was not the case.

            “Oh. Hey there, sister.”

            It was the messenger girl. That was all.

            “Forgive me the intrusion, young Master Gamzee, but your father instructed me to deliver you this message.” The girl paused as if awaiting permission to continue.

            “Okay. Get your message on, sis.”

            “Of course.” She bowed politely. “His Highness, The Grand Highblood, Kurloz Makara, has required you come forth to offer your greetings to the visitors from the Highest Tide’s Court during the morning processions tomorrow. It has also by command that you are to keep the young Prince and Princess company for whenever and however long they want. Dress in your formal and meet in the throne room for instruction and insight to the day’s planned activities.”

            The messenger finished with a curtsy of her tail; a swish from the right to the left.

            “That will be, your highness.”

            “Oh, yeah yeah, sweet stuff, sis.” Gamzee smiled lazily, appearing unfazed by a single word she had just spoken. “Tell the old man I’ll be up in that throne room soon as the tide comes in and all that other morning going ons.”

            Very much used to this sort of reaction from Gamzee, the messenger girl slipped a smile. She was most definitely not going to tell his old man that he’d be ‘up in that throne room.’

            “Yes, your highness.”

            “Now you go and have a mighty grand night now, my fishister.”

            With exchanged farewells completed, Gamzee shut the door as the messenger girl left down the corridor.
            Gamzee turned to briefly think over what she had actually said.

            Oh.

            Well that threw a wrench in their training regimen.

 

***

 

            Equius had only just finished his nightly routine when he heard a pop at the door.

            “A delivery fish?” He thought, “At this hour? It must be urgent.”

            Then again, Equius also supposed it could just as realistically be a goodnight message from Gamzee. Ever since Equius had stopped escorting him to his bedroom, Gamzee had started sending goodnight fish to make Equius feel more comfortable about not walking Gamzee to bed. The thing is, he would do this whenever, whether or not Equius had actually been an escort that night.
            Still, it was only in best interest that Equius go and retrieve the delivery fish. Its importance was currently unknown to him, thus, it could be a dire call for help or action.
            Leaving the brush drifting in the water, Equis swam from his bathroom out to his bedroom and to the front door.
            He looked up to the upper right of the door to see a small purple clownfish with an opaque bubble held in it’s little mouth had come through the delivery slot. True to its training, once it had seen him, the clownfish swam down to met Equius and spat the bubble out onto his open palm.

            “I bid you off, now.” Equius ordered the fish, giving it a gentle little pat on the head with the tip of his finger.

            The clownfish gurgled and turned back to the delivery slot, which had regrown it’s bubble-like covering. With a pop, the bubble layer burst as the fish exited and headed back to its owner.
            It’s owner being Gamzee, as could obviously be inferred by both the fish’s breed and coloring.
            Equius held the opaque bubble gently at his fingertips and squeezed them together, popping the bubble. The murky liquid that had covered the bubble blended with the surrounding water and a wave of vibrations emerged, reciting the message they contained.

            “Hey, Equius, bro.” Equius read from the vibrations, “Just saying we’ve got a neat little playdate with our royal sister and brother from highest tides later. This cool deal probably will up and get at our plans for some training and the like we get going at. Just letting a friend now what’s up; signed Gamzee Makara.”

            Equius inwardly sighed at how Gamzee had actually recorded ‘signed Gamzee Makara’ in the message bubble.
            Outwardly, however, Equius sighed because the message was very vague and imprecise. Clearly, the overall meaning was that the Prince and Princess of the Ampora and Piexes families of the Highest Tide were planning a visit to The Grand Highblood’s castle. Equius just wished that Gamzee had included more specific details such as time, location, attire, schedule, and the like.

            Oh. Right. Schedule; that was exactly the problem.

            The visit would interfere with Equius’ training regimen he’d put together. In the past, the Highest Court’s visits lasted for at least a week, and as the heirs of the second and first tidal noble family respectively, Equius and Gamzee were required to attend to the heirs of the royal families’ thrones and provide them with all the company and entertainment they desired.
            Not that that was difficult, they were all friends and enjoyed each others company, for the most part. Sure, Equius found himself constantly flustered at how sweet the princess was to him, when ideally, she should take advantage of his position of servitude towards her, but other than that, they were on good terms.
            Unless you took the prince into consideration. He was a somewhat proper prince, in Equius’ mind; domineering and commanding and fully enveloped in his position of power. Equius often found himself immensely pleased to see at least one member of royalty and nobility taking their task as heir seriously, even if his highness did rub Equius the wrong way at times. The prince would get into petty squabbles with the princess often, which was unacceptable as she was of a higher status than him, however, she would swiftly silence him in her own way; remarkable on her part.

            Realizing that his thoughts were wondering off, Equius snapped himself back to the issue: scheduling.

            The visit was sure to be long, and with potentially not even a minute to spare, Equius knew that he would have little time to train Gamzee during that period. A consistent training regimen was important and key to perfecting something as difficult as terenne transformation. All of Gamzee’s achievements would be set back severely.

            On another hand, there was an even more bothersome issue at hand.

            Usually, the families of the Highest Tide visited just before a major ceremony. Considering that the year was rounding off and coming to a close, this ceremony was likely to be a celebration for the princess’ Rites of Maturity.

            At the Rites of Maturity, the princess would undergo tasks to prove herself worthy of becoming empress. If she was successful, she would finally be crowned as The True Heiress to the head throne of the kingdom, and each royal and noble family below her would present their crest to her to be blessed with her energy. This would gift the family with a long and glorious family tree for so long as the heiress, and soon to be empress, lived.

            There was always two crests for each family: one for the elder, the one who currently rules their family, and one for the chosen descendant, the one who will take the position of elder upon their own elder’s passing.

            Equius came to this realization in muted horror.

            Should the princess pass her Rites of Maturity, Gamzee would be without his crest to present before her; without his necklace.

            Equius shook his head at the prospect of just how much would go haywire in that scenario; The Grand Highblood would be furious at not only Gamzee, but Equius as well.
            The Zahhak family had long been involved in the affairs of the Makaras, serving as their right hand men and personal servants.
            Equius would bring shame upon his family for failing his part in monitoring Gamzee. He’d surely receive at least the majority of the blame for the Makara family going without the heiress’ blessing; his entire bloodline would be ostracized and severed from the court. He’d be at fault for his family’s loss of their nobility, their title.

            With a shudder, Equius dropped as his building tension, floating down to the ground. He tried desperately to compose himself. He wasn't visibly tearing up, but behind his stony face, Equius felt sick. He could feel a burning sensation in his head so strong he wanted to just bury himself in ice.

            The simple prospect of going on land to find a necklace suddenly become one of incredible importance; a manner of life or death.

            This was not good at all.

Chapter Text

          The next morning, Equius was up as early as possible, not resting a second longer than was required. His immediate destination was to Gamzee’s chamber.

          “Gamzee.” Equius bluntly spoke, pulling Gamzee out from his sleeping chamber without hesitation. “ Get up.”

          There was a distinct lack of decorum in the way he spoke; more direct than he usually was with his higher ups. His words were tight and swift, but they still retained an eerie calmness.
          A very clear sign that Equius was, indeed, having a panic attack.

          “Sire, we need to get ready for the day.” He shook Gamzee by his shoulder. “Wake up.”

          Gamzee startled awake, his lazy visage of sleep immediately snapping away, a look of surprise replacing it.

          “Whoa, bro, chill, what’s going on?”

          “Get dressed. We meet with the Highest Tide today. Or do you not remember?” Equius had moved over to Gamzee’s closet and was already going through his formal wear.

          He pulled up a variety of decorative silk wraps into his arms, each stolen from trade ships traveling through The Grand Highblood’s tides. Equius examined a particularly lovely waist sash with a shimmer to it’s threads. He remembered that this article was looted during one Equius’ first ship raids with his father. He may very well have found it on his very first expedition, though he did not remember exactly. The sash was an exquisite shade of eminence, both in terms of the color’s name and the article’s characteristic. Thin, golden lines were sewn in and out of the fabric, creating swirled patterns like that of a creeping cloud of mist.
          Equius handed the sash to Gamzee, who had swam over to rest at his side.

          “Put this on.” A brief moment of realization struck Equius. “Your Highness.” He corrected, inwardly cringing. Had he been this impudent all this time? How horribly embarrassing.

          “Sure thing, bro.” Gamzee appeared to have not noticed the lack of properness from Equius just prior. “Just gonna wrap this pretty thing ‘round my tummy, like so~” Gamzee sung.

          “Oh, no, sire…” Equius put a hand to Gamzee’s as he fiddled with the fully opened sash. “You want to wear it folded, like so.”

          Equius took the sash from Gamzee’s hands and took the ends of the cloth. He pinched the corners together with his thumb and index finger before promptly flicked the sash up and around, leaving it half the height as before.
          Without lifting his head to met Gamzee’s eyes, Equius drifted down so he could reach around Gamzee’s waist.

          “Though you only wear them at formal invitations,” He spoke, focus on the silk he was managing around Gamzee’s midsection. “You have worn a waist sash before. Surely you know how to do so properly.” He positioned the cloth and folded it over itself so it appeared to cross over at the front.

          “Heh, yeah, I suppose I all up and should, brother, but you know how those things get all shaken up in my head space. Can’t even get my remember on at what I want to remember.”

          “I see.” Equius pulled a tight knot at the front right side of Gamzee’s stomach, securing the sash in place. “Well, perhaps we need to add proper clothing etiquette to our training regimen as well.”

          Gamzee stared down at Equius, who still appeared to be unsatisfied with the way the sash rested on Gamzee. “Is there even such a thing as clothing etiquette?”

          “Sure there is.” Equius muttered, finally swimming back up, having deduced that the sash was finally settled just right.

          “Oh.” Gamzee had expected a more elaborate response from his servant friend. “Alright.”

          Equius did not reply to Gamzee’s short speaking. He simply went right back to the closet, returning with detailed metal bracers and thin, decorative pauldrons, aligned with jewels and pearls and connected by a crisscrossing of delicate golden chains. Coral boxes housing gaudy earrings, majestic piercings, and stunning tail pieces; Equius brought out each and every shining piece he could find for Gamzee to wear.
          Gamzee frowned as he looked over it all. Equius was far too intense in his… everything. He was always serious about preparing for encounters with the higher ups, but he almost seemed panicked today, and Gamzee picked up on it.

          “Equius.” Gamzee said, placing his hand on the silently frantic ichthyocentaur’s head. “What’s got you all jittering about, my bro? You’re acting like we’re on some time limit or something.”

          Equius met Gamzee’s gaze for a moment before he went back to organizing Gamzee’s outfit. “Technically, we do have to be there at certain time, so, we are limited in the length of our preparations.” Equius paused, his hand frozen over Gamzee’s earlobe as he finished securing the pearl earring.

          “Equius?”

          Equius sighed. “I suppose it is safe to say I am concerned, not for this morning’s processions, but for what may happen beyond.”

          Gamzee waited for him to explain further, but it appeared that he would say no more on the matter without prompting. Gamzee thought on what exactly Equius meant.

          “You talking about our training plans? Don’t worry bro, I’ll be sure to do my homework, heheh. I won’t fall too far behind, now.”

          Equius shook his head gently. He didn’t really want to think about the future consequences right now, so he willingly let Gamzee believe that was his only concern.

          “We’ll find holes in the schedule to slip in training.” He spoke up, going back to dressing Gamzee. “We need to retrieve your necklace as soon as possible.”

          “Yeah,” Gamzee scoffed. “Don’t want the old man getting up on my case with that.”

          “Or on my case, for that matter.” Equius thought to himself.

          With a few adjustments and additions here and there Gamzee’s attire, Equius swam backwards to look over the ensemble, deeming it suitable for the occasion.

          “Do I look pretty, Equius?” Gamzee grinned a dumb, happy grin, positively radiating positivity.

          Equius nodded curtly. “Very pretty, Your Highness. Now,” Equius rushed over and took Gamzee by the arm. “We best be off.”

          He lead Gamzee down the hall and through the corridors leading to the throne room. Servants and maids moved about, each one rushing to tidy up even the smallest smudge on the branching coral that separated each level of the castle halls. Looking down and up through the coral, one could see even more staff members at work in the lower and upper floors.
          The two boys had no trouble making way through, however, as the servants all made way for them.
          When they came to the throne room entry hall, Equius stopped just short of 10 feet from the door. Gamzee swam on, not noticing his escort did not follow.
          He moved up and gave a warm greeting to the guards at the door before turning to look at Equius, who he now realized was behind him.

          “Oh, you hanging out back there, brother?”

          Equius nodded. “You do understand the routine where I stand ready out here while you attend to your father’s request, yes?”

          Gamzee jerked his head, motioning towards the door to the left corridor. “Yeah, bro, I got ‘cha, but what about your dad? Shouldn’t you be up and all talking to him and what not?”

          “My father has already briefed me on the matter, Your Highness.”
“Oh, well, alrighty then.” Gamzee shrugged his shoulders. “Hows about you go to the kitchen and get some breakfast then, brother.”

          “That would be highly impolite to leave you and-”

          “Oh, I’ll be with my daddy, don’t you go worry none about me, just get some grub in your tum.”

          Equius looked vaguely concerned. “Er…”

          “I’m sure no one’ll get all mad at you or nothing.” Gamzee reassured.

          Equius looked to the side nervously, with a bit of confusion. “Is there any particular reason why you want to leave for our morning meals without you?”

          Gamzee chuckled. “Heheh, nah bro, I just want you to claim all those little shrimp pies for me, is all.”

          With a suspicious eye, Equius turned slowly away from Gamzee. “I suppose…” He mumbled smoothly, “As you wish, Your Highness. Though I shall wait until you are within the throne room.” He hurriedly stated, as if he had forgotten he ever intended to say it.

          “Of course, bro.” Gamzee turned as the guards opened up the grand double doors of the throne room. “See ya, Eq!” Gamzee shouted cheerily as he waved goodbye with his back turned to Equius.

          The guards waited until Gamzee of a safe distance from door before slamming it shut and returning to their assigned positions.
          Equius never understood why they used land dweller styled doors for the throne room; the puller-lift system of gates worked much better in the water. The grand double doors would drag through the water, not slide with ease like the rest of the castles entries. Perhaps it was to separate the throne room from the rest of the castle; to differentiate it and its importance as the sign of power it was.
          Whatever, it was still a nonsensical design in his eyes. Equius shook himself from his contemplation, and made his way down the hall.

 

***

 

          The throne room was the most extravagant chamber in the castle; potentially the most extravagant in the region. Yet, for as elegant as it was, the chamber was also emanated an extremely off-putting aesthetic. The walls were of a dark, dark purple, and the coral was rough and sharp. One could easily cut themselves on the surface of it. Layering the purple was a bright variety of colors, blending its natural shade with the colors of the paints and textures scraped into the coral; an all encompassing rainbow of colors; reds, yellows, greens, and blues.
          There was no order to the patterns on the walls; it was almost childish scrawls of paint. Gamzee remembered fondly on when he and his dad would just go to town on the throne room wall after a raid on a passing ship, using all the new colors from the supplies they’d stolen. It was a nice, relaxing activity, and it was one way his father held back his anger issues, which was never an issue for Gamzee; he had a cool dad.

          “Hey, dad.” Gamzee called to the large figure smearing bright orange on the wall behind the throne chair.

          His father, The Grand Highblood turned to look over his shoulder at his son. With a grin, he swerved around the the throne chair and swam quickly up to his son, bringing down a large hand to rustle his hair roughly.

          “Gamzee!” He roared to his son. “You’ve been gone out a whole lots of motherfucking often, haven’t ya?”

          “Heheh, yeah, motherfucker, I guess I have been, ain’t I?”

          His father took Gamzee’s arm and dragged him to the throne in a rough, but playful manner. With a chuckle, Gamzee flipped his tail back and swung himself in a curve using his Dad’s grip on him, landing himself ahead of his Dad, who in turn, swung him right back behind him, smirking. He then turned to face his son, and collapsed into his throne, and hand on his chin as he leaned on the armrest.

          “So. You already know what’s up and happening, right?” The Grand Highblood asked his son. “You’ve got it all set and shit? You gonna be a good host?”

          Gamzee twirled his tail beneath him, just a little excited at the prospect of visiting friends; his mind completely free of any concern involving lost necklaces. “Yeah, Daddy, you know I’ve got this all wrapped around my finger, I’m always the best company maker, you know.”

          “We aren’t gonna cause any trouble this time, right?” His dad raised a brow, a smile ghosting along his expression.

          Gamzee flushed and chuckled, closing his eyes and tilting his head down to the floor. “Heheh, well, uh, there certainly won’t be any incidents in the garden this time.”

          “I think that was more than just a motherfucking ‘incident,’ Gamzee.”

          “Heh, okay, okay. I won’t be even getting my little fingers on any high-powered tools this time.”

          “Those were weapons from the armory.”

          “Those are some kind of tool, right? Or am I un-right?”

          There was a second of silence before The Grand Highblood let out a roaring laugh. “Hahaha! I guess they are just a bunch motherfucking murder tools, aren’t they!”

          Gamzee laughed along with him. “Like a pair of kill scissors!”

          “Nothing better to do than have impromptu rifle target practice on the garden walls!” His father laughed even harder. “Little Ampora was furious at you, boy!”

          “Hahaha, but cuttle-sis was all kinds of laughing and getting her chuckle on at it,” Gamzee nudged in through his laughter. “Whole thing got even better when Eribro lost it; she had to all get him shooshed down and quiet.” Gamzee calmed down his laughter, one last chuckle escaping as he finished his rambling recollection of the ‘fun’ he had. “Eq wasn’t all that chill with it, either, heh, he was all stunned as a little squiddle in an angler’s ray.”

          The two remained in a fit of hilarity for a moment more, Gamzee settling down long before his father. His dad ate up ridiculous stories just as often as Gamzee caused them. But eventually, his dad managed to open his eyes and returned his gaze to Gamzee.

          “That shit’s motherfucking funny, Gamzee.” He stated matter of factly. “But you gotta be serious now, boy.”

          Gamzee’s face turned confused and his father continued. “It’s an important matter now. This isn’t some playdate.”

          Gamzee swam closer to the throne his dad sat upon. “What’cha mean?”

          The Grand Highblood lowered his eyes and hummed. “It’s trial time soon for the little Heiress, son, and we gotta be as up and proper as is motherfucking possible, boy. You know, a whole throwdown of mannerisms and fancy shit to show that all of y’all are mature and what not.” He scoffed. “Not that any of y’all are even close to being mature, least of all you, boy.”

          “Heh, well, ain’t that the truth.”

          “Yeah, but that ain’t the point. Point is that we wanna keep our family in favor, and you gotta treat her the best you’ve ever done and tried if we’re gonna be reaping the rewards of her crown.”

          “Aw hell, Dad, you know Fef’s sweet, she wouldn’t be dissing our family for no reason what you be all getting to thinking she might. We don’t gotta be worried no way.”

          “It’s just proper boy.” The Grand Highblood spat out. “It’s proper and it’s what you’re gonna be getting up to, you hear me?” He leaned back in his throne. “Alliances change motherfucking quick, son, and I don’t need any silly motherfucking nonsense of yours breaking our best one.”

          “Dad, really, you know I’m all good.” Gamzee argued, genuinely hurt that his Dad really thought he’d ever upset a friend like Feferi so bad.

          “I know you think so, but I also know that ain’t all so. Just don’t fuck this the motherfuck up, boy. I worked hard to keep our bloodline in the clear.” The Grand Highblood smiled mischievously, a playful, teasing look in his eyes. “And maybe, if you’d just be up to it, try to get that little gal in one of your quadrants?”

          “Dad, please no, I’m not into her and I ain’t got plans for her to get into my quadrants either…”

          “It’d just be a bonus benefit, ‘s all.” The huge Makara chuckled deeply. “I’m teasing ya’, boy. Though, consider it.”

          “Yeah, okay, sure.” Gamzee absentmindedly dismissed the thought entirely. “So, we done here, Dad? Can be all getting my morning prepare on now? I’m hungering something motherfucking bad.”

          “Yeah, kid.” His father gruffed, motioning towards the door. “Get out of here, go get some food in your belly.”

          “‘Kay, see you then, Dad.”

          Gamzee waved his dad goodbye and took off in the opposite direction of the kitchen.

 

***

 

          Equius sat in the kitchen, his discomfort greatly rising. There was a reason Gamzee wanted him in here, and he had no clue as to why. And the rush of servants and cooks moving about and crowding him did not soothe his uneasiness.
          Gamzee did clarify for him to go the kitchen, which was rather specific. Morning meals weren’t held in the kitchen, even Gamzee knew that. Of course, maybe it was just a typical miswording, as was typical with Gamzee’s form of speech, but it was far more likely that he would neglect to even mention a location than he would describe an entirely different one altogether.
          Equius looked around the hectic room once more, looking for any obvious signs or hints, any sign of what Gamzee wanted him in here for.
          The kitchen buzzed with noise.
          But there appeared to be nothing for him here.
          Equius sighed.  Maybe he had just read too much into Gamzee’s ridiculous speech antics.
          He was certain this was the case until a young servant boy came up to him.

          “Uhm, sir?” He asked gently. “Master Gamzee asked me to give this to you.”

          With that, the servant boy handed Gamzee a tiny shrimp pie, not like the full meal ones, but a palm sized snack one. Equius looked at the boy quizzically, but accepted the snack, having been sent from Gamzee, after all. Still, Equius had questions.

          “Thank you, but, young man, did His Highness perhaps give any indication as to what I am meant to… do with this… pie…?” He asked the boy, who shook his head side to side.

          “No sir, but if I a may, I think it’s most likely that he wanted you to eat it.” The boy suddenly come to a halt in his words. “Or, you know, he might’ve wanted you to give it to someone? But then why not let me take it…”

          Equius waved the boy away and said, “Nevermind that. You have served your purpose, you may leave now.”

          With a slight curtsy, the boy swam away and out of the kitchen, leaving a very befuddled Equius with a shrimp pie in hand.

          “What the heck?” He mumbled to himself.

          It wasn’t the first time Gamzee had sent him cryptic packages before, but Equius had never been so clueless as to what they were for. Not to mention, Gamzee was in the throne room, so he must’ve had the prepared in advance, which was very unlike Gamzee indeed.
          An event where Gamzee put so much thought into something like this was a rare, practically never before seen, occurrence.
          So, ‘What the heck?’ was indeed the only thought Equius could parse.
          It was a minute or two before Equius finally was shook from his stupor, a kitchen girl having bumped into him in a hurry. He pulled himself together and chose to leave the hectic kitchen, heading to the outside hall.
          Once there, he leaned against a pillar, and continued to contemplate the shrimp pie.

          “Should I… should I eat it?” He thought to himself. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

          He sighed. Truly he was overthinking this. Be it as it may, Gamzee likely didn’t mean to make this a riddle. Equius probably just had to eat it, for whatever reason he was unaware of.

          So, reluctantly and nervously, Equius took just a nibble of the palm sized snack.

          It was plain. Nothing unusual, just the shell of a shrimp pie. So, he took a small bite, getting at the filling. Cream and shrimp meat. Nothing spectacular, though he noted it tasted more sour than it should.
          Now beginning to think this was nothing more than some bizzare whim of the ever bewildering Gamzee, Equius finally bit into the pie.

          And hit something hard with his teeth.

          “Hmm?” He grunted, notably caught off guard, but unhurt by the sudden obstacle to his eating.

          When he pulled back the pie from his mouth, he looked over it, noticing a distinct metal shine from a flat object sticking out from the center.
          He gently pinched the flat piece between his fingers and pulled it out, flicking away the bits of filling that stuck to it, slightly disgusted as the bits drifted in the water. He swaat the area, shifting the current to move the pie debris away from his person. Wouldn’t want to get that stuck in your gills.
          Once certain the water around was clean, Equius examined the small metal plate. It was about the length of his index finger and twice as wide, with an engraving in it.

          “-502-“ was finely printed across the plate, appearing like a name tag or some such label. In fact, it was more akin to the organization tags on the library shelves, but, not quite the same.

          While running his hand along the crested numbers, Equius realized the back side felt oddly organic. He flipped it over.
          The backside had a bit of seaweed pasted to it with some sort of adhesive, and a message was childishly marked on it was that specific waterproof paint.

          “MeEtInG dOwNsTaIrS oUTtA mAkE tHiNgS eAsIeR ;o)”

          What.
          Downstairs? Which downstairs? There were a great many floors below his current level, and even then, what did this have to do with… well, anything, really.
          That aside however, Equius was just completely boggled at the entire ordeal. Gamzee had left Equius a gaggle of confusing hints and led him on so, so many goose chases, but this one was so eerie and bothersome because of how… put together this all seemed. As if Gamzee was somewhat aware of his actions while setting up this still mysterious call to action.

          In short, this didn’t seem like another playful errand. Either that or Gamzee was really keen on messing with him this time, or getting him to laugh at some joke he'd set up.

          “Five zero two.” Equius recited under his breath. The plate looked old and unclean. It’s place of origin must’ve been unattended, as the servants were very rigorous in keeping the palace shining.

          And downstairs?

          Equius looked down through the holes of the floor.

          Going down far enough, one could see the slow gradation of light as the levels of the palace sunk into the depths of the sea floor, eventually reaching a dig out cavern beneath the sand. However, though not completely unusable nor entirely all too unstable, the farthest points had been blocked due to cavern collapses years ago.
          They had been rendered fully isolated, as not even the lowest of servants and slaves took up residence there.
          No one was ever there and no one ever had any need to go down there.
          Equius was then hit with the groundbreaking realization that Gamzee was more clever than he’d ever given him credit for.

 

***

 

          To say the bottom floors were dark was an understatement. Equius dragged his hand along a cracked wall as he navigated the near pitch black halls of the ruined depths of the palace.
          He had never been down here before and he was honestly surprised at the state of disarray these corridors were in. The cavern collapse had most definitely undermined the structural integrity of these walls and perhaps even the floors.
          Equius had been surprised, however, to find that these basement levels were strangely easy to get into.

          The doors had broken in their frames during the collapse, so a sturdy, makeshift sliding entry had been put in place, in case, for whatever reason, the floors were to be reclaimed and used. It was locked up tight, but Equius had no trouble breaking through- No, that would be ridiculous. The boy was strong, but not that strong.
          No, Equius served as a part time serviceman and mechanic to the palace, and had access to all sorts of places that he might be needed, cryptic destroyed basement ruins included.
          Now Equius was looking around the lowest of all the halls, searching for something to do with ‘-502-’. Assumably it was a room number, as servants quarters were oft labeled so. But the plaque was so small, it almost seemed to be a locker ID. Perhaps an area with storage for the servants’ belongings?
          Judging by the number system, 502 would be on the bottom-most floor, so Equius was now on his way there, moving backwards through the order; 536, 535, 534, and so on and so forth.

          And he came to… a blank door between 503 and 501.

          Finally. The handle had to be budged and the door slammed into in order to open, but Equius did open it.

          “Now, what is it he wanted me to…” Were Equius’ thoughts until he got a full view of the room.

          It was… oh, boy.

          Well, yes, it was a wreck, but, what was truly astonishing was the gathering of net upon net of human fizzing substances, tied down to makeshift weights on the ground to keep them from floating about.

          “Oh my goodness…” Equius whispered with fear. “This is… deeply concerning.”

          The human beverage known as, ‘soda’ is a highly intoxicating substance for merfolk and it was evident in this moment that Gamzee had an entire room’s worth of it. A stash hidden away for whenever he felt it appropriate to indulge.
          Was this Gamzee’s way of admitting to his sins? Was he offering Equius some of this… ‘Faygo’? What was his purpose in any of this? Why did Equius even bother trying to reason Gamzee's actions?

          “Oh, hey bro.”

          Well, speak of the devil.

          Equius turned around the doorway and came face-to-face with a grinning Gamzee, lazy eyes drifting to hardly focus on the carbonated sight just beyond Equius.

          “Yay… you found it!” He nudged Equius who, with a dumb stare on his face, floated back in the water without resistance.

          Gamzee turned in the center of the room and spread his arms out in a gesture of grand presentation as though he were showing off some sort of artistic masterpiece.

          “Ta-da!” He cheered, jazz hands and all. “So, whaddya think?”

          “I…” Equius started. “I am… I have my concerns.”

          Gamzee quirked his eyebrow and made fishlips. He spun around in place, briefly looking over the room.

          “Hey man, it ain’t all that bad.” He stated dejectedly. “I mean, it ain’t as big or as, well, clean as that little cave, heh, but it’ll do the trick just well, I up and think.”

          “Wait,” Equius held his hand up to silence Gamzee, immediately lowering it to apologize for his effrontery before continuing. “Do you mean to say, your highness, that you intend for us to continue our training sessions in this very room?” He looked up to meet Gamzee’s eyes.

          “Well,” Gamzee shrugged. “Yeah, bro. I mean, since we’re gonna have to be up and hanging around this joint pretty much 24/7 for the next so and so weeks. With this, we ain’t gotta get our sneak on quite so much anymore. We just gotta scurry on down here at night and do our thing, bro.”

          “So, this entire ordeal has no connection to…” Equius gestured to the nets of soda bottles. “That.”

          “Huh? Oh, you mean my sweet kickin’ gaggle of fizzy bubbles in a bubble?” Gamzee poked a finger to one of the nets. “Nah, bro, this stuff’s just here because, well, shit, man, you know how my dad is about this stuff, Equius.”

          “Sir, my highest of respect but,” Equius inhaled, bringing both hands up to his face and exhaled, dropping them down in a straight downward line. “This is the worst way in which you have messed up.”

          Gamzee scrunched up his face and nestled his head between his shoulders. “Ehh, I’m not all to sure of that, bro. I mean, there was the time I-”

          “No, just…” Equius breathed deeply. “Yes, your highness, I think I can make this work.”

          With a click of the tongue and hands up in finger guns, Gamzee winked at Equius. “Hey, thanks bro! Thought you’d like it!” Gamzee put his hands on his hips and managed to look everywhere but at Equius. “Well, tolerate it, but that’s neither all up in here nor is it all up in there.”

          Gamzee whistled idly and swayed in place, awaiting a response.

          Silence.

          Still nothing.

          “Uh, hey bro?” Gamzee got up close and waved in his face. “Hello?” He drawled out, suddenly snapping Equius out of a daze.

          “Oh, huh, yes, your highness?” He stuttered out.

          Gamzee stared at him. “Hey bro, we got, like a couple of hours. You wanna, I don’t know, go at it?”

          “Now? Sir, the princess and prince will be arriving at-”

          “In five hours.” Gamzee interrupted. “And, like, we only ever practice for somewhat of one or two as the usual anyway, yeah?”

          “Your Highness, I must advise that we spend this time preparing for the arrival of the princess and prince.”

          Gamzee razzingly scoffed. “Bro, what do we all up and need to get our prepare on for?” He gestured air quotes on the word ‘prepare’. “Fefsis won’t give a care at all, and grumpy gills’ll go pout in a corner, but you hecka’ know he ain’t complaining to anybody ‘bout it. Least, no one who’ll give a shit; not my dad or his. He don’t wanna be see as ‘whiny’, you know? Now cuttlesister, well, heh, he might get to complaining on her, but, that’s just what they do.”

          “Sir, I must ask that you do not make such insolent remarks about the young prince.” Equius took a breath to continue, but halted, as though contemplating his next words.

          With a slow exhale, Equius resumed.

          He let out his thoughts very quickly, as though the words would burn his tongue. “True as you may very be,” He took a breath. ”It is imperative that you regard all higher classes with respect and to disseminate all opinions on their actions into obscurity.”

          Gamzee did not cut him off, so Equius hastily finished off with, “Your Highness.” and a bow to reiterate his respect and place. This also served as an example of Equius’ previous statement.

          Somehow, Equius had managed to make the situation more awkward than it ever had been, and it was patently clear in how he felt his body heat up in… embarrassment? Uncertainty?
          Equius was unsure, but he felt highly uncomfortable and his overthinking did not help. He bent further down, forehead touching the floor as he laid himself to Gamzee, fearing he had somehow offended the noble.
          Gamzee, however, was made silent by Equius’ rant and he looked down at the prostrated ichthyosaur before him.
          This was absolutely ridiculous, why did Equius always pull this freaky submissive stuff on him?
          Now it was Gamzee’s turn to sigh in defeat at the other’s actions, but he suddenly was struck with an idea.

          “Well, if that’s really how you feel, then you should have not a single problem with all getting your listen on at my wishes. You know, that whole ‘disseminate your opinions’ and all that. So,” Gamzee dragged Equius from his stupid pose up by the arm and swam backwards back to the room’s center. “Let’s do this. Right now, of course, but also every day at, I don’t know, nightfall? Whenever everyone’s sleeping.”

          Equius floundered for a response, unable to process how his own opinions had just undermined his entire argument.
          Maybe he should stop trying to go about anything Gamzee wanted logically.
          In defeat, Equius too moved to the room’s center and reluctantly began another training session with Gamzee, who appeared rather pleased.

          “No more than two hours, sir.” Equius matter-of-factly said.

          “You got it, bro.” Gamzee responded with a chuckle.

Chapter Text

          Strung up across the wall above Sollux’s computer desk were all the printed out photographs from the sea cave, and at the moment, Sollux was paperclipping another one to a string.

          “So, needless to say, I’m pretty put off because this one looks way different from the rest.” He said as he crawled off the rolling desk chair that he had been balancing on. “I mean, you saw that, it wasn’t a tail it was like... “

          “A head?” Aradia finished for him. She had come over to work on a school project.

          “Yeah, I guess.” He agreed, flopping down into the chair. “But like, there was definitely something on its head, provided it was a head.”

          He looked up at the hanging photograph with an almost concerned look. Araida looked up with him.

          “Something else the matter?’ She asked.

          Sollux sighed. “Well… It’s just… AA, doesn’t that kind of look like a person’s head?”

          Aradia walked over to the desk and pushed down on the desk to reach higher. She fingered the edge of the photograph and tilted it down just enough to get a second look.
          The photograph was not blurry in the slightest, but unfortunately, Sollux’s face was blocking of good 70% of the coverage. However, there was a portion where one could see what really did appear to be the head of a person with dark, jet back hair. The picture was so clean and defined that one could even see that the hair appeared to be slicked back, curled ends of hair strands spiking up at the back. There was also a small bit near the front of the bangs that seemed off, like it was a different color, but that part of mostly blocked by Sollux, and had some slight glare as well, so it wasn’t certain.
          Of course, who knew if this was even hair, or someone’s head for that matter. It sure did look that way, though.

          Aradia squinted and pulled the photo a little closer. Well now, she hadn’t noticed this before.

          “Sollux, are you aware that it looks like there’s a hand on the edge?”

          “What.” He gasped, a single abrupt word, indicating a sheer lack of breath.

          He jumped from the chair and yanked the photograph out from Aradia’s hands, ripping it from the string it was pinned to, causing the whole thing to hectically bounce up and down.
          Collapsing into the chair, Sollux huddled his legs up onto the seat edge, his face scrunched up as he scrutinized the photo that he held flush to his face.

          “What the hell?” He said aloud. “AA, why is there a real human hand right there, how did I miss that?”

          “I don’t think it’s a human hand, Sollux.” Aradia said with a sing songy voice, wagging her finger.

          “Fine, whatever.” Sollux dropped the photo onto the desk and dragged his hand down his face. “AA, what the heck is happening… you can’t really be saying that these are… are freaking mermaids!”

          “I didn’t say anything, Sollux.”

          “But like!” Sollux flailed his hands out. “Hands! Human hands! What? What is this? How could I even argue that it’s some undiscovered species when it has hands!”

          “Wouldn’t it still be an undiscovered species?”

          “Aradia!” Sollux shouted. “This cannot be a mermaid, I refuse!”

          “Why are you so upset, Sollux?” Aradia leaned over him and began squeezing her way onto the chair with him. “I was beginning to think you were getting excited about this like Tavros and I?”

          “Yeah, when this wasn’t definitely about a real life mermaid.” He sighed. “Now I’m just confused and lost because I really, really did not think for even one second that the answer would be mermaid. Tavros freaking Nitram was right, and this pisses me off so much, you don’t even know. Mister Fairy Tale should never be right, that is a terrifying notion, AA. Terrifying.”

          Araida wrapped an arm around Sollux and tucked her legs up next to his. She leaned her head on his shoulders.

          “Okay, so you’re just upset that Tavros said it might be a mermaid and now you also think it might be? Doesn’t this just make the whole thing more exciting. Sollux?”

          “Well, I mean, don’t mermaids drown people? Wouldn’t that actually be a sucky fairy tale to come true?” Sollux looked at Aradia questioningly.

          “Yes, they do lure people to a watery death before eating them, this is true.” Aradia sweetly spoke. “But those are just stories, Sollux.”

          “Yeah, that’s what I told Nitram.”

          Aradia giggled and hugged Sollux tightly. “Oh, just lighten up and get excited! This could be so much fun! Don’t be another Karkat.”

          “Oh, hell no.” Sollux pushed Aradia away. “Good job, you just convinced me to stop being a stick in the mud. Nobody wants to be KK. Not even KK wants to be KK.”

          “Good.” Aradia said and she untangled herself from Sollux and pushed herself off of the desk chair. She turned around and held out her hand for Sollux’s. “Now, let’s go get to work on the project.”

 

***



-- twinArmageddons [TA] 2 DAYS AGO opened public bulletin board “2tupiid faiiry tale bull2hiit.” --

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

-- TA 5:02 HOURS AGO opened memo on board “2tuiid faiiry tale bullshiit” --

TA: well gue22 ii have two change this group’2 name now 
TA: *psiigh*

-- TA 5:02 HOURS AGO changed public bulletin board “2tupiid faiiry tale bull2hiit” to public bulletin board “2tupiid faiiry tale bull2hiit that ii2 fuckiing real holy 2hiit” --

-- adiosToreador [AT] RIGHT NOW responded to memo. --
AT: uH, sORRY FOR ONLY JUST NOW GETTING ON, bUT, wHAT’S WITH THE NAME CHANGE?
TA: you wiin tav
TA: you fuckiing wiin, are you happy?
AT: uH, wHAT, pERCHANCE, dID I WIN?
TA: my priide
TA: iit’2 a mermaiid, there ii saiid iit.
AT: wHAT?
TA: the 2tupiid thiing you 2aw, iit’2 a fuckiing mermaiid, how many tiimes do you want me to 2ay iit? Jeez, 2top rubbiing iit iin, tavro2.
AT: wAIT,,, yOU ACTUALLY THINK IT’S A MERMAID,,,?
AT: oR, sOMETHING ALONG THOSE LINES?
TA: ye2, for once tavro2, ii actually beliieve iin your 2iilly faiiry tale.
AT: wOW, tHAT’S AWESOME! }:D
AT: bUT, uH, iF i MAY ASK, wHY EXACTLY DO YOU, sUDDENLY THINK THAT IT MIGHT BE A MERMAID?
AT: oR, sOME OTHER KIND OF AQUATIC CREATURE ORIGINATING IN MYTHS AND LEGENDS,
TA: well, ii miight ha2 well share iit.
TA: 2hut_up_tav.jpeg
AT: oH MY GOODNESS,,,
AT: wHERE DID YOU GET THIS?
TA: ii wa2 2ettiing up the camera2 in the cave when one went off riight iin my face a2 2oon a2 ii turned on the motiion 2en2or.
TA: my face wa2 liiterally riight freakiing iin front of the damn thiing, we’re lucky we can see the weiird mermaiid thing’s head
TA: (god, ii can’t beliieve ii’m actually sayiing “mermaiid” uniironiically, what have ii come two.)
AT: wOW, yOU CAN SEE ITS HAIR AND PART OF ITS FOREHEAD,
AT: aND OH MY GOSH, tHERE’S A HAND!
AT: oR, jUST FINGERS,
AT: sOLLUX, tHIS IS AMAZING! wOW!
AT: wOW, uH, hAHAHA, i’M ACTUALLY GETTING, rEALLY, rEALLY EXCITED,
AT: lIKE, uH, i AM, gETTING, uH, sUFFICENTLY HYPED, hAHAHAHA!
AT: tHIS IS JUST,,, sO COOL! }:D }:D }:D
TA: god, tavro2, ii get iit, ii get iit, your long fantii2iized wet dream2 are fiinally comiing true, plea2e try two re2train your2elf
AT: uH, eW, sOLLUX,,,

-- appocalypseArisen [AA] RIGHT NOW responded to memo. --
AA: well hell0 h0w are we d0ing
AT: hI, aRADIA! i’M FEELING PRETTY DARN HAPPY!
AA: yay 0u0
AA: mermaid picture right
AT: yES!
TA: tavro2 ii2 liiterally pii22iing hii2 pant2 riight now iin joy, AA.
AT: uH, i, i AM JUST, rEALLY, eXCITED, iS ALL,,,
AA: s0llux y0u were the 0ne having an existential crisis 0ver the p0ssible existence 0f mermaids are y0u really 0ne t0 talk
AT: wHAT? }:O
TA: ARADIIA
AA: *0u0*
AT: hAHAHA, yOU WERE SCARED OF THE MERMAID, sOLLUX?
TA: NO
TA: ii wa2 ju2t 2ceptical of the photo ii2 all.
AA: tavr0s he was in s0 much denial
AA: s0 much tavr0s
AA: s0 much
AT: }:D
TA: II’M LIITERALLY GOIING TO BURN THE DAMN PHOTO IIF YOU BOTH DON’T SHUT UP
AT: tOO BAD YOU POSTED IT IN THE CHAT, fOR EVERYONE TO SAVE TO THEIR DESKTOP, aND THEN, pROMPTLY EXECUTE A PRINTING COMMAND, aFTER WHICH, iT WILL BE AVAILABLE FOR THE VIEWING PLEASURE OF, wHO SO EVER DID PRINT IT OUT,
AT: aND EVEN BETTER,,,
AT: wE CAN DO THIS,,,
AT: mULTIPLE TIMES,,,
AT: }B)
TA: wow tav
TA: you utter a22
TA: ii really do hate you riight now, you know that?
AT: }B) }B) }B) }B) }B) }B)
TA: wow
TA: AA, ii thiink ii’m done here, thank2 for helpiing me earliier agaiin.
AA: 0f c0urse s0llux

-- twinArmaggedon [TA] has ceased pestering “2tupiid faiiry tale bull2hiit that ii2 fuckiing real holy 2hiit” memo --

AT: bYE, hEHEH,
AT: }:)
AA: :D
AT: }:)
AA: :D
AT: }:)
AA: :D
AT: }:)
AA: :D
AT: }:)
AA: :D
AT: }:)
AA: :D
AT: hAHA, oKAY, mAYBE WE SHOULD STOP,
AA: 0kay
AA: :)
AT: hEY, aRADIA, sO, sINCE WE KIND OF, cONFIRMED THE EXISTENCE OF MERMAIDS, i GUESS, aRE WE STILL GOING TO CONTINUE OUR, uH, iNVESTIGATION?
AA: well y0u just kn0w that i w0nt be happy until we see it with 0ur 0wn eyes
AT: oH, tHAT WOULD BE, sO AMAZING!
AT: bUT, wHAT DO WE DO AT THIS POINT? sET UP a HIDEOUT IN THE SEA CAVE OR SOMETHING?
AA: i guess
AA: i imagine itll be difficult t0 g0 undetected
AA: s0mething ab0ut s0lluxs enc0unter strikes me as 0dd
AA: clearly that mermaid went up t0 the caves edge 0f its 0wn acc0rd and i think we b0th kn0w this likely means it was curi0us
AA: we might be able t0 lure it 0ut just by being there and acting ign0rant 0f it
AT: oH, tHATS A GOOD IDEA,
AT: bUT, iF WE ARE FEIGNING IGNORANCE, wOULDN’T THAT MAKE IT DIFFICULT TO ACTUALLY KEEP AN EYE ON WHETHER IT IS ACTUALLY THERE OR NOT?
AA: im still w0rking 0ut the kinks
AT: oH,
AA: im still n0t even all t00 sure what 0ur g0al is anym0re i just want t0 see it with my 0wn eyes
AT: hAHA, mE TOO,
AA: well lets talk ab0ut this later its getting late
AT: aH YES, wE SHOULD PROBABLY GO TO BED,
AT: wELL, gOODNIGHT THEN, aRADIA!
AA: g00dnight tavr0s
AA: :D
AT: }:)

-- appocalypseArisen [AA] ceased pestering “2tupiid faiiry tale bull2hiit that ii2 fuckiing real holy 2hiit” memo --

-- adiosToreador [AT] ceased pestering “2tupiid faiiry tale bull2hiit that ii2 fuckiing real holy 2hiit” memo --

-- twinArmageddons [TA] RIGHT NOW responded to memo. --

TA: dork2

-- twinArmageddons [TA] closed memo. --

Chapter Text

          Equius had to practically drag Gamzee away from their impromptu practice and race back to the throne room to make in time to ready themselves for the Highest Tide’s arrival. He still couldn’t get over how absurdly invested Gamzee was in these practice sessions, let alone how he picked up the skill with relative ease. He was by no means a child prodigy, but he impressed Equius nonetheless.

          Now, Equius stood in the throne room, tidying up Gamzee one last time while the servants rushed around the room, making a room splattered in rich foreign paints as clean as one could possibly make it.
         
Equius had just finished adjusting Gamzee’s tail fin jewelry, with much pawing from the young noble himself, when The Grand Highblood burst into the room. Gamzee’s smiled brightly at the sight. With His Highness’ entrance, the room’s volume immediately escalated.

          “So is everyone motherfucking ready?!” The Grand Highblood roared out, causing a ruckus amongst the servants as they tried to both finish their tasks and stand at attention.

          “Uh, y-yes your highness!” One servant called out, carefully balancing a goblet they had nearly sent flying off the banquet table. Similar responses rang out across the room.

          “Better be.” He spat gruffly with a grin. He quickly turned his attention in Equius’ direction.  Equius lowered his gaze instantly.

          “You! Little Zahhak!” The Grand Highblood called out. “How’s my son all gussied up for The Empress and those toys she what all calls her court?”

          With a proper bow, Equius rose to greet the ginormous man before him.  “Young Master Gamzee is fully dressed and prepared for the arrival of Her Imperious Condescension and her court of The Highest Tide, your Grand Highness.”

          A bellowing laughter was the response the young ichthyocentaur received.

          “You blue blooded fish horses and your shit crazy rambling! All those long little words you and your dad get up to; it downright cracks me up, boy! Messiahs be, I love me some Zahhak nonsense!”

          Equius was stunned silent as The Grand Highblood continued at length about the overly cordial nature of the Zahhak family. Goodness gracious, was Equius terrified of this man. Even when making a joke, he radiated a threatening aura like no other.

          “Dad, you know how he’s all loving his mighty strong words, don’t get to teasing him, he’s a good brother.” Gamzee spoke up, placing a hand on Equius’ shoulder, as though recognizing that Equius was highly unnerved. While a comforting thought, Equius was still frozen in place until further notice or requirement otherwise.

          “Ain’t never said there was a single motherfucking thing wrong with the chatterbox. On the contrary, I think it’s funny as hell how he talks.” The Grand Highblood replied with slight irritation. “You all good, boy? The Empress’ll come a’knocking any second now. You’ll behave, right?”

          “Absolutely, Dad.” Gamzee responded with a lazy smile. “I’ll be straight up remarkable and shit.”

          The Grand Highblood nodded and hummed in agreement, though he was clearly aware that Gamzee could not always be held to his word.

          “Alright then, boy.” He turned back to the servants, though his words were aimed at Gamzee and Equius as well. “You all get in place and get to waiting while I greet our most miraculous guests! I ain’t having no housemaid welcome our very special visitors.”

          He swam over to the throne room entrance and stared down the servants who hurriedly opened the doors for him. He turned to Gamzee one last time and said, “Be right back, boy.”

          In just a moment, The Grand Highblood was gone, hidden away behind the throne room doors to the hall. A sigh of relief swept through the staff, as they all relaxed immensely. Soon enough, most of them would be dismissed and they could return to the ease of less stressful tasks, such as, being literally anywhere else besides in the same room as The Grand Highblood or any visiting head noble or royalty.
         
Some more feisty servants muttered a curse at the annoyance they faced as servant to The Grand Highblood, to which Equius gladly and quite loudly reprimanded them on. How could they scorn their master just seconds after his departure, in front of his own son too. Had they no class? Come to think of it, Equius found it almost odd, yet understandable, that the servants and maids were so lax about their derision towards The Grand Highblood when Gamzee was in the room. The staff liked Gamzee quite a lot; he was a breath of fresh air compared to his father. No matter how much of a laidback airhead he was, the staff could never find it in them to be irritated with him. Of course, Equius also found Gamzee’s presence to be much more comforting than that of The Grand Highblood.

          Still. No class.

          The servants tensed up again though, as a great deal of laughter could be heard from the hallway just outside the throne room.  Everyone rushed into their places and stood at attention with their hands held behind their backs and at their sides depending on their station.  Equius found himself rigidly positioned next to Gamzee, his mouth drawn up in an incredibly nervous line.  Gamzee just turned to him, expecting such a look on Equius’ face, and he simply patted his head in a rather ridiculous and awkward manner. It did bother Equius enough, however, to get his mind off his agitation and he was vividly less antsy. He gave Gamzee a weird look as if to ask why he did that, when the throne room doors slammed open, practically crushing the walls beside them. Equius swore he actually could see tiny cracks in the area of the walls where the door handles had met them.

          With a flurry of motion, two positively huge, adult merfolk burst Into the room in a fit of laughter: The Grand Highblood and the empress herself, Her Imperial Condescension. Her Highness was shorter than The Grand Highblood, but no less intimidating. She was broad shouldered, and chubby with soft facial features, and she was undeniably regal in appearance, exuding power and control. She had a venomous look in her eyes and she moved with brazen grace. Her Highness was dressed in a tightly fitting dress that hugged the top of her chest, near the collarbone, but bared her shoulders and her collar was high up, just below her neck. Her dress was pure obsidian black except for the lines of dark fuschia that criss crossed to create the shape of her royal insignia, that of the symbol of the constellation of Pisces. At her waist however, the dress was held by a gaudy gold and pink belt with chains that hung down her right side. From there down was a tangle of tentacles, swirling in the water as she swam, their color a dark but dull hue of the same fuschia that accented her clothing.
         
Her thick cloud of endless black hair shrouded her from view as she bent over laughing, tears nearly coming to her face in her hysteria.

          “Hahaha! Whoo! Kur, you reelly know how to tell it, don’cha?” She shouted as she elbowed the Grand Highblood hard in the gut. “I step right out of my palace and you’re already leaving me kraken up and breathless, buoy!”

          The Grand Highblood kept himself only slightly more composed, but he too had his face scrunched up in mirth, his remaining howls of laughter escaping as guided her into the room.

          “There ain’t no better way to start an all up professional stay at my humble abode than with some downright motherfucking chuckles, sister!” He responded, leaning a hand onto her shoulder.

          With a chortle, she wrapped both arms around his wrist and yanked him off of her and smiled up him, her long, slightly curved, pale pink horns nearly jabbing him under his chin as she tilted her head up. “Don’ touch me when I’m dying, buoy, I can handle myself!” She chuckled out, a snort interrupting her halfway through. “Oh, shit, Kurloz, damn, I am saving that one for the record clams when I get back home!”

          “Ahem.” A unseen speaker cleared its throat and spoke out with a deep, cold voice from behind the two jokesters.

          Her Highness halted her laughter and drew her lips up in tight, annoyed pout, her eyebrows raised in an almost tired manner. She already seemed done with whoever was about to say whatever.

          “Meenah, we really should be keeping this… professional.” Continued the voice.

          With an exceptionally vexed groan, Her Highness drifted off the side to reveal the nuisance killjoy as a very tall man with broad shoulders and an equally broad chest, clothed in a thick black and violet uniform, with spiked pauldrons and a zigzag design across his chest, like that of the symbol of the constellation Aquarius. He had a stern look on his stout, rectangular face as he made eye contact with The Condense.

          “Cronus, did I say you could open your damn mouth?” She spouted, turning to face him, a glare on her face and a hand on her hip. “I think not. Shut your trap, will ‘ya?”

          “But Meenah, we really should keep in mind how important this is. Or do you not care for the urgency that-”

          “Blah blah blah, urgensea my ass!” She shouted as she closed her eyes and mocked him to his face. “I’ll do this however I want! And if I want to, I could send you and your stuck up boy packing so I can finally get some reelaxation.”

          Cronus, or more known by his formal title, The Orphaner Dualscar, turned away with a huff and held back his retort. His tail, shaped and colored exactly as a lilac seahorse’s, curled up tight in anger, but loosened as he calmed himself.
          The Orphaner was a rather temperamental man, but he knew his place with Her Imperial Condescension, and he would not argue with her only out of necessity for a great many reasons.
          He looked up for a brief second and noticed The Grand Highblood’s glare. Dualscar avoided his gaze and instead focused on the servants below. Dualscar had accepted his place with The Condense, but not The Grand Highblood. The giant Makara was beneath him, he should hold power over him, but The Grand Highblood’s stupid friendship with The Condense put Dualscar at a disadvantage. Her and that stupid clown were close, closer than Dualscar was to her. For all she was concerned, he was a dressed up servant who she hardly made the effort to get to know.
         
How could someone a whole tide below him get in so good with her, especially someone like him, Dualscar would never know.

          Lost in his jealous thoughts, Dualscar was slow to notice that the two merfolk ahead of him had come to a halt, and he quickly stopped as well.
          He dismissively looked over the throne room and the servants within, barely giving their weak tiny forms any notice. He instead focused on the large purple throne ahead, and it’s rainbow painted walls surrounding. Any fool who thought that that was simply paint deserved a hard whack to the head.
         
Dualscar knew all about the clown’s morbid obsession with turning the blood of other merfolk into thick impermeable paint for his so called, ‘artistic habits.’

          The Grand Highblood was careful to only slaughter the inhabitants of foreign settlements; small portions of the sea not under The Empress’ reign and, of course, anything human. After the incident 400 years ago, Her Imperial Condescension had been insistent on it.
          Now, The Grand Highblood went out on weekly ‘supply runs’ to get new ‘materials’ for his paintings. Dualscar was under the impression that he had kept his dirty habit a secret from his staff, out of fear that they’d leave.
         
Personally, Dualscar found that the more dangerous you appeared to your servants, the more effectively they worked, but to each his own. He also supposed that, by law, The Grand Highblood could not necessarily force anyone but his slaves to stay, so perhaps he just did not want to deal with the process of finding new willing servants.

          Understandable.

          Dualscar looked down at the foot of the throne and saw, standing there, the little Makara and Zahhak. He wondered if The Grand Highblood’s own son knew about the truth behind his father’s macabre art.

          “Zahhak! Get on up here! We’re here to greet these two fishes!” The Grand HIghblood called out and gestured behind Dualscar and The Empress.

          “Yes, sir.” A voice like the void answered; quiet, laconic, yet deep and thorough.

          It’s owner, a massive ichthyocentaur with a long main of straight dark grey hair moved around the two guests and first bowed to The Grand Highblood, then he faced and bowed on his knees to Dualscar and The Empress.

          “Greeting, Orphaner Dualscar and Empress of The Imperial Condescension. I am The Executioner, Horuss Zahhak, noble of the High Tide and bearing the star sign Sagittarius.”

          “They know your damn name, Zahhak, what the motherfuck are you getting up to again?” The Grand Highblood shook his head.

          “Oh, it’s fine.” The Empress waved off The Executioner with a finely manicured hand. “We’re used to it.”

          She smiled and put a finger to her chin, wrapping her other arm around her side and leaning in towards him.

          “How’re you doing, big guy? Fatherhood treating you well?”

          “Yes, Your Highness, my son is a fine young man who has met all my expectations.” He delivered in a nearly muted voice.

          She nodded and leaned back. “Better than some of our brats.”

          “Mother!” A sharp, bubbly voice called out as a much smaller cecaelia swam around from behind The Empress and gave her a sour look. The little one had a thick cloud of hair and horns to match The Empress, and a black and fuschia chest wrap similarly styled to The Empress’ dress. She wore an assortment of colorful beaded necklaces and a series of golden bangles and cuffs on her arms.

          “How could you say that?!” She asserted, cheeks all puffed up and an evident pout on her lips painted black.

          The Condense let loose a howling round of laughter and patted a huge hand on the tiny little girl’s head, causing her to bob down in the water.

          “Oh guppie, you know I’m just pulling your tail, girl!” She smirked at the child, her heiress. “You’re pretty whale behaved yourself.”

          The Heiress turned away from her mother with a frown, and fiddled with the gold lensed fuschia goggles she wore. Her mother simply chuckled at her and brought her attention back to the two adults in front of her.

          “Whale, we ought to finish up this so we can get to the good shit. You two brats,” She pointed at Gamzee and Equius who stood beside the throne. “Met these two brats, the same ones you’ve met a thousand times over.”

          She motioned to her daughter, Feferi, and to Eridan, a surly looking boy with black framed goggles and curly, ashy hair styled slightly up and to the back. A dense, violet streak colored his hair from his forehead to around 3 inches past. The young boy, another royal, had stayed neatly beside his father, The Orphaner, the whole time. His look of displeasure and contempt had remained there for just as long.
          Feferi scoffed in her mother’s direction and then, after adjusting her golden band tiara, dipped down into a cute curtsy, splaying her turquoise and seafoam green sarong out with her hands. Eridan followed suit, with much less energetic grace.

          “Good to see you, sister.” Gamzee said with a lazy wave to Feferi, who giggled and waved back.

          “Hiya, Gamzee!” She chuckled. “Equius, good to see you again!”

          “Yes, good day, Your Highness.” Equius replied with a solemn bow.

          Feferi humored him and bowed in response. This only made Equius comfortable.

          “Oops, I’m not supposed to do that, am I?” She asked upon seeing his look of concern.

          “Uh, no, you are not. I mean,” He stuttered. “Her Highness can do as she wishes, er, your highness.”

          Feferi chuckled with a look of confusion. “Same as ever.” She turned to Gamzee and held her arms out for a hug.

          “Aw, come here, sis.” Gamzee went in for the hug, much to Equius’ discomfort.

          Upon pulling away, Gamzee saw Eridan practically dragging his tail over to the throne, arms crossed and holding the edges of his long violet cape. He seemed to be squinting a lot, considering he had on goggles to aid his vision. With a big grin, Gamzee went straight over to Eridan for a hug as well. He practically tackled the seahorse boy, wrapping his arms around his back and hooking them into the scarf-like cloth he had resting around his neck. Gamzee had been quick enough that Eridan hardly had a moment to respond, but when he did, it was in an ungraceful flurry of arm swinging, tail swishing, and anxious gurgles.

          “W-what the hell, Makara!” He shouted after violently shoving a grinning Gamzee away. “Hav-ven’t you got any damn respect for your superiors? God, Gam…”

          A gruff noise from The Orphaner, has though he were clearing his throat, promptly made Eridan settle down, much to his own annoyance. He drifted back, hands behind his back, and turned his head to side with a huff.
         
Feferi went over, rolling her eyes, and patted him on the back while he mumbled of series of brief expletives in his father’s direction. He turned in her direction, and leaned into her, squinting as though he couldn’t see her. He muttered something and took off his goggles and squinted at them. He rubbed the clear lenses with edge of his cape while Feferi whispered to him, looking confused and concerned. He murmured back a response, but the whole interaction was too quiet for the others to hear.

          “Well, ain’t that just the cutest shit.” The Condense chortled. “They all get aprawn so well.”

          Only The Grand Highblood seemed to match her in amusement.

          “Okay, kiddos.” She chirred and eyed around the room. “And by that, I mean everyone but me.”

          She paused. With a smile, she rolled her shoulders and cracked her neck. She extended her arm out in front of her.

          “Let’s do a breef run down.”

          With a twirl of her wrist and a wave of her fingers, the water around her hand bubbled in a straight line and gold light followed, taking the shape of a majestic golden trident with Fuchsia scales, plucked from the body of the head of the old royal family, adorning it in a lined pattern that wrapped around the staff.
          The old empress, whom The Condense had defeated in her youth, had used this very trident. How pleased The Condense had been when she overthrew the old family and decorated it so, piece by piece.

          The Condense brought her trident down with a harsh slam into the tile, the vibrations ripping through the water.

          “As you are all aware, or damn whale should be, little Fef here is nearly 13 and reaching her time for training to become my True Heiress.” Announced The Empress, “And of course, to sea through that she’s worthy of taking my glorious position when I’m gone, we begin with her Rites of Maturity.”

          She twirled her trident aimlessly in her hand. “Now, only I know the exact details of the Rites, so the rest’ll be a surprise to everyone. Feferi included.” She held still her trident and gauged her younger audience members. “I will say that whale begin in one month’s tide.”

          The reaction from them was mixed.

          Equius and Gamzee were the most neutral; Equius having held a flat expression the whole time, showing neither approval nor contempt at the announcement, and Gamzee seeming like his mind was elsewhere, though he nodded idly.
          Feferi, who held a subtly nettled pout, gave a brief fake smile and dipped her head in a responsive gesture of recognition.
         
The most negative response belonged to Eridan, who grimaced fiercely at the news. He nearly blurted out his shocked exasperation, but swiftly restrained himself and settled with expressing his displeasure through glowering at the ground.

          The Condense smiled at them and their cute reactions.

          “Until then,” She continued, “Whale be having all kinds of fansea ceremonies and celebrations of that kind. Starting with our first one tomorrow! So…” She bent low and pointed her trident at the four children.

          “You best get prepared for a whole month of fun, kiddos. We plan on judging all of you, not just my little gill. So, I suggest keeping yourself as ‘proper’ as I deem becoming of you all.” Her expression darkened as leaned in closer. “Don’t want to give our family blessing to unworthy seafolk now, do we, Feferi?”

          She turned to her daughter with a grin, her eyes shining as fuschia as the elegant, metal Venetian styled mask they hid behind.

          Feferi quietly fumed at her mother, making her well aware of her disagreement. “Shore, mother.” She bluntly rejoined, sounding as sweet as she could.

          “Excellent.” Cooed The Empress, returning to her full height. “Glad we have that covered.”

          She waited amidst the hush of the room for an agonizingly long 5 seconds before addressing The Grand Highblood. “Whale! Let’s get settled in then! Care to give a tour, ‘ol Grandy?” She trilled at him.

          “Sure thing.” He sang out, low and wicked. “Follow me, Your Highness.” He teasingly instructed.

          The Condense chuckled and swam after him as he motioned to the door. “Come on, brats.” Commanded The Condense, looking over her shoulder at the somewhat stiff children.

          Dualscar and Darkleer trailed after her, respectively. With a threatening look from his father, Eridan hurriedly caught up with them, the other children falling in line.
          F
eferi, who had drifted towards the back, was suddenly pulled aside by Eridan and pushed in front of him.

          “Heiress first, Fef.” He muttered.

          She wasn’t sure if he was upset at her or his father or perhaps the whole situation, but nuzzled his hair to try and lighten him up a bit.  He only looked more annoyed, though obviously trying to cover it up for her sake.
         
With a sad look, she pulled away and hesitantly turned to face forward.

          All four children were very quiet as they were lead to their rooms.

 

***

 

          “This is absolute bullshit!”

          “Eridan!”

          “What?” He shouted, “I shouldn’t hav-ve to be stuck in this glubbin’ shithole for a w-whole month!”

          “Oh, hush up already!” Feferi groaned, “You already knew this would be a long process, Eridan!”

          “So?” He hesitantly muttered. “That doesn’t stop me from bein’ outraged by such a lou-u-usy outcome.”  He cringed angrily at the mess his stupid stutter was causing, and inwardly cursed himself for not paying enough attention to it.  “Shit, I fuckin’ hate this.”

          Eridan’s ire deflated like a balloon and he floated to the ground with a moan. He crushed his hands to his face and let loose a series muttered expletives, and finally, groaned yet again, a stream of bubbles slipping between his fingers.

          “I don’t even want to be here.” He spat out in defeat. “And I know-w you don’t either, Fef.”

          She looked at her friend dismally, and in thinking of the entire situation they were in, sighed.

          “Well, it doesn’t matter.” She swam down to his level and gathered him up in her arms. “We’re stuck here and we’re stuck with all this nonsense. The least we can do is find some enjoyment in it.”

          “I don’t know how-w you can be so optimistic about all this.” He grunted.

          “And I don’t know how you can be so set on making yourself feel as miserable as possible.” Feferi retorted. “I’m not exactly happy about this, Eridan, and don’t you get to thinking that I am.” She scolded defensively.

          “Well, you’re being dumb about that.” He stated matter of factly, causing Feferi to stare at him in disbelief.

          “You’ve got a great thing going for you. You’re gonna get all this lov-ve and attention for the next month w-while I get chided by my dad and not to mention, I get to deal w-with that idiot clown and his creepy, whisperin’ manservant.” He ranted on. “But not you, no, The Empress is all sw-weet compliments and lov-ving remarks towards you, and you actually get along with those two morons.”

          Feferi could not believe him and she pushed him away.

          “My mother’s all sweet compliments and loving remarks? Where do you get that? I hate my mom sometimes, and I hate her sickening ‘compliments’ even more! She just wants to scare and discourage me, and all these compliments are just veiled threats! If I don’t do as she says, I’m done!” She seethed with an anger not entirely aimed at Eridan. “She doesn’t even want me as her heiress because she doesn’t want one at all! She’d kill me if she could, but she’s got to keep her bloodline in command, so she instead forces me to do all this stupid stuff to make me like her! And I absolutely can’t stand it!”

