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Mystery Ate Icarus

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~Dave Strider~

Day 1.
The air tasted wet here but at least it was breathable.

It was the stream from the pipes. Their hissing breath left moisture in the air. He was breathing it in with every breath.

It was too soon for the boredom to sink in. Dave spent the bright new day in darkness, searching for a place to hide away between the metal walls for the next fifteen months. He was alone. It was dark and it was cold and Dave Strider was going to do this all on his own and the weight of that realization was just as crushing as it had been when this plan had been nothing more than a reckless, desperate theory tacked in red on Dirk’s corkboard.

This was going to be a long trip.

 

Day 10.
There were no widows. There was nothing but the blank expanse of the same off-gray metal walls everywhere he looked. Maybe things wouldn’t be so mind-numbingly boring if he could see the stars outside. Dave tried to visualize it anyway, imagining the black, dull expanse of space filled with its distant glitters of brilliant light, and when he opened his eyes all he saw were gray shadows and twisting silver pipes.

Somewhere deep inside the spaceship, something groaned and shifted with the creak of metal on metal.

Okay…. This was starting to suck.

 

Day 13.
Dave noticed that one of his blankets was gone. That sent a thrum of disconnect through him. Where could it have gone? The light blue blanket was nowhere to be seen even after Dave turned his sylladex upside down looking for it. While looking for it he also noticed that one of the bland energy bars he’d left by his bedroll had vanished as well.

Huh… Weird.

Tiny hairs rose at the back of his neck and he could have sworn he felt someone watching him, which was impossible because Dave was alone. Totally, completely alone.

What the fuck was going on?

 

Day 28.
It took over two weeks before Dave began to think that he wasn’t alone.

The underbelly of the class 3 Alternian star destroyer was abnormally quiet. Dave hadn’t seen another living being since before he’d folded his legs inside of the walls and vanished into the places between the space vessel as a stowaway. He’d been expecting complete, total isolation in the darkened and forgotten passageways of the alien starship. He’d been counting on being alone actually. Anything else would be… problematic.

It started slow. Missing hoarded food, his disappeared blanket, the feeling of eyes on the back of his neck. There were sounds too, not so distant creaks of shifting steel and the damning whisper on cloth on cloth. These instances were quiet and spread out enough that Dave could have easily brushed them off as ambient noise from the ship itself, that or accept the fact that solitude was making him hear things.

It was the things that had gone missing which cemented Dave’s theory of a mystery invader in his naturally suspicious mind. He knew he hadn’t misplaced that blanket and he fucking knew that he hadn’t taken it anywhere else. Shit, there were only three places it could have been and Dave had checked them twice. Ergo, someone had taken it. Which meant that Dave was not as alone as he should have been.

That was a scary thought. Sure, there were probably several thousand Alternian trolls in the upper, populated regions of the ship and as such he knew he wasn’t really alone, per say, but any one of the gray-skinned aliens would gleefully take pride in ripping Dave into very tiny pieces so yeah, he much preferred the idea of being alone.

The room he’d claimed as his own was not a room. It was a small square of free foot space in the area between two adjacent walls. Large silver pipes wound over his head like veins, pulsing with the beat that radiated from the ship’s core. The pipes were probably the reason that this empty space existed, and the heat they gave off was vented away through overhead air vents. The steam in the air gathered near the ceiling and turned the top of the room stormy.

Dave was used to heat, but this was a dampness that was unfamiliar. He was used to scorching rooftops and Texas sunlight- not this artificial bellowing. It was like living in a lung. He could hear the alien ship breathing around him if he closed his eyes and held his breath until the darkness outside pressed against him. With his pulse showing on the backs of Dave’s eyeballs he could hear it- the ship was moving.

How fast? Where? In which direction? Did things like direction even matter in space? He had no idea.

The heating to these abandoned sections of ship had long-ago been cut off, but the pipes kept this area habitable. It was another unexpected bonus discovery. Home sweet wall pipes and a few feet of cold metal flooring. What more could a guy ask for?

Being in space fucking sucked. Alderman had it wrong all along. Hal had been correct, as he always turned out to be. Dave silently rolled his eyes. He wished Hal was here so bad that it hurt. At least then he’d have someone to talk to.

Dave resisted the urge to slip a sword from his sylladex, his neutral eyes carefully hidden behind his shades. There was an air vent embedded in the wall to his left, and a few seconds ago he could have sworn that the bottom right screw had just twisted to the left.

Dave kept still. He didn’t move and his breath made no noise. There was the smallest of squeaks as the screw turned again, as if someone or something was twisting it from the inside.

His trap had been sprung. The patient waiting and his now-sore knees had paid off. Busted.

Now certain the intruder was in the vent, Dave knew he should probably kill them now- before they saw his human face. It would be easy to slide his blade through the gap in the grating. If he were lucky he might not even have to look at them.

The second screw began to torque itself free and still Dave did nothing. He had a suspicion.

Any troll sneaking around unseen was probably an enemy of the Empire, and therefore not a foe. Maybe. Probably at the very least. This was sound logic in Dave’s book. Real rock-hard stuff. He imagined Rose face palming at his silent monologue and felt a pang of homesickness sharp enough to make him catch his breath.

He waited patiently until the final screw was loosened, and he held his breath as the grate slid soundlessly to the side. Whoever this was, they were fucking good. Almost completely soundless and unseen.

Too bad almost wasn’t good enough when a Strider was involved. Dave kept his hands free of a sword, leaning back at ease against the far wall as he made out the first gleam of eyes in the dark tube of the now-open vent.

The troll was remarkably small and stocky, all the better for sneaking through air vents unnoticed. For a moment Dave thought the troll was hornless until he saw the small spots of bone just visible over the top of that wild mane of black hair. The horns’ orange tips were oddly rounded. Had he filed his own horns down? Shit, that was fucking commitment.

The troll still hadn’t noticed him, so Dave took his time studying the alien from his hidden vantage point of behind a silver pipe. There was no sign on his chest like the rest of his species, just blank black fabric. He didn’t have the size of a highblood or the fins of a seadweller, so Dave marked the guy in the low to mid-range of the hemospectrum.

The troll slowly lowered himself to the floor with a quick grace that heightened Dave’s interest. There was something shifty in the set of his shoulders, hunched like he was used to staying low and moving unseen, but he didn’t look like he was expecting company as he started scavenging through the pile of Dave’s scant belongings he’d left carefully stacked as bait.

This was almost too easy. It was time to intervene.

“Easy there,” Dave said slowly, keeping his voice low and steady. “You know, I’d share if you’d asked.”

The troll whipped around, eyes wide and teeth bared. The alien didn’t waste time searching for where the voice had sounded from- his strange yellow eyes had instantly zeroed in on Dave’s location with a frightening level of intensity. A strange, curved blade appeared in his hand and the troll held it like he knew how to use it.

Dave held up his empty hands, unarmed as he tried to deescalate the situation. “Do you understand me?” He asked. It was beyond stupid to ask if an Alternian knew English, but Dave hoped the translator sewn into his neck would get the point across.

“Who the fuck are you?” The troll snarled in clicking, synodic syllables. Trolls had a harsh, grating language, everything combined in on itself with too many layers to count.

Dave was lucky enough after years of careful research to understand Alternian, though he couldn’t speak it. No human could. The cold circle of steel in his neck shifted as he swallowed.

“A friend,” Dave answered. The translator tried to do its job, but the closest words for ‘friend’ trolls had were ‘quadrantmate’ or ‘maybe-I-won’t-kill-you-now’.

The troll bared his teeth, hissing. He didn’t look afraid, just pissed off.

Dave tried again. “My name’s Dave,” he said, because shit, introductions were universal right? “Fellow stowaway.”

The troll narrowed his eyes and unleashed a flurry of rapid, high-paced cursing. Dave couldn’t accurately say he understood exactly what he was being called but he knew it was hella colorful. The troll came closer, leading with the point of his curved blade.

“Well fuck you too,” Dave said, snorting because he was sure the last part of the troll’s rant meant something like shit-fucker to the eighth degree and that was a ridiculous insult in any language. “You gonna put those pig stickers down or...”

With a growl the troll advanced, eyes alight. “You’re a fucking human,” he said, and those words came out loud and clear. “Why the fuck are you here? This is an Alternian war vessel!”

“I’m here, as in, hiding in a wall, because the Empire wants my entire species dead,” Dave answered, bombarding him with the truth as he squinted knowingly at the troll. “And I’m guessing they want you dead too.”
Dave might not have been an expert on trollkind, but he knew what colors their eyes should be. He also knew how the Empire treated anyone who didn’t fit that government sanctioned mold and victory bells began ringing in his mind as he confirmed his suspicion. This particular Alternian was an enemy of the Empire. He had to be.

The troll’s bright red, clearly mutant eyes widened. “Motherfucker,” he snarled. “What’s stopping me from turning you in?”

“I’m guessing they’d kill you the instant you showed those pretty red mutant eyes of yours,” Dave said, wincing as the gab device translated mutant into cullbait.

“That doesn’t mean I can’t kill you myself,” the troll argued, turning to logic in an unappealing way because Dave did not actually want to fight this guy. Those sickles looked like they meant business.

“Maybe,” Dave said, shrugging. “But why would you do that?”

The troll just looked at him, completely caught off-guard by the question.

“The way I see it,” Dave said, “We have the same goal- don’t get caught. Stay breathing. We have nothing to gain from fighting to the death, so why not skip the pleasantries?”

The troll smiled. It wasn’t a happy smile and it showed off more teeth than any smile should have. “I think you’re just begging me to spare you,” Troll Guy Wonder said, raising his sickles. “There’s no way you’d win against me.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Dave warned, flipping a sword out of his sylladex as his nerves kicked into Red Alert and his heart into 5th gear. He might be loath to fight, but if attacked Dave would be fucking ready. Even in the half-light his blade shone. “I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve.”

The troll laughed, a harsh bark of sound that rattled like it hit every rib on the way out. He put his sickles away, still laughing to himself. Dave cautiously captchalouged his sword and they considered each other for a moment, human to alien as their uneasy truce stretched silent between them.

“Now what?”

“Do you know what this means?” Dave asked, smiling. “We’re wall hole roommates!”

The troll groaned as if he were already regretting his decision.

 

Day 33.
For the most part, Dave and his troll tagalong ignored each other. Dave would see him once every few days, if that. Dave had... questions, about the troll. Lots of questions. He kept them to himself and not once said anything aloud.

But Dave couldn’t help but wonder, and he was a creature made curious. Mankind didn’t have much contact with trolls beyond trying to not die a very painful death. He might be the first person to ever stay in proximity to a sort of non-hostile alien. NASA would shit itself for a chance like this.

So the next time he encountered the troll, who did nothing but glare and curl his lip into a silent growl, Dave just shrugged hello and slid down the wall across from him, watching.

The troll attempted to rip the components out of a piece of unfamiliar hardware. The frayed wires were dull and unmoving as the troll systematically gutted the odd device to line up its parts in a row on the floor. Whatever the lump of metal had been, it certainly looked complicated.

“What’s your name?” Dave asked, his voice unrecognizable as the translator stole the words from him. No sound left his mouth- it bypassed through the implant and exited into the air as Alternian.

The troll narrowed his eyes with suspicion, instantly mistrustful. “Why?” He challenged. “What’s it to you?”

“I told you mine,” Dave shrugged again. “I’d like something to think of you other than ‘troll number one.’”

The Alternian kept silent, before answering with his eyes locked on the metal between his claws. “Karkat.”

“So, Karkat,” Dave said conversationally, secretly gleeful as the troll bristled. “This ship won’t make port again for at least another 3 years.” Karkat started with blank eyes, so Dave elaborated. “Over a sweep.”

“So?”

“So it looks like we’re stuck together for a while,” Dave said, dramatically drawing out his voice.

Karkat didn’t argue. He unfortunately didn’t answer either. He didn’t react at all.

Maybe Dave’s implanted translator wasn’t working right? Alternian was a complicated language based on nuance, maybe it didn’t translate right. It was a disheartening realization, the looming promise of a thousand lonely days on his horizon.

“You can play sulky all you’d like,” Dave said, standing again. Baby steps. He couldn’t push the troll to much in the beginning. Dave didn’t want to scare him off or this time start a real fight. “But you’re welcome to talk if you’d like. God knows its hella boring down here otherwise.”

The gab device did funny things to God, made it sound more like gog, but it seemed to catch the slang correctly.

“Isn’t there some hole you can crawl in and die?” Karkat said irritably, ripping out another batch of wires that squirmed like guts in his hand. “I’m kind of busy, you weird ass alien thing.”

So his translator was working correctly, ha! “Oh, I’m the alien,” Dave shot back, scoffing to hide his pleased smile. “Sure thing.”

“This is an Alternian ship,” Karkat defended, lip curled as he pointed a single claw at Dave. “That makes you the alien.”

“But according to this ship’s flight path,” Dave said, pushing just a little mainly because it was a core trait that formed the baseline of his personality. “We’re currently passing through Osrion starspace, so technically we’re both aliens.”

Karkat scoffed, huffing. He didn’t ask how Dave knew details of the ship’s flight path, instead he bragged. “We defeated those pathetic creatures ten sweeps ago. They could barely tell a warp core from a flux drive.”

“I’m assuming neither of which you’re currently busy mangling?” Dave asked curiously.

The troll’s eyes somehow got narrower, like the actual pupils had gone slitted. “Fuck off.”

“Fine,” Dave said, mock offended. “I was just trying to make conversation.”

This was the most he’d said aloud since he’d left Earth. Even with the translator in it was a blessing to talk with something. Damn humanity’s weakness for social contact. This would be much easier if Dave were a natural loner.

“Actually, about that,” Karkat said seriously, sliding the device and it’s disassembled bits into his sylladex so he could completely focus on Dave with his startling yellow-red eyes. “How the fuck do you understand me?”

“I learned Alternian from listening to intercepted broadcasts from your fleet,” Dave said, keeping the details non-existent. “It wasn’t that hard to grasp.” That was one of the only good things about the Empire. The Empress didn’t give a shit if Earth was able to listen in on fleet broadcasts. Praise unto speciest aliens for underestimating mankind as nothing more than dumb animals who’d done little more than discover fire and make it to their moon and back.

“But you can’t speak it yourself?” Karkat looked confused.

Dave lightly tapped the steel circlet embedded in his neck. “Sadly no, and not for lack of trying. Turns out human vocal anatomy isn’t cut out for your ass-backwards language.”

“Oh I bet earthling’s speak is just as awful and ass-backwards as Alternian,” Karkat said, actually looking interested. “Our language is stupid and everyone knows it. I don’t know why the Empress acts like it’s so much more superior when we’ve got 91 different variants of ‘cull them,’ and that’s just the ones with fish puns.”

Dave laughed and it sounded like a throaty rasp. Karkat’s head slowly tilted to the side.

“It’s some kind of translator,” the troll said decisively. “It has to be.”

“Yep,” Dave said. “I know a friend who was able to help me out with it.” Several friends, actually. All of them siblings. This time the homesickness didn’t feel as deep as it had been before. He could breathe through it without gasping.

“That’s illegal tech here,” Karkat said.

“Dude, I’m illegal as shit. Everything about me is illegal,” Dave said, shrugging. It was actually kind of funny to him. He’d never really considered himself a law-breaker before but look at him now. “There’s literally nothing worse I can do to your Empire that overpowers the fact that I have the audacity to exist.”

Something came over the troll’s face at the words. “I’m more than familiar with that fucking logic,” Karkat said coldly, and he turned away.

 

Day 46
Dave could only kick himself afterwards for his insensitive words. If anything, he’d chosen this. He’d volunteered to be the stowaway in voluntary exile a billion billion miles from home. Karkat hadn’t gotten to choose shit. Even with Dave’s knowledge about trolls he couldn’t string together any way that explained how Karkat had survived for so long.

Had he been here, hiding like a rat in the walls his entire life just to stay alive? The unfair realization made an equally unfair bolt of sympathy rise in him that Dave had to forcefully stamp out.

Mission first. Nothing else mattered- not even sad, lonely trolls in the walls that watched him with lidded eyes that half of the time had Dave convicted that he’d get murdered in his sleep. The other half of the time….

Yeah, Dave wasn’t going to think about the other half. Shit got too complicated then.

The bad news was as far as his ‘mission’ was concerned, right now he didn’t have anything other to do than stare blankly at the walls. ‘Patience,’ Rose had told him. Bluh. Patience was boring!

It wasn’t actually the boredom that ate at him. It was the silence. If Dave closed his eyes he could hear the sound of his own heart beating and it was unbearable. It was the only sound for miles, this small room a metal cell locked floating through the cold, vast emptiness between the stars on an alien ship filled with hostile forces. Like this, alone and so far from home, Dave couldn’t help the fear that crept up the back of his throat to coat his mouth with bile.

Once, mankind had made it all the way to the moon and spent the next fifty years celebrating that monumental achievement and here was Dave, stranded among the stars all on his own. He didn’t even have the words to describe the distance between him and Earth. It didn’t feel like victory. He had no flag to plant or land to claim. It felt almost like running away.

Dave had been expecting this. He composed music in the hours where he wasn’t sleeping or seeking out Karkat just to bother him. He wrote symphonies, sonnets, raps, a full-length orchestic masterpiece featuring the patterned hissing of the air vents and none of it was enough to fill the silence in his head.

But Karkat was. There was something about another living, breathing person that drove away the cluttered musings in Dave’s mind. Maybe he was lonely. Maybe Karkat was too. Maybe neither of them would ever, ever admit it, but somehow they stopped acting surprised whenever Dave stumbled across the troll or Dave caught Karkat tagging along behind him.

It made things easier even if they didn’t speak much. But things tend to start out small and here’s the fucking kicker- they take root and grow all on their own.

 

Day 85.
“What was it like?” Karkat asked him.

Dave stopped absently scratching out lyrics on a scrap of paper to look at the troll. He was lounging in some forgotten cranny on the spaceship further from his bolt hole than usual. They’d been avoiding questions. This fragile peace between them was built on nothing more than a shared unspoken agreement to not be lonely, or at least to be lonely together. Questions didn’t factor into the equation.

“What was what like?” Dave asked anyway, bracing himself to lie if the troll asked any of the hundred questions he should ask that Dave couldn’t answer.

“Growing up on your planet,” Karkat clarified.

As far as questions went, this one seemed pretty harmless on the surface. Dave considered the troll thoughtfully. “How much do you know about Earth?” He asked curiously.

“Nothing,” Karkat answered. “No one knows anything beyond what the HIC deemed important.”

“Which was?” Dave prompted.

Karkat looked away. “That it’s inhabitant species was to be systematically wiped out with extreme prejudice, as is law for all lifeforms outside of the Hemospectrum.”

A law which included the redblooded troll as a caveat, Dave knew. “I figured it was something like that,” he admitted, unsurprised. “Your Empress didn’t exactly do the whole ‘we come in peace’ schtik when she sent in the ground troops to genocide us.”

That part made the troll’s head snap up at the faint accusation, but he didn’t challenge Dave’s not-so-subtle jab. “Ground troops?” He asked instead, his eyes squinted and his voice low.

“The thresh corps and some annihilator blokes,” Dave said, carefully leaving out the fact that the first wave had been decimated in hours, as had each of the following waves.

“That’s not how that should have happened,” Karkat said, his brow furrowed. “She normally nukes the planet from orbit. A clean kill.”

Dave nearly swallowed his own tongue. That was news to him. “That sounds fun,” Dave lied, instantly thankful that things hadn’t gone to plan. Enough people had been killed without factoring in the HIC launching shit at them from space. “But I’m not surprised that it’s an erratic attack. She sent in trolls with swords to combat snipers and miniguns. That’s not any kind of smart no matter the species.”

The entire attack was backwards. Even now Dave couldn’t figure out what the Empress wanted.

Karkat winced.

Dave continued carelessly. He didn’t want to hurt the troll, but he wanted to make him understand. Dave couldn’t tell Karkat why he was here or what he was up to, but he could tell him this much. “It was a real bloodbath, ya know? Dead trolls everywhere, bleeding out fuckin’ rainbows. Turns out Hollywood had it right- send in a bunch of hostile aliens and the planet really gets its shit together just in time to kick some ass.” He didn’t say what had happened to the survivors. Trolls might not believe in mercy, but Dave did. So much life was wasted because Alternians, even wounded and captured Alternians, were for their Empress till the bloody end. Humanity hadn’t managed to keep even one of them alive for longer than a few days.

“I had no part in that,” Karkat defended himself, his voice hot. “I’ve never participated in her wargames.”

Dave shrugged, very carefully staring the troll down beneath his shades. “I never said you did.”

“You never answered my question,” Karkat shot back, glaring every bit as intense.

The moment burned between them until Dave smirked to himself and looked away. Karkat was a stubborn bastard- that much was certain.

“Warm,” Dave said, leaning back against the wall as his eyes closed. It felt weird to close his eyes with the troll still so close, but Dave knew he wasn’t in danger. “The sun was warm. The house was dark. My family was there. We had a lot of good times together.”

The translator in his neck absolutely butchered that- goddammit Hal, get your shit together. Hive-house/radioactive burning-hot/hive-lusis(?)spawn/hivering-will not compute-nonwar/peace-not alone.

Karkat looked like he got the gist of it, and thank fuck this language barrier wasn’t as impossible as it seemed. Dave would really owe Hal an apology when he got back to earth. “That sounds nice,” Karkat said, also leaning back, mirroring Dave’s relaxed posture. “Even if I don’t know what the fuck a ‘family’ is.”

“A family is your people,” Dave tried to explain, unwilling to wreck the first moment between them that didn’t feel balanced on a knife’s edge of maybe-violence. “They’re the ones that always have your back.”

“Like… quadrantmates?” Karkat sounded suspicious, like he didn’t believe in trust like that.

“Not exactly,” Dave said, dredging up what Dirk had told him about the troll’s quadrant square. “Family is something that starts with the people you’re born into. Parents. Siblings. Cousins. It grows from the people you choose to add in though, so yeah, like, partners can be family too. And strangers, friends. Your people, the ones you fight for.”

Maybe it wasn’t smart to voluntarily bring up people he’d fight for. It left him open to questions he didn’t want to answer.

“Do you have a family?” Karkat asked, curious. His luminous yellow/red eyes were wistful.

“A small one,” Dave said. “I’d do anything for them.”

He pictured Rose, Roxy, Dirk, Hal, John… everyone he’d left behind to play space explorer. Were they on earth looking up at the sky and imagining him between the stars? Did they think he was brave? God, Dave missed them so fucking much. It was a knife sent twisting into his core as soon as he let himself remember them.

“That actually sounds nice,” Karkat admitted. “To have people to trust.”

Dave looked at him, looked at the mutant red of the troll’s eyes and felt a pang run through his heart. “What about you?” he asked, sitting upright. “Do you have anyone out there? A quadrantmate or something?”

Karkat’s face and posture immediately became guarded. “Would you believe me if I said no?”

“No, I wouldn’t,” Dave answered. “I know there’s not a single fucking troll on this ship that would hesitate to rip your head off, but you can’t expect me to believe that you made it off your planet and onto this ship all on your own.”

Karkat looked away, his claws digging into his palm. “I had someone once,” he said. “I lost them.”

Dave didn’t react. It fucking hurt to have his hunch confirmed, but that was overshadowed by the staggering realization that the troll really was completely, utterly alone.

“I’m sorry,” Dave said.

The troll’s eyes flashed, his lip curling into a silent snarl. “No, you’re not,” he said, scathingly sarcastic as he threw Dave’s words back at him. “I’m the alien, remember?”

That was unfair, but hey, Dave got it. He’d pushed too hard and this was Karkat screaming back the fuck off. “That doesn’t mean I didn’t mean it,” he said, because he could never leave well enough alone.

“Fuck off!” Karkat snarled, the growl rippling through his chest until the room rattled with it. “I don’t want your fucking pity, you dense motherfucker. Back the fuck off me before I rip it out of your pale hide.”

So they were back to threats were they? Thank fuck- familiar ground! “You want to take something out on me?” Dave challenged, raising his chin. “This anger, this rage you feel? Well, I feel it too. I’m an alien, remember, Karkat?”

The troll growled again, louder as he bared his blunt fangs.

Dave continued without pause, knowing he was being equally as unfair as Karkat. “I know you’ve got some pretty fucked up issues but goddamn. What have I ever done to you?”

“Shut the fuck up,” Karkat hissed, and Dave could hear the scrape of claws against the steel floor. “Dave, why are you here? Why are you fucking here?”

Dave didn’t answer, ready to fight his way out of the troll lunged at him, his pulse pounding in his throat.

“You say I’ve got issues?” Karkat challenged, leaning in with a sneer like he was sharing a secret. “I’m not the one hiding on the alien warvessel. Why are you here, Dave?”

Dave didn’t move. He didn’t even fucking breathe.

Karkat snarled again, shaking like he was barely restraining himself from attempted murder. “Or should I ask how? How? How the fuck did you bypass all of the HIC’s security to get aboard the fucking AMPV [S] Destraddification class 9 Fleetship The Triptych’s Gamblignant when this ship hasn’t been within ten solar leaps of your small shitty planet? The TG is a cikillian ship! It’s designed to kill worlds!”

Karkat’s hand banged into the floor as he shifted his weight forward, his claws screeching against the hard floor. “How? Why? What the fuck are you planning?”

Dave looked the troll dead in the eyes. “I could ask you the exact same thing.”

Karkat moved a single inch closer, and Dave imagined killing him. He imagined how hard it would be for him to break the thick gray hide that covered the troll, imagined how bright his blood would look spilling across his hands. How it would sound to hear him choke on his next breath, his arm trembling with the phantom clash of sickle on sword that must have been no more than thirty seconds in Dave’s future. It was vivid and bloody, something in him brutal and unflinching as Dave stared at the troll that he didn’t really know and couldn’t dream of understanding. He’d kill him. He’d kill the troll if Karkat forced him to. He wouldn’t even hesitate.

Karkat froze like he could see exactly what Dave had imagined. The snarl was all he could hear- loud enough to drown out the sound of his own heartbeat. Dave was already making judgements, gauging the space between them, scanning the room for any advantages he could seize over a larger and certainly stronger opponent. It would be hard. Karkat wouldn’t die easily, he’d fight back. Dave would probably die as well, injured and left alone to bleed out and he’d never see his twin again or his brothers or tell D how sorry he was.

“Is it a bomb?” Karkat asked, his gaze hard as flint. “Some kind of doomsday device in your sylladex? Is that it? Kill yourself and as many of us as you can? Is that your brilliant fucking plan?!”

“If you truly thought I was carrying a bomb you’d have slit my throat in my sleep weeks ago,” Dave snorted, his voice unwavering. “You wanna try and get a piece of me, then step the fuck up. I dare you to try.”
Karkat looked at him, his eyes roaming over Dave’s impassive and cold face like he was trying to find an explanation hidden there.

“What the fuck are you?” Karkat asked, not quite begging. “You’re not a spy- you haven’t fucking done anything yet! You just sit back here doing nothing and it’s driving me crazy!”

Dave pulled two things out of his sylladex, slowly, making sure that the troll saw what he was doing. The first item was a sword, the second was a simple stick. As little as he trusted the troll right now, he didn’t actually like hearing that he was actively making life difficult for the guy.

Being trapped in space was hard enough without making unnecessary enemies.

Karkat hissed, drawing back his lips at the sight of the blade. The light flashed as he drew out two wickedly curved sickles, bunching up the lines of muscle in his arms as he drew himself upright, ready to fling himself forward.

“Wait,” Dave said, not lifting the weapon, not threatening with it. He tilted the flat blade down and set the sword across his knees as he lifted the stick. The low lights gleamed off of the paler scratches that littered the wooden surface. “See this?”

“Yeah,” Karkat answered, not daring to look away as Dave carefully, slowly, ground the length of wood against the edge of his sword. One wrong move would lead to blood. This was Dave’s only chance to save them both.

The small noise the blade made sawing at the wood was overwhelming in the confined space. Dave felt like he could hear each individual chink of sawdust fall to the ground as he cut a sloppy notch in the stick, a thin line identical to the dozens of other lines that covered the surface.

Karkat watched him with wide, fierce eyes. “What are you doing?”

“Counting,” Dave answered. “There’s this story we’d tell each other back on earth,” Dave said tracing the fresh line he’d carved. “About something that happened a long time ago.”

Karkat was still furious and on edge, but Dave could tell he was interested.

“There was this guy, Icarus,” Dave said. “He was trapped somewhere against his will with no hope of escape for something that he wasn’t guilty of. But he had his dad with him, a fucking genius who designed and built a tool for them to both escape with. He took his hands and built them wings made of wax so that they could fly away and be free. There was only one catch, his dad told him- don’t fly too close to the sun or the wax will melt and you’ll fall to your death.”

Karkat blinked slowly, catlike, as Dave went on. “They escaped with the wax wings and flew over the ocean to a place where they would be safe, but Icarus didn’t listen to his father. He’d grown to love the feeling of flying, of moving through the air under his own power and so he ignored his dad’s warning and flew too close to the sun. His wax wings melted, the feathers flaked off one by one as the wings his father had built for him to lift him up failed him and Icarus fell into the sea and drowned.”

Dave swallowed thickly. “It’s a warning tale about being too prideful, about reaching so high that you get burned in the end. Everyone one earth knows this story,” Dave said, leaning closer. “So now I’m going to tell you something that no one else knows. That cautionary fable about wax wings and falling due to pride- its bullshit.” Dave smiled, flipping the stick over to continue tracing every line he’d painstakingly carved into the wood. “Icarus never fell for pride.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Karkat asked quietly.

“Think about it,” Dave prompted the troll. “Imagine you were there. What would you do given wings to fly away from your prison on, the entirety of the world at your fingertips? Tell me, would you against all warnings fly too close to the sun just to prove you could do it?”

“This is stupid and pointless,” Karkat growled. “The sun is a massive ball of scalding radioactive hot gasses that would burn my fucking skin off until I died a slow and horrible death to rise as a daywalker,” he said, snarling. “There is no story where the sun isn’t a killer.”

“Call that a cultural difference,” Dave said, nonplussed. “It’s not about the fucking sun, Karkat.”

“Then what the hell is going on?” Karkat demanded. “Are you going to strife me or not?”

Was he really asking if they were going to kill each other? Like there was a way to choose differently?

“Not, I would think,” Dave said, making his choice, and slid his sword back into his sylladex. He held up the stick as a truce. “There’s exactly one hundred and six lines that I’ve carved into this stick. I carve a new one every day. It’s a record of how long I’ve been here.”

Karkat was smart enough to instantly read between the lines. “What are you counting down to?”

“The thing I’m waiting for,” Dave said, knowing it wasn’t an answer. “You accused me of doing nothing, and that was only partially right. I’m waiting.

“For what?”

“I’ll tell you if you tell me,” Dave offered, knowing Karkat wouldn’t call his bluff. “Why are you here, Karkat?”

“Fuck you,” Karkat shot back, “I’m here because I want to be.”

“Me too,” Dave answered. “I chose this.”

“Then you’re fucking insane,” Karkat said, standing up. “Whatever this is, whatever you’re doing- its insane and it will get you killed. Don’t come after me again. I’ve let us coexist for this long, but stay the fuck away from me.”

“Who are you fighting for?” Dave asked, prying mercilessly. “Quit it with the bullshit! I know you hate the Empress just as much as I do and I want one honest answer. I deserve that much.”

“You deserve nothing,” Karkat hissed, whirling around on him. “You think you get to know me just because you can understand my fucking language thanks to that metal divot lodged in your throat? You think you can lure me in with two kind words and forget everything else?”

Dave tilted his head to the side, studying the troll as he reached up and slipped his shades off his face. “You’re not the only mutant here, you know,” he said, blinking scarlet eyes as Karkat hissed like he’d been scalded, been wounded, as he flinched away. “You think I don’t understand what it’s like?”

Karkat glared at him, utterly betrayed. “Do not come after me,” he said at last. “Dave…”

“What?”

“I should have fucking killed you when I had the chance.”

 

Day 112
Dave stayed out of Karkat’s way after that. The isolation lasted long, drudging days that grated and ground against Dave’s nerves as he got the immense joy of being lonely in space again.

It was almost laughable. The miraculous one chance he’d had to not be alone and he’d fucked it up. There were still so many questions he had about Karkat, things that he burned to know.

Dave kept up his daily ritual of keeping track of the days. It was difficult to judge how much time was passing on earth with the speed the starship was travelling. He could count the hours on his end from the clock set in his shades, but time moved differently traveling near the speed of light. Hal had set up some equations to explain everything but Dave couldn’t quite make out all of the details. Roxy had been the one to drill in the correct number of days into his head over and over again. 413 individual 24 earth-hour days until mankind’s second D-day. So far only 112 days had passed. He’d reached the quarter mark and was no closer to his goal.

It was incredibly frustrating. The worst part was that he was completely cut off from what might be going on back home. Dave couldn’t help but imagine worse-case scenarios. Had the HIC upped attacks? Had earth already lost? Had the Alternian Empire bombed the planet until fire rained down as skyscrapers collapsed? Was his family alive?

Was Dave the only one left?

The unwelcome thought wrapped the corners of his mind with paralyzing fear, tight enough to strangle out the knowledge that if the earth had fallen Dave probably would have found out about it. This ship was noisy with its celebrations, after all. They’d fucking boast, smug bastards every one of them, tipping glasses of Faygo together to celebrate the downfall of the only planet in recent memory that dared resist the Empire and the Empress. He still wasn’t reassured.

The truth was so much could happen in 413 days. That’s over a year’s worth of opportunities for everything to go to shit.

Dave couldn’t help it. He opened Pesterchum on his shades just to stare at the familiar colorful chat log. All of his Chumroll entries were gray and inactive as he’d known they would be, but the painful kick of nostalgia his account’s homepage gave him was still strong enough to make his heart ache.

Dave laid back against the extremely thin bedroll he’d spread out in the corner of the cubbyhole he called a room and stared up at the ceiling, aware that he was probably thinking himself into a hole but unable to stop. His stomach was growling and his mouth was dry, but he had to make his stash of supplies last. Water wasn’t a problem; Dirk had designed a microwave-sized gadget that created water out of the air and vice-versa that he normally ran for a handful of hours every few days. Food was the problem. 85% of the storage space in his especially tricked-out sylladex was for the 413 days’ worth of food, since there was no way in hell he’d ever get away with skimping into the troll’s own stores. In a closed system like on the starship, even a glass of water would get reported missing if it vanished off of the register.

Plus there was the fact that Dave had to stay approximately 50,000 feet away from any inhabited area. The TG, like all Alternian vessels, was efficient and ran like an oiled machine. The abandoned spaces Dave inhabited were used for storage and equipment room- places that ran on their own without the need for troll supervision.

Dave had a full layout of the ship’s blueprints that Hal had gladly ripped from their systems and Dave spent the next few hours tracing the glowing hallways, the barracks, the huge open bellows of the engine rooms, and the endless artillery that formed the lungs and guts of the almost-living ship.

The Triptych’s Gamblignant was a huge floating fortress, a mobile chunk of the Intergalactic Alternian Empire bent on Her Imperial Condesension’s diabolical will. The ship was fucking huge. Even as obsessive as Dave was he couldn’t hold every piece of the massive ship in his memory, so he spent hours poring over the unfamiliar, alien designs to make sure he hadn’t missed anything important.

It felt good to get back to work after so long spent biding his time, but as the hours passed and he discovered not one weakness he couldn’t help but feel disheartened. He pulled up the other three ships logged into his registry and allowed himself for a single second to wonder if anyone else was having better luck than him.

Dave pulled a small computer out of his sylladex and scrolled through the hacking program Roxy and Dirk had coded for him to listen in on the ship’s communications. It was a closed Trojan horse, nothing more than an encrypted listening bug for the express purpose of being the unseen fly on the wall. Dave left it running silently in the corner. If the program picked up anything new or unusual he’d know, but for now he let the computer do its own thing. Technology wasn’t his strong point.

It was in the middle of his new Karkat-less journey that Dave might have been starting to lose his mind. It had been so much easier back when he thought he was alone, and now the realization that there was one other person he could be talking with if he could only somehow smoothen over the holes he’d blown through their tentative peace was killing him in inches.

Stupid- he’d been stupid! What was his pointless aggression worth now? More solitude? An isolated pat on the back for one-upping an alien?

Dave nearly considered tracking the troll down to wherever the hell he vanished too when he wasn’t in Dave’s line of sight, but that was a dangerous idea. They hadn’t parted on good terms and if startled Karkat might make good on his threats of severe bodily harm and/or death. At the end of the day, Dave rather liked having all of his limbs firmly attached to his torso.

So…No. Dave didn’t go after Karkat.

He told himself he was doing the right thing.

 

Day 130
Not that it mattered, because the troll ended up coming after him.

 

Day 131
Dave knew that Karkat was outside the makeshift door to his ‘room’ before the troll tapped his knuckles against the wall. He’d felt it, a subtle shift in the air, the feeling of eyes on his skin that let him now he was being watched. The troll might have been goddamn sneaky, but Dave had been schoolfed with the best of the best.

Karkat knocked and waited silently as Dave hedged his options past the irrationally ecstatic part of him that was sinfully glad for the troll’s presence. He tried to force his common sense back into the front seat of his brain.

“Yo,” Dave said carefully, “Since you’ve knocked politely I guess I should invite you in. Southern hospitality even in space- never let it be said that I’m not a good host.” He sat upright, tense even though if the troll had announced his presence he probably wasn’t going to immediately attempt murder. Maybe. Probably.

Karkat crept into the small room. The space instantly felt smaller with the troll inside. He could have touched both walls with his outspread fingertips and his body blocked the narrow exit. Dave was still on the floor in the most vulnerable position he could have possible been in. Karkat’s predatory eyes were gleaming in the dark, and he slowly chose a spot on the opposite wall and sank into a crouch across from Dave, putting as much space between them as he could.

“I haven’t seen you around recently,” Dave drolled, unsure why the troll was here but not wanting to chase him away again as he feinted nonchalance as his heart raced. “Have you found anything fun to do on this hunk of space metal?”

“No,” Karkat said, his face oddly blank as he brushed aside Dave’s attempt at diversion. His gaze was calculating as he studied Dave. He was still wearing the signless black shirt Dave had first seen him in and his wild black hair had gotten longer. The troll’s unusually small horns were almost invisible inside the tangled mess.

Dave raised his eyebrows, knowing that with his shades the troll couldn’t see the motion.

Apparently Karkat could interpret Dave’s expression well enough through the dark glass, because the next question out of his mouth was startling in its intensity. “Are your eyes really red?”

Dave tensed, acutely uncomfortable. Only an extremely small handful of people knew about his eyes and the thought of having an alien join that list was ridiculous, but that cat was out of the bag. Thank you poor impulse control. Rose would be so disappointed. “Yeah,” Dave said softly. “It’s a mutation on my planet too.”

Karkat peered at him like he could see straight through Dave’s shades. “But all humans bleed red,” he said, confused.

“Human eye color doesn’t match blood,” Dave explained, his skin itching like he could physically feel Karkat’s eyes brush across him. “If it does, like with me, it’s a mutation.”

“Is that… bad?” Karkat asked, his voice just above a whisper as he asked about the taboo.

Dave considered how to frame his answer. Was it bad? How could he explain a lifetime of avoiding sunlight, wearing shades indoors, and fielding mistrustful glances anytime his pale skin made his scars shine silver?

“Yes,” Dave said, sticking with the truth. “But do you mean physically or culturally?”

“Both?” Karkat asked, not the slightest bit embarrassed. His gaze had shifted into rabid, desperate curiosity.

“There’s a few physical side effects,” Dave answered, tapping the edge of his shades with his index finger. “Small things mostly, but they can really add up in the long run. The biggest thing is anyone who looks at me just knows exactly what’s wrong inside me. I can’t hide it.”

Karkat was enraptured as Dave continued.

“There’s this huge cultural stigma as well,” Dave said, uncertain now as he watched the troll take in his story. “Red eyes get linked to all kinds of bad shit, like being some evil demon freak of nature. I’ve been called some interesting names before, had a few bricks thrown at my head, but it’s nothing I can’t handle.”

Dave’s heart was already pounding out a staccato rhythm of fear. He hated remembering the past from before D and Hal had swooped in to save the four Strider kids from that shithole of a childhood.

“Did anyone ever try to kill you for it?” Karkat asked, equally as soft, and Dave’s throat was tight.

“Yes,” he answered, his heart in his throat. He knew exactly why the troll would fixate on that question and Dave coughed uncomfortably just to clear his trachea. The tightness didn’t go away. “A few times actually.”

Karkat blinked at him slowly with his bright scarlet eyes. The yellows of his sclera made the unnatural color stand out even more. The troll looked at the computer Dave had left open beside him, the lines of chatter-code clearly visible. “So you are a spy,” he said, unsurprised. He didn’t sound angry, just tired.

Karkat scrubbed at his eyes with his palms, signing. “I don’t get it,” he said, growling softly to himself. “You’re like me- a mutant. Our eyes are even the same, but you’re out here, alone, spying on the TG in this crazy suicide mission for a planet that wants you dead.”

“Earth doesn’t want me dead,” Dave explained. “It’s not like that.”

“Then what is it like?” Karkat asked, scoffing. “You said that people tried to kill you.”

“They have,” Dave confirmed, struggling to make the troll understand. “But I can count the number of the ones who wanted to or tried to hurt me on my hands. Those people, they’re the bad ones. You can’t blame an entire society for a few bad egg sociopaths that I know for a fact are dead now.”

Dave didn’t think about any specific sadist. He’d gotten really good at forgetting his Bro had ever existed.

Karkat’s mouth was hanging open, breathing open-mouthed as he wet his lips. “Your world doesn’t hate you for being different?”

“No,” Dave said, smiling gently. “Most people on earth, the 99.9% of them- they’re completely okay with mutants like me, or immigrants, or the disabled, or radical democrats. Mankind tends to work together- we look out for each other.”

“And these people aren’t part of your ‘family’?” Karkat asked, “They know, and they’re just… okay with it?” He asked, obviously confused.

“Well, yeah,” Dave said, shrugging. “Social pack mentality tends to work better when we’re not constantly at each other’s throats.”

“So that’s why you’re helping them?” Karkat guessed, gesturing vaguely at the computer. “You want to save your planet, not just your family.”

Dave kept quiet. The responsibility of saving his planet was a heavy burden but it was either that or roll over to the Empire and die like insects on the windshield of a fuchsia spaceship. He’d do this for his family and his planet without hesitation. He asked a question of his own. “Karkat?”

“What is it?”

“You know why the Empress is treating earth differently than other conquered worlds,” Dave stated. That part was a fact. If the HIC wanted them all dead she’d have lobbed the moon at them months ago and been done with it. There had to be a reason why she was holding off mankind’s annihilation and Dave would have bet that the troll knew the details. “Can you tell me?”

“Are you asking me to turn traitor to my race?” Karkat asked sarcastically, laughing. “Fuck it. Ask away, it’s not like I care.”

“Does that mean you know?” Dave asked excitedly, the prospect of actual fucking progress like a ray of sunshine. It was always cold and dark here. He missed the sky.

“Maybe,” Karkat admitted, leaning back again. “What’s your planet like? Minus your mammalian species, what’s so great about earth?”

“There’s animals and shit,” Dave said, not quite understanding. “Do you meant like gold? Metals and minerals?”

“Water,” Karkat clarified. “The HIC gets her rocks off a thousand different lifeless husks. Asteroids, meteors, comets- anything that we can catch we can mine. Gold isn’t fucking rare. Nothing is really.” The troll considered him, his brow furrowed with thought. “How much water do you have?”