          She finished with a shrill scream of anger, the atmosphere dropping to unimaginable levels of silence once she did so.

          Feferi remained still in one place, her gaze down at the floor, which she had unknowingly turned her attention halfway through her rant. The air around her was chilling and somber.
          Eridan had pushed himself against a nearby wall with an arm up in an almost protective stance, feeling tense and somewhat fearful of Feferi, despite his better judgement.
         
Her rage and defeat was tangible, and though Eridan wanted to make her feel better, he felt suddenly powerless at the thought of any attempt to do so. Clearly he’d crossed the line big time. Yeah, he messed up. Again.

          “Fef... “ He whispered, uncertain. “I’m… I’m sorry, Fef, I didn’t mean…” He found himself at a loss for words.

          “It’s fine, Eridan.” She said, almost apologetically. “You didn’t do it.” Feferi took a deep breathe, in and out. “Though I really could have done without the self-pity and the, ‘Oh, you have it so good’ comments.”

          “Sorry…”

          They were silent.

          Until Feferi sighed and spoke up,  “Listen, this is all around pretty awful, for both of us.” She said, “And I don’t want you thinking I don’t care about your feelings about this, it’s just, I’m under more stress.” She admitted. “And I’m not saying that just to put my problems above yours, but, Eridan, I need you to just try to be positive. I’m doing my best not to have an absolute panic attack, and while I want to help your with your own, I just can’t because I have too much on my plate.”

          Eridan looked up at her nervously, not feeling good about the conversation looming up ahead. Not that any earlier ones today had been particularly swell.

          “You w-want to just... “ Eridan hesitated to continue, “Stop bothering you, then?”

          Feferi did not respond for some time. She was deep in thought, heavily contemplating what he suggested and what she wanted and needed.

          “I suppose so, but, that’s a rather harsh way to put it.”

          “But it’s the correct words, ain’t it?”

          “No, don’t play this game, that’s not fair.” She asserted. “I want to help, but I can’t do so right now without undermining my own emotional composure.”

          With a sigh, Feferi began explaining her advice for Eridan.  “Maybe just… like I said, first, try being more… positive about things!” She bubbled out. “And, try ignoring what people say, don’t let it get to you! Finally, just think about what problems are really important enough to throw a fit over and what problems you can just bottle up for the time being!”

          “Fef, that last part actually sounds pretty damn unhealthy.” Eridan bluntly admitted.

          “Well,” Feferi’s meager enthusiasm faded away. “It’s just for now. I promise.”

          Eridan gave her a hard, questioning look. He was concerned for her now, and honestly? He hadn’t been before this whole mess of a bitter feelings jam, but now he thought that he might’ve been inconsiderate of Feferi and how she felt about all this. She had seemed so composed in her delivery fish bubbles; talking about her upcoming Rites of Maturity and training to become heiress never seemed to bother her and she certainly never raged quite like she had just now. Not to mention, when they had met up and taken trip to the Makara’s wretched castle, she didn’t necessarily seem displeased. Though he did suppose she was a little quiet, if not despondent. But, still, she was still bubbly as ever, mostly.

          “She was so chipper, what the heck is all of this?” Eridan thought. “Did somethin’ come up? Why is she so mad?”

          He tried to reason it in his mind, but just couldn’t figure it out. He felt bad for her, but only because she was evidently upset, not because he actually understood her situation as she saw it. If he were to be perfectly true to himself, he still felt like he might have the shorter end of the stick, but now he was ambivalent to truly believe it.
          Still, perhaps she just overreacting, just a little.
          Feferi could be quite ridiculous sometimes, Eridan knew.
         
Yeah, she was overreacting, for sure.

          How could she possibly be mad about becoming Heiress, that’s ridiculous, she’s talked about it all her life!

          Regardless, if Fef really wanted him to not come to her about all this, he supposed he wouldn’t. He felt rejected though. He just wanted to share his emotions with her, why couldn’t she get that?

          “Now’s not the time.” Eridan supposed. “ She’s moody now, anyways.” He argued to himself.

          “Fine.” Eridan finally responded, his tone becoming snarky as he began to feel less emotionally overwhelmed. “I’ll follow-w all that, if you really w-want.”

          “Good!” Feferi cheered, clapping her hands together. “I just want this to go swimmingly, is all!”

          “What a change…” Eridan pondered, a drizzle of relief running through him. “Clearly she’s calmed down.”

          “Well, I think we should go to bed. It’s been…” Feferi released a breath she was unaware she had been holding. “...quite a day.”

          “Sure.” Eridan muttered. “Nothing ev-ven really happened today, but, w-whatev-ver.”

          “Damn that stupid word and my stupid stutter.” He berated himself.

          “Eridan, just go to bed, you’re clearly just as tired and grumpy as me.” Feferi chastised.

          “Fine.”  With a frown, Eridan turned around to face the door, through he still kept on eye on Feferi from over his shoulder.

          “See ya, Fef.” He motioned a goodbye.

          “Goodnight, Eridan.”

          He was slow to exit and slower still to bring down the door, but Eridan did eventually leave and head back to his room.
         
When he arrived, he got himself ready for bed and allowed himself more time to think on every aspect between him, Feferi, and this whole situation.

          “God, this sucks.”

 

***

 

          “Hey, Equius, bro.” Gamzee looked up at Equius from inside his chamber, Equius with his hand on the door to shut it.

          “Yes, sir?”

          “This is a whole lot more serious than I done up and thought.”

          Equius didn’t respond for a moment, though he was no stranger to the thoughts of which Gamzee was referring to.  “It is certainly not good, sir.”

          “It’s just…” Gamzee curled a lock of black hair around his finger and twirled it nervously. “Well, I didn’t all get to my thinking on what all losing my necklace could mean for me and dad. It’d be pretty bad, I think. And I don’t want none of that.”

          “I agree with the sentiment, sir.”

          “Maybe… Hey, should we get some practice in tonight, bro?”

          Equius thought on it, his nerves dead tired from the entire introduction session to The Court of Highest Tide and his eyes practically burning from standing (or staring) at attention the whole time.

          He just wanted some sleep.

          But he also knew that they had to take advantage of every opportunity.

          “If you wish, Your Highness.” Equius reluctantly answered.

Chapter Text

        “This was a mistake…” A sleep deprived Equius told himself that night. “Such a great feat of absolute error on my part.”

        “Look, Equius, loooooook…!” Gamzee called out. “I got me some human skin!”

        The tired young man opened his tired eyes to see… a bottle of Faygo?

        Oh, a bottle had somehow gotten out of it’s net. Equius swatted it away and turned hi focus on his master/pupil who he found floating upside down before him. Gamzee’s body was configured in a strange, almost bothersome manner. His tail was short and his legs halfway between goat and human, their most prominent feature being feet that began with a human heel and somehow ended in bizarre hoof-toe things. Equius shivered and paid attention to other aspects, such as Gamzee’s complete lack of facial fins and, disturbingly enough, gills that seemed smaller than usual.
        Darn it, he told Gamzee not to transform his gills while underwater.

        “Sir, I am concerned for your gills, please reverse them back to normal size this instant.”

        Gamzee dropped his arms and flopped in the water dejectedly. “You didn’t even look at my human skin, bro…”

        Equius briefly noted that Gamzee has indeed managed to change his skin to a more humanesque hue. However, Equius was not quite sure he had seen humans with skin... quite like this.

        “Yes, it is indeed impressive, however, humans do not posses such a wide variety of skin tones on their individual.”

        Gamzee looked himself over and examined the gradient of skin tones he had managed to project onto himself.
        His skin faded from extremely pale, to the darkest shade of brown he knew, almost black. He’d tried to mimic the color of the various human sailors he’d seen during his father’s raids as well the skin of the two humans he’d seen in the sea cave.
        He didn’t think about the fact that all of them were monotone, and he supposed that he should have focused on one skin tone rather than literally every single one.

        “Uh… maybe I can be a rainbow human?”

        “No.”

        “Well, ain’t it worth a try?”

        “No.”

        Gamzee pouted and slowly let the human colors drain from his skin. “Aww… fine…”

        “Please sir, listen, return your gills to their proper size, it’s dangerous to do this underwater.”

        “Oh, did I do that?” Gamzee twisted his head in all sorts of crazy angles in an attempt to see the gills on his neck. “I didn’t even notice, brother.”

        “That’s even worse.” Equius affirmed. “You need to watch that; we don’t want you to drown.”

        “Never thought about that…” Gamzee drifted down to Equius and slowly undid all the work he’d done to his body. “Ugh, this still feels all ticklish and weird, but at least it don’t get to hurting me all as much as it used to get up to doing.”

        “Yes, it is good that you are not in as much pain during the transformations now. This is definitely a step further.” Equius did a quick assessment of everything Gamzee had let to perfect and shared his rundown with him.

        “You’ve figured it out, for the most part, sir.” He said. “You can completely retract your facial and arm fins and you’ve smoothed out any and all patches of fur and scales on your upper body. Aside from the gills- please don’t do anything with them right now- and the… entire lower body and skin situation… yes, aside from that, you are doing quite well.”

        “Well, that don’t sound like too much trouble! Sounds like we’re all getting to being done here, eh, Eq bro?”

        “No.”

        “Aw, what?”

        “The legs are the hardest part, sir. It’s the part of your body that is changing the most.”

        “But, I’m doing okay on these walky suckers, right?” Gamzee quietly asked with a moue.

        “No, you have much more to work on.” Equius answered. “First, we need your tail to completely retract and for your legs to fully turn human. No fur. No scales.”

        Equius looked over Gamzee as the amalgamation called his legs slowly morphed back into a long, purple tail. He worried how long it would take Gamzee to master this, but he supposed he’d done good so far. It had suddenly occurred to Equius though that the next obstacle after that was having Gamzee actually walk on them.
        Clearly their current training habitat would be work for such practice as it was, of course, completely underwater. Equius actually had an area in mind, a place he'd discovered doing one of his outings.
        But, that was to be fretted over for another time. Now, it was so late, it might have very well been morning.

        “Your Highness, we should probably leave. We have our first gala tomorrow.” Equius sighed. “The rest of The Court of The Highest Tide will be arriving tomorrow”

        “Man, everyone from that group of fellas is all stuffy and unfun, except for Feferi. And mister seahorse, I guess. He’s still stuffy, but he ain’t a boring one at least.”

        “Yes, it will be a rather tiring day.” Equius agreed. “Again.”

        “Guess we ought to leave, then bro.”

        Gamzee wiggled the last little bit of his transformations out, flicking his facial fins and stretching everything out. He sighed in pleasure as his body loosened up. That was one downside to transformation practices; his muscles got so tense.

        “Let’s get our leave on.” Gamzee reached for Equius’ wrist and dragged him to the room’s entrance.

        “Uh, s-sir, I am capable of swimming on my-”

        “Hush, we don’t anyone waking up.”

        “Sir, we are in a low level of the blocked off basement, there’s no one-”

        Gamzee cut him off with a harsh hush, drawn out as he continued to drag him along.

        “Just shush, Equius, give those horsey legs a rest.”

        Equius flushed in embarrassment, but sighed in defeat.

        Gamzee chuckled, but in the middle of it, he suddenly felt a sharp stutter in his throat and it contracted tightly. Giving way to a coughing fit, Gamzee let go out Equius and came to a screeching halt in the water. His gills were flaring up, frantically trying to draw more oxygen from the water around him, and Gamzee was helplessly releasing bubbles of air for what felt like forever, but eventually, it came to an end and he could breathe once more.

        “Your Highness! Your Highness!”

        Gamzee’s eyes opened and focused on the sight of a terrified Equius clutching him by the shoulders.

        “Sir?’

        Gamzee put his hands on Equius’ arms and, after taking a steady breath, gave him a weak smile. “Yeah, bro?”

        “Sir, what happened?”

        “Uh, nothing bro, just a little coughing fit is all.” Gamzee assured.

        “You have never had coughing fits, sir.” Equius stated with unease.

        “Uh, got a little fish caught in my throat, man.” Gamzee blurted out.

        “What?” Equius startled. “A fish? Disgusting.” He looked bothered and one could see him practically shiver at the notion. “Please, sir, tell me you got it out.”

        Gamzee smiled and floated on his back, throwing his hands up behind his head. “Nah, bro, I ate that lil fin fish brother.”

        “Oh dear…” Equius paled. “I think it is time for me to return to my room. I will depart here. Goodnight, we will meet in the morning.”

        Without another word, Equius quickly rushed down the hall and swam fast for his guest room, hoping he could get in his chamber without awakening anyone.

        Gamzee chuckled as he saw him swim off, but once he saw his friend ascend to the upper floors, he reached up to his neck.

        “Man, these gills of mine get their grow back on real wicked slow…”

 

***

 

        As they had all suspected, the next couple of days had been extremely strenuous for the four children.

        They were constantly attending celebrations which, considering that they were technically meant to celebrate the Heiress and Heirs’ journey into becoming True Heiress and Heirs, were highly dismissive of them. At the same time, the celebrations focused far to much on the four children for them to be comfortable. The whole engagement was a stressful yet boring wreck.

        At their arrival, a crowd of court members from both The High Tide and The Highest Tide would flock around them and laud the cramped and nervous children with plaudit and flattery until their lungs gave out from all the chatter.
        But once that was over, they were hardly paid any mind by anyone. When someone did engage with them, it was only to slip in more honeyed words and sly comments about pacts and alliances and favors. The only thing these people wanted was to get in good with the four highest up and coming rulers of the sea. It was an immense effort for Feferi, Eridan, Equius, and even Gamzee to feign interest in anything these stuck up court members had to say.
        Yet, they struggled through each time, smiling their best, if capable, and acting as though they were very engrossed in the conversation. After all, while they could care less about any of this, their parents were ever diligent of their offspring and had their eyes on the young ones.

        All four were cognizant of this, and, consequently, did their best to be ‘proper.’

        They all had their troubles in the matter, of course, and the first few galas were all meant with stern reprimands at their closing due to ‘erroneous behavior’ such as casual speech, gauche body language, bringing up ill-advised topics of conversation, and showing disinterest in or outright ignoring or insulting potential sponsors and suitors.
        At this point in the celebration, the fourth gathering of infinitely more, the four children were chastised to a state of reluctant obedience and had become pretty good at hiding their true nature from the court members.

        Feferi was the best at it; she was positively bubbly and sweet to everyone, but not too excitable. She had to remain poised, of course, and she held herself with a refined air of control. She would neither agree or argue on the opinions of the court members, but manipulated her words in such a way that one would leave not entirely sure which way her on opinion leaned. This was intentional. The many conceited court members would fill in the blanks of her phrasing and come to the conclusion that they had her on their side, thinking so highly of themselves. Therefore, she remained in positive relation with them all.

        Eridan was also good at it, though he sometimes let slip his dissenting judgement. First of all, Eridan was in no way capable of summoning even a grin to his face, so a pleasing smile was off the table. Instead, he created a more intimidating atmosphere than Feferi, and such, not as many people tried to trick him into agreements or deals. He would still face a persistent one every few minutes or so who would try to see just how gullible the future Violet King of the Highest Tide was. Eridan was bit more aggressive with them.
        His father did not seem to mind this. The young seahorse was intently focused on his speech, ever apprehensive of how a single stutter could shatter his image before he even had the time to build it. More so though, he was finding Feferi’s advise on bottling things up to be helpful in the situations he was in. Though he struggled strongly with it, he maintained as composed as possible when the urge to throw a fit emerged, as he knew this would also lead nowhere good. He grit his teeth often at the words of the court members, feeling a deep need to argue childishly about particular topics. Despite the pure agonizing pain this sometimes was for him, Eridan felt the slightest trickle of relief drip through him when he saw how well things went. As well as they could, anyway. Feferi’s advice practically defused a dangerous scenario Eridan found himself in the other night, when a lower noble his own age actually came up to him and sneakingly bragged about how Feferi was ‘absolutely’ into him. Then he had the audacity to invite Eridan into what was essentially the other noble's future harem.
        It took everything in Eridan not to deck the disgustingly flirtatious young man right in the gills.
        Eridan still had a lot of negative feelings and anger, but at least now it wasn’t actively ruining his relationships with others, even if it was with people he positively despised. He was not pleased emotionally, but he argued to himself that he rarely was.

        Equius was positively a wreck all around. The Zahhak in general, despite being the fourth highest family in the empire, was a highly subservient bloodline. Unlike other families, The Zahhaks practically went out of their way to serve those above them. They were nobles who doubled as personal servants of their own accord. It was seen as very odd by everyone how they put themselves down so often.
        The Executioner, Darkleer was less obvious in this regard, his submission taken more as an intense reverence for the upper classes. He still held himself as a noble with pride; he was still the Indigo Ruler of The High Tide.
        Equius though, despite his tendency to command others and look down on them, even those higher than him, could barely handle being treated like a true noble. If fish could sweat, he would have been doing so like a horse all night. He was embarrassed by the most simple of praises and nearly froze when anyone flirted with him and he had a very difficult time composing his sentences. He’d either act too submissive, in a groveling manner, or he’d falter his speech at a loss for words.
        His father was far less threatening towards him as the other children’s parents, and Equius felt not fear, but resolution in his father’s gaze and words. Darkleer was more of a positive reinforcement kind of man, giving Equius a pat on the shoulder when he needed it without even uttering a word. It was through this alone that Equius made it out in one piece at the end of each night.

        Now, Gamzee, however, was the mostdiscombobulated and discombobulating of all. At the start, he seemed completely unaffected by the crowds and verbal obstacle courses presented to him, but as time went on, everyone noticed how Gamzee changed at the galas.
        At first, he had been as airheaded and laidback as ever, but after the first initial gala, his father berated him badly in that low, hushed, dark tone he often did when angered. Gamzee seemed like he didn’t even recognize his dad in the moment, looking shocked and confused. The next gala, he had focused not on the party itself, but on his father, who was more than often, alone against a wall, watching.
        Gamzee tried to cheer his dad up, thinking him to just be in a bad mood, but he was taken aside and told to keep away from him and to go about the party as ‘the most motherfucking proper and respectable motherfucker’ in the room.

        Gamzee avoided his dad after that.

        He was still laidback in a way, and his speech slightly casual, but he could get away with it, being a Makara. Everyone who knew well noticed the complete disappearance of major curses in his speech. His sentences were shorter too; more concise. Equius noted this as Gamzee very clearly being upset. Not angry, just sad.

        Equius didn’t quite know what to do. He didn’t want to risk goading The Grand Highblood by interfering in Gamzee’s affairs during the gala, so he settled for bringing it up afterwards.

        “Sir, pardon my intrusion on to potentially personal matters, but, if you do not mind, I have a query regarding the gala earlier.” Equius asked, escorting Gamzee to his room. When they went out to train, Gamzee would pretend to go to sleep, and Equius the same, once he returned home. They would then sneak out to meet at the cave at a certain time. While usual circumstances would have Equius wait till they met up, Equius felt it best to ask Gamzee fresh after the celebration’s end, however.

        “What do you mean, Equius?” Gamzee responded with a small yawn.

        Equius took a moment to ponder over how Gamzee spoke without a single slur and said Equius' full first name; a rare occurrence for the makara's vernacular.

        “Er, yes, about the gala.” Equius started. “During it you seemed… rather upset, Sir. Are you feeling ill?”

        “Nah, Just ill in the heart, bro.”

        “You…” Equius hesitated. “You have met someone?”

        “What?”

        “You are in love?”

        Gamzee stared at him blankly for a moment before laughing loudly.

        “Hahaha! Nah, bro, I ain’t meaning that. I ain’t love sick, heh.” Gamzee got quiet. “I just don’t get to getting why my dad’s all being grumpy and shit. He ain’t any fun this way and I haven’t seen him so motherfucking strict on me. It’s throwing off my vibes, Eq bro. I don’t got my good, miraculous feels on for much right now.”

        “Yes, though, if I may sir, I do believe he is simply trying to act properly.” Equius added.

        “Ugh, oh yeah.” Gamzee made mocking gestures with his hands and face. “Proper. I hate being proper, it’s dumb.”

        “Actually, it’s extremely necessary as a noble heir such as yourself.”

        “I don’t care, my dad’s being kinda mean about it and I don’t get it. Ain’t like I’m being rude to people, they’s all just stuffy is all. If I don’t all up and get my words organized in neat little prose for them, they act like I’ve up and killed their mother. The court’s a no fun bunch.”

        “You know, sir, that you’ve meet them all before.”

        “Yeah, well, that was when I could get my own fun on and ignore their unfunniness.” Gamzee sighed. “And to think my dad’s likes jokes, but won’t let me crack any at a party.”

        Equius did find it rather odd how The Grand Highblood was usually strict on Gamzee during the galas, especially since Gamzee acted hardly any more crass than he himself did at gatherings and celebrations. He supposed only The Grand Highblood himself could provide an answer.
        For the time being though, Equius only knew that Gamzee was very much affected by it. For the first time, the silly boy seemed genuinely hurt and saddened by something.

        “Sir, I know that you appear to be in need of rest, but, would perhaps training tonight would improve your mood?” Equius dared to ask. He hoped this didn’t seem dismissive of Gamzee’s current state of distraught.

        Equius half expected Gamzee to jump straight to it and tell him how excited he was to get started, but Gamzee instead was quiet, like he was actually considering his answer.
        After a long moment of silence, almost a full minute, Gamzee quietly responded.

        “Yeah, sure bro. That’d be nice.” He sounded more cheerful, more relaxed, and a smile graced his face.

        Equius found himself immensely relieved, oddly enough. He had been really worried there. He still was, but at least Gamzee seemed open to an improvement in mood.

        “Yes, sir.” He continued escorting Gamzee to his room and chamber. “Oh, an aside. If you would like, I have an idea.”

        “Yeah?” Gamzee coaxed, “Go on, bro.”

        “Yes. The basement room replete with human soda is an... adequate space for training. However, we will need to practice your walking abilities. Needless to say, that room lacks… dry land.”

        “Oh, yeah, that it does.”

        “I remembered finding a sea cave on an edge the nearby island that had no land entrances. Using that would be most suitable as no humans can easily access or see into it.” Equius said. “The only downside is that we will have to limit our time so we can return before dawn and we must find a way to pass the castle guards.”

        Gamzee nodded his head. “Doesn’t sound like we got much a choice if we want to get walking. I can probably get us out without them noticing.”

        “Our usual routes are guarded, due to the princess’ prescence.” Equius pointed out.

        “Yeah, but they ain’t got my snack route yet, now do they?”

        “Your… snack route?” A light went off in Equius’ head. “Ah, you mean the route through which you have been smuggling your human soporific fizzing substances.” Another light went off in his head. “I cannot believe I did not inquire about this before, but, where exactly have you been procuring these?”

        Gamzee flushed and smiled sheepishly. “I may or may not have been snatching up from off the beaches.”

        Of course. Now that he thought on it, Equius should have known Gamzee had been sneaking up to the surface more often than he thought. He had been caught by Equius multiple times, but Equius could never have guessed the extent of Gamzee’s various escapades. How many times has he nearly been caught? Geez, with all the soda he had, he probably was sighted and just didn’t notice.

        “Within the past few weeks, I have learned that you exceed all my expectations of you, good and bad.” Equius hissed. “Show me your route. No, just tell me.”

        “First room, main floor.” Gamze said unmoved by Equius’ change in tone. “There’s some sorta waste chute or some shit all up in one of the columns all in the front corner. It’s all hollowed out and goes straight down beneath the guards, they can’t get their sight on us there, bro.”

        “A waste chute in the columns?” Equius questioned. “Why would we have that? Do the maids us it?”

        “Ain’t ever seen ‘em do a thing with it, but it certainly gets used. Walls are all smeared silly with old juice or paint or something all crusting on the sides inside of that column. Ain’t got a clue as to who uses it though.”

        Equius felt sick at Gamzee’s oddly vivid description and his paling face showed it.

        “You have exceeded yet another one of my expectations. My expectation of your concern for cleanliness.” Equius sighed. “Which exact column?”

        “One way in the right corner of the back. You gotta kinda-” Gamzee made a tugging pushing in the air with his fingers and as through prying it apart. “Fiddle with it. There’s a little notch, pretty noticeable, kinda. It’s a chunky hole ‘bout the size of two wiggly fingers; darker coloring, too. You should see it. Give it a lil’ tug and your good, my brother.”

        Equius thought on if this was the best idea, but he knew now was as good a time as any to set up an established way to get near land, much as the idea made him nauseated. The situation would only becoming more tense as they approached the princess’ rites.

        “I shall meet you at it’s exit in an hour. Be prompt.” Equius declared.

        “Yeah, bro. I’ll see ya. Oh!” Gamzee chuckled. “Wow, bro, we’re still in the hall, heheh, better hush down now.”

        Equius paled, having been so engrossed in their conversation that he completely forgotten that they were not exactly shielded from prying ears.

        Gamzee winked, either ignorant of or dismissing Equius’ horrified expression. “Goodnight bro, sleep tight!” Shutting the door to his room from the inside, he locked Equius out in the hall, the young man's face still in shock.

        “Shoot…” He muttered softly.

        He looked around the hall. He hadn’t heard anyone pass near them, but who knows, anyone could’ve heard them. ‘Training’ wasn’t exactly a scheduled event, and would be suspicious if heard by anyone. Although one could argue that every ball and gala was training.
        Equius kept his eyes open as he traversed the halls, eventually entering his own guest room. Sometimes he pondered over how much time he spent in the Makara Castle, thinking that maybe, just maybe, he actually spent more time here than in his own castle, and this room more than his own.

        He had been assigned by his father to the Makara household when he young, just like Darkleer himself had been when he was young. The Zahhak and Makara family bond had actually been around quite a while, though Equius could not recall any particular marriages between the two. It was just two families who had come together and ruled over their land almost as one noble unit. Equius hadn’t really thought about how odd his family’s voluntary servitude to the Makara’s was until a court member brought it up earlier that night.
        He learned that this actually made his family look bad to alot of court members. Equius didn’t really appreciate that at all. They made it pretty clear what they thought about the ‘pathetic family’ too.

        “Great.” Equius thought. “Now I appear to be facing emotional issues too.”

        Time went on and Equius tidied up the room a little bit, fiddled with some of his inventions he had laying about. There was just enough time to make some adjustments to the automatic delivery fish he was working one. It’s purpose, of course, was to be a much less tempting meal to larger carnivorous fish than a real delivery fish would be. Too many times had important messages gone unread due to the dangers delivery fish faced out in the open ocean; Equius would fix this.

        "Maybe if they won’t respect our family’s traditions, they’ll at least respect my much needed  inventions of improvement.”

        Soon enough, the time had come for him meet up with Gamzee at their training cave.

        Equius made a quiet escape from the extra guarded castle, following Gamzee’s vague yet descriptive instruction. There indeed a hidden chute and, disturbingly enough, it was a nasty mess. Equius was almost certain this was paint, but it had a different quality to it than the paint usually found splattered amongst the castle walls. Now he wondered what this chute was for. Paint that had come out wrong? Too thick, perhaps? Or the wrong shade? It was odd for there to be a chute for such a specific purpose, whatever it may be. No maids or servants were ever seen using it either, yet clearly some of the smears seemed relatively new. They were rough smears, like something covered in paint was tossed down and hit the sides of the chute on the way.
        A large quantity a disturbing thoughts went through Equius mind as he considered the paint was nearly identical to the various bloods of merfolk and perhaps even humans. He wasn’t sure he liked this chute’s existence.

        Still, Equius slipped in and avoiding touching the walls as best as possible while drifting down it.

        The chute ended out from a hole way low down on the castle’s wall. Equius looked up to see how the castle garden’s and spread out balconies were above him, but none of the guards positioned would be able to easily spot him. He was not only low down, but the chute lead out in a rather niche space between the castle and a cropping of rocks that shielded it. Directly below the chute was a rather obvious tunnel that fell far, far down.
        Whatever went down this was done there for sure.
        Equius shiverred.

        “Hey, bro, ya’ made it.” A voice drawled out.

        Equius turned to reveal the voice as Gamzee who was sticking his head out of the chute.

        “Now take me to your new secret cave, brother.” He said.

        After a rather long swim, Equius has succesfully lead Gamzee to an isolated sea cave off the island coast with just enough room to try walking and enough room for practicing in the water. Gamzee admired it with childlike wonder, though he declared that it wasn’t as pretty as the sea cave he liked to visit. He turned to Equius once he was ready, and he leaned back to float on the water’s surface.

        “So what all are we motherfucking in for tonight?” He asked Equius without taking his eyes off the water’s reflection dancing on the roof.

        “Finalizing your form is key.” Equius responded curtly. “We’re focusing on your legs.”

        “Right, right, of course bro.” Gamzee glanced over at the patch of land. “We gonna get our walk on, yet?”

        Equius looked up at him and frowned, saying, “No, you must first be able to fully develop human legs first, not legs like that of some hideous crossbreed abomination.”

        “Aw, alright.” Gamzee accepted it for what it was and continued, “That’s an important thing to do anyhow, ain’t it?” He reached his hand up as if to touch the lines of light that covering the cave walls and ceiling.

        “Yes. Now-”

        Something had suddenly shined brightly in Equius’ vision, and he cut off his words and put a hand to his eye instinctually. Once his eyes felt better, he looked for the source.

        "Hmm?”

        Equius stopped and looked up at Gamzee’s right hand. The light of the moon streamed through a hole in the ceiling and struck where there was something adorning Gamzee’s typically bare hands. 

        Gamzee brought back down his hand to scratch at his neck. “Equius, you all good, bro?” He turned to him with an unconcerned glance.

        Equius analyzed Gamzee’s hand. It was a ring. With a violet jewel.

        “Gamzee… where did you get that ring?”

        “Oh this?” Gamzee held up the ring and wiggled his fingers, showing it off. “On the ground. Some sucker court guy or whatever musta dropped it, heheh. Ain’t it pretty?”

        Equius gave Gamzee a blank, stony stare.

        “Sir, that ring belongs to His Highness, Prince Eridan.”

        Silence.

        “Oh.”

 

***

 

        “W-where the glubbin’ fuck is it?!” Eridan shouted under his breath. “W-what the fuck?!”

        He stood in his guest room, currently digging through every single thing he’d brought with him on this miserable stay in this awful clown castle castle. The servants had already organized the guest room drawers and closets with his clothing and various other belongings, but Eridan supposed they’d have to just do it all again, because he was flinging object left and right into the water around him.
        He pulled out one last article, a formal ball jacket (horribly uncomfortable, but a requirement of his father) and shoved his hands into the pockets, frantically feeling around for anything that might be there.

        Nothing.

        He shuddered out a sigh and tossed the jacket behind him. “Shit…” He ran a hand through his hair, unceremoniously undoing the careful spiked backed, curly hair. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, fuck.”

        Realization began to sink in, and his anger at the situation slowly turning to distress, Eridan quickly swam around the room and re-checked the pockets of every single piece of clothing he owned and he came up with nothing.

        “This is not good.” He muttered. “I must’ve dropped or something, fuck.”

        He looked over the destroyed room and did yet other swim around to go over everything again, praying that he found it. When he finished, he was truly certain that his missing object was not in this room.

        “Oh God, where is that ring…” Eridan put a hand to his mouth, both in thought and in concern.

        It was late at night, and he knew his father would be furious if Eridan was discovered wandering the halls at this hour, but he had no choice. His father would be positively vehement if he learned that Eridan had lost it.

        “Couldn’t have been any other ring, noooo… it had to be my stupid family ring, of course.”

        Eridan thought back to the last time to remembered having the ring on. It wasn’t like he consistently checked on it when he wore it, but he did explicitly remember some baroness or other complimenting it. That had been near the end of the party, probably just under an hour before it came to a close. That was almost a whole hour for his ring to have been tossed about in the water and end up God knows where with God knows who; and he wouldn’t put it past any of the attendees to steal it on purpose simply to spite his family and ruin their connection to The Empress.

        Eridan looked at his bedroom door in consideration. He had to start somewhere.

        A deep feeling of dread passed through Eridan as he pulled up on the door, sliding it up just enough to slip under and into the hallway.

        “This better not go wrong.” He threatened himself. Eridan soon found, however, that he had not a single clue where anything was in this castle.

        “Oh to hell with it, I didn’t memorize the whole goddamned layout of the place.” Eridan inwardly cursed the Makaras for not making a more navigable castle. “Surely these clowns, all high on their ass all the time, have some sort of, oh, I don’t know, a directory or signs of some sort?”

        He found himself wandering aimlessly, his irritation hiding his desperation for the time being. He didn’t even think he could get back to his room at this point, what was he thinking going out into this maze of paint splattered walls.

        “I’d kill for some maid to come by now and tell me where the hell that down ballroom even is. Filthy peasants won’t blab to dad if I’ve got a rifle at their head.”  Just as he was thinking that, he heard talking just down the hall to the right of the crossway up ahead. Eridan come to silent halt. “Wait, I take it back, I want this place dead with no one here.”

        The voices appeared to be going down the hall and not towards him, so Eridan dared to sneak nearer to the crossway. Curiosity getting the best of him, he peeked over the corner, praying to all that is good and holy that no one important would be there.
        To his surprise, he found Gamzee and Equius talking just a few feet down the hall, though they had now stopped, swimming in place.
        Eridan sighed in relief. There was no one important there, how lucky.

        Having no interest whatsoever in what the two weirdos were jabbering on about, Eridan began to swim past the hall they were in.

        That was, until he actually heard something from their conversation.

        “Sir… in need of rest… perhaps training tonight... improve…?”

        “Wait, what? Training tonight? What are they doing?” Eridan leaned in to hear better.

        Lucky for him, both boys in the hall were turned to the side and neither directly faced his direction, so he was less likely to be noticed. However, Eridan found that, where a conversation had once been, there was pure silence now. They just floated there doing nothing.

        “Are they gonna talk or what?” Eridan inwardly groaned, thinking this to be a waste of his time.

        Finally, they restarted their exchange, but it was so hushed that Eridan could not hear it clearly. He wasn’t even sure who had said whatever it was.

        Then, Equius spoke just enough for Eridan to pick up something about passing the castle guards and… smuggling? Oh, yeah. Something was definitely up.

        “That’s not suspicious as fuck. What, are you doing, running an illegal seaweed ring? I doubt you’re debatin’ current ev-vents.” He inwardly accused them. “No, you’re doin’ somethin’.”

        He heard them mutter some more. Some things he could hear; some he couldn’t. Of those he could, nothing useful or informative could be cleaned.

        “Indeed… meet you… one hour…”

        Hmm. That was interesting. The next words Eridan heard were much louder.

        “Yeah, bro. I’ll see ya. Oh!” He heard Gamzee chuckle. “We’re still in the hall, heheh, better hush down now.”

        “Shit.”

        Eridan quickly ducked behind the corner, hoping to dear God that neither had seen him. He was dead silent, listening for the sounds of bubbles and feeling for the vibrations of a tail shifting aside water. Eridan heard Gamzee say goodnight to Equius, a door shut, and then nothing.
        He gave it a few minutes, anticipating Equius to swim his way, but the stony ichthyocentaur never came.
        Eridan released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.

        “Oh God…” He uttered, stress still shaking through him.

        He gave himself a moment to calm down before thinking over what he heard.

        “What the hell are those two idiots plannin’ and why are they going about it at fuckin’ midnight? They better not get Fef or I in trouble, I swear.”

        Concern went through Eridan’s head as he recalled ever single childish and imbecilic incidents Gamzee had ever caused during their visits here. Equius might not have been an active participant, but he was to be blamed at least a bit for not keeping Gamzee under control.
        After all, that’s what his awful family got off on, right? Handling the Makaras? Controlling while being controlled? Yeah, that sounds like the Zahhaks.
        But then, what was Gamzee doing that actually had Equius as a willing accomplice? Eridan didn’t understand and he didn’t care too, he just wanted to know what ‘training’ they were doing.

        “Maybe it’s just some stupid thing they do that I’ve never known about.” Eridan argued. “But if it’s not… no, that’s ridiculous. Like they could actually sabotage anyone.”

        At least, Eridan hoped they weren’t trying anything outlandish like that. Gamzee didn’t have the brains and Equius was too obsessed with the caste system to dare overthrow anyone above his level.
        With a shrug, Eridan resolved it was absolutely pointless to consider it any further. So what if they go out and do something? That’s on them to get in trouble. It probably didn’t have anything to do with either Eridan or Feferi anyways, so it was really not his concern. Nor did he care, really.

        “Now where in the glubbin’ hell is the damn ballroom?”

        Eridan frowned at the ground. He had to admit, he kind of liked the web like floor The Grand Highblood had put between the different levels of the castle.

        “Wait…”

        Eridan looked closer below him and saw servants trailing out from the small entrance of a room. They all appeared to be chatting and heading towards the servants quarters. Eventually, one maid closed the door and no one else came out.

        “Oh, they’re probably done cleanin’ up the mess.” Eridan noted. He smirked and swam to the end of the floor to go down to the one below.

        “Bullseye.”

 

***

 

        “Bullshit.”

        He had scoured every single inch of that ballroom and there was not a single ring anywhere. 

        There was nothing there and Eridan had found nothing and he had nothing.

        “I swear, if one of those filthy servant thieves made away with my ring, I am going to slaughter each and every one of those shitbloods.”

        He was practically fuming as he stormed back to his room. Too heated to acknowledge his despair at the failed search, Eridan was practically cursing every single person in the whole castle, declaring them all crooks and pickpockets. He was more upset than could be described, and this whole trip was more awful than could be described.
        Somewhere along his enraged trek, Eridan had made a wrong turn from a path he wasn’t even certain lead back to his room anyway. He wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t heard a door opening.
        Snapping out of his rancor, Eridan had just enough of his senses to duck out into an alcove.

        “Fuck, this day cannot get any worse.”  Tears started coming to his face, but he refused to cry.

        And then Gamzee swam by; swam right past him.

        With his ring on.

        Eridan was too stunned to speak, so much so that he didn’t move in time to catch Gamzee. He was gone.

        “That clown scum stole my fuckin’ ring!” Eridan thought seething.

        It was settled, he was definitely hunting down those two and wrecking whatever it was they were planning.

        Eridan frantically scanned the halls, but couldn’t find hide nor hair of the makara. There was no way he was going to search the whole castle, but he had no clue what direction Gamzee was heading.
        It had already been a minute, Gamzee could be gone by now.

        Suddenly, Eridan remembered how he solved his previous hunt and looked down through the floor. Not directly below him, nor a floor below, but Eridan saw something moving around way, way down there.

        “You grimy thief, you’re dead.”

        Like lightning, Eridan rushed down the open passage in the floor at the end of the hall, keeping an eye trailed on Gamzee as he dove past each floor. At just the floor above the one housing the grand entrance, he lost sight of him.
        Eridan was not deterred, however.
        Assuming that this was indeed the floor Gamzee stopped at, Eridan knew that he was leaving the castle, he had to be.

        “This floor serves literally no other purpose but to be a fancy entrance.” Eridan thought as he snuck around columns to get near a window. He couldn’t go through the main entrance, it was covered with guards. Gamzee has likely went through one too, Eridan figured. There was no other way out but the grand door at the front.

        He quietly fumbled with the latch and popped open the window cover. He slithered out to analyze the area to see how many guards were where and he was happy to find an easy pattern in the route he soldiers kept and a path through them and the obstacles that could keep him hidden. After a moment more of perfecting his plan in his mind, Eridan hopped out and followed their carefully, managing to stay out of sight until he could reach open ocean.
        His heart was beating rapidly now, and the adrenaline prevented him from reasoning if Gamzee really went this way. He just needed to move and blow off steam, because he was livid and Gamzee had his stupid ring.

        Once he made it out from the castle grounds, Eridan took a moment to breath and look around. In his haste, he had completely forgotten that he did not actually see where Gamzee went and that he may very well be chasing after nothing.
        Not giving up, and still deadset that Gamzee was out here, Eridan let out a chittering screech and then went still and silent.
        A moment later a he felt a tingle in his facial fins. They twitched in the direction from which his echolocation had picked up solid forms.
        He did it again in another direction and then another. He’d figured out that there was an outcropping of rocks around the area, encircling it him, but they were far out from his current location. There wasn’t much directly in front of them, and there was definitely nothing Gamzee-sized. He tried again in the directions he hadn’t covered.
        It came back to him, and he smiled.

“Now that’s a dirty thief, right there.”

 

***

 

        Rolling the ring with extreme delicacy in his fingers, Equius came to the conclusion that, yes, this was the young Ampora’s ring, not some other violet blooded merfolk. His family ring, no less; the engraved sign of Aquarius proving so.

        “I cannot believe that you took Ampora’s family heirloom.” Equius stated with utter disbelief.

        “I don’t see why not, like, you’re holding it right there, how can’t you believe?” Gamzee said questioningly.

        “You know what I meant.” Equius glared at him. “Clearly I am aware that you indeed did it. I am merely astounded by how you managed to make an immense mistake such as keeping it rather than returning it to him.”

        “I didn’t even know it was his, bro.”

        “Now I am astounded by how you managed to either not notice the emblem on the jewel of the ring or not recognize the symbol that you did notice.”

        Gamzee shrugged like he didn’t understand and seemed at a loss for a response. His expression was tired and unfocused. “Man, I don’t even know, I just up and picked it from the ground and, like, slipped it all nice and snug on my finger. Looked pretty.”

        Equius decided to hold back from anything further on the subject.

        “Sir, I know that you wanted to practice, but I must insist that we return immediately to give the ring back.”

        “Like hell you w-will!”

        A splash sounded as someone behind them had come up from the water and both Equius and Gamzee turned in surprise to find that Eridan’s exhausted, furious face had come into view.

        “You’ll giv-ve it to me now-w.” The person took a breath. “Larcenist scum…”

        “You look kinda unchill, dude”

        “That’s because I fuckin’ am!” Eridan shouted. “Now-w giv-ve me back my fuckin’ ring!”

        “Your Highness, allow me to explain.” Equius started, completely terrified that they’d been caught, and by Eridan no less. Lord knows Equius would have a hard time convincing him to not tell anyone. He had to fix this fast.

        “Now, hold on, brother.”

        Equius’ head twisted with neck-breaking speed to gawk at Gamzee. What was he doing?

        “Listen, I’m all good with handing you this pretty little ring here. Mostly because I just didn’t know it was yours and I’d have returned what’s yours to that self that’s yours if I did get to knowing what was yours and not yours.” Gamzee held the ring out, examining it. “But, like, bro, didn’t you just get to saying something about how, ‘like hell you will’ or whatever when we all said we was gonna get it back to ya’?”

        “What the hell did you just even say?” Eridan sneered.

        “You done said you don’t want it, I thought?” Gamzee tilted his head.

        “What? No!” Eridan shook his head and speed over and shoved his open palm into Gamzee’s face. “Shut up and giv-ve it to me! Right now-w or I’ll blow-w this w-whole secret operation you’v-ve got going on here!”

        Gamzee stared at Eridan’s hand with a surprised expression, like he wasn’t sure what to do with the situation. Equius quickly asserted himself to fix the mess Gamzee had only furthered.

        “Please, Makara, sir, let me talk to him.” He asked Gamzee.

        “Uh, sure bro, whatever you need.”

        “Thank you, sir.” Equius said, then turned to Eridan. “Your highness, if I may?”

        Eridan scowled at Equius, scrutinizing him with contemplation.

        “Fine, but this better end with that ring sitting on my bloody finger.”

        “Ew, that sounds nasty.” Gamzee blurted.

        “Can it!” Eridan commanded, voice dripping in irritation. He turned back to Equius. “What is it, icthyo-freak boy?”

        “Sir, I shall inform you that Makara’s supposed pickpocketing was accidently. He was in a state of fatigue and came into possession of the ring without knowing hooves it was. As you may very well know sir, Makara is not very perceptive. He ended up keeping the-”

        “Wait.” Eridan interrupted. “Stop.”

        “Yes, your highness?” Equius stuttered, irritated at being cut off, but still worried about the whole scenario.

        “Hooves.” Eridan flatly stated.

        Equius hesitated and said, with genuine confusion, “Hooves?”

        “Yes, hooves, you horse obsessed fuck, you said ‘hooves’ just now.” Eridan scolded, “I told you last time that I hate those stupid puns you do.”

        Equius paused. “I apologize. I did not watch my… language.”

        Much as Eridan certainly took his place in society by the reins, Equius had to admit that the boy was truly vexing at points such as this. And annoying.

        “Well then, w-watch it better in the future because I sw-wear, I’m up to here with puns from you.” Eridan threatened.

        “Ah man, he ain’t even been doing it all that much as of late.” Gamzee interjected. “He justs gets to slipping up and shit when he’s a frightened little pony.”

        “Ga- Makara…” Equius pleaded in a hushed voice.

        “So what? Ain’t that just make it more pathetic that he gets scared easy?” Eridan began to argue, but his expression widened as he remembered something why he was even here.

        “Wait, no, both a’ you shut your mouths.” Swift as rushing river, Eridan rounded on Gamzee with bold tenacity. “Ring. Now. Or I swear I w-will tell both a’ your fathers about this secret makeout point bullshit.”

        It took Equius and Gamzee a second to realize what Eridan had been implying, and where Equius’ face heated up, Gamzee just laughed.

        “Oh, brother, ain’t no one getting their mack on up in this sick cave. We’re doing something much cooler in here.”

        “Oh, really?” Eridan snorted. “And w-what is that?”

        A mere second away from spilling everything, Gamzee was stopped by a loud cough from Equius, and sneaking a peek at him, Gamzee could see he was shaking his head subtly yet with desperation.

        “Uhhh...  we’re…” Gamzee babbled for a moment, reaching out for, but not grasping the words he needed.

        “What, Gam? W-what is it?” Eridan teased as he started to take pleasure in having the upper hand on the two boys that he’d cornered. “Eq, maybe help him out a bit? W-whatcha’ doin’ dow-wn here, guys?”

        Equius started up, but Eridan immediately stopped him.

        “Oh, and don’t try trickin’ me. I heard you say somethin’ about trainin’?” Eridan now turned on Equius, interrogating him. “W-what are you trainin’ for, Eq?”

        Equius was floundering for a good explanation that wouldn’t completely destroy everything they’d worked towards when Gamzee spoke up, finally responding to Eridan’s earlier question.

        “Slam poetry, motherfucker.”

        Eridan scrunched his brows and turned back to Gamzee with a face half consisting of befuddlement and disgust. “Are you for real?”

        Gamzee gave him the biggest grin imaginable and reassured him that was, indeed, ‘for real’.

        “Yeah man, it’s more me than Equius though. Brother just lets me drag him around so I can get my slam on and get to spouting my rhymes at someone, you get me?”

        “No.” Eridan deadpanned. “I do not ‘get you.’ Quite the opposite actually.” He sighed and slapped an open palm to his face, shaking his head. “This is ridiculous. Just giv-ve me the ring and I’ll leave.”

        “You ain’t gon’ tell me nobody, right? Not to be getting at bad feels here, but I ain’t all that good yet and I don’t want no one asking me for a performance just yet, gets me going all nerves and blushy and shit.”

        “Ergh, yeah, yeah, I w-won’t tell no one. Mostly because I don’t w-wanna ev-ven imagine you trying to ‘slam’ or w-whatev-ver.”

        “Aw, thanks, man.” Gamzee cheered, “You’re a cool motherfucker, when ya’ want to be.”

        “Step off.” Eridan lengthened the distance between them to avoid another Gamzee hug attack. “Just toss me the ring.”

        “A’ight, sure thing.” Gamzee shrugged. He twirled it around the tip of his finger playfully before tossing it to Eridan like a flipped coin.

        Eridan snatched the ring from the air and smoothly slipped it back into its proper place on his finger. He examined it thoroughly, as though Gamzee might have handed him a replica as a trick.
        Once satisfied with the ring and it’s condition, Eridan gave a firm nod to the other two boys.

        “Good. Now-w, I’m going to bed because it’s practically mornin’ now and normal people with brains are asleep at this time.” Eridan chided. “So, I guess I’ll see you guys w-whenev-ver or somethin’. You keep doin’ your weird thing you do and leav-ve me out of it, got it?”

        “You got it. Night, Eridan.” Gamzee waved.

        Eridan turned away with a huff. “Night.” He announced as he departed from the cave.

        Gamzee continued waving long after Eridan had vanished, his head dropping sleepily as he did so. It took a moment, but Equius finally snapped from his daze.

        “That was… tense.” He softly declared.

        “Oh, yeah. Kinda was, wasn’t it?”

        “Indeed.”

        Silence.

        “So, uh… you wanna just-” Gamzee paused to let out a long yawn and stretch out his arms. “Yeah, wanna just go home, bro?”

        “Yes, I find that idea to be quite excellent at the moment.”

        “Cool.”

        “Yes.”

        Silence.

        “We should be going now.” Equius concluded.

        “Yeah.” Gamzee agreed with a tired chuckle, and the both of them took off to head back to the castle, with no training accomplished whatsoever, and rest for however long their hectic schedule allowed them.

Chapter Text

          In was early morning when Feferi heard a knock on her chamber shell window.

          The way her guest room was built, her sleeping chamber laid in the room’s center with a large skylight directly above. Her chamber itself had a stained glass lid, one with soft, colorful patterns. When she peeked her eyes open, she could see the water around her brightly illuminated by the rays that traveled from the sun up high in the sky, through the water below it, into the castle deep down, to the room within and the skylight in that, and finally to water beneath the glass of her chamber.
          It was a magical sight to awake to and Feferi highly considered having such a set up installed in her own room back at home.

          Another knock on her window and Feferi rolled herself and stretched with a sigh. She swam up and pushed open her chamber lid to greet the maid who had come to help her get ready for the day.
          Feferi went straight over to her personal restroom to start on her daily routine, but per the norm, the maid rushed about, trying to get there before Feferi so that she could do everything for her. Per the norm, Feferi would negotiate with the maid to allow Feferi some freedom in getting ready.
          The princess cleaned herself off and brushed out her hair, applying a balm to add a shimmering shine to her skin. The maid insisted that she attend to Feferi’s tentacles, to which Feferi allowed if only to let the maid feel like she was doing her job, which, she was. Feferi just found it unnecessary for her to rely solely upon them when she was perfectly capable.

          After that, she applied she simple makeup, painting her lips and eyelids. The maid picked out a series of outfits for the day and jewelry to match. Feferi choose out a teal chest wrap and a loose, pale pink sheer cloth that hung over her arms like a poncho. Around her waist, she added a flowing honey colored skirt, sheer as well, with black strings to tie at the front.
          Having finished accenting  her outfit with her choice of necklaces, bracelets, and earrings, Feferi oriented her tiara to wrap around the base of her horns and tuck into her hair.
          Once she confirmed that she was prepared for the day, the maid led Feferi into the dining hall for breakfast to meet the other three heirs.

          Eridan, Equius, and Gamzee were always present without fail each and every day, but whether their parents attended was a give and take. Today happened to be a no-adults breakfast, thank goodness.
          Feferi greeted her friends and then was sat down in between Eridan and Equius. As the servants come out to present their meal choices and serve the four, Feferi noted that the others seemed oddly tired.

          “Are you buoys alright? You all seem very tired.” She questioned after her previous attempts at sparking a conversation failed.

          The three of them shared a knowing glance with one other before looking back to Feferi. They all spoke up at the exact same moment, overlapping each other’s words. Promptly silencing themselves, they all locked eyes again. With a cough, Eridan sent a threatening look at Equius and Gamzee and then proceeded to speak.

          “I’m actually quite fine, Fef.” He announced matter-of-factly. “Just had some annoying guppies outside my w-window-w, is all. Kept me up.” His eyes flicked to the other two boys for a brief second.
          Instinctually, Feferi also looked over to them, wondering what that was about.

          “Oh, but, you did get some sleep, right?” She pressed further.

          “Yes, I did ev-ventually get them to shut up.” He uttered as he picked at his plate.

          “Good.” Feferi nodded. She turned to the Equius and Gamzee. “And, what about you guys? Sleep whale?”

          “As well as could be had, sister.” Gamzee answered.

          “You need not concern yourself with my sleep, your highness. I am well rested.” Equius informed.

          “You’re just not fully awake, yet?” She questioned, once more to all three of them.

          “Yeah.” Eridan confirmed.

          “You got it.” Gamzee assured.

          “Yes.” Equius blurted.

          Feferi wasn’t satisfied with that answer, but she couldn’t help but giggle at how all they all replied at the same time.

          “Whale, eat up then! Get some energy in those flippers!” She cheered as she tossed a little shrimp into her mouth. Yes, she was perfectly aware only two of the four them had flippers, but she also didn’t care.

          Breakfast went on rather quiet aside from a few remarks here and there on the food.

          “Gam, w-why in the hell do your chefs add this rainbow-w mix into the pastries, they look like a disaster.” Eridan whined as he tossed a bread roll in the serving bowl, missing completely and leaving the roll floating about. “I don’t wanna bite into something and find it dyed the color of ev-verything ev-ver.”

          “Just makes a roll look prettier, man, don’t all food deserve to get to looking nice?”

          “It’s a fashion disaster, nothing pretty abou-u-ut it.” Eridan frowned. “About it.” He corrected.

          “Maybe your eyes just aren’t working right, Eridan. They look quite adorabubble to me!” Feferi argued. “Is your vision still impaired from earlier, tehehe!” She giggled.

          “No, Fef, it’s not.” Eridan rubbed his eyes as though paranoid that they might still be, then crossed his arms. “I thought w-we w-were gonna keep that just to us.”

          “Oh, it’s not a big deal, Eridan.” Feferi dismissed.

          “Uh, actually, it kinda is, Fef.” He retorted.

          “What’s so bad? It was an accident.”

          “Just,” He put a hand up. “I don’t want it getting to my dad.”

          Feferi frowned and tapped the table. “Yeah, okay, that makes sense.”

          As they spectacted Eridan and Feferi talk vaguely about events unknown to the other two, Gamzee and Equius found that, for the first time in a while, they were the ones kept out of a secret.

          “Can I get to knowing what’s all wrong with your eyes?” Gamzee interrupted their talk. “I can be all getting my hush on about it.”

          “How-w abou-ut no, Gam?” Eridan sneered.

          “Oh come on, we all let you get up in our secret bizz.”

          Equius grimaced as Gamzee said that, sending him a look that the other did not recieve. Feferi on the other hand, looked puzzled.

          “Secret bizz?” She queried.

          “That’s ‘cause you stole my-” Eridan caught himself and re-evaluated his wording. “Because you took something.”

          “Wait, what?” Feferi asked, now very confused.

          “I was gonna return it, bro, it was all accidental and shit.” Gamzee responded, not noticing Feferi’s growing befuddlement.

          “W-whatev-ver, I got back for that, you don’t get any extra gossip bits.” Eridan smirked. “Unless you w-want me to share yours, of course.” He challenged Gamzee.

          “Shit, dude, I just wanted to know.” Gamzee defended. “I mean, I’d be all chill if you told Fefsis, but, not nobody else.”

          For a second, Gamzee forgot what exactly it was that he told Eridan their secret was. He had come up with some sort of excuse, but hadn’t the foggiest recollection of what that excuse was. He hoped Equius did, in case something happened.
          Just then, Gamzee finally noticed Equius giving him as sorts of hand and facial gestures telling him to stop talking. Unfortunately, it was too late, and Gamzee had essentially given Eridan permission to tell Feferi.

          With an all too pleased smile, Eridan clearly took what he had.

          “Alright, but you’re the one w-who let me.”

          Before either Gamzee or Equius could do anything, Eridan leaned in close to Feferi, surprising her with how quickly he moved, and whispered in her ear.

          “What?” She roamed over the three of them with her eyes, giving them a perplexed expression. “You guys-” She stopped and looked around the room, noting the servants waiting by the walls in case they were needed. Finding it safe enough for discussion, she leaned into the table and motioned for them to do so as well.

          “You guys snuck out last night?” She questioned.

          “Well, yeah, I guess.” Gamzee shrugged his shoulders. “That we did. Sorry, sis.”

          “Oh, I don’t give a flying fish about it, I just wish you’d invited me!” She harshly whispered. “You know I like going out and having fun!”

          “W-what?” Eridan sputtered. “Fef, what the hell?”

          “What, I can’t have fun, Eridan.?”

          “No, it’s just that you shouldn’t be sneaking out with these two cretins, you’ll get in trouble!”

          “Eridan, I said that I don’t give a flying fish.” She looked back at Gamzee and Equius. “So, you guys were practicing… slam poetry?”

          “Oh, so that’s what I said we was doing!” Gamzee shouted loud for the whole room to hear. “I all up and forgot that!” He chuckled, to Equius horror.

          About to ask what Gamzee meant, Eridan froze and the wheels in head started to spin. Within a second, his face went from confusion to realization, and his voice to suspicion and anger.
          Noticing this, Equius looked on; mortified.

          “You-!” Eridan blurted, refraining himself from yelling. “You fuckin’ lied!” He loudly accused. “You told me some bullshit story and I actually fell for it. Tell me what you actually were doing!”

          “Eridan!” Feferi tugged on his arm and put a finger to her lips, hushing him. “Quiet!” She looked over at Gamzee. “Gamzee, what exactly did you mean by ‘you forgot’?”

          “Oh.” Gamzee said. “Uh. I motherfucking meant that…” He pondered for a second on what to say. “I all motherfucking forgot.”

          “He meant that he forgot w-what excuse he gav-ve me.” Eridan sneered. “That’s because it’s not the truth. You don’t just forget something that happened not ev-ven a day ago!”

          “I up and forgot the excuse from not even a day ago.” Gamzee argued.

          “Oh my God.” Eridan enuciated firmly.

          “Hey!” Feferi yanked Eridan’s arm again. “Instead of getting angry and throwing a tantrum like usual, maybe talk this out?” She suggested forcefully. “After all, I get the feeling that you somehow found them sneaking out. Eridan, were you stalkig them are something?”

          “No, Gam took my fuckin’ ring so I chased after him and found him and horsefin doin’ somethin’ in a cavern somew-where.”

          Feferi turned to Gamzee, still looking confused as before. “Gamzee, you took his ring?”

          “I already appologized, I didn’t know it was a brother’s, I just thought it looked all pretty and shit and that some guest or other at the party dropped it.” Gamzee rubbed the back of his neck.

          “If I may interject, your highnesses,” Equius spoke, after remaining silent for most of the breakfast chaos, “Master Gamzee is telling the truth.”

          “For once.” Eridan spat. “And you!” He motioned to Equius. “You were totally in on it, lie and all, w-what the heck, Eq?”

          Equius cleared his throat and said, with resolve, “My loyalty lies to Master Gamzee before you, Ampora, sir.”

          In truth, Equius just wanted Eridan off his back and for this to come to as clean a solution as possible. Now that it was made obvious that he and Gamzee were hiding something, it would be impossible to come with another story for why they were there. Equius considered briefly if he should just tell them so that they could put this behind them, but he was concerned that Eridan would go tattle on them.
          Then again, maybe the two royals were the only other people who would understand and be sympathetic to the severity of the situation at hand.

          “Gamzee, sir, should we inform them?”

          “Wha’?” Gamzee turned to Equius with a lazy, puzzled look. “I thought you wanted to keep that bitch between us, bro?”

          “It appears that hiding it is getting us nowhere at the moment, sir.” Equius stated. “It’s up to you.”

          “Well,” Gamzee pondered aimlessly, “I already said I don’t mind Feferi getting her know on. Eribro, you’ve got me a little on edge here, but, like, I can be going on trusting on you if you really keep to your promise, bro.”

          “I don’t hav-ve a clue as to w-what you just said.” Eridan began as Feferi swiftly interrupted with enthusiasm.

          “Yes, you can trust us, Gamzee!” She said with a bright smile and gleaming eyes. Following up with this was a stern look of warning in Eridan’s direction.

          Gamzee shrugged nonchalantly and nodded his head. “Okay, then, but, we ought to probably bounce outta here and get somewhere secret, you know?”

          “Yes, that is an excellent idea.” Equius agreed. “Perhaps we not take them to your usual secret room.”

          “I’m craving some fizzy juice pretty hard, but I guess I can all up and just get to whispering in our rooms or something.” Gamzee said, deciding against taking them to the soda room. “You guys wanna come?”

          “If you’ll finally admit, then yeah.” Eridan muttered, receiving a disapproving look from Feferi.

          “We’d love to, Gamzee.” She bubbled.

          Once they had told the servants they were done, the four children all moved to Equius’ room due to it being the closest.

          “All right, we all comfy, motherfuckers?” Gamzee asked, looking around the room. When he saw a flat-faced Equius, who still looked unsure about this, a cheery Feferi, and a pouting Eridan, Gamzee concluded that everyone was just fine and he began.

          "Alright, here we go, motherfuckers. It’s storytime.”

 

***

 

          Gamzee had relayed the gist of it all. How he lost his necklace, went back to find it and instead discovered that a human had found it, and he told them about how Equius was training him to shift into his fully terrene humanoid form so that they could get it back.
          Of course, being Gamzee, he explained this in as confusing and covulated a manner as possible, but Eridan and Feferi understood enough thanks to Equius’ translations.
          Needless to say, they were floored.

          “W-wow-w.” Eridan said in surprise, crossing his arms. “And I thought I messed up when I lost my ring in the ballroom, but you full on lost it to a human.”

          “Eridan!” Feferi elbowed him before returning to Gamzee. “But, seriously, that’s horrible! How are you going to find the human, there’s so many!”

          “I kinda know what they all up and look like, but, I mean, I don’t know where on that little island they get their habitat on, so, that might be something to get worried over.”

          “You also forget that humans are v-violent creatures w-who’ll kill ya’ in a instant.” Eridan added. “And I’ll assume you’ve never gone on land before for as long a time as the w-whole searchin’ thing’ll require.”

          “I didn’t really get to thinking that’d be a thing.” Gamzee admitted

          Eridan turned to Equius and said, “Yeah, Eq, if you’re helpin’ ‘im with all this, why didn’t you think of that? You guys are fucked, how the hell are you guys gonna do this?”

          “We are… doing what we can. It is a delicate situation.” Equius replied.

          “It’s not like they can tell their parents.” Feferi reasoned. “Like, Eridan, when you thought your ring was gone, were you about to tell you dad?”

          “W-well, hell no, but that doesn’t make the w-whole thing any less insane.” He said.

          Feferi frowned and begin to nimble on a nail. “True, but, Equius is right. I certainly can’t fathom any other path of action to retrieve it.” She looked up at Equius and Gamzee. “Have you seen them since?”

          “No,” Equius said. “My thought is, if we must go on land as humans, it would be unwise for them to potentially recognize us. It’s bad enough that they likely spotted us.”

          “Oh, that’s a smart thing, Equius.” Gamzee complimented. “I didn’t go about thinking that, you’re smart, bro.”

          “Thank you.” Equius nodded.

          “I wonder, maybe we could help you?” Feferi offered. “I know we can’t transform to walk on land, but, at the very least, we could help cover up for you guys whenever you need!” She smiled and clapped her hands together gleefully. “If I said that I wanted to go out and take you to play for a bit, there’d be no reason to question your guys’ disappearance!”

          Equius and Gamzee shared a look as they both realized what an extremely useful asset Feferi’s assistance would be.

          “Wow, sis, that’d be bitchin’ if you could all hook us up like that.”

          “Yes, if your highness means it, such help would be appreciated.”

          Feferi jumped up at their acceptance. “Of course, guys! Anything for a pair of fronds! We can take you back to that sea cave and take watch even; get some echo wave shells for fast communication? I’m sure I can steal Eridan’s.”

          She gave him an eager glance, but Eridan only seemed disinterested. “I mean, if you really want Fef, but they're special to me.”

          “Echo wave shells…” Equius pondered. “Those are the ones that send messages directly from one to another, yes?”

          “Yes, they are.” Eridan described, “They aren’t like normal shells. Instead of just sendin’ out v-vibrations, the thing itself v-vibrates, so you can feel it no matter w-what. You can probably ev-ven use it on land, if you really w-want to go there at all.” Eridan fiddled what his goggles. “I’d only be lendin’ ‘em to you for Fef’s sake.”

          “So, is it a deal?” Feferi awaited confirmation with a hopefully smile.

          Equius and Gamzee were quick to agree, but Eridan remained quiet.

          “I don’t know-w, Fef, I just think we’ll get in trou-uble for this.” He brought up.

          “Eridan, with me involved, we’ll be fine, no one’ll question me, not even my mom!" She argued. "Mostly because she doesn't care, but, so it goes.” Feferi continued to press him, but it wasn’t too long before Eridan was coaxed into agreeing.

          “Fine,” You said reluctantly. “But I want to stay as far away from you-ur land shenanigans as possible.”

          “You sweet fishes can hang in my sea cave.” Gamzee assured, “It’s got deep parts, not so deep parts, and even a little tiny rocky island for you to get your lay on. And, at night, the moonlight gets its beauty on so nice, it’s just miracles all the way down, man. Just be sure no one spots ya, and such.”

          “Wait,” Eridan interrupted. “Sorry, a thought just occurred.” He pointed at Gamzee and quirked his lips expectantly. “Where did you say this sea cave was? The closest island?”

          “Yeah, bro, that one.” Gamzee said.

          Eridan nodded to himself. “And, w-what side of the island? Or does your clogged brain not remember?”

          “Shit, my brain don’t get to remembering half the shit I do, and it definitely don’t remember that. I know that I just kinda swim straight at it and find it, so…”

          “So, it’s directly across from here…” Eridan murmured, drifting off.

          “Yeah, I guess.” Gamze shrugged. “What’s that got to be doing with it?”

          “Er,” Eridan shook his head to return from his thoughts. “Nothin’, really. Just w-wonderin’.”

          Then, a lightbulb went off in Feferi’s head and she turned to Eridan, tapping him on the shoulders. “Eridan,” She whispered, “Where was it you…?”

          “Yes, Fef, I know.” He muttered through his teeth.

          “Oh dear…” She put a hand to her mouth. “Shouldn’t we tell them?”

          Eridan only mumbled nonsense in response, but Equius was onto it. “Your highnesses, if you have information regarding the topic, it would be ideal for you to enlighten us with it.” He politely pressed.

          Feferi messed with Eridan some more, whispering, poking, prodding at him until she finally broke him and got him to speak up.

          “I… fuck, I might hav-ve seen your human.” He pouted, quietly muttering, barely making a noise. “Might!” He exclaimed. “I didn’t see any necklace on it or w-whatnot, but, it w-was a human and I’m pretty damn sure it w-was in that same sea cav-ve.”

          Both Gamzee and Equius were in shock.

          “Really?” Gamzee bleated. “What’d they look like?”

          “Thing had black hair and, fuck, I don’t know-w, human skin? Tryin’ think a fancy color names, but it was on the lighter end, or somethin’. Looked like it had goggles on, but the dumb things didn’t hug it’s face enough.” Eridan looked irritated at having to answer Gamzee, but that didn’t stop him from describing the human in detail. “He was small too. Not a adult one.”

          “You’ve only seen adults, Eridan?” Feferi asked.

          “Well, yeah, they must not let the babies on ships, I never seen ‘em there.”

          “Well, more than I’ve seen. Mother doesn’t even let me go on raids. Not that I really want to.” Feferi frowned.

          While they went off on their tangent, Equius went to Gamzee and said, “Sir, does that sound like any of the humans you saw?”

          “Nah, bro, I only saw the two, and they didn’t get to looking like that, both of the two human brothers or sisters had dark painted skin.”

          “I suppose it’s not that odd for Ampora to have seen a different one.” Equius reasoned. “Still, your highness,” He motioned for Eridan to “What exactly was your encounter with this human?”

          “Yeah, bro, why were you even there?” Gamzee wondered.

          Eridan was flustered up and he turned away from them and Feferi. “It was an accident, I… got lost was all.” He eventually spat out.

          Feferi looked at him as though chastising him with her mind. “Really, Eridan? It had nothing to do with you freaking out over a bottle in the water?”

          “W-well,” Eridan started, ready to go on a tangent now. “I couldn’t just let those land dw-wellers get away with that! It was disgustin’!”

          “I get that, but really…” Feferi sighed and shook her head. “What really happened was, after our parent’s got together to come here, Eridan was playing with me and got upset because of a bottle. We were close enough to the island that he figured he could just swim up and throw it at the closest human.”

          “Oh dear…” Equius murmured, amazed at how prone the two boys, both higher in the system than he him, were at getting into trouble with humans.

          “But I didn’t get to, alright?”  Eridan huffed.

          “And why’s that?” Feferi mischievously challenged.

          “Ugh,” Eridan sighed, “I got distracted because I heard a buncha’ clatter an' chatter comin’ from a tunnel that turned out to lead to a sea cav-ve. So, like an idiot, I guess, I sw-wam up to see w-what was bein’ so damn loud.” He made a throwing motion with his hands and said, “I shoulda’ just tossed it at its head and been done with it, but I was throw-wn off by all the weird shit it had.”

          “What was it?” Gamzee questioned.

          “A buncha’ w-weird shit, get w-with the program, Gam.” Eridan coughed. “Now, as I w-was sayin’, it had a buncha’ weird shit it was fiddlin' with and I got distracted. Honestly, on some level, I was just pissed that it was puttin’ all that human junk in a pretty place like that. So, I just kinda’ w-watched it for a bit before I got bored. It kept mutterin’ and shit and doin' stuff with it’s weird shit.”

          Eridan sighed and crossed his arms, quirking a brow at his audience. “I got fuckin’ bored, so I decided to just hit ‘em with the bottle because, that’s what I fuckin’ came here to do, but then I was fuckin’ blinded.” He put heavy enunciation on that last word. 

          “It was bright, like shit, guys, I’m talkin’ brighter than the god damn sun.” Eridan pointed at his eyes to make a point. “My eyes w-were burning all the w-way here. I don’t know w-what the heck is w-was or how-w it happened or if the human did it or w-what, but it hurt, guys.” He pouted once again. “I dropped the bottle too, so, not only did I get blinded, but I accomplished nothin’.”

          “Sounds to me like you and Gamzee aren’t so different!” Feferi jeered. “Losing valuble heirlooms, getting caught by humans in sea caves! The whole shebang!”

          “You did not just compare me to that blitherin’ idiot clown, Fef, you did not.” Eridan insisted with disbelief.

          “Well, I’m not wrong!” She countered. “If anything, this just confirms that you should help, if only because you made the same mistakes.”

          “One: I already agreed, Fef. Two: my ‘mistakes’ are seriously so minuscule in comparison that they are all already solv-ved and done w-with.”

          “Wait, sir,” Equius interrupted. “You said the human was putting things in the cave?”

          “Yeah, but I don’t know-w w-what.”

          Equius thought to himself on the matter before saying, “That does not seem good.”

          “Could the cave not be safe to go to anymore?” Feferi wondered.

          “Maybe.” Equius said. “But I am unaware of any other way on the island that is well hidden.”

          “Yeah, you can’t very w-well transform out on the open the beach.” Eridan said.

          “But, we don’t know that those things are bad things, right?” Gamzee brought up. “Heck, they might be useful or just, I don’t know, weird human shit, like Eribro said.”

          “It’s definitely human shit.” Eridan sarcastically concurred.

          “Anyway, we don’t gotta worry too much, right bro?”

          Equius gave Gamzee a stern look, as though he almost couldn't believe he had to explain what he was going to explain. “I say this with utmost respect, but sir, when you aren’t worried about something, that means it is something to be worried over.”

          “Heheh, I mean, I guess, man.”

          “Eq’s, right.” Eridan agreed.

          “Well,” Feferi grinned hesitantly. “He’s certainly not… wrong?”

          “Thank you, your highness’.” Equius bowed slightly.

          “You’re welcome, Equius and sorry, Gamzee.” Feferi dipped her head in response. “Now, what should we-”

          She was suddenly cut off by a loud, echoing shout heard throughout the castle, ever so intimidating and demanding, “All right, brats, you best get to gettin’ down here! All four of you guppies, you hear! We got a schedule to run down!”

          Feferi sighed in deep exasperation. “There she goes.” She swam up and flexed out her tentacles, stretching herself as she prepared to leave. “Guess we gotta get going, fellas.”

          “Indeed.” Equius replied and guided her out the room, must to his insistence. He allowed Eridan and Gamzee to follow behind her and him after them.

          “We’ll work something out later today,” She told them as they moved to the throne room. “Don’t worry, Gamzee, we’ll get your necklace back!” She cheered in a hushed tone.

          “Thanks sis, it means a lot.” Gamzee smiled.

          She copied the motion, and entered the throne room along with the others.

          Time to start a new day.

Chapter Text

          There had been no activity for over a week.

          Tavros and Aradia and set-up picnic times nearly everyday with their friends in hopes in luring the mermaid(s) back to the sea cave. Aradia had even convinced Tavros to leave his necklace by the edge of the rocky shore, just in case a certain something tried reaching up it.
          Sadly, there had been no more sightings and nothing unusual seemed to happen. Even when they weren’t in the cave, Sollux’s cameras picked up only the movements of human visitors and bird’s that’d fly in every once in a while.

          Tavros had to admit that he felt disheartened; that maybe they wouldn’t find anything else and the mystery of his necklace would never be solved.
          He wasn’t exactly sure what he was expecting though. Maybe for a real fairy tale come to life?

          Maybe.

          Probably.

          Yes. That was what he wanted to happen.

          Aradia at least seemed as determined as ever and Nepeta was still an eager bundle of energy. Sollux’s brief burst of energy from discovering the supposed mermaid in his photograph had began to wear down, but even Sollux still seemed set to continue. Tavros was beginning to think he was only one who was feeling a little hopeless.
          He took that as a good thing; that it meant that the situation wasn’t actually hopeless, that it was just his brain messing with him again and making him feel bad. It was hard to push past it, but he managed somehow.
          After all, he was still invested in this fantastical mystery.

          “So,” Nepeta started, mouth full of food. “Would purrhaps inviting more people scare away the mermaid or entice it, you think?”

          “I don’t know.” Sollux scoffed, taking a bite of his own into his sandwich.

          “I don’t think it’d be the best idea.” Aradia said with a smile.

          “Uh, yeah.” Tavros agreed, “It might scare them and we don’t want to scare them”

          “Yeah, I guess.” Nepeta mumbled. She swallowed her food and tip a big slurp from her soda, letting out a sigh as she finished. “I just wanna get the sea horsey back so I can say hello!”

          Tavros smiled at Nepeta, then looked around the cave. He was concerned that maybe the cameras had scared off the mermaid(s) thanks to when Sollux caught a picture of it.

          “I really hope the flash didn’t hurt them…” He worried. He then went about putting his thoughts to words and said, “Sollux, you don’t think that maybe your cameras scared it away?”

          “What? No, why?” Sollux asked, confused.

          “Well, first off, you did kind of flash it with a bright light, and, uh, second off, they are pretty clearly not natural, the cameras, I mean, and, maybe they were scared of, weird stuff in their cave?”

          “I mean, maybe.” Sollux shrugged. “It’s something to consider, I guess.”

          “Uh, is that the.. end response…?” Tavros hesitated.

          “Yeah, Tavros. Sorry, but I’m not taking these all down after only one week.” Grinning, Sollux turned to look directly at Tavros. “Besides, I’ve captured loads of incriminating photos and footage of people doing stuff in here, it’s a goldmine. I have blackmail for days. You think they’d be more discreet around a bunch of obviously camera looking devices.”

          “Sollux... shouldn’t you delete stuff like that?” Tavros asked. “I mean, I guess it’s different if it’s actually incriminating, as in, they were committing actual crimes illegally, but, if it’s just to blackmail someone, then, isn’t that kind of mean?”

          “Sounds kind of fun to me.” Aradia piped in, with an ill-fitted smile. Tavros and Nepeta seemed less excited by the prospect but gave wary smiles regardless.

          “I guess if they deserve it, then it’s be okay!” Nepeta said.

          “Uh, yeah, I guess, if they deserve it.” Tavros noted.

          He looked over at the pool of shimmering water, in hopes that maybe he’d catch a glimpse of something swimming. Nothing was there, of course. He sighed and turned back to the picnic blanket, reaching for a kebab from the rack the had. The meat was still warm and it smelled delicious.
          They ate for a while longer, chatting about this and that, never really sticking to a topic. It was after a particularly hilarious joke that left them all laughing that they someone else called out for them from the beach.

          “Guys? What are you doing here?”

          Standing near to sea cave’s entrance, looking down at the four children on their picnic, was Terezi, the cave casting her in shadow and the sun just barely grazing her glasses, causing them to reflect a gentle red glow, like the eyes of some dragon entering it's lair.
          Speaking of dragons, the tanned girl was dressed in a simple logo T-shirt and shorts combo. At least, the jean shorts were so. The T-shirt? Far from it. The entire body of it featured a large and brightly colored dragon perched on a mountain, flames spewing from it's mighty maw. The background of said image was a hectic mess of storm clouds and thunder.
          It was an exceptionally busy visual.
          Not that the rest of her attire was any less chaotic.

          Terezi had short bobbed hair dyed dark red, with tips that flared up. Currently, she had an assortment of braids in her hair as well, each with a different brightly colored hairband. Her fingernails were painted equally as colorful and her arms were covered from elbow to wrist in a variety of bracelets, bangles, and animal shaped rubber bands.
          Yet, despite all the clashing colors and fashion choices, truly the worst sin against fashion she had committed was her bright, cherry red crocs.

          Word of God (i.e. Kanaya) had once said so herself.

          Holding a plastic teal bucket in hand and her cane in the other, she tapped gently at the drop in front her before deciding not to venture down. Instead, she leaned further in and scrunched her nose up as she sniffed the air, taking in the delicious scent in the air. Such a scent was unusual to find housed in a sea cave.

          "Wow, you got food in here?" She inhaled obnoxiously through her nostrils and exhaled harshly for show. “No seriously, it smells like sea salt and pork, you guys having a cookout in here?”

          “Hey, Terezi!” Nepeta waved to her. “Want to come down and eat with us!”

          “Sure, if you’re willing to help me down. It feels kinda steep here.” She prodded the ground in front of her, confirming yet again the steepness of the rocks forming the natural stairway.

          Then, she gasped as she suddenly remembered and said,  “It’ll have to be quick though. I’m having a seashell contest with Vriska and I don’t want her coming over to hunt for me and to find you guys.” With a grin, she leaned in slightly to whisper into the cave. “I beat her every time and she’s set on thinking I have a secret stash because a blind girl shouldn’t be this good at finding stuff.” She leaned back onto her cane and gave them a smug smile.

          “Vriskers is here?” Nepeta pouted. Tavros followed suit with a similar expression of displeasure.

          “Well, shit, I don’t want Miss Bitchy coming over. Here, how about I just come up and hand you one, Terezi?” Sollux offered.

          “Sure! Sounds tasty!” She grinned. “Whatcha’ got on the menu?”

          Sollux pointed at the rack as though she could see it and began listing her options. “It’s kebabs, and they’ve all got pork, but there’s some with peppers, pineapples, onions, and ones with mixtures of everything.”

          Terezi swung her bucket as she considered before abruptly stopping it, shaking the shells inside. “Gimme’ one with peppers and pineapples. I want that hot and sweet combo.” She smirked and slide her bucket down to her elbow and held a hand out expectantly. “Come on, Sollux, I ain’t got all day, I’ve got a Serket to beat, hurry up!”

          “Alright, alright, I’m coming.” Climbing his way up to the entrance, he plopped the skewer right into her palm, getting meat and fruit juice on her hand.

          “Wow, great aim,” She mocked. “I didn’t know you were blind too.”

          “Shut up and get out. Go distract her and keep her away from us, please and thank you.” Sollux ordered as he turned Terezi to face the beach and gave her a gentle shove.

          In response, she immediately spun around and leaned forward, dragging her tongue over his face with a gross lick.

          “Ah, shit!” He yelled and backed away, nearly tripping over himself. “Terezi!”

          The girl only chuckled, “Sorry buddy, didn’t see ya there!” She swung her cane near him, prodding him when she felt it touch him. “Maybe don’t push me around, next time, bee-by.” With a frown, she smacked her lips and stuck her tongue out in displeasure. "And Sollux? Please wash your face. Your's is the most disgusting face I've ever licked."

          Sollux swatted the cane away and pushed himself up off the ground, patting the sand down from his clothes. “I won't even bother explaining why that is just wrong." He pointed down the shoreline, shooing her away. “Just go already, Terezi, god.”

          “Alright, alright, fine.” She admitted defeat. “All you’re yelling will lead her here, so I’d better go before she does.” Terezi turned on her heel and began trodding away through the sand, waving goodbye.

          “See ya’ later! Have fun you guys!”

 

***

 

          The sun was blazing down on the beach, heating the sand just enough to be tolerable to the skin. It was early October now, so the island was cooling down, but tropical weather made sure that the sun’s warm presence was always known.
          The was, in fact, a slight breeze blowing by that would occasionally kick up and spray flecks of sand up into the eyes of beach goers. Sometimes the wind would even knock a hat off of someone, but the updraft hadn’t the strength to whisk it away.
          Still, it was annoying none-the-less.

          “Gah! Stupid hat!” Dropping her bucket full of seashells, Vriska chased after her baseball cap that’d been tossed up and off by the wind.

          She snatched it up and tucked it under her arm. With an exasperated huff, she quickly reached in her pocket for a hair tie and reached up to haphazardly pull her thick raven hair into a ponytail. She shoved the cap back on and yanked her ponytail through the hole in the back and then tightened the strap of the hat.

          “Not gonna fall off now, are you?” She threatened the mischievous hat.

          “While I do appreciate your tendency to yell at stuff and talk to yourself, if only for the sake of finding you easily, I do think that maybe you should spend your time more wisely.”

          Vriska turned to find Terezi staring at her, oddly enough. The blind girl slid her cane across the sand in front of her and ran it into Vriska’s discarded bucket.

          “Oh man, did you drop your shells?” She tapped the bucket, grinning, her expression still somehow aimed directly at Vriska. “They don’t count if they aren’t mostly whole, you know? You'll break them this way. I had no idea the great Vriska would actually let me win.”

          “I’m not letting you win, you cheat.” Vriska huffed, striding through the sand and yanked her bucket back into her hands. “Maybe I have more important things to do than play a dumb seashell contest with you.”

          Terezi frowned and gave a dulled expression at Vriska. “Aren’t you the one who started this thing?”

          “I did it for your sake, jeez, Terezi, I’m trying to be a good sister.” Vriska denied, picking out her fallen shells from the sand.

          “Vriska, I’m not the one whose upset over the fact that she keeps losing.”

          “Who said I was losing?” Vriska dropped the last shell in and stood back up.

          “Uh, you did.” Terezi informed with snark. “Or at least you said that I was winning.”

          Vriska met Terezi’s wide grin with the roll of her eyes and she promptly crossed her arms, staring at her. “Cheating.” She reiterated, “I said you were cheating.”

          “Oh? How so?” Terezi teased, feigning interest, as though Vriska’s opinion in the matter meant anything to her. “Do tell, sister.”

          “Well, it’s obviously clear because you can’t see.” Vriska bragged, clearly showing off her acute knowledge of the truth. “I guess it’s not as clear to a blind girl though!” She laughed and playfully shook Terezi by her shoulder.

          “If you seriously think I am cheating, then you must be the blind one, Vriska.” She laughed with her. “But I would just love for you to show me this ‘secret stash’ you say I have, hehehe!”

          “It’s your secret though! I would never be so mean as to take it away from you!” So drawled out with a smile.

          “Vriska, did you ever even consider how in the world I could’ve gathered this secret shell stash?” Terezi’s tone suddenly became flat. “I mean, really.”

          Vriska paused and bit her lip in awareness.

          “Shit.”

          “Obviously...” She dragged out, pausing for effect. With an proud smile, she turned to fully face Terezi and jabbed her in the chest. “You had help!” Vriska shouted accusingly.

          “What?” Terezi quirked a brow. “Really?”

          Vriska pouted at the feeble response she received. Not one to let that stop her, Vriska straightened up and boasted aloud, “Yeah! Don’t try and hide it!”

          “I won’t.” Terezi shrugged. “There isn't much to hide when facing flat out wrong accusations.” She tapped her chin in thought. “And I highly doubt you’d frame me. You would get no satisfaction from that.”

          “Of course I wouldn’t!” Vriska shouted. “How dare you think I would! I’m a fair and square kind of girl, Terezi; I wouldn’t dream of it!”

          “Uh huh, okay.”

          Vriska sighed and flopped onto the ground. “You wanna count shells, or what?”

          “Sure.” Terezi smiled and gingerly sat down. She placed her bucket in front of her and reached in, taking out a single, twisted wentletrap. After brushing the damp sand into a mostly flat space, she laid down the shell.

          “One.” She counted. “Two.” She continued, picking out another shell. “Three.” She continued.

          Vriska was muttering her own count under her breath as she set aside her shells hastily into a pile in the sand. After a pause, she cursed and shook her head, quickly recounting her current pile. Another attempt at counting failed, and she looked up at Terezi.

          “Please count in your head, you’re throwing me off.”

          Terezi did not respond, but merely began humming her count instead. This was acceptable for Vriska and she returned to her seashells.
          The two girls took a few minutes to get a proper count, but soon enough Vriska slammed her last prize onto the sand.

          “38!” She yelled victoriously. “I have 38, an obvious winner!”

          She gave the other girl a wide, haughty grin and a boastful glare, but dropped her expression when she saw that Terezi was not only paying her no attention, but was also still counting.

          Smiling away, Terezi hummed twice more, placing down two more shells and taking out three more from her bucket. “41, 42, 43.” She concluded with finality.

          Vriska was speechless as Terezi raised her head and managed to look her dead in the eyes. “43 shells.” She announced.

          Vriska reached over to Terezi’s pile and began carelessly tossing them aside, muttering numbers as she did so.

          “You alright?” Terezi snickered.

          “No, I am not, because you cheated again!” Vriska hit the pile and slapped her hands down on the sand. “How do you keep doing this?!”

          No longer feeling jaunty, Terezi frowned and reached over to her friend. “Vriska, seriously, you’ve got to stop getting upset over this.” She reminded, “It’s really not healthy.”

          “I refuse to believe you always get more shells than me.”

          “Well, sometimes things don’t go your way.” Terezi shrugged her shoulders. “That’s how it is.”

          “Sure, but what are the chances that you always win. Shouldn’t I win once, statistically?”

          “Not if you don’t understand how to do something.” Terezi pointed out. “Vriska, do you want me to show you what I do?”

          Vriska looked up at Terezi with uncertainty. “Why do I feel like you’re gonna prank me?”

          “Because you’re set on believing that I enjoy seeing you get upset over this. To the point where I cheat, apparently.”

          With a defeated sigh, Vriska threw herself back, sitting upright with her legs crossed. “Sure.” She acquiesced. “Go ahead. Whatever.”

 

***

 

          Over towards the side of the beach, Terezi led Vriska over to an area with a tree sprouting out from the smooth, rocky buildup near the cliff. Having survived due to it’s root burying deep into the cliffside, the tree was large and lush with green. It’s branches wept down, blocking view of a section of the cliff.

          “Here, over this way.” Terezi motioned for Vriska to follow her.

          She got down on all fours and groped the rocks, feeling for footholes and sturdy sections for traversing. She climbed over to the top side of the hill of rocks and leaned herself on the tree’s trunk.

          “Are you there?” She called out.

          “Yeah, right here.” Vriska responded, having followed behind Vriska, albeit, with much more ease than Terezi was allowed.

          “Okay, cool. So…” Terezi reached through the drooping arms of the tree and patted along the cliff wall, pausing mid speech as she did so. She gasped softly, breathing an intake of surprise when her hand suddenly slipped into a hole. Grabbing hold of where her reach had landed, she pulled herself over to it.
          She turned to where she assumed Vriska was and finally finished her sentence.

          “Check this out.”

          Vriska crawled over to her and watched as Terezi pulled aside the branches to reveal a dip in the cliff wall.
          No, not just a dip, a hole; an entrance, albeit a rather narrow one.

          “Okay, now.” Terezi said, tossing her cane into the opening. “You gotta be careful getting down.” She muttered, turning around and collapsing down on her knees. “It’s a tight fit, so you gotta go in like this.” She held onto the rocks as she kicked back a leg into the passageway. “It’s a bit of drop.” She huffed as she lowered herself down further, reaching for solid ground.

          Finally managing to tippy-toe against the ground, Terezi sunk a little more before pushing off and dropping down. Her feet made contact with soft, shifting sand, and she patted herself down to get rid of the dirt from hugging the rocks. Once satisfied, she felt around for where her cane had landed and, upon finding it, took it into her grasp.

          “Okay, come on down.” She shouted up at Vriska.

          Looking over into the opening, Vriska could see the drop was only four or so feet and not impossible to get back from.
          Bending down on one knee, Vriska stuck her leg through and roughly crammed himself in, practically popping out. She dropped down clumsily, but remaining composure altogether.
          The two girls stood in a hidden alcove in the cliffside, only able to enter thanks to their small children’s stature. Vriska looked back at the opening and saw that the narrow crack ran all the way up to the top of the cliff, though it was widest at the bottom, where rocks blocked the way. Where the rocks ended, the tree covered it, and beyond the tree, the opening was too narrow to even be noticed.
          Vriska examined the spot of their entry further and was amazed that they managed to squish in without turning completely on their sides and sidling in.

          Returning to face Terezi, she saw that, despite being nearly perfectly closed in by cliffs, the area was bright with the sun’s light, a thin line of shadows near the entrance only.
          The sand here was the slightest bit moist, showing clear signs that the ocean met it when the tide came in. No plants grew here in full, but small sproutlings of grass had managed to cling to the edge of the wall furthest back. Twigs, rocks, and bits of seaweed laid atop the ground.

          “Okay, I’ll be honest, I am astonished that you ever found your way in here.” Vriska praised, placing her hands her hips as she looked around, nodding in approval. “Seriously, I can’t imagine climbing over those rocks and slipping into here while blind, that’s pretty hardcore.”

          “Thank you.” Terezi grinned. “I find my ways.”

          “Clearly.” Vriska maintained. She kicked the sand at her feet and aimlessly moved about. “So, I get that this is clearly some sort of hideaway, but what exactly is this?” Vriska asked, still examining the alcove.

          “How about you use your context clues to figure this one out.” Terezi cajoled.

          Vriska analyzed the area closer. It took a moment to click in her head, but when she noticed it, she softly gasped, chest raising ever so slightly as she prepared her tirade.

          “This place is littered with shells!” She exclaimed. “You did have a secret stash! I knew it!”

          “What? No!” Terezi protested. “Are you serious, this is a natural resource, it doesn’t count if I didn’t make the ‘stash’ myself, Vriska.”

          “Terezi, I want you to look me dead in the eyes and tell me that this is not a secret stash.”

          “It’s not a secret stash!”

          “Okay, wow, you did look me dead in the eyes. Impressive and slightly unnerving.”

          “Vriska!”

          “Alright alright.” She conceded. “But I still say that this is the very essence of a secret stash.” Striding forward, she turned around and motioned with her hands at the surrounding area. “Look; hidden location, secret entrance, a shit ton of seashells..." She shot an unamused expression at her. "Secret stash, Terezi.”

          “Natural location, natural entrance, and a shit ton of naturally placed seashells, Vriska.” Terezi emphasized.

          “No.” Vriska bluntly remarked. “Secret. Stash.”

          “Oh my god, Vriska.” Terezi groaned, dragging her hand down her face. “I regret this so much.”

          “Regret sharing your secrets with me!” Vriska clarified. Bending down, she grasped a washed up branch in her hand and pointed it towards the sky as though she were flourishing a mighty sword. “This hidden stash is now the property the dreaded pirate queen, Marquise Spinneret Mindfang!”

          Terezi merely sighed and turned around. “Okay, I showed you my little retreat, now let’s head back to-”

          The sudden pause in Terezi's speech alarmed Vriska, who turned her attention back to her friend. “Redglare?” She addressed Terezi and, in a pestersome manner, said, “What’s the matter? Turning back now that I’ve laid claim to your land?”

          Terezi stepped over near the entrance and waited for a moment before hastily turning back to Vriska. “So, we’re gonna play that game, huh?” Terezi grinned. “Fair enough, Mindfang. But be warned, I will take this stolen land away from you!”

          Vriska grinned and lept over to slash at Terezi’s cane with her branch. “As always, I insist you draw first. Put up your weapon!” She demanded with a voice attempting to mimic that of someone older; a mature women, deadly and quick-witted. 

          “If I must.” Terezi lifted her cane and swung forward just fast enough to seem legit without tempting the fates and accidentally injuring Vriska.

          The two girls laughed and fought in the closed off part of the beach for several minutes, exchanging blows wherein Vriska would wait for Terezi to strike and Vriska would block it. Vriska wasn’t considerate of Terezi’s sight the whole time, however, and she did occasionally go for a hit with her branch.
          Observant girl that she is though, Terezi eventually figured out when Vriska was coming up behind her and would duck out of the way and smack the attacker in the leg with her cane.
          Even when they were both struggling for reprieve, sucking in air rapidly, the fight went on to declare a winner.
          It came down to a single moment where Terezi was sure that she’d win. If she spun around and hit Vriska hard enough in the legs, she’d likely fall down to the ground and Terezi would be the winner of their little game.

          “Last chance, Redglare!” Vriska shouted, panting. “You have one final chance to defeat me, Marquise Spinneret Mindfang!”

          Terezi smirked at how Vriska loved to address herself by her character’s full and rather elaborate name and title.

          “The Neophyte Redglare accepts.” Terezi responded. “One last face off. Traditional dual rules?”

          “Pirates don’t do rules, Neophyte.” Vriska deflected. She paused for her breath. “It limits your abilities in combat!”

          “You can choose.” Terezi reached in her pocket and pulled out her prop quarter. “We flip. We either battle it out in a dual, or I go at you full force, choose your side.”

          “Oh, you and your dumb coin.” Vriska groaned.

          Terezi did not respond and instead waited for her sister to answer.

          “Tails.” Vriska voiced.

          “Heads.” Terezi replied.

          Terezi flipped the coin almost directly straight in the air and caught it in her hand. She held it out flat in her palm and gingerly touched it with her other hand. Her finger briefly skimmed over a scratched surface, that of the heads side, which she had defaced years ago when she went blind. The eyes of the coin had been scraped away by a box opener knife.

          “Heads.” Terezi smiled. She chirped, “Dual it is, then!”

          “Oh fine…” Vriska moaned, readying her branch. “We count on three?”

          “Sure.”

          “Great.”

          While Vriska got into an attack stance and began to count down, Terezi stood stiff and still.

          “One…”

          “Two…”

          “Three…!”

          Immediately, Terezi ducked down and knocked Vriska over onto her back with a push to the legs. Vriska muttered a serious of curses and sat back up, going right to Terezi at full speed.

          “See, this is what happens in a dual! It’s not fair because you can’t go all out, you have to wait for a count and it’s dumb!”

          “You’re being a sore loser, Vriska.”

          “You’re being a sore winner.”

          "I’m really not.”

          “And that’s exactly what a sore winner would say!”

          “Vriska.” Terezi reached down and held out an expecting hand for Vriska. “Come one, let’s go.” She smirked. “Maybe you’ll win next time.”

          “We’re coming back to this spot everyday until I win, Neophyte.” Vriska challenged. “Everyday, you hear!”

          “Everyday?” Terezi frowned. They were bound to run into Tavros, Aradia, and the others if they come down here everyday.

          “I don’t know, I think that’d be tiring.” She reasoned.

          “Scared to lose?” Vriska retorted.

          “No, I just don’t want to come down here everyday and deal with you arguing over if you won or not.”

          Vriska huffed and crossed her arms. After taking her time to glare at Terezi, she pushed herself up off the ground, ignoring Terezi’s outstretched arm. “Well, whatever.” She scoffed dismissively. “I don’t care, really.”

          “Uh huh.” Terezi nodded sarcastically.

          “Yeah, so, let’s just go. I’m bored of this place.”

          “Uh huh.” Terezi smiled and shoved Vriska away. “Then get walking!”

          Expectantly, Vriska retaliated to this by pushing her back and she strolled over the alcove’s exit. “Why are you berating me when you’re the one getting left behind.” Vriska jumped up, clinging to the rocks and pulled herself up onto the top. She turned around to see Terezi reaching up for the top too and rolled her eyes. “Ugh, you’re taking too long.”

          She bent down and took grip of Terezi under her arms and began pulling her up. When she managed to pull the girl up enough, Vriska leaned back and laid out on the rocks, Terezi flopping uncermoniously on top of her.

          “Ugh, get off Terezi!”

          “I’m not the one who literally manhandled me up here.”

          “And I’m not the one laying on me and crushing me into the rocks!”

          Terezi sighed and rolled off, keeping a hand out to avoid bumping her head on the rocks and got to her knees as best she could. Both she and Vriska brushed themselves off, Terezi grabbing her cane and feeling around to find the way down.

          “Don’t help me, I got this.” She reminded Vriska.

          “Just hurry up!” Vriska complained loudly, having already made her way to the bottom of the pile.

          Once there, Terezi heard Vriska’s footsteps as she started walking and Terezi followed suit. “We heading back home or going somewhere else?” Terezi asked the girl leading the way.

          “Eh. Home. Don’t really feel like going out anywhere.”

          “Wanna get pick-up?”

          “Delivery.”

          “Cool.”

          They walked in relative silence for the duration of the trip home.

          Terezi’s mind wandered off though, and she thought about how she’d saw her friends picnicking in the sea cave. She had been able to distract Vriska by engaging in role play when she heard them talking as they walked past the alcove, but she couldn’t help but think about why they were there.
          Now that she thought about it, they’d been going out there more the usual as of late. Ever since Tavros found that necklace, if Terezi recalled. She wondered if they were doing something related to it? It wouldn’t make much sense to just sit there in a cave waiting for the owner to come back for it; the lost and found at the police department would make more sense.
          They were definitely acting oddly though, and she wondered if they’d share their secret with her.  She kind of wanted to figure it out on her own though. Hunt down the clues they left behind and capture the truth.  She didn’t want to drag Vriska into whatever they were doing, though, and Vriska was closest to Terezi, so the closer Terezi got, the closer Vriska did as well.
          Alternatively, knowing what they were doing might help to have them avoid Vriska, as Terezi could more reasonably keep her away. Especially now that Vriska was set on coming down and fighting every day.

          “Whoa, hey, check that out.”

          Terezi looked up at the sound of Vriska’s voice, which then continued, “Why’s Leijon running by herself this late at night?” Vriska asked aloud, seeming genuinely confused. “The sun’s gonna set soon, doesn’t she have a curfew?”

          “Yeah, so?” Terezi deflected. “She’s probably in a rush because she’s past it.”

          Vriska did not seem convinced. “Hmm…” She stepped out and cupped her hand around her mouth and shouted loud for the world to hear, “Hey, Leijon!”

          Just like that, Nepeta came to screeching halt in the middle of the crosswalk and swiftly snapped her head to stare right at Vriska, looking just like a frightened cat caught breaking the family vase. She relaxed slightly at seeing Terezi, but remained somewhat stiff and on guard at the sight of Vriska.

          “Leijon, what the hell are you doing, it’s almost night!” Vriska called out without any hint of mockery or cruel enjoyment.

          “Uh, hi, Vriskers!” Nepeta called out with a nervous edge to her chipper voice. “I’m just going home, is all!”

          “It’s not like you to be out at this time at all.” Vriska noted.

          “Well, I just got distracted! Going home now!” Her smile could be seen even from where Terezi and Vriska stood. “Bye-bye now!”

          “No no no no no no no no, just wait a second.” Vriska shook her head rapidly on beat with each ‘no.’

          “Hmm?” Nepeta purred curiously.

          “Why are you out, Nepeta?” Vriska asked, now with a drip of callous interest.

          “Oh my gosh, stop grilling her, Vriska. She missed her curfew and she’s embarrassed, leave her alone.” Terezi elbowed Vriska harshly.

          “Oh, I’m not embarrassed!” Nepeta argued. “I was just coming back from Tafuros’ house!”

          “Oh?” Vriska purred. “Really? Doesn’t he have a curfew too?”

          “Vriska, he was at his house, his curfew wouldn’t matter.” Terezi pointed out.

          “Shut up.” Vrisk hissed. “Anyway! Nepeta! What were you doing there so late?”

          “Uh,” The little girl looked side to side as though the answer was written on the street signs around her. “We were… doing a school project?”

          “Nepeta, you aren’t in the same grade.”

          “It’s a collaboration!” She declared with a little jump, showing confidence in her answer. “Now, I’ve gotta go home! Karkat will be mad! Bye!”

          Before Vriska or Terezi could get a word out, Nepeta had scurried away and broke into a speedy sprint to her house.

          “Damn it, I was getting somewhere!” Vriska cursed under her breath, just enough for Terezi to hear.

          “Getting where?” Terezi inquired. “I thought you didn’t want anything to do with Tavros, but the moment you learn she was at his house, you suddenly want to know every detail?”

          “It’s called getting blackmail, Terezi.”

          “For who, Nepeta?” Terezi asserted. “Tavros was at his house during curfew doing a school project. Yes, I agree, such scandal, wow. Maybe he wasn't even doing homework, oh no! Did you want to know if he skipped his math so he could play Pokémon with Nepeta? Or DnD? Wow, yes, you would have surely struck the gold mine of gossip if only she hadn't left.”

          “Okay, fine, blackmail isn’t the word for it.” Vriska objected. “I just want to mess with him, so anything suspicious is fair game!”

          “Vriska, everything is fair game to you.” Terezi sighed and shook her head. “Just quit it, it’s so annoying; and honestly, a waste of your time.” She turned and starting walking in the direction of their home, sliding her cane along the sidewalk.

          “Hey, get back here!” Vriska chased after her. “We were having a conversation! Rude!”

          “I’m going home and you are too.” Terezi kept on walking. “If you wanna plot some way to mess with our friends, fine, but I’m getting some food.”

          “Terezi, come on!” Vriska stopped and waited for Terezi too as well, but the other never did. Terezi had gotten nearly 20 feet ahead of her when Vriska finally conceded and trudged along after her.

          She made it to Terezi’s side and waited for her to notice, but she got no response. Vriska sighed and waited more. Sighing louder this time, Vriska now stared at the blind girl. She kept sighing loudly until Terezi finally responded.

          “Yes, Vriska?” She snapped.

          “Whoops, looks like she’s irritated.” Vriska thought, realizing her misstep. “Uh, yeah.” Vriska announced, “Just wanted to tell you that you passed the house a while back.”

          Terezi stood still. She continued walking, and smacked her cane into a mailbox. “That’s funny.” She said, placing her hand on the mailbox. “Because it feels like our house is right here.”

          “Is it now?” Vriska gasped in surprise. “I had no clue!”

          With a sigh, Terezi pushed open the gate and walked through the yard to the front porch. “Get in now or I’m ordering food without you!” She yelled as she unlocked the front door and slipped inside.

          “Hey!” Vriska leapt over the fence and practically threw herself at the door, just as Terezi began to close it on her.

          Knowing what chaos was about to unfold, Terezi backed away and 'watched' in resignation as the door slammed hard into the wall, denting it, and Vriska crashing hard on the wooden floor. A cracking sound rung out the moment she landed.

          “Fuck!” Vriska shouted, rolling on her back, clutching her bleeding nose. “Ah, shit, fuck!”

          Terezi prodded Vriska with her cane. She then quickly moved to the entrance console and opened a drawer in it. With a first aid kit, in hand, she bent down to Vriska’s level and felt along her to find her head and lift it into her lap.

          “Why do you always do this?” She said as she dug through the kit to find the tissue papers and alcohol wipes. She held out the tissues for Vriska, who shakily lifted herself into a sitting position and snatched them away.

          “Do you need the wipes?” Terezi inquired.

          “Yes, like fucking usual! I bruised by head, damnit!”

          Terezi opened the alcohol wipe packet and passed the wipe to Vriska. “And this is why we kept the first aid kit by the front door.”

          “Shut up.” Vriska muttered. “Go order food or something.”

          Shaking her head, Terezi stood up and walked over to the house phone, dialing up the number and holding it to her ear, waiting for someone to pick up. The line clicked and a person on the other end greeted her.

          “Yeah,” Terezi replied. “ I’d like to place an order for delivery.”

 

***

 

          The sun was nearly set when Nepeta threw open the gate to her backyard and quickly ran into the laundry room through the back entrance. She slipped off her shoes, tossing them into the shoe bucket, and tossed her windbreaker onto the hook on the wall.
          Quietly investigating the hallway outside, Nepeta peaked her head around to be sure no one was there. She heard a noise from the living room and her mother humming. Knowing she was out of view, Nepeta quickly rushed up to her room, scampering up the stairs as quietly as she could in hopes her mother wouldn’t hear.
          She slipped down the hall, her socks barely gripping the smooth wooden floor, and grabbed onto the handle of her bedroom door. She yanked on it as her legs fell out from under her and she dropped to her knees, her hold on the handle being the only thing preventing her from slamming down and alerting the whole house to her prescence.
          More correctly, to her prescence only just now being a thing.
          Scrambling to her feet, she pulled herself up and threw open the door. She stumbled into the room and, despite the frantic chaos of her current actions, she gently shut the door without making a sound.
          Now, finally safe in her bedroom, Nepeta took a sigh of relief and flopped herself down on the floor.

          “What the hell are you doing?”

          Nepeta rolled onto her belly and looked up at Karkat, who sat tucked into his bed with a book in his lap.

          “Oh, hey, Karkitty!” Nepeta purred. “Just getting home is all!”

          Karkat shut his book and set it aside. “Nepeta, where were you, you’re supposed to be home by five o’clock, it’s nearly six.”

          Nepeta turned her gaze to floor with sad eyes. “I know… I was just busy and I didn’t notice the time…. I’m real sorry.”

          With a sigh, Karkat picked his book back up and found his page. “It’s fine, you’re just lucky I didn’t point it out to mom. She’s working on some new book or something, so she’s very distracted.”

          “Thanks, Karkitty.” Nepeta hopped up and looked around the room. Finding her object of desire, Nepeta walked over to Karkat’s desk and picked up the laptop that rested there. “Karkat, can I use the laptop?”

          “Does it look like I’m using it? Of course you can.”

          “Okay!” She unplugged it from it’s cord. “Just being sure!”

          She clutched it against her chest and moved to her bed across the room, settling into it and adjusting herself to use the laptop.

          Her bed was an incredibly soft, loose mattress, almost like a huge pillow. It sunk down in the middle, where Nepeta would nest and wrap herself up in the abundance of blankets and stuffed animals that littered the bed.
          Underneath the bed was a soft rug styled to mimic black animal fur and above was a series of red and white canopies that created a sort of cave for Nepeta to sleep in.
          Around her bed, the walls were covered top to bottom in drawings and paper crafts taped to them and creations painted directly on.
          Nepeta pulled a lap desk into her lap and set the laptop a top it. She turned it on and accessed her account on pesterchum to see if her friends had continued anything on their ‘project’ after she had left.
          Before she could check her group notifications, a ping alerted her to a message that had just come in. But this wasn’t from anyone in on their mermaid project, it was Terezi, whom she had just seen earlier in the street.
          Nepeta clicked to read the message.

-- gallowsCalibrator [GC] began pestering arsenicCatnip [AC] -- 

GC: H3Y N3P3T4 HOW 4R3 YOU?
AC: :33< *ac swishes her tail, pleased to see her friend!*
AC: :33< “hello, friend! How are you on this pawsitively purrfect evening?”
GC: 4CTU4LLY N3P3T4, 1’D R4TH3R W3 NOT ROL3 PL4Y R1GHT NOW.
AC: :33< okay! What do you n33d, terezi?
GC: 1 HOP3 YOU DON’T TH1NK 1’M TRY1NG TO GR1LL YOU L1K3 VRISK4 D1D E4RL13R, BUT 1 H4D SOM3 QU3ST1ONS R3G4RD1NG TH4T COLL4BOR4T1ON YOU 4ND T4VROS W3R3 WORK1NG ON.
AC: :((< im sorry terezi, but i dont think i can really tell you anything about it
AC: :33< i really want to!
AC: :((< but i really should ask tafuros and the others furst…
GC: OK4Y TH4TS F41R.
GC: 1 DO F1ND 1T K1ND OF FUNNY HOW YOU SORT OF G4V3 4W4Y TH4T ITS NOT 4 SCHOOL PROJ3CT THOUGH
AC: :33< im not too worried. I trust you!
AC: :33< do you purrhaps have another question that i could answer?
GC: NOT RE4LLY
GC: W3LL
GC: M4YB3
AC: :33< yes?
GC: WH4T D1D T4VROS 3V3R DO W1TH TH4T PR3TTY PURPL3 N3CKL4CE H3 H4D 4 WH1L3 B4CK? 1 H4V3N’T S33N H1M W34R 1T FOR SOM3 TIM3
AC: :((< terezi...
AC: :((< maybe ANOTHER question?
GC: W4IT
GC: OH WOW
GC: WH4T, 1S TH3 N3CKL4C3 P4RT OF YOUR “PROJ3CT”?
AC: :((<...
GC: 1T 1S, 1SNT 1T?
GC: >:?
AC: :((< *ac sighes and plops down on the floor of her cave, flicking aside a pebble with her sad paw.*
GC: 1S 1T?
AC: :((< fine… yes it is…
GC: 4ND DO3S TH1S H4V3 4NYTH1NG TO DO W1TH TH3 STR4NG3 INCR34S3 OF OC34NS1D3 TR1PS YOU, T4VROS, 4R4D14, 4ND SOLLUX H4V3 B33N H4V1NG?
AC: DD:< terezi…
GC; W41T… 4R3 YOU M4D 4T M3?
AC: :33< oh sorry! I cant really do a DD: face without it looking furious
GC: JUST G3T R1D OF TH3 <
GC: 4ND W4S TH4T 4 PUN?
AC: :33< yes
AC: >:33< you should always assume its a pun!
AC: :33< and i am never getting rid of my < its an important indicator!
GC: OF?
AC: :DD< me talking of course!
GC: Y3S
GC: OF COURS3
GC: 4NYW4Y
GC: B4CK TO TH3 TOP1C OF SUSP1C1OUS B3H4V1OR
AC: :33< we just like to picnic!
GC: UH HUH
GC: 1 ASSUM3 TH1S 1S 4 R3C3NTLY D3V3LOP3D 1NT3R3ST
AC: :33< yup!!!
GC: 4M4Z1NG HOW YOU FOUR 4LL D3V3LOP3D S41D 1NT3R3ST 4T TH3 S4M3 T1M3
AC: <:33< yup!
GC: <:33?
AC: :33< huh?
GC: WHY DO3S YOUR L1TTL3 C4T LOOK WORR13D, N3P3T4?
AC: :33 what? Im sorry, i dont understand?
GC: YOU’R3 NOT GOOD 4T TH1S N3P3T4
AC: :33 not good at what?
GC: 4CT4LLY ROL3 PL4Y1NG.
GC: TH3 P4RT1CUL4R ROL3 B31NG TH4T OF 4N INNOC3NT K1TTY C4T WHO KNOWS NOTH1NG 4BOUT 4NYTH1NG TH4T H1S 1MMP3R14L TYR4NNY 1NT3ROG4T3S H3R ON.
AC: :(( i wont say anything until efurryone else is okay with it
GC: HOW 4BOUT YOU T4K3 M3 TO YOUR L34D3R? >:)
AC: :||< oh okay i guess
AC: :33< hold on, i’ll invite you both into a special group!
GC: W4IT N3P3T4
GC: ON3 THING FIRST
AC: :33< yes?
GC: I C4N'T S33
AC: <:33< er... yes, terezi, i know...
GC: NO N3P3T4
GC: WH4T I M34N IS
GC: OF COURS3 I H4V3N'T S33N T4VROS W34R HIS N3CKL4C3 R3C3NTLY
GC: I W4S
GC: I W4S JOKING N3P3T4
GC: I M34N, I 4DMIT TH4T I THOUGHT IT W4S SUSPICIOUS HOW IT'S ONLY B33N SINC3 H3 GOT IT TH4T YOU'V3 B33N 4CTING W3IRD, BUT I DIDN'T R34LLY THINK IT W4S R3L4T3D
GC: SO, Y4Y FOR CONV3NI3NC3 >:)
AC: :33< ...
AC: :33< what the fuck terezi you lead me on i cant believe youve done this why would you play me like this wow i cant believe you i trusted you and you took advantage of me and made it seem like youd figured everything out but no instead you used me you used me and you played me like a feline fiddle
AC: :33< just join the group im making you horrible person

-- arsenicCatnip [AC] ceased pestering gallowsCalibrator [GC] --

GC: >:O

 

***

 

-- arsenicCatnip [AC] 1 HOUR AGO opened public bulletin board “:33< let in terezi maybe?” --

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

-- AC  1 HOUR AGO  opened memo on board “:33< let in terezi maybe?” --

AC: :33< okay! efurrryone’s here!
AC: <:33< er, i mean, not efurryone... there's three people there 

-- gallowsCalibrator [GC] 1 HOUR AGO responded to memo. --
GC: I COM3 1N P34C3 T4K3 M3 TO YOUR L34D3R
AC: :33< we’ll just have to wait for him to respond!

-- gallowsCalibrator [GC] has gone idle --
-- arsenicCatnip [AC] has gone idle --

-- gallowsCalibrator [GC] 0:27 HOURS AGO responded to memo. --
GC: 1T’S B33N 30 M1NUT3S

-- arsenicCatnip [AC] 0:27 HOURS AGO responded to memo.--
AC: <:33< haha, yes it has!
GC: …

-- arsenicCatnip [AC] has gone idle --
-- gallowsCalibrator [GC] has gone idle --

-- gallowsCalibrator [GC] RIGHT NOW responded to memo. --
GC: GUYS 1T’S B33N 4LMOST 4N HOUR

-- adiosToreador [AT]  RIGHT NOW responded to memo. --
AT: oMG, i REALLY HAD NO IDEA THAT YOU, uH, nEPETA i MEAN, sET ME UP IN HERE,
AT: sO SORRY!
GC: NO PROBL3M, T4VROS >:)
GC: 1LL B3 HON3ST, 1 F1GUR3D YOUD B3 TH3 1CON OF TH1S L1TTL3 GROUP BUT 1 D1DNT 3XP3CT YOU TO B3 TH3 L34D3R.
GC: NOT TO D1SCR3D1T YOU OR 4NYTH1NG.
AT: uH, wHAT DO YOU MEAN?
GC: TH3 L1TTL3 TH1NG YOU 4ND N3P3T4 4ND 4R4D14 4ND SOLLUX H4V3 PUT TOG3TH3R
AT: wAIT, uH, yOU KNOW ABOUT THAT? hOW?
GC: NO 1 DON’T KNOW 4BOUT 1T, NOT R34LLY.
GC: 4LL 1 KNOW 1S YOU 4LL H4V3 B33N 4CT1NG ODD L4T3LY.
AT: oH, i SEE,
AT: uH, i DO FIND IT FUNNY THAT, uH, nEPETA CONSIDERS ME THE, uH,,, lEADER,
AT: tHAT TITLE WOULD BELONG, moST LIKELY, tO MAYBE aRADIA, oR sOLLUX,
AT: nOT ME, i DONT THINK i CONTRIBUTE MUCH TO THIS, uH, pROJECT, oR, uH,,, tHING,,,
GC: W3LL 1 N3V3R S41D YOU H4D TO G3T 4LL N3G4T1V3 4BOUT 1T >:/
AT: sORRY,,,
GC: YOU’R3 F1N3, JUST T4K3 SOM3 CR3D1T FOR ONC3!
AT: uH, oKAY,,,
GC: NOT TH4T 1 3V3N KNOW WH4T YOU’D B3 T4K1NG CR3D1T FOR.
GC: 1’M NOT F1LL3D 1N ON YOUR MYST3R1OUS 4CT1V1T13S.
GC: 1’D KIND OF L1K3 TO B3. >:)
AT: oH, uH,
AT: yOU WANT TO JOIN OUR GROUP?
GC: SUR3!
AT: oH, oKAY,
AT: uH, yOU’LL PROMISE NOT TO, tELL ANYONE, rIGHT?
AT: aND, uH, tHIS MAY OR MAY NOT BE DIRECTLY INDIRECTLY REFERRING TO a PARTICULAR BEING,
AT: oNE BEING WHO YOU MAY VERY WELL KNOW, iN a CLOSE AND PERSONAL MANNER, aND, tHAT BEING BEING SOMEONE WHO MIGHT BE, uH, lOOKING OVER YOUR SHOULDER EVEN, mAYBE?
GC: NO, 1 WON’T T3LL VR1SK4.
AT: yES, i THINK THAT IS GOOD, }:)
GC: NO PROBL3M.
GC: NOW, ONTO 3XPL4N4T1ONS.
AT: aH, yES, i SUPPOSE i SHOULD START WITH WHEN i FOUND MY RATHER PRETTY NECKLACE,

-- ERROR 502: READER EXPERIENCED DIFFICULTLY IN LOADING PAGE. SKIP TO NEXT PAGE? --
>[YES]    [NO]
-- PAGE SKIPPED. NOW LOADING PAGE "POST TAVROS EXPOSITION" --

AT: sO,,, yOU’RE WERE AWFULLY QUITE,
AT: i ASSUME THAT THAT WAS, nOT ONLY OUT OF KINDNESS, aND a CONSIDERATION TO NOT, iNTERUPT SOMEONE SPEAKING,
AT: tEREZI?
GC: HOLY CR4P!
GC: 4LL TH1S 1S FOR R34L, T4VROS?
AT: wELL, yEAH, iT IS,
AT: i DEFINITELY WOULD NOT WANT TO LIE TO MY FRIENDS, tHAT WOULD BE MEAN, aND NOT SOMETHING i WOULD EVER WANT TO DO,
AT: oF COURSE,
GC: C4N YOU S3ND M3 TH3 PHOTO?
AT: tHE ONE sOLLUX TOOK?
GC: Y34H
AT: uH, sURE,
AT: 2hut_up_tav.jpeg
AT: uH, pLEASE IGNORE THE, uH, FILE NAME,
GC: HOLY SH1T
AT: pRETTY COOL, hUH? }:)
GC: Y34H 1T’S PR3TTY COOL!
GC: 1T’S 4 M3RM41D!
GC: T4VROS
AT: yES?
GC: 1’M SO G3TT1NG 1NVOLV3D 1N TH1S NOW
AT: i WAS UNDER THE ASSUMPTION THAT YOU ALREADY,,, wERE,,,?
GC: 1 W4S CONS1D3R1NG
GC: BUT NOW…
GC: 1
GC: 4M
GC: 1N!!!!!!!!
AT: oH, cOOL,
GC: SO WH3N’S TH3 N3XT M33T UP? >:)
AT: uH, wELL, wE WERE GONNA GO OUT, tOMORROW,
AT: iLL TELL THE OTHERS,
AT: oH, i GUESS, nEPETA ALREADY KNOWS,
GC: SP34K1NG OF, WH3R3 1S N3P3T4? >:?
AT: oH, rIGHT, sHE IS THE OWNER OF THIS MEMO, iSN’T SHE?
AT: iT’S LATE, mAYBE SHE HAD TO GO TO BED,
AT: sORRY FOR TAKING SO LONG TO RESPOND, }:(
GC: N4H, YOU’R3 GOOD T4VROS!
GC: YOU D1D GR34T!
AT: hAHA, yES, tHANK YOU, }:)
AT: aH, sEEING AS TO HOW IT IS GETTING LATE, sHOULD YOU BE GOING TO BED?
GC: OUR MOMS DON’T R34LLY C4R3 HOW L4T3 W3 ST4Y UP, SO 1’M GOOD
AT: oH, wELL,
AT: mY DAD, kIND OF MINDS, a BIT,
GC: T4VROS, 1F YOU N33D TO GO TO B3D TH3N JUST GO TO B3D
AT: oKAY THEN,
AT: gOODNIGHT, tEREZI,
GC: GOODN1GHT T4VROS >:)

-- adiosToreador [AT] ceased pestering“:33< let in terezi maybe?” memo --
-- gallowsCalibrator [GC] ceased pestering “:33< let in terezi maybe?” memo --

 

***

 

          It was too late in the night to attempt contacting the others, even if they would most likely be up. Sollux would, at least. But Tavros was tired and he could wait until school the next day to tell them all.
          Terezi was an unexpected addition to their team, but definitely not a bad one. Terezi was incredibly fun and nice and she always helped Tavros when it came to dealing with Vriska. The downside was that, consequently, Terezi was also the closest to Vriska, both emotionally and physically. Terezi knowing about the whole ordeal increased the chances of Vriska finding out and most likely ruining it.
          Tavros found that he did not like that idea.
          But it was too late, Nepeta told him that Terezi was already onto them and had pretty much put together that they were dong something. Apparently, as de facto 'leader', it was up to Tavros whether or not to tell her and he felt too bad to really say no. Plus, Terezi was nice.
          Tavros quickly shot a message out to Sollux and Aradia before he got ready for bed, saying that he had to talk to them in the morning.
          He got himself in pajamas, brushed his teeth, and set himself up for bed, tired and falling quickly to unconsciousness.

 

***

 

          “So, whatcha’ doing?” Vriska called across the room, noticing Terezi tapping away on her keyboard.

          “Nothing.” Terezi muttered, just hearing her sister through her headphones.

          “Doesn’t look like nothing. You don’t usually put in your headphones.”

          “I like my privacy and seeing how I can’t read, headphones are the closest I have.” Terezi said as she removed said headphones.

          “Oh talking about some super secret topic?” Vriska wondered, pushing herself off of the couch and striding over to Terezi’s desk with a big stretch as she walked. She leaned over and fiddled with the device plugged into the computer. A sharp slap on the hand from Terezi convinced her to take a step back.

          “Back off, this thing is hard to calibrate.” Terezi re-adjusted the speaker she had her headphones plugged into earlier.

          “How does this thing work again?”

          “The software reads the screen to me, it’s actually pretty straightforward.”

          “Terezi, geez, I know how your weird blind program works.”

          "..."

          “Anyway,” Vriska leaned over and examined the screen. The window Terezi had open early was closed now and she did not have the time to snoop properly like he wanted to. “Who were you talking to?”

          “Karkat.” She lied.

          “Oh, really?” Vriska said, “That’s lame. He throw a fit over my deal with Nepeta, earlier?”

          “Nah, he really didn’t care.”

          “Oh, sweet, because I do not want another rant from him tomorrow.” Vriska threw herself back and waddled over, collapsing onto the couch. “Hey, you wanna put in a movie or something?”

          Terezi finished shutting down her computer, being sure that she was logged out of Pesterchum, since she knew how curious Vriska got sometimes. “Yeah, sure!” She cheered, getting up from her chair. She moved over to Vriska, stepping over the pile of toys that she knew was definitely in the way and then sat down beside her. “Pick something good!”

          “Alright.” Vriska said, getting up to dig through the movie bucket. About a few seconds later, Vriska held up a disc box and said, “How ‘bout this?”

          “Ah, yes, that looks great.” Terezi sarcastically remarked.

          “Screw you, it’s Fullmetal Alchemist.”

          Terezi nodded. “Yeah, that’s fine. Wait, movie or show?”

          “Up to you, I guess.” Vriska muttered, shuffling through the bucket to pull out the DVD box for the movie as well.

          "Eh, put in the show. We can re-watch it again."

          "Okay." Vriska said, rising to her feet and moving to put the DVD in. “You’ll probably fall asleep anyway, you always do.”

          Terezi shrugged and nestled into the couch cushions. “Sure, I do, Vriska.”

          It would be an hour later and Terezi found herself wide awake with a snoring Vriska crashed asleep in her lap. “Heheh,” She chuckled. “Sure I do.”

          Terezi herself though wouldn't last much longer; she could feel her eyelids growing heavier every second. They were on episode three now, or at Terezi was pretty sure they were.

          "This one was always sad..." She thought to herself as the episode wrapped up, the disc auto-playing into the next one. "They just wanted their mom back..."

Chapter Text

          It had been nearly a week after their breakfast meeting when Gamzee and Equius were finally able to get back to the new cave they had chosen to work in. Feferi and Eridan had, of course, followed along. They provided the excuse that they were all escorting Feferi, who wanted to go out and play for a bit in the open ocean.
          Or so they told their parents.

          “Can’t believ-ve w’we’re lying right to the face of The Empress.” Eridan had expressed both his displeasure and concern.

          “Oh hush!” Feferi had silenced him. “I thought you were so eager for me to take authority and yet when I do, you still won’t listen!”

          “I’m comin’ along, ain’t I?”

          “Yes, but you are whining!”

          “I’m just sayin’ that w’we could get in trouble is all.”

          “Well, just say you were doing as I commanded.”

          “Somethin’ tells me that w-won’t suffice as an excuse for my dad.” Eridan pointed out as they had arrived to the cave.

          “You won’t need an excuse if we aren’t caught!” Feferi cheered waving her hands intot he air once they had surfaced.

          All Eridan had to add was, “Sure.”

          Gamzee and Equius then went about their transformations and both climbed up onto the small section of dry land the cave provided. Feferi had been absolutely stunned and captivated the whole time. Though she knew it possible, she had never seen a fellow mermaid turn terrene and walk on land before! She saw, with her very eyes, her two friends’ bodies become something else; different shapes, different colors, even different sizes!
          The most notable change, of course, was that both of them had legs! Actual, human legs! The rest of their bodies remained relatively unchanged, disregarding the lack of gills and fins. Equius’ skin had mellowed out slightly and was not quite has bright in hue as before. It had become more tan, like a sandy red stone. Gamzee’s skin, on the other hand, did a complete turnaround, going from a pale lavender to a variety of hues! Well, Equius actually made him correct that, so, now he was limited to two hues.
          Equius had accepted that. He said that he’d seen a human once with two colors of skin.

          Now, Gamzee’s skin was mostly a deep, dark brown, rich and smooth; but splattering him like paint were splotches of the palest shade of white. It was similar to style of decoration found all around Gamzee’s castle, Feferi mused to herself. He was very much like a painting, as though someone had flicked their brush onto his skin.
          Both of the boys'  hair grew darker, losing any and all color in it, succumbing to the black overtones their original hair held. No traces of purple or blue remained in either of them. Even their eyes had melted into new shades; Gamzee’s a dark brown and Equius’ a darker black.
          Feferi marveled at the changes in her friends’, she was downright in awe. But it suddenly occured to her that her two friends weren’t very experienced either, and she quickly became ever so nervous that they would get themselves hurt.

          “Oh, are you sure you won’t fall down?” Feferi had asked, worry building up in her.

          “I don’t think I’d be getting where the truth lies if I said I’d be walking all like a land brother.” Gamzee gave her a hesitant smile. “You don’ have to be all watching if ya’ gets scared, sis.”

          “Oh, no, I’m actually quite excited!” Feferi rapidly shook her head, denying Gamzee’s words. “I’ve never seen anyone walking on land I’m just reasonably afraid that maybe you’ll get hurt, is all.”

          “That is likely to occur. “Equius pointed out. “Gamzee has never practiced walking on fully humanoid legs.”

          “Yeah, but,” Gamzee started as he began to wobbled on his knees and, with a great deal of shaking, lifted one leg very, very slowly. “I can do some neat little walking stuff.”

          Feferi sucked in a sharp gasp, instantly tensing up. She felt a hesitant touch on her shoulder and turned to see that Eridan was attempting to calm her down. Feferi smiled at him and put her own hand on top of his.
          Quickly however, their gentle moment came undone when, with a sudden sharp squeal,  Feferi yanked Eridan’s hand against her chest, pulling him towards her.

          “Careful!” She shouted, squeezing the captive hand tight.

          With a hard slam, Gamzee feel down onto the edge and tumbled into the water. Discombobulated by Feferi, Eridan turned to see the young man who had evidently crashed to the ground and fallen off.
          At the speed of light, Feferi dove into the water and rose back tot her surface with a limp Gamzee, who, despite appearing to be in pain, was smiling dumbly as usual.

          “Whoa, that was sorts of… heckin’ weird.” Gamzee slurred, appearing disorientated.

          “Are you okay?” Feferi inquired with concern. “Did you hit your head? What happened?”

          The answer to her questions was soon discovered however, as Feferi looked down to see a dark hue of purple slowly spilling into the water from a large cut on Gamzee’s arm.

          “Oh, you got cut!” She exclaimed, adjusting him so she could see the wound easier.

          “Sis, you really ain’t got to be getting your worry on none, I’m all goods is all.”

          “You’re not!” She firmly insisted. “No, be still.”

          Grabbing his arm with a gentle yet strong grip, she held it in front of her and placed her free hand above the wound.
          With a soft flourish of pink light, Feferi sung an old lullaby that echoed against the cave’s walls. She lowered her hand and rubbed the gash gently, the tears in Gamzee’s skin slowly healing up.
          When the light dimmed, Feferi pulled back to examine her handiwork. Though not gone completely, Gamzee’s cut appeared as though it was merely an old injury, one not in need of anyone’s thought or concern.

          “There.” Feferi sighed. “Is that better?”

          Gamzee experimentally stretched out his arm and traced over the skin where he had been scratched up. “Yeah, sis, I feel great.” He looked at her in awe. “When’d you learn that cool trick, sis?”

          “Oh, this?” Feferi held up her hands, looking down at them and briefly turning them over. “I’ve had this for awhile, Gamzee.”

          “Ain’t never seen you use it.”

          “No, I have, just not on you!” She said. “Or in front of you, I guess.”

          “Well, that’s just fantastic, sis!”

          “Thank you!” Feferi smiled and bobbed happily in the water.

          “Gam, shouldn’t you be gettin’ back to your little thing?” Eridan swam up between them and crossed his arms. “I don’t wanna be out here long.”

          “Eridan…” Feferi started, but Gamzee blurted out and stopped her.

          “Oh yeah!” He said, “Gonna get right back on that, then.”

          He worked his way back up to the edge, wiggling his still wobbling legs to get them up out of the water. Equius came over, helping him onto the land and then proceeded to give Gamzee his own extensive check up.

          “Really, bro, I’m fine.”

          “Not until I say so, now be still.”

          “Fish sis over there did some wicked magicy stuff on me and I’m all good now, man.”

          Equius hummed to himself in thought as he thoroughly analyzed the extent of Gamzee’s cut. As it would turn out, he was not concerned and let go of the other boy. “You appear to be okay.” Equius concluded. “Sir, do be more careful in the future.”

          “Of course.” Gamzee said. He looked down at his legs and then sheepishly smiled up at Equius. “Help a bro out?”