“Is water rare?” Dave asked curiously. That didn’t make sense. Plenty of planets had ice, just look at Mars and Europa, but the HIC had bypassed the other water-bearing planets in his solar system to come straight for earth.

“No,” Karkat said. “But a life-bearing planet is. There’s a reason why she hasn’t cut your planet in half and carved her face into its core, but I’m still not sure about why. This hasn’t happened before.”

“Never?” Dave asked. This wasn’t good. The Hic wasn’t following her own patterns. The future of mankind was blind and left up to the whims of a genocidal fish alien.

“Not even once,” Karkat answered, cementing Dave’s growing concerns. “The HIC doesn’t fuck around. When the fleet finds life- they wipe it out. No exceptions.”

“But you know something,” Dave pressed, his fingers tight on his legs. In the corner, his computer whirred silently.

“Rumors,” Karkat said, looking away. “There’s been word for a few sweeps now that the HIC was looking to expand the fleet and expand her control. The problem is there’s a population cap of how many trolls she can file into her armies, and all trolls have a nasty habit of dying and killing and backstabbing all the time under her regime. My… a friend, said once that he thought the only solution was to start a second brood planet so that she could draw numbers from two planets instead of just Alternia.”

“Brood planet?” Dave asked, his gut sinking with dread.

“Tell me,” Karkat asked, still not looking at him. “How much of your planet’s surface is covered in saltwater?”

It hit him like a punch to the gut. He’d had the answer drilled into him since middle school, from prideful science teachers, history books, and Planet Earth documentaries all smug and awestruck at their own sheer good luck. Fuck, earth’s nickname was even the fucking Blue Planet. “Goddammit,” Dave hissed out, his heart racing. “That’s why she’s playing with us like this. She doesn’t want to harm the environment so she can turn our planet into a baby making factory.”

“How much?” Karkat asked, his expression pained.

“Over seventy percent,” Dave snapped, angry and afraid. Oh God, they were fucked. They were so fucking fucked. He ran his hands through his hair and resisted the urge to pull it out by the roots. “Shit. Fuck. Shitfuck Shit!”

“Does knowing change anything?” Karkat asked, still sarcastic though his voice was tinged with sorrow. “You’re still just as doomed as you were yesterday.”

Objectively, Karkat was right. Nothing had changed. In practice though, Dave was fucking pissed.

“Do you have any way to contact your planet?” Karkat asked carefully. “To at least let them know?”

Dave looked at the troll sharply, his suspicions flaring. “No,” he replied, equally as careful.

Karkat’s eyes widened. “Then what the fuck are you doing here?” He groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I thought you were a spy, but you can’t even contact your fucking planet? Dave, what the fuck? What the fuck!”

“I can’t tell you what I’m doing,” Dave said. “Not yet.”

“Yet?” Karkat asked sharply.

“Dude,” Dave said flatly. “I can’t exactly trust you.”

“Ha,” Karkat barked, slightly crazed. “Like I could ever turn you in and escape with my bloodpusher intact and not ground to dust underneath some seadweller’s heel.”

“I still don’t know what you’re doing here,” Dave reminded him. “Anyway I look at it, you should be dead a thousand times over.”

Karkat considered him again. It was the same searching expression he’d worn at the beginning of this convoluted conversation, except there was something more dangerous buried in his eyes. He slowly reached his clawed hand into his pocket- Dave couldn’t help how quickly his shoulders tightened in readiness for a weapon- and drew out a handful of small, acid-green pills. “I’m on a timeline as well,” Karkat said, extending an olive branch of information. “Do you recognize what these are?”

“Not in the faintest,” Dave admitted, taking a wild guess. “Drugs?”

“Sopor tabs,” Karkat answered, slipping them back out of sight. “I can’t exactly get sopor as a fugitive. The pills keep me quiet so I don’t draw the full wrath of the ship down on me during a night terror.”

Dave took a few seconds to process that and file the information way. “So when you run out…”

“I’ll be found within a few days,” Karkat confirmed, shaking his head. “Evolution is a cruel mistress and my species sucks ass.”

“How many do you have left? Dave asked, his skin prickling at the sudden realization that he couldn’t have the troll found by fleet members. It’d draw too much attention to where Dave was hiding, and they might be able to sniff him out of they started looking for other hideaways. God, what if Karkat ran out? Would that force Dave to kill him after all, just to save his own neck?

The passing notion made a sour taste coat his tongue.

“I have enough,” Karkat answered. “But its not a fucking endless supply. If everything goes according to plan I’ll be off the TG long before that becomes a problem.”

Dave could hear the lie for what it was. Karkat was too fucking expressive to hide anything. He didn’t have a poker face- he had a mirror to his every thought and smallest fleeting emotion that he wore on his overly-large sleeve.

Dave chose to let it go, for now. It was no use worrying about things that weren’t a problem yet. “Plan?” He asked instead, his interest flaring.

“It’s, I’m,” Karkat started still looking away as his cheeks flushed with color. “That, that friend I mentioned? The quadrantmate I lost?”

“I remember,” Dave said, carefully neutral.

“I didn’t lose them,” Karkat said flatly. “The Empire took them from me. I’m here to get them back.”

“Oh,” Dave sighed, leaning back again against all his better instincts. That… wasn’t what he was expecting at all. “Which quadrant?”

“Moirail,” Karkat said, fierce, like he was expecting rebuttal. “I’ve known him since I was five sweeps old, but something happened. I fucked up and he paid the price.” He looked away, morose and miserable.

“Is he alive?” Dave asked, carefully, not knowing how volatile the troll would get. Karkat was already grimacing.

The troll could hear the embedded question in Dave’s voice and he hissed, baring teeth. “Yes,” Karkat hissed, his claws screeching against the floor. “I know he is. The HIC is holding him captive aboard the TG. He’s probably being tortured as we speak, but he’s alive.” Karkat said that last part like a prayer, his hands clasped under his chin.

“Are you sure?” Dave asked, unwillingly doubtful. He knew the Empire wasn’t one to show mercy and if he was captured, Karkat’s moirail had probably already given up Karkat’s identity.

“I’m sure,” Karkat said, and it did sound certain. “I can’t tell you why I know he’s alive, but it’s true.”

That was fair; they could each keep their secrets. “And you’re here to rescue him?” Dave said.

“Yes,” Karkat said. “I know where he’s being held. I just need a way in and then a way out.”

“And where will you take him?” Dave asked, curious to know if there was any dark cranny in the universe obscure enough to hide from the Alternian Empire’s fleet.

“I definitely can’t tell you that,” Karkat replied, laughing helplessly. “It’s more than my pathetic life’s worth to know.”

“God, that sounds awesome,” Dave said, smiling as the translator switched God for gog again. He was caught up in the moment, imagining it. “Sweet, a rescue mission to snatch your platonic soulmate out of the HIC’s grasp. Shit Karkat, that’s fucking romantic. It’s like an action movie plot.”

Karkat was still blushing. It made him look younger and not so alien with the sharpness around his mouth softened.

“Okay, okay, wait, I have an idea,” Dave said, sitting upright all the way, every muscle tense. “You’ve got some star-crossed rescue thing you’re doing and I’ve got my own shit to deal with, but if you’re telling the truth I don’t see any reason why we can’t help each other out.”

“What?” Karkat said, still laughing incredulously. “Help each other? Me? You?” He laughed again, louder now. “This is ridiculous, it’s fucking ridiculous! My life has lost all sense and meaning and has dissolved into the plotline of some second rate action flick!”

“But imagine it,” Dave pressed, completely serious. “Why don’t we help each other? We both want the same thing- to save the people we love.”

“But I’m a troll and that makes me your enemy,” Karkat pointed out.

“I don’t have anything against trolls, just the HIC,” Dave protested, grinning like that should have been obvious.

“Okay, wait, give me a moment,” Karkat gasped, his shoulders still shaking. “I’ll fucking humor you. How would this work?”

“Maybe we can start by agreeing not to kill each other?” Dave said, only half joking.

“Sounds fair,” Karkat said, still smiling. “Gog, if Sollux could hear this he’d fucking die of laughter.”

“Is that his name, your moirail?” Dave asked curiously.

“Yeah,” Karkat nodded, his eyes watery. The troll quickly wiped away the liquid with his sleeve before Dave could remark on it, his voice warbling. “Shit, I miss that motherfucker so much it hurts.”

Dave couldn’t imagine one of his siblings in the HIC’s grasp. His mind instinctively refused to even entertain that idea and ripped up the dinner invite as soon as the mailman delivered it. There would be no entertaining ideas like that anytime soon.

“Hey,” Dave said softly, “Karkat, it’s okay. We can get him back.”

“I know,” Karkat said miserably, his voice choked as he sniffed. “It’s just hard. I can’t stand knowing that he’s on this fucking ship somewhere where I can’t get to him.”

“I can’t say I know what that must be like,” Dave admitted. “But I’m sure I can help. It’s not like I have anything better to do.”

Karkat opened his mouth- to protest or argue, Dave wasn’t sure. He continued. “I can answer some of your questions if you answer some of mine, just not right now.”

“Tomorrow?” Karkat asked.

“Tomorrow,” Dave confirmed. “This is the kind of game changer its best to sleep on.”

“I’ll agree to that,” Karkat said shakily. “I’ll find you tomorrow.”

“It’s a date,” Dave said, and Karkat snorted and flicked him off as he vanished back through the doorway, eager to escape before his emotions could overflow.

 

Day 132
Morning didn’t come because the sun was a million million lightyears away and Dave was locked in a windowless metal shell rocketing along at near the speed of light. The TG’s eventual destination was a fleet summit that the HIC herself would be attending with her notorious and mysterious flagship that Dave was determined to stay at least one entire galaxy away from.

Sometimes the overwhelming size of the universe astounded him. It just kept going on and on- and everything was under Her control. There was no safely found in the shadows.

That part was old, that nagging urge Dave had to look up at the stars and imagine what might have been hiding between them. He’d spent hours on a rooftop in Texas staring skyward, staring until the stars blurred together into a single brilliant streak of light hanging above him in the polluted city sky. Once he’d been foolish enough to look up and dare to think, hey, it’d be cool if we weren’t alone, but then the first ships had landed out of nowhere and suddenly London wasn’t a place that existed anymore. Or Jakarta. Or New Zealand.

She hit the islands first- a global attack mankind was totally unaware of until it was too late. The 100 million people body count made humanity open up its fucking eyes and stand the fuck up. Her attacks were efficient until NATO leaned to track their ship movements to predict attacks and started knocking ships out of orbit so that the few that reached the surface were met with entire pissed off armies of marines from multiple countries assembled for the express purpose of getting the fuck even for the loss of several major cities.

It still didn’t make sense that the Empress send out her ground troops armed with nothing but handheld bladed weapons. With Karkat’s info on her plans for a hatching factory on earth, Dave could get the not-damaging the environment thing, but this kind of careless genocide of her own was pointless.

A distressing thought was that the answer was as simple that the ground troops were all lowbloods and she simply didn’t care about getting thousands of them killed. That wasn’t cold or calculating- just uncaring.

Dave sighed and went off to look for Karkat. He’d never managed to find out where the troll slept, but in all honesty he never put much effort into looking and from how easily Karkat crept through the vents Dave was fairly certain the place was a bitch to get to.

He found the troll in the largest of the three empty spaces he knew about. Karkat was still fiddling with space machine parts and scowling as he wrote down notes in a sharp script that Dave couldn’t read.

“Hey,” Dave said in greeting, helpless to how his heart gave a squeeze when the troll’s head jolted upright and he returned Dave’s smile. “Are you ready to get to work?”

“It depends,” Karkat teased, clearly in a better mood than Dave had ever seen him in before. His eyes were practically glowing. “I want to know more about your family.”

“And I want to know more about this Sollux guy,” Dave answered. “You can go first,” he said, sliding down into a sitting position across from the troll as he brought up the ship’s blueprints again to check over them for the thousandth time.

“How many family do you have?” Karkat asked, the words translating oddly.

“I have four siblings,” Dave answered. The knob of steel in his throat changed siblings into hatch/brood mates, but it was close enough to work. “Dirk is the oldest, then there’s Roxy. Rose in my twin sister. Hal is… complicated, but he’s just as much my brother as Dirk. Then there’s D, who’s kinda like our uncle but not by blood because him and Bro weren’t related. I’ve only known D for a few years, he sort of adopted us all I guess? After the whole incident with Bro settled down he stepped up and became our legal guardian and all that jazz, get it so far?”

Karkat blinked at him slowly. “I understand almost nothing of that,” he said, frowning. “What’s an uncle? What’s a Bro?”

“Bro is a name,” Dave tried to explain in a way that wouldn’t send him into a panic attack. “He was our… dad, I guess? That’s also complicated, but long story short he’d hella dead now so D’s our new dad-dude, but we can’t call him that because it makes him feel old.”

“Your lusus is dead?” Karkat asked, latching onto the only part he could understand. “Shit, I’m sorry, Dave. That sucks.”

The troll sounded so heartbroken it nearly made Dave choke as he tried not to laugh. He couldn’t stop the small snicker that escaped him. “No it’s not like that. Bro was a piece of shit and we all hated the bastard.”

“You hated your lusus?” Karkat asked, not quite comprehending.

“We also killed him,” Dave said, still smiling. “Dirk and Hal did most of the work, but I also helped. I don’t regret it either.”

“Is it normal for humans to kill their lusus?” Karkat asked curiously, not too bothered by the fact that Dave had admitted to murder.

“It’s highly illegal and the police will come for you if you do,” Dave said, and suddenly he didn’t feel like laughing anymore. “Remember when I said people had tried to kill me before? Well, he was at the top of that list. It was self-defense.”

Karkat didn’t say anything.

“Now that you’ve got my tragic backstory,” Dave said, desperate to change the subject. “I’d like to know more about you.”

“Like what?” Karkat said. The troll was missing the context to keep going after Dave’s dead lusus. Abuse wasn’t a word Hal had programmed into the gab device.

“Like how the hell you survived getting off planet,” Dave clarified.

“That was Sollux’s doing,” Karkat said, smiling faintly at the memory. “He’s a hacker, a fucking good one too. The Empire would shit its pants if they knew how he could fuck things up for them. He’s the one who forged my Ascension papers and got me off planet.”

Dave raised his eyebrows behind his shades. If this troll was sneaky enough to get away with smuggling Karkat off planet then he must he a fucking haxxor wizard, to quote Roxy.

“My siblings are hackers,” Dave said. “I’m not though. They’re the ones who got all of the computer smarts.”

“Sollux is… he’s great,” Karkat continued, blushing with embarrassment. “It was a bit of a shock for him when he found out I was a mutant, but he took it in stride. He’s the one motherfucker I’d trust anywhere.”

“So, naturally, you’re here to rescue him,” Dave said.

“Duh,” Karkat scoffed, then said with quiet certainty, “I know he’d do the same for me.”

Dave took a second to swallow around the lump in his throat. “Is he the only other troll that knows about you?” Dave asked curiously, still trying to piece together bits of information about the troll’s life.

“No,” Karkat said, and his eyes gleamed as he bared his teeth. “There’s one other troll who knows.”

From the way that Karkat’s claws were digging into his hands Dave had the notion that this other troll wasn’t a friend. “He tried to kill you, didn’t he?” Dave hazarded. It seemed a fair guess.

“He did,” Karkat confirmed, looking away. “He nearly succeeded. He, Gamzee… he was my moirail before Sollux. He didn’t take finding out my bloodcolor nearly as well.”

Dave sucked a breath between his teeth in a shallow hiss. Yikes.

“Gamzee’s out there, somewhere,” Karkat said, fiddling with his fingers. “I lost him to the church long before I failed at being a good moirail. Losing him was just the last step on a long list of failures. In the end I couldn’t calm him down even to save my own worthless life,” Karkat snorted, growling softly to himself. “He’s a Subjugglator now and I’m certain he platonically hates me. That huge idiot crawls out of his sopor every day praying for the chance to rip me limb from limb.”

Double yikes. “Damn,” Dave said, unsure of what else to say. What was there to say in a situation like this? “That’s fucked up.”

“Yeah,” Karkat breathed, shrugging. “But it’s in the past. I’m not a wriggler anymore. I’m not going to let the HIC take Sollux from me.”

“How did she nab him?” Dave asked, straightening up as his question turned serious.

“It was my fault,” Karkat said. “I was poking around online where I shouldn’t have and tripped a censor. The blame fell on him because it was his husktop I used- the charge is treason. The TG’s taking him to her flagship as we speak. He won’t be having a good time but they won’t dare kill him unless the HIC orders it personally… She always likes to keep her traitors as playthings for a while to send a message.”

That was a dark idea. “Shit’s fucked up,” Dave confirmed. “What were you looking for?”

“Uhh,” Karkat said, scrambling for an answer that Dave knew would be a lie. “A banned movie? What? I like troll Will Smith. It’s not my fault he was executed for hiding cultist propaganda in his films.”

Yep, definitely a lie, but the answer was ridiculous enough that it made Dave chuckle. “You were busted for looking up banned Will Smith movies?”

“I never said I was proud of it,” Karkat defended himself. “I just have to set it right.”

“So where do we start?”

“Let’s find out what we know,” Karkat said, and he flipped around a husktop, its screen incomprehensible with Alternian script.

“Sounds like a plan,” Dave said, and they got to work.

 

Day 165
Things started slow. Two weeks crept by as they sketched out a murky schedule between them. In the ‘mornings’, they’d work on what they named “the Sollux Problem”, and in the afternoon’s they’d swap stories about their home worlds.

Dave learned that Karkat’s lusus was a giant white crab monster who only spoke in bone-splitting shrieks and while growing up his best friend had been a blind lawyer with a bad habit of licking things she shouldn’t. He also learned that Karkat lost track of all of his friends after Ascension and felt bad about that but didn’t know what to do about it.

Dave told him about growing up in Austin, about learning how to handle a sword, about arguing with his twin by trying to out-stupid each other. He recounted his stunned awe at talking with Hal for the first time, still half-convinced that Dirk was fucking with him until the red words eagerly chatted back.

“What are you up to now?” Karkat complained, lounging across from Dave like he always did but this time closer than he’d let himself be yet. The shortened distance between them was doing funny things to Dave’s chest that he studiously ignored.

Dave set aside his computer. He’d been mixing music again and he had to shrug his headphones off to hear the troll clearly. “On earth my job was to make music,” he said, tapping away at his keyboard. “I miss it sometimes. I get an itch in my fingers that I can’t scratch and my ears ring. It only stops if I get back to, like, my normal work.”

“Music is your job?” Karkat asked, scrunching up his face in distaste. “That’s a profession?”

“Don’t try to bullshit me I know trolls have music,” Dave snapped back, half-focused on the track scratch he was working on.

“We do,” Karkat answered, “But that’s a job for entertaimenacers and ringleaders- Flashy TV HIC approved bullshit. Its soulless drivel spoon-fed to the panless masses.”

“On earth, music can be a rebellion,” Dave told the alien, longing for his turntables to really get this beat he heard in his heart jamming. “It’s for the heart- not the mask you wear over it. Music’s the truth you feel inside.”

“That is the single most pretentious thing I’ve heard you say so far,” Karkat groaned. “And I’ve had to deal with more than my fair share of your mysterious human fuckery.”

“Karkat, I am an artist and I’m insulted,” Dave pouted, seized with an idea. “Before you judge my shit, why don’t you listen to something first? Either you’ll like it and I’ll accept whatever handwritten apology you see fit to draw up in my honor or I’m handing you free ammunition to violate my chosen profession even further using actual details for your verbal cannon fodder.”

Karkat shifted forward, considering the offer. “How?”

“Here,” Dave said, reluctantly removing his headphones from his neck. They stayed plugged into his computer, but he offered the headset to the troll one-handed. “Put these on.”

Karkat eyed the headphones like they’d reach out and bite him.

“Dude, seriously?” Dave said, shaking them at the troll and smirking a challenge. “If I was out to get you headphones would so not be the way to go. Besides, these were a gift from Roxy.”

The troll hesitantly reached out and took the headset. His fingers brushed against Dave’s with the short motion and Karkat snatched his hand away like it’d burned.

Dave didn’t remark on the gesture, focused on which track of his Karkat might like. He chose “fall from grace” and set it at the beginning and hit enter as Karkat maneuvered the headset on, taking care to avoid knocking them against his horns.

The troll jumped a little when the sound started, but he quickly leaned closer, curious about what was going on across Dave’s computer as he adjusted the volume and reverb.

“See?” Dave said, moving the bars with the touchpad so that Karkat could hear the change they made. It was getting harder to focus with the troll so close. Dave could feel him breathing.

When the song was over Dave let it switch to the next track- “anthem of yesterday.” He could feel how Karkat liked this one better- he could see the troll’s fingers twitching to the beat. It started slower, then built into a racing beat that always twanged bittersweet in the end. He followed that one with the track he wrote while on the Triptych Gamblignant -“stars.”

“How many of these do you have?” Karkat asked, breathless, holding the earpiece close to him. He was now sitting directly beside Dave. The heavy tension he wore across his shoulders like a mantle was fading, giving way to a loose relaxation as he crowded closer to get a better look at Dave’s computer.

“A few dozen,” Dave answered, shrugging to hide how fucking aware he was of the troll beside him. He couldn’t turn it off or stop noticing the little things like how the skin around his eyes pulled tighter as his pupils narrowed and then widened again, dilated in the gentle half-light that Dave’s monitor gave off.

“And you wrote these?” Karkat asked incredulously, his gorgeous red/yellow eyes wide.

“Yes, I did,” Dave answered, fighting back an embarrassed blush. “What do you think of them?”

“I…” Karkat trailed off as Dave started the next track. This one was different, this still- unnamed song was raw and pulsing, like fire and searing void woven together. “Wow,” the troll said, completely breathless.

For the first time, Dave felt like the troll really looked at him and saw who he was, like he’d stared straight through Dave’s shades and found the heart of him hidden underneath the mound of secrets and human bullshit he used to deflect genuine attachments with other living beings. It was almost like Dave had set his hand on a live wire. He wasn’t used to being seen, much less being looked at like he was worth something, like Karkat had found a piece of him buried within his music and was intrigued enough to want to explore deeper to see exactly how far this streak of honesty would go.

It was too much and not enough all at once. Dave looked away first, his lips trembling until he bit them to cover up how fucked up his reactions were. His ears were ringing.

“What’s this song’s name?” Karkat asked as the final bars began to dwindle like rain falling in the dark.

Dave opened his mouth to explain that he hadn’t named this track yet, but instead he said, “It’s called ‘grief’.”

Karkat made a face at that. “But it doesn’t sound sad,” he pointed out.

“It’s not meant to,” Dave answered, and Karkat laughed at that, and Dave sat there trying to convince himself that this wasn’t the beginning of the end as Karkat’s laughter rang in his ears.

He failed, and Dave numbly accepted his headphones back from the troll. He couldn’t help but to notice that this time Karkat didn’t jerk his hand back when their fingers brushed together. The skin there burned and his touch lingered like it had soaked into the divots between Dave’s fingerprints.

“So,” Karkat said, like this was normal, like there wasn’t this unspoken thing burning between them. “I’ll see you again tomorrow?” he ended the question hopefully, gauging Dave’s reaction.

“Sure,” Dave said, his time-tried and expected response conveying a new weight now. “It’s a date.”

 

Day 180
Dave didn’t sleep that night. He was afraid he’d dream of Karkat.

This was the point where he had to start accepting the solid fact that the impending lengthy solitude of his stay at case del TG had finally gotten to him, because all indicators pointed squarely to the fact that Dave was crushing on his alien co-stowaway.

What the fuck?

He couldn’t be crushing on the alien, right? Like that wasn’t objectively a thing that could possibly be happening?

Except that it totally was.

What the FUCK!?!?

Dave sat upright on his floor bed and scrubbed at his eyes hard, cursing under his breath. He needed to get his priorities straight.

Number one- Karkat would never be interested in him. No longer being outwardly hostile didn’t equal affection. It was simple math.

Number two- In exactly 233 days Dave would leave this ship and never see the troll ever again. It was simple math. Dave was going to leave and not look back.

Number three- He had a mission to complete, a mission with one single purpose. Dating a member of the enemy didn’t factor into the equation. The entire earth was counting on him. He couldn’t afford to be distracted. Again, this was simple math.

But even after tallying everything together Dave couldn’t make the facts line up because his heart was stupid and irrational. Fuck pack-bonding social species bullshit! He didn’t want to deal with this!

The most important question was for how long had this been going on? How long had Dave been purposefully been seeking the troll out, letting himself get closer, get drawn in, get distracted? How long had he been compromised?

Okay maybe he was going crazy. Was that, like, bad? It’s not like he was attempting something sane in the first place. Maybe going crazy wasn’t exactly a negative thing.

This was so frustrating and he couldn’t do anything about it except stare at the same pale gray ceiling he’d been looking at for far too fucking long.

Dave couldn’t help it. He tried to Pester Rose.

turntechGodhead (TG) began Pestering tentacleTherapist (TT) at [time unknown]!

TG: hey rose
TG: your icon is gray and hasnt not been gray since i left
TG: do you miss me?
TG: because i sure as fuck miss you and im starting to think that this whole stupid fucking plan might have been a mistake
TG: not that i don’t believe in the plan
TG: im just not the right person for it get it ok we were morons to believe that i could ever do this on my own
TG: rose???
TG: im not alone here
TG: ok im not alone and that was the one thing we never covered in all our training and planning
TG: and
TG: i don’t know what to do anymore
TG: im so fucking confused rose you would have a field day in my head rn im every budding phycologists wet dream
TG: i think i like him
TG: now does that make me a traitor or just a soldier with conflicted interests?
TG: jesus maybe i am crazy what am i doing youre never going to answer me no matter how much i ramble and drop these juicy hints youd be frothing at the bit to get ahold of why am i even wasting good material like this
TG: anyway forget everything i just said not-rose
TG: …
TG: bye i guess
TG: i miss you sis

Dave tore off his shades and flung them down beside him, wiping at his eyes as he sucked in his breath. He was an idiot- he knew Rose would never get his desperate attempts at communication. He was half a galaxy away from her and anyway Dirk had disconnected his shades from Pesterchum before he’d left so that the TG couldn’t pick up on any strange signals the tiny computer gave off.

He was yelling into the darkness for an answer even though he knew he’d get nothing back.

That didn’t make it hurt any less, which only made him want Karkat more because Karkat would make him feel better (and not so lonely) and that realization was hurting more than helping because Dave was caught in some kind of vindictive positive feedback loop that was intent on making him suffer.

He tried to go to sleep. Morning was a long way away.

 

Day 191

Dave rendezvoused with Karkat again and put the word ‘date’ out the back of his mind. This wasn’t a date- it was a battle planning party and nothing more. Dave had met with Karkat like this a hundred times by now. It wasn’t a date and Dave choked out the little voice in his head telling him that it was.

This time, Karkat actually showed him what he’d been working on. The device he kept assembling and then disassembling in his ritual let-go of nervous energy was apparently some kind of automatic lock pick- a door breaker with an electronic key. Dave had watched the troll tear the thin device apart and then piece it back together again enough times he would have bet that Karkat could have done it with him eyes closed. “It’s hard to tell if it’ll work until I use it,” Karkat admitted. “The frequencies have to match exactly.”

There was an obvious problem with that plan, and Dave couldn’t help but point it out. “If he’s in some cell, how do you know that the frequencies aren’t changed every so many days?” Dave asked, staring at the tiny device held so tenderly in Karkat’s hands with dread. The more he learned, the more impossible Karkat’s mission sounded.

“The codes are changed every hour and never reused,” Karkat shrugged, sharing a wicked grin. “I don’t need to know the code- this thing listens and then copies whatever frequency the door is currently keyed to. Sollux invented them before…”

Dave stared at the device again, this time with surprise. “Are you telling me that your fancy lock pick is supposed to open any door on this ship?” His translator stumbled over the word lockpick, and Dave couldn’t quite make out what Alternian the device used to get the idea across.

“Yes,” Karkat said proudly, clearly understanding Dave’s still faulty alien-speak. “How did you think I snuck aboard?”

That actually didn’t answer any of his questions, but it was enough to get him interested. “So it works?” Dave asked curiously, wondering if there was some way he could fit the lock pick into his own plans. He wasn’t in need for a door breaker but it certainly might make things easier.

“It has so far,” Karkat explained, still fiddling with the exposed wiring in a nervous way. “But I’ve never tested it on anything with security this tight. Sollux is being held in the most secure location on this ship. My entrysnipper hasn’t been used on any gate or doorway higher than a level 5.”

“And you said Sollux invented this?” Dave asked, rocking back on the toes of his feet to sway in place. His back and shoulders were tight with irritated nerves. He hoped the movement would help soothe the faint burning.

“My moirail is a genius,” Karkat said, still prideful as he dwelt on his missing friend. “That’s not some fucking exaggeration either. That’s why I fucked everything up- he already had a bounty on him. Clearly the Empire didn’t know about me, but they suspected he was hiding something.”

“So you get in using that thing, break him out, and then what?” Dave asked, prying. “I might not know much about Alternian tech, but I know once you break him out some alarm will sound and they’ll come down on you and come down fucking hard. How will you get away?”

“I can’t answer that,” Karkat said, looking away as the device vanished back into his sylladex.

“You have to have an escape plan,” Dave told him. Logically, that was the next incredibly vital step that could not be missed. Get in, get out- that was how these things worked.

“And I do,” Karkat snapped, his temper running short again.

“So… what is it?” Dave asked, trying to dial down his instinctive sarcasm to avoid death-by-Karkat.

“Like fuck am I telling you,” the troll sneered. “Why are you so interested? Are you stuck here too? Is that why you want to know?”

Dave felt his heart skip as he zeroed in on the key word the troll had let slip. “Karkat,” he said slowly. “Are you stuck here? You just asked if I was stuck here too.

“What’s it to you?” Karkat said, worn out and thin with stress. “What if I don’t have a way out? So fucking what? They haven’t found me or you hiding down here. They won’t notice another person either.”

“That’s not a plan,” Dave pressed, shocked that the troll would be so casual about this and trying to make him see sense. He knew they’d tear the ship apart looking for Karkat and Sollux if the prisoner went missing. Trying to remain hidden was a death wish. “Look, Karkat, I get that he’s your moirail but you can’t throw yourself away in some kind of suicide mission on a half a prayer and a fancy lock pick that might not even work.”

“Fuck off,” Karkat growled, baring his blunt fangs menacingly. “It’s none of your business.” Then, quieter. “It’s not like you’re doing anything different. Don’t you dare to lecture me about escape plans when you’re the one doomed to die on this rotten fucking ship.”

That last part hurt. It sounded like the troll was torn up by the idea of Dave dying alone in space and the part of his heart that was harboring his crush seized Karkat’s tone of voice as ammunition. Did the troll actually care about him? Was he sincerely worried? Dave swallowed thickly. “Karkat,” Dave said, 100% serious. “I’m not here to kill myself. I have a way out.”

“Impossible,” Karkat snorted, turning away. “Everyone knows humans don’t have space travel and we’re 400,000 solar leaps away from your planet.”

“Humans have their ways,” Dave said mysteriously, hating the fact that he couldn’t come right out and tell the troll everything.

Karkat narrowed his eyes, and Dave quickly interjected a question to turn the subject before things took a nasty turn. “Why are you risking so much to save him?”

“Would you do the same for your family?” Karkat asked, still pissed off and looking for something to take it out on.

“Of course,” Dave answered, hating how easily the troll had seen through his attempt at distraction. “But they wouldn’t let me save them if they thought I wouldn’t make it out.” He was officially a hypocrite. Somewhere back home Rose just got a stabbing pain in her side and shook her fist at the sky. The bittersweet thought nearly made him laugh into the tense atmosphere.

Karkat grinned knowingly. “Sollux would kick my ass if he knew what I was doing,” he agreed. “But I still have to save him. I have to,” the troll swore, his eyes tearing up with red. “I couldn’t save Gamzee from becoming what the Empire wanted him to be and I’m not losing Sollux to them either.”

The troll angrily wiped at his eyes, too strong to let himself cry.

“Hey,” Dave said, reassuring him. He didn’t like to see the troll upset. He hated how his shaky breaths sounded when he was holding back tears. “I said I’d help and I meant it. If you say you have a plan I’ll believe it, but if you don’t I can help if you let me.”

The troll said nothing. Neither did Dave. They still had too many secrets between them that couldn’t be said out loud.

“Tell me something else then,” Dave said, desperate to get through to the troll. “Why Sollux?”

“Only if you tell me what you’re counting down to,” Karkat countered swiftly.

Dave grimaced. “You aren’t going to let that go are you?” He said, their back and forth game turning serious.

“Nope,” Karkat said, then, “Tell me why you killed your human lusus.”

Dave’s face jerked up to meet the troll’s gaze, nearly flinching from the unexpected question. Karkat raised his thick eyebrows, obviously catching Dave’s instinctive wince.

“He was a piece of shit and he tried to kill me,” Dave said, his face and voice completely smooth. It was an automatic response he’d honed after years of pestering police and judges and grim-faced authority figures. “What other reason do you need?”

“You care about him, don’t you?” Karkat said, squinting at him until his brow furrowed. “I can tell that you did. I know killing him hurt you deeply even if you don’t regret it, but I don’t know why. Why the fuck did you care about him if he was a danger to you? Why do you carry this guilt?”

Dave wanted to laugh. This same question was one of the things that kept him up at night. “Because humans are stupid, contradictory creatures,” he said, copping out with the vague response as he internally freaked out that the troll had been able to so easily guess exactly what he’d been thinking. Goddammit, he felt seen again. “And it’s not guilt.”

“Then what is it?”

“Regret.”

“Regret and guilt mean the exact same thing,” Karkat argued, and in Alternian maybe that was true and the translator in his neck ran a blank when asked to find a word for remorse, but Dave felt the two separate emotions very differently. Regret was something he felt for himself- guilt was for everything else.

“Maybe it’s a human thing,” Dave answered, clinging to his false sense of calm. “Maybe it’s because I don’t want to be paralyzed by the reality that I killed my fucking father and I don’t regret it.”

This time Karkat winced, sensing he’d pushed too far. “I’m sorry,” he said, and he sounded like he meant it but he still kept talking. “But it’s not like that for trolls. We kill each other all the time and half of us don’t even try to formulate an excuse. Feeling bad about killing someone just doesn’t make sense, especially if he tried to kill you first.”

“What would you do if your lusus tried to kill you?” Dave asked, flipping the situation on him. “What if it was your lusus and not another troll and you had to kill them? Would you feel bad about that?”

“But I wouldn’t kill my lusus,” Karkat said, his eyes widened in humor like the very idea was ridiculous, “because it would never try to kill me. Lusii can’t attack their wrigglers- that’s not what happens.”

“It’s not supposed to happen with human parents either,” Dave said. “But it did.”

“Lusii don’t hurt their charges,” Karkat said, but slower this time, like he was considering the idea. “But if mine did…”

“Would you still care?” Dave asked gently.

“I would,” Karkat answered, his eyes wide as he realized what Dave was hinting at. “Fuck it, I would care about killing Crabdad. I’d… regret it even if it was self-defense.” The troll shuddered as if he were imagining it. “That’s what you went through?”

Dave didn’t want to see the pity in the troll’s eyes, so he brushed of the question and asked another. “You named your lusus Crabdad?” Dave said, snickering despite of the somber mood.

“Shut the fuck up, I’m answering your stupid question,” Karkat snarled, but it wasn’t a serious sound. It was… teasing? Playful even? The troll leaned back again, relaxing. He looked more comfortable in Dave’s presence then he’d ever been, with not even a hint of a snarl hiding on his face.

For just a second it felt like they were friends. Karkat already knew him better than anyone that wasn’t blood. Dave tried to drown out the part of him that wanted more, struggling to be content with just this.

 

Day 216.

Dave wasn’t sure how much more he could take. Liking Karkat felt like looking at the ground from high up and judging if the fall would be enough if he fucked things up.

 

Day 225.

Dave went back to find Karkat. The troll was waiting outside of his room, sitting cross-legged on the floor with his husktop to the side as he scrubbed ferociously at his heavy-lidded eyes.

Dave felt his blood run cold. Karkat didn’t know he was there, and the open screen of the alien computer showed an achingly familiar outline that he wasn’t supposed to have seen. He should have looked away, but he didn’t. Dave knew that room. He knew it so well he saw it in his sleep.

“Karkat,” Dave said slowly.

The troll jumped at Dave’s voice, his hand flying out to automatically slap his monitor closed. But the damage had been done. “What?” The troll asked, still trusting and open. He didn’t know what had just happened, that everything had just changed.

Dave wasn’t sure what his face was doing. He felt frozen. “Karkat,” he said again. “Why are you looking at blueprints for a Helmsblock?”

Karkat’s face instantly slammed shut, his eyes narrowed. The troll was suddenly careful but not willing to let it show. “How the fuck do you know what a Helmsblock is?” He asked. “Not even trolls talk about those.”

Dave was rapidly putting the pieces together on his own. Karkat’s odd defensiveness, the way he struggled to brush this off, that damning flash of pain in his eyes.

“Karkat,” Dave said. He wasn’t sure why he couldn’t stop saying his name. “Sollux is a goldblood, isn’t he?”

The troll froze, breathing deeply, instantly cautious. “Would it change anything,” he whispered, “if I said yes?”

Dave said absolutely nothing. His mind was racing, a collision of black holes set to self-destruct on impact. “No,” he lied.

Karkat hissed in a sharp breath. He didn’t catch the lie, Dave was too good at concealing things for that, instead he looked torn. “Dave?”

“What?”

“What if Sollux is more than just a goldblood?” Karkat asked, still uncertain of Dave’s reaction as he made the choice to trust him. Ha! Trust, the one thing Dave wanted more than anything from the troll, given 15 seconds too late to matter. “What if he’s a psionic? Do you even know what that means?”

Dave closed his eyes. Yes, he knew exactly what that meant, and everything made awful sense now. Of course. Of fucking course. Nothing so far in his life had ever not fucked him over, so why not this as well?

“I know what it means,” Dave answered, short and crisp, not able to say more, his heartbeat pounding in his ears in a deafening rush. Don’t say it don’t say it don’t say it.

“I’m here to save him,” Karkat said, stubborn to the end. He didn’t know that Dave felt like he was falling. “I’ll stop at nothing to save him from the Empire.”

“What is he?” Dave heard himself ask through frozen vocal chords. The translator at his neck buzzed. He wanted to claw at it. He could feel the coldness of the steel pressing into him.

“Those motherfuckers,” Karkat snarled, claws squealing against the floor. His eyes were facing down, staring at the floor. “They… they fucking helmed him, okay? Is that what you want to hear? He’s the ship’s Helmsman.”

“Oh,” Dave said faintly. “He’s the Helmsman.” It made so much sense now. Dave was a fucking idiot for not have seeing it sooner. Maybe if he had then he could have braced himself for the blow that came next.

“Why do you even know what that means?” Karkat asked curiously, still not looking up. “Why do you care about Helmsmen?”

“Because,” Dave said simply. “I’m here to kill him.”

It took a few slow, agonizing seconds for the troll to process his words, to decide that the translator had indeed correctly spoken that fatal sentence, and when he’d decided, when Karkat understood, Dave saw the instant his eyes snapped up to meet his.

Dave stared coldly back, his jaw set in a hard line.

A heartbeat passed, and then a snarl ripped out of the trolls mouth, fang bared and eyes furious as he drew his strife specibus and lunged at Dave. The switch from friendly to murderous was instantaneous. It was fucking effortless, graceful and beautiful, the troll falling and landing hard into his species natural state of being.

Dave barely got his sword up in time to block the blow, and the strength behind it drove his arm back so that his own sword nearly cut him before his mind jumped into overdrive. The twin sickles shone in the low light, the metal razor-sharp and so close Dave could see the shadows of his eyes beneath his shades reflected in the blades where they hung four inches from his face. His arm shook from holding off the troll and when the breath exploded out of him he caught the glint of condensation trail itself across his sword where it was saving him from being decapitated.

The suddenness was shocking, the total, complete viciousness, no holds barred- Karkat was serious.

This fight was real. The troll was trying to kill him. Karkat was going to kill him.

Dave couldn’t afford to let that happen.

He let himself move with the troll, rolling back on his feet to get out of range, knowing that he couldn’t hold back the vicious alien for much longer. Karkat had the strength to break him, but Dave had speed on his side as he flashstepped backwards to safety.

The troll stumbled when Dave pulled his secret trick and vanished. Karkat growled, his face twisted into something horrible as he relocated Dave and quickly moved in again, sickles flailing fast enough to blur. Damn, the troll was fucking fast. He was too close all too fast.

Dave wasn’t used to fighting someone who fought two-handed, and he’d never considered the curving scoops of what he thought of as farming equipment to be so deadly. He had to make lightning quick judgements to stay away from the double-cut of the troll’s chosen weapons.

Dave made the fatal mistake of trying to block the troll a second time, vying for something different than the sparking clash of steel on steel they’d traded fast for the first few seconds of the battle. He was getting nowhere fast and he didn’t think he had the endurance to keep this up forever. When he got his sword up to block the next hit Karkat expertly snapped his second sickle around and caught Dave’s blade between the curved hooks of both of his. With an earsplitting crack, Dave’s blade shattered and he was left holding onto a hilt with nothing more than four dull inches of broken steel protruding from it as he elegantly danced himself directly into the troll’s trap.

Get away, his mind screamed at him as he stared stupidly at his broken weapon, right before Karkat struck him in the chest with the flat edge of a sickle.

The blow took away his breath as it drove him to the ground. His head hit hard against the back wall as he stumbled and he saw stars. Karkat followed relentlessly, every bit as light on his feet as Dave even without knowing how to flashstep, instinctively guessing that Dave couldn’t blur out of his sight without his feet under him as Karkat harshly kicked out Dave’s legs.

Dave tried to roll, desperate to keep evading but the wall was at his back and there was nowhere left for him to run. He hit the floor, ducking under a slice that would have slit his throat. In response, Karkat palmed the back of his head and forcefully dropped his face into the cold ground.

Dave’s nose crunched wetly, pain exploding behind his eyes. His shades snapped at the bridge and fell off when he fell to the side, dazed and hurting. Everything instantly looked brighter, harsher, a glowy halo hazing around the scant light sources. Dammit, how hard had he hit his head? He didn’t even have the time to think before the troll was on him again. All he could taste was the blood in his mouth. He was breathing it in.

Karkat flipped him onto his back and straddled him, hissing, right before his hands locked around Dave’s throat.

Dave choked, gasping at nothing. The troll was going to crush the life out of him and it wouldn’t even be hard for him. Dave already couldn’t breathe, all the troll had to do was lean in, put his weight behind his hands and angle them steeper, and Dave would be dead in 44 seconds if his neck didn’t break first.

Or Dave could kill him right now. His hands were free, senselessly trying to push the troll off him in a failed attempt at defense. He couldn’t shake the troll; he couldn’t buck him off or use his knees to as battering rams. He was well and truly pinned.

It wouldn’t be anything at all to pull a knife out of his sylladex, or the silenced Glock Roxy had given him, and drive the blade or bullets up under the troll’s arm and into his heart. He could do it- he knew he could do it- Karkat was sloppy with emotion and already thought he’d won. It would be easy.

Because Dave never once liked doing things easy, he let go of his plans to kill the troll. He didn’t want Karkat to die, he couldn’t kill him that was insane this was insane. Everything had gone insane.

Instead he let his eyes flicker up to the troll. Karkat’s fangs were bared, his cheeks smeared with tears as he cried, squeezing harder until Dave saw spots. Like this, the troll’s face was all Dave could see.

Dave’s eyes were bare and every bit as red as the blood on his face. His vision was starting to go black at the edges as he went limp, forcing his hands to stop fighting as he dipped up his chin to bare his already-trapped throat to the troll. He didn’t break eye contact as he submitted completely. His head lolled back, his limbs loose and unresistant as he pleaded with his eyes.

Karkat didn’t lean down and rip out Dave’s exposed throat with his teeth, which had been one of the two options Dave had pegged him with. Instead he hissed again, sharper now, and snatched his hands away like he’d been scaled, almost as quickly as if Dave had stabbed him after all.

Dave immediately sucked in a wounded breath, greedy for air. His throat hurt- the translator felt sore, the flesh around it irritated as his bruised larynx sent out a scream of protest to his frontal lobe.

“Shit,” Dave coughed, his voice rasping. His broken nose was a throb of pain in the center of his face as he looked up at the conflicted troll.

Karkat looked pained, his breath coming in pants. “Dave,” he warned, a growl building in him again.

“Wait,” Dave asked, still breathing roughly. He wouldn’t get a second chance to end this without one of them dying. “I don’t want to fight you.”

“Then what the fuck do you WANT?!” Karkat yelled, pleading, his tear-streaked every bit as desperate as Dave was.

“Do you really want to know?” Dave asked, feeling stupid and reckless as the troll nodded.

The troll was still firmly seated on him, his weight pinning Dave to the ground and Dave reached up, laced his hands behind the troll’s head, and yanked Karkat down to him. It wasn’t the neatest kiss Dave had ever given, but it was hot and wet and burning as he smeared his lips across Karkat’s shocked mouth.

The troll stiffened, his claws drew blood at Dave’s neck before he realized this wasn’t an attack, before with a groan he gave in and kissed back like he was starving, like he’d wanted this for just as long.

“What the fuck?” Karkat said, stunned, his lips hovering over Dave’s. He was smiling though, actually smiling- a ray of light through dark storm clouds as Dave spit blood out of his mouth.

Dave laughed to himself and kissed the troll again, determined to kiss away the violence. The back of his throat tasted tinny and he couldn’t figure out what the troll’s mouth tasted like, but there would be time for that later. Dave kissed in deeply, unbearably gentle and slow and solidly at odds with everything that had just happened between them.

Karkat slowly took his claws away from Dave’s throat, cursing. “Dammit. Damn you. Fucking-”

Dave kissed him again, twice as slow and sweet as his eyes flickered closed. He’d been dreaming of this for weeks, and even if they got the start wrong Dave wouldn’t have traded this for anything.

“Do you want me to stop?” Dave asked, smiling, strangely giddy despite his broken nose and bruised neck.

“…No,” Karkat decided, kissing him back beautifully, his claws tracing the rips they’d drawn at Dave’s neck. “Holy shit, Dave, I was going to kill you.” He laughed breathlessly, terrified and uncertain.

“I know,” Dave answered. “I can’t say I didn’t consider killing you.”

Karkat snorted, surprisingly teasing considering the recent attempted murder. “You didn’t get a single hit in.”

Dave shrugged, still comfortably pinned by the troll’s weight on his hips. He didn’t want to move. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Why?”

Dave looked at him, stared into the red eyes that matched his own and wiped away a stray tear with his thumb. Karkat flinched and squirmed with Dave’s finger so close to his eye. “Hey,” he said, moving his hand to cup the troll’s cheek. “Listen to me. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“But you want to hurt my moirail,” Karkat said stiffly, sorrow and anger flashing through his eyes as he reached up and removed Dave’s hand from his gray face. “I fail to see how flipping red changes things.”

“I want to save your moirail,” Dave countered, stubbornly lacing their fingers together. “Goddammit, Karkat, did you really think I would go after Sollux? After everything that’s happened?”

“Yeah,” Karkat shot back, still tense in a watchful way Dave didn’t like so he drew the troll down for another kiss that Karkat didn’t try to resist. The troll broke free to accuse Dave, still intent on getting answers even as he nuzzled deeper against Dave’s body. “So you’ve been an assassin this entire time.”

“Maybe,” Dave admitted.

“Maybe,” Karkat scoffed, still offended. “The assassin says maybe! What the actual FUCK?!”

“Shut up, you like it,” Dave told him, pushing himself up onto his elbows to stare at the troll. “I have something to promise you.”

“Wat is it?” Karkat asked, still suspicious.

“I’ll help you save Sollux,” Dave promised. “I’ll help you save him. We can free him together.”

Karkat smothered him with a kiss. “I believe you,” he said, eyes frighteningly wide and focused. “How long have you been planning this?”

“Kissing you?” Dave teased right back, grinning. “Weeks.”

“Okay,” Karkat decided, blushing. H was still looking at Dave like he was drinking him in. “No more fucking secrets- about anything.”

“I’ll agree to that,” Dave said, staring at where he still held the troll’s hand, holding him tighter as he raised their clasped hands to kiss the troll’s knuckles. “I know what I want, and I’m not going to give it up.”

The Alternian still stiffened when Dave got to close to his fingers, as if a part of him was still convinced that Dave was going to go after him with his teeth, so instead Dave pulled away. He didn’t want to chase Karkat away or make him feel uncomfortable with how suddenly Dave had flipped their relationship upside-down. Karkat called it red; Dave didn’t care what it was named, just that he knew he wanted it.

“Thank you,” Karkat said, sensing why Dave had given his space before he kissed Dave again while the overheat pipes hissed out their clouds of steam, the Alternian Fleet’s class three star destroyer the Triptych’s Gamblignant cruising along past a sea of starry solar systems.

Chapter Text

Start of Mystery Ate Icarus Part Two

~Dave Strider~

Day 225
They were back to their pre-arranged positions. Dave was seated across the short hall space from the troll, still close enough that their legs were touching. It was darker in this place, dark enough that the only light came from the husktop and computer screens. Dave was holding his broken shades, secretly heartbroken at the loss. He had a single spare set in his sylladex, but this had been the original pair. These were the glasses John had given him- the first pair he’d talked to Hal on. These shades had been everywhere with him and he was loath to admit that they had been broken beyond repair.

The bridge had snapped along with Dave’s nose, which was still a source of throbbing pain. He’d had to get the troll to set it for him. It had been surreal for him to let Karkat close enough to shift his broken nose back into place within an hour of him viciously breaking it, but hey, that’s just how life goes sometimes.

“Tell me the truth this time,” Karkat said. “No more lies.”

“I never lied,” Dave protested, still cradling his broken glasses.

“You just omitted certain truths to manipulate me?” Karkat said, rolling his slitted eyes.

The familiar back and forth questioning made Dave’s heart stop racing, almost acting like everything between them had gone back to normal. “Not manipulate,” Dave countered swiftly, just like this was their old game.

Karkat looked at him then and Dave knew things weren’t normal and this wasn’t a game. There were questions in the troll’s eyes.

“Then what would you call it?” Karkat asked curiously. He’d taken great liberties to get every trace of Dave’s blood off of him like it was something toxic, scrubbing clean every scrap of red until no hint remained.
Dave knew the ramifications of Karkat showing red blood on him though and he knew the troll’s obsessive compulsion to hide the color was sad, but Dave still answered Karkat’s question with his chin raised. “I call it being as honest as possible given the unusual circumstances.”

“Bullshit,” Karkat said, but there was a wry grin on his face before he sobered up. “You’re an assassin.”

It wasn’t a question. Dave nodded. “I don’t like being called that, but it’s technically true.”

“Technically?” Karkat asked, his eyes narrowing.

“The way it was explained to me,” Dave said, slow and careful. He didn’t take his eyes off of the troll. “Helmsmen weren’t people, not by that point. Not after the Empress got a hold of them.”

He remembered his disgust, his horror, when Hal had first found the files buried in the HIC’s servers, hidden in places meant to keep them safe from other trolls. The truth- how Alternians had managed to conquer 75% of known existence and extend their grip further than any Empire had ever dared to dream of… Helmsmen.

Karkat’s eyes glimmered. “You know,” he said, leaning backwards. “I never believed Sollux about it when we were wrigglers,” he said, studying Dave with gleaming eyes. “Sollux hacked into Fleet servers off-planet; exactly the kind of thing to get drones sent after him for, treason of the highest degree, like hiding me wasn’t bad enough to get him thrown to the Legislacerators- but he did it anyway. He was so confused before then about why the Fleet had no jobs offered for upper lever psionics and psychics post-Ascension. He knew why after that… but I never believed him.”

“Why not?” Dave asked.

Karkat stared directly at him. “I knew my race was terrible,” he said darkly. “But even I never imagined the Empress would do something like this. I know she hates mutants like me, but goldbloods, the unlucky gifted rustbloods… those were supposed to be hers.

Dave wondered if Karkat knew how she was massacring lowbloods for fun on earth just to show how many lives she could afford spare. “The Empress is a menace,” Dave said. “Even if she wasn’t targeting my planet I’d hate her fucking guts.”

“Are you saying you would fight against her?” Karkat asked sarcastically. “Because fighting her has gotten you so far up until now.”

Dave turned his computer around so that Karkat could see the detailed blueprint of the TG’s internal structure Hal had hacked for him. “We targeted the Helmsmen for a reason,” Dave told him. “What happens to a ship if the Helmsman is out of commission?” It was a rhetorical question, but Karkat still answered.

“The ship flounders,” Karkat answered, blinking as he studied the map. “It’s stuck- powerless. Motionless. Vulnerable to the gravity of whatever objects they drift toward. There’s only enough backup power to keep the oxygen scrubbers alive and send messages- it’s a total shutdown.” He shook his head with wonder at the map. “Where did you get this?”

“My brother, the hacker,” Dave answered. “Or at least one of the hackers. There’s three of them.”

Karkat leaned closer, shifting his weight onto his arms as he crossed the space between them to point at a place on the screen with the tip of one claw. “There, that’s where the Helmsblock is,” he said with a sad, quiet confidence.

The one piece of the puzzle Dave had been missing for months fell into place in an instant. He’d done it! He knew where the Helmsblock was, the only thing Hal hadn’t managed to find. A day ago he’d have been ecstatic, but now his objective had shifted.

Dave looked at the place Karkat had pointed out. “Are you sure?” He had to ask.

“Very sure,” Karkat said. “How did you know to target them?” It was their back and forth game again, but this time it was serious in a way it hadn’t been before. This time they were working together.

“Hal figured it out,” Dave answered. “Dirk made the plan and Roxy made Dirk’s plan make sense enough to be believable. Rose took care of the essentials and the training.”

“Why you?” Karkat asked., observing him. “Why not one of your other broodmates?”

“It couldn’t be Hal,” Dave answered, reminiscing. “Or Dirk or Roxy. They’re the computer experts and we needed them to stay behind to help get us back. The three of them are too valuable to risk. Rose…” Dave said, trailing away. “I wouldn’t let her go. I volunteered instead so that she could stay safe.”

She’d cried and screamed, thrown books and knives and threatened him with things beyond death, but in the end he’d won for the simple fact that his lungs were healthy and Rose had asthma. It was such a small thing to potentially decide the fate of the planet.

“Just you?” Karkat asked sadly, leaning closer again until they weren’t across from each other anymore, more like beside each other as the troll leaned against his side. It was like embracing a space heater- the troll ran hotblooded and the warmth he gave off in waves was more than welcome.

“I’m not actually the only one,” Dave admitted, letting the warmth soak into his frozen bones. His throat still ached from the bruises forming in the exact shape of the troll’s fingers.

Karkat’s eyebrows rose in shock.

“What?” Dave asked, grinning sheepishly. “Did you really expect humanity to send just me? Shit, I know I’m clearly the best we had to offer but that’s just dumb.”

“There’s other humans hiding in the fleet!” Karkat hissed, his voice rasping. “How?”

“I’ll explain that in a second,” Dave said, waving away the question. “There’s four of us in total. I took the TG, and it’s a triptych so there’s three ships in it’s class. We’re on all three of them.”

Karkat squinted at him then at the blueprints. “That’s the EB and GT, right?”

“Correct,” Dave said, surprised that the troll knew the code names for the other two ships. “John and Jake are on them, waiting until day 413 to make their moves on their ship’s respective Helmsmen.”

Dave was concerned about how the troll would take hearing about the planned deaths of the two other trolls, but Karkat only shrugged. “Those Helmsmen can’t be saved,” the troll said sadly. “There’s no saving them once they’ve been wired in.”

“But you’re dead-set on saving Sollux?” Dave asked, just fact checking the thing that wasn’t adding up.

“Sollux is different,” Karkat defended himself. Dave nearly protested that, but he held his tongue as the troll continued. “What about the last ship?”

“I forget its name,” Dave said. “The… Gorganthal’s something, I think?”

“THE GG?!?!?” Karkat screeched, something panicked in his eyes. It was the loudest sound Dave had heard him make so far. “YOU PUT A HUMAN ON A SUBJUGGLATOR VESSEL?

“Yeah, that’s the one,” Dave said appreciatively, nodding enthusiastically. “The clown ship.”

“That’s insane,” Karkat protested weakly. “You can’t hide someone on a church ship.”

“We did,” Dave promised. “And Jane is good- they won’t find her.” He had to believe that. Jane would be fine. Jake would be fine. John would be fine. Everyone would be fine, because if they weren’t then earth had no hope left and Dave might as well stay here on the TG until he died.

“That’s insane,” Karkat said again, shaking his head. “Humans are insane.”

“We are,” Dave agreed. “But we get shit done all the same.”

“And where do I factor into this great secret plan of yours?” Karkat said, slow and careful. “I’m still an Alternian. I’m still a troll. You deciding to help me and then kissing me don’t exactly help your cause.”

“Of course they do,” Dave said logically. “But I didn’t kiss you for that- I kissed you because I like you, dumbass.”

“And?” Karkat asked, his claws digging into his palms, not meeting his eyes. “How the fuck is this going to work?”

Dave reached out and pulled Karkat’s hand into his own, slowly working the tension out of it until the troll wasn’t at the point of breaking his own skin with stress as Dave massaged the tension out of his gray fingers one by one. He paused to consider the troll’s hand in his. The skin was gray, the fingers tipped with thick black claws that looked sharp enough to gut him, the knuckles scarred from fighting.

Dave couldn’t help it- he held Karkat’s hand tightly in both if his, Since he wasn’t sure if hand-holding was a thing trolls did he also dropped his head to press a kiss against those scarred knuckles. “Do you trust me?”

“Not yet,” Karkat answered, the raw honestly cutting into him. “Not in all subjects.”

That was probably fair. Did Dave completely trust the troll? He wanted to say yes, but instinct made him hesitate. “Do you trust me not to hurt you or Sollux?”

“I do,” Karkat said after a slight pause. “I trust you.”

“Then that’s where we start,” Dave swore. “With trusting each other. Everything else will fall into place after.”

That made the troll grin. “I’m insane to be agreeing with you,” Karkat said, laughing helplessly. “You’re a fucking alien!”

“To me, you’re the alien,” Dave reminded him, tugging his laptop back over so that he could tilt the screen at the troll. “Now, about that Helmsblock…”

 

Day 235
Ten days passed in a blur. The TG crept onward, a sturdy submarine navigating the depths of a solar system made rocky with the destruction on eons past. Dave only knew about the black hole squatting like a violent toad at the center of the solar system from his laptop, which eagerly picked up the loose radio chatter.

Karkat didn’t seem worried as the ship skirted the disaster zone to slingshot around the horizon point at past the speed of light. “These ships are immune to black holes as long as the Helmsman is functioning,” he pointed out. “Sollux might be many things but he’s still a powerful psionic. The ship won’t falter.”

“It’s still an unnatural idea,” Dave said, shuddering as he imagined the void waiting outside of the ship, bigger than his imagination could conjure. “Humans are meant to stay away from black holes.”
“Voidmouths aren’t that scary,” Karkat said, shrugging off Dave’s fears. “We’ll be out of this system in an hour.”

“It’s still fucking crazy that I’m this close to one of those hungry fuckers,” Dave said, vying for nonchalance as his skin crawled. Karkat noticed his discomfort and slid closer. Dave eagerly leaned against him, secretly loving the warmth.

They’d spend the past ten days discussing nothing important, instead trying to learn how to act around each other, learning to trust. Karkat didn’t flinch when Dave reached for him. Dave didn’t shiver when he felt the ends of the troll’s claws on his skin. It was a slow process built of nothing but slow kisses and cuddling as they got used to being close. The bruises around Dave’s neck faded and the swelling on his nose receded to leave dark smudges like ink beneath his eyes that the backup pair of shades he wore hid nicely.

This wasn’t the first time Dave had broken his nose and surprisingly it sucked less the second time. Either that or the painkillers Rose had given him were legit. Hell yeah.

“Listen,” Dave said, still leaning against the sturdy heat of Karkat. He was an inch or two taller than the troll, but his height was all legs and sitting down like this Dave could fold himself neatly into the cleft of the troll’s side. “We know where the Helmsblock is. Together we could navigate the vents between here and there easily, sneak in hopefully, fight if he have to, use your lock pick to open the door… and then what? How do you plan on freeing him? That part was never addressed in my training.”

In fact, once in the Helmsblock he only had one thing left to do- call home. Pull an E.T, phone home using the single call he had, and then leave the Helmsblock a smoldering ruin behind him as he made his great escape.

Of course that plan wouldn’t exactly work, not if he planned on saving Sollux. His original plan called for a single murder which was off the table now.

Karkat spoke slowly, knowing this was the first serious question they’d addressed where they both meant it. “Helmsmen can’t be freed,” he said, and Dave’s heart fell. “Once they’ve been wired into the ship- it’s over for them. They’re as good as dead. Sollux is different.”

“Different how?” Dave asked with cautious hope. The troll had hinted at this subject before, and now Dave was curious about the answer. He still wasn’t sure if he thought Sollux could be saved.

“Remember when I said that Sollux was going to be turned over to the HIC?” Karkat asked flatly. “That wasn’t a lie.”

“What?” Dave said, shocked. He hadn’t forgotten, but he’d thought that had been another one of the troll’s half-truths.

“Sollux is being given to the Empress to become the Helmsman for her flagship Cruelties’ Carnage, the Empire’s fearsome head fleetship… the CC.” Karkat explained. “As the TG isn’t his designated vessel, he’ll be only partially Helmed in so that he can be removed and given over to the CC at the rendezvous point.”

“The fuck?” Dave said, straightening up. “He’s going to be her fucking present?”

“Not if we can stop it,” Karkat swore. “We have to make our move before the HIC gets here in her flagship, or it’s over.”

“Okay,” Dave said, thinking hard. Karkat must not have been kidding when he’d said that Sollux was powerful, not if the HIC was getting him. Holy shit.

“And how will you get offship with him?” Dave asked. “Don’t worry about me, how will the two of you escape if we pull this off?”

Karkat also pulled away, looking at him closely. “I’m going to steal an escape drone,” he admitted. “With the Helmsman gone they can’t come after me. The port bays will be locked down once the power goes off, but my entrysnipper can get me in.”

Hal had mentioned those, and Dave knew just enough about the pods to be worried. “Those aren’t meant to travel far,” he pointed out. “The TG will surely send out a distress beacon- and another fleetship will be here in the hour. How long do you think it’ll take them to find you?”

The troll didn’t react right when Dave pointed out what must have been the fatal flaw in his grand escape plan- Karkat smiled. It wasn’t a happy smile and it showed too many teeth. “Dave,” he said. “What if I told you I’m not alone?”

“What do you mean?” Dave asked, instinctively knowing that the troll didn’t mean on the TG, where they were the only two non-Empire people.

“I have a second, smaller ship that’s backing me up,” Karkat said. “Much like you, I’m not the only one working on this rescue mission. Feferi has all her resources behind me. Once I’m clear of the TG, all I need to do is call. They’ve been shadowing the TG in hyperspace for over a sweep, waiting on me.”

“We were both sent to take out the TG?!?!?” Dave asked, incredulous. “Who’s Feferi?”

“The Heiress,” Karkat smirked, his answering grin shit-eating. “She’s next in line for the throne, and something like my sorta-boss? That’s complicated,” Karkat said, leaning back and smirking, the shit-eater. “There’s a lot about me you don’t know.”

“The Heiress,” Dave said, struggling to understand. “I thought the Heiress was always murdered before Ascension?”

“We got her out,” Karkat said, still fucking smirking. “I did lie about Sollux foraging my Ascension papers- that never happened. We, meaning Feferi, me, Sollux, and the rest of us traitorebels, were all off planet long before then.”

“Rebels?” Dave said, zeroing in on that word. According to Hal, there was only the Empire and nothing but the Empire. Could there really be a second faction of trolls? “What rebels?”

“Me,” Karkat said, a challenge in his stare. “What the Empress failed to take into account when she decreed that the Hemospectrum rang supreme and made it illegal for me to exist, she forgot to factor in the unforgettable fact that I will not submit to the likes of a fish hag like her. I will not die quietly.” Karkat’s eyes cut to him, glittering red. “And I’m not the only one she fucked that won’t roll over.”

Dave’s mind was alight with new possibilities as he said, exhilarated. “Rebels! You have rebels!” This was a game changer. This was a miracle. This was a shining beacon of hope in an unending shitstorm. A different faction of Alternians not loyal to their Empress… the possibilities were astounding.

“There’s always been a rebellion challenging her,” Karkat explained. “Every generation it starts again and each time the dissenters die in droves under her heel, but not this time. We have the Heiress, we have a few ships, and we have me.”

“What position do you hold?” Dave asked excitedly, cutting through the bullshit to get straight to the point.

“I’m the reigning general and co-leader,” Karkat said. Part of Dave wasn’t even fucking surprised; he’d known that Karkat was a cut above the rest from the start, even as a mutant. “First advisor to the Heiress, second only to her. Shit, I even outrank Eridan and that fact burns that smug fishface.” Karkat sighed, his face tightening. “Sollux was the other co-leader. The idiot shot himself out into space when the fleet got on our ass to draw the ships off us. Some heroic sacrifice it was- the shithead handed them the HIC’s new Helmsman because he’s an absolute self-sacrificing motherfucker on all conceivable levels. If she gets a hold of him she can outrun every ship in the Red Cult. She’ll kill us all, and he fucking knew that.”

“So he sacrificed himself knowing that you would rescue him,” Dave reasoned. “That’s not a bad plan if it saved everyone else.”

“But to risk so much on a whim,” Karkat growled. “To throw himself away… It was suicide.”

Dave blinked, swallowing. To him that sounded pretty fucking heroic, especially considering the fact that it had worked. “Not it we save him,” Dave argued. “Which I’m guessing he’s betting on.” It was a foolish hope. There was no way the other troll had been banking of a rescue mission, but sometimes foolish hope was all he had to cling to.

It certainly made Karkat feel better as he sighed, lovingly exasperated with his absent moirail, not a trace of anger in him, just weary acceptance. “You’re right, Dave. Not if we save him.”

 

Day 279
Dave was at his computer again, poking around through the chatterbot site that Hal and Roxy had set up. He was used to it spitting out whatever nonsense the TG was talking about. To be honest he didn’t really pay attention to it- everything was being recorded for Hal to dig through later. The AI would find all of the important bits once he pieced together the recordings taken from the other three ships as well.

Earth would be defending itself with a bang- three of the fleet’s biggest star destroyers decommissioned at once from random places in the universe plus one of its premiere church vessels taken out as well, to hit what little spiritual core the trolls had. Earth couldn’t ask for better prey. The only superior ship was the CC, which Dave wanted nothing to do with.

They’d announce that they were undefeatable in a brilliant assault that Dave was leading. Funny thing- it felt like the months of waiting would be worth it now that the days were winding down.

 

Day 300
Dave felt like celebrating- they were 3/4ths of the way there.

“Why are you so dead-set of waiting until this day 413?” Karkat asked, sprawled out across Dave’s bedroll, his headphones clamped over his ears as wide-eyed he scrolled through Dave’s music collection. “Why don’t we move right now? We have everything we need.”

“I’m not even in my home galaxy anymore,” Dave reminded him. “I only get one shot to go home.”

“What shot it this?” Karkat asked, digging a one of the few questions they hadn’t hashed out yet.

“I have a really close friend,” Dave explained. “Jade. She’s a robotics expert like Dirk, a real genius. With Roxy and Hal, the four of them are waiting on me. It’s hard to explain, but I can’t get home the same way I got onto the ship.”

“How’d you get onto the TG in the first place?” Karkat asked, still clicking away at Dave’s music. The troll had quickly become addicted to hearing Dave’s work. It was touching. “I’ve been wondering about that.”

“A dog dropped me off,” Dave said, knowing it sounded ridiculous.

Karkat laughed. “Good one.” He went back to listening to whichever track he was on, sure that Dave was fucking with him.

“It’s true,” Dave said, elaborating. “A big, fluffy white dog named Bec. The thing is radioactive or something, a real hellspawn dog that helped raise Jade. She says Bec is something called a First Guardian and he’s really pissed off about the alien invasion. Bec’s who teleported us onto the ships.”

Karkat was still staring at him with his mouth open, the headphones handing sideways. “What?” He asked weakly.

“Bec’s a First Guardian,” Dave said again, shrugging. “He can teleport through space. The dog dropped us off on the ships because Jade asked him to.”

“The First Guardian of your planet dropped you off on the TG?” Karkat asked, still sounding woozy.

“Hell yeah, he did.” Dave said, pleased that he’d stunned the troll. “Earth doesn’t shit around.”

“All life bearing planets technically have a First Guardian,” Karkat said, shuddering. “They’re horrible beings of near total power- the Fleet stays away from them.”

“Bec’s definitely a being of horrible power,” Dave said, fondly remembering Jade’s monster of a dog. “But he likes to lick people and fetch bullets when he’s not helping defend us from alien invasions.”

“Earth is insane,” Karkat said for the hundredth time. “The sheer dumbshit luck of having a benevolent Guardian is good and rare enough, but no, you had to get an active one that participates in the defense of your planet! Do you know how unheard of that is?” He said it like it was something obvious.

“No?” Dave hedged.

“I know someone who had dealings with Alternia’s First Guardian,” Karkat said, shuddering again with visceral fear. “It ended with them maimed. The Guardians aren’t meant to be bothered or used- they watch and that’s all. They don’t interfere- they can’t.”

“Bec’s taken out, like meteors and shit for us,” Dave said, grinning. “It’s like having an immortal nuclear missile at Jade’s beck and call to sic on ships that get too close, not that he listens that well. Honestly it’s a miracle he dropped us off in the ship instead of outside of them to die instantly.”

“The more I learn about earth the more it terrifies me,” Karkat said, grumbling. “First Guardians running amok everywhere.”

“Bec’s a sweet dog,” Dave defended. “You’d love him.”

“I absolutely would not,” Karkat hissed, “No radioactive woofbeast is going to woo me, much less one that spits green fire and knows everything before it happens.”

“Aww, come on Karkat,” Dave joked. “Bec’s great.”

“No.”

“You’d love him,” Dave said smugly, his translator still butchering the word love.

Karkat rolled his eyes and went back to perusing Dave’s music. “You never got to why your 413 law is in effect.”

“Oh,” Dave said, trying to explain. “It’s Roxy’s idea- to strike at once from everywhere in the universe, to make it seem like no ship is safe. In reality though, it’s like making a landline phone call. I know you don’t really get what that means, but you need someone waiting on the other side at the right place and time to hear you so that it can work.”

“And that’s why you’ve got to wait?” Karkat asked.

“Yep,” Dave said. “It’s a device Jade and Dirk invented- a Transportalizer pad prototype based on Bec’s abilities. It’s only got one shot at working and there needs to be someone at the receiving end coding the return trip correctly to avoid dissolving into a collection of disparate atoms and primordial goo.”

Karkat blinked, not comprehending.

“A transporter,” Dave explained again. “One that moves objects through space.”

The realization dawned on the troll slowly, then it crashed across his expression like a thundercloud. “Holy shit,” Karkat said, his eyes wide. “You invented a working teleporter?”

“We did,” Dave confirmed, bragging. “I’ve used them before in test runs. It doesn’t matter how far it is between the two, not even separate galaxies count as long as the receiving end of open.”

Dave didn’t personally like using the devices. It felt like getting shoved face-first down a cheese grater and then squashed out a tube of used toothpaste back into human shape as all 10^23 atoms of his body got rearranged and then reassembled back into Dave-ness. It might have sucked, but there was no doubt it was fucking useful as shit.

“That’s impossible tech,” Karkat protested. “Not even the Empire has anything close to that.”

“My family and friends are geniuses,” Dave reminded him. “And we have a lot at stake. War has always been the best incentive to create. It’s the one great innovator, and this time out entire species is on the line.”

“So that’s your grand scheme?” Karkat asked, clarifying. “You arrived on a god dog and are waiting for the chance to actually teleport yourself all the way back home like nothing ever happened?”

“Yep,” Dave said, cheeky. “It’s a pretty simple plan.”

Karkat blinked at him, shaking his head. “Are all humans as crazy as you and your broodmates?”

“Not really,” Dave admitted. “We’re the organic free range humans- the top shelf homosapiens.”

Karkat laughed at his ridiculousness before he sobered up. “Pity,” Karkat said seriously. “I might not know much about your planet outside of you and what you’ve told me, but the fact is that so far you’re successfully managing to hold off the Empress, plus you’ve concocted a brilliant plan to take out four of the Fleet’s most important vessels, a plan that will probably work exactly as intended.”

Dave keyed in on the troll’s speculating tone, his interest piqued. “That’s a nice complement, but what are you trying to say?” He asked.

“That Feferi could really use earth’s help,” Karkat said, staring at him, shrugging. “We all could. Maybe together we have a chance against the Empress and Her Empire.”

Karkat looked down at Dave’s computer again like he didn’t realize the ramifications of what he’d just said.

But Dave did. For an instant the shining idea hung before Dave as his imagination ran with it, a dream outlined in gold and blood. Trolls and humans working together against a common foe, as if the whole of mankind could ever get along with Alternians in any capacity that wasn’t keyed for murder.

But still… the idea was tempting. Maybe together they could bring down the Empire, because as brilliant as Dave’s plan was, he couldn’t do this alone. His planet couldn’t keep this up forever, just prolong the inevitable.

But…

Maybe...

He couldn’t let go of the foolish idea. It was too tempting.

But now was not the time to bring such a thing up, not until after he’d had a few days to sit on the idea and think it through a little more. It wasn’t like there was a rush or anything. They had a hundred days left to plan what came next.

The computer in Karkat’s hands spit out another string of nonsense in Alternian. Karkat squinted at the chatterbot with suspicion.

“Let me see,” Dave said, and Karkat turned the screen around so that he could read the translations.

“Something’s wrong,” Karkat said, leaning closer to hear the words through the static. “It’s not supposed to sound like that.”

Dave played around with the settings, dialing back reverb and upping contrast to get a clearer sound. “Interference,” he guessed, shrugging. The staticky sound squeaked at his ears, grinding like something pained.

“No,” Karkat said decisively. “This is the TG. This ship doesn’t have interference.”

Dave stared at the screen. He saw the usual chatterbot codes running by, the ship’s crewmembers talking to each other like always in a thousand different stupid conversations, but there was a single string of tangled code running through the middle in a thick wave of confused black. He’d seen coding like this before, but this time it seemed stronger, more prominent. He wasn’t sure what it was or what it meant.

“What’s this?” Karkat asked, pointing at the code with his claws. “That’s not normally like that.”

“It’s coming from the ship,” Dave said, adjusting the settings to single in on the bogus code. He dug through it for a few seconds with his limited computer skills. He sucked at coding, but he understood the basics to trace where it was coming from. “It’s coming from the ship but going nowhere.” He slapped the cut out code across the screen and tilted it so Karkat could see it.

“I can’t read this,” Karkat said, staring at the translation. “And it’s going by too fast for me to hear. Can you switch the letters back to Alternian?”

Dave hit reverse and the screen converted into alien mumbo jumbo. Karkat scanned the lettering with a keen eye, tracing the digits and numbers until he hit a particularly nasty snag. “There,” he said, breathing hard. “Cut this part out.”

Dave wordlessly followed the instructions, trusting the troll. Karkat had a hunch, that was for sure.

Dave descrambled the line of code until he was left with just numbers that he quickly flashed back into English in split screen.

 

972375HEJJW8993J892[error]3E98H39RH3RH9H8RIOER892{execute: {2jhgE5678ljhgfdf}R98390N23JRRJ083RNONDFDONTNFONNIPLSIOIEH0830193 } [access denied.]

 

“I don’t understand,” Dave said, staring at it blankly. “It’s gibberish.” The nonsense code was a bug, some internal flaw, nothing more. He pushed the code to the back of his mind and went back to working on the rap he was writing.

Karkat was still staring at the screen, completely frozen. “Convert it back to the original colors,” he asked.

Dave looked at him, surprised. He did as asked, which was at the extreme edge of his coding abilities. It took him a minute to figure out how to ask the program for what he wanted, but thankfully Hal had created the program to be as easy to navigate as possible. The code now looked like this:

 

972375HEJJW8993J892[error]3E98H39RH3ROONOH9H8RIOER892[execute: {2jhgE5678ljhgfdf}R98E390N23JRRJ083RLNONDFDONTNFONNIPLSINOIEH0830193}] [Access denied.]

 

Karkat slowly reached out and ran the end of his claw gently down the screen over the colored lettering, suddenly blinking back tears. “It’s Sollux,” he said.

“What” Dave asked, shocked. He stared at the colored letters, reading the gold as he put the lettering together.

Fuck.

Dave stared at the endtag. Access denied. The words mocked him and his hands were in fists at his sides as a burning anger filled him. Sollux.

“Some part of him is awake. He’s trying to turn himself off,” Karkat said, his voice trembling as he read the code without all of its jumbled bullshit thrown in.

The error code kept repeating endlessly in the underbelly of the ship’s communications, a barely noticeable, repetitive cry for death.

{Execute: self.} [Access denied]

 

Day 320
Karkat spend the next few days glued to the computer, watching the same code scroll by with heavy lidded eyes. He huddled into himself when Dave walked by, and Dave reoriented himself to stop and sit by the troll.

“Hey,” he said softly. “How are you doing?” Dave was itching to help soothe the troll, but he didn’t know how, not when faced first-hand with the evidence of Sollux’s ongoing torment.

“Are you sure there’s no way to try and contact him?” Karkat asked bleakly, his eyes locked on the screen.

Dave’s heart gave a squeeze. “No,” he answered. “This computer can’t send anything. That’s how it hides- it listens only through the chatterbot.”

“And if we try to reach him, they’ll find us,” Karkat concluded bitterly, his lip lifted in a silent snarl. “And this ship with bathe in blood.”

“Who’s blood?” Dave asked, equally bleak.

“Mine mostly,” Karkat answered, still bitter. “They’ll paint it on the walls once they’re done with me.” He blinked at Dave, his eyelids puffy and red. “They might keep you alive for longer, just out of curiosity.”

“Sounds fun,” Dave said, trying not to shudder at the idea.

“And then the rebellion will die,” Karkat concluded miserably. “Feferi can’t draw in more members right now for fear of getting a traitor in the ranks. We’re stuck with our small number of trolls until we start winning some victories for fucking once.”

“Victories like stealing back the rebel psionic intended for the HIC’s flagship?” Dave said, but there was something dark in his tone as an idea struck him.

“Exactly like that,” Karkat said triumphantly, his mood rising. “Once the rest of the lowbloods and midbloods see that we can win, they’ll join us in droves.”

“Karkat,” Dave said slowly, reluctant to spoil his good mood. “The HIC doesn’t know about your moiraillegance with Sollux, does she?”

“No,” Karkat said, shrugging. “I don’t see why she or anyone in the fleet would. That’s a huge fucking secret even in the rebellion. Could you imagine what would happen if the Cult found out its two co-leaders were in a relationship? It would be scandalous.” Karkat answered wickedly, like he was dreaming of the idea.

“So they don’t know that you’re in a relationship with him?” Dave asked, leaning forward urgently, a tremor in his fingers.

“Why are you pressing this point?” Karkat asked curiously.

“Because,” Dave said, leaning back. “If she knew, this would make for the perfect trap.”

Karkat scoffed, showing teeth. “But she doesn’t know. Only Feferi knows he’s my moirail. The rest of the Cult barely knows that I even exist. Traitorebels or not, mutants aren’t exactly welcomed anywhere with trolls.”

Shit, that hurt. Dave had thought in the Cult Karkat might be accepted better. That’s what he’d been hoping for. To learn it was the opposite really hurt his heart.

“Not unless there’s already a traitor in your ranks that told her,” Dave pointed out. He was so keen at picking apart the flaws of things. He’d picked up the trait from Dirk years ago.

“Shit, Dave, you worry too much,” Karkat said, yawning.

“Speaking of worrying,” Dave said, concerned. The troll looked beyond exhausted. “How many sopor pills do you have left?”

Karkat froze, caught. “Not enough to see your day 413,” he admitted slowly.

“You can’t sleep without them?” Dave asked, concerned.

“I can,” Karkat said, “But I’ll have such awful daymares that my screaming will draw down every troll on this ship.”

“Yikes,” Dave said, nearly wincing. “What are you going to do?”

“I…” Karkat said, not looking at him. “I don’t fucking know.” He turned towards Dave. “I can’t leave this ship without you’re help- I can’t do this alone.” The confession was heartbreaking- an admittance from a soul not used to asking for help or admitting weakness. “In all reality my plan fucking sucks ass and will fail miserably to get us all killed, including Feferi and the rest of the Red Cult, because once this ship stalls she’ll be here to try and help and ping her location to every ship in the Fleet to do so. It’ll be a massacre on both sides, one that the HIC will win.”

It was everything Dave had been thinking and more. Karkat’s escape pod plan was suicide- dragging this Feferi into the mess would only pile up the bodies. They couldn’t stand against the Empire. “What will you do?” He asked seriously, inwardly begging that the troll had a workable plan B.

“I’m not sure yet,” Karkat said, shuddering. “It’s a timeline I can’t beat. The best thing to do would be to do nothing and let my pills run out. I’m stretching them out enough as it is through lack of sleep. I have only a few perigrees remaining.” He blinked, his eyes tired and scared all at once. “Once that date runs out and the TG is unharmed, Feferi will think I’m dead and she’ll get the hell out of dodge. The best thing for the rebellion right now would be for me to die down here, alone, with no one to find me,” he concluded miserably. It was heartbreaking.

“No it’s not,” Dave said, pulling the troll closer, kneading his hands through the troll’s stiff black hair.

“Fuck off,” Karkat said with no bite. He didn’t resist the steady pressure of Dave’s hands as he continued. “What else is there to do?”

Dave could answer that. He kissed the troll’s neck, leading upwards until Karkat relented and met his lips in a huff of air. Dave kissed him deep and so sweet that it burned in his lips. He was still getting used to kissing the troll, to avoiding the teeth that were a constant threat in front of a tongue like damp sandpaper where it lapped at Dave’s lower lip. Dave pulled the troll’s face closer, relishing in the heady pressure of skin on skin.

Karkat gasped down his next breath as Dave slid into his lap, his arms around the troll’s shoulders. He couldn’t stop touching the troll, hungry for that gray skin. Karkat kissed him like he was starving, his fingers light, gentle touches around Dave’s hips.

They stayed like that for a while, exploring each other, chasing how far they could go without removing clothes. Dave could feel his pulse pounding in his ears. It was hot and slow and unbearably sweet.

Dave didn’t hesitate to consider the ramifications of his words as he kissed Karkat again, speaking through the side of his mouth. “Come to earth with me,” he said seriously. The translator in his neck worked wonders for talking without breaking his lips free from the troll’s mouth.

Karkat froze under him. “What?”

“You heard me,” Dave said, rambling. “Come to my planet. We’ll bring Sollux too. The two of you will be safe there, Feferi won’t throw herself at the TG and the rest of it’s triptych of horrors, the Cult will live, and from earth you can contact Feferi to find out what your next move is.”

Dave was serious. It was his secret fantasy, the one he’d been harboring since he’d first heard Karkat’s careless dismissal of the idea. Dave meant it- and fuck all of the inherent problems. Earth could suck his dick if they objected to Karkat and his moirail. This was the right thing to do so fuck the consequences. He’d save Sollux and Karkat both, spare the Red Cult and the rest of the rebellion from destruction, and set up earth for the start of something greater than the two of them.

Was this foolish hope or pride? Refusal to roll over and die? An objection to any world that would classify someone as lovely and important as Karkat as expendable? Dave wasn’t sure.

“You’ve been planning this,” Karkat accused him, still frozen. His pupils were wide in his red and yellow eyes. His voice was soft and husky, but Dave could read the exhaustion lingering in the shadows under the troll’s eyes.

Dave kissed him again. “Come to earth with me,” he said, then, “You need more sleep, Karkat.”

“I’m trying,” Karkat said, strained. His hands hand gone still and they hung like warm weights across Dave’s hipbones. “You kissing me like this isn’t exactly conductive to that end goal.”

“Not unless you have a different end goal in mind,” Dave said, only half-joking.

Karkat’s hands tightened on his hips, pressing in with the pads of his fingers. “And if I agree to this insane plan?” He asked, his eyes lidded, swallowing thickly.

“I’ll help you in every way I can,” Dave swore. “You know I will. You and Sollux both.”

“Do you really mean that?” Karkat asked. His hands were rubbing slow circles into Dave’s skin, setting the base of his spine on fire with the sensation.

“Of course,” Dave answered, his mouth suddenly dry. “With how much I’ve heard you talk about him, I can’t wait to meet your moirail for myself. He sounds like a great guy.”

“He is,” Karkat said. “Jegus fuck, he’ll hate you though.”

“I’d expect nothing less,” Dave said, grinning, secretly pleased.

“Dave,” Karkat answered, softer now. “I can’t.

The expected answer still cut him to the core. Dave kissed him again. “Please. For me. For the Cult.”

“No,” Karkat said, kissing him hungrily. “I can’t go to earth.”

“Your plan will get you and everyone you care about killed,” Dave reminded him, not bullshitting around. “Karkat, you know this.”

The troll stared up at him. “You really mean that, don’t you?” he asked.

“I do,” Dave answered breathlessly. “Karkat- please. I only want to help you.”

“Some help this is,” Karkat retorted, curling his fingers into Dave’s hips. “How long have you been planning this?”

“Months,” Dave answered. “Perigrees.”

“Fucker,” Karkat kissed him again, lapping at his mouth, his hand playing tricks at Dave’s jawline. “I can’t,” he said again, drawing back, sounding pained. “Jegus fuck, Dave. I can’t go to your planet. What about Sollux? What about the Cult? Feferi?”

“We’ll take Sollux with us,” Dave answered, trying to convince him. “We can contact Feferi once we’re there and find out what step two is.”

“Do I have to answer tonight?” Karkat groaned, sinking back down as Dave ran his hands along the sides of the troll’s neck. He shivered under Dave’s fingers.

“No,” Dave told him, regretfully rolling off the troll’s lap as he admitted, “there’s still plenty of time for you to think.”

Karkat yawned again, cat-like, his tongue curling as he clicked deep in his throat. They were still on Dave’s bedroll, the computer shoved unceremoniously to the side where it’s screen sat blinking at the wall as the air vents hissed overhead.

They laid in silence for a moment, just being next to each other. They said no more of Dave’s foolish dream of peace between earth and the Red Cult.

Dave tentatively broke the silence. “Will you stay here?” He asked, concerned about the troll still. He didn’t want Karkat off sneaking through the vents fueled by nothing but spite alone. He needed sleep.

“The sopor tabs will almost immediately knock me out,” Karkat told him, rubbing at his eyes. “I won’t wake up until the effects wear off.” He sounded exhausted, tired beyond measure.

“That sounds good,” Dave said, hugging him closer. “You need the sleep.”

“I’ve only got a handful of pills left,” Karkat said, shuddering in a movement that Dave could feel with his entire body. “Maybe a little over a perigree at most.”