          Equius leaned down and held out his hand for Gamzee to take. When he did, Equius pulled him up and put out his other hand to help steady Gamzee out. With a hiss, the darker boy bounced on his new feet, hopping slightly as he moved his feet up and down.

          “Ah, motherfuck, these rocks hurt, man.” Gamzee cried. “It really hurts, Eq, what do I do?”

          “Stop moving. Stand still.” Equius commanded and Gamzee complied, legs shaking.

          “Okay, got that.”

          “Good. Your skin is especially sensitive since it’s new. Rocks are very hard and sharp, so this will hurt until you develop calluses on your soles.”

          “It didn’t used to hurt when I got to walking before.” Gamzee mumbling, still confused.

          “You had hooves.” Equius pointed out. “Those are tougher than human feet.”

          Gamzee looked down at his feet and moved one, tilting it to look under it partially. “Oh,” He muttered. “That makes some sense.”

          “Yes.” Equius, slow and mindful of the other’s discomfort, guided Gamzee to a smoother part of the rocks. “No, I will walk backwards and he will take a step forward. Go on whichever foot feels right.”

          Squeezing onto Equius’ arms for support, Gamzee nodded up at Equius before turning his attention to the ground, keeping his eyes on where he would step. Equius took a gentle step back, leaving enough room that Gamzee wouldn’t have to move, but with enough space to prompt Gamzee to close the gap. The makara did just that and took a hesitant step forward, his foot falling harshly in place. He whimpered at the contact, but said nothing.
          Equius did this again and Gamzee followed suit. His success in each step varied. Sometimes he’d make it with minimal force and he was fine; other times he’d stumble and slam his foot down onto the rough rock and cry out. Equius was sure to take it as slow as Gamzee could go, refusing to advance until Gamzee seemed decent at taking steps.

          The two of them continued this for several minutes with no words between except for the occasional one word from Equius instructing Gamzee on what to fix.
          Feferi was completed engrossed in the process. Eridan couldn’t care less.
          It was about thirty minutes in that Eridan finally began messing around with stuff in the cave: building stacks of rocks, creating tiny whirlpools with his tail, playfully flicking water at Feferi and even Gamzee and Equius.  He was a little peeved that no one was paying him much attention. Feferi would indulge his antics every once in a while, but ultimately she remained focused on the other two boys and their practice.
          At one point, he decided to hop up onto the part of the rocky ledge they weren’t walking on and he leaned back, ready to fall asleep at anytime.
          Really, he came here so that he wouldn’t have to deal with being alone at the castle; not so that he could be ignored by the three people he actually somewhat knew.

          Gamzee eventually got the basics of walking down. Now, Equius needed him to practice at it without holding onto him.
          The clown gave it a go and fell almost instantly. 
          He would have bruised his face up pretty bad too if Equius hadn’t caught him in time. After aiding Gamzee in regaining his balance, Equius moved back to let him try again, only to end up catching him again.
          This went on for at least another ten or so minutes before Gamzee finally could manage a few steps on his own.

          This practice session was going well, so far, they all thought. Even Eridan, though he was partially dismissive of it. Not having the ability to transform himself, Eridan had no clue how hard it was and it pleased him to think that the process was fairly simple and that Gamzee was just an idiot.
          Once she broke from her stunned silence, Feferi was a fountain of praise. Everytime Gamzee got even a single step on his own, she’d cheer him on and tell him how good he was doing.

          “Fef, stop, you’re babying him.” Eridan called out to her from the back of the cave.

          She turned to him with a frown and stuck her tongue out at him, lifting up her tentacles and slapping them down on the water, splashing Eridan and causing him to flich. “No, I’m being supportive, unlike some people.” She giggled and went back to her eulogies.

          “I don’t get w-why.” Eridan argued. “Honestly, Gam, can’t you do this you-urself?”

          “Huh?” Gamzee turned to looked at him. “What’chu mean, Eribro?”

          “Stop that.” Eridan hissed. “I said, w-why can’t you do this you-urself? W-why are you relyin’ on your serv-vant for this?”

          “Eridan!” Feferi scolded him. “Stop that, Equius is teaching him!”

          “W-whatev-ver, but he shouldn’t be babyin’ him either!” Eridan shouted. “W-what I’m sayin’ is, Gam is a big kid like the rest a us, ain’t he? He doesn’t need three maids cheerin’ ‘im on, which is basically w-what you and Eq are: maids.”

          Gamzee pouted, not really thinking about how he’d pretty much dragged them all out here because of his mistake. “Sorry, Eribro.” Gamzee mumbled, “I didn’t mean to make ya’ mad none.”

          “I’m not- w-well, no I am mad, but I just think you’re bein’ like a little kid abou-ut this.” He crossed his arms and turned away. “Do it you-urself and leav-ve us out a it, okay?”

          Suddenly, Eridan was yanked harshly into the water. He surfaced and floundered around in confusion, looking up at who’d pulled him down.

          “Eridan!” Feferi glared down at him. “Shut. Up!”

          With a mumbling of retorts, Eridan crawled back up onto his resting spot, curling in on himself to become isolated from the others.

          With a sigh, Feferi came back over to where she’d been watching Gamzee and put her arms onto the ledge, resting her chin on it. “Please continue, Gamzee, you’re going just fine.”

          Gamzee looked at her with a mix of emotions: confusion, guilt, and relief all at once.  “Sure, sis.” He smiled at her. “Sounds good.”

 

***

 

          By the time Equius announced that they were done, Gamzee was able to successfully, albeit slowly, walk across the small section of land in the cave.

          “Oh, you did so good, Gamzee!” Feferi commended him as he wiggled out his legs, turning them back a long purple scaled tail.

          “Aw, thanks sis, you been downright miraculous for me today.” He said as he slipped into the water. He turned back as Equius lowered himself in, his human features fading flawlessly into his aquatic form. “We all good to go, bro?”

          “Yes. Let us depart.” Equius said, turning to face the group.

          “Finally!” Eridan groaned, already diving down and swimming out through the cave’s underwater entrance.

          Feferi sighed and turned to where he exited. “Come on,” She motioned for Gamzee and Equius, dipping down and chasing after Eridan.

          The two others followed her out and then all three reunited with Eridan just outside the cave.

          “Don’t just leave us next time!” Feferi chastised him, but he merely scoffed.

          “Well, tell them not to take so long next time.” He retorted.

          “Hey, guys, why don’t we all ju-” Gamzee tried to start, when suddenly, another coughing fit wracked his body.

          He clutched onto his throat as he sucked in more water that he couldn’t seem to filter the air from, hacking out what few bubbles of breath he had.
          Instantly, Feferi and Equius were at his side, fearful of what was happening. Eridan stayed back in shock, having never seen something like this before.  It was only a few seconds, but it felt much longer for Gamzee, and everything around him was all a big blur.  When his sense returned, he could feel his blood still rushing in a panic and his breathing rapid and unsteady, but at least now he could breath. His mouth and throat were raw and his gills ached, but his vision returned in full as he took his time to slowly adjust his breathing to a manageable pace.
          Equius and Feferi looked horrifed.

          “What was that!” She shouted in complete shock, staring right at Gamzee.

          All he could get out was a groan and a mumbled response that even he was unsure as to what he had meant to say. He focused his energy on breathing instead of talking.

          “Sir, are you okay?” Equius asked, accepting the meager head nod from Gamzee as a suitable answer.

          Feferi swiftly turned to Equius and demanded from him, “Equius, what just happened?”

          He did not respond, instead opting otherwise. Equius turned back to Gamzee, his eyes drifting to his gills and frowned. “Sir, you forgot to correct your gills before swimming again, didn’t you?”

          Taking a moment to ease himself, Gamzee finally was able to respond. “I, uh…” He stuttered, taking another breath. “I didn’t really think on it.”

          Equius sighed and shook his head while Feferi remained confused and worried. “Didn’t think on what? What happened?” She insisted.

          Equius motioned for her to look at Gamzee’s gills and explained, “Gamzee has been forgetting to adjust his gills after practice. He retracts them in his terrene form but does not give them the proper time to return in his aquatic state.”

          “Sorry, bro.” Gamzee let out a sigh. “They just take so long now and I forget that they ain’t quite there yet.”

          “Don’t forget.” Equius sternly stated. “That other coughing fit you had… it wasn’t a fish, you hadn’t fixed your gills.”

          Gamzee’s face went red in embarrasment when he realized Equius had figured out Gamzee’s earlier lie. “Yeah,” He mumbled. “Sorry bro, I just didn’t wanna give you no scares.”

          “I am much more scared now because I was previously unaware of this problem involving your gills regrowth time.” Equius said. “Sir, this is a delicate matter, you must tell me everything.”

          Gamzee nodded and sighed, still shook up from his painful experience.
          Feferi, however, was not done on the matter quite yet.

          “Stop.” She held up a hand with an air of command. “What. Happened. You said your gills take to long to grow back?”

          She was met with a nod in reply.

          “Okay. Thank you.” She said. “Now, tell me, is this as simple as taking more time before swimming after a transformation?”

          “It should be, yes.” Equius stated.

          “Okay.” She gave a nod of approval and sighed in relief. “Then it’s settled! We take more time in-between your transformations!” She turned to Gamzee. “Sound good?”

          With a small smile, Gamzee agreed with her. “Sounds all kinds of good, sis.”

          “Excellent!” She clapped her hands together and quickyl turned around.

          Reaching back behind her, she took ahold of both Gamzee and Equius’ wrists and proceeded to drag them through the water. Eridan, who still stared at them in shock, was pulled along by her as well when she snapped out a tentacles and yanked him after her. Eridan was the only one who whined as he was carried along by the princess, though Equius did express his dislike of being cared for by the soon to be true heiress.
          Feferi was having none of it and merely continued to swim on with them in her grasp.
          Upon reaching the castle grounds, she let them loose and continued swimming on into the castle entrance.

          “Come on, sillies!” She called out to them, waving. “Let’s get inside, we’ve got a party tonight!”

          At that awful reminder, the three boys deflated and gave off a unison of defeated sighs. Seeing that they had no choice, they now dragged themselves after Feferi, more than lackadaisical about the night’s celebration.

 

***

 

          It was recess and Tavros, Nepeta, Sollux, and Aradia now found themselves describing, in detail, the story of the sea cave encounters to Terezi. They shared all their research and theories, all their proof, everything; and Terezi was floored.

          “Wow, this all sounded crazy enough when Tavros told me, but this is so cool!” She shouted loudly, promptly receiving a several hushes from the other children.

          “Oops. Sorry!” She whispered and leaned into the circle they had made, a wide grin decorating her face. “So, are we going anywhere tonight?”

          “That was the purran.” Nepeta chuckled, “We’re going out at night again, how does that sound?”

          “Well, I’ll have to make an excuse with Vriska, but, yeah.”

          That’s when Sollux spoke up, “Yeah, I’m still worried about that part.”

          “What, Vriska?” Terezi waved her hand dismissively. “I’ve got it handled, she won’t find out! She’s tricky, but I’m trickier! I’ll keep her out of it, don’t worry!”

          “Fine.” Sollux complied. “But if she comes sneaking around, so help me, Terezi, I will kill you.”

          “I don’t know why you’re so concerned. She doesn’t hound you like she does Tavros, or even Nepeta and Aradia.”

          “She’s terrified of Aradia.”

          “Yes, thus why she challenges her.”

          “Touché.”

          Right as he said that, the school bell rang and the yard filled with the rowdy noise of children lining up for their classes.

          “Guess we gotta go.” Aradia cheerily announced. She crawled onto her knees and stood up straight. “Come on, guys. Are we doing a sleepover?”

          “Whose house?” Terezi asked.

          “We could always do mine again.” Aradia said. “Or anyone’s really. Tavros and I live closest to the beach.” Aradia looked down at Tavros, who was getting to his knees and standing up from the grass. “Tavros, do you want a sleepover at your place?”

          “Oh! Uh, sure!” He smiled. “I’ll check with my dad, but, he’ll probably be okay with it, I bet.”

          “Excellent.” Aradia nodded her head. “So, everyone check with your parents and we’ll meet at Tavros’ at, say, 5 o’ clock?”

          Everyone nodded and expressed their agreement as they got off from the grass and brushed themselves of any leaves sticking to their clothing.
          Breaking off into their classes, they waved each other goodbye and ran to their dots to meet their teachers. While Terezi waited, she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned in the direction of the tapper with a confused look.

          “Hey.” She heard Vriska speak up.

          “Hey, Vriska.” Terezi said with a grin. “Are you trying to sneak into my class again?”

          “No.” Vriska stated flatly. “I couldn’t find you today and then I see you come over here with the nerd squad.”

          “Vriska, that’s everyone to you.”

          “You know who I’m talking about.” She sighed and crossed her arms, well aware Terezi could at least visualize her doing so. “So what were you doing with them that involved you not telling me where you were, huh?”

          Terezi chuckled and waved Vriska away. “Just having fun, jeez! I’m sorry I forgot to tell you, but did it every occur to you that I have telling them about my plans for our next dual? I can’t very well tell you that!”

          Vriska tapped her foot, not quite convinced. “Alright, whatever. It’d be boring if I knew you’re scheme anyway.” She turned to walk back over to their classes’ dot just as her teacher was arriving. “I’ll see you tonight then!”

          With a grimace, Terezi called back out to her, “Wait! Actually, we have to change plans.”

          Vriska stopped and turned on her heel at an impressive speed. “What?” She spat. “What do you mean?”

          “Well, Nepeta’s been feeling down and I wanted to join her for a roleplay session to cheer her up! We were gonna have a sleepover too.”

          “Wait, you’re abandoning me for Nepeta?” Vriska accused, now garnering the attention of the surrounding children.

          “No, we didn’t have any real plans anyway, Vriska, we were just gonna hang out like always.” Terezi deflected. “And you know Karkat, he’s such a wet blanket, he never plays with Nepeta!”

          Vriska glared Terezi down, refusing to budge even an inch. “No, I want to know why you’re really going.”

          “Vriska, I’m going to roleplay with Nepeta, what is so hard to understand?” Terezi moaned in false irritation to really nail the point home. “Get to class already!”

          “Fine.” Vriska spat out. “Whatever. Guess I’ll see you tomorrow then, sister.” She really hit that last word hard and turned without further ado.

          After waiting to hear if she was truly gone, Terezi sighed in relief upon concluding that she was.
          She really hoped she could keep Vriska at bay, but it was certainly going to be difficult.

 

***

 

          Gamzee leaned on his chamber door with a long sigh. These parties were going to be the death of him and he was pretty sure he could say the same thing applied for his three friends.
          Looking down at the bottle in his hand, Gamzee twisted off the cap of a red Faygo from he’d brought up from his secret stash and quickly brought it his lips, sucking out the fizzy substance before it blended into the water around him. Of course, when he pulled back to let out a sigh, it did so anyway, but that was okay. Gamzee liked to breath it in that way as well.
          The water turned pink from the soda and Gamzee let it get into his gills and in through his nose. He liked the way it tickled and sort of stung, it was sharp in feel but sweet in flavor. It was also extremely relaxing.
          This Faygo that Gamzee had brought out was in celebration of something actually worth celebrating.
          Just after the gala, the four of them were gifted with the best news they’d received in a while: there would be a week long break from the celebrations for the kids to have to themselves.
          The relief in the room was tangible when The Condense announced it. Gamzee, Equius, Feferi, and Eridan could not have even dreamed of better news.  Feferi had pointed out to Equius that this week would be the best to go out and get Gamzee’s necklace, since there was no guarantee that they’d have another free period longer than a day. After all, they would certainly need more than a day in order to find the necklace and retrieve it.
          He wouldn’t admit it, but Gamzee also wanted to get to know the humans, too, and friends aren’t made in a day.

          On that topic, Gamzee had wanted to go out training tonight, but Equius had admitted defeat and said that he was simply too tired to train. Equius prayed Gamzee would forgive him, which, of course, the makara did.
          Still, Gamzee found that he was wide awake and full of an odd amount of energy considering he had just come back from wrapping up another gala. He wondered if, maybe, he could practice here, in his room. He’d been able to transform without help for a while now, he could do it without Equius.
          He frowned.  He also didn’t have much to perfect in the transforming department. It was walking he needed more practice on.
          Looking up at the ceiling, Gamzee contemplated over what he should do; he was bored and everyone else was tired and likely asleep now.
          He thought back to what Eridan had said earlier in the day; about how he’d basically gotten them all involved in his screw up.

          It wasn’t fair of him to do that, was it?

          Grumpy as he was, Eridan was right. Gamzee really should be able to do this on his own. He thought about how he could do that. Yeah, he could do that, couldn’t he?
          Gamzee looked out his window. He could see the route to their cave, the one they’d practiced walking in. Maybe he could just go there alone; practice walking on his own. Surely he could get up onto the edge and get himself situated. He’d probably fall. A lot. But if he wanted to get better, shouldn’t he be able to do so without Equius’ guidance or Feferi’s healing touch?

          “Yeah,” He thought as he moved to open his door. “I can motherfucking do that.”

 

***

 

          “Okay, so we have to be sure that we’re back by nine o’ clock.” Tavros clarified as they walked down the stairs to the sunset soaked beach. “So, we’ve got three hours.”

          He reached the bottom of the steps and felt his feet dip into the cool sand, the texture running over his toes in a manner that only slightly tickled. He looked around at his friends, who had practically circled around him and felt like the spotlight was cast on him.

          “Uh, so,” He stuttered. “Wanna play first or, maybe, go to the cave?”

          “Play first!” Nepeta cheered, arms shooting up into the sky in excitement.

          “Yeah, let’s dink around first.” Sollux agreed. “The thing only shows itself later, anyway. If at all.” He finished pessimistically.

          Terezi however, countered them. “No, let’s do both.”

          “What?” Tavros questioned. “Uh, Terezi, I don’t really think that’s possible.”

          Terezi shook her head and fiddled with her cane in the sand. “No…” She sang out. “It’s simple. Half of us wait on the beach and the other half in the cave.”

          “Oh.” Tavros mumbled plainly. He hadn’t thought of that. In fact, nobody had thought of that.

          “Oh my god, that’s genius, why didn’t we think of that!” Sollux shouted, lisp slurring it more than usual. He held his face in his palms, groaning at his negligence. "Oh my god, we could've been doing that the whole time..."

          “Yes, Terezi, that is a great idea!” Aradia applauded.

          Terezi grinned and took two deep bows, flourishing her cane in the air. “Thank you, thank you! Genius Terezi Pyrope, at your service!”

          “But first,” Aradia held up their picnic basket and shook it just enough to cause it’s contents to rattle. “Let’s eat.”

          “I’m down for that.” Terezi shrugged. “Lead the way.”

          “Okay.” Aradia said, motioning for the others to follow. “Let’s eat out here though, so that we can see the sunset.” Everyone was in complete agreement, and they went with Aradia, helping to set up the picnic and serve up their plates.

          They all spent a good forty minutes just like that; eating, laughing, throwing grapes at each other, and watching the sunset. They had laid out on the sand and munched on an assortment of snacks and sodas, ranging from barbecued pork to a cheap tube of garlic Pringles’.
          Though they spent less than an hour at the picnic blanket, it felt like an eternity of fun and relaxation. Sollux and Aradia were chasing each other in the waves, kicking up water and flinging balls of muddy sand at each other, while Terezi and Nepeta helped Tavros build a sand castle just out of reach of the tide. Tavros found that these outings had really become something special, mermaid or no mermaid, and that he wouldn’t mind if they kept going to the beach every night even after all this passed.

          Peaceful moments like this, playing at the beach as the sun faded from the sky and the stars twinkled into view; it was all very wonderful.

          As Terezi shaped the top of the tallest tower in their sand castle, Nepeta searched around for a strong but small stick to stab a leaf through and declare their flag. While she did so, Tavros reached back to untie his necklace and take it off.

          “We can put this on the front.” He held the shell up to Terezi so she could see. “Here, we’ll press it right…” He steadied it against the area just above the castle’s entrance and gently pushed it in, nestling it into the sand. “There!” he declared, leaning back to admire the whole of it.

          “And our flag!” Nepeta purred, poking it into the very tip of the tower Terezi had finished.

          “That looks great guys!” Aradia called out as she and Sollux came running back, soaked and muddy, but very happy.

          “Yeah, not too shabby.” Sollux smirked at them. “Bet AA and I could do better.”

          “You wish!” Terezi challenged. “Go ahead and try!”

          “Okay,” Sollux turned to Aradia and then pulled her to the ground. He began gathering up the sand around him. “Come one, AA, get digging. We need a moat.”

          “Hmm… okay!” With a chuckle, Aradia complied and began scooping out the base and piling up sand where the castle would be.

          Nepeta jumped back up and said, “Alright then, we need more decorations!” She ran off along the beach to look for more shells, rocks, plants, and twigs for their castle.

          Terezi and Tavros contented themselves with watching Sollux and Aradia build their own castle, teasing remarks flinging between the four of them, as expected. Nepeta returned with more decorations and they positioned them along the castle walls, even making little patterns with the rocks to signify pathways.

          They’d almost completely forgotten why they had actually come down to the beach in the first place.

 

***

 

          Gamzee left a little message in his room in case Equius came in for some reason or another. He’d given his delivery fish a message, but then commanded it to stay swimming around in Gamzee’s room, so that if Equius showed, the fish would be there.

          It was a simple note:

          "HeAdInG oUt FoR sOmE pRaCtIcE, bE rIgHt BaCk - GaMzEe :o)"

          After that, he’d gone down through his usually secret exit and gone out into the open ocean. Now, he wasn’t too sure of the exact route to the cave he and Equius were using, but he was pretty sure that it was…

          “This way.” He thought to himself, “It’s this way, ain’t it?”

          Truth be told, Gamzee was afraid that he was mixing up caves now. He didn’t want to end up in the cave he usually liked to hang out in because the humans visited there more often now.
          He turned around in a circle, examining the area. Gamzee didn’t have echolocation abilities like Eridan and Feferi did, so he had to rely solely on landmarks and memorized routes.
          Finally set on a direction, Gamzee swam out that way.

          “So, I’mma work on my walking.” He thought as he went. “I’ll practice my step taking and get up my not stumbling game and then we’ll be all motherfucking tight and golden.”

          When Gamzee made it to where he thought the cave was, he noticed that the entrance was familiar, but not quite right to what he thought it was. He couldn’t remember what anything was supposed to look like, actually. He was very drowsy. Human sodas were relaxing but also highly inebriating and Gamzee was beginning to regret slamming a Faygo before he went out.
          Still, he squeezed himself in and traveled through the tunnels and into the sea cave. Were there this many tunnels in the cave?
          Gamzee popped his head up out of the water and looked around him and found that directly in front of him was a large rock that served as a type of island in the sea cave.
          There were holes along the walls and roofs that let in the shimmering moonlight and the water rippled outward, sending back the light which shone down upon it.

          It was the most lovely cave Gamzee had ever seen.

          It was also not the cave Equius has been training him in.

          It was the cave where he lost his necklace.

          It was also the cave that he had almost been spotted by humans.

          It was the wrong cave.

          “Whoops.”

          Gamzee swam forward slowly, drifting instinctually behind the rock, just in case any humans arrived. He listened, but heard nothing.
          It was late. Maybe they weren’t here?  What was here though was some weird looking rocks or stalagmites; black rods with black boxes of differing sizes on top of them.
          He moved to get a closer look and was instantly struck by a light that had flashed from one of the strange objects.
          Crying out, Gamzee threw his hands up to cover his eyes and prevent anything but the dark from reaching them. The light felt blinding and his eyes hurt to open. Squinting, Gamzee attempted to focus his sights on the rock in the center of the cave. Slowly, his vision came back with not even glare in the corners of his vision.

          “Shit… musta’ been that light Mister Seahorse was getting up to babbling about.” Gamzee muttered.

          It suddenly occurred to him that at the same time that Eridan saw the light flashing, he also saw a human. Looking around however, Gamzee could still see no humans. Maybe he should just go back home and go to bed; but he’d come too far and he didn’t want anyone feeling like they had to babysit him.
          Drifting out, Gamzee decided to start his transformation regardless. If he were in his terrene form, he could pretend he was just a human visiting the cave and he could get out of trouble easier should any real humans show up.

          Gamzee started the shift.
          Now more experienced, he did not feel quite as unpleasant when he transformed. 
          He twisted in place as goat legs split out from his tail, which curled to the back and he stretched as even that began to retract in towards his spine. He kicked out his legs and urged them to straighten out and lose their fur, their shape becoming less and less goatlike and more humanoid.
          With his body in proper human shape, Gamzee focused on his fins and gills and other extraneous aquatic body parts, retracting them in as they melded with his skin.*
          Speaking of, once he finished, Gamzee concentrated on the color of himself and let those colors melt from his mind into his very body.  His lavender skin bleed away into dark, rich brown splattered with patches of pale white throughout. His hair shifted ever so slightly into a complete black with no hint of purple and his eyes from that of dark amethyst to a bright amber.
          With his hand holding onto the rocky ledge, Gamzee looked down to admire his work, for he truly did appear as though human.

          “Now for the motherfucking- whoa!” He yelped as another flash went off.

          This time however, he managed to cover his eyes with his arm. “Motherfuck!” He cursed. “What is that thing?”

          Gamzee lowered his arm and lifted his head warily to study the device that had let loose the bright glare. When nothing more happened, he turned back to what he was doing, though his gaze never left the device.

          Stuttering as he strained to pull his legs up onto the edge, nearly slipping back into the water, Gamzee mumbled to himself, “Now this… this getting to a hard part.”

          Finally rolling onto the land, Gamzee took a moment to relax before he moved to get up.
          Managing to get onto all fours, he slowly rose up so that he was just barely touching the ground with his fingertips and his legs were bent. Letting go of his contact with the ground, Gamzee fell back and quickly caught himself, taking a moment to balance out, stepping repeatedly in place to ground himself.

          Then another flash went off.

          “Whoa, motherfuck!” He shouted as he shook, wobbling to stay up.

          A few more chaotic footsteps around and he eventually found his proper stance with his legs. Now that he’d managed that, he was stiff of a pillar of steel, afraid to move and ruin what he’d accomplished. Luckily, his eyes had been aimed at the floor or else Gamzee was certain he’d have been blinded again.

          “Stupid, damn… what is that?”

          He looked up at the device and took a hesitant step towards it and another. No harm done. He took another. Just fine.
          C overing a much wider distance than the other cave had allowed, Gamzee waddled his way over to the device. Reaching out to the wall, he looked back and gave a gleeful smile at the sight of just how far he’d gone. Then he turned back to look over the device.
          It  was suspiciously dim.
          With one hand on the wall, Gamzee reached with the other to grab the device and inspect it, but the moment he turned it, yet another flash went out.
          Turning away at the speed of light, Gamzee tumbled backwards and landed on his butt, sending the flashing device toppling into the water. It landed taunt on some sort of string or rope connected to the bottom of it.
          Looking closer, Gamzee could safely say that he actually had no clue what was attached to it; it appeared to definitely be man made, the whole thing did, really.
          With that gone though, Gamzee hoped he could practice in peace without lights blinding him even few seconds.

          “Okay,” He spoke aloud, “It’s just about going along and tracing it.” He said, advising himself. “Ya keep on doing it and ya’ can do it fine.”

          He began to walk once more and went on for a few minutes, walking back and forth and back and forth. He reached a point where he was no longer even stumbling. By taking his time with each step, Gamzee had found a steady rhythm in his pacing and he’d found a good momentum for walking at a consistent speed. He entertained the idea of running, but he didn’t dare try it just yet.
          The quiet pitter pat of his feet on the rock and the slight jingle of the metallic charms on his sarong were all that echo through the cave.

          For now, he walked.

 

***

 

          The moon was up high in the sky when a timer went off on Tavros’ wristwatch.
          Suddenly, everything came flying back to him and he realized why they were here. He stopped what he was doing and checked his watch for the time; it was seven o’ clock at night.

          “Oh no…” He muttered putting a hand to his head in concern. “Guys, it’s seven, we completely forgot about the sea cave.”

          Nepeta jumped up with a gasp that scared everyone, catching them off guard. “No! The mermaid! Did we miss the mermaid?” She cried out, begging Tavros with her eyes to give her good news.

          “Uh, I don’t know, but, we only have two hours, we should do something.”

          “Shit, you’re right.” Sollux said as he stood up and brushed himself clean of sand; or as clean as he could be. “Come on guys, let’s go.”

          “Wait a minute, who won?” Terezi asked, reaching over so she could feel the two sand castles. “It feels like ours is cooler of course, but I’m gonna leave the judging up to the four people with eyes.”

          “Clearly we won, Terezi.” Sollux declared matter-of-factly. “Now come on.” He yanked her up by her wrist.

          The girl tripped over herself while he did so, and accidentally kicked into the castle Sollux and Aradia had made, as well as knocked over a portion of her own team’s castle with her cane, the sand collapsing into pile.

          “Oh no.” She stated flatly, looking down as though she could examine the damage. “It would appear as though I have destroyed the castles.”

          “Oh no!” Nepeta cried out, frantically rushing to fix the damaged wall.

          “Who cares?” Sollux scoffed and, looking Nepeta, sighed, “Come on, guys.”

          Aradia leaned over and tapped Nepeta on the shoulder. Upon getting her attention, she comforted Nepeta and informed her that the ocean would have come in a taken the castle out to sea regardless and that it was nice enough that she got to build it with her friends while they could.

          “We can build more together.” She said, “And those ones will be just as nice, if you want. Or maybe better or just different. How does that sound?”

          Nepeta was still sad, but Aradia’s words gave her enough resolve to smile despite the loss of their castles. “Sure,” She nodded with a happy grin and hopped up with energy. “We can do that!”

          “Excellent.” Aradia smiled back.

          Shuffling over, Tavros arrived between the two and bent down to dig out the necklace from the part of their castle that's fallen victim to the mighty swing of Terezi's cane.

          “Sorry about that, guys.” He apologized.

          “Why are you sorry, Tavfurros?” Nepeta pondered, tilting her head.

          “Yeah, I’m the one that wrecked like a blind idiot.” Terezi stated, placing both on her cane and resting on it.

          “Well, it’s, uh, more like I am sorry for the situation that occurred and not so much that I am sorry that I caused it, you know?” He kicked the sand awkwardly as he explained.

          “It’s okay.” Aradia assured him. “We understand.”

          While they were talking, Sollux, about to chide their ears off, had heard a ping from his bag. Abandoning his attempt at dragging Terezi, he moved over to go and unzip his bag to check what went off.
          His phone was going off every ten seconds with an alarm and several message alerts on screen that read:

          “CAM A42 - MOVEMENT DETECTED AT 7:06 PM”

          “CAM A42 - 2 PHOTOS TAKEN AT 7:06 PM”

          "CAM B48 - MOVEMENT DETECTED AT 7:07 PM"

          “CAM B48 - PHOTO TAKEN AT 7:07 PM”

          “CAM A42 - 3 PHOTOS TAKEN AT 7:08 PM”

          The messages continued with similar content going on about motion detection and photos taken in the sea cave.

          Something was going down right this very instant.

          “Hey guys.” Sollux called out to get their attention. “Guys!”

          Nobody paid him attention though, probably thinking he was trying to rush them. Which he absolutely was.

          Considering that he was, Sollux sighed deeply, and sucking in a breath, shouted, “Guys, there’s something in the cave!”

          They all turned to him. Now he had their attention.

          “What? How do you even know? We aren’t there yet.” Terezi said.

          “The cameras…” Tavros whispered. “Sollux, did they…?”

          “Yes.” Sollux nodded and shoved his phone into his sandy swimsuit pocket and dropped his bag onto the blanket and started running for the cave. “So let’s go!”

          Jumping into kickstart, all the other kids followed behind Sollux as he raced down the beach. It was dark though, and getting darker and the obstacles in the path were getting hard to see. Realizing that the cave would also be very dark, they had to stop to get out flashlights so they could see the rocks and debris in their way and avoid them.
          Everyone had their hopes up and their hearts beating as fast as they were running.
          Then they saw the cave entrance and slowed down just enough to not trip on the rocks that cropped out more and more as they approached.

          Sollux was the first to make it into the cave.
          He jumped up into the entrance and shined his light down into the cavern below, not knowing what to expect.
          What he definitely didn't expect was for a someone to exclaim an ultimate cuss word.

          “Ow, fuck!” A voice called out. “Motherfucking fuck, ow! Stupid light!”

          With a grimace, Sollux lowered his light, seeing how he’d clearly aimed it right at someone’s eyes; and to the hugest of all disappointments, that someone was human.
          The others crowded around him, pushing and shoving to the point where Sollux feared he may very well tumble into the cave and scratch himself up on the rocky stairway.

          “Sollux, what is it?”

          “Sollux, let me see!”

          “Move, Sollux, come on!”

          Sollux turned around and haphazardly shoved them all away. “Shut up!” He screamed at them, clearly agitated. Taking in a deep breath, Sollux sighed and ran a hand down his face.

          “Uh, Sollux?” Tavros questioned softly.

          “It’s human.”

          “What?”

          “I said it’s just a stupid human!” Sollux shouted at the smaller boy.

          Tavros backed up and avoided eye contact, lowering his gaze down to his feet. “S-sorry…” He apologetically mumbled.

          The others were all very quiet, for one reason or another, and Aradia went to comfort Tavros, telling him that Sollux was just irritable at the moment.
          Turning on his heel, Sollux leaned back into the cave, taking more care in where he shined the light. He had to admit, he might not have gotten to catch a glimpse of a real mermaid, but he certainly did find something strange.

          At the cave’s edge where the water met, Sollux saw another kid maybe only a year or two older than him.

          Only thing was, the kid was very unusual looking.

          For one thing, the other child had vitiligo, a condition that caused discolored patches of skin on the body. Being a relatively rare condition, Sollux certainly had never met anyone with skin like this.
          Secondly, the clothing the mysterious child had on was also relatively strange. A purple sarong was tied around their waist, which was normal enough, but when paired with what appeared to be a golden ornate belt with a variety of dangling charms, the ensemble was like that of some outlandish fantasy prince.
          Thirdly, the poor kid was laying on the floor, clearly in a state of daze and disorientation.

          “Hey, buddy.” Sollux called out. “Sorry for blinding ya’ there.”

          Terezi laughed.

          “Uh,” Sollux continued, “Do you need help, man?”

          The kid was very quiet before tilting his head up to look at Sollux. He stayed there for a moment, staring at them like he'd seen a ghost. Sollux was beginning to worry that the other boy had fallen and cracked his skull on the rocks. Oh, he really hoped the fall didn't leave the boy with a concussion.
          Sollux's fears were assuaged when the boy shook his head before finally answering, “Yeah, bro, I think I all up and do. Your little shiny light all up and got me tripping over my legs, man.”

          Sollux sighed in relief, glad that his flashlight hadn’t caused the other boy to hit his head hard enough to damage anything.

          “We can come down if you need us to.” He offered to the stranger

          “Nah, man, you, uh, you just get your stay on up there.” The odd boy, with much difficulty, steadied himself up onto wobbling legs. “I’m cool down here, bro. No need to wo-”

          Suddenly, the boy tipped over and stumbled off into the water with a splash.

          Sollux and the others startled, but they didn’t jump to action until they saw the boy floundering and choking in the water.

          “Shit!” Sollux hissed as he practically leapt down the stairway, scuffing up his sneakers and tripping over himself, just barely refraining from falling flat on his face.

          Everyone except Terezi frantically chased after him and descended into the cave, albeit, in a much more careful manner than he.
          Sollux reached the edge and dropped his flashlight on the ground before hopping in with no hesitation. He pushed aside the boy's flailing arms and leaned down, pulling the boy up from under the arms. Dragging him over, Sollux turned around to see the others standing there on the shore.

          “Come one, ugh!” He pushed the boy up towards the ledge. “Guys, help me out, grab him!”

          Aradia and Nepeta moved to the forefront, both tucking their arms under his and pulling the boy onto the ground as gentle as possible, lest they scratch his back on the rocky edge. Sitting him up, Aradia steadied him and hit him harshly on the back, supporting him by the chest so he could cough out the water he’d swallowed.
          Nepeta held firm on his shoulders as Aradia did so, making sure he didn't fall forward as he hacked and gasped at the air his body desperately needed. When he’d finally cleared his airway of water, he leaned back onto Aradia and Nepeta, groaning in pain.

          “Motherfuck…” He mumbled. “Hate these motherfucking coughing fits…”

          “Are you alright?” Nepeta asked him, getting close to his face, her brows knit up in worry and her eyes wide in concern.

          “I guess.” He said, putting a hand to his head. “I got a wicked headache now, though.” he turned to see who he was talking to and, eyes wandring to her hat, let out a soft gasp. “Little blue face…”

          “Hmm? Blue face?” Nepeta tilted her head, clearly confused. “What do you mean?”

          Looking at her now, Gamzee could tell that what he had thought to be a second face was actually a headpiece of some sort that the little human was wearing. A hat, it seemed.

          “Uh, your hat all up on your head.” Gamzee quickly replied.

          Nepeta giggled and tugged on the braided strings dangling from the sides of her kitty face winter cap. “Oh, yes! It’s so cute! Do you like it?”

          “Hehe, yeah, sis.” Gamzee chuckled. She reminded him of Feferi, in a way. “You are a sis, right?”

          “Well, not a sissy, but I am a grrr-irl!” She bared her teeth in a big smile and put up her hands as if they were cat paws.

          “Oh, okay, girl.”

          “My name is Nepeta, though.”

          “Okay, Nepegirl.”

          “Close enough.”

          Hearing a splash, Gamzee turned to see that the boy who’d shined the light on him had pulled himself back out from the water and sat down next to Nepeta. The boy had removed his glasses and was reaching over for Nepeta's tank top. Though she protested, he tugged on the edge of it and wiped off his glasses of seawater with it, letting go as she glared at him with a displeased frown.
          Readjusting his red and blue glasses, the boy turned over to look at Gamzee.

          “So,” The boy started. “What’s your story weirdo.”

          “Huh?”

          “You’re dressed like it’s Halloween in a sea cave late at night, what’s your story?”

          “Oh, you meaning my wicked ensemble, bro?” Gamzee motioned to his sarong, which he noticed for the first time how nicely it complimented his human skin color. “Just my get-up, ya’ know.”

          Sollux eyed Gamzee’s ‘get-up’ with a flat expression. “I see.”

          Waited for more from the boy, Gamzee instead found a flurry of black hair fly in front of him. Right between him and the boy with glasses, a new face was found, quite literally, an inch away from his.

          “Hi!” She cheerfully greeted. “My name’s Aradia, what’s yours?”

          “Hey, sis.” Gamzee chuckled a little shook up from her surprise attack. “Name’s Gamzee.” He wasn’t sure if sharing sunames was custom for humans for if they even had surnames, so he volunteered to leave his out, just in case.

          The boy in glasses leaned around her and quickly introduced himself as well. “Sollux Captor.” He said before hastily disappearing behind the girl again.

          “What are you doing here?” She asked, same as Sollux.

          “Uh, just… hanging out.”

          “I don’t recognize you.” She stated, challenging him for an explanation.

          “Weird, ain’t it? You meet new people everyday, don’t ya’?”

          “Hm...yup!” The girl gave Gamzee a grin far more unnerving than the previous. “You sure do!”

          “Uh, Aradia, what are you doing?” A familiar voice said from behind Gamzee.

          Gamzee turned around and, just like with Nepeta, gasped when he saw the owner of the voice.
          It was the human who had his necklace! The one with the smooth skin and hair that was, apparently, even fluffier in person. Also evident in person was the sheer amount of freckles that dotted across his tan skin, as well as the sheen in his clear, honeyed eyes.
          Resting on the boy's sternum was Gamzee's very own coveted necklace; smooth, shimmering purple and gold contrasting against the mellow, warm tones of the one who wore it.

          He was… really pretty. Gamzee couldn't help but to stare, felling something more than fascination and curiosity at what he found in the other boy's looks.

          However, Gamzee was drawn from his utter daze by a motion in the corner of his eye as the girl beside him, Aradia, moved and look up at the boy who'd just spoke.

 She answered him sweetly, “Just introducing myself, Tavros.” She looked back to Gamzee and motioned repeatedly between him and the other boy, Tavros. “Gamzee, Tavros, Tavros, Gamzee!”

         Tavros gave a firm nod and then glanced over to give a smile in Gamzee's direction. His face flaring up with warmth, Gamzee's eyes darted away, deciding against making eye contact with him.

          “Uh, hello.” Tavros waved nervously. “So, uh, nice to meet you.”

          “Uhhhhhh… you too.”

          Tavros did not respond and Gamzee did not continue, too unsure of how to do so; but someone else did.

          “Hey guys!” a girl shouted from the entrance. “Where the heck did everyone go and what happened and will someone please help me down?”

          “Oh no, Terezi!” Nepeta hopped up and scurried back to the entrance, returning back with a confused Terezi at her side.

          “Terezi, meet Gamzee! We mistook him for a mermaid!”

          Becoming visibly nervous at the mention mermaids, Gamzee smiled anyway, trying to play it off. “Haha, you got all up to thinking what's about me now?” He asked Nepeta, trying to seem genuine in his curiosity.

          “Oh, a mermaid!” She repeated. “We’ve been hunting for mermaids ever since we saw one!”

          “Uh, we swear it’s actually a, uh, legitimate thing, really.” Tavros insisted, looking embarrassed before he suddenly perked up. “We actually got a picture of it!” He excitedly cheered.

          “Yeah, and it looks like we won’t be getting many more.” Sollux spoke up. He has pulling up the black rod and device, the camera, that had been flashing light at Gamzee earlier and he was holding it by the wire, which he’d unplugged from it’s generator. “This fell into the water. It’s probably trashed.”

          “What?” Tavros looked at the ruined camera broken hearted. “It can’t be fixed?”

          “Doubtful.” Sollux uttered as he tossed the destroyed device onto the ground. “At least we’ve got other cameras, but this one really did have the best angle.”

          With a sigh, Tavros returned his gaze to floor, a solemn look spread across his face. He hadn’t even known the boy for a minute, yet Gamzee already knew he didn’t want him looking so sad.

          “Hey, what’s the matter, little bro?” Gamzee went over and put a caring hand on Tavros’ shoulder. “You don’t seem none too happy.”

          “Oh, uh, sorry, it’s nothing, really.” Tavros didn’t seem to mind Gamzee's touch too much. “You probably wouldn't even care, or, not that i’m saying you're uncaring, but, you don’t know what I’m talking about so…” He gave up on trying to speak. “Sorry, I don't mean to bother you.”

          “Oh, no, no, bro, you’re all kinds of good, motherfucker.”

          Tavros flustered up and peered up at Gamzee, a weak smile in his expression. “Uh, you really like that word, don’t you?”

          “Hm? What word?”

          “The, uhm, M word. Uh, F word. No... uhmm… the MF word?”

          “Motherfucker?”

          “Uh, yes, that one.”

          “Ah man, you’re just like my Eqbro!” Gamzee chuckled, patting Tavros on the back. “All worrying over my words and such!”

          Tavros looked vaguely unsettled. “Uh, what? What’s an ‘egg bro’?”

          “Oh, that’s just my friend ‘s all." Gamzee chuckled, "And it's Eqbro. Brother ain't an egg, ya' know."

          Sollux walked over to them and pulled Tavros aside from Gamzee. “Uh, Tavros. I know you wanna make friends and all, but, I’m thinking we oughta' head back to your place.” Sollux held up his phone, the time glowing on screen. “It’s 7:30 now.”

          “Oh my god!” Tavros yelped, “We gotta go, my dad will kill me if we're late!”

          He started frantically motioning for everyone to leave the cave, Aradia and Nepeta leading Terezi out of the cave with Sollux dragging behind. Tavros looked back at Gamzee and rocked back and forth in consideration.

          “Uh, you gonna stay here or should you go home too?” He asked.

          It took Gamzee a moment for him to realize that Tavros was referring to him.

          “Oh, me?”

          “Uh, yes?”

          Gamzee glanced back at the water, not sure you wanted to go back so soon. He also figured it’d be suspicious to say that he was headed home and then just stay in the cave waiting for them to leave.

          “Yeah, I think I oughta' head home.”

          “Okay, wanna walk with us?”

          Gamzee bounced eagerly. “Absolutely!”

          He took a large ambitious step forward only to fall on his face.

          “Gamzee!” Tavros ran over to him and helped him up. “Are you okay?”

          Looking up at Tavros, it suddenly occurred to Gamzee that ‘walking home’ would involve a lot of... well, walking, and at that moment, Gamzee wasn’t sure if he was okay.
          But in order to ward off suspicion, and also in order to stay with these humans a little while longer, he had to be okay.

          “Yeah, bro, my legs are just a little bit funny is all.”

          Tavros looked down at Gamzee’s legs and then back up at him. “Do you need to go to the hospital? Are you going to be okay?”

          “Yeah, I think so, just, help me get to my climbing up on that.” Gamzee pointed at the entrance to the cave.

          Tavros looked over at the entrance where Aradia had stopped to watch him and Gamzee. She made a questioning look and motioned for him to follow her. He gave her an acknowledging nod and went back to his effort with Gamzee.

          “Uh, yeah, sure, just, uh, here, stand up, if you can.” Tavros took a knee and wrapped Gamzee’s right arm around the back of his own neck and across the shoulders so that he could steady Gamzee. He then reached around Gamzee’s lower back with his free arm to support his bottom half.

          “Okay, I’ve got you. Now, we’re gonna stand, ready?”

          “Sure.”

          “Okay, one, two, and… up!”

          Tavros slowly stood up, bringing Gamzee up along with him, preventing him from wobbling to much. Tavros found that, despite him likely being older, Gamzee was much lighter than Tavros. Lifting him wasn’t a problem, but the boy’s stature as a practical beanstalk made managing him a little more than difficult and Tavros found a challenge in keeping Gamzee balanced when the boy was a foot taller and had to lean down in order for Tavros to keep his arm along his shoulders.
          Finding this method to not be helpful, Tavros stopped and instead choose to just hug Gamzee around the waist and half carry him up the way.
          Needless to say, Gamzee was impressed at how easily the other had picked him up.

          “Wow, bro, you’re a strong motherfucker, ain’t you?”

          Tavros chuckled as he lifted Gamzee up another step, letting him down to steady his feet out and began moving more on his own. “I guess so.” He said. “Thank you. You’re just pretty tall, so, it’s hard to reach your shoulder. I hope you don’t mind, I know it’s kind of awkward; carrying you like this."

          “I ain’t got any troubles with your handling, bro.”

          “Oh, okay.” Tavros let Gamzee down again to rest and take a moment to breath. “It’s getting pretty steep here. Should I maybe just hold your arm?”

          “Well, if it’s all going to be making life easier on yours, then sure thing.”

          “Okay, I’m gonna back up. Are you good to stand?”

          “I think so.” Gamzee experimentally waddled in place to test his current balance. “Go ahead.”

          “Okay, I’m letting go now.”

          Tavros slowly released his hold on Gamzee, gingerly ceasing contact and pulling back his arms. For safety’s sake, and Tavros own concern, he left just enough of a breadth that, should Gamzee fall, Tavros could easily catch him and bring him to his feet.
          With just one arm positioned along Gamzee’s back, Tavros stepped back, keeping a careful eye on the other’s state of balance. He wiggled, but Gamzee did not go down nor show signs of serious issues in remaining upright. Upon gathering himself completely, the boy even looked up and flashed Tavros a small smile of pride.
          Unable to help it, Tavros let a slight chuckle escape from his lips; for one so tall and presumably older, Gamzee was especially childish and he seemed to be treating everything with fitting childlike wonder.

          The cave’s entrance was just a few more steep steps up and looking down from these was Aradia, still waiting for the two boys to follow after her. Not wanting to keep her nor his father waiting any longer, Tavros took up Gamzee’s forearm and began to lead up up the rocky path.

          “Now, just, go at your pace, I’ll try to support you.” He told Gamzee, who had already taken to a shaky pace up to the next step.

          “Got it, bro.” Using his free arm to spin about and keep his balance, Gamzee stepped onto the next rock. “Think I’ve got this.”

          “Okay, I’m gonna move in front to help pull you up, if you need.” As he said, Tavros shifted to be ahead of and facing Gamzee. He slipped his hand down Gamzee’s arm to his palm and took hold so that he could guide his by the hand. “Almost there.”

          Indeed they were and as they reached the top, Aradia took a step back, watching as Tavros and Gamzee stumbled out onto the beach. 

          With a exhale of relief, Tavros instantly lost all tension in his body once his feet hit the sand. “Okay, we’re here.” Tavros looked at Gamzee and split their hold on each other, earning a faint whimper from Gamzee.

          Tavros did not take notice.

          “So, where do you live?”

          “Huh…” Gamzee looked around to try and point out a human structure to call his home, but there was none in view. Behind him was the sea cave and to both sides of him was the ocean to the left and the cliffs to the right. Knowing no other answer, Gamzee merely pointed ahead at the sandy path before him. “Right down there, brother.”

          As though expecting to see something besides a moonlit beach, Tavros turned to where Gamzee pointed, but upon realization, he sighed and turned back, giving off a self-conscious laugh.

          “Oh, right, I guess that, from this particular spot, everyone lives that way.”

          “Yes, as do we Tavros.” Aradia began as she placed a hand on his shoulder. “And we should all be heading that way.”

          “Ah yes, I, uh, hope the other’s managed to get home, if they aren't at the beach, that is” Tavros grimaced and, looking down at his watch, added, “Man, my dad is really gonna kill me. We've only got maybe ten minutes."

          With a truly kind laugh, Aradia shook her friend gently and assured him, “Don’t you worry, I’m sure that, smart as she is, Terezi will create a good excuse for us.” She pulled his hand into hers with a gentle touch, then, turning to Gamzee, she said. “Shall we take you home, oh mysterious one?”

          “Huh, yeah.” Gamzee sputtered out, beginning to stride alongside the other two. “But, uh, I’ll warn ya’, I live pretty motherfucking far from here.”

          “You live in the city?” Tavros asked, craning his neck to see the other’s face.

          “Is that pretty far off from this sandy shore?” Gamzee asked, hoping he didn’t seem too suspicious for asking.

          As he expected, Tavros gave him a puzzled look. “Well, uh, it’s the city and, yeah, it is relatively far, as far as distance goes.” He frowned upon realizing the redundancy of that statement. “Uh, that wasn't right. Wow, words, heh. Anyway, we’re in the suburbs right now.”

          “Oh, well, I don’t motherfucking live in these here sub and herbs.” Gamzee laughed heartily at how funny that sounded.

          “Sub and herbs, hahahaha! That the motherfuck does it even mean?”

          Tavros and Aradia seemed more put off than humorous about it. They shared a glance filled with concern, confusion, and something along the lines of discomfort. They weren’t all too sure about this Gamzee kid; he was very odd.

          “So, you… do live in the city?” Tavros piped up, asking again.

          Gamze ceased his laughter. “Uhhhhhhhhhh, yes.” He finalized. “Yes, I do.”

          “Oh well, we can’t walk you all the way there, but, maybe my dad could drive you home?” Tavros started, but he immediately shook his head and waved off the thought. “I’m sorry, that’s dumb, you probably have a bus pass or a bike or something.”

          “Oh no, bro, none of that nonsense is dumb, you just trying to take care a’ me. I mean, I might have a bass pass and pike, ya’ never know.” Gamzee had no clue what those things Tavros said were, but he was almost certain it wasn’t ‘bass pass’ and ‘pike’.

          Luckily for him, Tavros shrugged the unintentional fish puns as Gamzee simply speaking oddly. After all, it’s all the boy had been doing since he met him.

          “So, do you need a ride?” Tavros asked generously.

          Much as Gamzee wanted to spend more time with Tavros, he also knew that he wouldn’t be able to play it off. The whole, ‘I am a human who lives on land’ shtick had nothing to support itself with and having Tavros and his dad drive Gamzee to his hypothetical home in the city could only end in disaster.
          Not that Gamzee knew what ‘city’ or ‘drive’ even meant. Was Tavros’ dad going to give Gamzee an inspirational speech that would drive him to action? Would they drive him so crazy he'd want to go home? Maybe it was a human thing.

          End of day, Gamzee concluded that he did not need a ride.

          “Nah, bro, I’m good.” He tossed his hands behind his head as he swung his legs out in stride. “How’s about I just walk you to your sweet place of living then head off to my own chill zone.”

          “Sure, I guess, that’s okay.” Tavros said as they reached the main beach and come to the small set of wooden stairs that lead up to the street.

          Gamzee looked out at the huge human settlement. He could only see one row of odd buildings directly before him; each one small and square, averaging what Gamzee estimated was only the height of maybe two floors of his castle. They were all unique and many featured large signs written in a foreign language.
          There was very little life in these structure, however; their windows dark and facade emotionless. A select few showed human activity and Gamzee noted that there were remarkable smells drifting from these buildings; exotic and unknown, but delicious none-the-less.
          Gamzee wondered what such a place might be like when the town was awake and what the rest of it looked like. Only this one street was visible, but if he glanced up at the tips of the roofs, Gamzee could see that there were infinitely more that extended beyond.
          Upon this sight, a sudden bout of anxiety struck Gamzee and he realized just how little he knew what he was doing up here, on land and on his own.

          “Uh, my house is this way.”

          Gamzee snapped out of his daze and turned to Tavros, who was motioning down the street.

          “It’s not too far.” He explained. “Shouldn’t be more than five minutes or so.”

          “Let’s get going then, motherfucker.” Gamzee cheered, giving Tavros a smile. However, he only looked antsy in response.

          “Uh, I know it’s not really my place, but, can you, maybe not say that? I don’t really like that word and it’s kind of, you know, a bad word?”

          Oh, right. Gamzee remembered now that Tavros had shown discomfort at Gamzee’s linguistic leanings earlier.

          “Sorry, Tavbro, I don’t wanna be all making a m- I mean, a friend all distressed or none.” Gamzee apologized, correcting himself in the very process. “I’ll get to being more watchful on my crazy words.”

          Tavros stared at Gamzee, a subtle shade of surprise gracing his features. “Oh, thank you…” He uttered softly. “I, uh, wasn’t expecting you to actually, uh, listen to me.”

          Tilting his head in confusion, Gamzee asked, “What do you mean, brother?”

          “Well, most people just tell me that I’m being too sensitive about stuff like that, I guess.”

          "Oh.”

          Neither boy knew how to continue the conversation and they would have ditched the topic had Aradia not taken the moment in her own hands; the moment being their hands, that is.

          “Okay, no more chatter!” She declared, squeezing Gamzee and Tavros’ hands that she’d gripped in her own. “Home! Now!”

          Just like that, Aradia began marching down the sidewalk, yanking the two boys and dragging them behind her. Literally in Gamzee’s case.
          He’d almost instantly tripped when Aradia tugged on him and he ended up falling to the sidewalk. His face was spared the cold pain of the cement only due to Aradia holding him up. Of course, he did pull her down when he tumbled, so she did fall back on top of him shortly after; and seeing as to how she had a hold of Tavros, he also went along with her, crashing to the floor.
          The three kids now lay in an arching pile of hurt as they untangled themselves from each other and rubbed their bruised arms and heads.

          “Owww…” Tavros groaned as he held his forehead, an ugly purple bruise already forming. “Aradia…”

          “Sorry…” She chuckled, nursing her elbow closing to her chest. “I didn’t mean to.”

          “Nah, it was me, I got all leg wibbly again.” Gamzee brought himself to his knees.

          “No, I shouldn’t have yanked you guys, I knew he had leg problems, I just forgot.” Aradia apologized.

          The three waited until they felt good enough to stand up and, wiping themselves off, they went forward with a steady pace to Tavros’ house.
          They came to a stop in the road marked by a brightly painted mailbox that turned off into a dirt driveway. The whole area was crowded with all sorts of plants, trees and shrubs, but the entrance from the road was flanked on both sides by particularly gorgeous bushes with large pink and yellow hibiscuses.
          If one were to look down the driveway, one could see that it lead a short way in and revealed a whimsical, decently sized house, though it looked far more grand thanks to the beams that held it up high. An intimidating set of stairs lead it’s way to a balcony which wrapped fully around the house. The house was mostly one story, but a small loft sat atop it and a garage and shed, the only structures touching the ground, were below and to the side of it.
          The most amazing aspect of the Nitram residence, however, was the sheer environment surrounding it.
          Lush greenery encompassed the whole area and even underneath the house, a small forest of tropical leaves crowded in between the beams. To one side of the house was grand view of the ocean, and the house was certainly at just the right height to enjoy each and every sunrise and sunset.
          This was the prettiest place on land Gamzee had seen yet, though he hadn't seen much.

          “Okay, so, I’ll guess we’ll split here.”

          Pulling himself away from his fixation on the house, Gamzee shifted his attention to Tavros. “What?”

          “Uh, well,” Tavros pointed a stubby finger down the path. “That’s my house, so, Aradia and I are going now.” Tavros looked up and down the street, and when finding his objective, aimed his direction at a bus stop along the road. “There’s a bus stop just down that way. I think the next should be here soon. If you need, we can lend you money to get home.”

          “Oh.” Gamzee buried his head into his shoulders, looking away dejectedly. “Uh, sure bro, sounds good.”

          “Okay, well, goodnight, Gamzee.” Tavros cheerfully bid farewell. “Uh, see you later?”

          “Really?” Gamzee perked up at that suggestion. “You mean it?”

          “I mean, if I see you again, yeah? That is the meaning of the saying.” Tavros laughed, “So, yeah, see you later!”

          A bright, happy smile spread over his face and Tavros wasn’t even sure as to why he was laughing, but he didn’t let that stop him.
          Gamzee certainly didn’t stop him either. He was too busy admiring how insanely adorable the boy in front of him was; too busy blushing.

          “Motherfuck…” Gamzee thought and said aloud, “Chill.”

          The moment was broken by a tap on Tavros’ shoulders. Aradia was motioning for the house.

          “Tavros. Your dad. Curfew?”

          “Oh, right!” He turned on his heel and gave to Gamzee on last goodbye. “Well, bye!”

          Before Gamzee knew it, Tavros was gone up the steps. From his balcony, the boy waved down at him and Gamzee returned it with a weak motion.

          And he was left alone on the street.

Chapter Text

          For once in quite a long time, Equius Zahhak enjoyed a morning in with no one to wake him and no one to wake. All the heirs got a fitful rest and were beyond ecstatic that they would have a week with no obligations; no galas, no suck-ups, no chastisements (maybe), nothing.
          Of course, Equius knew that he and Gamzee still had work to do, but, at least they had a whole 168 hours to do so. This was actually a frighteningly small number, Equius had to admit, but he ignored the innate anxiety it induced. After all, it was time; something they often lacked in this endeavour

          Now, as he took time in stride and relaxed as he prepared for the day, Equius debated waking Gamzee up. The young master had seemed rather intent on practicing despite his obvious fatigue from the prior evening’s celebration; perhaps he should at least ask.
          As he arrived at Gamzee’s chamber, he pulled the chamber gate up, allowing entry in the room. Equius swam over to the chamber shell and peered into the window built into the side, only to find a rather bothersome sight.
          That sight being the lack of a Gamzee.

          “Hmm… could he be awake?”

          It was unlikely, but possible, he supposed. Gamzee was known to sleep in incredibly late, but that tended to be on days where Equius had to wake him by a certain time. Perhaps this was the natural time for him to finally release himself from the ever deep slumber he would always fall into; but, something told Equius this was not the case and it definitely wasn’t because a little purple clownfish kept bumping into his shoulder.
          Cupping his hand over the fish, Equius lifted it up to better see it, and examined the little opaque bubble held in its mouth. After some slight squirming in the boy’s hold, the clownfish spat the bubble out and it landed softly in Equius’ palm.
          Releasing the fish, Equius popped the bubble and watched as the murky water within dispersed, but oddly enough, he felt no vibrations emerge. The bubble appeared to lack and actual message until Equius noticed that a bit of seaweed had drifted out from it.
          Did Gamzee actually put a written message in an echo bubble?

          “That is… the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen.” Equius thought in awe. Truly, Gamzee had never done something has redundant as this.

          With reluctance, Equius took the seaweed into his hands and read the message written on it’s slimy surface.

           "HeAdInG oUt FoR sOmE pRaCtIcE, bE rIgHt BaCk - GaMzEe :o)"

          "Goodness... not this again..."

 

***

 

          Never had Feferi enjoyed a slumber as invigorating as the one she had just woken from. For once, she felt relaxed, vitalized, and carefree. For a whole week, she was allowed herself a break from the stress she had come to accept in her daily life.
          Oddly considerate of her mother to do so.

          Feferi had forbade any servants from disturbing her rest that night and refused any handmaids who offered their services to assist in her morning routine. As a matter of fact, Feferi had outright banned any and all persons from her chambers except for those who she invited.
          This was a week of relaxation and she was not about to have anybody, neither servant nor Empress, ruin it; benevolent intentions be damned.

          She started off her morning with the longest self preening session known to merkind, reveling in her ability to freely brush her hair, shines her skin, and dress herself without the hassling of a well-meaning maid. Needless to say, she felt fantastic. There was no way she could’ve predicted that she would open her chamber door and turn the corner, only to come face to face with a frantic ichthyocentaur, agitation hidden behind a well composed facade.

          “Equius?” She softly asked, her voice not too strong due to the pure ease her sleep had provided her. “Is everyfin alright? You seem tench.”

          “Princess, er, it is nothing that her highness need to be concerned about.”

          With squinted eyes, the cecaelia looked over the ichthyocentaur with a dubious gaze, taking in his tense stance and appearance. “Are you shore? It’s nofin to do with a certain capricious noble? One purple in appearance?”

          Equius bit his lip, eyes darting to the side. “No.”

          “Really?”

          “No it is…” He stammered, feeling guilty yet again about lying to a higher up. With reluctance, he sighed. “Yes. It is.”

          “What’s he done now?”

          “I do not know?”

          “What?”

          “He is gone.”

          “Gone!” Feferi squealed, quickly muffling herself with a clasped hand to her mouth. She pulled away her from fingers and whispered, “Well, where could have gone to?”

          “I… do not know.” Equius admitted, “But he did say he was headed out for some practice. This would leave me to assume he went to the sea cave.”

          “Wouldn’t he be back by now?” Feferi sucked in a breath at her words. “Actually, maybe he wouldn’t. I don’t think Gamzee reelly watches the time.”

          “It is certainly not an aspect of which he is most cognizant.”

          Feferi pushed a fist to her chin, curling her tentacles close to her and she thought on the matter, humming introspectively. “No servants have seen him?”

          “I have not asked any. While I doubt they would risk infuriating the Highblood with the news of his missing son, I still do not trust any of them to keep a secret.”

          “Whale then!” Feferi shook herself out as though getting ready for action. “We’d better go find him!”

          “As I stated previously, you need not concern yourself with thi-”

          “Oh, hush up!” Feferi shoved Equius gently, momentarily stunning him. “Now come on! Let’s go!”

          Before he could respond, the heiress was swimming down the hall, away and away until she dropped down floor after floor, aiming for the front entrance.

          Gathering himself, Equius followed suit, shaking his head still at the notion of how eager the princess was to do work so beneath her.

          When he made his way out of the castle, Equius found Feferi waiting patiently for him just past the castle grounds. With a beckoning wave, Feferi swam farther out in the direction of the sea cave where she’d seen Gamzee and Equius practice at. He swung his tail down, shooting out after her, relaxing his speed once he caught up, though maintaining enough distance to ensure she remained ahead of him.

          Once they came upon the island, Feferi stopped and turned to Equius, looking to him for guidance in remembering which direction the sea cave was. Taking her hint, Equius moved to the lead and brought her to the right side of island and through the small entrance into the secretive cave.
          They weren’t sure what they were expecting to find here, but it was a given that they were probably expecting to see Gamzee doing something or other on the cave shore. They certainly weren’t expecting him to just… not be there.

          “Uhm…” Feferi uttered, a slight tone of panic in her voice. “Where is he? Equius?”

          She turned to him for a response only to find him pale faced, staring at the cave’s edge as though the makara might make an appearance so long as he didn’t blink.

          But alas, this proved untrue, as there was truly no sign of him in the cave.

          “The sea cave.” Equius muttered.

          “What?” Feferi asked, her brows knit in a show of confusion and alarm. “Yes, this is; but he his not here.”

          “No,” Equius shook his head, the color returning to his face. “The other sea cave. The one he lost his necklace in.”

          “Oh.” Feferi relaxed slightly. “Could he be there?”

          “It would be the most logical and… hopeful assumption.”

          “Well, let’s go!” Feferi was already diving down when she halted and pulled herself back to surface. “Wait, can you show me where?”

          “Yes.” Equius responded hurriedly. “I can.”

          Wasting no time, the two flew from the cave, Equius leading the way to the farther left side of the island, Feferi close behind.

          When he arrived at the tunnels leading up into it, he slammed to a stop, Feferi bumping into him in her rushed pace.

          “Oof! Sorry!” She apologized, quick to ease Equius and assure him he did nothing wrong.

          Luckily for her, he was not bent on treating her as the highest of high at the moment, and he merely nodded in response.

          Then, waving a hand out to the nearest tunnel entrance, he said, “Wait out here. I will go in to find Makara. I don’t want you seen by humans.”

          Feferi opened her mouth to argue, but found that she did not necessarily object to Equius’ request. It wasn’t like two people needed to go to get Gamzee and it was a cave accessible by land; humans could very well be there.

          “Okay.” She agreed. “But hurry!”