“Then we’ll stock up on sleep while you can,” Dave answered, swearing. “We can do this, Karkat, we can. I won’t let sleep be the thing that gets you.”

“Thank you,” Karkat said, turning to his to cup his face. He stroked the pad of his thumb along Dave’s pale cheek, kicking the blanket up and over himself.

“Come here,” Dave said, patting the bedroll beside him. “I’ll watch out for you while you sleep.”

It was such a simple thing, but the troll blushed a scarlet deeper than any that their making out had managed to achieve. Dave felt a surge of victory. He was figuring this out. He was discovering all of the small ways to turn the troll inside out with only a few words or sweet touches.

Clearly the effect was not lost on the troll as he answered, groaning as he gave in. “Fine,” Karkat replied, rolling a single acid-green tab through his fingers, still remarkable hesitant. “I’m trusting you. This isn’t an easy thing for me to do.”

“I understand,” Dave said, solemn.

Karkat was way too tense for sleep as he slowly laid down at Dave’s side, making a fuss of the blankets. “What are these?” he asked, trying to get comfortable. “Why are they for sleeping?”

“They keep people warm,” Dave answered. “It’s always cold on this ship.”

“Oh,” Karkat said, surprised. “I hadn’t realized that.”

“You don’t get cold?” Dave asked, instantly jealous.

“Not easily,” Karkat said.

“Okay,” Dave said, careful not to touch the troll until Karkat rolled back to meet him, then, still careful, he pressed his forehead into the troll’s broad shoulder. Karkat was remarkably receptive to snuggling, complaining about how quadrant-aberrant this was and comparing Dave’s bedroll to something called a pile.

“Just take your pill and sleep,” Dave said, also yawning. He didn’t normally feel so tied, but the combined force of Karkat’s warm body and the feeling of another person snuggling against him drew in sleep like a wave.

“Okay. Goodnight, Dave,” Karkat said, and then he dry-swallowed the small green pill like a pro. Instantly his head dropped down, his eyes sinking shut. A moment later the tension leaked out of him as the troll relaxed.

It was fast enough to shock Dave a little, but he supposed alien drugs worked fast. “Karkat?”

Nothing. The troll was out like a light. His quiet, even breathing was all Dave could hear. Oddly delighted at seeing the troll so peaceful and vulnerable, Dave pressed one last kiss to the troll’s sleeping cheek, and then he lowered his head onto his pillow and closed his eyes, Karkat sleeping beside him like a log.

It was the best night’s sleep Dave had gotten since he’d entered the TG.

 

Day 359
There was a little over a month left until D-Day 2.0. This time the assault was made up of only four humans. There was no beach to storm but the effect was the same. There was only one major hurdle left to climb before Dave’s internal timer hit his magic number.

Karkat’s pills ran out tonight. According to the troll, without the green sedative he relied on to sleep he’d have screaming nightmares that might actually be bad enough to kill him.

Dave wasn’t sure if he believed that. He was no stranger to the screaming night terrors, dreaming of orange felt limbs and concrete rooftops in a city a galaxy and a half away. His nightmares were awful, but they weren’t fatal even if it felt like he’d eat his heart when he jolted back to awareness, panting and sweating, his hands reaching for a sword.

According to Karkat, his would be worse. Apparently his entire species just had night terrors when not doped up on sopor and, like, that was normal for them? Trolls were fucking weird.

In any case, Karkat had spent the last few nights with him. Dave still found it oddly comical when such a small green pill knocked out a grown Alternian troll in two seconds flat. In retrospect that probably meant that those tabs were strong enough to kill Dave eight times over, but he still had a curious attitude about the things that had kept Karkat safe for so long.

Dave just had to ask. “Hey, Karkat?”

The troll who had been lounging beside him grunted but didn’t look up. He was busy typing something out on his husktop and the glare from the yellow screen was the only source of light. It had already been close to 20 hours since they’d last slept and Dave felt his eyes beginning to droop.

The troll showed no such weaknesses, determined to ride this out for as long as possible and act like nothing was wrong. “Yeah?”

“Where did you get the sopor tabs from?” Dave asked curiously. “They’re not common, are they?”

“They’re not,” Karkat admitted, glancing at him. “Mine came from a raw sopor shipment we robbed that was headed to a sopor distribution ship that Feferi had melted down into individual pills. The Cult likes to use them sparingly because they’re easier to transfer and carry than actual sopor.”

“It helps that you can fit a lot of them into your sylladex,” Dave pointed out.

“Which is kind of hard to do, considering that my sylladex is full with other useful shit I need to not die,” Karkat said, not quite joking. “Living as a squeakbeast in the walls is a hard life.”

“I know,” Dave said, nodding in agreement. “I’ve been living that life too.”

Karkat squinted at him. “I still don’t know how you keep your clothes so clean,” he commented, picking at the fraying neck of his blank black sweater.

Dave shrugged. “Dirk and Hal hacked into the software that dictates the card slots,” he answered, pulling one of the few empty cards from his sylladex and flipping it between his fingers. “They set up a few special tricks for me in my overclocked captchalouge system. One of them is this-” Dave purposefully ripped the end of his sleeve with both hands. The sound of the fabric tearing was loud.

Karkat watched him without blinking.

Dave quickly peeled his now torn shirt off, refusing to feel self-conscious as he felt the troll’s gaze intensify as the alien openly studied him. “Now watch this,” Dave said, feeling excited as he captchalouged the shirt, which appeared as is on the formerly empty card.

He flipped it over, to where a new box had appeared on the back beneath the 10 digit code.

Restore item to factory settings?

Dave clicked yes, and the shirt instantly shifted back into its pristine, freshly washed and in untorn condition. He then decaptchlouged the shirt and held it out to a disbelieving Karkat.

“What the fuck?” The troll said, rubbing the repaired fabric between his claws as he pulled out one of his sylladex cards to stare at the sharp Alternian script on the back.

“It’s a coding trick,” Dave explained, slipping his shirt back on, much to the troll’s disappointment. “You set parameters for certain items that they can be reset to. It’s not applicable for most things, but small tears and stains are no problem.”

“Holy shit,” Karkat laughed, delighted. “That’s incredible.”

“I keep telling you this,” Dave said, also laughing as he caught himself mid-yawn. “My brothers are geniuses.” For an instant his old homesickness crept up the back of his throat, tangled with the idea that he should see them again soon. There was less than a month left until his plan either worked or not. In a month he might be home with Rose and Roxy and Dirk and Hal and D and all of the rest of the people that made up his self-chosen family. Was Jake feeling this same excitement? Was John counting down the days? He imagined Jane looking out a distant port window, her blue eyes set on the stars and burning with determination.

“You’ve got to show me how this works,” Karkat said, the card vanishing back into the troll’s sylladex as he pulled Dave back into the present.

“I will,” Dave promised, blinking the past out of his eyes as he focused on the future. “Humans, we can invent some pretty neat shit when under pressure.”

“But not now,” Karkat said, studying him closely. “You’re tired.”

“So are you,” Dave pointed out. “You can’t hide it from me.”

“I don’t need sleep like you do,” Karkat told him. “I can stay awake for at least a perigree if I need to.”

Dave had no idea how long a perigree was. Like two weeks maybe? That sounded ridiculous. Nothing could stay awake for that long. “But I can’t afford to have you sleep deprived if we’re launching a two person attack on the TG,” He reasoned. “Ability doesn’t equal soundness.”

“Fuck off,” Karkat spat, angry now, his grumpiness evident. “Stop worrying about me.”

“Why don’t you try sleeping with me again?” Dave asked, feeling vulnerable. “Without the pills?”

Karkat looked at him, his eyes clouded with worry. “I can’t,” he said, glancing at the floor, his voice dull. “I might hurt you.”

Damn, that worry in the troll’s voice made Dave’s heart cinch tight. “I can help you,” Dave said, pleading. “Just let me help you.”

“This isn’t red,” troll protested, and vaguely Dave understood the quadrant reference. “This is flagrantly pale.”

“That sounds like an excuse,” Dave pointed out bluntly, patting the bedroll beside him. He did know a little about the four square system trolls seemed so fond of, it was part of his cultural training. He just chose to ignore most of it because troll society was inherently hurtful and backwards and honestly, they could do better for a civilization that was nearly 100,000 years old. “We’ve done paler things before, so get your ass down here.”

“Gogdammit,” Karkat cursed with the insult he’d picked up from Dave, who could tell he was giving in. “You are a stubborn bastard.”

“It’s a point of pride,” Dave said, grinning slightly despite himself. “Striders don’t give up.”

“Okay,” Karkat said, relaxing. “But I’m emptying my strife deck first.”

“If you think that’ll help,” Dave admitted and he watched as one by one, Karkat set down three different pairs of matching sickles, two unmatched sickles, six different short knives- also paired, a dirk, a poniard, several egg things that might have been small explosives, a long sword with a jewel encrusted hilt, a single club that looked like a bowling pin that the troll grimaced at and held with the tips of his claws like he didn’t want to touch it, several more odd devices Dave couldn’t name, and then a short, snub-nosed metallic thing Dave was sure was some kind of gun.

“Impressive,” Dave whistled, cocking his eyebrow up. “But where’s the sickles you nearly gutted me with?” The plain steel pair were missing from the neatly assembled pile. He’d recognize those weapons anywhere. He still saw them in his dreams.

Karkat hesitated, but then he sighed and set down the final pair of sickles. “There,” he said, sounding weary. “You’ve done the thing no one else has ever managed- you’ve disarmed me.”

Dave’s heart was in his throat. Would he have done the same? “Thank you,” he said, knowing how hard this must be.

“I just hope it’s worth it,” Karkat said, lying down beside him. He huffed, clicking deep in his throat as he settled into place beside Dave like a fussy dog getting comfortable.

Dave loved this. He loved feeling the troll beside him. He loved having Karkat sleep next to him. He loved the warmth and the solidness of another body that wasn’t made of cold steel. It made him feel not alone. It made him feel stronger, more complete, more ready to face what was coming next.

It took Karkat a long time to fall asleep. Dave knew because he stayed awake, watching the small flickers of movement under the troll’s eyelids for any sign of bad dreams. An hour passed. Dave’s eyes felt like he’d rubbed salt and grit into them, he swore he could hear them creak each time he blinked, but there was no change from Karkat.

Reluctantly, Dave let himself nod off, still tense, still waiting or the first sign of trouble. He believed Karkat, he really did, so like the troll he waited for the nightmares to hit.

When they finally hit- they hit like an earthquake dropped from the edge of space.

Karkat woke with a vengeance, his claws latching into Dave’s flesh like hypodermics. The bright pricks of pain were enough to make Dave slap a pillow over the troll’s face instead of his hand an instant before the troll screamed like he was dying. Dave clung to him, his mind frighteningly calm as he muffled the sound of the scream as Karkat’s fingers spasmed their way out of the skin of his arm.

“Karkat, Karkat, it’s alright, you’re safe. I’m here,” Dave said, trying desperately to hush him.

Karkat gasped, his ribs heaving. His eyes were wide-open and rolling with a fear that didn’t make sense.

“Shoosh,” Dave said, scared himself. Karkat was scaring him- he didn’t understand what was going on. This wasn’t like a nightmare at all. This was an invisible attack.

Karkat screamed again, but it was weaker this time. He seemed to be regaining control one body part at a time as Dave held him.

Shoosh,” he said again, the translator making the sound into a soft hiss.

With one last gasp and shake Karkat fell still, shuddering. “Holy fuck,” he said weakly, burying his face against Dave’s side to hide his eyes. “That was worse than I thought.”

“You’re telling me,” Dave said, his arm stinging as he wiped up the blood with the edge of his blanket.

“I warned you,” Karkat said, sniffing. “I smell blood. How bad is it?”

“It’s nothing,” Dave assured him. The marks were small but deep- he’d have to bandage them later. “A few stray clawmarks aren’t going to run me off.”

“But I hurt you,” Karkat said, at last raising his face again to reveal bleary eyes that had red gathered in the corners.

“I’m fine,” Dave said, hugging the troll. “We knew there was a risk. I accepted that.”

“That doesn’t make it alright, Dave,” Karkat said, turning away.

“Hey,” Dave said, disappointed, tugging at the troll’s sleeve until he turned back to look at him. “It worked, didn’t it? You got a few hours of sleep.”

“At the price of your blood,” Karkat growled, already attempting to scrub the color off his claws with a hectic speed.

“A few drops won’t hurt anything,” Dave told him. “We can try again.”

“No,” Karkat argued, his voice flat.

Dave frowned. “Karkat,” he said.

“I said no.” The troll growled again, showing teeth.

“Karkat,” Dave tried, his fingers finding the troll’s waist. Karkat stiffened, but he bore the touch as Dave worked his hands under the troll’s blank shirt. He massaged reassuring circles into the troll’s gray skin, loving the texture and wanting more. “We can do this. We can beat this.”

“I don’t want to hurt you again,” Karkat said, oddly quiet.

“I won’t let you,” Dave answered, hugging him tighter as he encircled the troll’s waist with his arms to pull him closer. “I was unprepared the first time. Now I know what it’s like. I can stop it.”

“You can’t defeat a thousand sweeps’ worth of evolution with kindness alone,” Karkat huffed at him, wiping at his puffy eyes. He’d screamed so hard the troll had ruptured a blood vessel in his eye, and now Karkat’s toxic red was seeping into the yellows.

“What the fuck is it?” Dave asked, concerned. “That’s not a fucking nightmare.”

“It’s biology,” Karkat explained. “My species’ sleep is remarkably fucked up. Our kind is plagued by pan-splitting daymares when not properly sedated- that’s just how we are.”

“That’s fucked up,” Dave agreed. “But we can beat it.” He was sure of it. Biology or evolution or whatever this was could kiss his entire ass- he was getting Karkat to sleep and that was fucking final.

“Dave,” Karkat sighed. “You can’t stop this.”

“One more try,” Dave argued. “Give me one more chance to beat this. Even if I can’t,” he reasoned, “You got a few hours of sleep in and no one heard you screaming but me… isn’t that victory enough?”

“Damn you,” Karkat said, laying back down so that Dave could pull him closer. “You’re such a bad influence.”

“I know,” Dave said, snuggling in earnest as he trapped Karkat’s legs with his to prevent escape.

“You’re also a clingy motherfucker,” Karkat cursed at him just to keep complaining, fussing to get comfortable in the circle of Dave’s arms.

“Tell me to let go and I will,” Dave retorted.

Karkat only huffed as Dave called his bluff. In response Dave laced his fingers through Karkat’s hair and drug his face down for a deep kiss. The troll kissed him back, chirring deep in his throat in a clicky way that Dave couldn’t replicate.

This time, when the nightmares hit, Dave knew what to do. He woke the instant the troll gasped in a breath to scream and slapped a pillow over his mouth, wary of the troll’s sharp claws as he shooshed Karkat’s nightmares into submission. It was over fast, maybe ten seconds of Karkat instinctively fighting back before he fully woke up.

They tried again, this time with Dave lulling Karkat to sleep with his lips at the troll’s ear. Karkat made an excellent little spoon when he stopped blushing about the quadrant smearing they were apparently taking part in. Something about being shooshed? Whatever. He’d like to think that Sollux would forgive him for pulling the pale moves on Karkat behind his back. The situation demanded it.

Karkat definitely slept better with Dave embracing him, whispering sweet nothings anytime the troll tried to wake, soothing him with his hands as he gently nudged the troll back into the land of rest and sleep.
The troll didn’t even scream the next time, just gasped himself awake with his eyes rolling. It was almost easy to calm him down after that.

For the rest of the night, there was nothing but the unbroken peace of good sleep.

 

Day 387
Dave’s heart was starting to pound. He was busy scratching out more lyrics and the beats to match them to distract himself from the looming timeline that was growing shorter and shorter. It was the sword hovering over his head, and the days were the rope fraying strand by strand.

It was nerve wracking.

Karkat was listening to Dave’s music with a scowl, which was unusual because normally he liked Dave’s music. Was something wrong with that particular song? Dave would love to say that he didn’t care what the troll thought of his work, but that would have been a lie.

“Yo, dude,” Dave said without looking up. “What’s with the sour face? If you don’t like the song just skip it.”

Karkat rolled his eyes. “It’s not that I don’t like it,” he said, “There’s this one part I’m trying to understand but I can’t.”

That got Dave’s interest. “Which song?”

Catharsis for the masses,” Karkat said, sliding the laptop over to him. “It’s the part at 1:45 seconds.”

Dave couldn’t remember what went on at the exact time- that entire song was a fucking ironic mess of church bells and polka, but it took him only a moment to scroll through and hit the right mark, where his own voice sang back to him the sage-like words of rap wisdom- ‘kick it Barack’.

Dave nearly snorted. This was just too good. “Karkat,” Dave said, struggling to not outright laugh. “It’s just me saying a stupid joke. That’s all there is.”

“That’s your voice?” Karkat nearly screeched, surprised.

“Well, yeah,” Dave said, tapping his embedded translator with two fingers. “Without this device in my neck I sound like a normal human and speak English.”

“So that’s a joke in your language?” Karkat asked, his eyes wide with diabolical curiosity. “I thought it was some weird instrument.”

“Do I really sound that different like this?” Dave asked curiously, coughing through the translator. The Alternian the gab device spit out didn’t sound any different from Karkat’s voice.

“Well, yeah,” Karkat told him, snorting. “That hunk of steel in your neck makes you sound like an awful troll, like, stiff and metallic.”

“It does?” Dave asked, shocked. He thought the device worked better than that. Hal’d be so disappointed.

Karkat ignored him, something wistful in his face as he scrolled back to the part and hit play again. Dave’s true voice sang out a second time. “So this is your voice,” he said.

Dave picked up on the longing in the troll’s tone. “Do you want to hear more?” He asked.

Karkat’s head snapped up with a jolt. “Can I?” he questioned, his eyes full of hope. “How?”

Dave smirked and reached for the device in his neck. The steel circlet was cool under his fingers as he located the temporary off switch. It wouldn’t last for long, but Roxy had installed the setting to keep the rest of his throat healthy so he wouldn’t scar his vocal chords. He waited for a second for the bright spark of pain to fade as the device disconnected from the Broca’s section of his brain.

For an instant nothing changed, then suddenly Dave took a breath and felt his voice jump to the front of his mouth. It felt strange to be speaking normally after so long. His own voice sounded weird to his ears and hoarse from months of disuse.

“Hey, Karkat,” Dave said, struggling to nail all of the inflictions and nuances of the troll’s name with just his human throat and tongue. “How do I sound?”

He’d been expecting rejection, more of that confused, blank, slightly frustrated look that the troll wore the first time he’d heard Dave’s voice recorded through the track in his computer. With Dave’s expectations so low, the response he got was stunning.

Karkat threw himself forward, purring too hard to speak as he pressed sloppy kisses across Dave’s face. It was a better answer than anything the troll could have said out loud, and Dave was overjoyed. Did Karkat really like his voice that much? His simple, plain old human voice? Did the troll think it worthy of this attention?

Dave didn’t have the time to dwell on the beautiful idea of Karkat liking a part of himself this much. He laughed and kissed him back, holding the troll’s face between both of his palms. “Karkat,” he tried again, smashing the word for ‘car’ with ‘cat’ to get an approximation of the alien name.

The troll’s face lit up with recognition. “That’s my name,” Karkat laughed, his eyes twinkling in a way that Dave hadn’t thought eyes could actually do until now. God, Karkat looked so happy as he asked, “what’s yours?”

“Dave,” he answered, his name simple and short without the Alternian 6/6 bullshit the gab device forced it to translate as. He said it again, slowly, sounding out each letter. “Dave.”

“Dwavee,” Karkat tried to copy the sounds, still purring with the force of several dozen crickets locked in a tin can. “Dnavey”

“D-a-v-e,” Dave said, grinning as he heard the troll fumble through his name. His cheeks hurt from smiling. He couldn’t help but slip the shades from off his face. He wanted to see the troll’s expression unimpeded; he wanted to see the extra layer of brightness that hung around objects like a haze.

Karkat bit at his tongue, concentrating. “Dave?” It sounded like a question, but when Dave nodded enthusiastically he repeated the word with more confidence. “Dave.” Karkat was holding onto his face, staring directly into his bare eyes as he said again, “Dave.”

“That’s it,” Dave said, swallowing thickly, knowing the troll couldn’t understand him. His skin where Karkat’s hand touched his face burned. “That’s my name. Dave.” He was incredibly pleased. Everything was bright and clear. He loved hearing his true name on Karkat’s lips. It felt like he was flying. Dave was so happy and he didn’t even fucking know why.

“I like your name,” the troll told him, tugging at his white hair. “I like how it sounds when I say it. I like how your eyebrows crinkle up when you hear it.”

Dave laughed helplessly, kissing the troll deeply. This time when he bared his neck to Karkat, the troll leaned closer to press his lips against Dave’s pulse. There was no thought of Karkat biting him in Dave’s mind. He didn’t even mind the claws that traced and tripped down his sides in a way that made heat burn through him as Dave tangled his hands in the troll’s dark hair.

Had Karkat liking his voice really done this to him? Made everything feel like it was floating through stars and sunlight? Was it that easy for Karkat to flip his mood around?

“God, Karkat,” Dave sighed, safe in his knowledge that the troll didn’t understand him. “I don’t know what you’re doing to me.” The heartfelt confession went un-understood by the troll, just as Dave intended.

Karkat slipped his hands under Dave’s shirt to feel the indentions made by his ribs. The slow touch was torture. “I’ve seen you shirtless before,” Karkat hesitated, his voice husky. “Can I see you again?”

Dave peeled off his shirt in an instant, dropping the fabric onto the floor beside them. It as how the troll had asked, his voice trembling, asking not to see Dave’s body but to see him. His heart was in his throat.

Dave tugged at the hem of Karkat’s sweater, and the troll got the idea as he shrugged off his own shirt.

Dave took a long minute to explore the gray expanse in front of him. The smooth, unmarked skin of Karkat’s chest was beautiful. There were a few scars and three divots that looked like old stab wounds that Dave couldn’t keep his hands off of. Karkat was so incredibly, impossibly smooth with not one hair to mar his skin. The alien gray of his flesh drank in the faint light. The subtle glint of the silver chain around his neck shone in the darkness, a skeletal yin-yang in a symbol Dave didn’t recognize.

He still leaned forward to peck kisses at the hollow formed by Karkat’s collarbones, that necklace charm dangling before him. Karkat flinched back when Dave reached out to run a finger across steel that was warm from where it lay against the troll’s skin, almost like Karkat had forgotten he was wearing it.

“Sorry,” the troll apologized, leaning back into Dave’s touch like a moth drawn to the light. “This symbol…” he trailed off clutching the necklace as his cheeks burned. “It’s mine.”

Dave looked at the steel circlet with reverence. He knew how important to trolls their symbols or hatchsigns were. He’d always assumed that Karkat just didn’t have one. His shirt was blank after all, but…

Dave looked at the charm again, memorizing the double sweep of its interlocked spirals so that he would never forget it.

“This symbol means death to all who wear it,” Karkat explained, fingering the 9-6 charm. “It’s the sign of my blood and the Red Cult itself. Its heresy of the highest order. Treason.”

It was strangely fitting to Dave that the symbol for Karkat’s blood meant death to all who wore it. The universe just wouldn’t give the mutant troll a fucking break. Dave kissed the charm where Karkat held it in his fingers. He could physically feel the troll’s anxiety over this necklace and he fought to erase it. “It’s beautiful,” he said, knowing the troll still couldn’t understand him. “Karkat, it’s perfect.”

Nevertheless the troll seemed to understand. Karkat relaxed, melting into Dave’s touch. “Why are you doing this?” He asked, purring. “How can you care so much?”

Dave kissed him wordlessly. The translator was still switched off and there was no way to answer so he didn’t bother with trying to scrap together the right words to defend an impulse decision that stemmed from the first time he’d caught a troll with nubby horns sneaking through the vents and thought to himself, “Imma befriend the shit out of that.”

Dave figured that he was already on a mission to save his planet. Why not save Karkat too? And Sollux? And Feferi and her Cult? Why not save the rest of the Alternian race while he was at it? Why the fuck wouldn’t he just go ahead and save motherfucking everyone? If there was a way to fight free from under the boot heal of the HIC then why not take it and run to the ends of the universe and back?

Why not fight until he and Karkat didn’t have to hide?

Thankfully he didn’t need words to kiss Karkat until he could feel his heart beating in his throat as a slow fire kindled under those gray fingers.

They didn’t do a lot of sleeping that night.

 

Day 399
Dave woke up next to Karkat in the morning, feeling more relaxed and refreshed than he’d ever been. He hovered in a delicious haze where nothing could bother him. He’d never felt more at peace with the world.

Karkat obviously wasn’t feeling the same. He was tense and he fidgeted in the blankets.

“Karkat,” Dave said sleepily, unwilling to rouse himself to face another long, boring day spent waiting for the next long, boring day. He much preferred to stay in this dreamy stillness where everything was floating. “Come back to bed.”

Karkat turned to face him and Dave saw that his eyes were puffy.

“Karkat?” Dave sat upright, his voice sharpening with concern.

The troll wiped at his eyes, sniffling. “Okay,” he said. “I give up.”

“What?” Dave said, confused.

“I’ll go to earth with you,” Karkat said, his fingers knotting in the blankets. “I’ll go to earth. We’ll bring Sollux with us. I’ll contact Feferi from there and we’ll figure out what to do next.”

It took a long moment for Dave to put those words into the correct order and wring the truth from them. “You made up your mind?” Dave asked, suddenly overjoyed. “What changed?”

“I…” Karkat hesitated. “I realized that I don’t want to leave you,” he said the words like they hurt, unwilling to admit what he must have seen as a weakness, and Dave’s heart nearly burst from joy as he continued. “If we’re going to do something this insane, why not at least do it together?”

“You don’t want to leave me?” Dave asked, feeling vulnerable.

“I…” Karkat trailed off, looking at him. “I think highly of you, Dave. I’ve never felt red for someone before- fuck, I never thought I’d get to feel red for anyone. I never thought I’d get any sort of quadrant after Gamzee, and then I was lucky enough to find Sollux and he puts up with my flagrant quadrant smearing with him and everyone else because I’m still a fucking aberrant like that.” He continued with his voice lower, like he was admitting something shameful. “And can’t help but feel pale for Kanaya and Terezi and even fucking Eridan sometimes, and sometimes I hate Sollux and can’t help but egg him on, and I crushed on Terezi too even as I was pale for her because I’ve never been able to feel the right things for people and I agonized over it with everyone except you, Dave, because somehow with you, everything just feels like how its meant to be. You make me feel like I’m not fucking broken.”

“Karkat,” Dave said, his heart in his throat.

“Wait,” Karkat said, stopping him gently. “I’m not finished yet.”

Dave waited for the troll to continue with the sound of his heartbeat pounding in his ears.

“I feel,” Karkat said, “Like, with you, everything will be okay. Like I don’t have to be the perfect troll everyone in the Cult expects me to be. I can just be myself and feel red for you in the mixed fucked up way that I do- and that’s okay because you won’t judge me. Fuck, I hope that you feel the same way, because yeah, I realized that after everything that’s happened between us… I don’t want to part.” Karkat looked up at him, meeting his gaze with eyes that glittered with red tears. “So I’ll fucking trust in you. I’ll go to earth, we’ll save Sollux together, and we’ll figure out the rest as it happens.”

“Do you mean it?” Dave said, vibrating with happiness as all of his fears for the future fell away. It felt like he was soaring, not like Icarus on his wings of wax but on something much stronger- something that wouldn’t fail him or ever falter.

“Well, yeah,” Karkat said, laughing breathlessly. “Are you really this pleased?”

“Fuck yes,” Dave said, grinning, his heart soaring even higher. Karkat was coming to earth with him. Karkat was choosing to stay with him! Stay!

He’d never once had someone choose to stay.

“Do you think your planet will be okay with me?” Karkat asked, shy.

Dave sobered up at the thought of his world reacting to their certainly forbidden romance. Shit. “Uhhh, probably not all of them,” Dave said, unwilling to lie. Earth would fucking HATE Karkat, and they’d skin Dave alive if they found out. Their relationship was probably some kind of war crime if he wanted to get technical about it. Illegal didn’t begin to cover it. Mankind would have to invent new words to describe the new levels of human shame Dave should be ascending to for befriending and then sleeping with the enemy at a time when dead trolls were the only acceptable ones.

Not that it would stop him. Dave said, “but my family will support me, which means they’ll support you. I won’t let anything bad happen.” Hal, Dirk, D, Rose, Roxy, John… They would all stand at his side. They’d back him up until Karkat could show them the truth. Alternians were just as oppressed as earth, caught beneath the iron grip of their cruel Empress.

“There’s a bounty on my head, isn’t there?” Karkat guessed shrewdly.

Dave didn’t mention the 5 million reward for the capture of a live troll, or the $10,000 for a dead one. This was war. Alternians were the enemy according to earth. It was up to Dave to teach them that was wrong. The HIC was the enemy, not all trolls.

All he had to do was convince the US and various other world militaries not to attack the rebels on sight and then forage an alliance between the two hostile races. Simple.

What the fuck was wrong with Dave and his tendency for concocting and then attempting to carry out the most batshit insane plans in the history of all plans ever? He had to know because here he was, considering it.

The signs pointed to it being… difficult.

“My family, our company, Skianet, the one I work for that set all of this up,” Dave started. “We’re not affiliated with the military. We’re in the private sector. We get to make our own decisions, and if I ask that we try to make this alliance work then goddammit that’s what we’re going to do.”

Dave had to believe it. He wouldn’t let his country stop him. He might have been a soldier, but he was a private one. He still had free will. POTUS didn’t control him.

“Why do I always think that things are possible with you around?” Karkat asked, snuggling back down with him, pressing a chaste kiss on his forehead. “You make me simultaneously doubt everything I’ve ever believed and yet believe that all things are possible, even crazy hiveshit things like an alliance with the humans.”

“That’s my job,” Dave answered sleepily, yawning as he felt tiredness drag at him again.

As Karkat fell back asleep beside him, Dave thought.

He always stayed awake for the first few minutes after the troll fell asleep, just to make sure he wouldn’t have night terrors. This time, Dave stayed awake because his head was crammed full of too many thoughts for the confines of his skull to hold back.

Karkat was coming to earth with him. That was the biggest thought at the forefront of his mind.

The secret, star-crossed relationship that Dave cherished between them would not fly on earth. Shit, same-sex relationships were barely even legal. Being with an alien? The enemy? They’d lock his ass in Gitmo in a cell next to Karkat’s, and that was if he survived the angry mob that would come for him.

Somehow that dark thought failed to make Dave actually give a shit. He’d bounced through a dozen different partners in his life and not one of those relationships even came close to what he had with the troll, and like fuck was he about to give that up over backwards-ass cultural or legal reasons. He loved Karkat even if the troll didn’t understand what love was.

The thought made him pause.

Love.

He loved Karkat. Dave loved him. The sudden realization was great, it was terrible, it was the worst thing that had ever happened to him yet he couldn’t stop smiling. He felt like he was going to throw up- was that what love was like? Did it feel like swallowing a burning star that burrowed into his core? Was this love, this feeling of flying, of lying next to the sleeping troll and looking forward into a new future that for the first time included Karkat in it?

Dave’s heart was soaring above the clouds that had so long clouded his soul, flying over a cloudless sea of stars below him. This trip had wrecked his mental health until he’d found Karkat aboard the TG. He needed the troll even before he knew him.

And now there was this hope, this prideful faith that they could pull this thing off together. Rescuing Sollux was the easy part.

What came next would be harder. The glittering idea hung before him in his mind, blazing like a dying star in the distance that he eagerly reached out for like Gatsby’s fated green light.

He didn’t want to think about that- things would fall into place in due time. Right now, he’d focus on Karkat and their plan. Getting off the TG came first. Everything else could wait.

Besides, for the first time… Dave had faith.

 

Day 410.
There were only three days left in the countdown. In three days, Dave, John, Jane, and Jake would strike as one and extinguish four different fleetships from various points in the galaxies. Hopefully Dave would return home to find the other three space voyagers waiting on him.

He didn’t want to think about what might happen if they didn’t show up.

 

Day 412
Waiting was hell when Dave could feel each second slipping by in ticks of his heart. He spent the day sharpening his sword obsessively as he watched Karkat do that same with his sickles.

This was going to be a long day.

 

Day 412
Neither of them slept that night.

 

Day 413
Dave wished there was some kind of breaking dawn to announce the arrival of the day of human reckoning, but there was nothing but the same off-gray walls as there had been every past morning for the last 413 days. it was almost like nothing had changed if there hadn’t been this fire burning in his blood.

Karkat woke up last, still locked into his soporific sleep cycle even without his pills. The troll jolted awake when Dave leaned down to brush his fingers through Karkat’s wild bed-head. “Wake up,” Dave said. “It’s time.”

Karkat’s eyes fluttered open, then immediately flushed wide with the troll’s focus as he sat upright, instantly awake.

“It’s day 413,” Dave said, his sword already buckled into a sheath at his side. “Are you ready?”

Karkat leapt lightly to the balls of his feet, his eyes eager slits. “Finally, let’s wreck some HIC shit,” he growled, crossing his arms. “I’m getting my moirail back today.”

“Let’s go,” Dave said, not needing to go over the plan again. They’d gone over the plan a thousand times in the past week. Now was the time for action. Dave re-captchalouged all of his things. The laptop, the bedroll, his spare blanket, the scraps of paper he’d left lying around- Everything.

The spare space looked bare and empty without his things to clutter it. They would disappear and leave no trace behind, exactly like according to plan.

Karkat changed into a shirt Dave hadn’t seen before, the same loose black background he’d worn the entire time, but now with his sign stamped across its front in bold gray.

“So they know who I am,” Karkat explained, donning his sign like armor. “They’ll look for us on the securityfeeds afterwards. Let them see me. Let them know that I am the coming storm.”

The troll’s noble face was set, his too-close together eyes gleaming as he bared his fangs. He’d never been more beautiful to Dave. But there would be time for revelations later- now was the time for action.

At last- Action.

Fuck. Even after so long Dave wasn’t sure he would ever be ready.

Karkat led him through the half-rooms and gaps in the ship’s internal design until they reached the same hissing air vent the troll had originally crawled out of. “It’s this way,” Karkat said, and he pulled the vent cover off and squeezed his body back inside.

Dave wasn’t nearly as compact as the troll. It was a tighter fit, but he could still manage the trip as long as they went slowly. His knees would be busted to hell and back from the army crawling if they survived the next three hours.

It was cramped, but he did get a nice view of Karkat’s ass the entire time so at least the scenery was good. Because even when in mortal peril, Dave would always take the time to admire Karkat’s ass.

As he crawled Dave couldn’t stop his racing mind. There was a long length of open hallway between them and the Helmsblock, hallway that might be frequented by other trolls. Dave didn’t want to think too hard about what would happen if they ran into anyone else.

It felt like it took forever to reach the end of the twisting air shaft, which as predicted ended above a bland hallway. Karkat paused, listening hard as he slowly, carefully worked the bolts free from the inside with his claw tips. The hallway and everything past this final point was hostile territory. They’d crawled from the bowels of the ship right into the heavily populated heart, where they’d have to fight their way in if need be.

Karkat soundlessly slid the grate back and out of the way, listening for passing trolls with keener ears than Dave could ever hope for.

Karkat let himself drop quietly onto the floor below with cat-like grace. Dave followed after him, not quite as fast or graceful but every bit as silent. His knees predictably protested the landing, but Dave ignored them. His skin was crawling. There were trolls here- other trolls who would not hesitate to kill him on sight. This was the heart of enemy territory.

Thankfully there were no other trolls in sight. The hallway was clear. The gray walls were strangely organic, inset with green and purple lighting that pulsed along with the ship’s breathing. The ship had never looked so alien before. This wasn’t the automatic, self-running sterile underbelly of the ship; this part of the TG was dripping with patented troll aesthetics. Even with the lights overhead the hall was surprisingly dark, the light level set for troll eyes.

“This way,” Karkat whispered hoarsely, creeping along the hall with his sickles out. They took the straight sections at a jog and crept around corners at a snail’s pace. If they encountered another troll, it was kill-on-sight. They couldn’t afford mercy this late in the game.

The Helmsblock was hidden within the rabbit-warren of the Tryptic Cognizen’s metal core. It was the most densely protected spot on the ship, and they were breaking into it with nothing but a sword and a fancy lock pick.

Yep. This was crazy, just maybe crazy enough to work. Cue imaginary laugh track- get a look at these dumb idiots who think they can take on the HIC and Her Fleet with just a sword and two sickles. Shit. Dave shook his head, trying to focus.

Dave kept close behind the troll, trusting his ears as he watched out for their backs. They made it almost the entire way to the Helmsblock without encountering another troll, but then at the last corner Karkat froze and pressed himself against the wall.

Dave reacted automatically, his grip in his sword tightening with readiness. His heart was racing, its beat so loud and thick he was sure Karkat could hear it from where the troll stood.

Dave could just barely make out the sound of voices walking towards them. Shit. Fuck. That had to be other trolls- Fleet loyal Alternians that wouldn’t hesitate to rip the two of them into very small pieces. Dave swallowed and looked at Karkat, who looked on edge as he held up two fingers for Dave to see, his head cocked to the side as he listened.

Dave looked away, shifting his stance so that his weight was back and low to the ground, his arm angled for a clean hit. Two trolls stood between them and Sollux, and those two trolls had to go and go fucking fast before they could raise the alarm or fight back.

When the two trolls turned the corner, both wearing a strange black uniform and talking with their heads close together… they died.

Dave didn’t try for anything fancy- trolls were made of tough stuff and they didn’t die easily. With a sword as his weapon getting caught in hand-to-hand would be asking for death, so he had to win and win fast. Hit hard, be merciless, and hope that he could live with himself afterwards.

Dave loped the unsuspecting troll’s head clean off with a sideways strike as Karkat did the same. The double thump of the bodies dropping to the floor echoed loudly, too loud, and Dave froze as the green blood began to spread around his feet in a wave of thick color that didn’t reflect the light.

He didn’t look at the troll’s face. It would be easier for him not to remember what his face looked like, but his arching horns had caught on the floor and tilted his severed head up so that even in death his shocked forest green eyes stared blankly at Dave as the blood poured out.

He wanted to throw up, but instead he turned back to Karkat, who didn’t glance at the troll he’d killed. Dave knew the troll must have done this dozens of times already, but the deed still sickened him.

Dave closed his eyes. The murder was a necessary evil, one that couldn’t have been avoided. Somehow it was worse than he’d imagined it. Setting off a bomb had been so impersonal, but this was upclose and inescapable. Fuck, he had green on his hands. It was streaked along the length of his blade, mingled with the prideful whisper of his Bro in the back of his mind, the only other person Dave’d killed speaking up to haunt him.

Shit. He couldn’t afford to break down right now, so Dave shoved everything into a box inside his heart and taped it shut. He used like three layers of mental packing tape, the kind he’d need a knife to scrape off, and he opened his eyes again.

The hallway was unchanged. Karkat was still listening for anyone to come running at the sound of the brief scuffle. Dave’s momentary lapse in focus had gone unnoticed.

Thank God.

They kept moving, only encountering a single lone troll between there and the Helmsblock, a massive bronzeblood at least twice Dave’s size that Karkat efficiently broke down and then dispatched before the big guy could so much as draw his strife specibus. It cemented Dave’s guess that even among trolls, a race invented to be eager students to the art of murder, Karkat was lethal. His sickles flashed forwards and that was it.

The ship was strange. Sometimes there were doors strung like spider webs across the hall, but Karkat’s lock pick took care of them with an ease that boosted Dave’s confidence in the plan. The purple double doors looked like they’d been grown into place, the keypad at the side covered in sharp script that he couldn’t read.

Karkat jammed Sollux’s lock pick into the plug in and got to work. The thin device clicked and whirred as it ran through several thousand codes until it matched its tone with the correct frequency and the door moved open like some great plant peeling back its leaves.

“It’s just ahead,” Karkat said, his voice shaking. “Sollux should behind the next set of doors.”

Dave nodded wordlessly, his shoulders set.

Karkat put his back to the wall and peeked around the corner with the blade of his sickle, his eyes locked on what the smooth steel reflected back at him in its mirrored surface. “There’s a guard,” he whispered, his voice just above a whisper, squinting at the upside-down figure in his sickle. “A highblood.”

“Just one?” Dave whispered back, twirling his blade. That wasn’t good. He’d expected a guard or two, but not highbloods. He thought the Fleet considered guard duty too banal for anyone above a certain shade?
“Wait,” Karkat said, still squinting into his sickle. “This is a highblood female. Even with two of us she isn’t going down easy, and, and fuck.” Karkat said, his eyes widening with a sudden, horrible recognition. “Holy motherfuck. We’re doomed.”

“What?” Dave whispered back, confused. “What is it?”

“Not what,” Karkat whispered furiously back. “Who. I know her,” Karkat said, his hands shaking. “Fuck it, I know her. I know that hatchsign.”

“Is she a friend?” Dave asked hopefully, knowing form the troll’s dismayed expression that friendship was not the case.

“More like a walking daymare,” Karkat shuddered, steeling himself. “One second,” Karkat said, “back me up. I’m about to do something very stupid.”

Dave readied himself an instant before Karkat squared his shoulders and stepped out from around the last corner between them and the Helmsblock.

Karkat stood in plain sight, his hands up as Dave nearly had a heart-attack at the sight.

The blueblood guard instantly snapped to attention, looking bored until she caught sight of the sign stamped across Karkat’s chest. Her eyes glittered coldly as she drew a blue sword with a hooked end.

“Vriska,” Karkat said, his hands outwards pleadingly. “Vriska, it’s me.”

“Karkat,” The troll breathed out, smiling around a mouth full of slim fangs. “Karkat, is that you, you old bastard?” She lounged against the wall, the picture of ease as Dave followed behind Karkat with his sword out.

“You know,” she said, still grinning as she pointed the sword at him. “I thought that you were the mutant all along, but no one believed me. Now here you are! All grown up and just as stupid as when you were a wriggler.” She knocked on the huge, thick steel wall behind her and the sound echoed painfully. “When word came down the ropefruit that we caught the co-general to the Cult I didn’t think anything of the poor bastard until I learned it was Sollux. Sollux!” She crowed a laugh like she’d never heard a funnier joke, giving them the stare a snake gives a mouse. One of her eyes glittered with red, a light shining out of the mess of scar tissue that obscured one side of her slim face. “Remember him? Nerdy, sallow guy obsessed with games and bees?”

Karkat didn’t react to the prompting, instead continuing to creep closer along the hallway, nearer to the doors. “That was a long time ago,” Karkat said, sliding closer. “Vriska,” he said entreatingly, still trying to placate her. “I’m just here for him.”

Karkat’s gaze was fixed on the doors that separated him from Sollux, filled with a desperate yearning that was all too clear to see. Dave felt his gut wrench with renewed heartbreak even as he sized the slim blueblooded female up, seeking out any weaknesses.

“So?” Vriska said, and now she wasn’t grinning. She put her hands in her pockets, silll holding the sword as she shrugged. “My orders are to kill whoever comes to this door without showing the proper identification.”

“Vriska,” Karkat said, and he just sounded sad and slightly accusing. He wouldn’t stop saying her name, trying to trap her with the familiarity of it. “When did you become the Empress’s bitch?”

That got her to snap out of her slouch. She bared teeth at the pair of them. “When you took Terezi from me and vanished with that spoiled brat Feferi before Ascension,” Vriska growled, snarling. “Did you ever think about me?” she asked, curious and whimsical before her voice iced over with accusation. “You left me behind.”

“You killed Aradia,” Karkat protested. “You blinded Terezi and you crippled Tavros. What do you think would have happened to them if they’d been on-planet for Ascension Day?” Karkat steadied his sickles, his eyes clear. “You destroyed any chance they had with the Fleet.”

“And what about me?” Vriska demanded, smoothly peeling off one cerulean glove so that metal digits caught the low light to match the glint of the eye Dave had realized wasn’t real. “What? Didn’t you care about the crippled cerulean who grew up with you, mutant? We were friends!”

“I’ve never even seen you before today,” Karkat defended himself. “And you were a reckless wriggler- a danger to yourself and everyone around you.”

“I still called you my friend,” Vriska told Karkat, still ignoring Dave, who stood back and let them talk as his heart tried to beat itself out of his chest. This was an old grudge that he wasn’t getting in the middle of. Whatever had happened between these trolls… he trusted Karkat to work it out. Probably. Maybe.

“And yet you escaped,” Vriska said, still lounging against the wall. “And you left me behind to die.” The troll straightened up, her long hair curling. “Well, I didn’t die,” she said, baring fangs. “I’m too ambitious for that. I’ve got all the irons in the fire, Karkat! Allllllll of them.”

“You do,” Karkat acknowledged, not daring to argue. “You always have.”

“Thank you for the sweet recognition of my greatness,” Vriska said, bowing haughtily. It was a mocking gesture, a flourish and a sweep downward before ending with rakish glee. “Someone should recognize me. The HIC certainly doesn’t,” Vriska said, sounding bitter. “The Fleet won’t acknowledge me no matter how many superior officers I murder because I’m not blue enough for their tastes, yet I’m the one who’s constantly at your Cultist’s throats, not those pansy assed highbloods.”

“You’re one of the countorturists nagging us?” Karkat asked, freezing. “And yet you just called us friends,” Karkat concluded, every bit as bitter as she was. “You’re the one who’s been killing us. Fuck, Vriska, it’s been you all along.” Karkat said, colder than Dave had ever heard him.

“I said we were friends,” Vriska clarified. “Not anymore! You walked directly into a trap of the HIC’s design, manipulated by… yours truly!” She took another bow and Dave felt sick. “Capture your stupid ‘moirail’ then bait him until you showed up to playact savior. All the Empress had to do was set me, your old wrigglerhood friend as a guard, the one troll who’s proven herself a verified backstabber and the one troll you’d hesitate in killing! Ha! It’s a great plan even if the Empress, bless her dumb fishhag’s rotting reef of a bloodpusher, never expected me to cross her! Well,” Vriska said, growling with hatred as she clutched at her sword. “I am going to kill you for everything you’ve done to me.”

“I never wanted to,” Karkat said, pleading. “Vriska, you know-”

“I know,” Vriska said, lifting a remote with a red button on it. “That I’m supposed to hit this and then keep you talking long enough for backup to arrive.”

Karkat froze as Dave’s heartbeat jumped into overdrive. He’d been right all along this entire thing was a trap. They’d walked into a trap.

“But,” Vriska drolled, clicking her tongue against her teeth carelessly. “I was never good at following orders, remember, Karkat?” She set the remote down and slid it away with her foot. Dave couldn’t take his eeys off the red button as she moved it out of her reach. “I think I’ll kill you first, then call for them. This is between us, and the Empress can go fuck herself with her 2x3dent. Fuck, won’t it put bees in Gamzee’s bonnet when he learns that I’m the one who gutted you?”

“Fuck off,” Karkat said, immediately flinching back at the name. “Don’t drag that clown into this. This is between you and me.”

“No, it’s not,” Vriska said, knocking on the wall behind her again obsessively, exactly eight times with her metal knuckles so that the sound echoed. “You’re here for this mustard-blooded fool behind me. I’m just the unexpected obstacle.”

“You don’t have to do this,” Karkat pleaded. “Vriska, join us. Joint the Cult. We’ve all made mistakes. You don’t have to make another.”

“Why would I ever joint your merry band of traitors?” Vriska jeered. “I’m the one who’s been breaking it apart! Who the fuck did you think located your pathetic fleet and forced your moirail to giftwrap himself before shooting his escape pod right into our hands? Who do you think is the spy that learned about you two in the first place, the mole in your precious system, like I wouldn’t remember the shouty troll Terezi liked to talk with that always typed in gray. When the Red Cult reared its head, I knew it was you all along.”

“Vriska,” Karkat said, his voice hard. “Don’t do this.”

“You’re too late,” Vriska said, her eyes shining as she tightened her grip on the sword. “Three sweeps too late.”

It looked like they’d reached the end of their conversation and were about to start hacking off body parts, so Dave intervened. “Damn,” he said, motioning to the other troll. “You talk a lot.”

She eyed him with distain. “What,” she said. “The FUCK, are you?”

“Dave,” He introduced himself warmly. “And I know your entire life story now, so thanks for that. It’s really what I wanted to hear.”

“What the fuck?” Vriska said, somewhat intrigued despite of herself.

“I’m also here for Sollux,” Dave said helpfully as Karkat shot him a distressed look. “He’s a popular guy. So, Imma need you to move out of the way.”

“Karkat,” Vriska said, staring at him, waving her sword in his direction like one would at a naughty dog. “Your… pet, it’s misbehaving.”

“He’s not a pet,” Karkat protested, groaning. “Vriska, what the fuck?”

“Don’t worry,” she promised, smiling. “Whatever it is, I’ll murder it too.”

“Okay, one, rude,” Dave said, drawing his sword. “Two, you can fucking try.”

“Oh no, it’s got a sword,” Vriska sighed and drew out a palmful of what looked like blue glass beads with sharp edges. Her gaze was wicked. “Well I don’t need a sword to deal with you two freaks of nature. Do you want to see what I can do?”

“Dave, run!” Karkat ordered, lunging forward at the exact same second that the troll threw those glittering shapes at the metal floor. “Don’t let her cast those dice!”

Dice? Those things were dice? Dave watched them fall in slow-motion before he flashstepped forward just as the room exploded with a cold light bright enough to blind him even through his shades. He felt something move through the air behind him even though he knew there was no one there, heard the snick of something lashing through the air, and then several thuds as eight spear points buried themselves in the floor where he’d been standing, the weapons materialized out of nothing.

Shit. Those would have killed him. The clash of sword on sickle drew his focus off the strange weapons. Karkat had reached the cerulean troll and was fighting for his life.

Vriska was fast. She was brutal and she fought with a wild, reckless abandon that made the air shake around her as Dave cut in on their dance to try and gut he while her focus was on Karkat, but apparently she could see just fine out of the metal eye because she turned to block his sword as she raked her claws down Karkat’s face so that red blossomed under her fingers. The troll reared back, blinking the blood out of his eyes as Dave’s breath left him in a huff at the sheer strength behind the blow Vriska dealt him.

Dave knew instantly that he was outclassed. Maybe not in speed or skill, but in strength and ferocity. This troll was rabid. She was feral. She was out for all the blood she could get and she didn’t care about the injuries she picked up as long as she gave back what she got.

The eight sided dice appeared in her hand again, blue blood dripping from her hand from some nick Karkat had given her. She cast the dice, and the exact second she did Dave felt a sledgehammer strike him directly on the inside of his frontal lobe as an unfamiliar seal burned in front of his shades.

SleepsleepSleepSLEEPdontyouwanttoyouknowyoudotiredsotireddontyouwanttogiveinGIVE-IN-GIVE-IN! SLEEP!!!!!!!!

The words crowded at his mind with twisting fingers, worming their way in against his will as his head filled with the fog of utter exhaustion.

Sleep- The words hissed at him, blue reflected against his shades from the seal burning in front of his face as Karkat yelled. His sword nearly fell from numb fingers as Dave saw spots. His adrenaline kicked in as he fought against the mental attack, forcing his mind to clear before the ceruleanblood could knock him out.

Vriska shrieked as he threw off her dread influence, his sword coming up again in wary defense.

“Don’t even try it!” Karkat hissed, snarling as he drew the troll’s attention back on him. The seal appeared in front of Karkat’s face, a match to the one on her shirtfront in burning blue light. With a sharp hiss Karkat waved the glowing hatchsign away like annoying mist. “You know you can’t control me,” Karkat challenged.

“I know,” Vriska smirked, and the dice were falling in slow motion as her distraction served its purpose. They hit the ground and the white dots on them glowed with power.

Dave saw Vriska smile and threw himself forward, desperate, lunging for the dice as she aimed her surely devastating attack at Karkat.

No no no no no. She would kill him. She was going to kill Karkat. Whatever unknown power was at play here, manipulated by an insane ceruleanblooded troll with a grudge the size of Dave’s home state…. It was more power than anything could take in one hit.

Dave flashstepped forward and snatched up three of the dice. They burned into his palm like hot coals, but he slipped them into his sylladex before she could use them. The light faded from the other five dice as Vriska screamed, her scarred face furious as she turned on a dime and dove for him.

Dave barely got out of the way in time. He felt the air whistle past her blade as she swung for his face.

Dave fought back with all of his might, slicing, parrying, dodging, each time avoiding death by centimeters as he scored hit after hit along the troll’s arms. The wounds were too small to matter, and sparks flashed each time his blade ground against the metal of her left arm.

“Vriska, stop this!” Karkat ordered, flinging himself at the female. She ducked her head and gored him in the shoulder with the short curves of her scalloped horn. Karkat growled, still coming forward as the bone dug deeper into his flesh. His sickles grated along Vriska’s sword as he held her at bay.

“No!” She cried, tears streaming down her face. “You ruined everything! Now why won’t you fucking die?”

She drove her sword forward, the steel flexing beneath her hands as she tried to gut Karkat.

That was when Dave ripped his sword across her shoulder until he felt the joint crack. Her metal arm fell limp, the ragged mechanical shoulder spitting sparks as Dave severed the connection.

One-armed, she still stood her ground.

“Give up,” Karkat said, shaking her as he gingerly extracted her horn from his shoulder. “You’re done for- don’t make us kill you.”

“Fuckers,” Vriska spit, panting, her eyes mad. “What do you think they’ll do to me if I don’t give the Empress your head?”

That seemed a fair point. Karkat let her go. “Dave,” he said, and there was nothing in his face but sadness. “Watch her while I get the door open.”

“Alright,” Dave said, swallowing as he leveled his sword at the defeated, bloodied troll. She snarled at him, her arm hanging at her side like a broken wing.

Karkat stepped back, the lock pick in his hands as he set to work on the thick door to the Helmsblock.

Vriska watched him with cold eyes.

Dave guessed that Karkat didn’t want to kill her. The troll had few enough old friends that killing one off seemed tragic beyond what the situation called for. She was beaten- that should be enough. They were only here for Sollux. Random HIC soldiers, even ones from Karkat’s shadowed past, weren’t the agenda.

“I am going to kill you,” Vriska told him, hissing. “I am going to watch you die again and again.”

“News flash,” Dave said back, emotionlessly. “I can only die once.”

“I will make you suffer beyond what pathetic reckoning your feeble thinkpan can withstand,” Vriska said, brandishing her sword. “I will kill you in a way that matters.”

“You can’t hurt me,” Dave answered, unsettled at the ice in her mismatched gaze.

“No,” Vriska said, smiling. “But I can hurt him.”

Her eyes flickered to Karkat’s unprotected back a half-second before she lunged, leading with the point of her hooked sword.

Time slammed to a halt as Dave’s mind jumped into overdrive. She was closer to Karkat than he was, already the point of her sword was almost at the point between his shoulder blades. Karkat, his vulnerable back turned, had no idea what was happening, still working on getting the door unlocked as he let out a sound of frustration.

Karkat was going to die.

Dave wasn’t going to let that happen.

He flashstepped forward faster than he’d ever moved before, so fast that he became a blur as he grabbed Vriska by her dead arm and twisted her around, his heart in his throat as he tried to jerk her to a halt. Her sword missed Karkat by an inch as Dave’s sudden rush threw off her aim.

In retaliation, she turned, twisting the sword under her good arm at the wrist before stabbing backwards.

The sword caught Dave squarely in the chest. The point dipped in below his sternum and pierced deep, ramming through flesh and muscle to grate against his spine in a single, burning thrust.

“That’s for my arm,” Vriska hissed, twisting the blade so that agony sparked behind his eyes like lightning. She grabbed him around the throat, her claws digging in under his imbedded translator and ripping. He dropped his sword, tasted the blood in his mouth as pain shot through his abused throat as he heard something snap. Vriska held his hands with the palms together so that he couldn’t grab another from his sylladex. He was unarmed.

The breath went out of him. His vision short-circuited with pain as he heard Karkat yell, “DAVE!”

Dave looked Vriska dead in her mismatched eyes, mentally fought through the pain, and switched his fetch modus to Stack. He captchalouged his shades from off his face, and the action launched a sword out of his over packed sylladex like a missile. The blade caught her in the chest, a nearly identical wound to the one she’d given him as she hissed, the hilt sticking out of her chest. It didn’t slow her down at all as cerulean blood trickled out.

“You bitch,” Vriska said, stunned as she stared at the stab wound.

Then Karkat was there, snarling like death himself had arrived.

Vriska tried to draw her sword out of him, to defend against a furious Karkat, and the hooked end tore on the way out so that a fountain of blood spilled down. Dave blinked against the pain, suddenly woozy as he swayed. He heard something hit the ground, but it was a distant sound over the roar of his racing heartbeat pounding in his eardrums.

Karkat caught him before he could collapse, his hands gloved in blue. “Dave,” the troll was saying, cradling him as his knees folded in. “Dave!”

Dave raised his hand to his chest and it was slippery, too slippery for him to feel the wound with his fingers. Karkat applied pressure with his palm, trying to stop the bleeding.

“It’s okay,” Dave said, grunting. “Karkat, it’s okay.” The words crackled, warped, the broken gab device sparking with it’s wires exposed and slicked with blood.

It was not okay. He’d been impaled, staked through by a blue hooked sword wielded by an insane alien bent on double murder. The wound was fatal- he knew that. Karkat knew that. Jesus fucking Christ- anyone with eyes would have known that. At most he had fifteen minutes or so before he bled out. He’d memorized the charts and diagrams before he’d left for the TG, could name each of the muscles and major arteries Vriska had surely severed, but right now his frazzled mind couldn’t think past, “that’s not good.”

“Dave,” Karkat said again, still holding him as the troll’s voice shook.

“Get the fucking door open,” Dave spit out, gasping from the pain of speaking. Shit- breathing was agony. “I’ve got a few minutes left…. Get Sollux.” He was barely legible, the translator on its last legs, done in by Vriska’s claws. it was getting harder to make himself understood.

Dave’s mind was clear. He was running out of time, but the objective hadn’t changed. Save Sollux. Get the two troll refugees safely to earth. Fix shit. All of these things didn’t change just because of one little mortal injury.

Karkat picked him up like he weighted nothing, cradling Dave against his chest. Karkat carried him over to the door and one-handed hit the last set of commands on the lock pick. With a groan and a click the door swung inward.

The Helmsblock was dark, lit only by the glowing wires that snaked across every visible surface like veins on the hide of some mythic beast. Dave could hear the ship breathing around them, the bellows of its steel lungs groaning as they rhythmically filled and emptied.

The Helmsman hung suspended from the ceiling, ensnared by a snarl of tangled wires that tightened their grip on spindly limbs when the door hissed open. Karkat gasped, tears in his eyes as he beheld his captured moirail. “Sollux,” He said, his voice strained.

There was no answer, not even a flicker of a response.

“Get him down,” Dave ordered, unsure of how to accomplish the task himself. His training had never bothered with covering anything beyond how to blow up the Helmsblock, but Karkat had trained extensively for this task and his nimble fingers flew over the control panel as Dave slowly slid to the floor. He tried to ignore the spreading pool of blood collecting under him. It was strange- his mind was strangely calm. His fear had evaporated. It felt like he was falling.

It was a sharp contrast to the flying feeling he’d have just a few days ago. How quickly things could change. Was this how Icarus felt, soaring high, so close to his goal before he’d ultimately crashed back to cold reality. Was this Dave’s fault? Had he done something wrong in saving Karkat?

No. No- He didn’t believe that. Even if he died saving the two trolls, his world would go on. Karkat wouldn’t have if he’d chosen differently an in the end it came down to this… He was always saving Karkat.

Peace filled him. Dave was in no hurry as Karkat struggled with the controlblock until he at last jammed his lock pick into the command key and hit more buttons, growling and snarling until the lights flashed red and a siren began to blare. The door behind them slammed shut, locking them in as the lights went dark and plunged the room into darkness.

Dave could feel the wires moving. He could feel them retracting, slithering over each other in gentle squirming hisses of sound. It would have made his skin crawl if he could still feel his skin. Everything was coming in flashes, disjointed and out of order as he saw Karkat cutting away the thick wires that suspended his moirail in a nest of torment.

He wasn’t sure when he blacked out, only sure that this darkness he was falling head-first into felt like sleep as the strength poured out of him in waves with every beat of his heart. Karkat drew him back by shaking him, crying.

“Dave,” he said, snarling. “No. No no no no no. Dave! Dave, don’t you do this don’t you DARE do this to me.

Dave opened his eyes. When had he closed them? Karkat’s tear-stained face floated in front of him. Dave’s mind felt foggy, wasn’t there something he was supposed to be doing? He blinked, the memories trickling back.

“Do you… have him?” Dave asked, the immense effort of speaking the short sentence drained him. He wanted to go back to sleep- it was tugging at him, incessant and hungry and inescapable. But awake he knew that darkness was death and that scared him into keeping his eyes open for a few more moments.

“I do,” Karkat said, crying now in earnest. “Dave…”

“Shhh,” Dave whispered, fumbling blindly through his sylladex. “It’s going to be okay,” he said, locating the three things he was looking for. A piece of blank paper, a shoelace, and the clunky, round base of the transportalizer pad hit the wired floor. The bomb woven into the pad’s design was evident, the timer blank and set to go off exactly two minutes after initiation. He let out a thin noise of frustration when he couldn’t find a marker, so with trembling, bloody fingers he wrote out the words ‘DON’T SHOOT,’ in all caps with his blood and tied the string into a loop, relying on muscle memory for the movements. He didn’t trust his hands right now.

Karkat seemed to understand and looped the hastily made sign around his neck, obedient to whatever Dave wanted. The troll was really crying now, his hands still futilely attempting to stem the bleeding from the hole in Dave’s chest.

There was someone else with them. Dave could see the faint outline of sharp twin horns against the darkness. They weren’t moving, slumped over on themselves as yellow ran out of their eyes like sticky tears from where Karkat had hefted them over his shoulder.

Sollux? Good. That was important. They had to save Sollux too.

“Take me... to it,” Dave gasped out, spots behind his eyes as the shadows pressed in on him. Karkat carried him onto the pad and Dave hit the start key and then keyed in the command he’d programmed himself over a year ago. ‘drop it like its hot.’

The timer began counting down. In two minutes he’d be gone and Karkat would be safe on earth. The TG would be out of commission, the HIC’s flagship robbed of its helmsman, and Karkat and Sollux, the co-leaders of the rebel alliance, would be safely out of the Empire’s grip.

Earth would be safe. John, Jane, and Jake would make sure of that. Dirk, Hal, Jade, Roxy, and Rose would support them. Feferi would lend her support…. This, this was a fight they could win.

Even if Dave wasn’t there to see it. He’d won. He’d won. He’d done everything that he’d been asked to do and then he’d went past that. His family would be safe. Earth would be… safe.

It was getting harder to think. The timer was counting down. There was less than 60 seconds left. He blinked. 30.

“Karkat,” Dave said, needing to tell him. “I… I love you.” The translator sparked one last time but no noise came out. Dave’s final confession was lost to a technical error.

It didn’t matter. Karkat stroked his hair and sobbed, embracing him as the timer hit zero and the familiar sound of the activated transportalizer pad went off in Dave’s deaf ears.

Then everything went dark… dark as the voids between the stars.

He knew nothing else. Only darkness.

Chapter Text

Mystery Ate Icarus part three

~Karkat Vantas~

Days on Earth: 1
The last thing Karkat remembered was the oddly musical sound of the transportilizer pad activating before everything dissolved around him. He remembered the weight of Dave in his arms, bleeding, the thin form of Sollux pressed against his back from where Karkat had hefted his unconscious moirail over his shoulders. He’d been concentrating on getting all Sollux’s spindly limbs onto the round face of the launchpad, the sharp scent of blood clogging in his nose an instant before what felt like a bolt of pure energy hit him in every atom of his being.

Dave had warned him beforehand about how unpleasant being disassembled and then reassembled was, but the troll hadn’t been listening all that hard. At the time he’d still been torn about whether or not he believed the human’s impossible tale about god dogs and teleporters, but now here Karkat was- experiencing it first-hand.

It fucking sucked.

It felt like he’d thrown himself down the gaping maw of a voidmouth at beyond the speed of light. It seemed like it took forever, Karkat moving through some unknowable distance of space as green fire sparked at his fading awareness until he thought his thinkpan would melt out his auralsponges.

He could taste the sharp scent of his pulse in the back of his throat as he fought to keep Dave in his arms, but everything had gone weightless. He was floating through a fast nothingness, speeding along an invisible path he couldn’t make out.

Then the solidness of weight hit him all at once as Dave’s injured body fell back into his arms. Sollux’s thin horns banged against his wounded shoulder as the three of them crashed to a stunned, shocking halt. Karkat fell to his knees under the unexpected blow, recognizing the familiar smoothness of a transportilizer pad under his feet even as the light blinded him.

Fuck, it was bright here, and everything was gritty with the terror and adrenaline that was pumping through Karkat’s system as he squinted against the glare and looked up, clutching Dave, who wasn’t dead, who couldn’t be dead, protectively to his chest.

Karkat met the shocked gaze of electric pink eyes an instant before the human screamed.

Karkat flinched back; he couldn’t help it, the human’s eyes were so close to tyrian in shade that even all of his time around Feferi couldn’t erase his instinctive fear of that particular color. The screaming didn’t help.

The one with pink eyes wasn’t the only one that screamed. Fuck- he was surrounded by humans in a strange white room filled with steel equipment that glinted under the garish, too-bright overhead lights.

Were these Dave’s broodmates? Jade maybe? Shit, he should have paid closer attention to Dave’s descriptions.

Karkat blinked, not understanding the words the humans were using in their oddly musical voices. He got the tone though- panicked dismay, shock, and anger. He would have put his hands up if he hadn’t been dead-set on holding onto Dave, who still wasn’t moving.

The humans swarmed around him like ants, yelling demands he couldn’t understand. One of them had a sword, and that he understood just fine. Karkat was used to the threat of death, but that seemed irrelevant when Dave still wasn’t moving. “Please,” the troll said, nearly at the point of begging. “Help him.”

Fuck it- he was at the point of begging. Shit, Karkat would beg mercy from any being if it would help Dave to live through this. Karkat had begged out loud to only one other person before, clutching the microphone to his chin, pleading with Sollux not to do this as he watched the escape pod’s lights vanishing into the distance, the front of the Fleetship’s face dawning larger than life in the background as the Cult ran for its life.

Was this what he was doomed to do? Beg for his quadrant’s lives when it never fucking changed anything?

A few of the humans reacted when he spoke, recognition flooding their pale faces. Karkat remembered that Dave understood Alternian on his own. Could a few of these aliens understand him? Hope made the words pour out of the troll. “Please,” he said again, holding onto Dave as if he’d never let him go. He wasn’t sure if he could feel the human breathing and raw, unfiltered panic flooded Karkat at the realization. “He’s been stabbed- you’ve got to help him.”

More unintelligible humanspeak and the human with the sword tried to reach out and take Dave from the troll. Karkat snarled at him, his grip on his unconscious matesprit tightening before he forced his claws to loosen.

The human with the sword didn’t stop coming closer. It was clear that he would take Dave the easy way or the hard way. The set of his cold face left no other option. Karkat didn’t need to speak his language to understand the set of his body, how the line of his shoulders was set for violence.

From what Dave had told him, these hatchmates were like some strange pack of moirails to him. That meant they wouldn’t hurt Dave, right? They wouldn’t take the red human’s injury as a chance to kill him like any non-quadrant should have done at the first sight of his red blood?

What a terrifying though, to trust someone else so much that even bloodcolor didn’t matter.

Karkat chalked it up to humans being ridiculous with the degree of trust they showed each other and hoped that he was making the right choice. Karkat held Dave out to the human with his bloodpusher in his throat. He let the human with the sword take Dave from him, his chest fracturing apart as he did so, growling at the human because he couldn’t help it. The strange alien was just so close. Karkat could have reached out the instant the human’s pale hands were full of Dave’s body and torn his thin throat out.

The man instantly began arguing with the other humans, one of them older, his face dreadfully pale in a similar way to how Dave’s skin looked. The older human argued with sword guy, two younger females still screeching in high-pitched voices as they transferred Dave to the two girls.

The guy who took Dave was wearing similar eyecoverings to the pair that Dave kept religiously glued to his face, though this pair flared into points at the corners. The human removed his shades to reveal yellow-orange eyes in a shade Karkat had never seen before. Dirk, maybe? Or Hal? Karkat couldn’t be sure which human this might be. The older one who had also drawn a sword must be the one Dave named ‘uncle’. The two of them looked identical enough that it sent a bolt of pain though the troll.

The younger human brandished the black triangles at him, still holding the sword with a thunderous look on his face as the two female humans quickly lifted Dave onto a wheeled table and wheeled Dave away and out of sight down a sterile white hallway.

Karkat blinked, ignoring the other human with his eyes only on Dave. He tried to follow after Dave, his bloodpusher pounding, but the guy with the sword was there to block him.

Outraged, Karkat drew his sickles out and hissed.

The guy didn’t flinch. The uncle did, taking something out of his sylladex that Karkat identified as a projectile weapon. Karkat ignored him, his face locked on the Dirk/Hal human. He held his sword with the same easy grace that Dave did, his arm loose and relaxed, betraying the hyper-ready tension that Karkat could sense hiding below the surface. The guy was still talking and again he brandished the shades at Karkat.

It almost looked like he wanted Karkat to take them.

Hesitantly still baring his strifespecibus, Karkat snatched the shades from him and spared them a single glance. They looked like plain old black eyecoverings until Karkat caught the glint of light from inside them and remembered all at once that Dave’s original shades that Karkat had snapped had contained a small but functional husktop.

Karkat put the shades on. He hated the feeling of them on his face and how they pinched at his ears, but the darkness they brought to the over bright room was welcome.

timaetusTestified (TT) began Pestering timaetusTestified (TT) !

The sudden flash of color made Karkat bare his teeth, but the words were in the Alternian script he’d grown up reading and the familiarity of them in such an unknown place hit him like a punch to the gut even as he read them.

TT: I’m only going to say this once, so speak clearly and think very carefully about what you say next.
TT: What the fuck did you do to my brother?

“What the fuck?” Karkat said, looking around the room at nothing but hard, angry faces. They thought he did this? Karkat supposed he couldn’t blame them for the base assumption before he tried to set them right. “I didn’t do anything to him. This wasn’t me.”

The writer of the red text must be someone in the room because more words followed so Karkat knew they’d heard him.

TT: The only reason you’re still alive is because of that sign around your neck so cut the bullshit! Who the fuck are you? What happened to Dave? Who is the second troll with you?

“Sollux,” Karkat answered the easiest question first. “His name’s Sollux. He’s…” Karkat trailed off, unwilling to say more. He did not trust these people. Karkat wasn’t telling them anything until he knew more. “He’s with me,” Karkat said stubbornly.

TT: And you are?

“Karkat,” Karkat answered, still unwilling to elaborate. He marched back to the dead transportilizer pad and pulled Sollux up into his arms. He had to swallow down the helpless churr that rose up his thorax at the sight of his moirail’s head hanging limp and bloodied. His bloodpusher dropped at the way Sollux hung boneless, his face emaciated and worn, the cheeks hollow and cut with thin stripes from where wires had forced their way in.

TT: Why were you with Dave? If you didn’t stab him, who did? How long ago did the injury occur and what weapon did it?

Karkat walked off the raised dais the pad was sitting on and kept going until his back was at the wall as he hunched down in the corner with Sollux, glaring daggers at everyone left in the room so they wouldn’t dare to come closer. Karkat’s freshly unhelmed moirail was unconscious and bleeding, his grievously injured matesprit missing, maybe dead, and he was on an alien planet surrounded by hostile natives out for his blood while a faceless alien yelled at him through a pair of sunglasses. Karkat was this close to just fucking losing it .

His nerves were worn thin to the point of nonexistence. Scienterrorists would have to invent new technology in order to view his newly microscopic nerves.

Karkat huddled against the wall, glaring like he was planning the gruesome murder of everyone in eyeshot. It did wonders for keeping the humans away. Even the red text guy had gone silent as Karkat focused on Sollux’s slack face.

The goldblood was bleeding from nearly three dozen small wounds, holes and punctures left over from where the biowires had burrowed furrows through his flesh, corduroying senseless patterns of inflamed tissue left behind in their wake. The part that worried Karkat the most was how unresponsive his moirail was.

Sollux hadn’t moved at all. He hadn’t even screamed or flinched when Karkat had cut the biowires free of him. He’d just hung suspended from the ceiling like a sab of dead meat, folding limp across Karkat’s shoulders once freed. It didn’t look like Sollux was currently in any pain from being unhelmed, but Karkat couldn’t be sure. He didn’t know what was going on inside Sollux’s likely over-fried thinkpan.

Karkat tried to smooth out the dips in Sollux’s face left over from the psionic binders he’d ripped off, revealing a mass of scar tissue surrounding Sollux’s eyes- proof that he had gone down fighting. Karkat felt his own eyes water as he brushed Sollux’s limp hair back from his waxen forehead. His best friend had lost weight from his already wasted frame. His wrists were thin enough that Karkat could have wrapped one hand around both of his skinny arms.

Minus the blood and the scars, it almost looked as if the goldblood were asleep. Karkat nudged at one of Sollux’s closed eyes and the eyelid didn’t even flinch when he ran a clawtip across Sollux’s eyelashes. The complete, utter lack of any response made a sour taste coat the back of Karkat’s throat as he hugged Sollux’s body to his chest, struggling not to cry.

The red text pinged across the shades again, sending a conditioned flash of aggression through the scared troll.

TT: You said you name was Karkat?

He didn’t answer. He’d resolved not to talk to strange aliens that he couldn’t see. The other human was still by the door, every lean muscle in his body watchful, a sword in his hand.

TT: And his name is Sollux?

In response Karkat curled into a tighter ball, completely failing to not freak the fuck out as his breath came in short gasps of pain. Dave was gone, Karkat had lost him, Sollux was probably dying in his arms, and Karkat was stranded alone on a hostile alien planet with no hope of survival.

He’d failed so utterly that it was laughable. How had their plan gone from passing with flying fucking colors to this so quickly? As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t blame Vriska. No. This was on him. If he hadn’t been such a fucking useless wriggler who forgot to watch his own back, Dave wouldn’t have gotten stabbed, and if Dave had been okay literally everything wrong with this situation would be okay, because that’s what Dave did. He fixed impossible things and he made it look easy while he did them.

The damnable red text came again, incessantly trying to drive Karkat through the fucking wall with irritation alone.

TT: What do you know?

“Fuck off,” Karkat whispered, feeling a stray tear squeeze its way past his clenched eyes to slide down his face in a warm streak.

TT: I’m just trying to figure out the whole story. Things will go faster if you help.

“Why the fuck should I help you?” Karkat spat, feeling slightly crazy as he addressed no one, casting his words onto the void of the sterile white room.

TT: Karkat, I’m Hal, Dave’s brother. I’m just trying to help him.
TT: Isn’t that what you want too?

“You don’t know what I want,” Karkat said darkly, clutching Sollux tighter as he tried not to shake himself apart at the seams. What did he want? Dave to be better? For Sollux to wake up? For them all to be safe with the Cult and far, far away from shitty planets named earth?

TT: You asked us to help him, and that sign around your next is written in Dave’s handwriting. Clearly there’s a story here, one that has Dave not wanting us to put a bullet through your skull. That’s the only reason you’re still alive, you know. It might be in your best interests to try and change that by cooperating with me.

“Fuck you,” Karkat snarled. “Kill me, don’t kill me, why should I fucking care what you decide? You’ll do what you have to do no matter what I have to say.” He curled into a smaller ball, seething with misery.

TT: What a stunningly bleak conclusion, but true all the same. I won’t lie to you, Karkat. You’re not in a good position here. Things might get better if you tell me what happened to my brother.
TT: Please. I want to know. We’re trying our best to save his life but you’ve got to help us out.

Karkat nearly gasped with wordless relief. So they were trying to help Dave, not hurt him. These humans really did care about Dave- they were trying to save him.

Did that mean that Dave could be saved? Could he make it through this? Karkat sat up straighter as painful hope shot through his battered bloodpusher. “He was stabbed,” Karkat repeated stubbornly. “With a sword.” He wasn’t trying to be overtly helpful, but the words spilled out of him as soon as he grasped the idea that this might help save Dave’s life.

Karkat couldn’t stop remembering the sound it had made, how Dave’s breath had squeaked out of his aeration sacs, his face twisted up with agony as Vriska ripped the sword through him. The troll was breathing too fast and he couldn’t catch his breath.

TT: Any more details you’re willing to provide? Everything helps.

Karkat blinked and his eyes felt sticky. “It should have been me,” Karkat said, his bloodpusher fracturing inside him as he gasped in a sob. He wiped at his eyes with frustration as his stupid, useless body started to cry without his explicit permission. “Okay? Is that what you wanted to hear? It should have been me.”

The red text, Hal, didn’t even have the decency to let him fall apart in fucking peace.

TT: And why do you say that? How do you two know each other? In what state is the Fleetship Triptych’s Gamblignant?

“The TG is wrecked,” Karkat told him, grinning a little despite the situation as he imagined the sheer magnitude of what they’d done. “It’s floating powerless in the depths of a different galaxy at the mercy of whichever voidmouth happens to be the nearest. We did that part at least.”

The TG was down, the HIC robbed of both her ship and her future Helmsman. The Empire had been dealt a huge blow and the victory had gone to the humans and their small blue and green planet all because Dave had been willing to stand up and do what needed to be done.

It was only Karkat who had lost.

TT: The TG is down? The Helmsman was taken out?

Karkat gulped back his next words before they could leave his mouth, aware that he was on thin fucking ice. He let out a bitter bark of a laugh and stared at Sollux’s still sluggishly bleeding wounds. “You could say that,” Karkat allowed, swallowing. “The TG has no Helmsman now.”

The only human in the room, Dirk, reacted to that. His chin tilted, his orange eyes on fire as Hal continued to bug him. Yeah, that human definitely understood spoken Alternian.

TT: Jane and Jake aren’t back yet. Stay in this room until we figure out what needs to be done about you. Dirk and D will stay to make sure that you don’t go anywhere.

“Well fuck you too,” Karkat snorted, growling. At the sound Dirk raised his sword threatening but Karkat didn’t give a single shit. He was over with giving a shit about anything. His level of shit had been surpassed to the point where he’d stopped caring at all. “If you’re going to kill me just get it fucking over with.”

TT: But here’s the thing.
TT: I don’t want to kill you. You’re interesting. You know things. And most importantly, possibly the last thing that Dave ever did was ask us not to kill you.
TT: I might not have done many great things in my life, but I’ll respect Dave’s decision to trust you enough to spare your life for now, even if I don’t understand why.

“Ha” Karkat said weakly. Even dying and absent, Dave was still protecting him. Karkat felt like crying all over again as he hugged Sollux to him in the corner of an alien room so far away from anything that he’d ever known, cast adrift in a strange sea without his matesprit beside him. “Just tell me if he dies, alright?” Karkat asked, exhausted. Would they let him see Dave before they killed him? Jegus, Karkat hoped so. Maybe these alien’s “human compassion” would extend to a heartbroken troll who’d lost everything.

TT: I’ll let you know the instant something changes.

Karkat shut his eyes and tried to ignore the screaming in his head. Feferi would find some new way to overthrow the Empire- she didn’t need him. She needed Sollux and his brain more than the Heiress had ever needed the mutant who came with him. Karkat had always been the bonus troll, good only for what he could get away with. Feferi would find a new general. She didn’t need him.

Sollux did need him though. Karkat was his unconscious moirail’s only support on the entire planet. If anything, Karkat had to stay alive for him. Filled with this new resolved, Karkat sat with Sollux in his lap, waiting for answers that he might not ever get.

 

Days on earth: 2
Karkat didn’t sleep. The two humans watching him didn’t sleep either. Sollux didn’t wake up. His moirail didn’t even flinch as Karkat purred and chirped at him, trying to call him back, to evoke some kind of response from his limp best friend. It didn’t work. Sollux just kept breathing evenly, in and out, and nothing more.

The two humans didn’t react as Karkat fussed over Sollux’s body. D and Dirk, it must be the two of them. Which meant the two females from earlier were Rose and Roxy, respectively. Had one of them been John? Hal had mentioned that Jake and Jane hadn’t returned.

Karkat knew that probably meant the two humans were dead. All four succeeding like Dave had, but completely alone, was next to impossible. The unlucky human who got onto the GG probably hadn’t lasted a perigree. Dave had been lucky.

A new guard came to relieve the older human. Dirk stayed where he was as a black haired human traded places with D. His eyes shone a cold blue from across the room as Karkat sneered at him. These humans might not have a Hemocaste, but blue-eyed strangers still freaked him the fuck out.

Karkat spotted a metal circlet embedded into the human’s neck and he perked up as he recognized a translator like the one Dave had worn. “Can you understand me?” He asked, just to see if he could get a reaction out of something, since Sollux was being an unending pit of frustration on that subject.

The human shrugged. “Dirk says I shouldn’t talk to you,” he said, the translator in his neck functioning in the same electronic voice that Karkat had been listening to for nearly a sweep. It was music to his auralsponges. Language- what a blessed thing to possess.

“Why not?” Karkat asked, secretly pleased that he’d guessed Dirk’s name correctly. He still hadn’t given back the pointed shades in case the mysterious Hal decided to bother him again. The sunglasses were at his side, upturned so that Karkat would see if the red text returned.

Dirk said something unintelligible and the blue-eyed human laughed uncomfortably. “I’m John,” he said, clearly ignoring Dirk. “It was my pleasure to take out the Extant Bioterrorevival.”

Karkat knew that Fleetship. It was one of the ones that had been hounding the Cult for sweeps. They’d culled dozens of good trolls with their massive artillery guns. Karkat was glad to know that this John human had apparently fucked them up. In part it explained the gab device sewn into his throat.

“Good,” Karkat said, swallowing. “I hated that fucking ship.”

Dirk picked his head up at that. John spoke again, his voice rusty from disuse. “You see,” he said, coughing. “Dave is my best bro, and he shows up here dying with two trolls at his back. That doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture, does it?”

“Hal already gave me the speech,” Karkat said, trying to tone down his immediate urge to be aggressive.

“I believe you,” John said, sliding down the wall into a seated position fifteen feet from him, much to Dirk’s obvious displeasure. The humans bickered back and forth for a moment before John decided to ignore Dirk.

“You do?” Karkat asked, surprised.

John shrugged. He kept switching the device in his neck on and off to chat with both of them. “If you wanted Dave dead, you’d have killed him. Since he’s still alive, you probably didn’t stab him.” The words were reassuring, but there was something sly in his eyes. “Do you know who did?”

Karkat had been around Terezi long enough to recognize a little good trollcop bad trollcop. Apparently that trope crossed the species line. “There was a guard at the door to the Helmsblock,” Karkat said. One little piece of information wouldn’t hurt, right? “I killed her, but not before she took a sword to Dave’s thorax.”

John sucked in his breath through his flat plant-eater teeth. He shrugged again, but this time the nonchalance was an act Karkat saw straight through. “There were trolls between me and the Helmsblock too,” he said quietly. “Three of them. No guards, just three unlucky gray bastards wandering the wrong hallway at the wrong time. I killed them.”

A part of Karkat wanted to doubt that this scrawny human could defeat three trolls, but there was a silent strength to the set of his broad shoulders, steel hiding behind his clear blue eyes. Karkat didn’t doubt it- this human was probably every bit as lethal as Dave. “We killed four,” Karkat said, noticing how both Dirk’s and John’s eyes tightened at the word we.

“You keep saying that word, according to Hal,” John mentioned, and his eyes were startlingly bright. “We.”

“Just ask your questions,” Karkat sighed, feeling exhausted.

“How do you know Dave?” John asked immediately, jumping at the chance to wring some answers out of the stubborn troll.

“We met on the TG,” Karkat told them. “Maybe a perigree after Bec dropped him off.”

“You know about Bec?” John said, surprised.

“Yeah,” Karkat said, shrugging. “Dave told me everything about you. He talked about you a lot, John. Dirk too.”

Dirk said something else, louder now, obviously asking a question. John looked uncomfortable. “What exactly did he say?”

“That the HIC was getting ready to majorly fuck your planet up even more than these weak attacks she’s been masquerading as while she gets the invasion force into position,” Karkat said to the dismay of the humans. “She’s going to kill every last one of you, you know that, right?” He wasn’t sure why he was egging them on. Karkat only knew that he didn’t like this game of back and forth nearly as much when it wasn’t Dave on the other end.

John snorted, grinning. “She’s welcome to try,” he said. “Now that we know our plan works, we can take out any ship that comes in range.”

“No,” Karkat corrected him. “The First Guardian can drop you of on the ships, but that doesn’t mean anything anymore. After today they’ll be an army surrounding each of the Helmsblocks. Your soldiers won’t be able to make it through.”

“We can adapt as well,” John waved his concerns away in a way that reminded Karkat of Dave’s chill demeanor, how he’d roll with it and somehow emerge triumphant on the other side.

The memory hurt as it passed through Karkat’s thinkpan. “Is Dave still alive?” Karkat asked, feeling weak for asking. His stories always talked about one quadrant feeling it the instant a partner died, but that was fantasy. This was real life. In real life, quadrants died and they stayed fucking dead and left the remaining side of the square all alone.

“He is,” John said, and he fucking smiled, the bastard. “Rose told me that he might be okay.”

“What?” Karkat said, straightening up.

“Yeah,” John said. “The blade missed his spine and didn’t rupture his stomach. His esophagus was split and a lung collapsed, but he should be fine in a few weeks. He lost a lot of blood too.”

Karkat understood almost none of that. Blood loss he got, but what the fuck was a lung? Was it like a rib? A bone? An organ-thing? “Is he awake?”

“No,” John said. “He should be soon though.” John gave him a look. “Will Dave tell us anything about you that we need to hear from you first?”

“I’m not saying anything more until I speak with Dave,” Karkat said firmly, his bloodpusher singing at the news that Dave might survive.

“What makes you think that we’ll let you see him?” John asked logically. “For all we know, you’d take that chance to kill him before he says something damning about you.”

It was sound logic, logic that Karkat didn’t know how to argue against, so he reached into his strife deck and decaptchalouged his main pair of sickles. John didn’t move, but Dirk lunged closer, his sword raised to fight. Karkat just raised his thick eyebrows and glared at the man until he put the sword back down, then he kept shedding weapons onto the floor. He removed his fire-eggs, the blaster, three more pairs of sickles, the ceremonial sword Feferi had gifted him when she promoted him to a general- Everything. Then when Karkat was done and he had nothing else on him, he took the actual strife specibus card out of his sylladex and handed it to John.

“That’s everything,” Karkat said tiredly, now disarmed twice over Dave’s wellbeing. It hurt more the second time, when he saw an immediate need to be defended. Now he was defenseless.

“This is your strife card, isn’t it?” John asked, attempting to read the Alternian stamped across it.

“Yes,” Karkat said.

“One more thing,” John said, sliding closer.