          With a nod, Equius tucked into the tunnel, disappearing from sight. 

          He swerved through the passageway, navigating his way up into the sea cave. Slow to approach, Equius quietly surfaced near the island rock in the center of the cave. Peering over carefully, he scanned the area for any humans and found none.

          “Wait…”

          Startled at first, Equius jumped and skidded over to the cave's rough edge where he found Gamzee laid out peacefully along the shore, his arm dangling down to kiss the water with his fingertips.
          Any concerns of injury or even death left Equius with a flood of relief as he inspected the makara and found him to be perfectly fine, a slight smile gracing his face as he slept, his chest sinking and rising slowly with each breath. He also noted that the young man was completely human at the moment.

          All was well. Gamzee was found and was safe. 

          But, what was he doing here? This was not where they had been training. In fact, this was the one place they had been trying to avoid.

          In choosing to abandon any further contemplation on the matter, Equius gently shook Gamzee’s shoulder, careful not to grate him against the rough ground as he did so.

          “Sir? Sir, do wake up.” He muttered, a tone of urgency in his voice. After all, humans could still show at a moment’s notice. “Gamzee Makara, wake up this instant.”

          A desperate and tired groan arose from the sleeping boy and, with a grimace, he wriggled away from Equius, who only held onto him tighter.

          “No. Wake up.” Equius insisted, making his movements more demanding.

          It was a painful endeavor, but finally, Equius managed to get Gamzee into a state were he had begun moving with more energy. With an upset grumble, Gamzee scrunched up his eyes and rolled onto his back, stretching out his arms and legs, his body shaking then falling still in relaxation. His muscles and nerves now at ease and slack, Gamzee sighed in pleasure and smacked his lips before groggily turning tired eyes to meet Equius’ persistent ones.

          “Heya, brother.” He lazily drawled out, giving Equius a pleasant smirk. "How's the morning?"

          Irritated, Equius huffed and held eye contact with Gamzee.

          Was he really this stupid? Maybe; because Gamzee quirked a brow, lost as to why his friend seemed so irked today. Then his eyes widened and he sucked in a quick, petrified breath.

          “Oh shit.” 

          “Indeed." Equius crossed his arms and leaned away from Gamzee's face. "Where were you?”

          “Uh, hey, so,” Gamzee muttered, lifting himself into a sitting position. Like a child caught red handed, he fiddled with his fingers, prodding them against each other. “I might have gone out, last night.”

          “I know. Why?”

          “To practice?”

          “I know.” Equius bluntly said. “Why?”

          Gamzee shrugged his shoulders and shimmied over to kick his legs over the edge. “I don’t know, man, I just got all up to feeling some guilty shit about dragging y’all into this, but, I guess by tryin’ to un-drag you in, I just dragged you in again and caused a ruckus.”

          Equius frowned. “Is this because of what the prince said the other day?”

          Gamzee’s face flared purple with embarrassment. “Maybe.”

          With a sigh, Equius shook his head. He wasn’t sure what to say about that; it seemed more like the princess’ territory. Choosing to ignore the matter he held out a hand for the other to take.

          “Come. We need to head back to the castle.”

          “Er…” Gamzee looked down at the water nervously, crossing his ankles as he pulled them back from the water, pushing them up against the edge. “Well, maybe we can go get that necklace instead.” Gamzee wiggled nervously. “I mean, we’re already here, ain’t we?”

          Equius looked over Gamzee with a suspicious gaze. “Yes, we are, but I did not come prepared-”

          “Ah, whatever, who needs to prepare and shit, motherfucker? We just gotta get to walking!” Gamzee kicked out his legs, making a show of them. “What needs preparing?”

          “Contingency plans.”

          “I don’t know what you just said, but, you don’t need it.”

          “Sir, why do you not wanna go?”

          Gamzee did not respond.

          “Sir.”

          Gamzee now began to fidget, smoothing out the folds in his sarong nervously. “I’m having some difficulties, bro.”

          “Such as?” Equius questioned, concern edging it's way into the back of mind.

          “Well, uh, try as I do,” Gamzee placed both hands on his knees. “I can’t turn back.”

          Neither said anything.

          Unable to find words, Equius gave no response and Gamzee did not provoke one from him. 

          It was only when a loud splash sounded from across the cave did the two react.

          Near the cave’s back wall, Feferi arose, looking flustered, frightened, and vicious all at once. Her lips were drawn up in a startling snarl, her teeth bared sharp, her fangs aligning in a manner most threatening.
          She looked about ready to kill someone.
          However, her face quickly fell into a calm upon the sight of Equius and Gamzee perfectly safe.
          A relieved sigh shuddered out from her as a wide smile graced her face, replacing any shred of negative emotion.

          “Oh my cod, you took so long! I thought some humans had gotten to you! I was ready to sucker punch someone! Straight up krill if I had to!”

          “Uh, hey fishsis.” Gamzee waved hesitantly. “Nice to see ya.”

          “Gamzee, where have you been!” She demanded harshly as she swam over to him, awkwardly maneuvering her tentacles as the water grew shallow and the rocky bottom grew rougher. “And don’t be smart and say, ‘here’, I mean tell me why you left without us!”

          “Just felt guilty ‘bout dragging you everywhere’s all.”

          She paused for a moment, her expression stupefied for the briefest of seconds when the thought suddenly struck her. At that realization, Feferi smacked the water as she brought her arms down to her sides, splashing Equius as she drew near.

          “Oh, this is about Eridan isn’t it! I’m gonna scold him so bad for that!” She fumed, face growing pink in anger.

          Neither Equius nor Gamzee replied to her, afraid of invoking her fury.

          “Whale!” She shouted, but then breathed, lowering her voice as she continued. “What’s wrong now though? Equius left and you two have been in here for a whale. I was so worried."

          “A whale? Ain’t no whale here, sis.”

          “Oh, it’s a pun, Gamzee.”

          “Ah.”

          “But seriously, what’s up?”

          “Ah,” Gamzee looked back down at his feet. “Well, the problem gets to being that I can’t necessarily get to being all fishy right now.”

          Feferi froze. “What do you mean?”

          Gamzee smiled sheepishly. “I can’t change back, sis.”

          “What?!” Feferi leapt back, crashing into the water and yanking herself back up. “Wait, water you mean you can’t turn back?!”

          “I mean, I’ve been having some trouble getting my legs un-leggified.” Gamzee buried his head between his shoulders. “Been trying all night.”

          “Oh no…” Feferi spun to Equius. “You don’t think it’s irreversible, do you?!”

          “I… am unsure.” Equius loathed to admit. “But, there is likely a solution.”

          “Okay, okay…” Feferi breathed in and out, regaining her composure. “Okay.” Having a moment to asses the situation, she looked between her two friends and said, “We have a week. Necklace or no necklace, we get you back to your true form, you hear me?”

          A determined glare was bored into Gamzee and Equius and they nodded immediately in agreement. With a pleased, yet shaken smile, Feferi nodded as well. However, in that moment, her own words stood out to her.

          “The necklace…” She muttered. “Wait, if you’re trapped like that, why not go get the necklace while you can!”

          With a large, prideful grin aimed at Equius, Gamzee opened his mouth to agree, but was swiftly cut off by the ichthyocentaur himself.

          “Your highness, I fear that the longer he spends in this form, the more arduous the task of reverting it will be. It is within my discernment that we correct this posthaste.”

          “No, Eqbro,” Gamzee stressed, “We should all up and go it! I mean, it’s the perfect timing, am I right?”

          Equius dropped his argument, taking notice in the odd desperation in Gamzee’s voice. He seemed more intent than the previous times they’d talked about going on land; like something new had come up. Of course, that ‘something new’ could be his apparent incapability to revert into a makara, but, Equius could not see how that would affect Gamzee so much in this regard.

          “You know where the necklace is?”

          “Yeah, bro.”

          “Specifically?”

          “Yeah! Uh... well…”

          “Ah…" Equius folded his arms over his chest. "You do not.”

          Gamzee rubbed at the back of his neck. “I kinda do… I mean… I saw him with it and-“

          “Wait.” Equius held a hand up, silencing Gamzee. “Him?”

          Biting his lip, Gamzee shied away, pulling his legs back onto the rocky shore.

          This is when Feferi spoke up. “Gamzee,” She began, “Did you see a human? The one with your necklace?”

          “Er, yeah, I did…” Gamzee said, leaving out the more detailed parts of the story. “So, I’m sure if we went out I could all up an find his house again and-“

          “His...” Feferi paused, tilting her head in confusion. “House?”

           Gamzee slapped both his hands to his face, berating himself for being so stupid. "Motherfuck..." He whimpered in annoyance.

          With that, Equius jumped right back to his interrogation. “Sir.” He bluntly commanded, “What ‘house’?”

          “Uh…” Gamzee peeked through his fingers.

          “Gamzee. Did you or did you not interact with a human?”

          “Uh, that’s kinda vague, ain’t it? I mean, ain’t taking a look at them ‘interacting’ in a some kinds of way-“

          “Oh my goodness, you did.” Equius uttered under his breath in shock.

          "Wait, no!” Gamzee shouted, fervently waving his hands in denial. “It ain’t like that, I swear!”

          “How is it, then?”

          “It’s just like, uh, motherfuck, it’s like… uh…”

          Gamzee stammered, searching for a good excuse, but came up with nothing. While the silence between the two boys built, Feferi choose to quietly interject.

          “Gamzee…” She said, “Did you talk to him?”

          Gamzee gave her a long look, full of consideration before responding; when he did, it was with a great sigh of defeat.

          “I all up an’... might’a shared a couple’a words with a land brother, that’s getting to the truth.” He admitted, eyes dropping to the ground.

          “And… the house?” Feferi continued.

          Gamzee really did not want to admit that he had not only spoken to several humans but had also walked on land to one of said humans place of living; but at this point, he knew he was only digging a deeper grave.
          With yet another sighed, he admitted once more.

          “I also might’ve gone to getting my walk on to a land brother’s house…”

          A muffled squeak sounded out from beside him and Gamzee turned to see Equius, red face positively bright blue and a look of utter terror blazon across his face. Feferi saw this as well and began edging over toward the ichthyocentaur with concern and the intention to comfort.

          “Equius…?” Feferi questioned, extending out a caring hand to offer support. “Equius, are you alright?”

          His face drained itself of all blue, a pale ghostly sheet as he took in a deep breath and exhaled.

          “I...I feel faint…” He muttered, stiff as a board. “I need… I need something…”

          “Equius, it’s okay, really it’s no big-”

          With a crash, waves splashed up at Feferi and Gamzee as Equius fell sideways into the water, unconscious.

          “Oh my cod!” Feferi shouted as she threw herself down to catch him before he submerged entirely.

          Unfortunately, she found that Equius’ weight combined with above water gravity combined with her boneless tentacles made for a very slippery scenario. The lack of support offered by her lower half lead her to crumble beneath Equius and the two back sunk into the shallow water. In a most hilarious fashion, Feferi squirmed and shoved against Equius’ unconscious form, using all her might to wriggle out from her pinned position.
          While concerned for the two of them, Gamzee couldn’t help but laugh at the scene before him as he slipped in the water to help her out.
          For the first time ever, Gamzee felt a shiver run up his spine as his feet made contact with the water, the temperature throwing him off guard. Shaking the feeling off, he bent down and lifted Equius up just enough for Feferi for flutter out and surface with a gasp; not from a lack of air of course, but just from having so much pressure on her.

          “Cod, he’s heavy!” She announced with a deep exhale, clutching her chest. “Oh my glub…”

          Heaving Equius up, Gamzee dragged him to a shallower end, placing him down gently, his upper half leaning against the rocky edge. Gamzee knelt down and prodded him a few times, checking his status, and after he gained no response, concluded that the ichthyocentaur had indeed fainted.

          "Well then…” Gamzee sighed, turning back to Feferi. “What now, sister?”

          After smoothing out her skirt and pushing her tiara back into place, Feferi addressed Gamzee with a humorous smile. “Well, I don’t suggest going without him, dummy!” She said, pressing her hands to her hips. “In fact, for my own sanity’s sake, I’d much preefer you never go on land alone again.”

          “Alright, you got it, sis.” Gamzee gave her a lazy thumbs up.

          “And, since I honestly think Equius will have no choice but to go with you, I might as well give you two the echo wave shells!” She smiled brightly. “I’ll be right back. You keep on eye on him and stay hidden now, alright!

          Without further ado, Feferi dove back down and out for the cave, leaving Gamzee alone with comatose Equius.

 

***

 

          It was the first day of what the kids had dubbed, “Celebration of the Celebration Break Week” and Eridan was the only one in the entire castle; not including the useless servants, of course.

          With angry muttering, Eridan stormed down the corridor on his way to Feferi’s room, allowing himself once more to double check that she was really gone. He’d even looked for the other two ridiculous boys (he deigned to call them ‘nobles’) and still had came up with nothing and he know found himself spinning round and round the castle halls, looking for any sign of any one of them.

          “Can’t believ-ve they glubbin’ left me all on my glubbin’ I swear to fuckin’ Gl'bgolyb I’m gonna-- “ His own thought interrupted him. “Not do anythin’ because I don’t wanna upset Feferi. Sigh.”

          Coming around to her door, yet again, Eridan knocked harshly on the door and true to his expectations, received no response. He waited a moment longer before impatience got the best of him and he flounced off with a huff.

          “‘Celebration of the Celebration Break Week’ my ass. Fuckin’ stupid ‘friends’ abandoning me when they know full well that I ain't got anythin’ else to do but hang around with them.”  His thoughts fumed. "And the stupid name a' it is dumb too! 'Celebration of the Celebration Break Week’, what the glubbin' fuck is that name? Why did I agree to that?"

          Just about ready to give up and head back to his quarters, Eridan stops when he hears a distant drone like that of someone yelling; dragging out a long vowel for an even longer duration of time.

          It sounds like a short E with a hint of a long R sound to it. Then it changes. Consonant and then a long I? Something else and a long A and Eridan gasps as he turns around to identify the source of the noise.

          “Oh glub, it’s Fef.”

          Barreling down the hall, a whirl of pink tentacles and black hair collides with Eridan, knocking the very bubbles out of him and sending him flying throught he water with Feferi stubbornly attached in a tight grip.

          “Eridan!” She happily squealed out as they spun in nauseating loops.

          When they finally came to a halt, Eridan hurriedly freed himself from Feferi’s grasp and clutched his aching, dizzy head. His vision was blurry and dots of white light speckled his sight.

          “Fef, d-don’t do that…” he moaned as he pulled off his goggles, squinting as he rubbed his eyes.

          “Hehehe! Sorry, Eridan!” Feferi giggled with bubbly enthusiasm. “You just look so grumpy! I had to cheer you up!”

          “Yeah, that’s nice,” He said as he strapped his goggles in place, adjusting them just so. “I mean it, I really am happy to see you, you just caught me off guard and then, 'smack!'" Eridan released the strap of his goggles to match the sound effect right as he said it.

          He sighed and looked at Feferi with the tiniest of bewildered grins and chuckled, "It w-was kinda’ terrifin’, Fef.”

          “Aw, whale then, I am ever so sorry, Eridan.” She bowed sarcastically, giving him a bright smile. “Tis’ a necessary evil, my lord.”

          He couldn’t help but her a smile back. “Yeah, I guess." He patted her on the head twice with a tut-tut. "You are forgiven, peasant."

         "Excellent!" She rose up and threw her arms around him, giving him a tight squeeze.

         Startled at first, Eridan squirmed a bit before relaxing and adjusting himself in Feferi's hold. He looked at her with a nervous smile and felt the heat run through his face when he really looked at her. In an attempt to hide his obvious blush, Eridan actually deepened the hug and buried his face into the hair tucked beside her face.
          Feferi giggled sweetly and fixed her arms to match Eridan and she patted him kindly on the back before smoothing her finger through his hair for but a moment.
          Maybe this was a mistake. His blush might be hidden, but it certainly did not wear down. He hugged her tighter.
          Then he felt Feferi tense for the briefest of moments before her shoulders sunk as though in sad regret. She breathed out through her nostrils despondently before patting Eridan on last time on the back and pulling away.
          Suddenly panicked, Eridan whimpered and tried to keep her near, but the attempt was weak and he let her slip away. She turned her gaze to the floor, but Eridan could not.

         "Sorry." She said, reaching up to smooth her hair behind her fins. "I didn't mean to cause problems."

         "Fef, no, you did nothin' w-wrong." Eridan began to move forward to comfort her, but stopped and pulled back, deciding against it.

          She did not respond.

          "Fef, I mean it."

          Her sad face grew tense in pitiful indecisiveness, but she said nothing, though it was clear she was trying to

          He sighed. "It was just a hug, Fef, we've hugged our w-whole liv-ves, it ain't a bid deal."

         "You're sure?" She asked softly, raising her eyes to meet his.

         He sucked in a breath. "Yes, of course." He sighed, trying to drop back into his more typical demeanor. "I mean, come on, w-would I reelly let somethin' like a hug tear us apart I ain't so pathetic." He huffed for emphasis.

         It must've worked because Feferi chuckled and her face began to brighten.

         "That was pun, wasn't it?"

         "Hmm? W-what pun?" Eridan teased, refusing to admit it.

         She did not even continue, but merely grinned at him as though she could read his mind.

         "You know, silly." She smirked, trying to appear sassy, but her act quickly dropped and she broke into a giggling fit.

         She wasn't sure why she was laughing so much; it wasn't even that funny. Maybe she was just happy that her typical, casual affections had not entirely dampened the mood between her and Eridan. She was glad he saved the conversation from her awkwardness.

          Nowadays, it seemed that she was the one still hung up on Eridan's confession and she felt bad for always making things about it somehow

          He'd admitted a while ago that he had feelings for her and if she were honest with herself, she'd known since long before that.
          She rejected him, though she felt that word to be so strong, and Eridan became absolutely, utterly depressed which did not help Feferi feel good about the situation in the slightest. She had so badly wanted to comfort him, make him feel better, but how could she do so when she had feared that every sign of affection would be stringing him along?
          So she avoided him for months on end; there was almost a whole year where they hardly made contact.
          But when they finally confronted each other about it, they found that the other had been feeling mirror emotions of confusion, guilt, regret, and yes, even fear.
          They each felt these for different reasons and for different purposes, but they both had let it hurt them and ran away from it.
          It was Eridan who assured her that he did not love her any less and that he would not throw her aside for something so ridiculous as an requited love because that did not stop him from wanting to be with her no matter what.
          Being Eridan, of course he had been bitter, even angry after her rejection. But, also being Eridan, he berated himself just as much as he did anyone else, and for those months, he learned that he did not like being like this and he did not like knowing that Feferi was just as emotionally compromised as he was.
          Feferi could not begin to explain the relief she felt and she was so eager to be with him again and be able to talk to him without feeling remorseful or guilty that she did not return his feelings.

         Yet, she still would feel a tinge of guilt anytime she felt she was too affectionate because she didn't want to accidentally remind him how he felt or give him false hope. No matter how often he reassured her it was fine, she still fell to it on occasions.

           She did her best to avoid the matter and put her out of her mind often. Things worked out anyways.

          But now wasn't a time for sadness or remorse! Now was the time to help out her friends!

          "Okay!" She cheered, snapping out of her giggling fit and simultaneous contemplation. "Enough of that now!"

          Eridan frowned, confused. "Enough of w-what? Puns? I mean, I agree, but-"

          "No, silly! Just- no, nevermind!" She clapped her hands together. "Oh, something else that I almost forgot! Eridan! I need to borrow your echo wave shell!”

          “W-what?" Eridan was really confused now. "W-what for?”

          “Oh well, for Gamzee of course.”

          Eridan grimaced.

          “Oh, yes!" He exclaimed sarcastically, deadpan under a thin veil of fake excitement. "Of course.”

          He quickly dropped the clear facade with a flat unappealing gaze and rolled his eyes. He could not have made his displeasure more known.

          “Oh, come one, Eridan, we need to! It’s for me, really…” She pouted sadly, her fins drooping pathetically. “I just want to be shore that they’re alright while they’re up there.”

          At the sight of her disheartened demeanor, Eridan sucked in a contemplative breath. Why did she have to be so cute and so darn pitiable like this? There was no way he could say no to the gentle plea in those sparkling fuschia eyes and he most certainly couldn't let her fall back into that mood again.

          She had him at an impasse.

          “Alright,” He sighed, accepting his defeat for what it was. “But only because it’s you.”

          “Yay!” Feferi cheered, hugging him tightly. “Thank you, Eridan!”

          With a sigh, Eridan smiled and patted her on the head, gently brushing along the strands of her hair. “Yeah, yeah, you’re w-welcome Fef.”

          With a bubbly laugh, Feferi put a single fingertip to the bridge of his nose. “Yeah, yeah, be more happy, jeez!”

          “I am too happy!” He protested playfully, slowing letting it show. “Just because my face isn’t a readable book doesn’t mean I’m not happy.”

          “Eridan, your face is a readabubble book, it’s just a grumpy one.” She pulled back her hand with a grin.

          “Okay, fine, so maybe I’m grumpy, w-what of it.” He laughed.

          “Be more happy is what of it!”

          “I’ll try it sometime then.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Come on, let’s go get that glubbin’ shell to the fuckin' clow-wn or w-whatev-ver.”

 

***

 

          While waiting for Feferi to return, Gamzee had taken to curing himself of boredom via messing with Equius. The latter of whom being unconscious certainly did not stop him, either.

          Laying belly down on the rocky shore, Gamzee had his arms dangled over the edge where Equius was propped up. His fingers were entangled in the ichthyocentaur’s long hair as he crossed and twirled the dark locks into pretty patterns and braided them in intricate ways. It was a little difficult to do from this angle, but Gamzee was relatively proud of it.

          Right as he finished another braid, a quiet mumble arose from his braiding buddy and he dropped the hair onto Equius shoulder. Groggy eyes opened and Equius shook his head slowly, placing a hesitant palm to his forehead.

          “Oh my goodness…” He groaned. “What happened?”

          “You up and fainted, bro.” Gamzee tossed an arm back down and poked Equius right on the scalp. “I did your hair for ya’ though.”

          “My what?” Equius wiggled himself away from the wall and reached up for his hair, only to find several choppy braids arranged in a rather messy way. They were all about the same length at least, but they twisted in an awry manner and stuck up awkwardly at points. The space between them wasn’t orderly or consistent in the slightest.

          “They’re a lil’ bit wonky, but I think they look nice.” Gamzee commented, eyes sparkling with gleeful pride.

          Equius took a deep breath and exhaled. What a mess. Displeased and irritated as he was, he couldn’t be bothered to correct it now. Then again, the braids were so tangly, undoing them would surely be no easy feat.

          “We need to work on your braiding skills.” He plainly said as he pulled his disastrous hair back and, to the best of his ability, tied it into a rather haphazard bun. “They are lacking at best.”

          “Sure bro, but maybe later.” Gamzee nodded. “For now, we gotta get to walking. You ready?”

          Equius had momentarily forgotten about the entire debacle when he remembered the reason why he’d fainted in the first place. With a cacophony of mixed emotions inside him, Equius turned to look up and Gamzee and restarted his interrogation of the boy’s activities the day prior.

          “Sir, I would be in a more comfortable position to help you if I knew exactly what happened yesterday.”

          Gamzee sighed and leaned on his elbows, holding his chin against his raised knuckles. “Well, to put it in a short kinds of way, I came here, got to walking, did some stuff, and I ended up meeting a buncha’ humans.”

          Before Equius could respond, Gamzee raised a hand and continued, “Don’t you worry none, they thought I was human too, so it’s good. Anyway, so, I talked to ‘em some, didn’t say much, nothing that’ll get us in any sorts of trouble, and then they wanted to head home.”

          “Why did you not let them? You could’ve ended the interaction right there.” Equius questioned.

          “Well, that’s the thing, I would’ve, but, they were all insisting on walking me home and shit, so I kinda just motherfucking went along with it.”

          “Were they not suspicious that you never went home?”

          “Well, one of them wanted his dad to drive me home, don’t know what the fuck that means, but I said, ‘no bro’ and said I’d just head home on my own.”

          “Yet you followed.”

          “I already said just staying woulda’ been weird. I just walked to one of their houses and came straight back when they was gone, but, hey! Ain’t it a good thing that I know where he up and lives? Like, he’s got my necklace so…?”

          Equius bit his lip and shook his head. “I’d rather not infiltrate a human abode. That would be highly ill advised, we’d be trapping ourselves.”

          “I never motherfucking said we had to rob nobody.” Gamzee lifted himself into a sitting position, criss cross applesauce style. “Just saying’ it’s good to know where the necklace is, is all. So… you in it or not? I thought you had my back, bro?”

          It wasn’t exactly like he had a choice, but Equius didn’t want to go on land, and certainly not this soon. Yet, with the way things were playing out, he found himself cornered; the decision was already made from the start.

          “Yes.” He said. “I promised to do so and I would deign to let you out on your own. Again.”

          Gamzee gave him a gentle smile. “Thanks bro.”

          “Now,” Equius began, clearing his throat. “We need a plan so-”

          A splash from across the cave sounded out and the two boys looked to see Feferi and Eridan pop out from the water.

          “We have the shells!” Feferi cheered out, holding up two conch shells, one lavender and one rose in color. “Take your pick!”

          “That one there, sis.” Gamzee said, lazily pointing at the one in Feferi’s left hand; the lavender.

          “Okay, here you go!” She reeled back her arm, ready to throw, when she froze and glanced over at a very anxious looking Eridan eyeing the shell. She dropped her arm. “Uhm, on the other hand, I’ll just bass it to you.”

          Swimming over, she reached up and placed the shell in Gamzee open palm. Turning to Equius, she explained, “This is for if you need to contact us! Eridan and I will wait here in case of emergency!”

          “Your highness, it’s not necessary for you to do this. You cannot wait here, you could be seen.” Equius argued.

          “Whale, we won’t stay in the cave, we’ll just wait troutside!” She nudged Eridan. “Right, Eridan!”

          With a huff, Eridan crossed his arms and sneered, “Personally, I think they’re fine.”

          “Well, I don’t think they’re brine, so we’re waiting for them.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “How about this; if things go well, I’ll consider going home next time.”

          “Next time?” Eridan frowned. “Aren’t they going now-w?”

          “Yes, but who knows if they’ll find it today! We have a week, and that’s a week I’m swilling to help!”

          Reluctantly, Eridan dropped the matter, not wanting to argue any further. “Alright, I’ll stay this once.”

          “Thank you.” She dipped her head with a dimpled grin.

          Now, turning back to the other two boys, Feferi clapped her hands and motioned for the cave’s entrance.

          “Whale then!” She cheerfully shouted. “Get to it!”

 

***

 

          The Nitram residence was a small, but decently sized home. Sporting a living room, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms and bathrooms, a balcony or two, and a loft that was split in half. One half was Tavros’ bedroom; the other, a game room. Said game room featured a large couch, several shelves of boardgames, a foosball table, and a television set along with the video games and movies to accompany it.
          It was small and crowded, but in a house with a family of (usually) two, it served its purpose just fine.

          However, on this morning, the poor recreational loft had surely been pushed to its limits.

          Splayed out on the floor, five children slept in a pile of blankets, pillows, sleeping bags, and stuffed animals. Their unconscious forms practically filled the game room; it was only a fraction of a small loft, after all.
          Tavros’ dad had wanted them home by nine, but, seeing as to how it was a Saturday the next day, they were allowed stay up as long as they liked. They had gone wild past midnight that night and it certainly showed. It was like a battlefield in there; like these children had fought in a war of sugary snacks and game tokens.
          The aftermath was quiet and still, with a couple of snores from some of the kids as the only sound.

          Now, as morning birds chirped and the wind rose ever so gently, the sun began it's climb to reach the other side of the sky by bedtime. It's light finally reached the proper height to touch upon the house's second story and it filtered in from the window, shining at just the right angle to hit Aradia on the face, the beam striking to prick at her eye.
          On instinct, Aradia twitched, her eyelids blinking for a split second before she squeezed her eyes tighter to block out the light. With it's presence known, however, she just couldn't ignore the subtle glaze of warmth nor the bright spot that was now all too noticeable from behind her closed eyes.
          Subconsciously scrunching her face, she attempted to squirm away from the light, but she was packed tightly between Sollux and Nepeta, the latter of which had her legs draped over Aradia’s back. This was too complicated for her right now, she was tired and couldn't think straight and, to her irritation, Aradia found herself slowly gaining consciousness in an attempt to correct the issue. As her mind slowly awoke from it’s slumber, Aradia become hyper aware of how uncomfortable and hot and sweaty their current sleeping arrangement was.

          With a great deal of wriggling and twisting, Aradia rolled onto her back and pushed aside Nepeta’s legs, careful not to wake her or somehow cause her any pain. Sighing, she pulled herself up and stood to her full height. Stuttering a groan, she stretched out her arms high above her head and shook out the knots in her muscles, shaking out her shoulders and legs.
          Exhaling in relief, Aradia relaxed and tossed her hair about, dragging her fingers through thick, curly dark chocolate hair. Then, she smoothed out her nightgown patterned with cute images of ghosts and pumpkin. She blinked her eyes rapidly as she adjusted to the light and assessed her surroundings.

          At her feet were Sollux and Nepeta, both of whom appeared to be deep in sleep.
          Clad in a hooded tabby cat onesie, Nepeta lay flat on her back, one hand resting on her stomach and the other laid out to her side as though lazily reaching out for the stuffed leopard not an arm’s length away. True to her appearance, Nepeta’s ears and lips twitched much like that of the kitten in a dream.
          Sollux, on the other hand, was less stereotypically adorable in his plain white undershirt, old gym shorts and mismatched red and blue socks. Still, Aradia couldn’t help but give a chuckle at the ridiculous expression he had on, his mouth hanging open and face squished against the floor. In a humorous mood, Aradia reached over for her phone to take a photo. She’d have to tease him with this later. Looking back at him, she frowned and leaned down to remove his glasses from his face.

          “Looks like you fell asleep with your glasses on again, silly.” She whispered to his motionless form. “I’ll leave them here” She said as she placed them on the side table by the couch.

          Turning back to the sleepover chaos, Aradia now saw Terezi across from the other two in her bright red, flannel button-up pajamas, covered in Beanie Babies; all hers. Aradia didn’t remember her having so many the night before, let alone her being covered in them when she fell asleep.

          In the center of the group was a turned over game board of “Pandemic”, the pieces scattered everywhere after being presumably kicked over. Scattered about the scene of sprawling blankets and pillows was a ridiculous amount of wrappers and plastic containers leftover from all the junk food they had all consumed the night before.

          Yup. Everything seemed about right for the aftermath of a slumber party.

          Yet, Aradia couldn’t help but notice a gap in the disastrous pile, an empty spot just beside Terezi where she could, surprisingly, actually see the floor.

          Careful as she navigated her way over the bunched up blankets and around her friends, Aradia reached the stairs and descended to the first story of the house.
          The stairs came out facing the front door with the dining room/kitchen combo to the right and the living room to the left. The gentle ticking of the kitchen clock’s second hand was all there was to accompany the chittering song of bird’s just outside the windows.
          With her hand at the end of the railing, Araida turned on the ball of her foot into the kitchen and took a step forward to glide across the floor, its surface dappled with the sunlight shining past webs of tree branches and through the glass panes of the windows. The cold sensation of tile met her toes as she headed for the balcony door on the far side of the kitchen.
          Twisting the knob, Aradia pushed open the wooden door, a gentle breeze greeting her. It licked at her face, kissed the tip of her nose, whipped the edge of her nightgown in ripples and tousled her hair with gentle care.
          She smiled as she stepped out, her bare feet careful along the rough wooden deck.

          “Good morning, Tavros.” She said to the boy looking over the balcony rail with a mug clutched in his hands, his short mohawk waving softly in the wind.

          He turned with a startle, but immediately calmed when he saw Aradia’s kind face. He looked tired, as though he’d only just awoken. He likely had.

          “Morning, Aradia.” He replied, rubbing at his eyes with the sleeve of his plain cream pajama shirt. “Did you sleep well?”

          “Perfectly.” She briskly confirmed. “And you?”

          “Uh, I slept fine, yeah, I just was feeling restless earlier, so I, uh…” He motioned with his mug. “Made some champurrado. You want some? There’s a whole batch of inside.”

          “Sure!” She happily accepted, taking a step back into the kitchen.

          “Okay.” Tavros said with a smile, walking past her.

          Once he made it inside, Aradia pulled against the wind to close the balcony door, careful not to slam it, and followed Tavros over to the kitchen counter. She pulled out a tall legged stool and clambered into it, slipping onto the cushion. She watched with ease as Tavros took another mug from the cupboard and moved to the stove top where a pot, still warm, waited with a ladle hugging it’s edge.
          Dipping the ladle into the warm, creamy atole, Tavros took a breath, inhaling the scent through his nose. With a sigh, he brought the ladle to hover over the mug and her tipped it, pouring the rich drink and filling the mug up, nearly to the edge. Returning the ladle to its place, Tavros reached inside a small glass jar nearby and pulled out a stick of cinnamon. He dropped the stick into the mug, tiny flecks of champurrado splashing over the edge and onto his hand.

          “Here you go.” He announced, sliding the mug over the counter to Aradia. “One super delicious champurrado, just for you, milady.” He chuckled at the playfully formality. “Anything else?”

          “No, I think this will do.” She chuckled with a bright smile. “Thank you, Tavros.”

          “You’re welcome.” He responded, watching for her reaction as she brought the mug to her parted lips and tilted it towards her, sipping down the warm mixture.

          Finishing with a sigh, Aradia smiled in his direction. “Tavros, this is delicious!” She complimented.

          He returned the smile and looked down at his own mug. “Thank you, I was worried you might not like it.”

          “Tavros, I love your cooking.” She pointed out.

          “But, I’ve never made champurrado for anyone but my dad before, so I just wasn’t sure, I guess.”

          “No, it tastes great, Tavros.” She affirmed, taking another gulp.

          Tavros chuckled sheepishly, feeling proud of his success. “Thanks, Aradia.” He took a sip as well.

          They stayed seated in peaceful silence for a few minutes as they downed their freshly made breakfast. Champurrado is rich, creamy, and filling enough to practically count as one’s breakfast. Thus by the end, both Tavros and Aradia finished with full bellies. Laughing along with each other and they chattered and joked, the two went to put their dishes in the sink.

          “Do you think the others will want to have some too? I have enough for them.” Tavros asked Aradia.

          “It can’t hurt to offer.” She said, “Sollux isn’t a fan of it, but I don’t know if Terezi or Nepeta have had it before; and of course, your dad will be more than happy.”

          “Oh, actually, Dad already had some. He got up before me and went out to go get groceries, for, uh, morning sales.”

          “Ah, okay.” Aradia said, making her way past the counter, her hand touching down onto the stairway railing. “Hopefully Terezi and Nepeta want a lot; we might have leftovers.”

          Following Aradia up the stairs, Tavros chuckled nervously and eyed the pot on the stove before the kitchen disappeared behind the wall. “Yeah, I, uh, might have made too much. It’s not really as good when you reheat it, but, oh well, I guess.”

          They reached the top of the stairs and Aradia moved to Nepeta, motioning Tavros to Terezi. Doing as she hinted, Tavros maneuvered his way over to Terezi and knelt down before her. He brushed aside a few Beanie Babies and shook her gently by the shoulder.

          “Hey, Terezi, wake up.” She whispered in her ear, still being considerate of her slumber. “It’s morning time; time to get up.”

          With a loud, obnoxious groan, Terezi rolled over, crushing a hundred Beanie Babies underneath her, and slapped away Tavros’ hand.

          “Noooooo….” She droned out, muttering into her pillow. “Go away…”

          “Hey, come on, I made breakfast.” Tavros attempted to bribe her. “At least, uh, well, I hope you like it.”

          Tilting her head in Tavros’ direction just enough for Tavros see a portion of her face, Terezi furrowed her brow. “Food?” She inquired, approaching the subject as one would a tripwire. “What is this breakfast?”

          “Uh… champurrado?”

          With a startling burst of energy, Terezi leapt to her feet and stumbled onto her knees, catching herself on Tavros’ shoulders with her hands.

          She stared into his very soul and said, “I have not clue what that is, but let’s do it.” With a grunt, she pushed herself off of Tavros and stretched, letting out a huge yawn. “I’m starving!”

          On Aradia’s end, Nepeta had been coaxed awake and she rolled on her back and kicked out her arms and legs, splaying them out before getting onto her knees and stretching like a cat, bending in on her knees and literally kneading the rug with her hands, clinging to the strands with her fingers as though they were claws. Standing up from her morning cat routine, Nepeta rolled her neck and sighed.

          She smacked her lips and pulled her hoodie over her head and mumbled, “So tired.... need… food…”

          “Well, we’ve got something Tavros made.” Aradia assured with a smile. “It’s champurrado.”

          Nepeta eyes widened as she inhaled deeply, her gasp practically siphoning pure energy from the air as she appeared much more lively and awake now.

          She ‘ooed’ at Aradia’s announcement and her lips curled into a smile and she said, “Champurrado! I don’t know what that is, but I love it’s name! Champurrrrrrrrado!” She cheered throwing her hands into the air, repeating the word over and over again, dragging it out with a purr.

          Both Tavros and Aradia found her reaction very humorous, and Tavros laughed as Nepeta went to town with the word.

          “I never thought about that, haha! It does sound like a cat thing, doesn’t it?” He said.

          “Yes!” Nepeta cheered. “I want some!”

          In the midst of her childish excitement, Nepeta suddenly stopped to look down at her feet. Evidently, her shouting had woken Sollux and he was muffling his groans of irritation with a nearby pillow.

          “Oh my god, shut up…!” He muttered with exhaustion. “Let me sleep…”

          “Oh!” Nepeta covered her mouth. “I’m so sorry!” She hurriedly whispered.

          Sollux sighed and lifted his head from the pillow, tilting to look up at her with an irksome frown. “What are you guys even doing?”

          “We were going to have breakfast.” Aradia asserted. “But, we’ll have to make you your own meal; everyone else is having champurrado.”

          With a sigh, Sollux ran his fingers through his hair, smoothing out the messy hair ever so slightly. “Great. I hate that stuff.”

          Pulling himself onto his knees, Sollux began looking around, eyes squinted, and patting the floor around him. After a few seconds, his brow furrowed and he began searching more intently.

          “Where the hell are my glasses?” He lisped, spinning around to check behind him.

          “I put them on the table.” Aradia answered, moving to the couch side table. “Here.”

          She brought the glasses to Sollux and, placing on hand on his head to keep him still, slide them onto his face, tapping the bridge of it onto his nose with a smirk.

          “There you go.” She said, pulling away from Sollux has he blinked rapidly, adjusting to the light.

          “Thanks, AA.” He muttered, taking them off for second to clean the lenses with the edge of his shirt. “So, Tavro. You got anything to eat?”

          “Uh, yeah, we’ve got cereal and stuff.” Tavros responded.

          Slipping his glasses back on, Sollux stood up and scratched his back before shuffling over to the others.

          “Good enough.” He mumbled, walking past them and gripping onto the stair railing. He turned to the others and said, “Well, come on then, are we eating or not?”

          As the group began to move, Sollux thumped his feet down the stairs and moved into the kitchen. He leaned against the counter and took a moment to breathe before his attention turned to the kitchen cupboards and cabinets. After finalizing his path of action, Sollux made a beeline for what appeared to be the pantry.
          The rest of the group soon filtered into the kitchen, Nepeta and Terezi promptly taking the spot on the counter stools. Aradia followed Tavros to the dishware cupboard and stood beside him as he pulled out two mugs and set them beside the pot. Lifting the lid, Tavros placed a hand over it and was pleased to find heat still radiating from within.

          “Okay, so, it’s still warm, that’s good.” He said, mostly to himself, as he scooped up a serving with the ladle.

          He poured the champurrado first into Terezi’s mug, then took up another ladleful and filled up Nepeta’s. He picked out two cinnamon sticks and plopped them in and, with an eager smile, turned to the serving counter and placed the mugs in front of them.
          They both thanked him in unison before taking a swig, mindful of the temperature. Finding himself stiff with anticipation, Tavros wrung his hands as he awaited their reaction. When two satisfied grins greeted him from behind settled mugs, he couldn’t have felt more happy.

          “This is great!” Terezi praised. “It’s pretty creamy, and it’s got a weird spice to it and the kick is subdued, but it’s nice and delicious!”

          “Yeah, this is purretty yummy!” Nepeta cheered. Can I have more, maybe?”

          “Oh, uh, try finishing it first, it’s pretty filling.” Tavros explained. “It’s just a drink but, uh, it’s basically a meal.”

          Suddenly, a sharp crack rang out and everyone’s attention turned to Sollux, who had just slammed his bowl of cereal onto the counter.

          “Cool.” He plainly stated, aimlessly flicking the drops of spilt milk off the counter surface. “Now I feel alone in my vendetta against shampoo whatever.”

          “Why don’t you like it, Sollux?” Nepeta asked.

          “It tastes weird, I don’t like it.” He lifted a spoonful of cereal and milk and took it into his mouth. “Everything about it feels weird and gross.” He said, chewing as he did so.

          “Hmm… fair enough!” Nepeta concluded.

          Downing the last of her champurrado, Nepeta craned her neck back and tipped the mug completely upside down above her mouth. The final drops emptied out and she dramatically brought the mug back to the countertop with a clatter.

          “Now!” She shouted. “What’ll we do? We have the whole together.”

          “Oh, actually, I have to go back home.” She regretfully brought up. “I still feel bad about leaving Vriska on such short notice and I said I’d be right back in the morning for her.”

          Nepeta’s enthusiasm deflated and she peered down into her empty mug. “Oh, okay then. I guess we’ll walk you home?”

          “Nah, I’m good.” She assured with a grin.

          Nepeta tilted her head questioningly. “Uh, you are? You don’t need a guide or anything?”

          “Nope.” Terezi sang. “I know my way well enough!”

          Tavros came over to take Nepeta and Terezi’s mugs and said, “Uh, I think I’d feel more comfortable if we went with you, Terezi. I mean, usually Vriska is there to, uh, help you see, but, not now, so…”

          “Tavros, I really appreciate the thought, but I’m fine. I’ve done it before!”

          Aradia put her hand on Tavros’ shoulder. “She’s fine, Tavros.” She assured. “She has done it before, I’ve seen her.”

          “I’m just too worried… a lot… sorry. But, if you're certain that you're fine, then, I guess your fine, so, I'm fine too.”

          “You were only being careful, Tavros, you’re alright.” Terezi explained. “Anyway, I think now’s a good time to get going. Shall I be off?”

          “Oh, uh, yeah, of course, it’s up to you. Go whenever you like.” Tavros said, checking the clock. “It’s ten o’clock now. You guys, uh, excluding Terezi, of course, and I don’t mean that to sound like I’m dismissing you, but, yeah, you guys wanna just stay here or go out or… what?” He mumbled, tripping over quite a few of his words.

          Aradia and Nepeta briefly glanced at the clock before taking a moment to think. Sollux continued to eat his cereal.

          “I mean, we could go to the beach, but, we’ve been there a lot.” Nepeta pointed out with a contemplative tone. “Not that I don’t want to see the mermaid, it’s just that it’s getting repetitive and we’ve been going a lot.”

          “Yes, we just went last night. Let’s go somewhere else.” Aradia agreed. “Do you guys want to go an do something more active or do you want to relax and enjoy something passively?”

          “Purrsonally, I’m down for anything!”

          “Tavros?”

          “Well,” He responded. “I’m okay, either way. It’s kind of easier to decide when we have specific options, though.”

          “We could go to the roller rink or the skatepark!” Nepeta offered with eagerness.

          “Yeah, maybe, but, uh, the big kids at the skatepark can be really mean sometimes.” Tavros pointed out.

          “They never mess with me, why would they mess with you?” Nepeta blinked, unaware that she was an absolute tiny terror at the skatepark.

          “I’m not as… tough as you, I guess.” Tavros said. “They don’t mess with you because of that time you, uh, got mad and broke that one older kid’s skateboard with your, uh… your head.”

          “That’s reason for them not to mess with you then! Because you’re with me!” She happily clarified, a disturbingly cute smile gracing her face in a manner unbefitting the topic.

          Quick to save Tavros from peer pressure, Aradia quickly interjected her own idea. “How about the movies?”

          “That could work!” Nepeta exclaimed, turning away from the skatepark idea. “Oh! We could get popcorn and pretzels, too!”

          “I’d be alright with that.” Tavros sighed in relief. “Do you know what’s showing?”

          “No, but we can see when we get there.” Aradia turned to Sollux. “Sollux, is that good to you?”

          In no particular rush, Sollux finished drinking the leftover milk from his cereal bowl and strode on over to the sink, placing it in along with the other dirty dishes.

          “Fine by me.” He finally said. “I didn’t bring too much money though; I might have to mooch off of your popcorn.”

          “Then, we are settled.” Aradia concluded, looking around at them all.

          With a fair of chatter, all the children returned upstairs to gather their belongings and return the many board games and borrowed blankets to their proper places. Once satisfied with the clean up job, Tavros scurried downstairs into the kitchen to call his dad from the house phone, confirming that he was allowed to go out to the movies with his friends. With permission granted, he was set to go. He walked his friends out the front door to lock up behind them and they all shuffled down the front stairs and hit the road.
          Terezi stayed with them until the reached a crossroads, and from there she split away from the group and traveled off on her own.

          Waving their friend goodbye, the remaining four children waited at the bus station to catch a ride going further into town.

 

***

 

          The sun was ascending in the sky, it’s beams reaching out across the sand as it warmed it with it’s touch, curing it of a cold night’s chill. Being early morning, there were no visitors to the beach to spread their towels, play in the waves, or trek through the piles of sand.

          All the better for a transformed ichthyocentaur and makara who had just walked out on land in the sun for the first time.

          Stepping out of the cave was the first step in the tedious journey ahead of them and it wasn't even the use of legs that made the moment so monumental for them. It was the fact that the sky was hot and the sand was warm and the land was bright, bright, bright with color. Even Equius took a moment to look up above them at the lush greenery, bundles of leaves and branches, drooping over the edge of the cliffs. They were so far away and, still, they were lovely. At night, everything was dulled; covered by a thin veil of purple and blue.

          Neither had seen land during the day.

          “Good luck you two!” Echoed Feferi’s voice from inside the cave as they finally stepped away from the sea cave’s entrance.

          Before heading towards the main section of the beach, Equius quickly looked over both him and Gamzee to be sure they were as presentable as possible without giving away anything.
          Gamzee had on the same ensemble from the previous day, except Equius had insisted he remove any and all jewelry, since humans hardly wore such extravagant ornaments, especially when golden. True, Equius had only seen a few in his life, but those few certainly were not laden with golden bracelets and belts.
          Of Equius’ own attire, he also left his jewelry with Feferi to keep safe, including his precious tail clasp. Better to leave it with the heiress in a sea cave than end up with two heirlooms lost on land. He did not come prepared to go on land, however, so he had to make do with what he had on.
          Equius had arrived at the sea cave with a loose, deep blue cloth crossed over both his shoulders in an X shape across his chest and back. The cloth was held in place with two clasps secured to the material resting at the shoulders and connected by chains to a golden collar plate necklace he wore.
          Upon realizing he had to go on land with Gamzee, Equius realized he had brought nothing to cover up the lower half of his body. Loathe as he was to go without something to cover his chest, Equius removed the necklace and clasps and wrapped the cloth around his waist to serve as a sarong of sorts. He had tried to make it into a dress, so he could feel more comfortable, but the material was too short, so suffer with a naked torso he did. He had seen a human on a ship once wearing something like a dress once and he seen one with a skirt before, so he knew these were something humans wore and that he and Gamzee shouldn’t stand out too much with their sarongs.
          Unfortunately, They had no feet covers, whatever those were called, but Gamzee said that almost all the humans at the beach wore nothing on their feet, so maybe they were safe in that department.

          Yes, this was the best they were going to get.

          Equius began to walk in their desired direction when he turned to look out at the sea and the sun hit his eye at a bad angle. He rubbed at them and squinted through hazy vision. His eyes were still adjusting to the lack of water, but that wasn’t why his eyes hurt. Beautiful as land was illuminated by the sun, Equius did not enjoy the light itself. He had always known he was more sensitive to light than most merfolk, but it was never bright enough underwater to a hindrance of any kind. Here, however it was, and they Equius knew this from the few times he had surfaced during the day.
          He had forgotten about that and had made no plans on how to resolve the issue.

          “You alright bro?”

          Equius looked back to Gamzee to find that he had gotten far ahead of Equius.

          “Yes, your highness, I am fine. The sun is simply rather… bright.”

          Gamzee frowned and turned to the sun, just barely avoiding staring at it directly. He too squinted his eyes, but showed no discomfort to the level Equius was at.

          “I mean, it’s kind of intense but it’s not a big deal to me.” Gamzee said. “You sure you’re good bro?”

          “Yes.” Equius assured with a lie. “I will be fine.”

          “A’ight, cool, bro.” Gamzee nodded and continued on through the sand

          Equius picked up his speed ever so slightly to catch up with Gamzee and as they arrived at the center beach and the sight of the town fell before them, he suddenly realized that Gamzee now had more experience on land than he did.

          Halted in their tracks, the two boys stood side by side, staring dumbly at the row of human buildings in the human town. All that separated them from it was a pathetic wood and wire fence with sand seeping out through the bottom.
          There were stairs and a small gate to the left.
          Gamzee was already at the top with his hand on it.

          “It’s really pretty, ain’t it bro?” He called out to Equius.

          In truth, the little row of shops and restaurants would’ve seemed rather average or even dull to most humans, but Equius had never seen such peculiar square structures. He took in the funny writing on the signs, the chatter of a pair of humans sitting at a table just outside one of them, and the foreign smells wafting out the windows.
          With his attention on the wildly new environment, Equius absentmindedly strolled over to Gamzee, who opened the gate for him.
          He took a step onto smooth, hard cement and found himself completely and utterly lost. He wondered if Gamzee could tell, because the makara turned human spoke up with a cheery but curious tone.

          “So, what now?”

          Equius sputtered silently and sucked in a breath. He bit his lip nervously and looked left and then right. He had no clue. This next thought concerned Equius, but, for once, he thought, Gamzee might.

          “We should go to the human’s house.” Equius affirmed, glad to have thought of something. “Would you like to lead us there?”

          “Well, sure bro, of course! Right this way!”

          Gamzee happily took a step to the right and froze. He turned his head to look behind him, twisted on the ball of his foot and took a big step to the left.

          “This way!”

          Oh yes, Equius was very concerned at knowing less than Gamzee.

          As Gamzee lead the way to… somewhere, Equius maintained an impassive gaze as he looked around at everything around him.

          It was quiet, calm, and peaceful; he almost felt at ease here despite the stressful situation at hand. The nature of the land was so very different from that of the sea; plants were hardly what he had always considered them as. There were tall graceful palm trees with huge leaves to block out the sun and bushes of leaves and flowers of the brightest colors. There was so much foliage it covered every inch of land that wasn’t man made.
          Speaking of, Equius discovered that humans had created some rather interesting (and terrifying) inventions. The buildings he saw continued to vary and change, and while none looked anything like merfolk structures, none struck a particular chord with Equius.

          When he saw a metal carriage-like vehicle one four wheels moving on it’s own down the street though? He was floored. Gamzee too.

          “What the fuck is that?” Gamzee pointed at the vehicle in a daze as it disappeared in the distance. “Eqbro, you’re the mechanic, what was that?”

          “I… I don’t know.” He uttered out, still staring at what was now a speck on the horizon. “I would assume it is the human equivalent of a carriage, perhaps.”

          “There ain’t no manatees or rays pulling that carriage, bro.”

          “I am clearly aware.” Equius mumbled.

          It wasn’t until a pair of tall humans walked by them with odd looks aimed at them and muttered exchanges with each other that the boys realized how long they had been standing there.

          “Right, uhm…” Gamzee swiveled his head side to side. With a gasp, Gamzee swung out his arm and pointed at the road leading straight. “I think we keep on this way!”

          “You think?” Equius looked down the street with concern. There were at least three more humans there and he wanted to be sure Gamzee wasn’t leading to unwanted engagements for no reason.

          “I mean, I’m pretty sure.”

          Equius sighed and nodded his head. “Okay.”

          They both shuffled along, careful of the people they passed by and all too aware of the attention there were drawing. This confused Equius, he thought the outfits were just fine. Though, now that he looked at the humans walking by, he noticed that not a one of them bared their chest; which was exactly what the two of them were doing.

          “Gamzee.” He muttered under his breath in the other boy’s direction. Cringing at how he used his name, Equius quickly corrected himself and said, “Sir, you have met with more humans than I. Did I make an error in choosing to not cover our upper bodies?”

          Putting a finger to his chin, tapping it in thought, Gamzee hummed as they walked.

          “Nah, I don’t think so. I’ve seen some humans getting their chill out on the beach with nothing but what we got, bro.”

          “I see no such person dressed this way.”

          “Well, they ain’t all gotta be getting gussied up the same, do they?”

          Equius frowned and turned away, focusing back to the road ahead. He was suddenly more self-conscious of himself than he was nervous of humans being suspicious. It was bad enough he felt uncomfortable with a bare chest underwater surrounded by friends and family of his own kind, but to be so out in a foreign land with a foreign species was a whole new level.
          Hyper aware of himself Equius crossed his arms in a way to cover himself up a bit.

          “This is embarrassing…” He thought as the most disheartening expression crossed his face.

          Briefly glancing at him, Gamzee noticed the sad, fraught face and stopped to address it.

          “Bro, why the long face? You look so down, man.” Gamzee asked with a concerned frown. “Something botherin’ ya?”

          “If I must be honest.” Equius said, halting his steps. “I would like a wrap or shawl.”

          Gamzee eyed Equius’ awkward hugging of his chest and realized what he meant.

          “Ah, shit bro, I all up and forgot about your bothersomeness with nothing on.” Gamzee looked around as though an answer would present itself. Unless ripping one of a human counted as one, Gamzee found nothing.

          “Hey, you know, maybe we can ask one of these human motherfuckers where we can get you a sweet cloth for yourself.” He offered. “They got theirs from somewhere, right?”

          Equius grimaced at the very thought. “I am not sure how I feel willing interacting with a human unless absolutely necessary, sir. Much less wearing their garments.”

          “Well, we gotta do something to be getting you comfortable, Equius.” Gamzee stepped to the edge of the sidewalk to look up and down the street, even checking the ones to the farther down and above their current location.

          Surprisingly, there were was no one. There hadn’t been many humans out and about, but surely someone was nearby.

          “Sir?” Equius said, confused by Gamzee’s rapidly head turning.

          Gamzee ignored him. Instead he went back a few steps and peaked over the corner to the right and then looked over to the left. No one there either? Where did all the humans go.

          “Sir?”

          It was when Gamzee turned around to answer Equius that he saw one; a human turning the corner to walk down the very sidewalk they were on.

          “Aha!” Gamzee hollered, his face lighting up in joy.

          He ran past Equius, who turned with a horrified look of terror.

          “S-sir!” He called out incredulously, voice still somehow quiet despite how thrown off guard he was. He couldn’t get another word out before Gamzee was ten feet gone, headed straight for a human.

          “Heya!” Gamzee shouted just three feet short of the human. “Do you know where-- “

          With a soft gasp, the human pulled back as Gamzee tripped over the cane the human had extended out in front of them and dropped through the air with a painfully smack to the hard and unforgiving concrete below.

          The world was suddenly all too bright and dark and loud and silent all at once for Gamzee has he ripped his face from off the sidewalk, his vision wavering and ears softly ringing.
          Shaking, he pushed himself up onto his hands, his arms threatening to give out from under him. He could just barely hear a concerned remark come from the human he had collided with and he tilted his head ever so slightly to the side and looked up at them, their back pressed flat against the wall of the building connected to the sidewalk.
          Gamzee could’ve sworn he recognized them.

          “Your highness!” He heard Equius shout as he came running to Gamzee’s side. He bent low on his knees and lifted Gamzee onto his own before practically pulling him into his lap. “Are you hurt? What can I do?”

          Equius desperately searched for any wounds, immediately finding an ugly purple scrape right smack in the middle of Gamzee’s forehead. It was bleeding too.

          Bleeding purple.

          About to attend to the awful mess, Equius went to rip off a piece of his sarong, but Gamzee lifted a jittery hand to tell him not to do anything.

          “Hahaha…” Gamzee weakly chuckled, trying to get up onto his feet. “Yeah bro, I’m just fine just motherfucking… fuck…” Finally managing to do so, Gamzee wobbled almost as bad as when he first tried walking. Equius’ arms shot out and he gripped Gamzee’s shoulders, steadying him.

          “...hit my head…” Gamzee finished with a groan.

          The two boys were, at the moment, completely ignorant of the human involved in the collision. That is, until they blurted out with a gasp, “Hey, it’s you!”

          Gamzee and Equius turned to them.

          Oh.

          He had first seen her for what was no more than a fleeting moment, but Gamzee did recognize her.

          “Sorry for tripping ya’ there, buddy.” The girl with the bright red sunglasses said with a nervous smile, tapping her cane on the ground. “Can’t really see, you know?”

Chapter Text

          It was still early in the day and this part of the town could almost be considered rural suburban; lots and lots of houses, some small name strip malls made up of family run businesses, a few parks and even a public pool, but no attractions or job industries major enough to warrant every resident be and at ‘em on a Saturday morning. Even tourists didn’t flock to this beach quite as much as the others nearer to the city, though that certainly didn’t stop them from visiting regardless.
          The streets were quiet today and Terezi found no issues in making her way home. She heard a few passing conversations, a dog barking, some music playing outside of store fronts, the energetic chatter of children in a nearby park, and occasionally, she even heard a car drive by.
          Some people greeted her, having recognized her, and the street vendor even gave her a popsicle just for the heck of it!
          It certainly wasn’t because he owed her one from last time; nope, not at all.

          Sliding her cane along the sidewalk, Terezi went step by step, walking without a care in the world, only focused on the sweet, sweet cherry of the nice, cold popsicle. When she felt the cement dip down, she realized she was at a cross streets and, having memorized them, she turned right headed towards the beach.
          Her house was situated on the far end of the cliffs just past where the sea cave was, so she always took a route that lead straight to the edge of beach, where a fence blocked the way and warm, golden sand spilled through it and onto the gray, cement sidewalk. From there, she would turn left and head straight until she reached her house.
          She was continuing on her way towards that fence now when she heard muttering from up ahead; some people where walking towards her. Taking a step to the right, hugging the buildings, she moved to give the people room, though she still felt around with her cane for obstacles.

          Terezi has never tripped anyone with her cane while walking down the street. People usually saw her a mile away and made sure not to run into the cane of a blind girl; but in this instance, some idiot actually did.

          Feeling a jolt from her cane as it collided with another person, Terezi came to a screeching halt and pulled back as someone stumbled and made a direct impact with the hard cement. She pressed herself against the building wall to get away from the mess and, to make sure nothing too bad had happened, she spoke to the clumsy passerby.

          “Shit, dude, are you okay?” She asked, worried she somehow knocked over an elderly with bones of glass and paper skin.

          She didn’t receive an immediate response, but she did hear groaning from the ground and the gasp of another person standing to her right.

          “Your highness!” The voice shouted. “Are you hurt? What can I do?” The person must have gotten onto the ground to check on Terezi’s victim of accidental circumstance, because their voice came from beneath her now.

          That was to be expected; Terezi would’ve done the same if she could see what was going on. Surely the person who fell would not want her groping them while trying to find where they had been injured. What was odd, however, was what the voice had just addressed this person as.

          “Your highness?” Terezi questioned aloud to herself. What, did she knock over visiting royalty? That would almost be as hilarious as it would be horrible; what were the odds of that?

          Now it was her accidental victim’s turn to speak and they did so with laughter, though the pain of falling flat onto cement still lingered in their voice.

          “Hahaha… yeah bro, I’m just fine just motherfucking… fuck… hit my head…”

          Wait… she recognized that voice.

          “Hey, it’s you!” She called. “Sorry for tripping you, buddy. Can’t really see, you know?”

          There wasn’t an immediate response, but Terezi could sense tension in the air.

          “Uh, heh, yeah, it’s motherfucking me, sis.” The voice of that boy replied. “Terepy, right?”

          “Terezi." She quickly corrected. "Terepy sounds like some sort of sexually transmitted disease. Anyways, you’re, huh, Genji?”

          “Gamzee.”

          “Well, at least my guess was logical. More so than Terepy.” Terezi shrugged. “You alright?”

          “Yeah.” He grunted as he presumably rose to his feet. “Just a lil’ accident, it’s cool, sis.”

          Terezi gave an acknowledging nod and turned her head in the direction she’d heard Gamzee’s friend speak; they hadn’t sound anything since she spoke up.

          “Hey, sorry for knocking down your buddy here, but, are you okay? You haven’t said much.”

          She heard a small guttural noise before a nervous voice responded, “I am fine. I am merely concerned for… my friend.” They stuttered on that last part.

          The person sounded young, not much older than her, she figured, but the voice was also inexplicably deep for their supposed age. A rather pleasant drumming voice, Terezi found herself enjoying it's melody. This dude should talk more.

          “Right.” She said. “Sorry for any trouble.”

          Mister Deep Voice did not respond further, but Gamzee piped in with an introduction.

          “His name’s Equius, sis.” He said in a tone akin to that of an announcer. “He’s my best bro, no matter what he says to dispute such aclaims.”

          Terezi spares a grin at the admittedly cute display, but she is caught off guard by Gamzee’s next question.

          “Say, excuse me sis, but, are you blind?”

          Huh. She really expected that to be obvious. Most people recognized the tell tale signs of a red and white cane combined with sunglasses. Albeit, they were pretty rad sunglasses; maybe he didn't think blind people could be so cool. Oh boy, how wrong he was if he thought that. Regardless, this kid was a little too unknowing for Terezi's liking.

          “Duh, of course I’m blind!” She scoffed. “Buddy, I thought you lived in the city, you’ve never seen a blind person?”

          He was quiet; probably caught off guard at her increased volume.

          With hesitance, he said, “No, I’ve, uh, I’ve seen blind folks. But they don’t use the stick and shades is all.”

          “Really?” That seemed odd to Terezi, but not impossible, she supposed. “Okay, I guess. Still surprised you never learned about blind canes or anything.”

          “I’m sorry, sis, ain’t tryin’ to offend ya’ or nothing.”

          “No, no, you’re fine, I just thought you were stupid.”

          Gamzee laughed heartily. “That I motherfucking am, sis!”

          Terezi heard shocked gasps from across the street and the signs of rushed footsteps as two people or so hurried away. She inwardly chuckled; some poor mom and her impressionable little boy probably just walked by in the middle of Gamzee’s shameless profanity.

          “Well, that’s a real shame.” She grinned. “Anyway, if you’re really interested, I’m not completely blind. I can see light and stuff, so I can make sense of some vague shadows sometimes. But it’s not enough so, yeah, I use my cane to feel around so I don’t run smack into a pole or fall in a ditch.” She tossed her cane up and caught it in both her hands, running a thumb over it. “It’s also good to whack people with, hehehe.”

          “That’s pretty neat.” Gamzee awed and Terezi felt a pressure on her cane as he ran his own hand along it. This kid was abnormally interested in this.
          Terezi, however, was abnormally interested in Gamzee in general.

          “Hey, off topic, but why are you back out here?” She asked. “I thought you lived in the city. Surely you didn’t come for the beach, there’s so many better ones over there; closer to you too.”

          “Well, uh…” He took a step back, mumbling something under his breath.

          Or maybe that was Equius. Terezi wasn’t sure. She couldn't hear it anyway.

          "You know," Gamze continued, “Just looking for something I lost.”

          “Oh?” Terezi perked up. “Actually I don't know. What is it?”

          Gamzee started to speak, but was promptly cut off by his friend.

          “It is a necklace.” Equius quickly addressed. “It is of great value. You do not happen to know it’s whereabouts, do you?”

          Gamzee muttered something to him but Equius dismissed it, whispering something back to him. Then neither spoke, waiting for Terezi’s answer.
          Of course, the first thing to come to her mind was Tavros’ seashell necklace. She had no doubt that that was the coveted object of these two boys. After all, they found Gamzee in that very sea cave for goodness’ sakes. How funny that they would meet him there.
          Ah, but alas, t he excitement and pride Terezi felt from so easily deducing the answer quickly faded away when she remembered what her friends thought of the necklace.
          How disappointed would they be to find out that beautiful, shimmering abalone lined with gold was not lost by that of a mystical mermaid, but instead, some kid from the city. Probably a rich kid too, if that gold was real.
          I t wouldn’t discredit the extremely convincing photographs of proof they had, but still, it would break their hearts. 
          Especially Tavros’.
          It was Tavros who would be most devastated; handing it over with a false smile, too kindhearted to show his sadness and utter disenchantment. The thought was a little too depressing for Terezi, more so when considering that it would most certainly happen if she was the one who broke the illusion.
          Could she really do that with a clear conscience?

          Shaking her thoughts away, Terezi readied a loophole to work with both her conflicting emotion.

          She asked Equius for further clarification.

          “I don’t know. What does it look like? 'Necklace' is an awfully vague descriptor.” She teased with a wide, roguish grin.

          “The necklace has a charm of an abalone shell. Its exterior is a deep purple and its interior is pale and reflective of the color spectrum. Along the interior is a golden symbol. The charm is held around the neck by a-” Equius described before he suddenly ceased speaking altogether.