Karkat would have moved away if there had been anywhere else to go.

“So,” John said. “Your friend. Is he dead?”

“Sollux?” Karkat asked, not surprised. “No. He’s just injured.”

John craned his neck around to try and peer at the troll lying on the floor behind Karkat. “He doesn’t look that injured.”

Karkat reached up and tapped his clawtip against his temple. “He’s hurt up here,” Karkat admitted.

“A head wound?” John asked, and his sympathetic tone must have been a lie because this human didn’t know Sollux from troll Adam. “Do you want us to see if we can help with that?”

What? No. NO.

Karkat instantly growled at the human, hunching protectively over Sollux’s prone body. “Don’t you dare touch him,” Karkat snarled, baring his teeth. “I’ll kill you if you touch him.”

“Woah, easy,” John said, backing up, his hands raised. “I just wanted to help.”

Lies. Of course they wanted to hurt Sollux- that’s what people did when they found unresponsive trolls with distracted quadrants that couldn’t properly protect them. If they got to Sollux, these human aliens would certainly kill him. Karkat could feel it in his bones.

“You can’t touch him,” Karkat snarled again, desperately wishing that he was still armed, but no, like a desperate fucking moron he’d given up every weapon he had for the hope of seeing Dave again.

It hit him then how utterly outclassed he was. These humans had already tricked him into being defenseless and now they were targeting his moirail. These aliens were viciously intelligent; they knew just how to manipulate his emotions. As hopelessness seeped in, Karkat caught sight of the color red from the shades again.

He snatched the glasses up, shooting john a distrustful, aggressive glare until the human backed the fuck up.

TT: You are in a quadrant with the goldblooded troll. I am sure of this based on your behavior.

“Fuck off, Hal,” Karkat snarled, his hands in fists at his sides. “My romantic life is none of your fucking concern.”

TT: Actually it is.

“We’re moirails, are you fucking happy now?” Karkat asked, beyond irritated as he sought something to vent his frustration on. The red text seemed to be the only available target that couldn’t fight back. “What is even with you?” Karkat said, growing angry. “Do you always sit somewhere else and watch people through screens like some kind of fucking freak? Or are you just too afraid to show your face?”

TT: Neither.
TT: You mentioned that Dave spoke often of Dirk and John. Didn’t he ever tell you about me?

“Of course he did,” Karkat defended himself. “He never shut the fuck up about you.”

TT: Did he ever mention computers?

“He said you were a fucking fantastic hacker,” Karkat answered, putting as much lethal sarcasm in his voice as he could physically bear.

TT: That is also correct.
TT: I am a hacker and a computer. I don’t have a body to watch you from- I exist solely as a computing device that maintains its own intelligence. I am an AI.
TT: My name is Hal Strider and I’m every bit as much as a brother to Dave as Dirk is.

Karkat couldn’t quite wrap his head around that statement. He tried to question the device, aware that the text was nothing more than a computer program like the bots that Sollux used to code to harass the Fleet. “So you’re an advanced grubbot,” Karkat sneered, uncaring. “So what?”

TT: That is a vastly incorrect and vaguely hurtful assumption, but discussing my existence is not the point of this conversation.
TT: Your moirail is badly injured. He’s been unconscious for over two days, which in any species in a sign of severe brain damage. There might be irreversible damage done to him.

“I know how a fucking panbreak works!” Karkat said, distressed as Hal forced him to face what he’d been trying his hardest to avoid. He swallowed thickly, trying not to cry again. “I know that he might not wake up.”

It hurt him to admit it. Saying so was like pulling one of his own fingers off at the root, but as the hours passed and Karkat still elicited no response of any sort from his moirail, he had to start considering the fact that Sollux might not be okay.

Helmsmen weren’t meant to ever be removed. Sollux hadn’t even been fully Helmed and the biowires had cut him deep inside his skull. Who knows what kind of panbreak having a horde of moving metal slithercreatures lodged in a troll’s frontal lobe caused?

TT: Then you know how important it is that he receive help immediately.

“I am helping him,” Karkat argued, furious at the thing that called itself an AI, whatever that actually fucking meant.

TT: I mean medical help by trained professionals. At the very least we can get some fluids in him.

“Fluids?” Karkat asked, scared now. What the fuck did that mean? Poison? “You want to hand him over to a docterrorist? They’ll kill him on the spot!”

TT: Karkat, listen to me. You’re not on Alternia anymore. This is Earth, and we earthlings don’t just kill helpless people for no reason.

But that was the thing. Hal had plenty of reasons why he’d want to take out Sollux. They were at war. War mean humans killing trolls. Karkat shook his head, refusing to believe it.

TT: W have doctors here- good people who’ve given their lives to helping others. They even take a vow to do no harm. They might be able to help your moirail.
TT: Don’t you want to help him?

And now even the AI was manipulating the troll’s emotions. Karkat squinted at the shades in his hands, worrying at his bottom lip. He’d always been a sucky troll with too many drippy useless emotions to count, and these humans were picking apart every one of the vestigial feelings that most of his species wasn’t cursed with bearing.

Lucky bastards.

“Of course I want to help him,” Karkat argued. He just couldn’t trust these humans to want the same.

Suddenly, before John or Hal could reply, an alarm began to blare overhead. Strobe lights flashed painfully bright against Karkat’s light sensitive eyes. “What the fuck is that?” Karkat complained, throwing an arm over his face to shield his eyes. It almost reminded him of the attack sirens Sollux installed in the Cult ships to alert to when a Fleetship was drawing close enough to attack. Sirens and lights like this were never a good sign in his experience.

The change in John was instant. “Shit!” He cursed as Dirk jumped into forward motion, running for the door, cementing Karkat’s assumptions that this was an attack alarm before the human said, cheerfully and with ecstatic excitement, “Someone’s coming back!”

Karkat was immediately tempted to follow after them. It was either Jane or Jake, he knew, surprised that either of them might still be alive even as his ‘this is a fucking trap’ senses went off. Then he realized he didn’t need to follow them as more people poured into the room. Of course- this is where the transportalizer pad was. This was the block where it happened. All transportalizers fed into this block.

“WHO IS IT?” John yelled, the translator in his neck still set to Alternian. Karkat spotted the Rose and Roxy females again, though he didn’t know which was which. D was back as well, his older face lined with both worry and relief.

Karkat responded to the influx of people by hunkering down in the corner with Sollux. This wasn’t his business anyway. He was still waiting on his reunion. Karkat still slipped on the shades to see if Hal had anything to say, but the AI was conspicuously absent, probably distracted by the madness happening as the AI coded the return sequence as fast as he could to catch them a they flashed by the earth in a billion separate particles.

The siren grew to an unbearable pitch as a green light began to shine from the glass walls of the transportilizer pad. It happened all at once. Between one blink of the eyes and another- a person was lurching off of the pad, her eyes cold and filled with a manic light. She held a massive red culling fork in one hand, its tines bloodied purple. She was grinning ear to ear as the other two girls shrieked and threw themselves at her.

Jane then, Karkat thought as the aliens buried one of their own beneath a many-armed embrace that frankly Karkat found both disturbing and disgusting. Human compassion was a wicked thing that he wanted no part of.

Karkat almost couldn’t believe it- a human had taken out the GG, the premier churchvessel of the Fleet, a floating carnival city populated only by highbloods and their slaves. Then she’d survived to make the return trip in once piece. Impossible. What the fuck was with these humans?

John was still helpfully babbling away in Alternian with no idea that he hadn’t turned the translator off. “Jane!” he said, hugging her. “You’re a day late! We thought something had happened to you!”

“Guys, I’m fine,” Jane said, laughing as she extracted herself from the pink-eyed human’s grip. “Roxy, please,” she said, giggling. “I’m fine, you can stop strangling me. John! You’re back too!”

Karkat tacked the name onto Roxy and pegged the other girl for Rose. At last he felt like he had all of the names down, until a wild black-haired girl stormed into the room with an oddly wooden rifle in her hands. “Jane!” She yelled happily, the gun vanishing into her sylladex.

Karkat was beginning to learn how to pick names out of the human gibberish that was their language. He wished he knew more than that, because like this it felt like he was only getting less than half of the conversation.

“Jade!” Jane yelled back, just as pleased.

Karkat felt like an unwelcome spy, watching their private reunion. He couldn’t help but know that this joy and relief was supposed to have been for Dave’s return as well. This, this fucking celebration, crying happy tears in such a carefree way, glad enough to burst… that was supposed to be how it had gone for Dave’s return. Instead these fragile but resilient humans had gotten one mutant troll, one panbroke troll, and a mostly dead hatchmate.

All in all, Karkat supposed they could have handled things worse that this benevolent neglect. He didn’t fucking want any attention. He just wanted Dave back.

“I did it!” Jane said triumphantly, before she seemed to realize her voice was in electronic Alternian and switched the translator off, continuing in the unrecognizable human tongue as Karkat seethed about the loss of communication. Dammit.

Karkat sat in the corner and watched them with heavy lidded eyes. Jane didn’t notice him. The humans were all talking as one and the noise of their joy was so loud that it took Karkat a few seconds to recognize that the lights were flashing again.

Another one? Jake, it must be the last one. This time he stood up to get a better look at the landing pad as the aliens finally caught on to what was happening. At last, their final happy ending was inbound with the return of the final person and the destruction of the fourth ship.

They stood silently, buzzing with anticipation, waiting gleefully for the final member of their party. The lights flashed, the warning siren wailed, and when the smoke cleared there was nothing on the receiving end of the pad except for a pool of still spreading blood.

Karkat blinked his gastricsack dropping. The blood was teal mostly, mixed with gold and that bright shade that humans all shared. There was a moment of silence as Karkat bloodpusher ached in unfamiliar sympathy for their surely dead companion. That blood on the ground might as well have been a banner- the Jake human was gone.

Dirk stepped onto the pad and bent to swipe two fingers into the blood on the floor, his skin smeared with that unmistakable red. Karkat didn’t need to speak his language to understand the crushing tilt of his shoulders, how his hand trembled.

Dirk said something decisive, wiping away the blood.

“No,” John said, dismayed, his face fracturing as tears filled his blue eyes. “No, it can’t be. He can’t be…” John trailed off, unwilling to say the words.

It honestly didn’t matter if the human was dead or not. He’d missed his one shot at returning to his home planet even if most of the blood on the ground wasn’t his. “Come on Hal, talk to me,” Karkat said out loud, growling as his bloodpusher gave a squeeze.

The red text returned in a hurried outpour.

TT: Hold on.
TT: Jake… Give me a minute. My emotional processing center is a tad overwhelmed at the moment.
TT: No.
TT: NO.
TT: It can’t end like this- it can’t. Jake can’t be dead.

“What are they saying?” Karkat asked, wanting to know what was being said. “The blood appeared, so that means the bomb went off, right? The Helmsman is down?”

TT: I’m sorry I can’t I just can’t I need a moment.

timaetusTestified (TT) has become an idle chum!

Karkat put the glasses on again, just to help with the light. Fuck, it was bright in here. Were all human blocks lit by these painfully bright overhead lights? Why?

Jane noticed him all at once, her face streaked with tears. Her eyes widened when they met his mutant red ones from across the room, and then she was charging forward, yelling, her culling fork aimed directly at his chest.

The attack was quick and vicious- everything he’d come to expect from humans. They could shift at the drop of a hat from complacent preybeasts into something more deadly, something that would fight back and fight back hard.

Karkat reared back but there was nowhere to go, the wall was directly behind him and besides, he couldn’t just leave Sollux helpless and on the floor behind him. Not one of the grieving humans tried to stop her, so it was up to Karkat to save his own fucking life, like always. Except that now he was unarmed and the alien had a distance weapon that he’d never seriously faced before because he’d had the common sense to stick to Feferi’s good side. That fork looked like it meant business. The indigo smeared along the red tines proved that it was an effective weapon in her hands.

Karkat held his ground as John yelled “Jane, stop!”

It was too late for that- she clearly was deafened by grief and misunderstanding and intent on graphic murder. He had to act fast.

Karkat twisted away from the prongs as they crashed past, gouging out deep ruts in the wall behind him as he stepped over Sollux’s prone body to grab her elbow and twist, his legs sweeping behind her knee to bring her safely down.

The girl was as strong as a cholerbear. Her arm didn’t even fucking budge as, maddened by her rage, Karkat fought to disarm her. He was still far stronger, but he didn’t want to hurt her as he tried a different move, his empty hands up placatingly, trying to get her to stop before this got any worse.

Coldly, the human took his peaceful stance as an opening and reversed her swing.

The backswing caught him across the jaw and he saw stars. Something deep in his face cracked as he felt a tooth split down to the root with a burst of agony. Blinking away stars, Karkat shook his dazed head to clear it.

The successful hit gave Jane an opening he didn’t agree with, a straight line to his bloodpusher that he jumped to close before she could take more advantage of the stars he was still blinking away. But she rushed the move, sloppy with her eagerness to kill him and, overbalanced, it was easy for Karkat to throw himself forward and tip her over.

Locked together, they crashed to the floor. There were other humans screaming as Karkat knocked the culling fork away and closed one hand around her throat to hold her in place as he pressed her palms together with his other hand to prevent her from snatching another weapon out of her sylladex.

She bucked, trying to throw him off, but Karkat didn’t budge. He’d won this fight and, disarmed and overthrown, the human fell still. He could do anything to her now. She was small and fragile beneath him, ready for breaking. It would have been easy.

Suddenly he remembered an almost identical scene, with his hands locked around Dave’s throat except that Dave had never looked at him with such hatred before, not even then. He let her neck go, his hands shaking.

“Are you fucking done?” Karkat asked her, breathing hard. He could taste blood in his mouth from where his teeth had cut into his cheek.

Jane silently glared her hatred at him, seething. “Let me up,” she demanded.

Karkat rolled his eyes. “Not if you’re just going to attack me again,” he said, then the cold point of what he could have sworn beforehand was Dirk’s katana touched him in the back, directly between the wings of his shoulders.

“Let her go,” John demanded, his voice a tight warning. There was no friendliness left in his blue eyes as Karkat looked up at him. He was surrounded by the humans and they all had weapons on him.

Karkat spat out a mouthful of toxic red blood. “She attacked me first,” he said, defending himself, swallowing past the ache in his jaw. “I didn’t even hurt her.”

“Let her up, now,” John demanded, and it wasn’t a question.

Karkat shrugged, feeling the sword move against him as he took his hand off the human’s thin neck. It wasn’t even red where he’d grabbed her. The troll had gone out of his way to be as gentle as possible. Dave would have been proud of him, and that thought more that the sword at his back is what made the troll let her go.

Jane squirmed out from his grip like an oiled fish, a second culling fork instantly appearing in her hands.

“Jane, wait,” John said tiredly. “Don’t hurt him. He’s… with us? Maybe?”

John’s apparent hesitation made Karkat bark out a laugh. The sword at his back left as he turned to glare daggers at Dirk. “I wasn’t going to hurt her,” he told the man.

Dirk shrugged. “It sure looked like you were,” he said in perfect Alternian, but it wasn’t in his voice. The speaker in the backup pair of shades he wore spoke the words.

What the fuck? Had he been able to talk this entire fucking time? Asshole. Karkat narrowed his eyes at him.

Dirk wasn’t looking at him. He was still staring at the blood in his hands that he’d picked up from the launch pad. “Hal,” he said, expressionless. “Run calculations on the probability of Jake still being alive.”

The red text pinged across Karkat’s shades, just like he assumed happened to Dirk.

TT: All factors accounting for, the odds are below 11%.

Dirks hand clenched into a fist. “I’m going after him,” he said, the words repeated in Alternian so that Karkat could understand them.

TT: Dirk…

“Not possible bro,” John said, shaking his head. “We all knew the risks.”

“I’m going after him,” Dirk repeated.

“Now wait a minute,” Jane said, shaking her head. “What’s going on? Why is there a troll here? Where’s Dave?”

No one answered her, too caught up in the latest drama to care.

“The pad went off,” Dirk argued coldly. “The Helmsman is out and down, that means the ship is still where it was when he hit the return sequence.”

TT: Actually its momentum would still be rocketing it along. I can cross the systems to pinpoint exactly where he jumped from, but without knowing the exact speed and direction of the ship it’s impossible even if we could get Bec to take you out that far.
TT: It just can’t be done.

“But what if he’s still alive?” Dirk said.

TT: Then he will die a hero.
TT: And we will mourn him forever.

“That’s not acceptable,” Dirk said, angry now. “We can’t just leave him out there.”

Something occurred to Karkat. He spoke up. “You said you can pinpoint exactly where he was when the pad went off?” Karkat asked, interested.

Dirk and John just looked at him, surprised.

TT: I can.

“Can you do it? Now?” Karkat asked, feeling foolish as everyone watched him.

TT: Why?

The red text didn’t convey sound, but Karkat would have bet that was suspicion he heard in the AI’s imaginary tone.

“I might be able to tell where the ship is if you find out where it was,” Karkat said, getting excited. “Sollux figured out how to track Fleetships through space sweeps ago. I have all of the algorithms on my husktop.”

“You can track him?” John asked, surprised and growing hopeful, damn him. “That’s impossible.”

“It’s possible,” Karkat said, moving now. “But we have to be quick.” He pulled his husktop out of his sylladex and booted it up in his lap, falling to the floor beside Sollux as he spoke out loud to Hal. “Find out where he was and give me the coordinates.”

TT: I don’t see how this is a feasible thing to do. It just can’t be done.

“Fucking do the fucking math already!” Karkat snarled, keying through several different versions of the coding Sollux had installed in his husktop as he pulled up the specifics for the GT, the Gladiator’s Tandem. Thank jegus that Sollux had hacked this particular ship’s statistics before or this would be more impossible than it already was. Karkat hacking into the coding himself, careful not to touch anything else about the code as he embedded a command to ignore normal ship speeds and dropped engine thrust down to zero.

This was only possible because he knew exactly where this Fleetship was going- the rendezvous with the Empress on Alternia. If he knew the speed, height in space relative to Alternian units, and direction, Sollux’ code could find out the rest.

TT: Here.

Hal splashed a complex star chart across his shades. It was still crazy for Karkat to have the image appear so close to his eyes, but the coordinates were readable as he set the constrictions equal to the chart, copied over the proper grid sequences, and hit enter.

The husktop whirred for a second. “How long ago did Jake hit the send key?” Karkat asked as the husktop ran through several million different outcomes in the span of a few seconds.

TT: 23:14:55:81 minutes to seconds to milliseconds and smaller ago.

Karkat quickly adjusted the code to keep up with the GT in real-time as the most probable coordinates appeared on his screen. Thank fuck- it had worked! Sollux’s genius was continually surprising him even after three sweeps together. “There,” Karkat said, relieved as he turned the screen around to face the humans. “That’s where the ship is.”

TT: How sure are you?

“More than 99.999% accurate,” Karkat answered, swallowing thickly. “Sollux coded this himself. It’s correct.”

Dirk stared at the ever-changing coordinates, his face hard, “Jade,” he said. “Call your dog.”

“Dirk,” the girl, Jade, protested, Hal helpfully translating the words for him across the shades to keep him up to date at fucking last. “This is crazy.”

“We’ve been running off of crazy, in case you haven’t fucking noticed,” Dirk said, drawing his sword again. “Jade, please.”

“No,” she said, sternly, still crying. “Dirk, he’s gone.”

“He’s alive,” Dirk said, stubborn hope all that was left in his voice. “I don’t care if he’s hurt or captured. He’s alive. That’s all we fucking need him to be. Everything else I can work around.”

Karkat stared at the bunch of humans oddly, trying to piece together quadrants but coming up blank. They all cared so much.

“Call your dog,” Dirk said again. He wouldn’t ask again, Karkat knew. “I’m going. I’ll bring him back.”

“And what if we lose you too, you dickhead?” Jade protested unhappily.

“I’ll be fine,” Dirk said, shrugging. “I’ll take a transportilizer with me. I swear I’ll jump back if anything happens.”

Still not convinced, Jade put her fingers to her lips and let out a piercing whistle. With a happy bark and a burst of green fire a white woofbeast without a face bounded into the room out of thin air.
What the fuck?

The beast was huge, bigger than a gobberripper, large enough to ride into battle. Its tongue writhed between teeth large enough to crush Karkat’s head in one bite as it turned its eyeless head in his direction, its nose sniffing out his scent.

Karkat froze, staring at the First Guardian with wide eyes. It was like staring at a daymare beast, lusus-white and mean with it, an animal beyond even Tavros’s taming influence.

“Easy boy,” Jade said, patting the hellspawn with her palm as it began to growl with the tone of tectonic plates shifting. “Not that troll- he’s a friend.”

The beast’s white ears perked up at that and it sniffed in his direction with interest.

“Can you do me a favor?” Jade asked the beast like it could understand her, even though this First Guardian was young with the age of its planet and still millennia away from achieving the gift of language.

The white dog barked, wagging it’s tail.

“I need you to jump Dirk out into space, following some numbers to a ship, just like you did with Dave and Jane last year,” Jade said, her voice low.

“You can’t bloody go alone,” John protested. “Here, let me go with you."

“I have to,” Dirk answered. “You’re freshly back, John. Yo’ve already done your part and you’re needed here. Besides, Bec can’t carry more than two people.”

“Then I’ll go,” Rose said, stepping forward.

“Now wait a second,” D said, waving his hands. “No kid of mine is jumping their ass into space. We’re done with that shit, do you hear me?”

“No, let me go,” Roxy said, her face determined as she ignored D completely.

Jegus, humans were dumb when blinded by their emotions. There was one clear solution here, one that Karkat hated. The words were out of his mouth before he could take them back. “I’ll go,” Karkat said.

Silence met his words.

“I said I’ll go,” Karkat repeated, the husktop vanishing back into his sylladex. “There’s probably an army between us and Jake by now. I know how to navigate a ship like that and blend in. I also am arguably the best person here at killing trolls.”

“Troll’s kill each other all the time,” John said, scoffing. “They’re all backstabbing miscreants. What makes you special?”

How best to answer that? Karkat closed his eyes against his best interests, imagining all of the trolls he’d killed. Highbloods in his wrigglerhood, neighbors with the misfortune of glimpsing his scabby red knees, anyone who’d seen his eyes before he escaped to off-planet with Feferi and the Cult, where as a general he’d really racketed up the fucking body count.

He couldn’t even count all of the trolls he’d killed, or had gotten killed on faulty orders, information aged just enough to be non-compatible with the current plans, all those ships that had left on his orders that had never returned to dock with Feferi’s flagship. Young trolls, trolls his age, bright-eyed with the hope instilled by the Cult and believing in him, gone off to die by his word.

Those were the deaths that haunted him, not the kills he made when fighting himself. Those were the easy ones. It was the rest that had no map and left him reeling.

Karkat pulled the fang Jane had broken out of his mouth along with another mouthful of red blood. He wasn’t worried about the tooth- it would grow back quickly. He showed the mutant splatter on his palm to the human. “This does,” he said darkly, blood on his gray fingers.

The humans might not have been trolls but they recognized mutant just as fast as Dave had.

Dirk just shrugged, peering at the color with interest. “I’ll take it,” he said. “If you’re still alive now, you must have been through some shit.”

“No kidding,” Karkat said, wiping his hand clean, hating how his own blood looked when exposed under these harsh white lights. He tasted tin in his mouth.

TT: No.
TT: Dirk, NO.
TT: I can’t let you do this.

“Hal,” Dirk said, sighing as he rubbed at his eyes. “Don’t worry, I’ll be right back.”

TT: NO.
TT: This is not acceptable! I can’t let you throw your life away over an 8% chance of success.

“I thought you said it was 11%?” Dirk asked wryly, one eyebrow quirked.

TT: It keeps dropping as time passes.
TT: Dirk… he’s gone, okay? Jake is dead, and even if he isn’t there’s no way that the two of you can fight your way through the entire ship to get to him.

“Watch us,” Karkat said, straightening his shoulders. “I’ve pulled off worse.”

Rose hugged Dirk around the neck. “Take this with you,” she said, handing Dirk a card with a familiar pad stamped across it. “You can make the jump home with this.”

Dirk took the card.

“Dirk,” John cried, horrified. “You can’t take the troll with you.”

“Why the fuck not?” Karkat asked, growing irritated. They were wasting time! Every second there would be more trolls streaming towards the Helmsblock like a kicked stingernest and with every troll that joined the fight the smaller their chance got.

“Because if we get you back on a Feetship, what’s to stop you from killing Dirk and staying there where you’re safe?” John asked logically.

Karkat laughed and there was no humor in it. How could he best explain to these aliens that there was nothing for him in the Fleet beyond a painful death filled with more suffering than they could imagine? “I’m a fucking mutant,” he snarled, baring his bloody fangs. “They hate me more than they’ll ever hate you.”

“Fair point,” Dirk said, stretching out his limber form in readiment for the upcoming battle. “Dave trusted him,” the man said. “That’s good enough for me.”

Karkat’s throat was tight. Dave…

“Okay,” Jade said frowning. “But,” she warned. “Dirk Strider, if you don’t come home by tonight I will have Bec rip apart the universe looking for your ass, which I will then give to him as a chew toy.”
“I swear I’ll be back,” Dirk promised. “Karkat?”

“I’m ready,” Karkat said, his bloodpusher pounding. He looked once more at Sollux, left lying on the fucking floor like a dead troll, but his moirail wouldn’t miss him when locked in the deathsleep like he was. Karkat would be back in time to figure out what to do next with him, hopefully.

The dog stood like a roarbeast in the center of the room as Dirk slid onto it’s back. “Coming?” Dirk asked him.

Ignoring how pan-numbingly ridiculous this was, Karkat followed after him. He tried his hardest not to touch the human or any more of the woofbeast than necessary, which was impossible when the thing licked him, white fur caught underneath his claws and up his fucking nose- white fur everywhere.

With a snap and bark, green fire erupted around then and for the second time Karkat was traveling through a land of green fire, being squeezed down to his finest particles and the reassembled into troll-shape.

This time the journey was instantaneous. He didn’t even have the time to pray that the dog wouldn’t drop him off outside of the ship to suffocate and freeze to death.

They hit the floor in an unfamiliar hallway, but in the Fleet if he’d seen one hall he’d seen them all. This one was empty as the dog skidded to a stop, shook Dirk and Karkat off its back like annoying fleas, and then vanished again.

“Ungrateful hellbeast,” Karkat huffed, climbing to his feet as he took off the shades he’d been wearing and captchalouged them. Finally- lights that didn’t hurt his eyes. In fact, the pulsing purple and green colors were almost comforting when compared to the stark alien-ness of earth.

Karkat instantly rolled to his feet in a fighting stance, Dirk cautiously staring at him with his sword raised like he half expected the troll to charge him.

Karkat scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Keep that sword ready,” Karkat whispered, already moving along the hall. “The Helmsblock is this way.”

Dirk said something in humanspeak that Karkat couldn’t understand without Hal there to give him a translation.

Karkat blinked at the human as the language barrier slammed into place again. “We didn’t fucking think this through,” he said, sighing. “Okay, just follow me,” he said, stepping forward. He hoped the human would listen.

He knew where he was from the sound of the thrumming in the halls, the emergency lights on as the stalled engines groaned and shuddered, locked in their dying throes without a Helmsman to power them. He followed the thickness of the wires embedded in the ceiling to his target, following the thickest ones that, now limp, would lead to the most likely place to pick up Jake’s trail.

The reality of what was happening began to sink in right about then. Karkat was back in the Fleet, off of earth, and safe from the humans, maybe forever if he killed Dirk now. Seriously. If he killed Dirk he would never have to go back to earth again. He’d be free.

The passing notion held no weight. Right now, the only two people he truly cared about were on earth, so that’s where he had to return to.

Karkat crept along, Dirk behind him.

The voices alerted him long before he saw them. Loud, angry snarls and curses, the floor rocking with a minor explosion. He picked up the pace, stopping just at the bend of the hall to the Helmsblock, where he could hear several angry trolls milling about, around a dozen of them.

He pulled a sliver of mirror out of his sylladex and checked around the corner. He counted 12 trolls.

Fuck- that was a lot. Could Dirk handle that many? Could Karkat?

The next words hurt his chest to say. “Kill them all,” he whispered to Dirk, in the mirror his eyes on the closed door as in a flash he realized what must have happened. “Jake’s behind that door.”

That was all Dirk needed to hear. He nodded once, his chin dipped low as his stance shifted forward, ready to go.

Karkat took a deep breath and charged.

There were twelve trolls, mostly fucking highbloods of course, because things could never be easy could they? One was at the back and already injured, bleeding from several small, strange holes punched through his thorax. Karkat killed him first, silently, then disarmed him of the short sword and the generic single-shot blaster he had that most cerulean officers carried.

One down.

Dirk didn’t hesitate, but by then the trolls had spotted them.

“Behind!” One yelled, and Karkat shot them through the throat with the single shot left on the blaster. When they dropped, he chucked the gun into the face of the nearest troll and threw himself at them, leading with the short sword he’d taken from the blueblood. He wished that he still had his sickles, but this blade would do for now.

Karkat cut a swath through the trolls. They were mostly high ranking officers not used to this kind of outright battle melee, more suited for sneaking around and assassinating anyone above them whose positions they coveted. The more incompetent ones died first as they threw themselves at the two rebels in a tangled knot, getting in each other’s way, knocking blows off balance in the lust to kill for themselves. It was a mess.

Dirk was ruthless. Karkat was vicious. The trolls were off guard and unawares, it was a massacre as they cut through the other trolls. The last three were harder, seasoned bluebloods used to fighting but unfamiliar with the cold, cutting wrath displayed by Dirk, who like Dave seemed to be able to move fast enough that his image left an imprint in the air behind him. Karkat had been schoolfed with the best and brightest of hand-to-hand fighters, and even with a weapon that wasn’t his the mutant troll was lethal.

They fought and killed until only one was left. This one wasn’t an officer- he was a petty lowblood guard armed with only a knife.

The rustblood stood shaking. The sight tugged at the strings of Karkat’s bloodpusher.

“Easy,” Karkat said, stopping Dirk as he advanced on the terrified lowblood. “Let me handle this.”

Dirk shot him a blank look that made Karkat growl at him. “It’s okay,” he said, ignoring the human as he advanced on the rustblood.

Karkat drew his claw across the meat of his palm until the blood welled up. “See?” he said, lifting his bloodied hand. “You don’t have to fight me. I’m on your side.”

Dirk watched with alert, wordless eyes as Karkat walked closer to the motionless troll, because even now he couldn’t stop working for the Cult.

“Come here,” Karkat said, waving the troll forward.” I’m not going to hurt you.”

The troll did as instructed, stupid with a lifetime of conditioned obedience, clutching the short knife between shaking fingers.

When he was close enough, Karkat drew back his fist and clocked the troll as hard across the temple as he could with the pommel of the short sword. The troll dropped like a stone.

Dirk said something unintelligible, surprised but voiceless without Hal to translate.

“There’s a lot you don’t know about us,” Karkat said by way of reply, and then he made sure to coat both sides of the troll’s tiny knife in his blood before placing it back in the unconscious troll’s fist. He shook out a few splatters of his mutant blood onto the floor around them just in case.

Dirk said something that translated to ‘what the fuck’ even without a gab device. Karkat ignored him and drew out his entrysnipper. He advanced on the door, “Watch my back,” he said after staging the scene of the unconscious troll’s battle. He’d learned from his mistakes. He wasn’t going to let another sneak attack ruin everything.

It was quiet with the Empire trolls either dead or unconscious. Too quiet. Karkat’s skin prickled with warning an instant before he caught the movement out of the corner of his eye.

There was a final tealblood left hiding behind one of the thick columns that supported the ceiling. She leveled the barrel of her blaster directly at the center of Dirk’s skull, her thin finger on the trigger.

Karkat reacted without thinking, snatching Dirk backwards by the scruff of his neck. The human yelled when he felt claws sink into his skin, but Karkat snatched him to safety right before the sound of the shot nearly deafened him.

The opposite wall exploded from the force of the shot intended for Dirk’s head. Shit.

“Mutant,” the tealblood hissed, her face streaked with blood as she drew a thin sword out of her sylladex. “No, worse, Cult-scum. Vantas.”

The sound of his name made the corners of Karkat’s mouth tighten. This skinny tealblood reminded him so much of Terezi that for an instant that he couldn’t move. She knew who he was, so she had to die.

It didn’t make it any easier for Karkat to loop his arm around her throat when she lunged forward in a reckless, desperate rush to die, trying to at least take Karkat down with her in the scarce few seconds that she had to live before Karkat twisted to the side with her head trapped under his arm. Her neck broke in a series of pops like firebruners going off before she went limp and slumped to the ground.

He stared at the dead troll, at all of them he’d killed. More bodies fed into the pit of the Empress’s bloody war.

Dirk said something rubbing at his neck. Karkat didn’t understand it but guessed it was some kind of grudging thanks.

He shrugged and plugged in the entrysnipper key, knowing that these doors were programmed to lock automatically if anything happened to the Helmsman. He trusted Sollux’s device to get him in anyway.

It took a long moment to work. This was one encryption key that wasn’t meant to be broken- these doors were fucking sealed. Karkat jangled the entrysnipper in the port, tapping his claws with worried impatience as the seconds ticked by.

At last the key sang true and the massive double doors clicked open. The Helmsblock inside was a dark, destroyed mess. Burned biowires littered the floor. The Helmsstand was empty, a blackened body on the ground from an explosion that was fresh enough that the char still smoked. That wasn’t the only body on the ground. Several unidentifiable others littered the floor.

“Jake?” Dirk called out, the name one of the few words Karkat could recognize. “Jake?”

Karkat locked the door behind them for safety, knowing that, alive or dead, the human was somewhere in this small, burning block.

Silence met Dirk’s words. With an ache Karkat nudged one of the blackened bodies with his foot, wondering how he would even fucking tell if this fried corpse was once human or not. Fangs maybe?

Karkat was broken from his dark musings by a faint reply.

“Dirk?” Someone called out, their translator hoarse from lack of use. It staggered out of the shadows, two small gray steel guns pointed directly at Karkat’s brain. “Dirk, get back.”

Karkat stared death in the face and snarled, baring his fangs. The sound rattled up through his thorax and vibrated across his ribs, a clear warning screaming ‘don’t fucking try it’.

The human didn’t understand warning tones that a newhatched wriggler would have understood. There was a second, just one, where Karkat was sure he was about to get headshot.

There was some kind of irony at play here, Karkat was sure of that.

“Jake, no,” Dirk said his arm protectively across Karkat’s chest as he said several more unintelligible things. He took one decisive step closer, bringing his body between Karkat and the gunman that had to be Jake.

“Dirk, move back,” Jake said, his voice crackling. His hand on the pistol didn’t shake. “I’ll get it.” His face was black with soot, his glasses coated in it. He smelled like things left burning on a grubtop.

“No,” Dirk said again.

Jake squinted at them. “You’re not real,” he said at last. “Neither of you. You can’t be real.”

Dirk threw himself forward when he was close enough to reach the other human and kissed him across the mouth. The guns dropped back into his sylladex as Jake reflexively kissed him back.

Well, that was one human quadrant he could pin down. No wonder Dirk had been so crushed and anxious to come after Jake. They were matesprits.

Dirk said something else that was lost to the troll, but Jake’s answer was still, blessedly, in Alternian.

“Okay, you’re real,” Jake said, laughing. “How did you come after me? I thought I was a fucking goner, mate.”

Dirk answered, pointing at Karkat, who bristled, remembering how ten seconds ago Jake had wanted to kill him.

“A troll?” Jake asked, the aggression gone from his voice, replaced by diabolical curiosity. “What an odd occurrence, I’d say.”

Karkat bared teeth at them both with irritation.

Jake was clutching at a wound above his elbow, something blue wedged deep into the meat of his bicep. “One of the fuckers shot me,” Jake said, cursing. “Blue guy with a bow. Knocked me straight off the platform, I tell you. Then I had to run and the bomb went off. I thought I was stranded! Dirk, how’d you do it?”

Dirk just kissed him again wordlessly.

Karkat stared at Jake’s arm with sudden cold apprehension at the arrow wound. “Let me see that,” he said, grabbing for the injury.

Jake snatched his arm back, his skin twinging in the open air. “Leave off it,” Jake shrugged. “It’s not a bad wound. Its barley bleeding now.”

“Let me see it,” Karkat snarled, afraid.

Dirk said something softly to Jake, his voice a murmur. Jake cautiously gave Karkat his injured arm.

Karkat sniffed at the wound, staring at the snapped-off blue shaft of the arrow. The human had the good sense to leave the arrowhead in, but that’s the part that worried Karkat. Before he could warn the human, he snatched the arrowhead out of the muscle.

Jake yelped, cursing as blood squirted up. Dirk said something, angry now.

Karkat lifted the bloodied point to his lips and it tasted bitter. He spat it out, his face twisted with worry. “Poison,” he said.

Jake stared at him with his pupils blown wide, one more so that the other as his arm shook. “Well,” he said. “That’s not good.”

These stupid humans.

Karkat decaptchalouged his stash of flareseeds crushed into blackpower and poured the dust into his palm. “Hold still,” he said. “This should fix it.”

Dirk stopped him from applying the power to Jake’s arm, his face expressionless.

“Dirk, stop,” Jake said, “I think he’s trying to help.”

“Think?” Karkat said, offended.

“Well?” Jake said shrugging. “I’m not the best linguist of us. I’m only getting about half of what you’re saying, mate. No offense, but your good language is right fucked up.”

Karkat barked out a laugh. He’d said much the same thing to Dave over a halfsweep ago.

“There’s no peanuts in that, right?” Jake asked, not really worried.

Dirk was still obstinately shaking his head. “No,” he said, growling the word out in an approximation of Alternian.

“Dirk, mate,” Jake said, “what are the odds that our docs will have something to treat this? I don’t know about you, but I’d trust the alien bloke to know his alien poisons.”

Karkat huffed, getting irritated again as the two humans bickered back and forth.

“Jake,” Karkat interrupted, his voice serous. “Close your hand into a fist for me.”

Jake shrugged and tried to do as told. His hand didn’t move. It hung as limp as if the nerves had been severed.

Karkat could have sighed with relief. So it was a paralysis type. The ground up flareseed should work fine for that particular poison.

“Crikey,” Jake said, shuddering as he prodded his limp hand. “That would be the poison, wouldn’t it?”

“Duh,” Karkat said, “And I know how to stop it before it reaches and paralyzes your bloodpusher, which I’d say might happen in as little as three units.”

“That’s like, fifteen minutes right?” Jake said, swaying in place where he stood. He was oddly calm for someone shot up with highblood toxins. “Dirk?”

Dirk snapped something, exasperated and tired as he embraced Jake. This time, he didn’t stop Karkat when the troll reached for Jake’s arm.

Karkat rubbed the blackpowder into the open wound, applying a thick layer. When satisfied that he’d used enough, Karkat said, “Dirk, hold him down. This is going to hurt.”

This time Dirk did as he was told without arguing, wordlessly taking Jake’s shoulders and extending his arm as Jake looked back at Karkat, his face woozy. “What’s going to hurt?” he asked.

“This,” Karkat said, and then he lit the match.

Jake understood at once and gritted his teeth. Karkat could hear the groans from the Helmsblock as the Empire began drilling through the door with laserbits. They weren’t making fast progress though, and when Karkat touched the match to the powder a small blaze lit up. They’d better make this quick before the Captain ordered the doors blasted open.

Jake howled, writhing despite himself as his flesh sizzled. A second later the wound had burned itself shut. The smell was terrible and added to the overall burned aura of the human.

“Ouch,” Jake hissed out his breath. “Is it over?”

Dirk inspected the wound, his face worried. He asked something.

Jake translated. “Does this mean I won’t die slowly and in pain?” he asked.

“You shouldn’t,” Karkat answered. “The flareseed should counteract the poison. You should get the feeling back to your hand in a few human minutes.”

Jake flexed his arm the best he could, his face clear. “Thanks,” he said, still cradling his injured arm.

“Dumbass,” Karkat said, hissing. “Both of you! Now let’s go- the Empire is trying to break in.”

“Did you bring a second transporilizer?” Jake asked, excited now as he contemplated going home.

Dirk pulled the card from his sylladex and decaptchalouged the item. The familiar bulky shape of the pad hit the ground on top of the blackened biowires.

For a second Karkat felt nothing but sadness- so many dead trolls, all for nothing but the Empress. They hadn’t even managed to save any of the other Helmsmen. Everyone was dead except for that lone rustblood that Karkat had spared. They would leave nothing behind them but more bodies and more destruction.

Then Karkat stepped up onto the pad, half expecting Dirk to shove him off. It would be a believable excuse to kill him now- any troll would have, but the human made no move. Jake was still gazing at Dirk with adoration, too caught up in staring at his matesprite to wonder about the troll joining them.

There was the now-familiar jingle as the seconds on the bomb began to count down. Karkat heard yelling from the doors as the lasers began to cut through the thick steel, then there was a flash of green light brighter than the sun and the three of them were gone.

 

Days on earth: 3
Karkat took the second return trip easier than the first. He didn’t even want to fall over this time. When his feet hit the landingpad he immediately threw himself off of it to make way for the stampede of humans that rushed Dirk and Jake.

“You’re back!” Roxy screamed, crying, hugging both of them. “Jake, you’re alive!”

“What? Did you really reckon a bunch of trolls would do me in?” Jake asked teasingly as Dirk grabbed him like he would never let go again.

Karkat edged off into the corner of the room, unseen until he reached the corner he’d been staying in and noticed something that made his blood run cold.

Where was Sollux?

His moirail was gone. The corner of the tiled floor had a few smears of yellow blood on it, but the skinny troll was missing. Where did they take him?

Fuck their happy reunion, these fuckers had stolen his moirail. Karkat rounded on the closest human, D, the older one, baring his teeth and letting out a hiss that this time he actually fucking meant. The sound rolled through him, ripe with the promise of violence. Every eye in the room shot to him, hands flying for weapons as Karkat rounded on the older human.

“Where’s Sollux?” He asked, furious and afraid. “What did you do with him?

D held up his empty hands placatingly but Karkat wasn’t fucking buying it.

“Where is he?” Karkat demanded, and the bloodied short sword appeared in his hands that he’d stolen from the blueblood he’d killed.

“Easy, Karkat,” Dirk said, his translator working now that he was within reach of his electronic hatchmate. “D, where’d you take him?” He asked the older human, his voice calm.

"Upstairs, the medical wing,” D answered, his reply also helpfully translated by Hal. “We just gave him a bed to get him off the floor. I thought it would be best for everyone if we didn’t let him die in the corner.” He said, his voice unflinching.

“Let me see him,” Karkat said, his own voice shaking.

“Alright, just calm down,” D said, placating. “Sollux is fine. We didn’t hurt him.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Karkat snarled, more scared than he would ever have admitted. His anger was a mask to hide his fear, and he wore it well. He had sweeps worth of experience behind him when it came to disguising his real emotions beneath a layer of hard-boiled hatred, but for some reason Karkat couldn’t shake the feeling that these humans saw straight through him.

He followed D up a flight of stairs. The rest of the humans stayed behind to celebrate Jake’s return, though Karkat would rather of had the human’s wound rechecked to make sure the burnt flareseed had finished neutralizing the toxins from the poison. Oh well. He’d done what he could. If the human lose a hand to the poison that wouldn’t be a guilt for him to bear.

Karkat wasn’t sure why this D human trusted him enough to walk with his back towards the troll. Was that just a human thing? It was eerie. Karkat couldn’t stop staring at the vulnerable space between the man’s shoulder blades and imagining how easy it would be to drive a sword through him.

Karkat blinked and shoved the violent fantasy aside, slightly sick as they climbed upwards several flights to a bright, open place. Light streamed in through the windows, the kind of light only produced by nearby stars and Karkat hesitated before following after the human, staring with distrust at the stupidly untinted windows.

Did they want daywalkers? Because this is how trolls got daywalkers- overexposure to the poisonous, toxic sunlight indigenous to his home planet.

TT: It’s alright.
TT: Our sun isn’t radioactive enough to hurt like it is on Alternia. It’s completely harmless.
TT: In fact most people think it feels nice, though personally I wouldn’t know.

“Fuck off Hal,” Karkat muttered, huffing under his breath with clear discomfort as he stepped into the light. It didn’t burn his skin on contact like he’d feared. It didn’t do much of anything actually. He couldn’t even feel it.

Still somewhat hesitant, he continued after D.

The human stopped before one door, an identification reader embedded into the wall beside it. D swiped a card he pulled out of his sylladex and the doorway clicked open.

Sollux was laying peacefully in a fluffy white recuperation platform, his face still just as slack and dead to the world as before. There were two leather cuffs securing his skinny wrists to the sides of the platform, but honestly Karkat couldn’t blame the humans for taking a little precaution. It’s not like those puny cuffs could stop him if Sollux woke up.

“How’s he doing?” Karkat asked softly, eyeing the thin screen that hovered above his moirail with apprehension. The monitor beeped softly, a moving line steadily undulating across it in a familiar rhythm.

It was hard to remember to hold onto his anger at the sight of Sollux’s battered face. They’d cleaned the last traces of the blood off him, and now Sollux looked as if he could be asleep. Karkat’s bloodpusher ached fiercely at the sight.

Sollux certainly looked better here than he had on the floor.

D said something that Karkat couldn’t understand. He kept talking while Hal butted in.

TT: It’s hard to say.
TT: We do have a baseline for troll homeostasis, but none for his specific bloodcolor. There seem to be no files in the Fleet that pertain to the health and wellbeing of goldbloods.
TT: So I’m running diagnostics through cross-referencing with the other castes. Color aside, the differences between him and a brownblood shouldn’t be that disparate.
TT: He isn’t wounded in any way I can tell without running anything more invasive than a physical.
TT: You said this was a head wound?

“Yeah,” Karkat said, swallowing thickly, aware he was on thin fucking ice.

The AI continued like he hadn’t noticed Karkat’s blatant hesitation to answer.

TT: We could always run an MRI to see if there’s any indication of trauma, though I’m not sure how recognizable your brain structures would be to us.
TT: It would help if you told us what exactly happened to him. What kind of head wound are we dealing with?

For a second, Karkat was tempted to tell the truth. It’s just… Sollux looked so much better now, and it honestly sounded like these aliens wanted to help him and maybe Karkat was starting to believe that, but… No. No, he couldn’t trust that they’d still want to help if Karkat revealed the fact that Sollux was psionic and the universe’s only surviving ex-Helmsman.

“He hurt his head,” Karkat repeated stubbornly. “That’s what happened.”

TT: So…
TT: You won’t tell me. Does Dave know what happened?

“Yes,” Karkat answered, unwilling to outright lie.

TT: So why is it a secret? What’s making you so unwilling to reveal what happened?

“Fuck off,” Karkat said, his go-to response delivered lackluster.

TT: I’m also downstairs talking to Dirk and Jake. Dirk says that you did most of the work in saving Jake, including battling through the majority of the enemy trolls, leading the way to the Helmsblock, unlocking the door, and treating a poisoned arrow wound that we are right now also running diagnostics on.
TT: This isn’t even to mention that we would never have found him without the program that you ran.
TT: So consider this…
TT: You saved Jake for us. You saved his life for sure. Now in return we’ll save your moirail.
TT: That is, if you let us.

Hot, angry tears flooded Karkat’s eyes, but fuck it was he sick of crying! “Why are you doing this?” Karkat asked, confused.

TT: Because I’d bet my non-existent ass that you saved Dave as well.
TT: Plus, it turns out, you also saved Dirk from a gunshot that would have killed him, the bastard. He promised me that he’d look out for himself and look at what happened. Dirk always forgets to watch his peripherals.

“No,” Karkat said, refusing to believe it as he admitted. “Dave saved me. I didn’t save him. I’m the fucking reason he got stabbed in the first place.”

TT: Yeah, you’ve told us that already.
TT: I wonder if Dave will tell the same story.
TT: Unlike your moirail, Dave is going to wake up and wake up soon.
TT: Sollux might not.
TT: You know this, don’t you?

“Of course if know it,” Karkat said, sniffling in spite of himself. He felt eight different kinds of miserable as he argued with an invisible alien who he wasn’t sure even really existed yet. He angrily wiped at his eyes, hating the tint of red he saw on his sleeve when he took his arm away. His freak mutant body would not stop betraying him no matter how hard he tried to stop it. He felt another tear roll down his cheek and swabbed at that one too.

TT: …
TT: Sollux was the Helmsman, wasn’t he?
TT: You don’t have to answer. I’m already 96% sure I’m correct.
TT: That makes him a psionic as well, doesn’t it?

Karkat froze, his blood running cold as the AI continued. D watched him with curious eyes behind shades that matched Dave’s closely enough to make Karkat want to hit him for it.

TT: There’s nothing in any of the files that I’ve hacked about unwiring a Helmsman. I was under the assumption that it was a permanent and fatal alteration that went against the natural order.
TT: Now I regret being a part of the decision to kill the other three Helmsmen if there had been a way to rescue them.

“There’s no… it is permanent,” Karkat said, breaking. “Helmsmen can’t be saved once the Empire gets them. Killing them was mercy.”

TT: But your moirail is still alive.

“Sollux was only partially Helmed,” Karkat admitted, knowing that he was probably digging Sollux’s grave but unable to stop. “The TG was never the ship he was intended for so the connections were meant to be reversible. He was the only exception to the rule.”

TT: I see.
TT: That being said, how can I help him?

“I don’t know,” Karkat said, his breath catching. “This has never happened before. No one knows what kind of damage being Helmed does to a troll’s thinkpan. Even removed, there’s no telling if he’ll ever wake up.”

TT: Were you expecting this when you had him removed? And if so, why did you carry through with it?
TT: That move seems more painful than helpful, especially if there’s no reversing the damage. Why needlessly cause yourself this much suffering? For both of you?

“He’s my moirail,” Karkat said helplessly, like that explained everything. “I had to try.” Karkat took a pause to sniffle. “We talked about it once, what might happen if we were caught together I of course would be killed instantly, but Sollux? We both knew they’d fucking Helm him,” Karkat said, still trying not to sob, his voice shaking as he clenched his hands into fists. “He made me promise not to let that ever happen to him.” And to kill him if it did.

That last part went unsaid, because in the end Sollux had willingly launched himself right into their waiting arms, so fuck that particular promise and fuck it hard. Sollux had broken their rules first. No one sacrificed themselves for the other- that was final.

Karkat had willingly agreed to such a deal because he’d always known that, deep down, he wasn’t worth it. His life was not worth the life of Sollux of anyone else. That was just a plain fact.

The red text spoke again, strikingly gentle.

TT: Karkat.
TT: There might still be hope for him. Not knowing the outcome beforehand doesn’t automatically guarantee the worst possibility.
TT: I might not know the steps that led up to this tragedy happening to the two of you, but I’m sure Sollux would agree with fighting for him. If anything, you both deserve that much.

Karkat wiped away his tears for the last time, his resolve strengthening, replacing sadness with determination. “Okay,” He said, then, softer. “Thank you.”

 

Day’s on earth: 4
Karkat spent his time in Sollux’s healthblock. Apparently this hivestem he was in contained something called a ‘hospitalwing’, though Karkat sincerely doubted that the building could fly. In any case Jake had been moved in next door as a precaution for his arm, which thankfully was showing no ill effects from the poison.

Karkat spent his time with his unconscious moirail, growing more worried as the Alternian timeunits passed.

Karkat tried to brush Sollux’s crazy hair but the Empire had shaved him bald at some point and it had grown back even more untamable than before. Now it framed his thin face like a mop and made Sollux’s hair look suspiciously like Nepeta’s from the side.

Sollux would have hated it. Karkat was tempted to shave the excess off again but he was afraid of the scars that were hiding below and even more afraid that he’d hurt Sollux accidentally trying to trim his hair. The effect was that his moirail looked both more and less like himself than he’d had in ages.

There was a tube in Sollux’s arm. Hal said that was why Karkat didn’t have to worry about Sollux not eating or drinking anymore, but how exactly that worked was a mystery to the troll. Human medicine was a weird but wonderful thing.

There weren’t any windows in the room but Karkat knew it was late in the afternoon from the small timer set into the shades he’d stolen from Dirk. He’d quickly picked up on the human’s simple clock measurements, so he knew that it was 6:10 when Hal sent him the message.

TT: Karkat, Dave’s awake.

Karkat lurched out of the chair D had brought him, his bloodpusher in his throat. He could feel his pulse racing. “Where is he?”

TT: Your name was the first word out of his mouth.

“When can I see him?” Karkat asked, his nerves jangling with sudden, painful hope.

TT: He’s being questioned right now and tested for any underlying medical issues. We’re going to interrogate him first to see if your stories match.
TT: After that’s over and I’ve deemed him healthy and cognizant enough to see you, and only if he wants to see you, will I allow you to give up that sword you’ve still got squirreled away in your sylladex and visit him.

“Allow me?” Karkat asked, but there wasn’t any real bite behind it. He’d been expecting as much. Besides, any irritation he felt was taken over by the joy of knowing that Dave was awake. His exhaustion was forgotten.

TT: Now that we both know Dave’s story, will you mind telling me your side of the story? From how you met my brother up until now?
TT: Dave’s just getting started on his side and it would be helpful to hear it from both people involved.

Karkat snorted, but he didn’t mean it. His mood had lifted for the first time since he’d seen Sollux’s slack face and felt the hot wetness of Dave’s blood on his hands.

“I was on the TG trying not to be seen by anything,” Karkat started. “When all of the sudden Dave’s there, watching me. He had this sword in his hand but I could tell he wasn’t going to use it and that’s what stopped me from attacking him more than the words that left his mouth.”

TT: What did he say?

Easy there,” Karkat said, fondly remembering the moment. “I’d share if you’d asked.” He let out a huff of an abortive laugh, the humor not quite lost in him. “I’d stolen one of his snuggleplanes earlier, and the fact that I’d stolen it from what must be an alien was more astounding than the fact that he was standing in front of me.”

That wasn’t quite true. The astounding thing was that only seconds after meeting him, Dave was already offering his help and offering it freely. That particular pattern would continue all the way up until he’d offered to help rescue Sollux with the bruises of Karkat’s hands still around his pale throat.

Karkat could feel his pulse behind his eyesockets with his excitement as he told the AI everything that had happened, leaving out the fact that he and Dave were in a quadrant together because he wasn’t sure how these alien hatchmates of Dave’s would take that information. He wasn’t sure how long he talked, freely telling Hal everything that he felt like the computerperson would want to know. He even threw odd bits he’d learned about Dave, like how he hated loud noises and always sat with a wall at his back. Karkat even threw in the names of songs he’d listened to that Dave had created. He talked and talked and talked like he’d never run his mouth before. It was probably the most words he’d ever said without shouting.

The only things he kept to himself were about Feferi, the Cult, and his mutation because those were secrets he could not reveal.

The AI didn’t interrupt once, and when Karkat was done the red timer in his shades read 10:15pm. Fuck, had it really been that long?

TT: That was a long and interesting story. Thank you for telling it to me.
TT: I can tell that you’re still leaving parts blank, but that’s okay. Dave was more free with his secrets than you, which is understandable. I want you to know that I won’t hold your urge to keep yourself and those your care about safe against you, general Vantas.

Karkat felt his bloodpusher drop uncomfortably fast. Dave must have blabbed about everything, the motherfucker. “When can I see him?” He asked again, ignoring the pointed jibe from the AI. It was hard to keep talking out loud to someone that he couldn’t see. Hal only existed through the red text he slung through Karkat’s captured pair of triangle sunglasses.

TT: I think that Dave would like to see you. He won’t stop asking to see you even though I’ve promised multiple times that we haven’t harmed you, as he specifically instructed us not to do with his little sign trick.
TT: God, if I had a heart that stunt of his would have surely given me a heart attack. He had to have known how that would look.

“It worked, didn’t it?” Karkat asked.

TT: Well, it kept us from putting a bullet through your skull in the first ten seconds after the transportalizer pad spat you out on our end, if you count that minimal hesitation as success.

“I do,” Karkat said. “Dave knew what he was doing. He knew that you wouldn’t hurt me.”

TT: No, he knew that we would- that’s why he tried so hard to stop that from happening. He knew that we have a standing kill-on-sight policy for trolls that might come through those landing pads in the event of a catastrophic failure. Dave was the one who made us promise to keep that rule before he left for the TG.
TT: He knew we would 100% kill you without hesitation.

“That’s good to hear,” Karkat said darkly. “That means that you’re smart enough to know that the Empire is an enemy you can’t hesitate against.” In reality it was a relief to hear that the humans knew the risk that came with having those pads linked to the core of the hivestem they were in.

TT: And you’re not with the Empress and Her Empire, are you Karkat?

He didn’t answer.

The AI continued.

TT: Karkat, Dave wasn’t much for detail on what he said was ‘Karkat’s rebellion shit’, and I feel like we need to have a long, hard talk about that. The sooner the better.

“I want to see Dave first,” Karkat said, staring at his sleeping moirail.

TT: You won’t come off that subject, will you?
TT: Alright, you can see him.
TT: But you’ve got to be unarmed with at least two Alternian-speaking family members with you at all times, plus myself of course.
TT: Remember, I am always watching.

“Yeah, whatever,” Karkat said, eagerly agreeing to whatever would get him closest to Dave the fastest as he set the short sword he’d taken from the GT on the side table.

TT: Roxy is currently with him and I’m sending Dirk and Rose to show you the way. He’s only down the hall.

“Thank you,” Karkat couldn’t stop himself before the words left his tongue, oddly grateful.

The red text fell silent as the door opened. The pair of human siblings stood waiting for him, Dirk expressionless behind an identical pair of shades to the one that Karkat had swiped. The other human, Rose, watched him with violet eyes that missed nothing.

The pair of them made him uncomfortable. Karkat didn’t like feeling them so close to him, especially since he couldn’t get a read on ether of them. Dave had been an open book in comparison to their closed tomes locked in chains of silence as they spoke softly back and forth in their strange language.

The walk was short. The door to Dave’s room had a human guard posted next to it. The guard nodded at Dirk and Rose as they unlocked the door, the guard’s eyes tense and watchful as he stared at Karkat with barely retrained violence lurking in the depths of his gaze.

Rose pretended not to notice but Karkat could see the sudden tension in her slim shoulders.

He didn’t know what she was so bothered by what Karkat rationalized as perfectly reasonable hostility. Karkat couldn’t be bothered to care, not when Dave was waiting on the other side of the door.

Rose held the door open for him, and Karkat caught his first glimpse of Dave since he’d seen Rose and Roxy carry him away.

His human was lying in a white bed framed by pillows, the Roxy hatchmate at his side. Dave’s face was relaxed and paler than it should have been, but he was sitting upright and trying not to laugh at something Roxy had said. His shades were in place but Karkat could still see the exact moment that he noticed the troll.

Dave smiled, his face lighting up with excitement and relief. “Karkat!”

Dave said something else, his mouth running on and on, but the only word Karkat could pick out was his name. Bandages were tightly wound around his neck, covering the wound that had ruined the gab device that allowed him to speak Karkat’s language with such ease.

Karkat had to resist the sudden insane urge to run to him, to take his hand and smooth back the hair that had fallen across his forehead. But the other humans were watching so he swallowed back his urge to sprint and crossed the few feet of floor at a walk.

“Dave,” Karkat said, watching Dave’s face light up at the name. He couldn’t hide the relief in his voice as he said, swallowing thickly. “It’s good to see you.”

Dave was still staring incredulously at him, his open face loose with relief and joy as he struggled to pull himself higher upright to look at the troll. Karkat was so focused on Dave’s face that he saw when Dave’s expression changed, his face pulled tight and sick with sudden pain before he gave up trying to sit up higher and sunk back down into his nest of pillows.

Beyond Karkat’s concern at the change, he could feel his cheeks heating up as Roxy tucked another one of the fluffy pillows behind Dave’s head with tender care. Dave was basically lying in a pile, but it wasn’t like they hadn’t done pale things together before but not where there were witnesses to Karkat’s flagrant and brazen quadrant-smearing.

Karkat shoved all of that aside and came closer, much to Dirk’s cold displeasure.

Dave said something else, quiet, and he waved Karkat closer. Dave curiously tapped his finger against the shades Karkat was wearing, and Karkat pulled them off his face and squinted into the light of the room.

Karkat, for once, didn’t know what to say. He was full of words but there were other people around and he didn’t know which secrets were still his to keep. His throat was full of saltwater from the unshed tears he was holding back.

Dave was still talking and Karkat didn’t understand a word of what he was saying, but that didn’t matter. Karkat just loved listening to the music of his voice, that lilting tone unlike anything he’d ever heard before. It was lovely.

Karkat was so busy staring at him and just absorbing the fact that Dave was alive and breathing in front of him that it took him a moment to notice when Dave reached for his hand and twined their fingers together. The gentle pressure prompted Karkat to squeeze back automatically, and Dave’s face relaxed again with content-ness as he blathered on.

At Dave’s touch Karkat forgot about the watching humans. He couldn’t help but run his thumb comfortingly along the back of Dave’s knuckles. He wanted to kiss Dave so badly that it burned in his lips.

Since he was content to share Dave’s space again and just keep listening to him, he didn’t realize what Dave wanted until the arm of the shades nearly poked him in the eye as Dave tried to fit them back on Karkat’s face.

Karkat set the shades on his nose and saw familiar red text.

TT: He says hi.
TT ….. And you’ve taken the shades off. Great. How exactly do you expect to understand Dave without my help?
TT: You’re not getting any of this are you? Karkat? Hello?
TT: I hate my life.
TT: Fine. I won’t say anything else to bother you. Dirk and I took out a bet on how long you’ll last without a translator.

Karkat grimaced at the words as more red text filled the screen.

TT: Are you back with me Karkat?

“Yeah,” Karkat said, blinking at the words and feeling awkward.

TT: Dave spoiled my bet, but no matter. Hold on a second while I change this chat into a memo board for you since you don’t know how to navigate Pesterchum on your own.

timaetusTestified (TT) invited timaetusTestified (TT), turntechGodhead (TG), tentacleTherapist (TT), and tipsyGonostalgic (TG) to the memoboard [So we can all get to know each other]!

timaetusTestified (TT) has entered the chat!
turntechGodhead (TG) has entered the chat!
tentacleTherapist (TT) has entered the chat!
tipsyGonostalgic (TG) has entered the chat!
timaetusTestified (TT) has entered the chat!
timaetusTestified (TT) {as Karkat Vantas} has entered the chat!

TT: Okay, is everybody here?
TG: present!
TT: I’m predicting that this conversation is going to be a complete disaster.
TG: I’m so excited! I’ve always wanted to talk to a troll!
TT: Calm down, there’s not much special about them.
TT: Says the man who accompanied said alien onto an alien spacecraft to kick ass and take names.
TG: yo karkat can you read this?
TT: There’s a bit of a translation lag, but yes he’s getting this.

There was silence in the room as the other Striders began to type away at whatever devices they had on them.

Karkat saw the helpfully Alternian keyboard displayed on the shades but had no idea how to use it. He also had no idea who each of the odd names represented.

TT: Try concentrating on what you want to say, my algorithm should be able to pick it up as long as you look at the right letters.

Karkat tried to do as asked, still feeling foolish.

TT: hello?
TT: gog this looks weird how do I capitalize everything? Hal? Hal are you fixing my fucking grammar?
TT: Do you want me not to?
TT: NO.
TT: JEGUS THAT’S MUCH BETTER.
TT: What slang are you using? I can’t understand you all the way.
TT: WHAT, JEGUS? IT’S AN INSULT I PICKED UP FROM DAVE WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU CAN’T UNDERSTAND IT?
TT: Never mind.
TG: karkat?
TT: WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU?
TG: ouch
TT: It might be best if we introduce ourselves. I’m Rose.
TG: Roxy here!
TT: Dirk.
TT: And I’m Hal.
TT: WHICH ONE OF YOU IS DAVE?
TG: that would be me
TG: holy fuck karkat i’ve missed you
TG: well are you going to say anything to me in return?
CG: DAVE I…
TG: its okay karkat you don’t have to be afraid i already told them everything
TT: EVERYTHING?
TT: LIKE, EVERYTHING EVERYTHING?
TG: yep
TG: theres no secrets between my family and i
TG: so they already know that youve been mackin on me with those fine lips of yours
TT: HOLY FUCK DAVE DO YOU HAVE NOT AN OUNCE OF DECENCY IN YOU?
TG: do you really want to know the answer to that?

Karkat couldn’t help it- he smiled at the light teasing. The chatter with Dave was warming and familiar, and if their secrets were out and Karkat hadn’t been eviscerated yet, he might just survive this.

TT: YOU DON’T HAVE TO ANSWER ANYTHING EXCEPT FOR THIS NEXT QUESTION OF MINE, DUMBASS.
TT: HOW ARE YOU FEELING?
TG: jesus not you too karkat
TG: that’s the only thing ive been asked since I woke up and im already sick of being bedlocked like this but its not like i can get up and hide from dirks nagging
TT: I do not nag.
TT: Yes you do.
TG: Kinda a little, dirky
TT: wait, I’m letting D into this conversation as well. He’ll want to be up to speed.
TG: Ok, but this is the first chance ive gotten to talk to the alien! Thank yu karkat for saving dave and dirk and jake! Hello! I’m Roxy :)
TT: UH, HI?
TG: omgees!
TT: Likewise I’m glad to have a proper medium with which to communicate. I have questions.
TG: that cant be good
TT: Peace, I just want to interview him. An Alternian rebel- the first that we’ve known. I didn’t think it was possible.
TT: YEAH YEAH, I’M NOT THAT SPECIAL. I’M JUST A MUTANT FREAK THAT REFUSED TO DIE QUIETLY.
TT: And there are others like you?
TT: That’s a conversation for another time.
TT: Though its one that I’d like to have soon.

televisionaryGiant (TG) joined the conversation!

TG: holy shit why didn’t you kids invite me to the motherfucking party?
TT: We just did so
TG: shut up i’m backreading
TG: …
TG: ok i’m caught up
TG: karkat is it?
TT: YOU’RE ‘D’ RIGHT?
TG: yeah
TG: i’m kind of in charge here
TG: as in i’m the one that’s fucking bankrolling all of these shenanigans along with jane’s company money and jade’s inheritance, which is one of the reasons we’re in the private sector and one of the reasons you’re not dead
TG: which I sincerely hope doesn’t happen now that I owe two of my kid’s lives to you
TG: plus jake
TG: what the hell happened to jake? and how does dirk tie in? what the fuck did i sleep through?
TT: There were… complications, regarding jake and his return trip from the GT.
TT: namely, he didn’t return with his transportilizer.
TG: oh shit
TG: fuuuuuuuuuuuck
TG: what the hell happened? is he okay?
TT: He’s fine. Everyone is fine, thanks to your troll friend who conveniently was able to track down the GT and rescue the stranded and poisoned Jake from an army of angered Empire trolls. From what I hear it was quite the adventure.
TT: It was nothing. Karkat did most of the work. I felt like I just stood there and watched him for most of the time.
TT: I’ve never seen someone fight like that before.
TG: i know ive seen it
TT: WELL I HATED IT. I HATED EVERY BIT OF IT.
TT: I FEEL LIKE ALL I’VE DONE SINCE I FUCKING MET MY FIRST HUMAN IS LEAVE AN ARMY OF DEAD TROLLS BEHIND ME EVERYWHERE I GO.
TT: COMING TO FUCKING EARTH DIDN’T EVEN STOP MY REGRETTABLE BLOODY RAMPAGE FOR LONGER THAN A FEW HOURS.
TT: You spared that rustblood though. I wasn’t going to and you did. You made that choice. Why?
TT: THAT’S COMPLICATED TO EXPLAIN AND ITS MOSTLY FOR A STUPID REASON.
TG: why?
TT: ITS JUST….
TT: Well?
TT: ALRIGHT. YOU KNOW ABOUT THE RED CULT?
TG: Dave and Hal filled us in.
TT: WELL, THAT LOWBLOOD RECOGNIZED ME AND IT MADE HIM HESITATE. I THOUGHT, JUST FOR A SECOND, I THOUGHT THAT HE WOULD PUT DOWN HIS WEAPON AND SURRENDER. I KNEW THAT I DIDN’T HAVE TO KILL HIM IF I COULD GET HIM TO LET ME SPARE HIM INSTEAD, SO I PROVED WHO I WAS AND THEN KNOCKED HIM OUT AND STAGED THE SCENE TO MAKE IT LOOK LIKE HE’D STABBED ME.
TT: HOPEFULLY A SUCCESSFUL HIT ON THE MUTANT WILL BE ENOUGH TO SPARE HIM FOR BEING THE ONLY SURVIVOR.
TT: AND WELL… IF HE LIVES, HE’LL KNOW THAT I SPARED HIM AND TRIED TO PROTECT HIM. HE’LL GO BACK TO THE BARRACKS AND TALK TO THE OTHER TROLLS WITH HIM ABOUT ME. MAYBE SOMEHOW ME SPARING HIM WILL LEAD TO SOMETHING ELSE IN THE FUTURE, SOMETHING GOOD. WORD SPREADS LIKE FIRE IN THE BARRACKS BEHIND BLUEBLOOD BACKS.
TT: ITS LIKE I TELL FEFERI ALL THE FUCKING TIME- MERCY IS NOT A WEAKNESS WHEN ITS SHOWN TO THOSE WHO DESERVE IT
TT: SOLLUX WOULD DISAGREE WITH ME ON THAT BUT HE CAN GO FUCK HIMSELF.
TG: speaking of that hows he doing
TT: HE HASN’T WOKEN UP YET. YOUR ‘SIBLINGS’ DID SOMETHING TO HIM.
TT: He means we gave him some fluids and picked him up off the floor.
TT: WELL I TOLD YOU NOT TO MESS WITH HIM, DIDN’T I?!?!
TG: (Karkat is very protective of his moirail, isn’t he)
TG: (Almost as protective as he is of you, Dave.)
TG: (wink wonk)
TT: WHY ARE YOU TYPING LIKE THAT? I CAN STILL SEE YOU.
TG: (no you cant that’s not how this works)
TT: WHAT THE FUCK?
TG: oh my god this is the perfect first example of recorded non-hostile contact with an alien species ever
TG: imagine future scholars studying this for the sheer value but its a fuckin dumpsterfire of hilarity
TT: I UNDERSTAND NOTHING OF WHAT YOU JUST SAID.
TG: its ok karkat
TG: ill be your translator now that mines broken
TT: I’M SORRY ABOUT YOUR GAB DEVICE.
TT: I’M ALSO SORRY ABOUT YOUR INJURY… YOU DIDN’T NEED TO SAVE ME, NOT LIKE THAT.
TG: well getting stabbed wasnt exactly on my to do list for that rescue mission but i dont regret it
TG: id do it again in a heartbeat
TT: DAVE, WHY?
TG: because youre still here
TG: thats why
TT: DAVE…
TG: ok guys i think me and the alien need to have a talk
TG: privately
TT: I don’t agree with leaving you and Karkat alone without an armed supervisor.
TG: hal chill its okay he isnt going to hurt me
TT: WHY THE FUCK WOULD I KILL HIM AFTER ALL THE TROUBLE I’VE GONE THROUGH TO KEEP HIM ALIVE? WHAT KIND OF SENSE DOES THAT MAKE?
TG: yeah hal listen to the alien troll
TG: listen to all this trouble he went through
TG: he busted his ass to bring me back so show a little respect to a goddamn war hero
TT: I don’t like this.
TG: oh come on hal its not like you wont be spying on us the entire time
TT: Still.
TT: WAIT, SPYING?
TT: I’m actually going to agree with Dave on this one. Let them have their privacy. They’ve both earned it.
TG: aww thanks sis
TT: WAIT WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK? SPYING? HAL? WHAT THE FUCK?
TT: I’m surprisingly okay with it too. Karkat didn’t do anything to me when we were alone on the GT and he had plenty of chances to. I don’t think he’ll hurt Dave.
TT: IS ANYONE EVEN LISTENING TO ME? HELLO?
TG: (do you hear something rose?)
TT: (Like what?)
TG: (Leik the angry shouting of a short troll)
TT: (No, I don’t believe I hear anything quite like that.)
TT: I CAN STILL READ THAT!
TG: ok ok lets calm down
TG: karkat?
TT: WHAT?
TG: hold on a moment

turntechGodhead (TG) had become an idle chum!

Karkat’s eyes flickered up from the words covering the small screen in the shades to Dave’s face. His matesprit looked pale and tired. There were dark, bruised circles under his eyes.

Dave must have silently asked Hal to do something, because a second later the chat screen went dark before opening onto a blank page. Roxy stood up and stretched, shooting him a knowing grin as she followed her two other siblings out of the room.

For the first time since he’d learned Dave was awake, Dave and Karkat were alone.

Karkat couldn’t stop himself; he reached for Dave to gently brush back the pale hair from his face, a churr rising in his chest.

Dave trapped his hand and held it against his cheek, pressing a kiss to Karkat’s wrist.

He felt a thrill go through him at the thought of Dave’s teeth so close to the veins of his wrist, but he logically knew that the human’s flat, dull teeth couldn’t do the kind of damage a troll could. Not that it mattered- he trusted Dave enough to know that he wouldn’t get bitten and the contact sent a bolt of warmth and pity through him.

Karkat cupped Dave’s face between his hands, hesitant to do more out of fear of hurting him. The troll rubbed his thumbs over Dave’s cheekbones, while was obviously a pale move to pull but fuck it- Dave was severely injured; how couldn’t he feel a little pale quadrant-blurring at a time like this?

Dave smiled and it was like the moon coming out from behind a cloud- it lit up the room. Karkat’s thorax felt tight with feelings. His bloodpusher ached inside him. “Dave,” he murmured softly, blinking back tears as he admitted the fear he’d been holding onto since he’d arrived. “I thought you were going to die.”

Dave said something equally as soft. His tone was reassuring but the words he used were nonsense.

The color red flared to life on Karkat’s captured shades.

TG: yo karkat dont cry man if you cry im going to cry too and no one wants that
TG: im an ugly crier

Karkat huffed out a laugh that sounded more like a sob.

TG: youre not hurt are you? hows sollux?

Dave was clearly looking at where the edge of a bandage peeked out the collar of Karkat’s shirt from where Vriska had gored him. He didn’t feel the sting of the wound through the warmth bubbling through him. “I’m completely fine,” Karkat answered, choking back his tears through sheer force of will. “Sollux… he still hasn’t woken up.”

TG: well shit thats not normal is it

“No,” Karkat admitted. “Hal and I talked about it. He’s just as concerned as I am.”

TG: but theyre taking care of him arnt they
TG: theyd better be

“They are,” Karkat said out loud, growing used to the two sided conversation as he paused to let Dave type out his next few sentences. “They’re taking good care of him. I’m making sure of it.”

TG: thats great
TG: karkat…
TG: I know ive only been awake for a few fuckin hours but i missed you. shit how long has it been since vriska got me i dont even know what day it is how long has passed

“Uh,” Karkat said, squinting at Dave’s apparent concern. “A few dark to light cycles. I’m not sure how long that is with human timekeeping though.”

TT: Four days, eleven hours, and 22 seconds.
TG: dude really im trying to have a moment with my alien boyfriend

“What the fuck Hal?” Karkat said, resisting the insane urge to whip around to try and spot where the AI was hiding. Also, what the fuck was a boyfriend? Was that the human equivalent of a matesprit? And why was the term gendered? Humans were weird.

Dave rolled his eyes.

TG: anyway
TG: what happens now?

“Now?” Karkat asked, still punch-drunk happy to have Dave back where he could see him. “Now you heal, dumbass.”

TG: i mean whats next
TG: for us for my family for the cult
TG: where do we go from here

Karkat blinked at him, wordless. His bloodpusher beat his pulse so hard he could nearly taste it in the back of his throat.

TG: like i get it i do. we just took out four premier fleetships and im betting the empress is fucking pissed at us so what do we do now because as much as id love to stay here with you forever and forget that the rest of the world exists theres still a lot of shit that we have to do before we get our happy ending

All in all, Dave made a whole lot of sense for someone who looked on the verge of falling unconscious again. He’d given up on trying to speak and lay limp and breathing, doing nothing but soak in the troll’s presence as he struggled to keep his bruised eyes open. The beeping of the monitor overhead was the loudest sound in the room.

”I’m not sure,” Karkat answered at last, revealing his hidden woe. “I can’t contact the Cult. I don’t know how. Sollux could do it in a heartbeat but he’s in a bad way. He might not wake up.” It hurt for Karkat to say the words, like admitting his fear made it more real, but with Dave he could admit the things that scared him.

TG: shit
TG: what happened to him? id remember myself but everything gets fuzzy after the door opened

“It’s a panbreak,” Karkat tried to explain what he barely understood himself. “They put a socket in his skull and used him as a fucking battery.”

Dave closed his eyes. It looked like he’d gone back to sleep except his screen was still moving.

TG: so he was never meant to wake up

“No,” Karkat answered, a single tear slipping from his eye. It tracked down his chin until he angrily wiped it away with his sleeve, hating it.

TG: so thats step one
TG: we wake your moirail the fuck up

“Dave,” Karkat began, wrestling back his tears. The human didn’t understand that this wasn’t a problem that could be solved just by butting his stubborn head against it until a solution presented itself to him in a flash of glorious insight like he’d solved every other problem so far.

Dave still laid back with his eyes closed. He looked asleep.

TG: no, wait
TG: hal? are you thinking what im thinking
TT: Maybe.

“What are you two planning?” Karkat asked, instantly suspicious.

Dave smiled in his sleep, the movement of his lips beatific.

TG: I have an idea

 

Days on earth: 6

Karkat lifted Sollux’s limp heat to closely examine the steel electrical socket embedded in his moirail’s skull. The device was at the back of his skull, towards the base, a single plug-in hole for the main biowires to dig its putrid tendril deep into Sollux’s thinkpan.

Karkat remembered feeling this one squirm and writhe under his claws as he’d ripped it free. Now he regretted the use of force, but the code he’d punched in to free Sollux had only half-worked and the largest of the biowires hadn’t wanted to release their prisoner so Karkat had resorted to cutting Sollux free with his sickles.

The socket was free of blood- wiped clean. The flesh it was embedded around was still yellow with irritation, hastily done and rough. Metal staples held it in place, the roots of which vanished into the depths of Sollux’s head.

It was unnatural- peering into the depths of his best friend’s head wasn’t something that Karkat should have been able to do. It was a violation, a corruption, a Helmsman’s mark of servitude.
And now… maybe it was the key to waking him up.

“Hal, are you ready?” Dave asked, lacing his fingers together. The human sat in a wheeled chair similar to what Tavros had used to get around before his cyberskeleton had been completed.
Dirk and Roxy were rapidly typing away at their husktops, their faces lined with concentration as Hal ran the final scans. It had taken a few hours for them to 3-D print a matching plug for the hole in Sollux’s skull, and then yet more time to get Karkat to agree with this insane plan.

TT: I’m ready.

Karkat hugged Sollux close, praying to whatever truculent dark elder god that inhabited the ruined remains of a universe too horrible to imagine without losing his awareness to a hivemind bent of total self-destruction that Sollux would be alright.

The universe might have a universal hatred of Karkat and his shit rotten luck, but it hadn’t been exactly kind to his moirail either. Maybe with Dave’s help their luck had changed, but Karkat sincerely doubted it. His existence was pain, but Sollux had always been right there at his side to help him get through it even as the same fate that tortured Karkat tore its teeth through him.

Karkat couldn’t help but cling to his fear. What if this hurt more than helped? What if it did nothing? What if he’d truly lost Sollux and his genius, pessimistic asshole of a moirail was gone forever?

Karkat shoved these dark thoughts away with a growl. Dammit- this was going to work!

TT: Final calibrations are complete. I’m ready to begin.

“Are you sure?” Dirk asked, worried. The translator in his shades spoke in Alternian so Karkat could understand, a gift from Hal that kept him from going insane as the humans chatted back and forth with the seriousness of the situation sinking in.

Roxy looked excited, her wide pink eyes creased with concentration as she coded away. Dirk just looked cold, but then again that’s how he always looked to Karkat. Dave could be fairly non-expressive but his hatchmate showed the tendency in a different way. It made his face look older, more stressed even as he tried to hide it.

TT: No.
TT: I have no idea what the outcome will be and frankly the not knowing is driving me crazy. I never thought I’d miss a low percentage of success so much. Low odds are better than this guesswork.

“But you think you can do it?” Karkat asked, still cradling Sollux to him. His moirail’s cooler body felt light in his arms, so thin that Karkat felt like he could snap the other troll in half. A surge of pale pity went through him at the idea and he brushed his fingers through Sollux’s unwashed hair to touch his horns, careful to avoid the places where biowires had dug into the still inflamed skin.

Sollux, of course, didn’t react at all to the gentle touches. It was like he wasn’t even there.

Hal streamed words to him in a blur.

TT: It’s called Locked In Syndrome.
TT: Basically it’s when the brain is disconnected from the body, normally through trauma. Since I am picking up very small amounts of cranial activity I’m guessing that’s what happened to him. I might not be an expert about Helmsmen or trolls, but I know brain activity means there’s still hope. Your moirail is still in there somewhere, so I’m going to try and make contact with him.
TT: It’s a good thing I’m an AI or this wouldn’t be even remotely possible. That being said, the probability of anything happening is still extremely low. At best it’s a failure and nothing happens.

“What’s the worst?” Karkat asked, afraid to hear the answer.

TT: The worst thing is finding out that that brain activity I picked up was residual energy left over from his psionics and that he’s truly braindead. If that’s the case… then there’s nothing anyone can do for him.

Karkat shoved these thoughts out of his mind, his eyes tearing up.

Dave slowly managed to wheel himself over to Karkat’s side. “I’m not supposed to be out of bed,” he said, winking, the words sounding hoarse through the thrown together translator he wore in his shades. “But there’s no way in hell I’m missing this.”

Karkat squeezed at his hand, grateful for his comforting presence. Dave was a steady rock at his side to lean against, to help shoulder the burden of Sollux’s limp body as Dirk approached them, a thick cable in his hand.

“Here,” Dirk handed Dave the cable, who passed it to Karkat.

He held it like a slitherrope between his claws. The steel was cold, the three pronged end of the outlet menacing and built to perfectly match the socket in the back of Sollux’s head, even down to the wicked barbed points. On this model the barbs were retractable, unlike the original model that Karkat had ripped out. Still, seeing up close and personal what the Empire had used to subdue his moirail left Karkat feeling sick to his gastric sack.

He gripped the cable tightly, sweating with nerves as Dave clenched his other hand. Before he could stop to think this through, Karkat lined up the prongs with the socket and, on Hals’ command, shoved it into Sollux’s head as quickly and as gently as possible.

It went in with an easy click as the two pieces snapped together. Sollux didn’t move.

TT: Making final calibrations… Calibrations complete. All systems set and ready to continue.
TT: Okay, here I go.

For a second, nothing happened.

“Hal?” Dirk asked aloud, his fingers freezing as they hovered over his husktop. Roxy looked confused as she scanned the screen her electronic brother had inhabited a moment ago. “Hal? Are you in? Hal?”

There was no response from the red text Karkat had grown so used to seeing. Just silence.

Then, for the first time, there was a flicker of a response from Sollux. It wasn’t an expression or a movement, but it was something. Karkat felt the familiar static pop of Sollux’s psionics flare to life, red and blue sparking weakly from between his horns. The lights overhead flickered.

“Sollux?” Karkat said, hope springing to life right before everything went to shit.

It started with the humans. “Wait,” Roxy cautioned, not recognizing what the red and blue meant and categorizing it as something wrong until Karkat realized she was talking to the computer again. She clicked the mouse several times, each on more forceful than the last. “Hal? Where’d you go?”

“Hal?” Dirk said, confused but stoic, like his sharper tone could force the AI into speaking.

Only Dave saw the gentle flicker of Sollux’s psionics dart over Karkat’s gray fingers before they went haywire. Red and blue sparks turned to fire, turned to lightning. The cable sparked and cracked, red-hot and burning. Karkat caught the smell of burnt hair as Roxy shrieked, the husktop under her hands sparking as the complex grid system Dirk and she had rigged fell apart under the weight of the unconscious Sollux’s power. The lights flickered and went out overhead as Karkat snatched his hands away, feeling the heat that lingered around Sollux’s head.

Only he knew the true danger they were in. Karkat knew that Sollux could drop the hivestem around their heads if he wanted to. His moirail could rip them limb from limb, immolate them where they stood- all without twitching a finger.

Afraid now, Dave tried to drag him back with weak strength, tugging. “Karkat, come on, get away!”

Karkat clung to his moirail, his bloodpusher pounding as light flickered beneath Sollux’s closed eyelids. Motherfuck, no. He lunged forward, tearing free from Dave’s grip like the injured human was made of wet paper, rushed with the sudden knowledge of what was about to happen as he tried to stop it.

He’d seen Sollux in action enough times to know what was coming.

Karkat’s hands landed on Sollux’s face right as a massive crack split the ceiling. Dust rained down in a fine stream as Dave screamed something the translator didn’t pick up.

The touch was burning. Touching Sollux’s face was like putting his hands on an open flame. Red and blue was all there was as still Sollux hadn’t moved. Karkat rubbed his thumbs across Sollux’s cheekbones with purpose, purring as loudly as Karkat could as he tried to calm Sollux down.

Psionics crackled around him like lightning. A husktop exploded. Then another. The glass overhead shattered. Karkat covered Sollux with his body as the glass shards rained down. “Shhhh,” he purred, effortlessly dipping into the lower frequencies of Alternian as he papped his unconscious moirail into submission, desperately hoping that whatever part of Sollux that was functioning could hear him as he babbled words of comfort. “Sollux, it’s me. Stop fighting. Shhhhhh. Calm down, I’m here.”

Even amid the chaos a thrill went through him as the intimacy of the words, the shocking closeness of the act, his hands on Sollux’s face, threading through his hair and between the sharp peaks of his horns. It didn’t matter that other people were watching. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t exchanged one word with Sollux since the self-sacrificing idiot had blasted himself into the Empress’s gills. His moirail needed him- that’s the only thing that mattered.

A lightning storm of blue and red fire surrounded him but Karkat didn’t feel the burn. He only felt Sollux as pity surged through him strong enough that he didn’t feel the heat. Slowly, so slowly, his diamond began to react.

Sollux’s face tensed with something that might have been pain before Karkat soothed it away. Sollux went ridged, his hands curled into fists before Karkat laced their fingers together, still purring. Slowly, Sollux began to relax as Karkat’s hands moved over him, wiping away the tension he found there.

The fire began to die down. The emergency lighting kicked in and filled the darkness with a warm glow. The remaining husktop sparked and then lay still and dead from the computerstand as Dirk tried to wrestle the coding back into existence, his stoic face panicked in a way Karkat hadn’t seen since Jake had been injured.

Dave was there suddenly, wheeling himself out of the darkness like one of Aradia’s ghosts. Karkat’s bloodpusher beat faster at the sight of his stubborn matesprit rushing as fast as he could to help try and save his moirail. Dave latched onto to Karkat’s other side and lent him what little strength he had, his face pale and drawn with exhaustion. “Karkat? How is he?”