          He cleared his throat and softly, with a volume just above a whisper, said, “This information has no use to you. Does it?”

         "Ohhh... oh, oh, oh!" Gamzee piped up from out of nowhere, gasping as he slowly came to the same realization as his friend.

          Positively losing it, Gamzee cackled away like it was the funniest thing in the world. "Equius, motherfucker, she's blind, bro!"

          FInally, Terezi laughed loudly for all to hear, joining alongside Gamzee. It was far too fun to mess with people like this. However, considering Equius' words, Terezi was almost caught off guard from the moment he spoke the first word in his spiel. She spared herself an entertaining thought.

          “ Wow, he’s intense.”

          She chuckled softly at how ridiculous and unnecessary his heavy imagery was. He was either desperate to find this necklace or astoundingly meticulous with his words. Probably both.
          Settling down from her laughter, Terezi decided to end this particular game of ring-around-the-rosie with Equius and give him what he wanted.
          Sort of.

          “That information is of no use to me? Under usual circumstances, I would say you are correct, Mr. Details.” She informed with a wavering grin.
          She intended to continue, but couldn’t find the words.

          “And…” Equius started, but withdrew his comment, taking a pause. A few seconds later and he restarted. “And what circumstances are these, Ms. Terezi?”

          Her smile flickered, then dropped. She could hear the unease in Equius idle movements; the ever so slightly hopeful tone of his voice.
          She exhaled through her nostrils. She couldn’t believe she felt so empathetic to these two and their plight after having known them for less than an hour total. She couldn't' believe she felt so empathetic to them when their mission would completely derail her friends'.

          There wasn’t really any disputing it now, was there? That really was it.

          She supposed it was only right to tell Gamzee where the necklace was. It was most certainly his; no doubt about it.

          Either way she would feel guilty. If she didn't tell them and Tavros found out, he’d most definitely feel guilty; probably more than even Terezi. He wouldn’t blame her, he’d just feel bad for keeping something when he knew who it’s rightful owner was.
          Then Terezi would feel even more guilty by extension of making Tavros feel guilty.

          Shit.

          Much as she was a stickler to rules and ethics; Terezi was rather indecisive at times.

          This, though… this was something for Tavros to handle, much as she disliked it.

          With an unsure conscience, she finally gave up.

          “These circumstances are just different.” She sighed. “But yeah, I’ve seen it. Felt it, I guess. My friend found it.”

          “Ah, yes, your-“ Equius stopped. He inhaled and, in an oddly fake, questioning tone, asked, “Your friend? Where is he?”

          “Never said he.” Terezi teased with song like vibrato. “And why would I tell you?”

          “Because he is the one currently possessing the necklace his high- my friend desires.”

          “Do you really think I’m going to tell some strange kid with a scary deep voice where my friend is? You could be a gang member for all I can tell!” She laughed. “No way! That’s not how it works!”

          Equius grit his teeth and, yes, Terezi could hear that! Wow!

          “How does it work, if I may inquire?” He asked, his tone leaning  heavily on the polite facade masking his irritation.

          Oh boy, Terezi was gonna have fun now.

          “Oh, you know.” She ;)

          “I do not.” He bluntly spat, still with a veil of courtesy.

          “Guess your folks didn’t teach you stranger danger; or common sense.” She taunted. “I’d never leave my friend alone with a stranger. I guess I could take you to him, but, honestly, I’m tired. I’d be napping now if someone hadn’t tripped on the blind’s girl cane.” Prattling on, she crossed her legs and leaned forward on her cane in the most casual manner she could. “Maybe come back later and I’ll give it to you. After I get it from him of course.”

          The deep and quaking breath Equius took was amazing. She was really getting on his nerves, wasn’t she? His friend clearly knew it, too.

          “Uh, Equius, bro, why don’t we just let her get it for us later?” He offered, trying to assuage his on-the-edge friend.

          “Sir, I believe it would be more reasonable to retrieve the necklace as soon as possible.” Equius argued, ironically sounding anything but reasonable.

          “Yeah, but, I don’t want you flipping out or nothing, man.” Gamzee argued, his voice soft and drooping.

          “I will maintain composure.” He stiffly retorted.

          “Hey, question!” Terezi blurted out. “What the hell is up with this creepy, ‘sir’ thing? I heard you call him, ‘your highness’ earlier, and honestly? It’s weirding me out.”

          “You are averting my previous question.”

          “Am not.” Terezi sneered. “I answered it. You just never asked for a follow-up.”

          Equius was silent for a few calculating seconds before he groaned in complete and astounded exasperation.

          “Will you or will you not give us the necklace!” He shouted, his overly civil temperament shattering like glass from the pressure of the many cracks Terezi had hammered into it.

          “Bro!” Gamzee muttered through grit teeth. “Calm down!”

          Not giving him the satisfaction of an answer, Terezi observed the debacle to the best of her abilities, an impassive expression glazed over her face.
          The hushed and tense exchange between the two boys slowly died down and Terezi waited for either one to say something to her, but neither did, so she spoke up instead.

          “The answer is yes, I will help you. But you’re going to have to do it yourselves.” She sighed and gave a small smile. “My friend quite likes the thing, so I’m not about to make it easy for you. A bit convoluted, I know, but that’s how I’m rolling, sorry!”

          She expected Equius to be the one to berate her for her attitude and demand a clear answer and assistance, but it was Gamzee who instead spoke up.

          “Yeah, sis, that’s just fine.” He said. “Glad to be getting any kinds of help we can, right, bro?”

          A grunt was all Gamzee got in response from him, but he understood Equius’ answer well enough.

          “So, yeah. Thank you, T-sis.” He restated. “Could you put us on the right path for us to get to finding it?”

          “You met Tavros, right?” She motioned at them with a nonchalant wave of her hand. “It’s his for now, so just go find him.”

          “Right, I knew that.”

          “Really?” Terezi scoffed. “Then why’d you grill me, man? Ridiculous, don’t you think?”

          Gamzee took a breath and clarified, “Sorry, sis. Was a joke. Just a screw up I get to getting on with my words sometimes, is all. That’s it.”

          “Jeez, chill.” She chuckled. “I knew it was a joke; I’m not that literal.”

          “Hehe, right.” He laughed half-heartedly. “So, he at his place?”

          “Wait…” Terezi furrowed her brow quizzically. “You went home with him?”

          “Uh… when we walked back from the cave, yeah.”

          “Huh.” She bounced on her heels. “I had no idea. I figured you would’ve just gone home.” She shrugged dismissively and said, “Whatever, he’s not home right now. Probably won’t be for at least two more hours.”

          “What? Well, where’s he gone to?” Gamzee asked, sounding almost surprised that Tavros would be anywhere else.

          Which, to anyone who knew him, is a stupid assumption. The boy was almost never at home unless his friend’s were all busy or it was to do homework, eat, or sleep. He valued his time out and about too much, often having ‘adventures’ with Aradia, trekking in the lush forests and oceanside cliffs nearby.
          But, of course, this kid also knew nothing about Tavros.

          “Movies.” Terezi stated plainly, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

          The answer didn’t enlighten Gamzee; it only confused him further.

          “Movies?” He parroted, enunciating the world slow and awkward, clearly basing his pronunciation entirely on Terezi’s own diction of it. It was like he had never heard or said the word before.

          “Yeah.” Terezi ensured, giving Gamzee a funny look. “The movies. Had to take a bus.”

          “Right. Right, yeah. Yeah, of course.” He eagerly yammered, clearly not confident in his own claim of understanding. “I know, I know.”

          Terezi couldn’t even comment now, this was just odd; and, frankly? She was done here.

         With a sigh, she tapped her cane into place.

          “Yeah. So.” She took a step forward and put out a hand, lucky enough to land just short of Gamzee’s shoulder. She adjusted her hand fully on his shoulder and looked as best she could at him with a sneer. “Bus stop. Movies. Went into town.”

          Her smile widened and she released him, dramatically turning with flair and taking a step and then another, leaving them behind in stride. Not looking back,  she lifted a hand in the air and waved a farewell to the two boys she abandoned.

          “You do the rest, buddy!”

          She kept on walking until the scent of salt in the air grew stronger, the crashing of waves and crying seagulls grew louder, and her cane hit sand, spilling out through the bottom of a wood and wire fence.

          She turned left.

Chapter Text

          Terezi arrived home shortly after her encounter with the two strange boys and promptly headed for her bedroom; to do what, she was unsure.
          Of course, she wanted to inform Vriska that she was home now, but she also felt like she should mention her street meeting to the others. She’d probably just greet Vriska, message them quickly and then get back to whatever else she had to do.
          To Terezi’s surprise though, Vriska was not home. She called out for her to no avail and found her missing from their bedroom as well.
          Unless Vriska was hiding somewhere and ignoring Terezi.

         "Oh well."

          In the meanwhile, Terezi went to her computer and opened up Pesterchum.

-- GC  JUST NOW  opened memo on board “:33< team mermaid!!!” --

GC: H3Y 4LL Y4LL
GC: SO GU3SS WHO 1 M3T TOD4Y?
GC: TH4T K1D FROM L4ST N1GHT
GC: STUP1D GUY 4CTU4LLY R4N 1NTO ME, C4N YOU B3L13V3 1T?
GC: 4NYW4Y, H3 H4D 4 FR13ND W1TH H1M 4ND 1 P1SS3D H1M OFF SO B4D, YOU WOULD NOT B3L13V3 1T H3H3H3H3 >:]
GC: OH
GC: W3LL, 1 4CTU4LLY DONT TH1NK 1LL GO FURTH3R ON WHY 1 P1SS3D H1M OFF
GC: BUT H34DS UP
GC: TH3Y W4NT3D TO S33 YOU GUYS, SO I TOLD TH3M TH4T YOU GUYS W3NT TO TH3 MOV13S
GC: SO JUST 4 W4RN1NG IF TH3Y 4CTU4LLY M4K3 1T
GC: YOU PROB4BLY WONT 3V3N G3T TH1S UNT1L 4FT3RW4RDS BUT L3T IT B3 KNOWN TH4T 1 TR13D!
GC: H4V3 FUN!

-- gallowsCalibrator [GC] ceased pestering  “:33< team mermaid!!!” memo --

          It was then that Terezi heard the front door slam shut; someone had just come in. Terezi rolled out from the desk and hopped off the chair and went out into the hallway.

          “Hey! Who’s home?” She shouted, hoping Vriska had come back.

          “Just mom, Terezi.” One of her mothers, Latula, replied.

          “Oh, hey mom.” Terezi leaned onto the railing to hear her better. “Get any fun cases today?”

          “No, no big trials today, just a lot of boring work, sweetheart.” Latula said with a sigh as she put down her purse as jingling keys hit the tabletop. “How was your sleepover?”

          “Oh, lots of fun, we stayed up so late and had so much soda, it’s not even funny.” Terezi grinned cheek to cheek. “Did you know Tavros’ fridge is nothing but Mountain Dew? It was wild.”

          Terezi heard Latula’s footsteps as she ascended the wooden stairs and felt her mother’s hand on her cheek. Latula gave her a kiss on the forehead and Terezi returned it with the tiniest little smile.

          “Something tells me that’s not quite true,” Her mother chuckled. “But I’ll take it you had fun.”

          “Hey, mom,” She asked as her mom reached the top of the stairs. “You know where Vriska went?”

          Latula walked over to the master bedroom and had just turned the knob when she turned back to answer her daughter. “Yes, she went to see Aranea; her ship came in three days early and she’s arrived.”

          “Oh shoot, she’s back!” Terezi gasped. Her adoptive mother almost never came in early; if anything she always was late. “Why’s she back so soon?”

          “She didn’t tell me, of course.” Latula replied with a dull voice. “She talked about going out to dinner tonight as a family. I figured there wasn’t any harm in it.” Latula hummed and headed into the bedroom. “But, you know, Vriska wanted to go ahead and head over there this morning.”

          “So she’s been down in the port?” Terezi questioned, dragging her hand along the wall and she moved into the doorway of the master bedroom.

          “Yes,” Latula said, moving back to Terezi. “She’s fine; Aranea will bring her back with her. Now, I've gotta get dressed in something more comfortable, my boots are absolutely killing me right now.”

          “Alright.” Terezi smiled and turned on her heel to head back to her room. “You do you, mom! I’ll be in my room!”

          Terezi shut the door behind her and slumped onto the small sofa in her room. She frowned as she thought about what her mother had just told her.
          After a moment of contemplation, Terezi sighed and pulled out her phone and dialed up Vriska. She had a bad feeling.

 

***

 

          Vriska spared not a second on her way to her mother’s ship.

          The port for cargo ships was blocked by a chain link fence around the perimeter. Of course, the guards would let her in since they recognized her as Aranea’s daughter, but where was the fun in that?
          After sneaking her way into the port via her usual secret passage through a hole in one of the fences, Vriska skipped her way down to the docking station for her mother’s ship.
          Her mom’s ship was a huge cargo ship nicknamed "The Marquise". It was written in huge elegant letters swooping down the vessel’s sides in lovely white paint. Vriska thought it was awesome how her mom defied typical rules regarding that sort of thing. Not that Vriska really knew what the rules were. After all, long before she was born, her mother had saved up thousands of dollars to buy this ship! It was her own personal cargo ship! She was probably allowed to do whatever she wanted with it.
          Although, if she were to be honest, Vriska wasn’t entirely sure what her mom specialized in nor what exactly she carried or where she carried it to, but she’d come home with some cool stories! Her mom seemed to get into so much trouble for a cargo captain! She’d been attacked by pirates off the coast of foreign countries and islands so many times! Even though her friends never believed it, Vriska knew it was true. How else would you explain the scratches adorning the ship?
          Vriska found The Marquise at it’s usual docking spot with its crew members stepping down from the ship’s docking walkway. Quickly waving them all hello, Vriska slipped past the departing members as they all laughed at her eagerness.
          She knew her way around the ship well enough to get to her mother’s cabin and even though she only visited every few months, the ship’s layout, of course, never changed.

          “Mom!” Vriska practically screamed as she slammed open the door.

          Across the cabin was a large queen sized bed that had been built into wall. Vriska’s mother, Aranea, had decorated the facade of it with a carved wooden frame and designs striking a cord with traditional ocean themed decor. At the moment, Aranea was gathering up clothing from a nearby dresser into a large suitcase that was laid out on the bed.
          Aranea was the very image of a femme fatale; tall with gentle seductive curves and a cascade of long, rich black hair flowing down her back. Even out on sea with no one to show off too, she took careful care to apply just the right amount of makeup to look attractive but dangerous. Certainly, with such demeanor, one would never have suspected her of running a cargo ship.

          Vriska chalked it up to her mom just being that cool.

          Aranea turned away from her current preoccupation to face her daughter with a warm smile.

          “Vriska!” She called as her daughter collided with her in a tight, crushing hug around her waist. “How are you, little darling?”

          “Awesome, mom!” Vriska happily announced as she tossed her head back to look up at her mother’s face. “You were gone for so long this time! What were you doing?”

          Aranea chuckled and nudged Vriska gently away before kneeling down and scooping her up into her arms. “Nothing much,” She said as she sat Vriska down besides her on the edge of the bed. “Sorry for being out so long, we ran into some trouble out there.”

          “So, what happened?” Vriska said, crawling over the sheets to lay on her mother’s thighs. “Was it another pirate attack?”

          “Well, no, not necessarily.” Her mother chuckled, eyes darting to the side slowly in thought.. “Something… else came up.”

          Vriska frowned. “What came up?”

          “Oh, nothing much! Got into a bit of a kerfuffle, but nothing big, sweetheart.”

          “A kerfuffle?" She pouted. "Mom, that word sounds stupid.” Vriska mumbled.

          “Oh yes, very stupid, Vriska.” Aranea sighed. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of stupid people out on the ocean. Almost more than the stupid people on land.”

          “But you’re a smart person on both.” Vriska complimented with a grin. “I think you’re even smarter than Latula.”

          “Oh, well then!” Aranea leaned back, crossing her arms with a smirk spreading across her face. “Don’t you tell her that, but I agree with your deduction, Vriska.” Aranea patted Vriska on the top of her head. “But that’s an exchange for her and me. She’s still your stepmother.”

          “Not when you guys get divorced, she won’t be.” Vriska chuckled, but there was clearly pain behind it.

          Aranea noticed the forced positivity. Vriska turned her gaze away from her mother and to the dresser to the left of her. It had pretty golden handles with lovely swirls at the ends. Vriska wondered if it was real gold. That’d be pretty cool.

          “Vriska.”

          She tore her focus away from the dresser to face her mother. “Yes, mom?”

          “Can you tell me something?”

          “Sure, mom!”

          Aranea took a breath and exhaled in exhaustion. “Vriska, how do you feel about… about the divorce?”

          For some reason, this question took Vriska by surprise. She hadn’t expected to be asked her opinion on such a matter; she just expected her mom to drift out of yet another relationship.
          Aranea had had several fleeting boyfriends and girlfriends and other friends over the years. Ever since Vriska could remember, she’d always liked the people her mother dated. Almost every time, her mother seemed so happy, too; but, they never lasted. Vriska was never sure why. Sure, sometimes her mother and her partners would fight, but, every couple did that, and the arguments never escalated to violence. There was never any abuse that she noticed, not on either side, but no matter what, her mother would just break apart the relationship.

          Latula was different. Vriska was sure of it.

          Why? Because Aranea married her, for goodness sakes!

          Aranea had had hundreds of partners but only ever one spouse, Rufioh, and their relationship was one that even Aranea admitted to being one of the best she had ever had.
          So when her mother proposed to Latula, Vriska was ecstatic! Finally, her mother found someone to spend her life with! Someone that she got along with so well that she wanted to take it to the next level! FInally, Vriska could say she had parents; two actual married parents!
          She even got a sister out of it; her best friend!
          Aranea and Latula got along so well. Of course, there was the typical romantic rivalry they shared, just like Aranea had with Rufioh, but it tender, sweet, and full of care. OVriska wasn’t alive when Aranea and Rufioh were married, so she had no first hand experience to compare to this new marriage, but it seemed strong. It seemed unbreakable.

          But it wasn’t.

          Vriska had heard from some people that Rufioh and Aranea split rather suddenly; others said they slowly grew apart. Neither her mother nor Rufioh ever elaborated.
          With Latula, though, Vriska never saw it grow; never saw the love wither or decay.

          It just happened all together one day. It just snapped.

          It was like she woke up and her mothers never smiled, only glared at each other with cold, icy stares. It wasn’t a particularly aggressive break-up. It was stiff, dull.

          It was odd, entirely sudden, and it was sad.

          They’d been like this for several months when finally, the impending doom that had made it’s approach in the home arrived and her mothers announced their intention to divorce.
          They hadn’t gone through with it quite yet; they were still making arrangements. Working out housing, child custody, who gets who on what days and when; all that stuff.

          For Vriska, it was like organizing a funeral.

          She had tried to disconnect from the procedures and her mothers respected that. When Aranea went back out to sea for another run, Vriska had almost completely blocked out any and all mentions of a divorce, but the thought loomed in the back of her head constantly. It haunted her because she didn’t want to lose this. To lose her family. Her legally bound family and her lawfully wedded parents; the only ones she had ever had.

          As Vriska sat on her mother’s bed, the thoughts cumulated over the past months rushed to her as she tried to answer her mother’s question.

          What did she think of the divorce? Oh, she thought so much of it. What she couldn’t think of, however, was what to say.

          “What do you mean, mom?” She asked, playing dumb.

          “I mean, how do you feel about me and Latula getting a divorce?” Her mother restated her previous question. “You can be honest, dear. I just want to know.”

          Vriska bit her lip and lowered her eyes so she was staring her mother’s neck; anywhere else besides her face, besides her eyes.

          “Well, I mean, of course I don’t want you to get a divorce.” Vriska finally spat out, sounding stupefied and almost offended, like her answer should’ve been obvious. “I think you two were happy together. I think you still can be if you tried.”

          Vriska cringed. She hadn’t meant for that last part to sound so rude and judgemental.

          She hesitantly slid her eyes up to glance at her mother’s expression; try to get a feel of what she was thinking. What was she thinking?

          Aranea’s face was impassive, but thoughtful and maybe a little bit sad, even. “Yes, we were quite happy weren’t we.” Aranea sighed. “But, things happen and people become… unhappy. You learn things you shouldn’t know or do things they don’t want to and it hurts the other person.”

          Aranea went quiet, her eyes lost in thought.

          Vriska spoke up after a quiet moment. “But, what happened?” She asked, placing emphasis on the ‘what’. “What did you learn or do that she didn’t like or what did she do, what happened?”

          Aranea looked at Vriska with a sad smile. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you, dear, but I messed up in a way that I can’t fix.”

          “Look, mom, I know Latula can be rather unforgiving when you break the rules, but she’s understanding too! Ask her for another chance, mom!”

          “She gave me one.” Aranea quickly responded. “And I declined.”

          Vriska was floored. She declined? No way. There was no way.

          “What?!” She yelled, “Mom gave you chance and you said, ‘no’?!”

          “Look, Vriska, I had too.” Her mother’s face become one of reluctant acceptance layered with hidden sorrow. “This was something that I can’t fix. I just can’t. I have to keep it as it is.”

          “Then why don’t you?!” Vriska yelled. “Why don’t you keep things as they are! Stay married, make things up! Keep it as it is!”

          Vriska rose up and jumped off the bed, stomping to the center of the room.

          “I don’t even care what you did, but I do care that you don’t want to fix it for me! For me!” Vriska turned on her heel and glared at her mom, tears threatening to break through the barrier she’d put up. “You finally had someone, you finally got married, and I finally had a family! Now, you’re going to break it up and I’ll be stuck with the shards of it, just like last time with dad! Oh, except, he’s not my dad! I don’t even know what he is to me. Is he, like, a stepdad? An ex-dad? A friend of yours? I don’t know, but I’m his son’s half-sister and it’s confusing as hell!”

          Aranea said nothing. Not that Vriska gave her time to.

          “So, if you really, really care about me, you’d not get divorced. You’d just not do it, not if you cared. If you did, then you’d stay. You always gone at sea anyways, and that’s cool, it’s really cool, but, that’s bad enough. Now you’re going to leave the only family I’ve ever really had.”

          Vriska threw down her head and clenched her arms to her sides. She held her glare to the floor, terrified of the tears that were starting the break through.
          She couldn’t say anymore without the threat of sobbing.

          Aranea moved from the bed and stood besides it. She took one step closer to Vriska and held out a gentle hand, reaching out to her daughter. 

          “Vriska… I… I have to.” She tried to explain, but failed to find a way around it.

          “Yeah, I get it.” Vriska hastily spewed before shutting her mouth tight again, muffling a whimper.

          “I know you don’t understand and I’m sorry.” Aranea said. “But, I swear, I’ll do my best to keep you and Latula and Terezi together, okay? I don’t want to hurt you.”

          “But you are and you don’t care.”

          “No, Vriska, I do care. I do and you know it.” Aranea frowned. “Mommy just has to make some tough decisions, okay?”

          Vriska did not respond. She remained quiet.

          It took but a second for her ask herself, “What am I doing? What’s the point? It’s going to happen, don’t be such a whimp about it. You’re standing here crying like a loser and that’s exactly what you don’t want to be, you idiot. You’re almost 9, stop being a baby!”

          She didn’t want to do this anymore. She was tired.

          Vriska took a breath and managed to restrain the breakdown she was about to have.

          “Whatever.” She huffed. “I don’t care anymore. But, mom, just, while you’re here, can you at least try to get Latula back again?”

          Vriska dared to look up at her mother and she instantly regretted it, because she did not like what she saw. Aranea’s face had drained itself of color and she glanced at the wall with evident guilt scrawled in her eyes.

          “Vriska… I’m sorry but, I have to go out again pretty fast. I can't stay more a few days.”

          “What?” Vriska gasped. “But, you were supposed to stay for at least a month!

          “Something… came up and… I’ve got to go again. I’m sorry.” Aranea met her daughter’s eyes again. “It’s just some trouble with the cargo is all. Really, it’s nothing you need to worry about, I’ll just have to be out sooner than usual.

          Before she could get the last word out, Aranea was cut off by Vriska.

          “Why?”

          “What?" Aranea whispered under her breath.

          “You’re always out for so long and now you’re trying to leave… sooner?” Vriska dropped her gaze back to the floor once again. “It’s like you’re trying to disappear from my life or something.” She bite her lip and tightened her fists in a ball on the edge of her jacket. “What the hell mom.”

          She started to cry.

          “Vriska-”

          “No! I’m sick of it!” She threw her arm in a swiping motion to keep her mother away. She glared pitifully with tear-stained eyes. “If you’re just going to leave then… leave! Just go! Get away!”

          Without waiting to see her mother’s reaction Vriska evacuated the scene, rushing out of the cabin and the ship and far away from it all.

          She scrambled up the grassy hill up to the chain link fence, tripping over herself as she, stumbling and on the verge of tears. She crammed herself through the hole in the fence, cutting her shoulder on the rough fracture metal. She cursed as she fell through and into the patch of dirt beneath her. Clutching her injury, Vriska collected herself and sat up to examine the torn skin. It was bleeding, but it wasn’t that bad; not anything she needed to worry over.
          The sudden sharp sensation from the cut had shaken her from her volatile state though. Taking this moment to breath, Vriska looked out over the port and at her mother’s ship. She cursed that ship for stealing away her mother every damn second of her life. Apparently it’d been like this since before Vriska was even born, but why couldn’t her mother take it easy now that she had kids? Was her cargo business really that important? Sure it made some good money, but they had a bunch in the bunch in the bank! Surely she could take a break.
          She had the time to arrange a divorce but not the time to be with her family one last time.

          How dare she.

          While she silently observed the motionless port, Vriska felt a buzz in her pocket. Then her phone rang with a Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney ringtone unmistakably belonging to her wonderful stepsister, Terezi Pyrope.

          With a sigh of irritation, Vriska rubbed at her eyes and settled her sobs before she yanked out her phone and answered it. “What is it, Pyrope?” She huffed into the speaker.

          “Heard you’re seeing Aranea.” The voice behind the phone plainly stated. “Are we staying with her now that she’s back? I know she bought an apartment near the port.”

          “I don’t know. Why would I know that?”

          “Just asking, jeez.”

          “Ugh, anyway, it doesn’t matter anyway. She’s gotta go back out in a few days.” Vriska sighed, wiping away her tears. “I’m getting sick of it. She’s always out doing God-knows-what and I never get to see her! I know she’s got this cool job out on the ocean, but… I miss her.”

          Terezi didn’t respond. Vriska continued.

          “It’s just- she’s the only one that I can actually connect with. It’s not fair. I like your mom and I know she’s my mom too, but, not really; and now that they’re divorced, she’s really, really not my mom. Just like stupid Nitram’s dad really, really isn’t my dad. Why does everyone get parents but me? Why’s my mom the one that’s always gone?”

          “Vriska, they aren’t divorced yet. And you do know we have plenty of friends with missing and dead parents, right?”

          “But they have someone related to them! Karkat and cat girl still have their mom, Kanaya’s got her aunt or whatever and Sollux has his uncles; it’s only me! Even Megido’s mysterious disappearing mom left her behind with a grandma!” She was yelling now. “I wish she’d just stay put! If she’s not going to stay with me than she should just disappear at sea! Clearly she cares more about it than me or any of us!”

          “Hey.” Terezi spat through the speaker. “Don’t say stuff like that.”

          “What? Are you superstitious or something?”

          “No, but I don’t think you should be talking about our mom that way; and I know you don’t mean it, either.”

          “Well, maybe I do! Maybe I’d be better off if she’d just go away!”

          Terezi was quiet yet again. She did not respond until a moment later.

          “Do you want to come home?" She asked. "I thought you were coming with Aranea, but, you don't sound like you're exactly with her.”

          “Yeah, I was, but I’m ditched her.” Vriska mumbled looking back briefly at the port.

          "What? You, Vriska Serket, ditched your mom?" Terezi awed in surprise. “Shouldn’t you be spending as much time as possible with her before she leaves?”

          “Maybe this’ll teach her to actually care about her damn daughter.” Vriska snapped just as she decided she didn't want to talk anymore.

          She pulled away from the phone and gruffly growled into the speaker. "See ya'."

          She tapped the red hang-up button, desperately wishing she had a flip phone to angrily snap shut right now. That would really validate the turbulent irritation and sadness she was dealing with right now.

          Ugh.

          And she still had a ‘family’ dinner to deal with tonight.

         Vriska tossed her phone besides her and slumped onto the ground. Usually she'd look out at the ocean when she felt this way, but the ocean seemed like a real douche bag right now and she didn't feel like admiring it.

          She looked up at the sky, up at the soft, white wisps that glided across a canvas of pale blue. Not unlike ships on the sea, Vriska noted with melancholy.

         She sucked in a deep breath and sighed, trying to let it all out.

          It’s hard. It’s hard being Vriska Serket. It’s hard and nobody understands.

Chapter Text

          Gamzee and Equius found themselves standing in the middle of the sidewalk staring at the spot where the girl had disappeared. There wasn’t much to be said as she walked away from them, leaving them in a state of complete and utter confusion.
          They had information, but there was no signs pointing where to go to use said information. Not to mention, what might have been useful advice was pointless when neither understand human terms.

          “Movies…” Gamzee mumbled. “What the motherfuck are movies?” He looked around as though the answer would present itself, which, of course, it did not. “And, motherfuck? That bus thing again, I don’t know what that is.”

          “Perhaps…” Equius said. “We should… gather information from… the locals.”

          Gamzee turned to Equius with shock scrawled across his face.

          “What?” He gasped, gapping at his out-of-character friend. “You wanna talk to more humans?”

          “It is not a want. I do not desire to do so in any capacity.” Equius began with a nervous sigh. “However, there really is no other choice.”

          “Well, nah, we could just go wandering around and shit, I guess.”

          “That is ill advised.” Equius frowned.

          “Then, yeah.” Gamzee smiled. “I guess you’re right, brother.”

          Almost remorsefully, Equius sighed and slowly brought his hands to his face. Deep down, there was a part of him that desperately wanted Gamzee to argue on the matter, for once; give him a reason to not talk to humans.

          “Fine.” He concluded, “You stay put. I will be the one to initiate conversation with a human. Understood?”

          He turned to look at Gamzee, but before he could finish his thought, the boy was already skipping across the street to an elderly looking couple who had just emerged from one of the buildings.
          Yet again, Equius kickstarted into super speed mode and he frantically ran over to where Gamzee was, though the latter had already choosen to strike up a conversation with the two strangers. The older man and woman halted as Gamzee skidded in front of them and they looked him over with puzzled eyes, though they did not say anything to him.

          So, he decided to say the first word.

          “Hey, motherfuckers.” He spouted, ever so casually yet loud.

          Immediately the elderly pair gasped, the woman holding a wrinkled hand up to her mouth in shock. Her shocked look quickly turned cross.

          “How dare you say such distasteful words!” She glared at Gamzee with angry eyes and clenched her frail hand into a weak fist. “You should be ashamed of that mouth of yours!”

          “Huh?” Gamzee backed up, suddenly thrown off and alarmed by her reaction. “I didn’t go meaning by it, just trying to-”

          “What?” She continued to chastise him, “Trying to what, young man? I hope you have a good reason for having a such filthy pottymouth! I should tell your parents!”

          “Wha’?” Gamzee’s face fell into disarray. “Wait, I don’t-”

          “Oh, don’t you say another word!” The old lady released her hold on her husband’s hand and reached into a purse hanging from her shoulder. “I’m calling your parents right now!”

          As she impatiently dug through the contents of her bag, her husband put a gentle hand on her shoulder, trying to calm her down.

          “Noe, I think he understands.” He softly spoke to her, though her tense expression showed no sign of easing up. “We don’t need to call his parents.”

          “No, I’m not letting another horrible child get away with it.” She fumed as she finally managed to wrangle her phone out from her purse and flipped it open. “There. Now,” She shook the phone in Gamzee’s direction. “What’s your parents phone number, young man?”

          Practically downing in anxious confusion, Gamzee sputtered about for an answer when Equius finally stepped in.

          “I apologize, ma’am, but my friend here has no phone number.” Equius bowed his head respectfully. “I assure you I will watch his language from now on.”

          The elderly lady did calm down, instead, she pointed her anger now at Equius. “You.” She spat. “Are you his brother?”

          “Er, no ma’am, I am not.”

          “Then this does not concern you! This is a family matter and I’m calling his family!”

          “Ma’am, I do not wish to entice your anger, but we cannot give you the means to contact his family.” Equius said, trying to dissuade her still.

          The lady frowned at Equius, giving him a long, hard, fuming glare under which he felt trapped. A drop of sweat rolled down from his forehead, only momentarily confusing him and taking his attention away from the terrifying lady. He wiped it away, looking at his hand, oddly unaware of why water would be forming on his skin. Another bizarre human anatomy feature he disliked; or perhaps it was his body trying to hydrate itself since they were out of water?
          Whatever it was, Equius didn’t have much time to contemplate it before the lady was back to her belligerent speech.

          “Well, fine then.” She snapped the phone shut and shoved it into her purse. “I’m not in the mood to track down your guardian, but if I see you two again with an adult, I will be sure to inform them of your inappropriate actions.”

          “Yes, ma’am, thank you ma’am.” Equius cringed, grinding his teeth. This human was not someone he should be kissing up to, but he wanted her gone and there was no safe way to escape except to submit to her as best they could.

          Rolling her eyes, the elderly lady turned back to Gamzee, who was completely stiff with shock.

          She scoffed at him, “Look at you. You could at least clean yourself up, you’ve paint all over your face. What a messy child.”

          Gamzee perked up a little and gingerly touched a finger to his forehead. “Paint?” He said and, pulling back his hand, gasped. “Oh, mother-!”

          His jaw cracked as he shut his mouth with impressive speed. Silent and frozen, he slowly lifted his widened eyes to meet the lady’s and upon finding absolute fury in them, dropped his gaze back to the ground

          “Oh, uh, mother will be so upset, man.” He hastily corrected, daring another glance at the woman to gauge her reaction.

          Equius was unmoving, his pupils flicking rapidly between the two. He was convinced that this woman would hit Gamzee at this point.
          However, with another gentle touch from her husband. She walked away with a huff, shoving herself past Gamzee. The moment she was out of sight, the two boys both released a breath that they were unaware they had even held.

          “Bro…” Gamzee looked to Equius with a miserable look. “Humans ain’t all quite as nice as I got all up to thinking..”

          “No offense, sir, but, if I may?” Equius sucked in a breath as he dipped his head awaiting Gamzee's response.

          The other boy groaned in defeat. "You may, bro."

          Equius gave a heavy sigh of relief. “I told you so.”

          "Yeah..." Gamzee looked away sadly and reached back up to his forehead to feel at his bleeding wound. “Man, I didn’t know I was bleeding… you don’t happen to have some super emergency ouchy pack, do ya’?”

          Equius opened his mouth to respond, but his face quickly dropped into a frown. “No, sir, I’m afraid I had to come unprepared due to certain unexpected circumstances in our plan this morning.”

          Gamzee bit his lip, his face heating up in embarrassment. “Ah… right. Sorry ‘bout that again, bro.”

          “It is over now.” Equius said as he looked around again. “Here are our objectives. First objective: bandage your wound. Second objective: collect data on the ‘bus’. Third objective: retrieve the necklace from the human.”

          “That last part might be a little more than one checkbox, brother.”

          “I am aware.” Equius said, but something caught his eye

          He looked behind Gamzee to find another human turning the corner a street ahead of them. Quickly analyzing his surroundings, Equius found that this human, a woman, was the least intimidating of the many who walked about. She had an air of feistiness to her, but she seemed like the safest bet for a reason Equius could not quite place.
          Sucking in a deep breath, Equius trusted his gut and took a step forward, placing a hand on Gamzee’s shoulder, gently guiding him to stand against the building wall.

          “Stay here. Let me speak. Say nothing.” He firmly commanded before walking with strong resolve up the street to the woman.

          This did not mean he wasn’t absolutely disgusted and terrified by the imminent encounter, however.

          “Good evening.” Equius said with a polite bow, only as low as absolutely necessary to gain favor; Equius did not like the idea of bowing to a human. “My friend requires assistance. I request that you direct us to where I can acquire medical supplies. I also insist that you give us direction to the bus.”

          The woman stood at roughly the same height as Equius. With pleasant chubby curves, she carried herself softly, but with confidence and ferocity, she evoked strength. Her skin was a deep, rich chocolate; her eyes just as dark and a long bundle of frizzy, pitch black hair spread out behind her like the beautiful, chaotic mane of lion. She was clad in a simple black knee length dress with a short, green curled collar and matching lipstick decorating her kind but energetic smile.

          “Oh, well, hello there!” She looked at Equius with a somewhat puzzled look. It was clear that she was concerned at the mention of an injury, but Equius’ wording was odd enough to throw her off. “I’m sorry, but, did you say your friend got hurt?”

          “Yes, but you need not attend to it. I merely need the appliances to do so myself.”

          “Well, aren’t you in luck.” She grinned, her teeth unnaturally sharp and intimidating. “Like any good mother, I’ve got a first aid kit in my purse. Tell me if it’s enough, kid!"

          She pulled out of her purse a red, plastic case about the size of her hand and handed it to Equius.

          “There’s alcohol wipes, band-aids, gauze, all kinds of stuff.” She leaned sideways to look behind Equius at Gamzee down the street. “That your friend? You sure he’s alright? You can handle it?”

          “Yes.” Equius assured, but he himself was not sure.

          He looked down at the kit. He had no clue what to do with any of this, what was he thinking, these were human medical supplies. Why hadn’t he considered that, he didn’t know how to use any of this.
          However, he refused to be helped any further by a human.

          “I do not want to take your case.” He stated simply. “Give me only what I need to treat a cut.”

          “Well, aren’t you blunt. A ‘please’ would serve you well, you know.” She chuckled and waved her hand. “But I get it, you're stressed!”

          She pouted in concern as she took the kit back into her hands and clicked it open. “About the cut... well, that depends, sweetpea. How bad is it? Any blood?”

          “Yes.”

          “Ah, okay then.” She returned to Equius’ palm two alcohol wipe packs, several band-aids, a small towel, and a roll of gauze.

          Equius bit his lip as she placed the items in his hands. He had hoped that seeing the individual supplies would leave him with enough context clues to treat the wound.
           Alas, he remained clueless.

          “Thank you.” He breathed out, feeling dizzy.

          He stood stiff, staring down at his hand, practically dissociating as he slowly realized he knew absolutely nothing about treating wounds above water. The woman seemed to notice his distress and waved a hand in front of his face in concern.

          “Hey, kid?” She murmured. “You okay?”

          Equius returned with a gasp and quickly nodded. “Yes, thank you.”

          She slowly stepped away, not taking her eyes off of him. “Are you sure?” She questioned with a doubt. “You seem anxious.”

          “Yes, thank you.” He repeated again, not fully paying attention.

          There was silence between them for a moment. Then, the woman chuckled softly.

          “Sweetheart, do you need help? Really, I’ll assist!” She offered cheerily.

          “No.” Equius spat out. “Just… tell me what to do. I will do it myself.”

          As soon as the words left his mouth, Equius groaned in irritation. He hated having to ask humans for help, but his own skills and knowledge was proving fruitless out of water.
          The lady grinned, though she still looked confused, and she opened her first-aid kit to begin her demonstration.

          “Okay, dear, here’s what you should do. It’s hard for me to really tell without knowing the damage, but this should do it.” Tucking the kit under her other arm, she held out her left hand and dabbed it using the towel in her right. “First, you want to dab away the excess blood so that it doesn’t smear with the alcohol wipe.”

          She returned the towel to the kit and picked out an alcohol wipe before tearing the package open. She then rubbed the alcohol wipe against the spot where she used the towel.

          “Then, you wipe the wounded area with the alcohol wipe. Make sure that all that is left is the center spot.”

          Finally, she took a band-aid and applied it to her fake cut.

          “And then, you cover it with a band-aid!” She reached into the kit and pulled out another roll of gauze. “But, if it’s really bad, you may need to wrap this tightly around it." She added with a worried chuckle, "And probably go to the hospital.”

          Re-wrapping the gauze, the woman packed everything back into the kit and smiled down at Equius. “You got everything now?”

          Equius nodded. He was pretty sure he could work with those instructions.

          “Yes, ma’am.” He replied curtly.

          “Well, now you're all polite!” The woman laughed and planted a firm grip onto Equius’ shoulder. “Go take care of your friend now! I’ve gotta be off, my daughter’s at the movies and I’ve gotta go pick up lunch for when she comes back.”

          Equius agreed absentmindedly before he fully registered what the woman had said.

          “Wait, movies?” He gasped.

          “Yeah, they went to see ‘Fame’ if I’m correct.” She grinned brightly. “You know, I went and saw the original when I was around her age; I wonder if this new one’ll be any good.”

          Equius ignored the lady’s tangent and, instead, chose to interrupt her and ask her a new question. “How can I get to the movies?”

          She paused mid-speech and looked at him curiously. “Well, the closest one’s on the edge of the city. I’d take a bus to get there, it’s faster than walking. You heading there?”

          “Yes.” Equius confirmed. “How do I take the bus?”

          “Oh wow, you don’t get out much, do you?” She chuckled as she looked past Equius down the street.

          She pointed down the road and prompted Equius to train his eyes in that direction.

          “You’ll want to go up one street and then to left two.” She said, “You’ll hit a sandwich shop on the corner; turn up and keep walking, the stop is on that street.”

          She dropped her finger and brought her wrist into view as she checked her watch. “Unfortunately, there isn’t another bus passing by until eleven thirty. You’ve got almost an hour to kill.”

          “Fiddlesticks.” Equius huffed.

          He didn’t want to wander around for an hour, he wanted to get this over with. The bus seemed to be the only way, however, and this woman spoke of it as though it was the fastest way there. Walking would be unreasonable, Equius assumed.

          “Oh, it’s okay, sweetie, there’s plenty of shops to look through while you wait.” The lady tried to comfort the obviously upset Equius. “And anyway, you need to go fix up your friend!”

          "Oh." Equius had almost forgotten about Gamzee’s currently bloody forehead. 

          “Fiddlesticks.” He huffed once more, louder this time as he turned on his heel.

          He sped away from the woman, who, after her initial shock, waved goodbye as he left and called out to him, “Good luck! Hope everything goes out purrfectly!”

 

***

 

          Clutching the supplies to his chest, Equius slide to his knees right beside Gamzee and began his work on the injury. A bit forcefully, Equius reached up at Gamzee’s hairline and pushed back the tangled, curly mess to get a better view off the cut.

          “Whoa, bro, wha’dya doing there?”

          “Helping.” Equius stated flatly and he cleared away the obscuring strands of hair.

          The cut had gotten better since he had fallen and, luckily, it wasn’t bleeding anymore, but the area was still painted like a drying purple canvas. Looks like there was no need for the towel.
          Humming in thought to himself as he examined the wound, Equius quickly reached for the small package that apparently contained an ‘alcohol wipe’. He tore the package with his teeth and shook out the wipe before bringing it to Gamzee’s forehead and rubbing gently.

          “Ah, shit, ah!” Gamzee hissed, causing Equius to jolt and pull back.

          “Sir, what’s wrong? Does this hurt?”

          “Yeah, it’s kind of stingy… but, it’s fine now…”

          “Yes… this seems like it’ll hurt a bit…” Equius shook his head. “But, it’s all I know to clean the injury, so we must go on.”

          Gamzee sighed and readjusted himself for Equius to continue his work. “Go ahead…” He mumbled sadly.

          Hesitant, Equius leaned in to rub the wipe yet again, with as delicate a pressure he could manage. With much whining and sibilating, Gamzee’s injury was finally clear of blood.
          Now, Equius fiddled with the band aid, peeling it off of it’s paper backing and sticking it to the cut skin, but the coverage wasn’t enough, and the purple bruise was still all too evident. Finding it the better option, Equius unraveled the gauze and wrapped it carefully around Gamzee’s head so that it covered his wound just right and slipped under his hair in a comfortable, albeit haphazard manner.
          Leaning back to get a full look at the result, Equius breathed a sigh of relief when he found that the damage wasn’t that bad and Gamzee didn’t stand out much more than he already did.

          Gamzee, however, immediately began picking out the wrapping around his head.

          “Ugh, bro, it’s all tight and sticky, can’t I take it off?” He whined as he tried to cram two fingers under the gauze to give his skin some room to breathe.

          “Absolutely not. Not until it heals up.” Equius insisted. “Besides, humans don’t have purple blood, your injury would be suspicious.”

          “Ugh, fine.” Gamze pouted, squirming his hands along his new headband one last time before giving up. “So what now. We gonna try ‘n find us a bus or whatever?”

          “Yes.” Equius said, “As a matter of fact, the human also informed me of the bus stop’s location.”

          “Oh, hell yeah!”

          “Unfortunately the bus does not arrive until eleven thirty.”

          “Uh…” Gamzee’s eyes shifted side to side anxiously. “What does that mean bro?”

          “It means…” Equius paused.

          What the heck did “eleven thirty” mean? Equius wasn’t sure, but he remembered the lady saying that they had almost an hour until the bus arrived. Equius also was not sure what a bus was.

          “I do not know. But we have an hour.”

          “Oh.” Gamzee grinned nonchalantly. “Guess we’ll find out in an hour.”

          “Yes.” Equius said. “For the time being, she suggested we look at the shops.”

          “Oh, yeah, bro! Let’s go human shopping!”

          “I advise against that.”

          “Ah, what?!” Gamzee gasped, exasperated. “But, bro? You just said-”

          “I said what she suggested. Not what I decided.”

          “Well, as the super high and mighty upper caste member, shouldn’t I be the one making those deciding choices?” Gamzee purred, slurring each and every syllable. “After all, ain’t it your job to do what I command, bro?”

          “I know you do not truly abide by that.” Equius said, his skin dripping with perspiration yet again.

          Equius frowned and rubbed at his neck. “Why is my skin doing this?” He muttered aloud.

          “I don’t know bro.” Gamzee said, shrugging his shoulders as he glanced down at the floor.

         Equius hadn't cleaned up the mess from the first aid session. There was still paper wraps from the band-aid and the remaining roll of gauze and the towel and a bunch of other bits of garbage and supplies.

          "Hmm..."

          Gamzee had an idea.

          “Hey,” Gamzee said as he bent over and scooped up the towel Equius had left on the ground. “Use this; I see humans using shit like this to dry themselves off all the time.”

          Equius accepted the towel and put his to forehead, relieved to find that it did indeed soak up the sweat dripping off him.

          “Yes, this is fine.” He said. “This is just fine.”

          “Excellent, bro.” Gamzee said with a grin. “Now, what did you say about not going shopping even though I wanna go shopping.”

          “I did not say anything more on the-”

          “Because I think you at least might wanna check this one out.”

          Equius noticed Gamzee was looking into the building window to their right, motioning at something in the window. Following the path indicated by Gamzee's finger, Equius found what he was pointing at.

          A mannequin in the store window wore a simple outfit; a tank top, shorts, sandals, and placed upon its head, a simple pair sunglasses.

          Equius put two and two together and sweat further in defeat. Gamzee only smiled with mischievous victory.

          “I think we might wanna get you that sweet deal right there for your sunny blind eyes, don’t you think?”

 

***

 

          “Equius... this… this is fashion.”

          “Mhm.”

          “No, I mean it, Equius. Eq, bro, this… this- look at how colorful I am.”

          “It is hard not to.”

          With the world’s biggest grin imaginable, Gamzee turned around arms high in the air as he paraded in the center of the half-circle of mirrors. Equius, however, looked as though he wanted to melt into the void itself. He regretted this.

          The two boys had ventured into the human store only to be told off by the cashier.

          “No shoes, no shirt, no service!” He had told them in a rather insistent manner.

          Gamzee and Equius merely asked if they could try on the shirts and shoes (which is apparently what the feet covers were called) in the store.

          The store owner said that that was fine, but they’d have to buy them.

          Of course, neither boy had human currency on them, but they did have gold. Much to Equius chagrin, Gamzee immediately offered up a gold earring that Equius had forgotten to have him remove.
          Not that it mattered; the cashier said he didn’t believe it was real gold and that the boys needed real money.

          So, of course, before Equius could intervene, Gamzee said they had money, and held up a small purple drawstring bag, one that he had tied to his sarong. Equius had not removed it back in the sea cave because he thought it was just a bag. Evidently, he was wrong.
          Equius did not know this, but Gamzee kept on his person a bag of human trash (treasure, as he called it) and this just so happened to be a bag of metal bottle caps from a variety of sources. Despite not knowing what human currency even was, he shook the bag convincingly, hoping it was similar to the coins made from various shells used by merfolk.

          As it would turn out, it was.

          The cashier fell for it and let the two boys in.

          “Just tell me what you want when your done.” He had said. “I’ll figure out the price and you can be on your way.”

          “Yes, sir.” Gamzee cheered with a playful smile as he took a barefoot step into the shop.

          He had no intention on paying for anything.

         That was a few minutes ago, but now, in the present, Equius felt like it was hours ago. Hours of watching Gamzee flit about the store and try on the amazing thing that was, as he put it, 'human fashion'.

          “It’s beautiful! Human fashion, baby!” Gamzee was cheering as he flaunted about a button up, short sleeve shirt, the sight of which was absolutely atrocious to most anyone.

          The shirt was a chaotic mess of bright colors in bizarre shapes and layered on top was a pattern of plants with seven leaves sprinkled randomly across.
          Equius couldn’t help but feel like it symbolized something, but what, he couldn’t imagine.

          “Yes, sir, it is… interesting.” He said with a poorly masked sneer of disgust. “Though I may admit, it is the worst option here.”

          “Wha’?” Gamzee’s arms flopped to his side. “What do you mean ‘the worst’? It’s fantastic, bro.”

          “No, it… it really is not.” Equius sighed as he turned to check out the shirts for himself.

          Like an eager child, Gamzee bounced over to him and begin suggesting shirts for him. “Well, since you’re so boring, why not just get this boring blue one, Mr. Boring?”

          “Actually, this top is one of the more sensible choices that I’ve seen.”

          “Bluh.” Gamzee stuck out his tongue and went back to admiring his shirt. “Are my shoes pretty at least?”

Equius turned to look down at Gamzee’s bright yellow sandals. Those were decent.

          “They’re fine.” He said, returning to his search.

          Finally, Equius did decide on, not a button up, but a plain blue and black striped tank top and a pair of gray sandals.

          “I am done, sir.” Equius announced in Gamzee’s direction, but it was the cashier who heard.

          “Oh?” He perked up, seeming somewhat irritated. “You're done now?”

          Equius looked at the cashier and then back at Gamzee, who was currently shoving his face in a pile of novelty plush turtles.

          “Sir…” Equius mumbled. “Sir, are we done?”

          Gamzee pulled himself out of the pile and stood up straight as he re-adjusted his shirt.

          “Yeah, I think so.” Gamzee winked at Equius before returning his attention to the cashier as though he’d always had his eye there. “Money time, right bro?”

          “Yeah.” The cashier said, glancing at a calculator that he’d been tapping away at earlier. “Your purchase comes out to about $52.75. I assume that will be cash?”

          The cashier lifted his head from his calculations and came face to face with nobody.

          Looking to the entrance, the cashier caught a glimpse of Gamzee as he raced in through the front door that he clearly had just escaped out of and threw himself into the display window to yank the model glasses off of the mannequin.

          The boy frantically scurried out the front door before the cashier could even register what had happened.

 

***

 

          They had no idea whether or not the cashier was chasing after them, but they refused to stop running; not until their legs gave out from under them.

          Equius, completely thrown off guard and shaken up by Gamzee’s shenanigans, had gotten his thoughts together enough to direct them to where the woman from earlier had said the bus stop was.
          They raced up the street, turned left and went down for two more, then they sped around the corner and went up. Equius prayed to G'lybgolyb that he was going the right way.
          They had no clue what a bus stop was or what it looked like, but they assumed they’d figure it out at some point, and that point was now as they dodged around a corner only to see a person in front them walking in the same direction as them.
          The two boys came to skidding halt as they backed up to avoiding slamming into the human, who appeared to be talking into some kind of small device held to their ear.
          At first, Equius was about to go around the person when they heard them say the words, 'Bus stop'.

         Equius held out his hand to stop Gamzee as he looked ahead of the human to see a metal shelter of some sort. Said human promptly sat down underneath the shelter and continued their conversation with the device.

         "I think this is it." Equius said, coming to the likely conclusion that the human was also looking for the bus.

          “Really? Swet, Eq, bro, we made it!” Gamzee exclaimed as he went in for a tight hug, his arms wrapping around Equius' midsection. “Oh man, that was real stressful back there…”

          “I wonder why…” Equius replied irksomely as he attempted to remove Gamzee, taking a tired breath in between each word. “Sir, why did you do that?”

          “Well… we ain’t got no money, man… and we needed you those glasses and this shirt was hella.”

          “I thought that you somehow had actual human money in that bag?”

          “Just bottle caps, bro.”

          “Bottlecaps?” Equius squinted at him. “You have a bag of bottle caps?”

          “You look so tense bro…” Gamzee frowned. “Try these on.”

          Reluctantly, Equius allowed Gamzee to slide the shades onto his face, tucking their arms behind his ears. Instantaneously, Equius could see things without a perpetual glare burning his retinas. His sucked in a breath of joy.

          “Oh, yes…” He happily muttered. “That’s very nice…”

          “Hehe… told ya.” Gamzee pulled back to look Equius over. “Nice outfit, bro.”

          “Thank you sir.”

          “...”

          “...”

          “So… uh…” Gamzee turned around to look at the metal shelter, where a metal bench was stretched out under a canopy. “Wanna sit?”

          “I suppose. I was under the impression that a bus was some form of transportation." Equius strode over to the shelter. "This must be the 'bus stop'. Presumably, this is were we wait until the bus' arrival.”

          “I dunno.”

          “Sit down.” Equius said as he settled himself onto the bench.

          Gamzee plopped down right next to him, twisting himself so he could lay on his back with his head next to Equius.

          “I think I’mma dose off then, bro.” Gamzee snuggled up against him like a puppy. “We’ve got some time, yeah?”

          “Well, yes,” Equius scootched away ever so slightly. “But it can not be longer than thirty or twenty minutes now. Can you not stay awake for even that long?”

          “Not if we gonna be doing nothing.” Gamzee lifted his head and ruffled his hair to loosen the gauze wrapping. “I’m tired now, bro. Just a little nap surely ain’t gonna hurt nobody.”

          Equius looked nervously left and right at the few humans around them and then back down at Gamzee, who already had his eyes shut tight.

          “I suppose so. I will wake you up when the bus arrives.”

          “Sounds good, bro…” Gamzee mumbled as he drifted off.

          Soon enough, Equius was left alone on the bench. A stranger sat down a few steps away.

          Equius glanced over at them and asked, “Excuse me, but, what does the bus look like?”

 

***

 

          It had only been a few minutes and Equius was beginning to feel fatigue crawling up him just like it had with Gamzee. His eyes began to drift behind his shades and his vision blur. He couldn’t fall asleep though, not with Gamzee asleep as well. If he were honest, he wouldn’t trust himself to unconsciousness whether Gamzee was awake or not. Leaving him to function without guidance would be a monumental error.
          To maintain focus, Equius thought about what the stranger next to him had described the bus as. His question from earlier had earned from the stranger a bizarre and demeaning look, but they did comply, though their description was still cryptic in Equius’ mind. He did come to one conclusion however; that this ‘bus’ was some variation on the mechanical carriage he and Gamzee had seen earlier in the day.
          Equius had to admit, the prospect of riding aboard one was an attractive one. It would be an opportunity to look over a foreign machine of transportation and Equius had always been a sucker for everything metal and filled with gears and oil.

          With a startling sound, said prospect appeared sooner than he expected. On the horizon was a long stretch of a blue and white rectangle on four wheels with nothing to pull its weight and yet something to propel it. It pulled up and parked itself right in front of the bus stop with a cloud of smoke and the smell of foreign chemicals that burned Equius eyes, throat, and nostrils.
          Stuck in a vicious coughing fit, Equius buried himself into his newly acquired tank top to shield himself from the horrid toxins. Humans must be very tough to have their carriages exude such mucky gas all the time.
          When the humans began to pile onto the bus, Equius began shaking Gamzee awake by the shoulder.

          “Sir, sir, wake up.” He insistently muttered through his coughs. “Please, we need to go.”

          Grumbling, Gamzee slowly opened his eyes and at his first deep intake of air, he too fell into a fit of hacking out his lungs.

          “Fuck! Ugh, bluh!” He cried, clutching his throat. “That’s gross!”

          He rubbed his eyed with a pathetic grimace as he peeked through his fingers to see the bus.

          “Oh shit, is that it? Another carriage?”

          “I believe so.” Equius said as he hurriedly stood up. “Let us go now.”

          “Ugh, yeah…”

          Gamzee tossed his legs over the bench’s edge, rolled around and pulled himself up to stand on wobbling, tired legs. He released a yawn, covering his mouth to avoid sucking in the filthy air that surrounding the huge mechanical carriage.
          Following Equius, Gamzee shuffled over to the entrance of the bus where they’d seen the other passengers go through.  They clambered onto the tiny steps and reached a wide interior full of plastic benches and metal handles hanging from the roof. It all felt very crowded for them, yet there was no more than seven other people on the bus.
          Equius took hold of Gamzee’s wrist and took a step into the cabin when the man in the driver’s seat stopped them. They stepped back and met the driver’s attention.

          “You got money for the ride, kids?”

          Oh, not this again.

          Equius scanned the bus. There was no way they could sneak on, there was no way to avoid paying. Paying with money they did not have.

          “Sir, could we perhaps ride without tax? We have no money on our person.”

          The driver, with his impassive and dead expression, rolled his eyes and huffed deeply. He turned his gaze out the front window from a fleeting moment before sparing the two boys a glare. He returned his attention to the window. He seemed annoyed, but this inconvenience was clearly routine for him.

          “Listen kid, I’m a nice guy, but you gotta pay so I get paid.”

          “We don’t have any money, bro.” Gamzee mumbled to the driver. “Come on man, I got a gold earring, if you really want.”

          “You need real money, kid, you can’t convince me with some earring."

          “But it really is gold.”

          “Sure it is.”

          “Yeah, it is.”

          The driver sighed and put a hand to his face, dragging it down in an exaggerated motion. “Get off the bus if you can’t pay, you two.”

          They both waddled in place, uncertain of what to do. They couldn’t get onto the bus, but they didn’t know what to do without it. They had to take this ride, they had to.

         Then, a new voice announced it's arrival.

          “Pardon me.”

          Gamzee turned to see a tan skinned girl with a long green dress and short black hair tied up in a matronly bun climb onto the bus stair steps. She looked up at Gamzee with a strict but gentle look, her dark lipstick applied only to her upper lip and jade green dusting her eyelids.

          “I need to get on.” She spoke flatly in Gamzee’s direction.

          Stumbling, Gamzee squeezed against Equius to allow her passage. Once she stepped up to the driver, he backed up, giving Equius room to breath. The girl reached into a red coin purse and pulled out a slip of paper that she then inserted into the payment box beside the driver.

          “Thank you, young lady.” The driver said as she headed towards her seat. “See now?” He pointed at the two boys. “She paid, she gets a seat, now get off.”

          The young girl looked over to Equius and Gamzee with a questioning look as though she was analyzing them thoroughly. Then, she arose from her seat and strode back to the front of the bus. Stepping between the boys and the driver, she looked both Equius and Gamzee in the eyes.

          “Do you need bus fare?”

          “Uh…” Gamzee looked to Equius for help, but he shrugged his shoulders. “Is that money?”

          “Yes.” She said as she reached in her purse once more, turning towards the driver. “I will pay for these two.”

          She slipped a few more dollars into the box and returned to her seat.

          Equius and Gamzee stood stupefied for a moment before the bus driver urged them to hurry up and sit down. Not wanting to press their luck, they hurried away and sat next to the girl, unsure of what else to do.
          The bus stuttered to life as it took off down the road, the vehicle swaying and bouncing in an utterly nauseating way.
          To keep himself distracted, Gamzee stared at the floor, finding the moving view just outside the bus windows to be to upsetting to his stomach. Sparing a glance at the girl to his left, Gamzee noticed how completely distant she looked from the world around her; like she didn’t want to be involved in anything but the steady motion of bus.

          So of course, Gamzee struck up a conversation with her.

          “Hey, sis, that was something pretty sweet you pulled up there.” He said, giving her a friendly smile. “You really saved me and my bro, you know that?”

          She looked at him briefly, almost surprised that he talked to her. “Your welcome.” She nodded her head and, after looking Gamzee over, mumbled under her breath, “Maybe I can help you out with your fashion choices as well.”

          “I’m sorry, what’dya say?”

          “Nothing.” She held a hand out dismissing it. “An aside, but, may I ask why you are dressed the way you are.”

          “Oh this?” Gamzee tugged at his colorful shirt. “Just got this at a neat little shop, is all, sis.”

          “I see.” She eyed the garment with subtle disdain. “I am surprised they let you get away with purchasing a shirt covered in a pattern of tiny marijuana leaves.”

          “Tiny whats?” Gamzee tilted his head and he began prodding the leaf pattern. “These lil’ guys?”

          “Do you not know what marijuana is?”

          “No. Is it good?”

          “Well, no. Actually, I suppose that is in the eye of the beholder, but, it is illegal to smoke at the very least, and has many negative health impacts and is generally held in contempt.”

          “So… it’s bad?”

          “Typically, yes.”

          Gamzee looked down sadly at the shirt and mumbled, “But it’s so cute…”

          “Indeed it is.” The girl nodded and held out her hand for a handshake. “Kanaya Maryam. Your name?”

          “Gamzee Makara!” Gamzee proudly announced as he took her hand in a firm grip. “Nice to meet ya’, sis.”

          “And to you.” Kanaya craned her neck to lose behind Gamzee. “Who is your friend, there?”

          “Oh him?” Gamzee pointed a thumb back at Equius who looked ever so bothered. “That boy there is Equius Zahhak; one mighty cool bro.”

          Kanaya leaned over and extended a hand out to him as well. “Hello, Equius. My name is Kanaya.”

          Equius looked both at her and Gamzee with an implicit look of annoyance before he accepted her introduction. “Greetings.” He said, shaking her hand.

          Kanaya leaned back and addressed the two boys. “Where are you two going, if I may ask. I’ve never seen you on this bus before, or anywhere else for that matter.”

          “Oh, we’re heading to the movies!” Gamzee grinned, swinging his legs. “Never been there before!”

          “Oh really?” Kanaya’s eyes widened, surprised by his statement. “You’ve honestly never seen a movie in the theater?”

          “Yup.”

          “Huh.” She blinked and then returned to look out the window. “I have gone many times with my friends; not so much so with my mother or aunt. As for me, I’m just heading down to the outskirts of the city for errands; there’s a shopping mall there and I need to buy fabrics for a new project I’m working on.”

          “You a seamstress, sis?”

          “Well, it’s a hobby. I do not hold an occupation at my age, of course.”

          “Ah, I hear ya’.” Gamzee chuckled. “Me neither, I guess, unless you all up and count being a… uh… what I get up to being a job, heh.”

          “Oh? What is it exactly you get up to being?” Kanaya hummed curiously.

          “Nothing much.” Gamzee laughed, waving away the subject. “Ain’t nothing, really.”

          “Well, if you say so. Actually, I have another question for you that is related to the prior topic.” She motioned at the sarong Gamzee had tied around his waist. “Where did you get this silk? It’s absolutely stunning. I have not seen any fabric quite like it, certainly not in an average store department. Is it imported?”

          “Uh… maybe.” Gamzee shrugged, unsure. He supposed that, since all their fabrics were stolen from humans trade ships that they were technically imported; but he’d rather not go into that with Kanaya.

          “Oh.” She concluded, straying from the topic. “It is very pretty, regardless.”

          “Yeah, it is pretty pretty, ain’t-”

          A gurgling noise to his right distracted Gamzee mid-speech and he turned to look at Equius who appeared just as startled by the sound, but out of alarm, not surprise. Hurriedly, Equius reached into the folded pocket of his sarong and pulled out the tiny echo wave shell Feferi had gifted him.

          “She’s calling.” Gamzee pointed out, ignoring the odd looks they received from the other passengers on the bus. “Should we answer?”

          “Of course.” Equius affirmed as he held the shell against his lips and blew into it gently.

          Meanwhile, Kanaya was staring in utter intrigue at the bizarre sight before her.

          “What… is that?” Kanaya tapped on Gamzee’s shoulder in hope of him responding.

          “Echo wave shell.” Gamzee uttered without a thought.

          “Is it… a novelty item?”

          “Uh? Oh, well, yeah, sure. Hold on, one sec, sis.” Gamzee nodded and turned his attention to Equius, who now held the shell cupped in his hands. “Let me feel, bro.”

          Leaning over, Gamzee extended a hand out to rest on the shell, the vibrations instantly rippling up his arm and through his body as his brain worked to decipher the message. It was a foreign feeling to be reading vibrations on land, and he felt a tingling  all along his nerves until the fuzz in his head cleared and rearranged itself until its voice was a bubbling brook of energy and happiness. From the shell, Equius and Gamzee could feel Feferi’s voice flowing through.

          “Hello? You buoys there?” She spoke through the shell’s vibrations. “You’ve gone for a while and it’s beginning to drive me up and ‘round the hook, are you alright?”

          “Yeah, sis, we’re fine.” Gamzee spoke loudly into the shell, for all to hear. “Just doing our thing, searching out and all.”

          “Oh, excellent! How long do you think you’ll be? Should I coral you again or should you coral me?”

          “Actually,” Equius whispered into the shell. “It would be best if we contact you. Right now is the most inappropriate time for this.”

          Feferi made a questioning noise and feel silent for a moment. Then, she gasped loudly and dropped to a whisper, even though anyone not touching the shell could not hear her.

          “I’m so sorry, you two are probably swimming in humans right aboat now!” She apologized in a rushed voice. “I’ll leave you two alone, but call when you need to! Goodbye!”

          And just like that, the shell ceased vibrating, the sensations slowing dripping away from the two boys’ thoughts and nerves. As quickly as he could, Equius returned the shell to its place tucked into his sarong and immediately turned his focus to the floor, completely dedicated in his goal of not making eye contact with any human.
          Meanwhile, Gamzee dared to glance around, finding every single face on the bus aimed in his direction. Even Kanaya was staring intently at him with the most dazed expression. No one said anything, but after a minute of awkward silence, she did eventually tap Gamzee on the shoulder.

          “If I may inquire…” She whispered. “What happened just then with your… novelty shell?”

          “Oh, uh, we was just… toying with it.” Gamzee stuttered out, not sure how to find his way out of the situation.

          “By talking to it?” She pushed, still clearly boggled.

          “Uh, yes.” Gamzee nodded. “It’s a game we play.”

          “You talk to tiny conch shells.”

          “No, well, yeah, fuck, I guess…” Gamzee missed the flash of surprise that showed itself on Kanaya’s face at the word. “It’s just a thing we do, yeah.”

          “Oh, well…” She turned away to face forward slightly. “I suppose to each his own.”

          “Yeah!” Gamzee laughed, trying to settle the scene.

          Unfortunately, too much had happened to clear the air of it's awkwardness.
          That was fine, however, as the bus reached its first stop and a large group of people exited onto the sidewalk. Among them was Kanaya, who stood to up, brushed down her dress and tucked her coin purse into a pocket along her waist.

          “Well, it was nice to meet you.” She said as she prepared to leave, turning to face the two odd children. “I’ll see you later, maybe. Have a good day.”

          “And to you, sis!” Gamzee grinned and waved as she left the bus.

          She descended the bus stairs, waving with a slight smile as she disappeared from sight. A sole rider entered the bus from the stop, but aside from them, no one else got on. The bus was occupied by only a handful now; Gamzee and Equius at the front along with five or so humans sitting towards the back.
          There was not much to talk about as the bus kicked into gear and continued it’s route; it felt relaxing in one way, but oddly stressful in another. The first way being Gamzee and the second, Equius. Once certain that the other passengers were distracted in some way or another, Equius motioned for Gamzee to lay his attention on him.

          “Sir, about the echo shell, I believe it would be in our best interest if we refrain from using it in highly concentrated areas of human populace.”

          “Yeah, bro, but if fishsis wants to ever get her check on us, won’t she be all motherfucking frazzled in the head with worrying for us?”

          “We will always be sure to explain later.” Equius turned away and muttered under his breath, “Much as I hate to ignore a high caste call.”

          Hearing Equius’ concern Gamzee threw a hand around his shoulder and pulled into a casual side hug.

          “Well, you are the one who answered. And anyway, bro, for the last of times she don’t get her care on for shit like that. You’re cool, bro.”

          Without looking at him, Equius reached back for Gamzee’s outstretched arm and slowly maneuvered it out from behind him and returned the arm to Gamzee’s lap while.

          “It is my personal conflicts with the issue; how the heiress perceives it is not of any matter in changing that.” He explained

          Gamzee shrugged his shoulders and twisted around to gaze out the window. “Whatever bro, it’s on you to be getting your horse-self sick on stuff like that.”

          Equius responded with gruff, affirmative noise, but at this point, Gamzee was too engaged in the passing scenery to be bothered with registering it.

          The human town moved by in a smooth motion; all sorts of buildings and constructs sliding by amongst the busy greenery encompassing everything like a cool, soothing hug from Mother Nature. The many trees and bushes seemed to brighten up everything the humans had built with a pleasant, nostalgic sense. He could not properly describe it, but it was an emotion that he felt could only be captured through the combined aura of what appeared to be vast human creativity and the natural beauty of the land. He found it wonderful and strange how he could feel such things though he’d been here less than three days. It was miraculous, in a sense, how something could be so thorough in it’s appeal that even a foreign stranger, a fish out of water, could feel nostalgic for this place they’ve never been.
          It was like that for the remaining long stretch of the journey, but late into their travel, Gamzee noticed the buildings as they began to shift in architecture and design and the plants as they grew small and faint. One thing he noticed for sure was the increase in signs both on the road and on the buildings. Across them all was scrawled words in a foreign language that, frustratingly enough, he could not interpret.
          The leading families of the highest four castes were blessed with universal understanding of speech; a gift from the Empress after a certain conquest she refused to detail. Anything spoken would instantly translate into Alternian for Gamzee, and anything he said would be heard as the listener’s native language, but reading and writing was complete out of the equation.
          Before he could fully register the change in his surroundings, the scene before him came to a halt and the world stopped moving. A mechanical hiss from behind him signaled the opening of the bus doors.

          Gamzee turned to watch the people leave and noticed a big, tall sign at the edge of a parking lot nearby. The sign was a oval shaped with a blue background and pink curving letters that, once again, Gamzee could not read.
          Gamzee was slowly becoming aware of the fact that these signs were likely useful indicators of current locations, and he was suddenly concerned that they would never find these movies without knowing which stop it was.

          “Equius,” Gamzee nudged for his attention. “Do we know when this thing will get to that movies thing? Because, I’m not sure and I’m getting nervous about those human signs.”

          “What do you mean?” Equius sneered at the idea, “We don’t need to pay any foreign signs notice. They are just the scribbles of humans.”

          “No, bro, I mean, you know how we mark our storage rooms with codes?”

          “Yes, I am aware.”

          “Well, what if humans do the same? With their signs?”

          “I do not see the point.”

         "Well, maybe they ain't just scribbles like you say. They might be like our little signs."

         "Why would we care about the human's organizational structures?"

          “Okay, no, you ain't feeling me, bro." Gamzee shook his head and clarified his point with a new question. "How do we tell when we reach the movies? No one’s said anything about where we are yet, bro, and I’ve been getting to thinking that we’ve got to all be figuring this shit out ourselves.”

          Equius paused as he watched the last person leave the bus, clearing the way for new riders to board. “You mean to say that we need to read these human signs in order to see when we reach the movies.”

          “Maybe? Bro, I don’t know man, I’m just been getting worried on it. I mean, we don't know what these movies even look like.”

          Without a word, Equius stood and stepped in front of a human walking through the aisle to reach their seat.

          They halted with a startle as Equius asked in a firm, commanding voice, “Where are the movies?”

          The person appeared irritated but responded in a huff in an attempt to get Equius away. “It’s right there.” They pointed at the area outside the bus window with the large, blue sign. “Now, please move.”

          Equius slide to to the side, allowing the man to pass him and stide to the back of the bus. Equius looked back at Gamzee and motioned for him to follow and he take steps towards the exit. 

          “We must go.” He said as Gamzee quickly hopped off the seat and trod over to him.

          “Sweet things, bro.” He said as they stepped down onto the cement sidewalk.

          Watching as the bus door folded shut, Gamzee twisted his head to look over his shoulder at the large, half-full parking lot. He tilted to look up at the sign a few feet away and then to the large building near the back of the parking lot.

          “So, we heading there?” He pointed to the building, seeing nothing else in the specific area but cement and cars.

          “I believe so. I will admit that it is a relief that you brought up the signs, sir.”

          “Thanks, I was really just curious is all.” Gamzee checked out the sign once again. “So, does this say ‘movies’ then?”

          “It likely does.” Equius confirmed as he did a quick survey of the area. “We shall depart to the building now.”

          “Okay.” Gamzee said. “Sounds good.”

          Equius lead the way as they stepped around the bus stop benches and down from the sidewalk into the parking lot. Of course, as they did so, it was hard for them to stay on a straight path; there were simply too many distractions!
          Even Equius, with his strictness was easily pulled away to look and examine the mechanical carriages the humans used. He found that they were built of metal just like the ships they used, and the windows made of glass. He and Gamzee peered into the ones whose windows were not blackened, and looked at the smooth interiors, much more cramped than the inside of the carriages they rode in underwater. Some of the cars were perfectly clean inside; others were filled with wrappers and bottles and the fabric of the seats were torn the shreds. Each one felt unique and personal, which would make sense, as it appeared that every human owned one, considering the sheer amount they saw.
          They took almost a solid twenty minutes wandering around the cars and they hardly noticed the passage of time until they saw a car with a shell hanging from it’s interior and Equius was suddenly reminded of their reason for coming here in the first place.

          Quickly, he rushed Gamzee inside, unaware that the interior of the place would prove just as much a distraction as the exterior.

          The inside of the building was cool with heavy air conditioning and the roof reached high, high up, almost as far as the roof of the throne room in the Makara's castle, though not quite. While the roof was a deep shade of crimson with speckles of gold, the walls and floor were a deep denim blue, like the caverns of the deep ocean. The floor featured bright colorful geometric patterns in an odd array and, ironically, was also reminiscent of the Makara throne room in a shared sense of chaotic rainbow decor.
          The lighting was dull, or perhaps merely muted by the dark walls and floor, but the brightest spot came from a long sheltered counter built into the wall directly ahead of them.
          Humans in matching uniforms lined the counter as they served other humans. They paced back and forth between a variety of machines and containers and handing to the humans what appeared to be different types of food.
          Down the sides of this counter space were two corridors that lead to the entrances of smaller halls that then turned in the opposite direction of one other. Set up along the sides of the walls of those corridors and this apparent lobby were stand-ups of various people in outrageous outfits and artistically drawn characters made from a stiff material.
          Upon examination, Equius and Gamzee found this material to be what they believed was called cardboard. At least, that is what their parents had said it was called. The two boys occasional found bits of it while swimming near the surface, albeit, that cardboard was soaked and ruined while this was the dry, original form of the material.

          Truly, there was much to be distracted by here.

          Equius and Gamzee found themselves aimlessly wandering as they stared at the oddly elaborate decorations of this interesting place. True, it paled in comparison to the lavish riches of Alternian high tide castles, but it was completely foreign and new, only adding to its level of intrigue.

          “Bro, what do suppose the movies even is to be looking so damn fine in a place like this?” Gamzee wondered aloud, still unsure what movies even where.

          Were the movies this place? Or were movies in this place? Were movies activities or events or even performers? Maybe, they were something else entirely.

          “I do not know, but they likely hold great significance to humans as this structure is clearly built in reverence to them.” Equius replied as he strode to the end of one of the corridors.

          At the point where it turned off to the right, another uniformed human sat on a tall stool at a black, podium like desk and he could not have looked more tired than he did in that moment, resting on his elbow with his palm pressed firmly into his cheek. As Equius and Gamzee approached, the human’s eyes slide to glance in their direction, impassive and only somewhat watchful of their movements.

          “You two Evan and Gerome?” The sleepy human teen mumbled as they rose from their hunched position.

         The human stretched out their shoulders a bit, having apparently fallen tense from their impromptu semi-nap. They rolled their neck and straightened up a bit.

         "Sorry, mate, didn't mean to be so outright. How's your day?" The human gave a tired, but genuine smile.

         "Well, pretty good motherfucker!" Gamzee put his hands on his hips, happy to meet someone with such a soft smile.

         The human's eyes went wide at Gamzee's words and immediately feel into dazed laughter, their chuckles like sleepy chattering.

         "Nice." He simply said before leaning onto one of his elbows, his irritable drowsiness veiling his pleasant joy yet again. "Anyway, I been waiting here for n Evan and Gerome, some of their friends left their tickets here and told me to watch out for them. Didn't tell me what they look like though. That you two?"

          He did not speak further, awaiting a response from Gamzee and Equius, who merely turned at the sound of voice and looked at him quizzically.

          “Who the what now?” Gamzee asked as he came closer.

          The teen at the podium sighed and pulled a notebook from the corner of the podium forward and flipped open it’s cover and took out two slips of paper. He held the notebook closer for inspection before lowering it and returning to look at Gamzee and Equius.

          “Yeah, it was Evan Burns and Gerome Michaelson. Is that you?”

          Gamzee shook his head and chuckled softly before telling the teen, “Bro, why would my name be two names? That’s just ridiculous!”

          The teenage movie attendant now seemed to have dulled out his brief positive expression into an unimpressed gaze. He slumped again into what seemed to be a generally unaffected attitude overall. 

          “Sir, if you are either Evan Burns or Gerome Michaelson, then I’ve got your tickets reserved for your movie.” He said with a sigh. “If not, just say so, kid.”

          Gamzee frowned, bothered at the lack of reaction from his joke. The human seemed like he was pretty chill, but now he'd gone right back to just looking tired. He would've tried to pull another joke, but he shook off the disappointment when Equius stepped forward and responded to the attendant.

          “Yes, we are.” Equius said matter-of-factly. “I am Evan. He is Gerome. We would like to have our tickets.”

          Gamzee blinked and gave Equius and incredulous look, but Equius quickly dismissed him and continued with the attendant. The human teen glanced at the tickets once more before he shrugged and tore off a portion of the slips and handed the remnants to Equius.

          “Cool. Theater eleven. Your buddies already went in. You’re at least thirty minutes late, so you’d better go. See ya, kids.”

          “Thank you.” Equius finished with as he stepped past the podium without interference, Gamzee following behind him.

          Not a word was shared between them until they were out of hearing range and Gamzee leaned in to grab at the tickets in Equius’ hand.

          “What was that bro, we ain’t no Evan or whatnot.” He poked at Equius’ closed fist, trying to pry apart his fingers to get a better look. “Lemme’ see, bro, what’cha got here?”

          “Tickets.” Equius stated plainly, finally opening his hand up to allow Gamzee to snatch up one. “I assume ‘the movies’ are a event of some kind. I took the opportunity to take the tickets the humans so unintelligently left for us to keep for ourselves.”

          Across Equius’ face flashed a rare smile, a low chuckle tempting to raise itself from his throat. But he quickly collected himself a coughed to recover his impassive tone.

          “It was only fitting we confiscate them, as we are inarguably higher and of more importance than any human we meet.” He stated with a dull voice.

          “Equius!” Gamzee laughed, a stupid grin spreading from cheek to cheek. “I never knew a brother to be sneaky all like that, motherfuck!”

          He couldn’t help but to break into a small laughing fit, yet still managed to stay standing. The prospect of Equius being so sly was entertaining to Gamzee, as Equius was often clearcut with his motives and not one prone to cheating of any kind.

          “It was a necessary and acceptable.” Equius gave in response, ignoring Gamzee’s fit of hilarity. “Now the problem arises in knowing which theater the human is in.”

          “Ain’t it theater eleven, bro?” Gamzee offered up.

          Equius shook his head. “No, I do not care for this Evan and Gerome’s destination, I am only concerned with the location of the human in possession of your necklace.”

          “But we don’t know where he went.”

          “We shall check every theater.”

          “Every one?” Gamzee questioned.

          “Every one.” Equius nodded as he entered through a door.

          The area beyond was pitch dark, but small floor lights lit the walkway until a turn in the hall. There was a quiet reverb of loud audio coming from around the corner that Equius and Gamzee could feel in their very soul.

          It was an incredibly terrifying feeling.

          They were hesitant and rightfully so. In just the few seconds they'd been inside this theater, they felt the room had an incredibly forboding air to it. The darkness and loud rumbling was the sole cause of this concern.
          It took a moment of commitment, but finally, they stepped in, slowly treading down the path.

          Rounding the corner, both boys sucked in a breath of awe. The sight before them couldn't be properly described.

          They both had expected a theater show such as the ones held in the castles during celebrations; plays and skits performed upon a stage, but instead, an entire wall of lit up with people moving about at angles impossible for a stage.
          It was like a series of flat images playing in rapid succession, moving, projected onto the wall. The people shown on the wall were not really there, they couldn’t be; but how astonishing this was then!

          Neither boy moved. Held captivated by the screen, they did not even attempt to search for the boy with the necklace. By the time it occurred to Equius, he tore himself away from the spectacular sight and looked into the darkness of the room. Like a typical theater, the room was filled with rows of chairs and people sitting in each one, the light of the projection on the wall all that illuminated them.
          Suddenly, Equius realized how impossible it would be to search each theater when each one was dark, crowded, and the worst environment to walk around and search for someone without garnering unwanted attention.

          “Sir…” He mumbled softly to the boy whose eyes were still latched to the lit up panel. “We should leave. We can’t search in here.”

          Gamzee did not respond.

          “Sir.”

          “Huh?” The boy muttered, not bothering to spare a glance. “Wha, bro?”

          “Leave the theater.” Equius stated under his breath. “It is too dark. We must wait for him outside.”

          “But…” Gamzee pointed at the screen, currently depicting a wide shot of a beautiful desert landscape. “Bro… look at this…”

          “Yes, it is outrageously captiating, but we must focus on our task at hand.” Equius couldn’t help but let his own eyes wander back to the screen. “Now, sir.” He prompted for Gamzee to step back.

          With a sad whine, Gamzee retreated back with Equius, retracing their steps until they reached the oddly bright light of the theater hallway. Gamzee looked back with longing, but Equius stepped into the center of the hall to look down the way.

          “We shall have to wait for him to come out.” Equius concluded. “It would be unwise to search in the dark theaters.”

          “You sure he’ll be in one of these?” Gamzee commented as he plopped himself down on a bench nearby. “Wasn’t there another hall?”

          “Perhaps.” Equius sighed. “But I do not think we can go back just yet, considering our situation with the falsely acquired tickets.”

          Gamzee shrugged his shoulders and looked down, already starting to feel boredom creeping in as he kicked his feet together. “Guess we best get to waiting then.” He looked up at Equius who stood as though on guard. “You wanna sit down, bro?”

          “Yes.” Equius said. “But I must be aware of everyone who exits, so I shall stand.”

          “But…” Gamzee chuckled. “Bro, you’d get the same view from here, practically.”

          Equius did not respond and continued to stand in place for a few seconds. He then took slow steps and sat down besides Gamzee.

          “So, how long do you think?’ Gamzee questioned him.

          Equius sighed. “I don’t know.”

 

***

 

          Gamzee wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting out here. He also wasn’t sure how long he’d been sleeping on this bench either, but it couldn’t have been long, since Equius woke him fairly quickly. He felt like he’d been out for days, though.

          Equius wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting out here. He also wasn’t sure how many people had passed by, but Gamzee recognized none of them and none of them wore the necklace around their necks. As Gamzee was the only one who had actually seen the human, Equius had to keep him awake and on alert.

          At some point, the staff came by and asked them if they needed any help, to which Equius quickly declined, though he supposed he did need help. But would they help him track down a human? Maybe if he expressed concern as though they were a friend or relative, but overall, it seemed he’d appear more suspicious than anything.
          Perhaps Gamzee was right. Maybe the human wasn’t in one of these theaters and, rather, was in one of the ones that were presumably down the other hall.
          Would it be worth it to leave this hall and see if they could get into the other one? Should they wait by the front entrance? It wasn’t guaranteed that the human would leave through that way. Equius noted that the end of this hall had a one way exit from the building, meaning that the human could easily leave out that exit or the other exit that was likely in the other hall as well.
          Ideally, the best plan of action would be to have three people man the three exits, but they only had two people, one of which did not actually know what their target looked like.

          It was truly a matter of luck.

          A soft bundle of hair landed on his shoulder with a thump.

          This was also a matter of staying awake, evidently.

          “Sir.” Equius reached to shake Gamzee gently by the shoulder. “Sir, you must wake up.”

          Gamzee groaned and leaned up, lifting his head from Equius’s shoulder and stretching out his arms with a shiver. He slumped against the wall and released a deep, dull sigh.

          “Bro… this is so unmiraculously boring.” Gamzee grumbled, his eyes tracing the patterns in the carpet. “He’s probably all up and vacated the premises by now.”

          “If you stayed conscious, our chances of identifying the human would be much higher.” Equius muttered quietly with irritation.

          “Hey, it ain’t getting to be my fault we hanging out here all this time.”

          “If you were to examine our situation, I think you would find that it indeed is.”

          “Well, I mean… yes. But only if you looking at it from certain degrees of angles, ya’ know?”

          “No, I don’t.” Equius said and looked to the hall’s exit into the center area of the theater. “I do believe that this particular location may be a failed attempt, however.”

          “You think we should be checking out that other hall?”

          “Perhaps.” Equius stood up and motioned for Gamzee to follow suite.

          He did so and, when he was on his feet, wiggled out the tight muscles in his body, loosening out his arms and legs and even ruffling up his hair a bit.

          “Well, let’s get to getting on, bro.” Gamzee said, looking at Equius.

          “Right.” Equius turned and began to walk to the hall’s exit.

          On their way back to the main area, they passed by the young human at his podium stand. He appeared to be just as tired as Gamzee, only his eyes seemed completely lifeless. It was almost disturbing how happy everyone was at this theater except for this one particular worker. Equius was best to keep his distance, afraid the zombie-like state was contagious.
          Walking back down the corridor of cardboard cutouts, the two boys headed to wait by the front entrance. On their way to a particular bench near the front doors, Equius looked across the lobby. Near that side of the entrance, Equius noticed a break in the wall that he must have missed before.
          It was dark inside, but a rapid flashing of neon lights encompassed the room enough to see the bustle of people moving back and forth inside. It was similar to the theater they had entered, but this did not appear to be only one screen. The lights all came from different sources and did not form any particular image that Equius could pick out.
          It looked rather peculiar and rather chaotic. Could the human be in there?

          Before he could continue his train of thought, Equius noticed a crowd of people arriving from that half of the lobby where the other hall of theaters lay at the end.
          Initially ignoring them, Equius continued to the bench when, suddenly, Gamzee gasped and pulled him back by his wrist.

          “Bro! Bro, yo, there he is!” Gamzee practically squealed and pointed frantically towards the crowd, which now was dispersing into smaller groups.

          Eyes in a panic, Equius scanned the huddles of humans and was met with a sight matching a familiar description.

          “Blue face?” Equius whispered to himself when he saw a small human in what appeared to be a blue hat with a cutesy animal face on it.

          Honestly, how Gamzee could think that was an actual face was beyond him, but this was most definitely the blue ‘double faced’ human from the night he and Gamzee were nearly caught on land.
          The human in the blue hat was bouncing eagerly and chattering to the group around her. Said group consisted of a much taller, skinny human with short black hair, a human, slightly shorter than the other but generally bigger, whose dark brown hair grew only down the middle, and lastly, a human of similar size with long, cascading locks of ebony. This last human was turned away, so he was unable to fully grasp what they looked like, but the first two appeared emotionally unmoved and happily excited respectively.
          After sucking in all this information in a matter of seconds, Equius then fully registered Gamzee’s exclamation.

          “He? Who? Which one?” Equius asked, a panicked reaction hiding behind a composed voice. “Is it the blue hat human?”

          “Oh, what, you mean Nepeta?” Gamzee asked, seeming completely unaffected by the inherent stress Equius was exuding. “Nah, he’s that cute little tan one there.”

          “Then, let’s go.” Equius stiffened, though not entirely in determination.

          “Sure bro!” Gamzee cheered and began literally skipping his way over.

          “Wait!” Equius reached and yanked Gamzee back.

          Not watching himself, Equius gripped Gamzee’s wrist a little too tight and Gamzee yelped and quickly wretched himself out of Equius’ grasp.

          “Yo, Eq, you gotta watch your grab there!” Gamzee hissed, shaking off his aching hand. “Could’a ripped my hand off, you could.”

          Equius hastily bowed, sweating profusely as his face went up in red shame and embarrassment. “I-I apologize, sir.” He spared a glance back up at the group of targeted humans. “Sir, we really should go to-”

          “Well, like, I all up and know that, but you got to yanking me an’ all that. Why you yanking me, man?” Gamzee questioned with tired irritation.

          “Well, sir,” Equius began with as formal a tone as possible, now that Gamzee was getting annoyed. “I believe we should not approach them in such a way as skipping.”

          “Why not?” Gamzee asked. “This ain’t some fancy meeting.”

          “No, but, you could frighten them away.” Equius reasoned.

          Gamzee merely dismissed him with a humorous scoff. “They ain’t like puff-up fish, bro, they ain't scaredy fish. Here, watch me.”

          Just like that, Gamzee speed straight towards the group. As Equius had requested, he certainly was not skipping. No, instead, he was full on running for them.

          At about the center of the lobby, Gamzee threw his arms into the air to wave them down, shouting, “Hey, guys! Hey, hey, guys! Hey, it’s me!”

          He definitely got their attention, as well as the attention of the entire lobby. Every human turned to look at Gamzee just in time to see him trip over himself and fly forwards, rolling in a perfect 360° circle and landing flat on his face not three feet away from the four children he was calling out to.

          Equius was positively mortified.

          The four kids appeared shocked at Gamzee’s sudden painful appearance and the blue hat human clapped her hands to her mouth and gasped loud enough to be heard from across the lobby.

          “Oh my gosh!” She shouted. “Are you okay!”

          She ran to Gamzee while the other three kids stood there in worried confusion. The tan one Gamzee pointed out quickly followed the blue hat human.
          They all muttered something Equius could not hear, but that wouldn’t be the case for long because he bolted for them immediately.

 

***

 

          When the end credits rolled, Nepeta was the first one to leap up out of her chair and stretch herself out from the uncomfortable, stiff movie theater chair.

          “That was grrr-eat!” She roared loud enough for the whole theater to hear. “I love it!”

          “It was okay.” Sollux concluded as he rose and pat himself down, clearing away any lingering popcorn kernels sticking to his clothes. “Not terrible, but not legendary. I can’t decide if I like the original better of not. They’re both average.”

          “Oh, of course it’s not going to be ‘legendary’.” Aradia argued as she took a final sip from her soda. “It’s not every day another Emmy Award film comes out.”

          “Jeez, you say it like I have high standards.”

          “Maybe.” She grinned and stood up from her chair, turning to Tavros who had done so as well. “What’d you think Tavros?”

          “Oh, I actually really, really liked it.” Tavros shyly commented with a smile. “I’ve never seen the original, but, I thought this one was pretty good!”

          “Yeah!” Nepeta cheered as she bounced out the row and into the walkway. “I own the original, but I like this one more!’

          The other three followed after her, all chattering about the film as they exited the theater. They tossed out all their garbage and swung open the door, the bright light of the hall flooding in, briefly blinding them.
          Almost as soon as they exited, a sudden urge hit them all and, luckily for two of them, theater eight was close to the girls’ restroom.

          “Gonna go pee!” Nepeta shouted as she raced across the hall straight into the restroom as Aradia followed behind.

          “No fair, ours is on the other side of the hall.” Sollux scornfully remarked as he looked down the hall.

          “We can just walk down there though.” Tavros pointed out, already beginning to walk that way.

          Sollux frowned and shuffled awkwardly after him. “But, I really have to go, Tav, this is stupid.”

          “Uh, run, maybe?” Tavros offered, feeling a little awkward with the topic.

          “What, are you an idiot?” Sollux spat. “My bladder is gonna explode and you want me to run?”

          “Jeez, it was just a suggestion.” Tavros huffed, turning away and continuing down the hall.

          “Shut up.” Sollux muttered as he speed up just enough to catch up. “Ugh, you know what, fuck it.”

          Sollux suddenly burst into a frantic breakneck sprint and rounded the restroom doorway at a terrifying speed. Tavros just smiled at the funny sight and eventually made it there himself.

          “Wow, you did that fast.” Tavros remarked, almost impressed when he saw Sollux was already washing his hands at the sinks.

          “I was desperate.” Sollux muttered as he yanked out an absurdly non-conservational amount paper towels from the dispenser. “What, you just gonna stand there watching me? Creep.”

          “You’re just washing your hands.” Tavros noted as he found a vacant stall.

          “Still creepy.” Sollux said as he moved to leave. “Meet you outside.”

          “Okay.” Tavros said as he locked the stall.

          After he finished up, washed and dried his hands, with an air dryer, like a proper eco-friendly person, Tavros left and strolled down to the hall’s exit to the lobby. He got caught up in a crowd of people exiting from another theater, but he managed to meet up with Sollux and the others.

          “Hey, so, what are we doing now?” He asked them.

          “I don’t know, maybe we can grab lunch?” Sollux offered as they began walking with the crowd emptying out into the lobby.

          “My mom is making lunch for me at home.” Nepeta pointed out. “But I guess we can get something for you guys; or maybe my mom can make lunch for all of us!”

          “I don’t want to bother your mom, though, Nepeta.” Tavros said.

          “Oh, she won’t be bothered! But you can’t just show up and demand food; should I call her?”

          “I mean, if you’re okay with it, I guess.” He answered.

          “I’m down for some Leijon-Vantas grub.” Sollux added in. “I’d have to call my uncles though; tell them I’m gonna be later than expected.”

          “Same here.” Aradia said. “Tavros, do you want me to call your dad?”

          “If we’re all going to Nepeta’s, then yes.”

          “Okay, I’ll just-”

          “Oh! Wait!” Nepeta shouted, throwing her arms in the air. She turned away from the group and pointed at a entryway in the wall leading to an arcade room. “Let’s play some games first! We’re here anyways!”

          “Oh, hell yes.” Sollux grinned, his eyes lighting up behind his shades. “Yeah, let’s fucking do this.”

          “Oh, uh, I’m not really good at, uh, any of those games, though.” Tavros pointed out, looking somewhat disheartened at the arcade.

          “Well, just try failing at Pac-Man or something, but I’m going in with or without you guys.” Sollux snickered as he wretched coins hastily out from his pocket.

          He counted out his money and Nepeta proceeded to do the same. Tavros sighed and glanced over at the arcade. He looked over the games he could try playing, even though he really was bad at most of them. Arcade games tended to be very fast and Tavros wasn’t all too good at real-time action. Strategy and role playing games were more his style; something he could take his time with. He supposed fighting games were okay, but arcade game combos were hard to memorize and he always found himself mashing the buttons while still trying to at least look like he knew what he was doing. Why couldn’t arcade fighting games be a little more like Super Smash Bros.? He was good at that.

          “Tavros. Tavros.”

          Tavros turned back to the group. Aradia was smiling sympathetically at him. He was glad to have her there to shake him out of his anxious, spiraling thoughts.

          “You okay?” She asked him. “If you want, we can just play air hockey?”

          Air hockey? Oh yeah, he’d forgotten about that.

          “Yeah, that sounds pretty okay.” He breathed out, releasing a breath he hadn’t noticed was being held. “We can play air hockey.”

          “Excellent.” Sollux nodded and clenched his fist around his collection of quarters. “So, we all good now? We can go? Great. Let’s go.”

          Just as Sollux took a step towards the arcade, a loud shout echoed throughout the lobby.

          “Hey, guys! Hey, hey, guys! Hey, it’s me!”

          All four of the kids turned just in time to see someone fall straight to the floor and roll in a perfect loop, landing just a few feet away. They all gasped as the stranger crashed face down and Nepeta started up almost instantly.

          “Oh my gosh!” She shouted, sprinting towards the stranger. “Are you okay!”

          She dropped to her knees beside the clumsy stranger and placed her hands on his shoulder. The stranger moaned and shook his head pitifully into the carpet. Nepeta frowned sadly and tried to help him as he tried to push himself up.
          The other kids inched closer out of concern and caught a glimpse of his face before he hurriedly covered his face with his hands. In that brief moment, they found that, while this stranger was still indeed strange, he was not unfamiliar.

          “Hey, is that the weird kid from the cave?” Sollux asked, confused.

          “I think so.” Aradia answered matter-of-factly.

          Tavros, though, said nothing, and instead briskly went over to the poor boy.

          “Hey, Gamzee,” he quietly greeted as he got down on his knees. “It’s me, Tavros. We meet yesterday, in case you, uh, don’t remember, but, are you okay?”

          Gamzee was silent, making only a mousy squeak before lowering his head more.

          “Are you hurt?” Nepeta fretted, edging her hands closing to his hands. “How bad is it, are you bleeding?”

          “I think that’s safe to say.” Sollux remarked, trying to sound genuinely concerned through the inherit snark.

          Tavros leaned down to get a better look at Gamzee’s covered face. He noticed purple paint or some other colored substance dripping through his fingers and staining on his hands.
          Well, that was weird. Why was he leaking paint from his hands? Was he holding a tube of acrylic when he fell? It was weird, but It didn’t matter, he was clearly hurt.

          “Gamzee, really, uh, are you okay? We can ask the staff for a first-aid kit if you’re bleeding.”

          Tavros was expecting to be met with further silence, but was pleased to find him mumbling a response.

          “Noooooo…” He drew out the vowel in a typical fashion indicating obvious guilt, like a child lying after he broke the family vase. “I’m fine, bro. Heheh, no blood here, Tavbro.”

          “But, you seem hurt.” Tavros insisted, resting his hands on Gamzee’s own, hoping to remove them from the clearly injured boy’s face.

          Before he could even start to coax Gamzee to show his face, a tall, muscular man came running up on Tavros’ left and scared him bad enough that he flinched and fell backwards.

          “Your highness!” The man shouted in a voice dripping with horror.

          He practically threw himself to the ground and turned Gamzee around a little too roughly. He mumbled an apology and lifted Gamzee’s head, though he made no attempt to move his hands from his face. Muttering a children’s curse, the man looked up at the Aradia and Sollux before turning to glance at Nepeta and then land on Tavros.
          Under the unnerving glare of the man, Tavros got up and back onto his knees, scotching back from the scene.

          “Uh… are you his dad?” Tavros nervous muttered.

          “What?” The man’s face broke into confusion, then he shook it away into irritation. “No, I’m his gua- friend.”

          “Oh.” Tavros lowered his gaze. This man was a kid? Maybe he was an older teenager. Wait, how old even was Gamzee?

          “Hey!” Nepeta shouted out and pointed at the tall boy. “You! Does he need first-aid?”

          The boy looked conflicted, but quickly nodded his head. “Yes, get me a towel.”

          “A towel?” Sollux gaped. “No alcohol wipes? What, is he gushing blood?”

          “Doesn’t matter! I’ll get both!” Nepeta leapt up and hurriedly scrambled to the food counter, frantically spewing out the unnecessary details of the issue to the attendant before demanding a towel and first-aid kit.

          In no time at all, she was back with the supplies. She tossed the towel at Gamzee’s friend and collapsed criss-cross on the floor, opening the first-aid kit.

          “Here.” She crawled over to Gamzee, alcohol wipes clutched in hand. “Let me see.”

          “No.” The tall boy commanded roughly and snatched them out of her hand.

          “Hey!” She shouted, making a feigned attempt to retrieve them from him. “What gives?!”

          He did not respond. Instead, he turned Gamzee to face further away from the others and shielded him from their view.

          Nobody moved to intervene as he was clearly set on his path of action.

          He began to clean away what was presumably blood from Gamzee’s face as the injured boy whined about the sting of the alcohol on his face.

          “Stop it, Eq, it hurts.”

          “It’s helping you.” The boy, Equius, argued. “You must stop falling on your face so often, sir, it’s going to permanently damage you if you continue to do so.”

          “Well, I don’t do it on purpose…”

          After a rather tense minute or two of waiting with bated breath as Equius cleaned Gamzee up, the four onlooking children sighed in relief when Gamzee turned around, face clear of any blood.

          “The paint is gone too.” Tavros thought, "But I don't see any blood smears. Huh."

          Gamzee, avoiding eye contact, looked down at the floor, clearly embarrassed. “So, hey guys.” he said as though nothing was wrong. “Guess I’m here, huh?”

          “I guess.” Sollux spoke up first. “You fricking smashed your face into the carpet but, chill, I guess.”

          “Sollux, he is clearly not chill with it!” Nepeta huffed and motioned to Gamzee.

          Aradia ended their imminent bickering with a hand on Sollux’s shoulder as she walked forward to the two strange boys.

          “Gamzee, are you okay?” She asked in a very straight forward manner.

          “Uh, yeah, sis.” Gamzee raised his head to meet her gaze and gave a dumb grin. “I’m certainly just fine.”

          Tavros stood up and walked over to Gamzee. “You sure? Nothing hurts?”

          “Oh no, bro, my whole face aches like a mother- uh, like a bi- uh…. Like…” He sputtered as his mind leapt about, searching for safe replacements for his most expressive words before finally settling on something more basic. “It… it hurt a lot.”

          “Do you need anything?” Tavros asked.

          “Oh, heh, no, no, no.” Gamzee said shaking his head. “We’re good!”

          Equius cleared his throat, catching the attention of Gamzee.

          “Oh, uh, actually, I was wondering if maybe I could be asking you something.”

          “Oh?” Tavros perked up. “What is it?”

          “Well, ya’ see, I lost something recently and I don’t really know where it could be.” Gamzee explained, keeping out the details. “I was wonderin’ if maybe you’ve seen it?”

          “Wow!” Nepeta exclaimed, turning to look back at Sollux and Aradia. “Looks like there’s all kind of things getting lost! First a mermaid necklace and now- uhm, now whatever it is Gamzee lost!”

          Nepeta turned back to Gamzee who now appeared to be very nervous. “What did you lose, Gamzee? Something important?”

          “Yeah, you could say so!” He chuckled unconvincingly. “But you know what! I think I also got to losing my memory on what I lost!”

          The four kids in front of him tilted their heads at him almost in unison.

          “You forgot?” Nepeta mumbled. “How do you forget something important that goes missing?”

          “I ain’t got the sharpest of brains now, sis. I forget things all the time!” Gamzee reasoned, looking over his shoulder at Equius. “Ain’t that right, Equius?”

          Equius nodded stiffly, facing Gamzee with a look in eyes that confirmed his understanding. “Yes, you forget all the time.”

          “Wow, blunt much?” Sollux remarked.

          “He’s right though! I’m all kinds of a fickle memory keeper!” Gemira smiled and put his hands on his hips. “But it sure was important, wasn’t it?”

          “Yes.” Equius flatly answered.

          There was an awkward silence between all of them for what felt like hours, but in reality, proved to be no more than a few seconds.

          “Well,” Tavros spoke up, “If you ever remember what it is, we can help you find it.”

          “That’s one sweet offer that I will have’ta’ take you up on, bro!” Gamzee said reaching over to plant a firm hand onto Tavros’s shoulder and shake him gently. “When my brain gets to working, I’ll get to you on that.”

          “Okay, cool.” Tavros said, dipping out of his hold and slipping over near Aradia. “Hey, while you’re here, if you want to, uh, hang out, that'd be cool, I guess? We’re going to the arcade”

          Tavros motioned to the dark room behind him, the same one with the flashing neon lights Equius had noticed earlier. Equius opened his mouth to object, but Gamzee was way ahead of him on doing just the opposite.

          “Of course!” He cheered, hopping over to join their group.

          “Wait, sir, I believe we have other matters to attend to.” Equius pointed out, becoming more on edge the closer Gamzee got to the other children.

          “No, we came to find something bro, and instead, I found my new friends here, so let’s be hanging now.” Gamzee argued. He slid his gaze to Equius’s and quietly said, “But, of course, we can always work things out.”

          Equius paused and then nodded in response, saying nothing more.

          “‘Scuse me, Tav, but I’mma chat with my bro here, I’ll meet’cha inside.” Gamzee turned to Tavros and requested. “Can you wait for me for just a baby second? A tiny bit?”

          “Oh, yeah, of course.” Tavros responded. “Take your time. We’ll, uh, just be inside.”

          “Sweet, bro, I’ll just be inside later then.”

          Tavros and the others left into the arcade while Gamzee and Equius moved aside to a bench near the entryway. Gamzee double checked that the four kids were out of earshot before speaking up to Equius.

          “Sorry for getting nervous there, Eqbro, but I was all getting to that worry state of mind where you think someone’s gonna figure out your all kept private thoughts and stuff.” He crudely explained. “You know, when that lil’ Nepsis got to talking about mermaids and stuff, I don’t know, bro, I just got all scared that asking for my necklace would be the same as waltzing on up and saying I’m one of them fishy folk, you know?”

          “That was the most convoluted method you could have chosen to structure that sentence, sir, but I do understand and I am, frankly, impressed at you for thinking so… smartly.” Equius cringed, knowing there was a better word for it.

          It was true though, he was just happy Gamzee thought it out at all. Especially after the whole, literally bloody display the other boy had put on in the center of lobby not moments ago.

          “Do you have a plan of approach, sir?” Equius asked, giving Gamzee the benefit of the doubt.

          “Oh, no, not at all, I was hoping you’d be the guy to do that.” Gamzee assured Equius with a smile.

          Right. Of course. Gamzee only hatched a reasonable plan once in a blue moon, after all.

          “I suggest we try to get close to the necklace for now.” Equius came up with. “We may have to retrieve it through more forceful methods.”

          “What?” Gamzee exclaimed. “You want to kill him?!”

          “Sir.” Equius sighed. “Obviously not, sir. I meant that we may need to steal it.”

          “Oh…” Gamzee sighed. “I mean, maybe. It ain’t the nicest thing to do, though.”

          “They’re humans, we don’t have to be nice to them. If they knew who we were, they’d certainly understand that.”

          “I don’t know, bro, you’ve been acting awfully nice so far to ‘em.” Gamzee teased.

          “It is mandatory in order to get a good reception and cooperation from them.” Equius explained. “That is all.”

          “Heh. It’s hard to think of you being anything but Mr. Fancy Manners boy. I can’t see you being all rude to someone.”

          “I make exceptions for those below us, such as humans and lowtide castes.” Equius stated matter-of-factly.

          Gamzee frowned and examined Equius’s face closely, squinting at him as though he were a book written in the smallest font. He was searching for an explanation for why Equius would say such a thing, but, unsurprisingly, could not find anything present on the taller boy’s face.

          “You mean to tell me you really think we’re better than ‘em?” He asked sadly, still not convinced.

          “No, I know we are.” Equius firmly concluded. “We are stronger, live longer, and are vastly more intelligent than they are. They are a primitive species.”

          Gamzee swiveled his head around in an exaggerated spin and motioned his arms out at the room around him. “They had a big glowing wall with moving pictures, bro, how is that primitive? That’s downright miraculous! And I don’t see what gets to making us all different from them. Such as, we swim and they walk, but like, we both got wiggly arms, we both talk, we both, uh, do stuff and things.”

          “You are not really convincing me.” Equius’ expression had not changed. “You can not change my mind, sir. I apologize for it, but this is the case.”

          “Well, I’ll just have to be up and changing your mind for you somehow, then.” Gamzee grumbled. “Maybe you can all up be getting your love on for ‘em too, one day.”

          “Too?” Equius asked with a hint of suspicion.

          “Hey, I didn’t all up and, like, mean lovey-love, you know. Heh, that- that would be stupid.” Gamzee quickly corrected with a hesitant chuckle.

          Equius did not look pleased in the slightest.

          “Good.” He stated firmly. “Because such things would not only be against proper social rulings but would also cause us a great deal of trouble.”

          “Yeah, of course, bro.” Gamzee shrugged nonchalantly and winked. “I hear ya’.”

          Gamzee looked back into the arcade that Tavros and the others had entered.

          “Now let’s be getting to this here ‘arcade’, shall we?”

Chapter Text

          The darkened room that was the ‘arcade’ was bigger and brighter than it looked. It was absurdly loud too, with hundreds a noises all going off in complete discord.

          But it was also all very enthralling and exciting.

          The arcade was a place filled with large decorated boxes or cabinets of some kind with moving picture screens similar to the movie theater ones. Below the screens was a panel of buttons and levers and all sorts of contraptions that the humans appeared to be all to happy to mess around with. Some attractions were different from these boxes, however, and they varied even from each other. There were small replicas of the human transportation vehicles that very young humans appeared to be pretending to control, fake light-up instruments that humans were bangin rhythmically and same machines with a large square section of colorful panels that humans were stomping on top of. Gamzee and Equius supposed this was meant to be dancing?

          The two boys were drawn from their neon-fuelled trance by someone calling out to them from the left side of the room.  Beside a long glowing counter with cases of tiny toys and entertainments devices stood the humans they’d met outside, each with a small cup in their hands.

          When Gamzee and Equius came up to them, similar cups were shoved into their hands with a smile by the littlest human, Nepeta.

          “These are yours!” She said. “You both owe me and Tavros five bucks!”

          “Five what?” Gamzee asked before remembering. “Oh. Yeah, we ain’t got none of that sick currency on us.”

          “That’s okay, just pay me later.” She chuckled with a wave of her hand.

          “No, I mean, we ain’t got none of it at all.” Gamzee clarified

          “What?!” Nepeta paled. “You mean, you don’t even have an allowance?!”

          “Uh… no?” Gamzee checked with Equius, who only shrugged in response. “But, I could get your some nice earrings, maybe? They real gold, I swear.”

          “Hmm?” Nepeta perked up. “Really? You have gold earrings?”

          “Whoa…” Tavros said, looking amazed. “Really? That’s awesome. Are they special?”

          “I mean, I guess. They all pretty and shit, but really, they’re just like any other one of my earrings, bro.”

          “If you’re so rich that you can hand out gold earrings, why can’t you just pay her?” Sollux said as he shook his cup full of arcade tokens.  “Anyway, that’s between you four. What’s really important here is how good are you?”

          “What?” Gamzee asked, confused.

          “Games. You better be a good gamer, kid.” Sollux commented, flashing a grin and a fistfull of quarters. “‘Cause I’m the best around.”

          “Sollux, I think he’s older than you.” Nepeta whispered to him, though he dismissed her aside.

          “Oh, fu- I mean, heck yeah! I love games!” Gamzee exclaimed. “I am also a best around kind of gamer. I’m especially good at hide-n-seek type games. Ain’t no one who can hide from me, I always find ya’ like you’s nothing.”

          Sollux stared at Gamzee like he was some alien creature. The other kids reactions weren’t too different, though theirs was more out of humor than pure awestruck amazement.

          “Video games.” Sollux spat. “I am talking about video games.”

          “Video games?” Gamzee repeated, mimicking the lisp perfectly. “I don’t follow.”

          “You… you’re kidding me, right?” Sollux hissed. “You’ve never played video games?”

          “I don’t know what those are, so, maybe, bro.” Gamzee said with a shrug.

          Sollux turned to Aradia and waved his hand at Gamzee and Equius, still looking completely blown away by this revelation.

          “Are you hearing this?” He said to her. “AA, are you actually hearing this?”

          “Yes.” Aradia said with a grin. “Maybe you should teach them, Sollux.”

          “Fuck no. You do it.” He grimaced, almost offended.

          “I will!” Nepeta popped up in-between them. “I’m good at video games!”

          “Listen.” Sollux said, getting everyone’s attention. “I don’t care at this, point okay? Just.. I’m going to go play, got it?”

          Just as he was about to storm off, Aradia grabbed his wrist and yanked him back. He turned to her with a distasteful glare as she wagged a finger at him.

          “No, no, no, you don’t.” She hummed. “Buddy system, remember?”

          “Oh, fuck that.” He sighed and looked at the others. “Alright then. I get AA. The rest of you figure it out.”

          “Wait, hold on.” Aradia released Sollux and walked over to Tavros. “Are you good if I go with Sollux? I know I said we’d play air hockey.”

          “Oh, yeah, that’s cool.” Tavros shrugged. “Anyway, I’m the one who dragged Gamzee here, so, I should stay with him like a proper host.” Tavros frowned. “Er, well, I guess it’s not my house, so I’m not really a host, but, well, yeah.”

          Aradia smiled and hopped backwards. “Yes, I get it. Well, have fun! We’ll probably meet up some time here anyway.”

          With that, Sollux pulled Aradia away. As she stumbled back to follow him, she smiled at the other kids and waved goodbye to them before turning around to see where her partner was dragging her along to.

          That left Tavros, Nepeta, Gamzee, and Equius alone together. Nepeta was quick to mend to silence between them, though.

          “Well, you heard Sollux!” She purred as she jumped around to face the three boys. “We’ve gotta pick partners! Tavros!”

          “Uh, yes?” He responded with a stutter.

          “Usually I’d say we go together, but we have new friends and they don’t even know how to play video games!” She put a hand to her hand in a dramatic motion like she was about ready to faint. “How tragic! We need to help them!”

          “Oh,” Tavros started with a grin. “Yes, we can help them, hehe.”

          “Yes we can- so!” She pointed at the tallest one, Equius and shouted, “You're mine!”

          “W-what?” He muttered out, boggled and upset. “What are you going on about, I’m not yours.”

          “Yes you are.” Nepeta chuckled with a purr. “You’re in need of assistance, so I’m giving it. Now, let’s go!”

          She leapt over and grabbed Equius with her tiny little hand; her fingers could just barely touch around his wrist. She yanked on him sharply, but he budged not an inch.

          “Oh, come on!” She muttered as she tried pulling him further into the arcade. “You might as well have fun while you’re here!”

          Equius was completely unmoved by her attempts. Literally.

          “Sir,” Equius turned to look over his shoulder at Gamzee. “This is ridiculous.”

          Gamzee couldn’t even give a proper response. He was laughing too hard at tiny little Nepta as she pushed and pulled Equius from every direction in hopes that he’d eventually budge.

          “I don’t know bro, I’m enjoying myself pretty good!” He managed to get out through his cackling. “Why don’t you just go play with kitty cat sis over there, huh bro? It’s only the nice thing to do. Besides, we gots to be thanking them for their hospitality.”

          Equius glared impassively at Gamzee. “This is not hospitable.”

          “It is sure is fun.”

          “No.”

          “Yes.”

          “No.”

          “Yes!”

          Before Equius could respond with yet another ‘no’, he looked down when he felt a particularly strong nudge against his chest. Well, particularly strong when considering the little thing that caused it.

          The small little girl named Nepeta was glaring up at Equius with an irritated pout.

          “Hey!” She shouted. “We are going to have fun whether you like it or not!”

          Equius merely continued to look down on her.

          “Bro…” Gamzee shimmied over to Equius’ side and leaned into his ear. “Just chill out. Play some humany video games or whatever, come on. What’s the harm?”

          Equius snapped his head to stare now at Gamzee.  “This is beginning to feel like I’m being held at spearpoint.”

          Gamzee’s smile widened.  “You are, bro. Now go.”

          Equius sucked in a deep breath and exhaled in defeat. What did he do to deserve this?

          When he looked back down at the little girl, she was look all too mischievous with a cat like grin plastered to her face.

          “Well? You coming?”

          Still in denial, Equius contemplated his options and debated how he could get out of this.

          In the end, he came to the conclusion that this was one of those things in life that he would just have to suffer through.

          “Fine.” He told the girl. “I will accompany you.”

          With starlit eyes, Nepeta leapt backwards and bounced with exuberant joy, her hands thrown into the air and laughter pouring out of her childish grin.

          “She is truly excited.” Equius thought. “Why is she so gleeful over this?”

          He didn’t understand it.

          “Now come on!” She wrapped both of her arms around one of his own and insistently tugged on him. “Let’s go, new weird guy!”

          “Weird guy?” Equius grimaced. “What exactly do you mean?”

          “I mean you’re new, you’re weird, and you’re a guy!” She happily cheered as she took a step backwards, coaxing him to follow.

          With a great deal of reluctance, Equius allowed her to lead him to wherever it was she wished to take him.

          Gamzee only chuckled as he watched his poor friend drag his feet on the way.

          Truly, this was the best thing to have happened today.

          “Uhm… so…” Said a voice to his left.

          Oh! Right, the human!

          Gamzee twirled around to discover he was far too close to Tavros for comfort. With a little squeak, he hopped backwards and chuckled awkwardly.

          Tavros did as well, finding Gamzee’s actions to be humorous.

          “So, uh, you’ve really played a video game?” he asked wringing his hands at his waist, awaiting Gamzee’s response.

          “Nope!” Gamzee cheerfully answered. “I ain’t even real sure what they are!”

          “Oh, well, video games are like, well, a type of game, as you probably could figure out, but, they’re like, on computers and you use these buttons to move the characters around and to do stuff the game asks.” Tavros brought his hands up and mimicked the motions of using a gamepad. “Really, it’s different for each game, but, that’s basically what they are. Was that an okay explanation?”

          “What’s a computer?”

          “Oh.” Tavros was caught off guard by that. “I- it’s- well, it’s- I mean… wait, you don’t know what a computer is?”

          “No?” Gamzee bite his lip, worried he’d said something wrong.

          “That’s… uh, no offense, but, that’s weird. Especially in this age and day.” He frowned and corrected himself. “Er, day and age.”

          “Well, I am a lotta weird. I’m sorry, bro.” Gamzee jokingly apologized.

          “Oh, no, don’t be sorry, it’s just weird, is all!” Tavros was quick to assure Gamzee. “I mean- do you take homeschool? Are you, uh, Amish? Wait, that’s dumb, why would you be at a movie theater if you were Amish, I’m sorry. Uhm...”

          Gamzee saw Tavros was slowing getting anxious and didn’t like that one bit. There was only room for one confused fish here, and that was Gamzee, not Tavros.

          “Hey, you know what? It don’t matter. Why don’t you just give me tour, Tavros?”

          “Huh?” Tavros snapped out of his mini anxiety attacked. “Uh, sure. Let me think… I should probably show you something easy.”

          Tavros gave the room a brief look over and analyzed what arcade cabinets were within the vicinity. He didn’t come here often, in fact, he never came unless it was with his friends when they wanted to, so he wasn’t fully acquainted with the games here; just with the fact that he wasn’t good at most.

          However, Tavros did know which ones were fun and beginner friendly.

          “Here,” Tavros began to work towards a nearby wall and motioned for Gamzee to folow him. “Let’s start you off with something easy. The old games are the most fun, in my experience. They can get pretty hard, I guess, but, they are fun and start off good for beginners.”

          They came to a stop at a bundle of smaller arcade cabinets, each one having been lovingly taken care of over the years. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, Dig-Dug, Mappy, and Centipede were the four oldest games set up here. After quickly weighing the options, Tavros decided that Pac-Man was the easier of the lot and would be best for Gamzee.

          “This one’s called Pac-Man. It’s game about a, uh, yellow circle who eats all the dots and fruit in a ghost maze. The goal is to eat everything in the maze before the ghosts can get to you.” Tavros turned around to address Gamzee. “Uh… Gamzee?”

          When he looked behind him, Tavros found that Gamzee was staring in complete awe at literally everything around him. When he heard Tavros cal his name, he looked back at Tavros and his eyes drifted to the cabinet behind him.

          “Whoa dude…” Gamzee walked up to the cabinet and got real close to the screen, enough for the static to start frizzing his hair. “This is so cool! Look at these little dudes.”

          Tavros chuckled at how Gamzee traced the movement of the characters on the menu screen and he moved closer to lead Gamzee’s attention to the control board and begin explaining the controls.

          “All you need for this game is the joystick. You move this in the direction that you want to go.” Tavros reached into his cup and pulled out a token. ”Here, I’m gonna play a bit to just to show you.”

          Gamzee stepped to the side as Tavros bent down to insert the game token. Tavros placed his token cup on the edge of the cabinet and rolled his shoulders as he adjusted his grip on the joystick just so and tapped the start button.

          Gamzee’s eyes were instantly glued to the glowing screen as a neon blue maze flashed on the screen. He was completely entranced.

“Wow…”

          “Okay, now-” Tavros hummed as he nudged the joystick to the left. “See how Pac-Man goes where I aim?” He moved the joystick in another direction to prove the point. “Wherever I move this, he’ll follow.”

          “Cool…” Gamzee was staring intensely at the screen, edging ever closer.

          “Now, the ghosts are coming out of their box.” Tavros relayed what was happening on screen. “So, their going to start trying to attack me. You want to keep an eye on them, because they can corner you, or sandwich you, or sneak up on you, and you’ll die.”

          “I don’t want little Pac dude to die.” Gamzee pouted.

          “Oh, well, you actually have three lives, so if he dies, he can come back.” Tavros reassured. “Just, be careful because he won’t come back forever.”

          “Well, at least he’s a special dude with healing powers.”

          “Uh, yes, I guess.” Tavros mumbled as he navigated the maze. “Now, see the big dots in the corner. Watch this.”

          Tavros moved Pac-Man into the left corner and chomped through the power pellet, instantly turning all the ghosts blue.

          “WHOA!” Gamzee shouted as he squished closer to the screen. “You done made them all blue, bro!”

          Tavros tiptoed and craned his neck to try and see over Gamzee’s huge head of hair, but he could hardly see the top of the screen.

          “Yes, uh, Gamzee, pleace move, I- I can’t see anything.” He asked kindly while Gamzee gaped in awe at the game.

          “Bro, do you see all these little squares on here? I swear they’re making these little fuzzy noises in my head.”

          “Uh, that means your too close, now, please move, they’re gonna-”

          “Oh shit! They’re all colorful again!”

          “Gamzee, I’m gonna die if you don-”

          Tavros stopped when the game’s audio suddenly halted. With bated breath, Tavros groaned when he heard the tell-tale game over noise come from the cabinet’s speakers.

          Gamzee turned to Tavros with a confused look.

          “What happened to the little Pac-Man?”

          “Uh, he died because you were blocking the screen, Gamzee.” Tavros frowned. “You don’t do that, I can’t see when you do that.”

          “What?” Gamzee pouted. “I did that?”

          “Yes? That’s kind of what happens when you block the screen.”

          “Aw, bro, I’m real sorry.” Gamzee dipped his head in embarasment.

          Tavros sighed and stepped back up to the game cabinet.

          “Hey, it’s okay, just, uhm, don’t do that again. I know that the screen is very pretty and bright and it’s new for you, but, maybe you should only do it when you’re playing?”

          “Yes, I’m sorry, Tavros.” Gamzee scootched back. “Is over here alright?”

          “I mean, sure, but, I don’t think you can really see from there?”

          Gamzee stepped forward a little.  “How about here?”

          “Can you see it?”

          “No.”

          “Then, come closer.”

          Gamzee shuffled until he was about a foot away from Tavros when Tavros halted him.

          “This is okay for me and you can see from there, right?” He asked.

          “Yeah.” Gamzee looked back at the game screen as it went on to show Tavros’ second life and initiate the level again. “Hey, bro, I think you’re up again.”

          “Oh!” Tavros turned and quickly grabbed the joystick and began the game. “Thanks!”

          “No problem, brother.”

          Tavros began navigating the maze to grab the remaining dots from the last time.

          “Hey, Gamzee, do you still need me to explain the game?”

          “Nah, I think I got it. Wiggle the stick thingy and move the guy and eat the ghosts.”

          “Er, only eat them if they’re blue with little sad faces.” Tavros clarified as he dodged a ghost right on cue and took the final dot. “If you’re good, then, I’m gonna finish this next level and then hand it off to you. Is that alright?”

          “Sure.” Gamzee said as he watched.

          Now, Tavros was silently working the machine as he started the second maze. There was intention and focus in his eyes and a calm sense of confidence that Gamzee hadn’t picked up on before from the other boy. Perhaps it was because he wasn’t talking now, but Tavros seemed rather different while playing this game. Gamzee wondered why.
          Where Gamzee had first found the video game screen to be the temptation of his eye, he was now finding his gaze landing on Tavros instead.
          His observations about Tavros’ looks from when they’d first meet still stood true. Gamzee had given his thoughts a good look over and had come to the conclusion that Tavros was probably the cutest person he had ever seen, human or other.
         
Gamzee wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

          He looked at the little mohawk on Tavros’ head. It looked really soft.

          Like… really soft.

          Without thinking about it, Gamzee held out his hand to reach for it very, very slowly. His hand hovered over Tavros’ head for a moment. Then, just as Tavros cheered happily at his success on the level, Gamzee smooshed down the hair under his hand.

          “Wha- uh?” Tavros froze and his eyes darted over to Gamzee. “Uh… Gamzee? Why are you squishing my hair?”

          “It’s soft.”

          “Uh… what?”

          “I said your hair’s soft, bro.”

          Tavros looked up towards his forehead and reached up to place a hand on his hair.

          “Huh. You think so? I never really thought anything of it. Even though it’s not, like, super unwieldy or anything, it’s always sort of felt like a rat’s nest no matter what I do.”

          “What’s a rat’s nest?” Gamzee asked, hand still on Tavros’ head.

          “It’s a metaphor for saying something is, uh, messy or gross.”

          “Well, why would you be getting to saying that now? That’s a downright lie, your hair’s all miraculous kinds of smooth and silky, bro.”

          “Silky?” Tavros squinted his eyes and perked his lips. He wasn’t convinced.

          “Yeah, like, have you actually put her fingers through it?” Gamzee did just that as he asked.

          “Ah, ah, ah, uh, that feels weird, uh, please stop.” Tavros dunked out of Gamzee’s hand bounced back up away from it. “Uhm, uh, no, I don’t really like to, uh, put my fingers through it because I think it feels, uhm, bad.”

          “‘Cause it tickles?”

          “No, I just… think it’s feel gross.” Tavros reached up and tidied up his tousled hair. “I said it before, but, I don’t really like my hair much.”

          “Well, I love think it looks awesome on you, Tavbro.”

          “Yeah…” Tavros pouted and looked elsewhere from Gamzee. “I guess it looks okay. I definitely prefer it like this, uh, with the sides shaved down. The hair used to tickle my ears and I hated it.”

          “That’s cool.” Gamzee  tugged out the curls tangled around his own ears. “Mine get all tickling sometimes too, but I like it this way!”

          “Well, to each his own.” Tavros nodded, chuckling at Gamzee as he played with his hair.

          He turned back to the arcade machine and gasped. The next maze had already been formed. WHile they’d been talking, the first few seconds passed and the first ghost had already escaped from the center room.

          “Oh shoot! Your turn started!” Tavros quickly grabbed Gamzee and faced him towards the machine. “Hurry, go!”

          “Shit, okay.” Gamzee stuttered as he frantically tried to work the controls.

          He found himself more focused than before; maybe the lights and colors weren’t as distracting now that he’d gotten somewhat used to them. That did not mean he knew exactly what to do. He’d already forgotten most of the instructions Tavros had given earlier.

          Yet, he managed to pass the level, albeit, with many close calls.

          “Okay! Keep going! Next level!”

          Gamzee started with the next one. Every so often, Tavros would shout out something about the fruits on screen or warn Gamzee about a ghost rounding his blind spot and Gamzee would dutifully heed Tavros’ advice. He lost a life on this level, but came back on the third and final one. FInishing this one, the new level appeared and Gamzee went back to playing. He was quite proud until he found himself trapped.

          “Ah, Pinky’s on your left! Wait- oh shoot!” Tavros tried to call out, but Gamzee was squished between the pink and orange ghost.

          The game ended with Gamzee stuck in the corner with only a row of dots left to collect.  The machine chimed as Pac Man disappeared and the Game Over sign flashed on screen.

          “That was the last life.”  Tavros sighed. “Oh well, we can still play another game, if you want. Uh,” Tavros turned to look at the nearby arcade machines. “Does anything here look interesting to you?”

          “What’s that?” Gamzee pointed to a machine with a large screen and flashing panels on a metal platform.

          Tavros grimaced and elaborated, “Uh, that’s Dance Dance Revolution. It’s a dance game, uh, I guess you could probably infer that from the name though.”

          “So, do you use your legs?” Gamzee questioned, though he assumed that was likely the case.

          “Uh, yes?” Tavros looked at him confused before laughing. “I’d be impressed if you could do it without them, hehe!”

          Gamzee laughed as well, but seriously considered the consequences of playing that particular game. He could hardly run without tripping on his brand new legs, he couldn’t see himself dancing on them just yet.

          “Maybe I shouldn’t be kicking sweet kicks on those there lights quite yet. I’ve been being a mothe- matter of, uh, fricking clutz today.”

          “Huh?”

          “I’ve been trippin’ all day. If I got to dancing my legs on that there machine now, I might get to smashing up my face again like a real wicked ass clutz”

          “Oh, yeah, that’s true!” Tavros grinned. “Don’t worry, I’m not really good at that game either, or, uh, at all, really. Actually, I kind of terrible.”

          “Nah, bro, I’d bet you get to breaking out all kinds of miraculous moves out there, Tavros.” Gamzee insisted, only for Tavros to nervously laugh.

          “Hahahaaaa, no, not really.” Tavros eyed the machine. “I, uh, actually broke my leg on that once, so, definitely not good.”

          Gamzee gasped and looked rapidly back and forth between Tavros, his legs, and the dance game machine.

          “You done broke your legs on that?!” Gamzee shouted. “You alright, bro?!”

          Tavros hushed Gamzee as other kids began to stare.

          “Well, I’m fine now, that was years ago, it’s cool, I’m okay, really.” Tavros settled Gamzee down from his sudden burst of panic. “That doesn’t usually happen, I was just, really clumsy and, uh, well, bad at the game. Obviously, heh.”

          Gamzee’s face dropped it’s panicky exterior to a concerned calm expression as he glanced down at Tavros’ legs. Then, he quickly twisted his neck and looked back at the machine with disdain.

          “That is a downright miraculous game then and I refuse to touch it.”

          Tavros quirked a brow and made a look of mixed confusion and humor. “Gamzee, the machine didn’t try to hurt me, not that it could, because it is a machine, but, it didn’t do it on purpose. It’s not, uh, miraculous or cursed or anything.”

          “I don’t care.” Gamzee pouted and crossed his arms. “We’ll get our play on something else.”

          “Of course.” Tavros chuckled. “What else looks interesting?”

 

***

 

          Equius could not be more upset as he trudged along as Nepeta tugged on his arm. She was practically bouncing as she pointed out each and every machine to him, spewing out nonsense he could hardly understand. There were no explanations from her, just useless prattling that Equius could care less to ignore.

          After five minutes of dragging him around, Nepeta looked over her shoulder to check on Equius. He looked positively miserable.
         
She stopped in her tracks and Equius stopped as well.  She released her hold on him and twisted around with her arms on her hips.

          “Hey, what’s the big deal. I’ve pointed out all these cool games and you haven’t answered with more than a grumpy huff! I’m trying to be nice!”

          Equius rolled his eyes behind his shades. He didn’t even want to respond, this girl was a human he couldn’t even pretend to be courteous to. She was too rough and hyper, not at all worthy of his respect nor his time. But alas, he was stuck with her until Gamzee decided otherwise.

          “I am not interested.” He bluntly said.

          “In what?” Nepeta asked, tapping her foot impatiently.

          “In anything you have shown me.”

          “So there’s nothing here that looks cool or even weird or anything?”

          “No.”

          “Well that’s dumb!” She shouted. “We’re finding you a game no matter what you say!”

          “No.”

          Nepeta squinted her eyes and stared hard up at Equius, trying to bore through his shades and reach him. However, the black barrier of his glasses proved too strong.

          “Well, fine then.” Nepeta huffed. “We’ll just play my favorite games then!”

          “And what would those be?”

          “Why do you care?” She retorted, grabbing his arm yet again. “You don’t wanna have fun anyway!”

          Equius sighed and begrudgingly followed after her.

          Nepeta forced him to watch as she played several games she was fond of and Equius could indeed confirm that she was very fond of them.
          She brought him to a long ramp with a curved wall full of holes at the end and had him stand to the side. After inserting tokens into a slot, several balls slide out from a dispenser and Nepeta took each one and rolled it down the ramp with tremendous speed. She aimed for the holes in the wall. Sometimes they landed, sometimes they didn’t, but Nepeta was very good and achieved a high score.
          This is what she explained to Equius, at least.
         
He could see that she was clearly enjoying herself, but he just could not find the fun in rolling a ball up a ramp. It did not appear to even involve any skill. Human concepts of entertainment were clearly flawed.

          “Why don’t you try?” Nepeta asked with a grin as she shoved one of the balls into his face.

          “No.” Equius gently lowered her hand away from him.

          “Oh, just do it once!” She wretched away her hand and brought it closer to his face than before. “Come on! Please!”

          Equius looked down on the girl and her sparkling, pleading eyes.

          This was pathetic.

          “Fine.”

          Equius took the ball from Nepeta’s hand and she leapt back with glee, giving Equius room to step up to the ramp.

          He did so like a slug.

          Equius sighed as he pulled back and tossed the ball, letting it roll down the ramp and up the curve.

          It completely missed.

          “That’s okay!” Nepeta cheered, handing him another. “It can be hard! Try again!”

          “I do not wish to give another attempt at these pointless game.” Equius argued.

          “Just do it again!” Nepeta groaned.

          With a displeased grumble, Equius took yet another ball and rolled it down the ramp.

          He missed again.

          “I am done now.”

          Nepeta glared at him with explicit annoyance written across her face. She reached down and rolled the last ball, making a perfect score into one of the top holes. Not taking her eyes off Equius she bent over and tore the tickets out for the dispenser.

          “Come on.” She said, spinning around and reaching back from Equius hand. “We’re going to find something you like.”

          They went from machine to machine, each one more exciting or boring than the last, depending on who you asked.
         
The whole time, Nepeta was excitedly trying to pump Equius up and the whole time he refused to so much as budge from his impassive state of emotion.

          Frankly, Nepeta was more than done with this guy.

          “Hey, you know, you’re more grumpy than my brother.” She said to Equius after finishing up a round on the dance machine. “At least he sort of tries to beat me on Dance Dance Revolution. You did nothing!”

          “That is because I did not want to.”

          Nepeta stomped a foot on the ground with a huff. “You must be upset!”

          “What?”

          “Upset!” Nepeta repeated. “My brother is upset a lot, but he’s always loud about it. You though; you’re quiet.”

          “Yes.”

          "So?”

          “So what?”

          “Are you angry?”

          “I am a subsection of that emotion.”

          “Well then! Follow me!” Nepeta turned around and strode off, this time waiting for Equius to follow on his own.

          Confused as to why she neglected to drag him along, Equius indeed did follow after her.  Nepeta stopped at a small machine with several holes in the panel and a rubber hammer hung on a rack on the side of the machine.

          “This is Whack-A-Mole.” Nepeta explained, picking up the hammer. “It’s very simple. These moles pop out of the hole and you hit them with this hammer.”

          “This game sounds childish and its appearance befits that judgment.” Equius remarked. “The other machine had some level of skill involved, no matter how low that level was. Are you insinuating that I am a child?”

          “Well, you look like an adult, but, apparently, you can’t be that much older than me, so, one, yes, you are a child. Two, no, I’m just saying this game is fun.”

          Nepeta handed Equius the hammer and slipped her hand into his token cup and removed a coin. She inserted the coin and the machine began to light up and play music.

          “Also, this game is very cat-thartic for angry people. You should do just fine.”

          Equius looked down at the hammer then at the game machine.  “This looks ridiculous.”

          “Then all the more reason for you to hit! Bash it! Really let that mole know how childish you think it is!” Nepeta cheered, making hitting motions with her hands.

          “That is also ridiculous.” Equius pointed out.

          “Oh, just hit it already!” Nepeta shouted, pointing down at the machine.

          Equius looked down and saw an incredibly silly faced plastic creature sticking out from a hole in the machine’s panel. Equius did not move and the ‘mole’ returned to its hole.

          “Oh my gosh, just hit it!”

          Another one popped up and Equius sighed.

          “This is stupid.”

          He reluctantly bopped the mole on the head and it to disappeared into the hole. This time, however, the creature had lit up before doing so.

          “Grrr-eat! Now, do it again!”

          Another mole popped up and Equius hit on the head, a little harder this time. Then another that he hit even harder.

          Each time a mole showed itself, Equius gradually hit them harder and harder. At some point, he found himself enjoying it on some level, though it was more a feeling of relief, and at some point, he stopped holding back.

          With a slight grin, Equius began positively bashing each mole when they popped up and Nepeta was cheering with absolute joy as he did so. Much as he hated to admit it, the girl was right; Equius was angry, or at the very least, irritated, and letting it out on these poor, innocent plastic moles was helping.
         
Nepeta shouted enthusiastically as Equius raised the hammer and slammed it down on the plastic cranium of what would be the last mole. When the hammer impacted it, the mole was crushed deep down with a cracking sound and the machine’s lights and music suddenly froze.  Equius held the hammer in place for a moment before delicately removing it from the panel. Nepeta had gone completely silent. They both looked down at the machine wordlessly.

          The machine did not move.

          “Wow.” Nepeta finally let out. “Equius. I think you broke it.”

          “Was that not the object of this game?” Equius asked, though he had a feeling he had broken it more than was intended.

          “Uh, not really.” Nepeta slinked over and examined the machine, prying at the mole that Equius had crammed into its hole. “It’s not coming back out. Oh my gosh, you really hit it hard.”

          “I am very strong.” Equius said matter of factly.

          Nepeta fiddled with the machine for a moment longer before turning around with a sigh and saying, “You certainly are! It’s totally broken!”

          Equius looked down at the game machine.

          “Should I fix it? I am quite the mechanic.” He assured, despite knowing full well that human mechanisms likely differed from merfolk ones by a vast amount.

          “I think we’d best leave it to the guys at the counter.” Nepeta frowned and bent down to the ticket slot. “We didn’t get any tickets though! Oh, we definitely have to go tell them! You were doing good, you should get the prize!”

          “Prize?” Equius asked, but Nepeta ignored him in favor of yet again pulling on him in another direction.

          “Come on, the counter’s this way!”

          Equius stumbled after her, genuinely caught off guard as she scrambled off.

          Nepeta pulled him up to the counter where she and her friends had been waiting earlier for him and Gamzee. Equius took the time to look over the counter and the wall behind it.

          The counter was glass and inside of it was littered with bins upon bins of various human toys and treats. Plastic boats, rubber frogs, sticky hands, and a wide variety of what appeared to be human candies wrapped in paper. Equius did not know what half of them were made to represent, but they appeared to be pitiful in size and quality when compared to the what the wall behind the counter held.
          The wall was decorated with more toys, these ones much bigger and more impressive than the counter’s contents. Still, Equius could not reason out what half of them were. There was a collection of human beach toys, huge inflatable beach balls and floaties, as well as replica dolls of various sea creatures. There were oddities of all kinds, devices that Equius couldn’t recognize. One was a sphere that shot out beams of bright rainbow colored light while another sphere looked like a ball filled with lighting. He vaguely understood what acts those two devices performed, even if their purpose was unclear, but the rest were so bizarre that Equius couldn’t even figure out what they did.
         
Equius looked at the very top of the wall and saw a row of toy animals that appeared to be made of a soft, plush material. He recognized that most were land creatures, though there were a fair amount of fish, dolphins, and turtles, but there was one land animal that was very familiar to Equius. Near the end of the right side of wall, there was what appeared to be a stuffed horse, and if Equius had to admit, it was very pretty. He wondered what it felt like.

          “Excuse me!” Nepeta shouted, snapping Equius out of his daze. “Excuse me!”

          Equius turned to see the target of Nepeta’s shouting and found a uniformed human approaching them from behind the counter.

          “Hey there, kid, what do you need?” They greeted Nepeta with a smile.

          “My friend broke the Whack-A-Mole machine!” Nepeta blurted. “So, it needs to be fixed, but we he was doing really good and didn’t get any tickets!”

          “Oh…” The employee glanced over in the direction of the game machine in question. “Okay, thanks for telling me. Here, sorry that it broke, kids, I can give you some tickets, hang on.”

          The employee opened a cabinet behind the counter and pulled out a roll of tickets and tore off a decent amount, roughly two arms worth.

          “Oh! That’s a lot!” Nepeta smiled.

          “Yeah, I don’t know how much you would’ve made, but this should make up for it.” They said as they hand the long strip over to Nepeta. “Have fun!”

          “Thank you!” Nepeta cheered back as she wrapped her hand back around Equius’ and pulled him back away from the counter.

          “Okay!” She said as she added to tickets to the other strips she had already accumulated and began to count them up. “We’ve got a lot over all! We made a killing off the Whack-A-Mole! Maybe I should try breaking games more in the future.”

          “That is ill advised.” Equius added, but Nepeta was giggling like a maniac and he went quiet at her snickering outburst.

          “I know, I know!” She held out all the tickets for him to see. “We’ve got 153! Let’s keep playing and get even more!”

          Equius tilted his head as he examined the little slips of bright orange paper that Nepeta held in her hands.

          “What are these for?” Equius asked, unsure why she was so excited to have 153 of these tickets.

          “They're for buying prizes!” She explained. “It’s kind of like money for the arcade, you use these to buy the prizes at the counter!”

          “So those are the prizes you mentioned earlier.” Equius concluded, motioning to the counter.

          “Yup! I’m hoping to get another stuffed cat. I’m so good and get a ton of tickets every time!” Nepeta asked with a curious smile, “What do you want?”

          “Me?” Equius asked, thrown off by the question.

          “Yes! There’s all sorts of stuff you can get!” Nepeta pointed at the counter a few feet away. “Anything you see that you want? At the very least you can get some candy.”

          Equius looked over the counter and the wall behind it one last time. He analyzed all the options he had to choose from for his ‘prize’. It was all just pointless human junk, but, some of it looked interesting at the very least.
         
Maybe he could take apart one of the devices and experiment with how they worked and figure out the humans made them. The lighting ball looked particularly fascinating.

          Equius looked up at the top row with an odd sense of unreasonable dread.

          Then again…

          “Well?” Nepeta asked, having waited long enough for Equius to think on his choice.

          “That.” Equius pointed at his desired prize with slight embarrassment.

          “Hmm?” Nepeta’s eyes traced the path of Equius’ pointed finger. “You mean the stuffed horse?”

 

***

 

          “Okay, Sollux, so, now that you’re dragging me through the arcade, what are we going to play?” Aradia chuckled as Sollux came to stop and looked around the arcade.

          “I don’t know, all my favorite games are single-player, but I can still beat you at multiplayer ones.” He retorted. “Maybe Time Crisis.”

          “Oh, I like Time Crisis!” Aradia cheered. “Let’s play that one.”

          “You sure?” Sollux smirked. “I’m pretty damn good at that one, AA Maybe you wanna pick something easier?”

          “Sollux, are you actually doubting my arcade skill?”

          “Nope, just in denial over my inevitable defeat, to be honest.”

          “That’s what I thought.” She smiled. “Now, come on.”

          She and Sollux strolled over to the TIme Crisis 4 machine and took out their tokens to play the game. Sollux couldn’t pick if he wanted the red gun or the blue gun, so Aradia choose for him and took the red one for herself.

          “So, you think you can beat me, huh?” Sollux asked as they started the game.

          “We just had this talk and the answer is yes.” Aradia answered, shooting down the first enemies.

          “Hey, I was gonna get them.”

          “Be faster then.”

          They both exchanged playful banter as they went through the rounds, each one trying to steal the other’s kill shots and points. Aradia and Sollux were both very good at this game, and got far enough to warrant a crowd of children looking on in awe.
         
There came a point, however, when they were both low on health, but it was becoming clear that Aradia was vastly ahead of Sollux both in points and in remaining health bars.

          “Shit, shit, shit.” She started muttering as he took the bullets from the hidden enemies.

          When his screen flashed the Game Over screen, he slammed his gun into the holster and groaned ever loudly while Aradia grinned in victory as she shot out the remaining enemies.

          She lasted a whole other level without him before finally dying.

          When she finally did, she turned to face him with a tiny smile as the crowd of children clapped and cheered for her.

          Sollux slumped, looking unimaginably miserable in that special sore loser kind of way. “I hate this.”

          Aradia patted him encouragingly on the shoulder. “Wanna play Mario Kart?”

          “Oh, God.” Sollux cringed. “AA, I hate you so much.”

          “Why?” She tugged him gently to the racing games. “I’m just playing with you?”

          “Yeah, in more ways than one.” Sollux complained as he plopped into the plastic driver’s seat. “So, who’re you gonna be.”

          “Daisy.” She answered as she dropped her tokens into the game slot. “Like usual.”

          “Well, sometimes you’re Rosalina.” Sollux argued while inserting his own game tokens.

          “They don’t have Rosalina on this one.”

          “True.” Sollux turned the wheel in the direction of his character choice. “I’m gonna be King Boo because he’s cool.”

          “Fair enough.” Araida said. “I’m going to pick this cup.”

          “Fair enough.” Sollux responded as she made her choice. “I’ll lose regardless.”

          “You are correct.” Aradia answered.

          The green light signaled the start of the race and, true to his words, Sollux did, indeed, lose regardless.

          “Well, I got Rainbow Road, so I’m satisfied.” He clarified once he and Aradia had wrapped up their races.

          “Rainbow Road isn’t hard, but I’m happy for your accomplishment.”

          “You suck.” He flatly chuckled, leaning against the machine. “But you’re fun.”

          “You too.” Aradia hummed, leaning besides him on the machine.

          They both looked out over the arcade, side by side with each other, people watching all the little kids that scurried by, each of them carrying arm loads of bright, orange tickets or stuffed animals or candy prizes. A few particularly young kids were being chastised by their parents or were running away from them. Some older teens were crammed around a tiny table for two, all of them in a fit of laughter as they elbowed each other playfully, spilling soda on the tile floors.

          It’s amazing how relaxing it can be to sit back and relax in middle of such bright, loud, and vibrant chaos.

          “Wow, this place certainly is busy.” Sollux spoke up. “Didn’t seem so bad when we got here.”

          “They must’ve heard we were coming.” Aradia said. “We are the party, after all.”

          “You bet we are, but these dumb kids don’t know that.”

          “Sollux, everyone here is no younger than two years below us.”

          “Hey, I didn’t say we weren’t dumb kids.”

          Aradia laughed and leaned onto Sollux’s shoulder. “You’re not a dumb kid. Not always.”

          “Yeah…” Sollux sighed and brought a hand and patted her on the head. “But you are.”

          Aradia shoved him instantly. “I take it back. You are dumb.”

          “Hey, at least we’re dumb together!” Sollux snickered, pushing himself up from off the floor. “And I mean all of us, the only exceptions might be Kanaya and Terezi, but that’s it.”

          “Kanaya’s older, so that makes sense.”

          “She’s only older by, like, a year. Then that brat Vriska’s a fricking toddler and she’s in our grade level, I don’t get it.”

          “She’s almost nine.” Aradia pointed out.

          “And we’re turning eleven in half a year. She’s still two years younger.” Sollux leaned back against the machine. “And, you know Tav better than me, why does he let a little girl beat him up like that?”

          “It’s complicated.” Was all Aradia had to offer.

          “Complicated is an understatement for that family.” Sollux scoffed. “Nevermind, I forgot about how much I don’t care.”

          “Would you care if I beat you at another game?”

          “What?”

          Suddenly, Aradia jumped up and skipped away. Sollux turned to see where she was headed and, speak of the devil, there was Nitram himself and his new, weird, skirt-wearing sea cave friend. Okay, maybe it was a sarong, whatever.

          Sollux stayed against the Mario Kart machine and idly listened in on Aradia and Tavros as they talked about the arcade games or something. He  ignored that in favor of chuckling as the new kid approached.

          “Holy shit, what happened there?” He snickered under his breath at Gamzee  who, by all means, looked 100%, absolutely, totally wasted.

 

***

 

          Tavros sighed and took a sip from his soda fountain drink. He watched as Gamzee tried to fill his own cup with every single flavor of soda available at the small snack counter.

          This boy was insane, Tavros had concluded.

          Gamzee returned to the table for two and, sliding his food onto tabletop, plopped himself in the chair opposite Tavros,

          “All done, Tavbro.” He assured his new friend who looked over his food with a questionable look in his eyes.

          “Wow, uh, you kind of have weird pizza preferences, don’t you?” Tavros noted as he pointed out the many unconventional toppings Gamzee had added to his pepperoni pizza. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone put, uh, mustard and ketchup on their pizza. Or that much salt and pepper. Or, uh… soda.”

          “Yeah, I ain’t never had it before.”

          “Soda?”

          “No, the pointy pizza snack. Although, I am super excited for this soda, man, I added all the flavours, it’s gonna be bitching!”

          “Oh.” Tavros grimaced. “Well, uh, just a heads up, this, uhm, particular pizza might not taste so… good. Don’t let it ruin the food for you, because, most pizzas aren’t like, well, that.”

          “Ain’t nothing gonna ruin my first bite of this triangle goodness.” Gamzee assured Tavros with a determined smile.

          “Well, I mean, if you’re sure.” Tavros muttered, taking one last pitiful look at the ruined slice of pizza.

          “I am indeed sure, bro.” Gamzee said as he lifted the slice up and took a big, messy bite of it.

          Tavros watched in muted horror.

          “Oh my God…” He whispered as Gamzee eat the whole slice, seemingly infatuated with it and the cacophony of flavors he’d thrown onto it.

          Tavros said not a word as Gamzee finished it off and sighed in absolute food fueled pleasure.

          “Holy shit, that was amazing!” Gamzee shouted, licking the grease and sauce off his fingers.

          “Uh… it… it was…?” Tavros stuttered out, still floored by Gamzee’s actions.

          “Oh, hell yes, it was great, bro, I ain’t never had much anything like it!” Gamzee nodded with energy.

          “Yeah, I bet.” Tavros chuckled nervously, still so very confused. “I mean, that was- that was a really crazy slice of pizza, haha, and… it was kind of disgusting.”

          “Nah, man, it was a miracle of food.” Gamzee argued with a smile. “Want some?”

          “Uh, no, actually, I’m eating at Nepeta’s when we’re done, so I don’t wanna fill up on pizza.” Tavros explained.

          “Oh, I see.” Gamzee said and picked up his soda cup, preparing to take a swig.

          Except, Gamzee realized he didn’t know how to take a swig.

          It suddenly occurred to Gamzee that he had never had soda while on land and he was pretty sure that he couldn’t intake it the same way as he had under water. Before, Gamzee would pop open the soda bottle and inhale the cloud of colored beverage that spilled out into the water.

          Needless to say, Inhaling soda was probably not an option on land.

          He looked at Tavros as he took a sip from his own soda. Gamzee fiddled with the straw in the lid and stuck it in his mouth it in an attempt to copy Tavros. He looked back up at Tavros and mimicked the sucking motion only to find his mouth suddenly filled the cool refreshing feeling of the soda.

          Except it was different from before.

          The fizz was much, much, much stronger, as was the flavor. Everything was so intense and foreign and to make matters worse, Gamzee was not used to liquid going down his throat without completely filling it. There were air pockets has he swallowed the soda and it was a weird sensation that Gamzee had never felt before.
         
In a panic, his throat constricted and shut itself to prevent the intake of any more soda and Gamzee found himself in a coughing fit, hacking up flecks of the soda.

          Tavros freaked out and flinched, almost dropping his cup.

          “Gamzee? Gamzee, are you okay?” Tavros asked, but Gamzee couldn’t respond thanks to his incessant coughing.

          “I’m- I’m fine!” Gamzee managed to get out through his coughs. “I’m good, bro!”

          He hacked a bit longer, before finally being able to clear his throat. He took a second to breathe and relax his frazzled nerves.

          “Gamzee, are you okay?” Tavros asked, concerned.

          “It’s all good, bro.” Gamzee chuckled. “I just never, uh, had soda like that.”

          “I told you all those flavors was suicide.” Tavros sighed. “Well, that’s what it’s called, I mean. Those I supposed you did almost die.”

          Gamzee laughed and flicked at the cup’s straw. “I just done never drunk this sweetness through a straw, is all, I get to thinking.”

          “Can you drink the rest or…?” Tavros asked.

          “I guess I can all up and try.” Gamzee chuckled, going to to take another sip, this time with a little more caution.

          Now that he had a good idea about what drinking soda actually felt like, Gamzee tried one last time.

          Saying it tickled was an understatement, it was like fireworks on his taste buds with a vibrancy that he had never tasted before. But he was able to keep it down this time and Gamzee found that he really liked how it felt! It was crazier but yummier than all the times he’d drunk soda underwater. It had more of a kick too!

          Now that he’d adjusted to it, Gamzee chugged down the rest of the soda at an impressive speed that left Tavros in awe.

          “Okay, that was some seriously good shit.” Gamzee sighed after finishing. “And I mean, seriously good.”

          “Wow, you really downed that!” Tavros exclaimed, shaking his own pitifully, half-full soda cup. “You could win a contest with that speed!”

          “Thanks, bro…” Gamzee lazily sputtered, his vision starting to blur. “Tasted real good, hehehe, real matter frucking good, hehehe.”

          “Uh, you okay?” Tavros asked, noticing Gamzee’s increased slurred speech. “Uh, you’re going cross eyed.”

          “Wha’?” Gamzee muttered, trying to focus on Tavros. “Wha’ d’ya mean?”

          “I mean you're going cross eyed.” Tavros repeated.

          Gamzee only chuckled. “That sounds funny, hehehe. Cross eyed, hahaha.”

          “Gamzee?” Tavros stood up and went over to shake Gamzee gently by the shoulder.

          “Ye’, bro?” Gamzee looked up lazily at Tavros, his head lolling about.

          “Uh…” Tavros looked side to side, not sure what to do. “Are you… allergic to anything?”

          “Wha’?”

          “You’re just acting kind of funny.” Tavros wrung his hands. “But, maybe it’s just me.”

          “Just you being funny, heheh.” Gamzee chuckled.

          “Uhm, okay.” Tavros sipped down the rest of his soda. “So, wanna get back at it again?”

          “Sure, ‘ding, bro.” Gamzee mumbled and stumbled out of the chair. “Where we goin’?”

          “Well, I don’t know. Is there anything you want to look at?”

          “Nah… you jus’ show me wha’ you like.”

          “Okay, uhm…” Tavros looked around the room for something that he was good at. “Oh!”

          “What is it, bro?”

          “Here.” Tavros took Gamzee by the hand and lead him away from the snack counter and across the way to machine with a wide screen and two guitars propped up on a rack. “I’m pretty good at Guitar Hero. I’m better with a real one, but, still. You want to try? We can have a contest.”

          Gamzee picked up the plastic remote guitar and experimentally tapped the colorful buttons on it.

          “This don’t require no legs, now, do it?”

          “Uh, n-no?” Tavros answered, more confused than ever.

          “‘Kay, thas’ good.” Gamzee nodded.

          He fiddled with the strap and, in trying to get it over his head, got himself tangled. Tavros helped to free and correctly wrap the strap across his back and rest the guitar on his chest. He took Gamzee’s arms and positioned his hands to hold the guitar properly so he could press down the buttons.

          “You’ve probably never played, so I’ll choose an easy song.” Tavros said as he put on the other guitar. “Just so you know, all you’ve got to do is press down on the colored buttons when they appear on the bottom line on screen. Does that make sense?”

          Gamzee nodded and hummed an affirming chime.

          “Okay, so, I’m gonna start it now.”

          Tavros inserted the tokens and selected the song, choosing an easy one for Gamzee, since he was just a beginner. Tavros didn’t mean to brag, but he was a pretty good Guitar Hero himself, so he knew he’d probably be the winner here, but it was all in good fun. When the song started, Tavros focused more on prompting Gamzee on when to hit which buttons when and it proved to him that Gamzee had terrible reflexes. He simply could not time the buttons right and his fingers would slid lazily across in a half-hearted attempt to match the beat, but he looked so darn happy about it like he was a champion at it.
         
In all honesty, Tavros thought he was like a drunk person trying to play a reaction based video game.
          Tavros had no idea why, but, also in all honesty, it was pretty funny.

          The round ended with Tavros coming out as the clear winner, but he couldn’t help but laugh at how giddy Gamzee was by the end.

          “Yaaaaaaay…” He mumbled clapping his hands. “I did it…!”

          “I mean, i guess you did, haha!” Tavros chuckled as he selected the next song. “You wanna, uh, take it up a level.”

          This was not going to end well, but it was gonna be funny.

          “Fuck yes.” Gamzee’s eyes cleared of the soporific glaze that laid over them for a split moment. “Let’s fuck ‘em up, bro.”

          “Oh.” Tavros peeped as he started the next song.

          This was just about as bad and hilarious as the first round, because this time, Gamzee seemed just aware enough of the prompts on screen to try and match the speed, but his fingers were all over the place, practically smashing the buttons. Tavros spent half the song quietly chuckling at the ridiculousness that was Gamzee trying to play Guitar Hero.

          “Hey, you’re really good.” Tavros grinned once they’d finish.

          “Brooooooo…” Gamzee playfully whined. “I suuuuuuuck…”

          “No, you’re totally awesome at it.” Tavros falsely assured with a snicker.

          “I guess if ya’ say so, bro.” Gamzee mumbled as he clumsily returned the guitar to it’s holder. “Hey, hey, hey, Tavros.”

          Tavros adjusted the guitar in it’s rack and looked up at Gamzee. “Yeah, Gamzee?”

          “Hey, I wanna play that game.” He pointed to the row of skeeballs agaisnt a wall. “I just saw my bro all up and playing it, I wanna try.”

          “Oh, okay.” Tavros said and began walking over there.

          Gamzee quickly caught up and grabbed Tavros’ hand and followed over him. “Please hold my hand, your hand is so soooooft…”

          Tavros chuckled and shook Gamzee’s hand playfully. “Okay, I guess if you say so.”

          Tavros set Gamzee up at the skeeball, explaining the game to him and inserting the token, handing him a ball when the machine dispensed them.

          “So, you roll it like this.” He demonstrated. “And the goal is too land in ball in those holes.”

          “Okay, lemme’ see.”

          Tavros handed the ball to Gamzee, who held it close to his face and looked over it’s surface like it held the secrets of the universe. After a long moment of analyzing it, Gamzee look over at the holes at the end of the skee ball ramp.  He then gathered the remaining balls into his arms and began climbing onto said ramp.

          “G-Gamzee?!” Tavros stuttered in shock as Gamzee slid onto his knees and crawled over across the ramp. “What are you doing?!”

          Gamzee did not respond, instead, he merely continued shuffling over to the end of the ramp where the holes were. When there, he sat on his knees and began lifting the balls from the pile gathered in his arms.

          He took one and plopped it in the center hole.

          Then another.

          Then another.

          He took each one and dropped them into the center hole and listened as the game chimed out the score he was making.

          “Gamzee, we’ll get in trouble!” Tavros tried to whisper yell at him, but Gamzee did not stop until he had gotten every ball into the hole.

          Then, slow as a snail, he crawled back to Tavros.

          “I did it.” Gamzee smiled and pointed at the ramp with childlike joy.

          “That’s not how you play that, Gamzee, you have to roll it like I said…” Tavros pressed his face into his palms. “Oh, we’re gonna get in trouble if anyone finds out.”

          Gamzee patted Tavros affectionately on the head when he heard a whirring noise at his feet. He looked down and saw a stream of bright orange tickets flowing out from a slot in the machine. He reached down and plucked them from the slot, holding them up victoriously.

          “Hey, Tavros, look! I got a paper string!”
Tavros peeked out through his fingers and looked up at what Gamzee was dangling from up high.

          “Yeah, you get a lot of tickets when you cheat.” Tavros mumbled. ‘Uh, but, that is a lot, which is, kind of cool, sort of, even if the method used to get them was questionable.”

          “I’mma do it again.”

          “What?”

          Tavros watched as Gamzee took out a token from his own cup and sloppily inserted it into the coin slot after missing the hole many, many times. Then, he watched as Gamzee repeated his actions again, talking all the balls, crawling onto the ramp, and dropping them all into high numbered holes.

          “Gamzee!” Tavros tried once again to anxiously call, but Gamzee did not return until he had already won another preposterous amount of tickets.

          “Whoa!” He gasped in awe as he held out the full length of the tickets. “This is huger than my arms, bro!”

          “That’s only because we’re cheating.” Tavros mumbled. “Ugh, I feel so guilty.”

          “Don’t be guilty bro, all’s that we did was be our creative selves.”

          “No, I’m not associating with your criminal activity, you bad, bad person.”

          “Ain’t a crime to have fun, right?”

          Tavros looked at the tickets held in his arms. “I mean… I guess we have them now.”

          “Let’s get more.” Gamzee said, placing the tickets down, his hand in the token cup, ready to reload another coin into the slot.

          “Nope.” Tavros quickly smacked away Gamzee’s hand. “No. No more cheating, or else, someone will definitely notice. I will also feel definitely more guilty.”

          “Well, what else can I go be all beating at?” Gamzee slurred joyously as he gathered the tickets back into his arms.

          “Uh, I mean, Aradia and I like to play air hockey a lot. Maybe I can show you that?”

          “Sounds all good to me, bro!” Gamzee exclaimed before looking down at his collection of tickets. “Say, what do we do with all these?”

          “Oh, we can just fold them up and put them in our pockets.” Tavros looked at Gamzee’s sarong. “Or, just my pockets, I guess.”

          Gamzee folded the tickets into neat stacks and handed them to Tavros who managed to fit them into his pockets. They had counted up 50 in total, which wasn’t enough for most big prizes, but it was okay.

          The two boys were making it over to where Tavros said the air hockey was when they ran into Aradia and Sollux, who were hanging out by the edge of the racing games, just talking and laughing with each other.

          Aradia noticed Tavros out of the corner of her eye and paused her and Sollux’s conversation to run over to him.

          “Hey, Tavros. You having fun?”

          “Yeah, actually, more than I thought, heh. I tried showing Gamzee some stuff that he was, mostly good at.”

          Tavros stopped what he was about to say when Gamzee popped up besides him and told Aradia, with a big, wide grin. “I sucked at everything, sister.”

          “Oh, uh, you weren’t awful, uh…” Tavros looked at Gamzee's huge smile and broke down laughing. “Okay, yeah, you were pretty bad at it all, hahaha!”

          Aradia looked between them with a pleasantly confused face, but she enjoyed the obvious happiness the two boys shared in.

          “Well, I see you two have had fun then.” She concluded. “Sollux and I have been okay ourselves. Though, among our duo, Sollux was the pretty awful one.”

          Having kept out of the conversation so far, Sollux suddenly focused in, a metaphorical exclamation point appearing above his head and he marched over.

          “Now, hang on, AA, I beat you at Rainbow Road.” He pointed out.

          Aradia only smiled a pleasant, warm smile laden with a hint of smugness. “Rainbow Road, yes. But I beat you at every other track, don’t forget.”

          “Rainbow Road’s a bitch, I should get bonus points for that!”

          “Actually,” Tavros spoke up, having recovered from his laughing fit. “Rainbow Road really isn’t all that hard.”

          “Can it, Tav.” Sollux spat out at him only for Tavros to snicker at his reaction.

          “He’s right you know.” Aradia added, taking a step back to literally stand side by side with Tavros. “Rainbow Road is a beginner’s track.”

          “It’s so not, you idiots!” Sollux argued, crossing his arms irritably.

          “I think the Mario Kart masters know best, Sollux.” Tavros grinned. “And, as you know, that would be Aradia and me. Since it is us, it cannot be you, so you know nothing.”

          “This is stupid.” Sollux lisped. “This has been an awful arcade trip.”

          Aradia leaned over and grabbed Sollux’s hand, pulling him over to her and Tavros. She wrapped her free arm around his shoulders and leaned her head onto him.

          “Come on, let’s just play one more?” She giggled, her grin contrasting his pout.

          He looked at her in contemplation. He maintained his irritated, depressed demeanor for a moment before he sighed and dropped his head on top of Aradia’s.

          “Fine.” He grumbled. “But not Mario Kart.”

          Aradia giggled and slipped out from beneath his head, causing Sollux to stumble from the loss of her support at his side.

          “What do you guys think about this one?” She said, bouncing over to one of the air hockey tables against the wall.

          “Oh.” Sollux looked up at Aradia’s game choice. “Oh, shit.”

          “Oh.” Tavros looked up at Aradia’s game choice. “Oh, yes.”

          “Oh.” Gamzee looked up at Aradia’s game choice. “What?”

          Against the wall, Aradia held out her hands to present to her friends the most chaotic game ever invented: 4-player air hockey.

 

***

 

          Now, 4-player air hockey is already a rare and insane concept.

          Some 4-player air hockey tables at one person on each side of a square table, but this one was set up with two people on the each of the short ends of a large rectangle, so it was more of a team effort against the opposing two people.

          However, that wasn’t what differentiated this from other 4-player air hockey tables.

          No, what made this particular 4-player air hockey even more rare and insane was that this air hockey table was hooked up to a rack on the wall. The rack had several tubes full of pucks of varying shapes and colors.  The game would begin with a few pucks on the field, but soon the tubes would empty out, draining a ton of pucks onto the table and causing immediate chaos between the four people playing.

          It was chaos incarnate.

          As the only one opposed to partaking in such an insane game, Sollux was forced along by the other three to play. Aradia and Tavros agreed that it would be all too unfair if the two air hockey champions teamed up, so they split up with their previous buddy; Tavros with Gamzee and Aradia with Sollux.

          “You guys ready?” Aradia asked as she poised her coin over the slot on her side.

          “Of course.” Tavros grinned, ready in insert his own coin.

          “I’m ready, but I’m not happy.” Sollux spat, coin in hand.

          “I don’t know what’s happening, but yes.” Gamzee slurred, his hand limply holding his token above the slot.

          “Okay, then. Ready?” Aradia paused.” Go!”

          All four kids slipped in their tokens and rushed to their spot and snatched up their mallets. All eyes were on the wall of pucks as the first four slide out onto the table.

          Aradia hit the first one across and Tavros deflected it back.

          The table held the just the initial four pucks for a short ten seconds before the whole wall drained itself onto, neon rainbow pucks spilling out everything.

          It was true chaos.  Fun chaos, but chaos none-the-less.

          The white noise of the arcade and the hissing of the air from the table was hardly noticeable when overlayed with the deafening sound of plastic pucks clinking against each other constantly. Even the music playing from the air hockey table speakers was impossibly quiet compared to the echoing reverbs of the pucks being flung across the table.

          In the midst of the otherworldly noise of absolute discord, the four children could not help but laugh and snicker at the complete chaos surrounding them. From very early on in the game, there was no longer any method or skill involved, the only plan was to hit the pucks as hard as possible and maybe aim at the enemy’s goal.
         
Even Sollux found himself relishing in the delightful confusion of it all.
          Gamzee was completely lost and most definitely dissociating, but his eyes were wide at the cacophony of colors flying across the table’s surface. Which really only added to his dissociation.

          When the table began to clear of pucks and the tubes no longer would drop refills, the noise and excitement levels slowly begin to ease out until every last puck had been struck through a goal and sent back into the tubes on the wall.
         
All four of the children took a moment to breathe, for they all had adrenaline rushing through their veins from the game. They all made eye contact and laughed at each other with little air to do so, taking heaving gasps to fill their lungs once again.

          “Holy shit.” Sollux gasped, reaching into his pocket for his inhaler. “I… hate… that game… so much…”

          “But… it’s so much… fun…” Tavros argued, laughing as he breathed.

          Sollux sucked a puff of air from his inhaler and sighed as his breathing evened out. “It’s chaos…”

          Aradia only chuckled and slapped her arm onto his shoulder. “You did great. Look.”

          Aradia pointed at the scoreboard and Sollux followed her finger to see that he and Aradia had indeed beat out Tavros and Gamzee by 30 points.

          “Oh, sick.” Sollux grinned and flipped Tavros off. “I beat the alleged, ‘air hockey master’.”

          “Well, one of them.” Aradia clarified shaking Sollux playfully.

          While she, Sollux, and Tavros laughed together, Gamzee flopped flat onto the table with his arms splayed out toward the center.

          Tavros chuckled and pat him on the back. “Gamzee, haha, you okay? That was fun, right?”

          Gamzee was silent as he rolled his head to look up at Tavros with wide eyes. He stared at him for a moment before he opened his mouth and whispered,  “That was motherfucking insane, Tavbro.”

          Tavros chuckled, giving Gamzee a small smile. “But, you had fun?"

          “I had the most miraculous time of my life, bro, I think I died and went to the Mirthful Messiahs, this was the most rainbow induced moment my tiny finny self has ever experienced.”

          “Uh,” Confusion snuck into Tavros’ expression. “I don’t really know what any of that meant, but, I’m glad you had fun?”

          "Yeah…” Gamzee reached a hand up and shook Tavros’ upper arm gently. “Yeah, I did.”

          Aradia and Sollux gathered up their tokens and tickets and Tavros looked over at them, then back to Gamzee and laughed.

          “I think we killed him.” He pointed out to Aradia and Sollux.

          “R.I.P. Weird New Friend.” Sollux said, placing his hands over his heart. “Died from a bitchin' 4-player air hockey game.”

          “If only we all could go out like that.” Aradia lowered her head mournfully.

          “Wait, what?” Gamzee squirmed and picked himself from off the table.

          “Poor, Gamzee.” Tavros added to Sollux and Aradia’s speech. “His first time at an arcade was his last.”

          “Wait, I’m so confused.” Gamzee cried with concern, not understanding what they were doing. “What do you mean my last time?”

          Tavros giggled and took Gamzee’s hand comfortingly. “It’s just a joke, you’re not actually going to die or anything, hehe.”

          “Die?” Gamzee whined, still lost. “Why y’all talkin’ ‘bout death, I don’t get it?”

          Sollux walked over with Aradia to where Tavros was consoling a worried Gamzee.

          “Hey, man.” Sollux spoke to Gamzee. “I’ve been meaning to ask, but, are you high or something?”

          Gamzee looked at Sollux with weepy eyes. “Wha’?”

          “Yeah, you’ve been acting weirder than the past couple of times we’ve meet, so like, are you drunk or something?”

          Tavros frowned at Sollux. “Sollux, he’s been with me the whole time, we didn’t do drugs or anything.”

          “Hey, maybe he had them on him, just saying.”

          “It’s really not funny.” Tavros argued. “Not at all, really.”

          “It kind of is.” Sollux turned to Gamzee who still looked lost. “Hey, weepy, are you high or drunk on something?”

          Gamzee wiped his eyes and flopped his head in a nod. “Yeah, man, why?”

          All three of the other kids were staring at Gamzee, frozen in sudden deafening silence.

          “Holy shit!” Sollux scoffed. “Are you kidding? Wow, I was just joking!”

          Tavros shook his head tried to get Gamzee’s attention. “Wait, Gamzee, really? That’s bad! W-what did you take?”

          Gamzee tilted his head, not sure why they were freaking out. “Just some soda, man.”

          “Soda?” Tavros pouted. “You mean the suicide you had earlier?”

          “Uh… yes?” Gamzee nodded.

          Now Sollux had gone from smug surprise to startled confusion. “A suicide? How does a soda suicide get you high and/or drunk?”

          Aradia, who had been quietly on the side the whole time piped up, saying, “Maybe the mixtures had a bad outcome? It could be that he’s just sick or having an allergic reaction.”

          “Maybe.” Sollux reluctantly accepted. “But, it’s still weird.”

          Tavros said, “Uh, so, that makes him technically not drunk or high, right?”

          “Yeah, I guess.” Sollux said. “Still makes him weird. I mean, who’s allergic to soda?”

          “I ain’t never said I was allergic.” Gamzee muttered. “I just said I had some human soda, man, and it was nice stuff.”

          The three other children gave him yet other curious look.

          “Human soda?” They all asked in near unison.

          “Uh…” Gamzee stared at them as though the answer on what to say would make itself known if he looked deep enough into their eyes.

          His vision was too wobbly though. This stuff was definitely kicking in at full speed now.

          “I jus’... call it that…” He clarified through a mouth full of slurred words.

          “Oh geez.” Sollux muttered. “Should we take him to the hospital? Is this bad?”

          “No.” Gamzee shook his head and leaned on the air hockey table, waving his hands to dismiss the thought. “I’m fine, really. If I really need anythin’, I’ll jus’ ask my bro.”

          Tavros and Aradia exchanged concerned looks.

          “I mean,” Tavros said, “If you’re sure.”

          “Oh yeah. Your bro.” Sollux cut in, looking around. “Where did Nepeta and that guy go anyway?”

          Sollux’s timing could not have been more perfect, because at that exact moment, a shrill shriek of joy ripped through the air at frequencies only cats and dogs should hear.

          The kids all cringed at the loud noise that battered their eardrums.

          “Well…” Aradia mumbled, rubbing her ears. “We found Nepeta, at least.”

 

***

 

          “Holy crap!” Nepeta cried, bouncing up and down in circles, her hyperness levels at a complete maximum. “We are rich! We are so rich, omg!”

          Besides her stood Equius who was looking down as a flood of tickets spilled out from the ticket slot in a game machine.

          “That is indeed an impressive amount.” He flatly stated.

          Nepeta dropped down to her knees and gathered up the ever growing mountain of tickets and hugged them tight to her chest. “I can’t believe it! Equius, you’re super awesome!”

          “Oh.” He looked at Nepeta as she practically rolled in the tickets, allowing himself a small smile to grace his expression. “Thank you.”

          Nepeta opened her eyes from her knit up face of glee and gasped when she looked up at Equius.

          “Hey!” She exclaimed, dramatically pointing her finger up at him. “You’re smiling!”

          “What?” Equius whispered in surprise.

          He hastily wiped clean his face of anything more than an blank, impassive slate of emotions and cleared his throat. He blushed in embarrassment, ashamed of smiling at such a ridiculous accomplishment, one that aided a human, none-the-less.

          “I believe you are mistaken.” He told Nepeta, trying to mend the situation.

          It didn’t work.

          “No… I saw you!” She jumped up and pumped her arms in the air, cheering in rhythm like a cheerleader, “I… got you! To smile! I… made you! Have fun!”

          “No.” Equius firmly asserted. “You did not. I am not smiling nor am I having fun.”

          “But you’re lying!” Nepeta whined, clinging to Equius’ arm. “You’re lying and you know it!”

          “No.”

          “Yes!”

          While Nepeta dangled from Equius’ arm, whining to him about his smile, Tavros and the others ran up to the scene. They all came to a stunned halt and gasped when they saw the absurd amount of tickets piled up at Equius and Nepeta’s feet.

          “Nepeta, what the heck?!” Sollux shouted. “How did you do that?!”

          Nepeta hummed questioningly and tilted her head to look back at the newcomers. She gasped when she found her friends and grinned widely.

          “Hi, Sollux! Look how much Equius got me!” She excitedly cheered as she waved her finger towards the ticket pile.

          “This guy?” Sollux pointed at Equius, who appeared unmoved by Nepeta koala climbing up his arm.

          “Well, duh!” Nepeta stuck her tongue out at Nepeta. “He’s really strong, did you know that? I didn’t know that.”

          Sollux, Aradia, and Tavros looked over at the game machine that was pouring out tickets. Said game machine was a shiny, squeaky clean coin pusher. Clean as in clean of any and all coins.

          “Oh my gosh.” Tavros muttered in horror. “Are you telling me that he…?”

          “Yup.” Nepeta purred.

          “And…” Sollux continued for Tavros. “You got all that…?”

          “Yup.” She grinned.

          “Wow.” Aradia gave Nepeta and Equius a thumbs up. “Nice job.”

          “Yup!” Nepeta said on last time before dropping from Equius’ arm.

          She bent down and began folding up all the tickets on the ground and explained how her day at the arcade had been.

          “We were trying to play games that gave out a lot of tickets, so we went looking around, played some games, broke some others, got a lot of tickets!” She hummed as she gathered the tickets up. “Then, we started running low on coins! So, I said we should play the coin pusher, because it’s always worth a shot and, sometimes, you can make bank on it!”

          She held up the tickets with a wide grin, indicating the ‘bank’ she mentioned.

          “Anyway, so I put some in, told Equius how it worked, and he said, ‘I am very strong, let me push it’.” Nepeta drew her mouth into a line and wobbled, mimicking Equius in a rather humorous way. “So, I said, go ahead! Push it!”

          “Well, I assume he did.” Sollux paled looking back at the machine.

          “That’s what’s so funny though, I didn’t know he would actually push it!” Nepeta snickered. “So he just, went to the side, put his hands behind it, and ripped it right off the ground! All the coins went flying straight to the bottom and we won the jackpot!”

          Nepeta finished with panache and tossed streams of tickets into the air, giggling like a madwoman and she relished in her wealth, all while the other children looked down at her with varying expressions of stunned silence.

          “R-ripped it off…?” Tavros muttered and looked at the base of the coin pusher machine curiously. “Was it bolted into the ground?”

          “Uhm, I don’t think so?” Nepeta examined the machine “I think it’s just weighted down.”

          “If that thing was bolted, I’d be far more terrified right now.” Sollux said and gestured to Equius. “Dude, how old did you say you were?”

          “Twelve years.” Equius replied.

          “Twelve.” Sollux gaped. “You on steroids?”

          “What?” Equius squinted at the other boy, confused.

          “Are you on steroids?” Sollux restated.

          “I do not know what you mean.”

          “Nevermind.” Sollux sighed. “That is still super terrifying, dude.”

          “No!” Nepeta popped up in Sollux’s face. “It’s purr-fectly super awesome is what it is!”

          With a mountain of tickets buddled in her arms, Nepeta bounced up and down and mudged herself against Equius.

          “Come on, let’s go get our toys!” She giggled. “We’ve definitely got enough to get some!”

          Without argue, Equius allowed Nepeta to push him over to the prize counter while the rest of the group followed.

          Aradia and Sollux looked over the bit of tickets they’d collected, but as most of the games they had played gave none out, their amount of miniscule. Sollux didn’t care for anything at the moment, not even candy, and Aradia didn’t really desire any prizes either.
         
When they reached the counter, Aradia slipped her tickets into Tavros’ cup and winked.  He first tried to hand them back, but when she held her hand up against it, he just smiled and returned them to his cup.

          “Okay, so here’s how it works.” Tavros brought Gamzee’s attention to the cup full of tickets and then to the counter display. “You can use these to buy everything here. We have 63, so, that’s good enough for something. Do you see anything you like?”

          Gamzee looked over the display case and wall and was enamoured by all the unique and colorful options. How could he just pick one of these little do-dads?
         
Then, he saw a small looking thing at the bottom of the wall. It looked like a baby trumpet, but with a circular ball at one end. Some kind of human instrument?

          “Hey, bro, what’s that?” Gamzee shook Tavros’ shoulder and pointed out the gadget.

          “Oh, the bicycle horn?” Tavros asked, pointing at the same object. “It’s for you to put on the handlebar of your bike.”

          “What’s a bike?”

          “Oh.” Tavros stuttered. “Wow, you are really sheltered.”

          “Wha’?”

          “Nothing.” Tavros shook his head. “Anyways, uh, the horn makes a kind of loud squeaking noise, like a goose.”

          Gamzee was too afraid to ask what a goose was.

          “Can I see it?” He instead asked.

          “We can ask the guy.” Tavros leaned over the counter and got the attention of the counter worker who had been waiting nervously as Nepeta piled up her tickets.

          The counter employee quickly waddled over to Tavros and Gamze.

          “What can I get you kids?” They asked with a smile. “You got a million tickets too?”

          “No, we’ve only got 63.” Tavros answered and then asked, “Uh, weird question, but, can you honk that horn there?”

          “This one?” The employee stuck a thumb over their shoulder in the horn’s direction.

          “Yes.” Tavros nodded.

          “Alright.” The employee shrugged and  took a step back and gave the horn a small squeeze, enough that you could hear it, but not enough to potential be too annoying.

          The employee had no reaction to the noise and neither did Tavros or anyone else for that matter, but Gamzee’s jaw dropped in complete awe when he heard it.

          “Holy shit.” Gamzee muttered. “Dude. That’s… that’s a miracle, bro.”

          “Uh,” Tavros looked at Gamzee with the deepest level of confusion. “A miracle?”

          Gamzee was tearing up. “It sounded so beautiful, man…”

          “Gamzee… Gamzee, are you crying?”

          “Yes, man.” Gamzee sniffed and wiped his face along his arm. “That I am, Tavros.”

          Tavros was stuck there, sputtering out jumbled words as he tried to speak. Whether to console Gamzee or to ask why the heck he was sobbing in the first place, he didn’t know.

          The employee seemed very uncomfortable with the scene and chuckled nervously.  “So, uh, I take it he wants to buy it?”

          “Uh,” Tavros looked from the employee, to Gamzee, to his cup full of tickets, then back to the employee. “How much is it?”

          “Twenty tickets.”

          “Oh, good. Uh, here.” Tavros pulled out a length of tickets and quickly added them up before tearing them at the seam and handing it off to the employee. ‘We’ll take that, I guess.”

          “You got it.” The horn was slid across the counter next to Gamzee. “Anything, kid?”

          “Uh, can I get that Turtwig and a box of nerds?” Tavros asked tossing out the remainder of the tickets onto the counter.

          “Sure thing kid.” The employee turned around and then came back with a stuffed Turtwig plush and a box of strawberry Nerds and placed them next to the horn on the counter. “You’ve got one ticket left, anything else?”

          “Uh, a Tootsie roll?”

          "Got it.” The employee plucked one Tootsie roll from a jar and dropped it in the pile along with the other prizes. “Have a nice day, kid.”

          “Thank you.” Tavros nodded.

          Immediately after that, Nepeta called out for the employee, saying that she’d figured out what she wanted and had her tickets organized accordingly.  The employee quickly rushed over and Tavros chuckled at how excited Nepeta was.

          Meanwhile, however, Gamzee was looking down at his newly acquired bicycle horn that it was the most beautiful thing he had ever laid his eyes upon.

          He honked it once.

          Miracles.

          Pure miracles.

          “Uh, you sure seem fascinated with that bike horn, haha.” Tavros asked as Gamzee honked it again.

          “It’s miraculous, bro.” Gamzee said, not even turning to face him.

          Sollux and Aradia walked over to them.

          “Well, that’s a weird pick.” Sollux said. “Honestly, I don’t even know why they sell it.”

          “Whatever makes him happy.” Aradia smiled.

          “Yup!” Nepeta cheered as she crammed herself between them. “And this makes me happy!”

          She held up a giant stuffed purple and cream calico cat and shook it’s incredibly soft fur in her friends’ faces.

          “Do you like it! Isn’t it purr-fectly adorable!” She chirped. “It’s the biggest one I have!”

          “It looks wonderful, Nepeta.” Aradia grinned.

          “Yeah, it’s super cute.” Tavros said, petting the stuffed cat’s forehead.

          Gamzee ruffled the cat and laid his head against it, nuzzling it and humming.

          “Soft…” He drawled. “So soft…”

          Then Gamzee opened his eyes and gasped. He jumped up and slipped past Nepeta and the others and collided with Equius who stood a few feet behind the group.

          “Whoa! And what is this!” Gamzee exclaimed, reaching for something Equius held tight to his chest.

          “Nothing.” The taller boy plainly answered. “It is my prize.”

          “Let me see! It looked cute!” Gamzee begged, trying to pull apart the arms guarding Equius’ prize, but alas, it was an effort in vain.

          “Come on…” Gamzee pouted, slumping down, hanging tight to Equius as the rest of his body fell victim to gravity.

          “No.” Equius huffed.

          Seeing the scene, Nepeta grinned and pounced over to the two boys, her own prize hugged to her chest.

          “Equius? Why not show him it? It’s cute! Aren’t you proud of it?”

          “I am proud of it. But it is beautiful. Not cute.”

          "No, that's kind of the definition of cute!” Nepeta giggled. “But it’s pretty too!”

          “Beautiful.” Equius corrected.

          “Yeah, sure.” Nepeta placed her cat on the counter and reached up, gently grabbing and tugging on Equius’ arms. “Here, let me show them then.”

          Equius grumbled, slight consideration present in his evident irritation.

          With a charming, feline grin matched by a pair of sparkly eyes, Nepeta looked up and wordlessly begged Equius to let her have her way.

          His impassive barrier crumbled quickly.

          “Fine.” Equius sighed, loosening his hold on the prize so Nepeta could slip it out from his arms. “You may.”

          “Yay!” Nepeta cheered, scooping up Equius’ prize into her hands. “Thank you!”

          With that, she turned around in a whirl and presented the prize to the others, a victorious and precious smile blazen on her face, showing the pride that Equius refused to reveal.

          “Ta-da!”

          She held out in her hands a small plush horse, no more than a foot tall and a foot wide. It had dark blue fur and a light blue mane and tail. It’s hooves were white, as were t’s button eyes and the heart shaped symbol on it’s haunch. It had a little pink tongue sticking out of it’s little sewn mouth.

          “Aw!” Tavros chuckled. “It’s cute, Equius! Er, and beautiful too.”

          “It’s very cute!” Aradia agreed.

          “It’s stupid.” Sollux muttered.

          His remark was immediately followed by a rough jab to his rib from Aradia and a threatening glare from Nepeta.
         
Sollux did not apologize or make any further comments, but he did grumble and rub his side gingerly.

          Gamzee, however, looked at the little plush horse with wide, wonderous eyes.

          “Yooooooo… that’s incredible!” He gasped in awe. “It’s miraculously, spectacularly, motherfucking adorable!”

          “Oh.” Nepeta chittered. “That’s a naughty word.”

          "My bad sis.” Gamzee hastily appologized. “Hey bro, can I hold your miraculous lil’ guy right here?”

          Equius looked down on Gamzee, his shades hiding any intention held in his eyes.

          “No.”

          Gamzee frowned and dropped his gaze to the floor, whining like a defeated pup.

          “Now.” Equius strode over and gently lifted the plush horse from Nepeta’s hands. “Return him to me.”

          “Equius!” Nepeta quickly turned on him and bounced with her hands pressed to her cheeks. “What’s his name?”

          “What.” Equius looked at her quesitoningly.

          “His name, dumb-dumb! Your horse’s name!”

          “A name?”

          “Yes, a name!”

          Equius held the horse loosely in his hands and looked down at, aimlessly stroking it’s soft mane.

          What to name him, what to name him…

          “Author.” Equius said.

          “Author?” Nepeta repeated. “Well, it’s a little boring, but nice!” She teased.

          “Why not Authorse?” Sollux chuckled. “Since it’s a weird horse.”

          Nepeta gasped and spun around, flinging her arms out at Sollux with a gasp.

          “Sollux!” She exclaimed. “That’s genius!” She rounded back on Equius and looked up at him smiling. “How about that, Equius?”

          “No.”

          “Aw, man…” Nepeta frowned.

          “Wow.” Sollux said, motioning to the pouting Nepeta and Gamzee. “You’re just full of disappointments today, aren’t you?”

          “I will not honor you with a response.” Equius said.

          Nepeta popped back up and gave Equius a little smile. “Well, let’s at least get him a tag to write his name on.”

          Nepeta walked to the counter and asked for a sharpie and returned, holding her open hand out towards Equius.  “Can I write it on his tag? I’ll write it in purr-etty letters!”

          Equius hesitantly handed it over to Nepeta who happily laid the horse on the counter and took the sharpie to the plush’s tag. She scribbled with intricate curves before capping the marker and bringing the plush back to Equius.

          “Here!” She proudly announced. “He has a name now!”

          “Thank you.” Equius said, examining the tag.

          He couldn’t read it.

          “You are welcome!” Nepeta gave Equius a thumbs up and tossed the sharpie back at the employee behind the counter, hitting him sharply on the side of his head. “Sorry!”

          Just then, Nepeta’s phone buzzed in her pocket.

          She yanked it out, clicked the button, and held the receiver to her ear.

          “Hey, Momma! Are you here already? Oh, you’re waiting out front? Okay, we’ll be right there! Oh! Wait, hang on fur one sec’.” Nepeta lowered the phone and turned to Equius and Gamzee. “You guys got a ride home? My mom could drive you home? Or you could come to lunch with us!”

          Equius frowned. “I don’t know…”

          Nepeta waved her hand dismissvely. “Don’t worry, my mom’s nice!”

          Gamzee shrugged and nudged Equius playfully. “Come on bro, let’s go hang with sis here and her mom, ain’t nothing wrong with that. Plus, I been starving all the good long day.”

          Equius mumbled quietly so only Gamzee could hear. “Sir, I do not think going with a strange human’s adobe is such a good idea. We could be trapped in an unsavory situation or-”

          “Bro.” Gamzee interrupted. “We’ve been hanging with these dudes all day, I think they’re an alright sort of folks.”

          Before Equius could defend his case, Gamzee nodded his head with a smile at Nepeta and said, “Yeah, sis, that sounds great!”

          “Excellent!” She chirped before placing the phone back against her mouth. “Hey, Momma, I already told you my furr-ends would be visiting, but we met up with some old new friends at the arcade and I was wondering if they could come too!”

          Nepeta hummed and nodded in agreement as her mother spoke on the other end.

          “Mhm. Mhm. Okay. Okay! Yup, you got it!” Nepeta lowered the phone once more and looked up at the two boys in question. “Your guys’ parents okay if you come with us?”

          “Uh…” Gamzee gaped, uncertain how to answer. “Well, I mean, yeah. My dad is probably chill with it.”

          “Probably not.” He thought nervously.

          After all, it’s not like this was the first thing Gamzee had done that would be against his father’s wishes.

          “Equius?” Nepeta asked, awaiting his response.

          “My father would approve.” Equius sighed.

          It was a half-truth. His father surely wouldn’t approve of him frolicking with humans, but surely the mission of retrieving Gamzee’s necklace surpassed that.

          “Okay!” Nepeta returned to the phone. “They said their parents would be fine with it!”

          The conversation between her and her mother went on for a minute more before she shut the phone and tucked it back into her pocket.

          “Okay, so, my momma is still a little unsure about you two because she hasn’t purr-o-purr-rly met your parents, but she’s trusting you to be honest, alright?”

          “Ain’t nothing to worry for, sis.’ Gamzee assured her with a white lie.

          The three came to an agreement and Sollux came forward, moving past them.

          “Well, let’s get to it then. It’ll be fun squishing all six of us into you mom’s car. I call shotgun.”

          “Hey!” Nepeta spun around a chased after him. “It’s my momma’s car! I get shotgun!”

          The two bickered, Nepeta speeding up to reach the car first. Sollux suitably ran after her, but it was already clear that her small athletic build and childish energy had him beat.

          Aradia nudged the remaining three boys to head after them, her and Tavros laughing as they watched their two friends speed away out the theater entrance and into the parking lot.  Gamzee happily followed along, sticking besides Tavros like a loyal puppy.  Equius stayed a few steps behind the three, initially trying to avoid being too caught up with any of the humans, but now his attention was on Gamzee as his sire clung to Tavros’ side.
         
Gamzee said something to the human that ended with them both laughing. Their shaking laughter threw them off balance and they bumped against each other, Gamzee’s head nuzzling briefly into the crook of Tavros’ neck just above his shoulder.

          Equius frowned.

          That particular motion didn’t seem like an accidental collision. The way Gamzee gently lowered his head down against the human without any sort of rough accidental connection wouldn’t have come from bumping into each other.  It looked intentional.

          Tavros apologized for knocking into him, but Gamzee said it was just an accident.

          They chuckled.

          Equius frowned further.

          Gamzee swayed his hand closer to Tavros’, fiddling with the others fingers as though trying to loosely intertwine with them. The action was obviously on purpose, but Gamzee also was obviously taking effort to make it seemed accidental.

          Equius grumbled.

          What was happening here?

          Before he could register it, Equius found himself in front of one of the many mechanical carriages that filled the lot in front of the theater.
          It was one of the taller and wider ones, shaped more akin to a large rectangle than the low to the ground, curved shape of the majority of the vehicles he’d seen in the lot.
         
The glass windows were not blacked out and Equius could see a small Nepeta full of herself and grinning proudly from one of the front seats. Seated in the other was a women that Equius could not quite see fully as her thick cloud of hair blocked her partially and she was turned slightly away, looking down at her phone. In the next row, Equius saw the human named Sollux looking as much like a sore loser as possible. His arms and legs were crossed in a huffy manner and a pout laid across his face.

          Back outside the vehicles, the human girl with the thick raven hair, Aradia, pulled once on the handle of the vehicle’s door and stepped back as it pulled back on it’s own, revealing an entrance.
          Equius let a burst of surprise pass over his face, interested at what mechanisms could possibly be responsible for such easy and smooth movement for an automated door.
          Aradia lifted the edge of her skirt up to allow herself room to step up into the vehicle. She bent low and shuffled to the back row, settling down in a chair on the right side.  She motioned for them to follow her and, doing so, Tavros climbed in and sat himself besides her, taking the middle seat of the back row.
         
With subtle curiosity, Gamzee crawled in on his knees and slowly rose to as full a height as he could in the vehicle. He shuffled to the back and plopped himself in the open seat besides Tavros, turning to the boy with a grin.

          That left the open middle seat on the right for Equius. Following as the others did, Equius maneuvered himself into the vehicle and settled into the leather chair. It was weird to adjust too, but far more comfortable than the hard plastic chairs on the other human transportation vehicle, the bus he’d had to ride on just hours ago.

          Equius waited patiently for something happen, not sure what to do but sit. He glanced over his shoulder to spy on Gamzee and the human whom his sire was most fond of.

          Before he could assess what the two were doing, he heard the clearing of someone’s throat in front of him. He turned to see Nepeta peeking through the space between her chair and the wall of the vehicle.

          “Close the door!” She said, the command clearly aimed at Equius.

          Equius’ eyes flickered between Nepeta and the door. He looked at the open space in the vehicle and came to realize that he had no idea how to shut the door.  He was loathe to admit it, but he had to ask how he was suppose to do such a thing.

          “How do I close it. I have not seen a door quite like this before.” Equius admitted.

          Nepeta tilted her head and reached an arm through the space and poked her finger against a small black button low on the wall. Not a moment later did the door begin to slowly pull itself back into its position, locking into place.
         
Nepeta pulled away and plopped back into her seat.

          “I can’t believe you’ve never seen an automated car door be-furr!” She said as she reached up for a strap hanging out from a slot in the upper car wall, stretched the strap across her, and clicked it into place in a little box to her left.

          Equius was ready to respond when the woman sitting in the other front chair turned around the face the rest of the vehicle.

          When she and Equius made eye contact she gasped and gave him a big grin.

          “Well, hello there, sweetie!”

          The woman was the very same one Equius had waved down on the street earlier that morning, the one who’d provided him with the medical supplies to treat Gamzee’s head injury.

          She hung her arm over the shoulder of her chair and casually asked Equius, “How are you doing? You help your friend out alright?”

          “Uh, yes. Your help was greatly appreciated.” Equius responded with a stiff nod.

          He was suddenly thinking back to that morning, scanning through the events to remember if she might’ve seen Gamzee’s blood or anything that could give them away. If she had, Equius didn’t want her spreading the information along to the humans they were trying to get the necklace from. Thinking it over one last time,  he internally sighed in relief when he came to the conclusion that she most likely did not see anything too bad and Equius relaxed.

          Meanwhile, Nepeta flicked her head from Equius to her mother and back again to Equius, repeating the cycle.

          “Wait, Momma, do you know Equius?” She asked, pointing at him.