“Shhhh,” Karkat whispered, leaning heavily onto Sollux’s medibunk. “It’s okay,” he said, still fighting to be heard. “Sollux? It’s okay, I’m here.”

At last the crackle of psionics died down. A few errant sparks jumped from the ends of Sollux’s horns, but that was it.

“Guys?” Dirk called out, rubbing a soot-streaked hand across his face. “Can someone tell me what the hell just happened? Hal?”

Roxy shrugged, confused as she clicked at the dead monitor in front of her, its screen cracked.

Karkat found his voice. “What the fuck did you think psionic meant?” He asked, still focused of Sollux’s slack face, searching for signs of life.

Dave coughed, the sound painful as it rattled through his still-healing chest. “Shit,” he said, wincing.

“I’m not picking up anything from Hal,” Roxy said in the background. “This entire system is fucked.”

“Anyone have a computer with them not blow to hell by that shitstorm?” Dirk asked, angrily kicking at one of the exploded husktops that had fallen to the floor.

“Uh, yeah,” Karkat said, distractedly decaptchalouging the shades he’d stolen earlier. Dirk eagerly snatched his sunglasses back from the troll and cradled them to his chest. “Hal? Hal talk to me.”

Karkat caught the flash of red text before Dirk slipped the glasses onto his face, his posture instantly going slack with relief.

“You bastard,” Dirk accused his unseen broodmate, fuming. “What the fuck just happened? Are you okay? Please tell me you’re alright.” Then Dirk snorted, “fuck you,” but he was smiling as he said it, responding to whatever Hal had just said.

“Did it work?” Karkat asked, still cradling Sollux as he tried to unhook the cable from his head, wincing.

“Hal says affirmative,” Dirk answered as Karkat’s chest lightened. “He says Sollux should be waking up any moment now.”

Karkat eagerly watched Sollux’s face as it happened. Sollux woke like a swimmer rising through deep water. His expression moved one part at a time, accumulating into a look of irritation as his red/blue eyes cracked open. “Fuck,” Sollux murmured, groaning. “Why’s it so fuck’n bright?”

Karkat laughed and hugged him, tears in his eyes.

“Karkat?” Sollux said, squinting, his two-toned gaze unfocused. “Hal… he said you were here.”

“You spoke with Hal?” Dave asked, and Sollux stared long and hard at the human before shaking his head.

“Fuck,” Sollux said. “It’s real. You’re an alien.” His gaze dropped to the IV line in his arm and something dark crossed his face like a storm cloud, sparks jumping off his horns as he weakly lifted his arm to claw at it.

Karkat gently but firmly caught his hand before Sollux could rip the IV out. “No,” he said, “I’ll get it.”

“You might not want to do that,” Dirk spoke up, but Karkat ignored him. Sollux was nearly writhing with the last of his strength at the line embedded beneath his skin, so Karkat carefully peeled back the tape and drew the needle out of his moirail’s arm. Sollux instantly relaxed, going limp with breathless relief. It was such a pitiable sight that Karkat felt his bloodpusher throb with paleness.

Awake, Sollux wore the stress he’d been through in a way that he hadn’t while unconscious. His glowing eyes were dull and lifeless, the scar tissue around them stark and knotted with thicker bands of flesh.

There was a line of yellow that dripped from his nose that Karkat wiped away with another pang of pity and compassion as he clutched at Sollux’s hand. “Sollux,” he said, sniffling. “I thought I’d lost you, you great fucking idiot! What the fucking fuck were you thinking?”

Sollux winced. “How am I still alive?” He wondered aloud in the only correct Alternian Karkat had heard so far while onplanet as he said, his tone matter of fact. “They got me, Karkat. The Empress had me… How?”

“Your entrysnipper,” Karkat answered, soothing back his wild hair. Sollux didn’t move to lean into his palm, but his eyes flickered closed at the contact. “I used it to sneak aboard the Fleetship that was transporting you and break you out.”

“Impossible,” Sollux said at once. “I could not be saved in that manner. Its suicide.”

“I had help,” Karkat admitted, Dave still at his side.

“Fine. Then what?” Sollux asked, his eyes still closed, sounding too tired to argue. “Hal helped me climb back out of my thinkpan. What’s happened between then and now?”

“You see,” Dave said, taking Karkat’s hand. “That’s a long fucking story…”

 

Days on earth: 15

It took over an earth week for Sollux to heal enough to hold a conversation without exhaustion taking over his words and slurring them into incomprehensibility.

The first thing he did after learning about earth and aliens and the craziness that was Dave and his extended family was curse at Karkat for an hour about being such a reckless bastard, then Sollux got to work.
Dirk helped him. Roxy too. Hal hovered, always watching, always ready to butt in with his two cents about which wire should go where.

Karkat stayed with him. Dave was getting busier as he healed, drawn away by the responsibilities of being one of the four humans that had each taken out a Fleetship. His absence left a loneness behind that Karkat filled with Sollux’s borderline annoying presence that he’d missed so fucking much. It had been nearly a sweep since he’d spent time with his moirail like this, what between getting kidnapped and that whole 413 days thing up until now.

And this part was just like the movies Karkat had grown up with. The time apart didn’t matter- his diamond was still the same diamond that had wooed and won Karkat’s pale attentions three sweeps ago.
That is to say, Sollux was still a fucking disaster of a troll.

The goldblood lisped his way out of Hal being able to understand anything he fucking said and wrote in his mustard-yellow ii and 2=s bullshit that defeated the algorithms that the AI had created to translate Alternian to Human, which meant that only Karkat could fucking understand him.

The lisp Karkat understood, that couldn’t be helped. The coding was just Sollux deciding to be an asshole.

A part of Karkat understood why Sollux was striving for normalcy, clinging so obstinately to his quirk to try and convince himself that everything was alright and that nothing had changed. But Karkat still caught him scratching at the hole in the back of his head, the steel sunken into the surrounding flesh. He caught how his moirail would shiver when someone else walked into the room. He caught onto how Sollux would always leave the doors open or open them himself to avoid feeling trapped.

Sollux was been tall and he’d always been thin and small-framed, but now the troll seemed shrunken in on himself. His bones were sticks screaming to be broken, his pale face sallow and waxen. He wasn’t sleeping.

Neither was Karkat. They kept each other company on the long nights after the diurnal humans had gone to bed.

Karkat was sitting across from his moirail when he got the massage.

twinArmageddons (TA) began Pestering carcinoGeneticist (CG) at [time unkown]!

The interface that popped up on Karkat’s husktop was similar to Trollian, but not quite the familiar site he was used to chatting on, some human equivalent that Sollux had hacked to shit and back to force into compliance.

TA: karkat, are you there?

Karkat looked up at Sollux’s face, but the troll wasn’t looking at him. for all the world it seemed like he was focused on the coding project that he’d been working on for the past few days, trying to build a system powerful enough to reach across the universe to Feferi and the Cult, but if there was anyone who could equally divide up their attention between two radically different projects it was Sollux, so Karkat hesitantly answered back.

CG: YES I’M HERE. SOLLUX I’M LITERALLY SITTING THREE FEET AWAY FROM YOU WHY DID YOU EVEN ASK SUCH A PAN ROTTINGLY STUPID QUESTION?
TA: ii diid iit partly two pi22 you off
CG: WELL CONSIDER THAT ATTEMPT A GOLDED SUCCESS, YOU RAGING ASSHOLE.
TA: ok wow kk do you talk two your new mate2priit liike thii2?
CG: OF COURSE I FUCKING DO.
CG: DAVE KNOWS WHEN I MEAN TO SOUND ANGRY AND WHEN I’M JUST BLOWING STEAM, MUCH LIKE YOU DO. YOU KNOW, YOU’RE ACTUALLY NOT THAT DIFFERENT.
TA: jegus fuck kk ii diid not come here two talk two you about your newly fiilled red quadrant
TA: Though ii gue22 congradulatiion2 are iin order for you fuliilliing what’2 the mo2t ba2ic part of our culture.
CG: SHUT UP ITS NOT LIKE I SEE YOU WAXING RED AT ANYONE, AND NOT FOR A CERTAIN SOMEONE’S LACK OF TRYING.
CG: I WAS THERE. I SAW HOW DESTROYED YOUR LOSS MADE HER. FEFERI WAS FUCKING DEVASTATED BY WHAT YOU DID.
CG: IT WASN’T JUST ME THAT YOU HURT WITH YOUR INSANE SUICIDAL STUNT, YOU KNOW THAT, RIGHT?
TA: 2o we’re haviing thii2 conver2atiion now are we
CG: YES? DON’T WE NEED TO? EVENTUALLY?
CG: SOLLUX.
CG: WHAT YOU DID WAS SELFISH AND CRAZY AND I GET THAT YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD HELP BUT WHY? WHY DID YOU DO IT? DON’T YOU KNOW HOW MUCH IT HURT ME TO WATCH YOUR POD GROW SMALLER AND SMALLER IN THE DISTANCE UNTIL YOU JUST FUCKING VANISHED? DID YOU EVEN STOP TO THINK ABOUT HOW I WOULD REACT TO LOSING YOU?
TA: you motherfucker
TA: ii wa2 doiing thii2 for you
TA: for you and ff and tz and liiterally everybody el2e
TA: everyone ii’ve ever known or cared about wa2 on that 2hiip what el2e diid you expect me two do? nothiing? iit was me or all of u2 and ii made the 2marte2t choiice.
TA: you can’t 2ay that ii wa2 wrong. iit worked, diidn’t iit?
CG: SOLLUX.
CG: OKAY, WHAT YOU DID WAS SUCESSFUL IN DRAWING THE FLEET OFF OUR ASSES LONG ENOUGH TO GET AWAY, BUT WE DO NOT TRADE OUR LIVES FOR EACH OTHER! THAT WAS THE FIRST RULE WE MADE WHEN I AGREED TO BE YOUR MOIRAIL.
TA: oh iits you agreeiing now, ii2 iit? ii recall iit beiing you who begged me two agree.
CG: SHUT UP I’M RANTING HERE!
TA: oh come on kk we both know you’re rantiing only becau2e iit’2 the 2afe thiing two do and you’re avoiidiing the real meat of the conver2atiion, ii fuckiing e, me and the empiire.
CG: I AM DOING NO SUCH THING.
TA: karkat, they got me. okay? do you comprehend that? the empiire caught me. what ii2 iit that you thiink happened iin between then and when you and your new lover got me out?
CG; I WAS AVOIDING THIS BECAUSE I THOUGHT THAT YOU MIGHT NOT WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT!
TA: well who else can ii talk two about thii2? you’re the only one who would under2tand.
TA: plu2 a2 my moiiraiil you are liiterally 2ociially obliigated two hear thii2.
TA: that ii2, iif iit2 okay wiith you? iim not going two liie, iits pretty fuckiing dark.
CG: NO, I CAN TAKE IT. YOU’RE RIGHT. ITS MY JOB TO HELP YOU THORUGH THIS.
TA: karkat we’ve talked about thii2 before. helmiing. me. what miight happen iif they caught us.
TA: iim ju2t glad ii got a few hour2 of re2t before the iinterrogatiion 2tarted. iit wa2n’t a plug me iin an let2 go kiind of deal. they took theiir tiime wiith breakiing me.
CG: SOLLUX, YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO THIS. YOU DON’T HAVE TO GO THROUGH THIS IF YOU DON’T WANT TO. I’M HERE FOR YOU NO MATTER WHAT AND I DON’T WANT TO SEE YOU HURTING IF THERE’S A WAY AROUND IT.
TA: no ii need you two know what happened.
TA: the fiir2t thing they diid was 2trap 2everal paiir2 of p2iioniic binder2 on me 2o that ii couldn’t fight back. then a tealblood and a really high up purpleblood took turns tryiing two torture iinformatiion out of me. they treated iit like a game, you know? let2 2ee how much paiin the pi22blood can take before breakiing.
CG: SOLLUX, FUCK….
TA: ii won’t make you lii2ten two all of iit. ii don’t want you two know mo2t of iit actually. Ju2t know that they couldn’t break me. ii never gave them a fuckiing thiing.
TA: of course that just pii22ed them off even more. iit would have made thiing2 ea2ier on me iif ii’d broken, but they could have u2ed me two de2troy the cult, de2troy you and feferii and everythiing we’ve been workiing for. 2hiit kk, ii have the pa22word2 for everythiing iin our 2y2tem! there’2 not a 2ecret iin the cult that ii don’t per2onally know the detaiil2 of. ii could have ruiined u2.
TA: ii nearly ruined us.
TA: iit wa2n’t bravery or anythiing el2e that 2topped me from giiviing them what they wanted. iit was ju2t dumb 2hiit luck.
TA: they nearly broke me kk, but ii thiink they went two far and pu2hed me riight pa2t compliiance iinto complete 2hutdown. you 2ee, the tealbood brought biiowiires with her. 2he let them force theiir way under my skiin and up my arms two wriithe around iin2iide me. 2he 2aid iit wa2 ju2t a hiint of what wa2 waiitiing for me and ii… ii fuckiing 2hut down
TA: my cowardiice ii2 what saved u2, nothiing more than that.
TA: and 2he wa2 fuckiing riight. A2 awful a2 that had been iit wa2 ju2t a hiint of what iit wa2 liike when they took me iinto the helm2block to get hooked up.
TA: and here ii always objectiively thought that when iit came down two iit, ii’d ju2t fuckiing kiill my2elf before ii’d ever let them helm me. but… ii wa2 helple22 two 2top iit.
TA: ii remember what iit wa2 liike. ii don’t know how ii 2urviived iit.
CG: YOU WERE TEMPORARILY HELMED INTO THE TG- THAT’S HOW WE WERE ABE TO GET YOU OUT. YOU WERE PROMISED TO THE EMPRESS TO BE THE HELMSMAN OF HER FLAGSHIP SO THE TG NEVER FULLY HAD YOU INTERGRATED INTO ITS SYSTEMS.
TA: that2 why?
CG: YEAH. THAT’S WHY YOU COULD BE REMOVED.
TA: but not saved.
TA: not wiithout hal rewiiriing all the mental connectiions two my actual body and pulliing me out of my own thiinkpan. wiithout hiim ii’d be a dead body ju2t waiitiing to remember it2 dead.
TA: ii wa2 fuckiing doomed kk.
TA: but you diid iit
TA: somehow, you diid iit. you brought me back
CG: I COULDN’T HAVE DONE IT ALONE. SHIT, I COULDN’T HAVE EVEN GOTTEN CLOSE TO YOU ON MY OWN.
TA: your… mate2priit, 2hiit that’s fuckiing weird to say, hii2 name i2 dave right?
CG: YES.
TA: ii think ii owe him an apology for beiing such an a22hole.
TA: … and ii probably need two thank hiim for hii2 role iin 2aviing my pathetiic liife.
CG: PROBABLY.
TA: …
TA: ii2 he a good mate2priit two you? or do ii need two have a talk wiith hiim about that a2 well?
CG: NO, HE’S..
CG: DAVE’S…
CG: JEGUS FUCK, SOLLUX. I DON’T EVEN KNOW HOW TO DESCRIBE IT TO YOU. I CARE ABOUT HIM SO MUCH.
TA: you? caring about someone? ga2p!
CG: SHUT THE FUCK UP THIS IS SERIOUS.
CG: I NEVER, EVER THOUGHT I’D FILL ANY QUADRANT. I WAS LUCKY ENOUGH TO HAVE A MOIRAIL WHO COULD ACTUALLY FUCKING STAND ME AND MY QUADRANT VACILLATION FOR LONGER THAN FIVE FUCKING MINUTES AND I KNOW I HAVEN'T BEEN THE BEST MOIRAIL TO YOU SOLLUX, I KNOW THAT. I KNOW THAT I FEEL PALE FOR YOU, I DO I SWEAR IT, BUT I ALSO WAX PALE FOR JUST ABOUT ANYONE WHO’S PITY BAIT AND IN A WAR LIKE THIS THAT’S JUST ABOUT EVERYONE I FUCKING KNOW.
CG: BECAUSE I’M A QUADRANT ABERRANT FREAK OF NATURE WHO DOESN’T DESERVE HIS OWN HAPPINESS.
CG: AND THEN… I FOUND DAVE. OR HE FOUND ME I’M NOT SURE WHICH IS TRUE.
CG; AND I KNOW HE ISN’T A TROLL BUT SOMEHOW, THAT’S WHAT MAKES THIS WORK. HE DOESN’T CARE THAT I’M A OFF SPECTRUM MUTANT FREAK. HE DOESN’T CARE THAT MY EYES ARE RED. HE DOESN’T CARE THAT I CAN’T HELP BUT FEEL PALE FOR HIM AS WELL EVEN IF THAT FEELS LIKE I’M BETRAYING YOU.
TA: karkat lii2ten two me very carefully.
TA: you
TA: are
TA: a
TA: fuckiing
TA: excellent
TA: moiiraiil.
CG: NO. I’M NOT.
TA: ye2! you are!
TA: karkat-
TA: you came after me when no one else would have been crazy or 2tupiid enough two.
TA: you care enough about me two put up wiith my freak mutant braiin and my mood2wiing2 and the way ii’m con2tantly throwiing miixed piitch 2iignal2 iin your diirectiion because ii default two ho2tiiliity whenever the need two be genuiine arii2e2.
TA: and you’re not betrayiing me. ii know you can’t help how you feel for others
TA: and…
TA: and fuck kk iits been nearly a 2weep 2ince iive 2een you and ii thought iid lost you forever.
TA: ii know we’ve both made mi2take2.
TA: can’t we just 2tart over and try to forget thi2 ever happened?
CG: IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT?
TA: ye2. ii want to move pa2t thii2 and ii want two put iit far behind me. ii’m here now, you’re here, and for the fiir2t tiime neiither of us iis on the verge of fuckiing dyiing.
TA: can’t we let that be enough?
TA: plea2e karkat.
TA: ii… ii ju2t need two pretend like everythiing ii2 okay.
CG: ALRIGHT.
TA: thank you.
twinArmageddons (TA) has become an idle chum!

Startled, thinking that he’d done something wrong, Karkat looked up at Sollux.

Sollux was blinking back tears they fizzed with red and blue near his eyes but faded to yellow as they ran down his face. He wiped at them with the back of one skinny wrist.

Concerned, Karkat stood up and leaned over Sollux. “Hey,” he said softly, hating the sight of his friend’s sadness. “I’m here. It’s okay. You don’t have to hide your tears from me.”

He felt a light, gentle zap as a brief sense of weightlessness overtook him as Sollux lifted Karkat off of the floor with psionics like he weighed nothing. Sollux deposited Karkat on the white bed beside him, clinging to him with his fists as he pressed his face against Karkat’s chest.

Startled by the contact, Karkat automatically dropped his hand in between Sollux’s twin horns as he held his moirail close.

Sollux moved, pressing himself closer to Karkat, who responded by decaptchalouging a mound of blankets, pillows, books, and random various other things on top of them. It felt like he was running on autopilot until his frontal lobe kicked in to scream ‘you’re building a pile, fuckass’, then his face blushed red with embarrassed color.

Sollux buried himself in the soft things, and clung to Karkat, purring weakly, the sound thin and uneven but true.

Karkat had never heard Sollux purr before. They’d never even built a pile together. Sollux wasn’t the most open troll and tended to react poorly when touched so even after sweeps of being moirails they’d never done anything quite this pale before.

Karkat couldn’t help but purr back, snuggling the only other person besides Dave he’d ever voluntarily let close to him. And Sollux might have been able to kill him with his brain but Karkat had gotten better at trusting people not to take advantage of him and he knew that Sollux wouldn’t hurt him like that.

It felt good; it felt real, it felt like everything he’d ever read about pale romance, like before they’d just been playacting at sharing a quadrant but now they’d really done it and crossed some invisible line, like being separated was the final push they’d needed to realize how much they needed each other.

Karkat held Sollux close and let him cry himself out, whispering pale nothings in his ear the entire time as he stroked his horns and ruffled his fingers through his wild hair. For the first time, Karkat felt like a true moirail.

 

Days on earth: 16
Dave was typing away at his husktop as Karkat watched him with unblinking eyes from his chair. The human was sitting upright in his medibunk, busy talking online to Rose or someone. He looked up the instant that Karkat blinked slowly at him, his expression torn.

Dave quickly typed him a question.

TG: what is it?

Karkat wasn’t sure what to say. He had an idea rolling round inside him, but he wasn’t sure how to say it out loud. “Who are you talking to?” He asked to cope out of what he really wanted to say.

TG: rose

Dave must have sensed that it wasn’t the real question because he shut his husktop down and set it aside, typing through his shades.

TG: so whats the real question

Dammit, the human knew him too fucking well for them to have known each other for less than a full sweep. “You’re doing better,” Karkat pointed helpfully.

Dave waved him closer, so Karkat complied, rising from his chair. Dave took his hand and squeezed it and the pressure made the lump forming in Karkat’s throat all the tighter.

TG: im feeling better

Dave agreed but he was missing his expected grin. He patted the bed beside him.

TG: sit with me?

Karkat couldn’t help the purr that rose up inside him as he settled in beside Dave. Purring was more of a pale sound, but it didn’t help that it was one of the few sounds that Dave cold physically hear with his human ears so Karkat couldn’t help but purr around him just so that he knew he was being heard.

TG: here, I’ve got something for you

Dave brought his husktop back around and pulled up something that loaded slowly.

“What is it?” Karkat asked.

TG: a surprise

Dave answered, but it was a hesitant reply.

The husktop was still loading and Karkat couldn’t help but think that now with all of his siblings back and all of his responsibilities returned, Dave didn’t know how to be close to him anymore. Did he even want Karkat when he had an entire planet full of his own species to choose from now that they weren’t the only two people around? Was Karkat nothing more than a choice made out of desperation? Or convenience?

Karkat wasn’t dumb enough to ever believe that Dave would do that to him, not intentionally. But that was the point, wasn’t it? They hadn’t been spending as much time together now that Dave was back to working at the war and Karkat had Sollux to look after and Karkat was terrified of the space between them.

He didn’t think that Dave would leave him, but he couldn’t drive away the thought that Dave might open his eyes and realize that he could do better than a mutant troll. It might not be right now, it might not be next perigree, but it had to happen eventually right? How could they be proper matesprits when Dave couldn’t even hear how badly Karkat was calling for him?

The language barrier between them had never seemed so vast as it did right now with a churr in Karkat’s throat and nothing but a blank look on Dave’s human face. Karkat’s bloodpusher dropped straight down to his strutpods.

The husktop beeped and Dave reached across Karkat to click on something.

TG: one second

Dave pulled a box out of his sylladex. It was small and papered in brown, held together with tape.

“What’s that?” Karkat asked, curious despite his inner turmoil.

Dave just winked at him and opened the box. Inside was a metal ring with a rectangle on one side that he deftly buckled around his neck where the bandages from his translator had just been removed.

With the coverings gone, the scar at Dave’s throat was revealed. A warped, sunken hole was all that remained of where his embedded translator once had sat, the edges of where Vriska’s claws had wounded him still visible. The sight hurt Karkat to the core and he fought the urge to lean over and trace the still-healing wound with his fingertips.

Dave buckled the metal ring around his throat like a collar and hit a switch. He coughed a few times, clearing his throat, then, “Hey Karkat,” he said, grinning. “How do you like my new look?”

Karkat blinked in shock at the sound of Dave’s voice. It flooded over him like music, not the mechanical drone he was used to hearing or the gibberish of human tongue, but clear as a bell Alternian in Dave’s real voice.

Karkat couldn’t help it. He slowly reached up and touch the translator buckled around Dave’s neck, lingering over where the scars marred his pale flesh and had stolen Dave’s voice from him for what should have been forever. “How?” He asked, breathless with wonder at this new miracle.

“Hal and Roxy made a new design,” Dave answered, and he still wasn’t smiling as he waited to see Karkat’s response. “Hal wrote the coding for it and Roxy invented a design that didn’t have to be embedded to work around the issue of me having a chuck missing out of my neck. Jade and Dirk are the ones that actually put the device together though.”

The words were perfect- none of the mechanical toneless crackle from before lingered in the new gab device. Dave sounded true and heartbreakingly beautiful. Karkat sat blinking at him for so long that Dave fidgeted and asked, “Can you understand me? Is this thing working?” he said, touching the band around his throat.

Karkat caught his fingers. “Yes,” he said, purring. “I can hear you just fine. It’s perfect.” He tried to say more but the words got tangled up in his mouth. He didn’t know why he suddenly felt like crying.

Dave watched him like he knew exactly what the troll was thinking. “There’s something else,” he said, clicking at the husktop without breaking eye contact. “Something that I’ve been working on since the TG.”

“What is it?” Karkat asked, wary of whatever it was that could have Dave looking so spooked.

“Its...” Dave broke off, stressed. “Just, here. Listen.” He clicked one more thing onscreen and a beat filled the air.

It was a song.

Dave had played him many different songs that he’d written, but he could tell at once that this one was different. It was mellower, smoother, softer, something crooning and flowing.

“I wrote it for you,” Dave said shyly, not meeting Karkat’s eyes as the song played in the background. The music swelled around them, filling the tiny room they were in.

Karkat opened his mouth to say something, to praise the song, but then he caught the sound of something… different, woven through the bass of the music. He listened harder, Dave’s eyes watching his closely as Karkat took it in.

There, plainly audible as the bones of Dave’s song, were flagrantly red frequencies woven throughout the mix. He heard churrs, subsonic purrs, clicks and the grackled snaps that had Karkat’s face heating up at the sound. Dave couldn’t have advertised his red feelings any louder than it he’d shouted them from a rooftop, and to hear them woven into such a beautiful song, one that Dave had written just for him…

Okay, fuck it, now he was crying.

Dave leaned forward to wipe away his tears, looking concerned.

“It’s okay,” Karkat choked out, a rumble rising through his thorax. “I’m okay.”

“Any yet you’re crying,” Dave said, expressionless.

Karkat kissed his palm, still churring. “That’s because I like it,” he said.

Dave’s chin tilted to the side. “What noise are you making?” He asked curiously. “I can’t exactly hear it, but I can feel it, especially when I’m touching you like this.” He pulled at Karkat until the troll was pressed against his side, careful not to put any weight on his still injured chest. Dave laid his head down on Karkat’s thorax to feel the rumble run through the troll. “That’s it, that’s the exact noise,” Dave said grinning. “I knew I had it right.”

“Did you mean to weave those sounds into your remix?” Karkat asked, wiping away his tears.

“Yep,” Dave answered, and the ease of the conversation left Karkat feeling relieved. No more red text! He could talk to Dave again and hear him answer back. “I took a wild stab at their meaning, hope I got it right.”

“So you meant to fill your song choc-full of red solicitations?” Karkat asked helplessly as Dave pecked lightly at his chin, reaching for his lips.

Dave grinned wickedly against his mouth. “That is exactly what I meant to do,” he answered smugly.

Karkat was powerless to do anything but kiss him back, not with the artificial sound of Dave’s song clicking in his ear. His blood was burning by the time the song ended, and he gently but thoroughly set to ravishing Dave’s lips, careful not to touch any other part of him, wary of irritating the stab wound that Dave still carried with him.

Dave sighed against his mouth, lacing his fingers through Karkat’s hair. He licked at Karkat’s lips, kissing him deep as the angle would let him. Karkat moved further down in the bed so that he could reach Dave better, one hand splayed against the human’s jaw to cup his face.

Dave slipped off his shades and set them on the medibunk table on the other side of him. His red eyes were gleaming in the half-light, wholly beautiful. “I can’t do much more than this,” Dave admitted, stroking Karkat’s face. “I am still an invalid, after all.”

“That’s fine,” Karkat answered, kissing him again. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“How would I explain any new popped stitches to Jade?” Dave said, giggling breathlessly as Karkat breathed across his neck to get a closer look at the new gab device. “Sorry Jade, I hurt myself trying to smooch my boyfriend and –oh fuck,” Dave groaned when Karkat trailed his lips down his jawline, the cords in his neck going tight.

The human red sound did funny things to Karkat’s bloodpusher, like make it beat erratically. He felt light headed with joy as he continued to assault Dave’s neck with the gentlest of touches, determined to leave not a mark on him.

Dave slowly relaxed again. He still tensed every time he felt the edge of Karkat’s teeth against his throat, but only for a moment as he shivered breathlessly. “God, Karkat, how the fuck are you this good at making me crazy for you?”

“I have no idea,” Karkat answered, just as breathless as he rose back up to Dave’s lips, to kiss him slow and deep. “I just do whatever comes naturally. It’s not like I’ve done this with anyone else.”

Dave turned his head, seeking out Karkat’s skin as he nestled against him and let his eyes slide closed. “Will you stay with me?” He asked.

“Only if you tell me what the fuck a boyfriend is,” Karkat answered lightly, teasing.

Dave laughed hard enough to hurt himself, his face going pale as he winced. It took a few shallow breath before he could speak again. “Boyfriend is the human word equivalent to matesprit, or at least as close a word as I’m willing to use. There’s one other word but it involves a whole lot of other human shit with it like rings and legal documentation.”

“You have to get legal documentation to call someone your matesprit?” Karkat asked, shocked.

“Not really,” Dave struggled to explain his weird human culture. “There’s like, a ceremony. It’s symbolic, you know?”

“No, I don’t know,” Karkat said.

Dave shrugged. “There isn’t a word for it in your language,” he said. “Boyfriend is close enough for now.”

“Is that a threat?” Karkat teased playfully. “Will this other human word for matesprit come out to haunt me one day down the line?”

Dave looked at him. Really looked at him like he was gazing straight into Karkat’s soul with eyes that were lit like two ruby flames, the ghost of a smile dancing around his mouth. “You know,” he said. “I think it just fucking might.”

Karkat laughed and kissed him again, sure that whatever it was that Dave was joking about was a human thing. “Okay,” he said. “But you should get some sleep. You look tired.”

Dave closed his eyes again, still grinning to himself as he fell away to sleep. Karkat stayed with him the entire time, curled around his sleeping body until a deep and dreamless sleep found him.

 

Days on earth: 24
It was Hal that woke him.

TT: Karkat, Sollux wants you and Dave to join him. We think that the device is finished enough to try and contact Feferi.

Karkat groaned himself awake, still pressed to Dave’s warm side. The words blinked at him from the medibunk table through Dave’s shades.

“Dave,” Karkat whispered, nudging him.

The human was instantly awake, his eyes open and alert. “What is it?” He asked, reaching for his shades. He slipped them into place and read Hal’s words for himself. “Are you ready for this?”

“I think so,” Karkat replied hopefully, standing as he scooted out of the medibunk and yawned.

Dave sat upright, winced, and laid back down, his face turned to the wheeled chair in the corner. “Do you think you could lend me a hand?” He asked.

Karkat wheeled the chair over to him and Dave took hold of the bed railings to slowly, painfully lift himself into the chair. Karkat moved to help him but Dave waved him off, gritting his teeth. “I’ve got it,” he said, gasping. “I’m good.”

“Are you sure?” Karkat asked, worried.

“Shit,” Dave breathed, his fingers tapping patterns on the handrails of the chair. “That’s probably not going to get any easier for a while. It’s hard, Karkat. I’ve been shish-kabobbed and lived to tell the tale but I wish that this wound didn’t take such a fucking toll on me.” He already sounded exhausted just form the exertion of getting into the chair.

“It’s alright,” Karkat said, his throat full. “You can take your time to heal. There’s no rush.”

“But I’m fucking useless like this,” Dave complained, striking at the chair to prove his point. “I can’t even walk, Karkat.”

“Your brother doesn’t even have a body and yet you’d never call Hal useless,” Karkat reminded him. “One of the few trolls I actually trust couldn’t walk for most of the time that I knew him. I was constantly wheeling him around to Cult meetings and I never once thought any lesser of him.”

“What happened to him?” Dave asked curiously, distracted enough to forget about his own complaints.

“Tavros is fine now,” Karkat answered. “We got him off planet the same time we grabbed Terezi. He’s safe with us. Feferi doesn’t care about his spinal injury.”

“Tavros,” Dave said, rolling the word around in his mouth. “I know that name. You spat it at Vriska on the TG.”

“Vriska is the troll that paralyzed him,” Karkat answered tersely. “She’s also the one that blinded Terezi.”

Dave whistled as Karkat helped wheel him down the hallway. “I guess you’re used to having friends that got hit by Vriska then, aren’t you?”

“She was good at maiming people,” Karkat agreed, his bloodpusher still aching at the memory of killing her. “She was always so good at causing others pain. She could have been a good troll. Maybe at one time she might have even been good, but she chose the wrong path.”

“What happened to her?” Dave asked softly. “I don’t really remember that part.”

“I killed her,” Karkat said simply. “Though you did most of the work. You took out her arm, stole her dice, and gave her an identical wound to match the one she gave you.”

“Not that getting stabbed slowed her down,” Dave said, wincing.

“No, it didn’t,” Karkat admitted. “But it made my part easy.”

Dave didn’t pester him for the details. Karkat didn’t want to remember it- killing her was one of the more shameful things he’d done. Maybe it was because she always made things personal, maybe it was because he could remember her as a wriggler fawning over Terezi before everything went to shit, but her death would haunt him for perigrees. He might not have been her friend but he had been, once, and he’d still killed her.

Would this war ever stop making him do things he’d regret?

Roxy met them in the controlblock. Her hair was pulled back in a cap, goggles over her eyes. D was at her side, looking more severe than Karat had ever seen him. Both of their necks were collared with the same gab device that Dave now wore.

D stared at them, clearly uncomfortable with the knowledge that they’d spent the night napping together but he held his tongue when he caught sight of the grin on Dave’s face.

“How are we doing?” Dave asked as Roxy took over the job of wheeling him around. Karkat hung back, still uncomfortable around Dave’s family and unsure how to read them in a way that didn’t code as hostile.

Roxy didn’t seem to care. But D did. The older human cared a lot, that much Karkat could tell.

The controlblock was a hub of excitement. Sollux was seated at the head of the madness, his hands flying over a keyboard. “Karkat,” he said without looking up. “Gad to see you could drag your ass over here to join us.”

Karkat rolled his eyes and flicked his moirail off. “How close are you to completion?” He asked.

Sollux grimaced. “Human technology is centuries away from anything I’m familiar with so I’ve had to hack engineer an entire new system in just a few days. Luckily there’s already a global communications system in place for me to hijack.”

“Which is the part I’m uncomfortable with,” D spoke up, his face grave. “The world will definitely notice us jacking every satellite in the sky. Who knows who NATO will react?”

“They can’t stop me,” Sollux said, shrugging. “It took me five seconds to hack into your most secure of orbital-based communication devices. I’m already in place and ready to pull the correct satellites into position.”

“So what do we need to do now?” Dirk asked.

“Send the message!” Jade said, excitably understandable with the same metal collar buckled around her neck. “Oh, hi Karkat! It’s nice to finally talk to you!” She enthusiastically waved at him.

Karkat hesitantly waved back, feeling embarrassed. Jake and John entered the room, then Jane, who took one look at Karkat and turned on her heel to leave again. Jake stopped her, his arm still in a sling but clearly still attached to his body. “It’s alright, Jane,” he said. “The troll’s a good bloke in my book. Give him a shot, why don’t you?”

“I can’t believe we’re trusting them!” She hissed, then shot Karkat a dirty look and switched her translator off to continue dissing him in human gibberish. Rose raised pale eyebrows in the other human’s direction but did nothing to defend him. Great. Now Karkat had to watch his back twice as hard.

“Since your technology is insufficient to contract Feferi, I’m only using it to breach the Fleetship, the AC, which is currently drifting around your Mars planet awaiting further orders from the Empress. I’ll then hijack the Fleetship’s communications to send our SOS,” Sollux said, still hacking away at the speed of light. “Which still needs to be written. Karkat,” he said, “Don’t you dare ramble- keep it short and succinct. Make it believable too, as she thinks that we’re both fucking dead right now.”

“On it,” Karkat said, and he got to work. He kept everything the same to add authenticity to the message. Besides, Feferi wouldn’t believe it was him unless he stuck to his quirk.

carcinoGeneticist (CG) is attempting to send a message to cuttlefishCuller (CC) at [time unknown]!

CG: OKAY, LISTEN TO ME VERY CLOSELY FEFERI. I DON’T HAVE MUCH TIME.
CG: FIRST THING’S FIRST, I’M NOT DEAD. NOW BEFORE YOU WAIL WITH ANGUISH AT BEING REINTRODUCED TO MY PUTRID PERSONALITY ONCE MORE, I WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT SOLLUX ISN’T DEAD EITHER AND THAT HE’S FREE AND HEALING UP WITH ME.
TA: wow kk way two sound liike a total fuckiing tool
TA: Hey ff- it2 me. don’t freak out but karkat diid iit- ii’m free and aliive and ii’m sending you thii2 me22age from a planet called earth that2 currently under attack from the fleet.
TA: iit2 a very long story of how we got here, so ju2t know that iit2 full of bull2hiit.
CG: HEY, I WAS TALKING TO HER, ASSHOLE.
TA: well ii’m the one she actually fuckiing mi22ed, 2o…
CG: FUCK YOU.
TA: we’re gettiing off topiic.
TA: feferii, ii’m 2orry for what ii diid. ii’m 2o fuckiing 2orry but that can be over now becau2e ii’m okay. karkat diid iit- he 2aved me
CG: BUT I DIDN’T DO IT ALONE. DAVE HELPED.
TA: that’2 an alien, ju2t 2o you know. they’re the earthliings that liive here and they’re not rolliing over two the empre22. they’re fiightiing back.
CG: AND THEY MIGHT EVEN BE WINNING. THEY’VE CERTAINLY DONE MORE ON THEIR OWN THEN WE’VE BEEN ABLE TO DO IN THREE FUCKING SWEEPS. YOU KNOW THOSE FOUR FLEETSHIPS THAT WERE DESTROYED? THAT WAS THEM, THE HUMANS.
CG: WE’RE ON EARTH HELPING THEM WHILE SOLLUX RECOVERS FROM BEING HELMED.
TA: and ii don’t say thii2 liightly, but ff you might want to get your a22 over here full2peed.
TA: kk has thii2 iin2ane plan that involve2 u2 workiing together wiith the human2 to defeat the empiire but between you and me, ii don’t actually think iit2 that iin2ane of a plan. liike, iit might work.
CG: DO YOU UNDERSTAND? WE’RE WAITING FOR YOU ON EARTH, ALIVE, WITH POSSIBLE FUTURE ALLIES TO FIGHT AGAINST THE EMPRESS.
CG: SO GET YOUR ASS IN GEAR AND GET OVER HERE.
TA: 2igned your two co-generals, the honorable 2ollux captor and 2houty nubb2 the troll.
CG: HAHA VERY FUNNY SOLLUX, SIGNED KARKAT FUCKING VANTAS. THE END. SEE YOU SOON FEFERI.
carcinoGeneticist (CG)has become an idle troll!

Karkat scanned over the document with fiendish stress. It was the most unofficial thing he’d ever written, but at least like this she would know it was truly them and not a trap. Only the real Karkat could ever write a conversation this stupid.

He submitted it for Sollux’s approval and his moirail scarcely glanced at it as he fed the code into the husktop. “That should do it,” he said, clearly stressed. “Now if this works the AC will have no idea I’m using it was a calling beacon. The only people who will know that something’s up should be the other humans.”

TT: Which I can handle.

“Thanks Hal,” Sollux said, typing in the last commands. “I’m almost ready to go.” He hit a few more keys as the humans collectively leaned closer. “In five, four, three, two… let’s fucking roll.” Sollux hit the enter command and the message shot off into the stars, buoyed by the power of the AC as it rocketed into the depths of space.

“No response from the AC,” Sollux said, letting out a sigh of relief. “I made it through. All systems clear.”

TT: the US military has registered a hostile hack that successfully hit all of their communications satellites. I’m scrambling their communications as we speak so that they can’t trace the hack to us.

“Bury the trail, Hal,” Dirk ordered, stressed. “We can’t have them knowing what we did, not yet.”

TT: Affirmative. They will never trace the hack back to this location, not when I’m done with it.

“When will we have a response?” Dave asked.

Sollux sighed. “It’ll be a few hours still,” he answered. “That message has a lot of solar leaps to travel.”

Karkat looked up at the ceiling, imagining his message in a bottle racing away through the stars.

 

Days on earth: 25
They got a response the very next day.

It was just a single, glitchy sentence that even Sollux struggled to untangle and decode, warped by the distance it had traveled and the layers of protection over it.

CC: ---E i’m on my way, )(

 

Days on earth: 30
The sirens woke him, something loud and blaring, the lights flashing painfully bright. Dave picked his head up from his bed and quickly said something in earthling, his translator still switched to his own tongue as he hurriedly grabbed at the wheeled chair. Karkat was quick to help him, reading the panic in his tone before Dave realized what language he was babbling in and threw open the switch at his throat.

“We’re being attacked!” Dave yelled, and Karkat grabbed the arms of the chair to run with him out the door, hefting up Dave and chair and all.

Dave clung to him for dear life as Karkat sprinted with him full speed down the hall. Sollux met him in the hallway, limping along before he lifted himself with psionics to keep up with Karkat.

“The control room,” Dave panted. “That’s where we need to go.”

Karkat complied, racing away with both his quadrants with him.

“Do you know what those sirens mean?” Sollux asked.

Dave shouted back in return. “It means the Empress is attacking earth somewhere!” He said, panicked.

Sollux threw open the door to the controlblock with psionics as they reached it. The hub was a mess, filled with more humans than Karkat had ever seen. He spotted all of Dave’s family, plus Jane, Jake, John, and Jade. Jade’s monstrous lusus was there was well, panting with its lip raised to reveal one single fang as the lights flashed off white fur.

Karkat steered clear of the woofbeast, zeroing in on Dirk and Rose.

“What the jegus shitmunching fuck is going on here?” He demanded, setting Dave down now that he knew that this hivestem wasn’t what was under attack. His bloodpusher was racing, pounding his pulse through him. His shoulders screamed from how tense they were and he was out of breath from the run.

“Where is she?” Dave demanded, his face a thundercloud before he switched his voice back over to human to debate with his family.

Hal kept the two trolls in the loop as the panicking humans milled around a screen filled with words that Karkat couldn’t understand.

TT: The Empress is commanding the AC into our orbit. The Fleetship is a class five cikillian vessel and the strongest ship she’s sent after us to date. It has to be full of fresh fighters and new supplies to refuel the smaller star cruisers that have been harassing us.
TT: We’ve never directly engaged with a Fleetship like this before- just with the smaller drones and transport vessels they send.
TT: All in all, this is a worst case scenario. That ship packs the firepower to safely take us out without resorting to ground troops at all.
TT: This might be it. This might be the battle that breaks us.

“The AC?” Sollux asked, perking up. “That’s the ship I hacked to send Feferi the SOS.”

TT: Yes. It’s pulled free from Mars’s gravity and is en route to earth as we speak. It’ll be here in twenty two minutes.
TT: I’m struggling to calculate where it might hit us first. There’s so many viable targets to choose from! Shit!

The AI’s panic was apparent in the rush tones of his text.

“What are you thinking?” Karkat asked Sollux, catching the sly, deadly look on the psionic’s face. It was something focused, sharp, all of Sollux’s considerable brainpower funneled into solving this one problem.

“I have an idea,” Sollux whispered to him. “But I have to wait until the ship is in range.”

Karkat tugged at Dave’s sleeve. “What’s going on?” He asked. “What’s earth going to do?”

Dave’s face was tight. “We can’t do anything from here,” he said. “We’re in the middle of buttfuck nowhere up the Texas panhandle. There’s nothing for miles.”

“But?”

“But there’s millions of other humans that can’t say the same,” Dave explained, struggling to remain calm. “God, I feel so useless.”

Hal started a timer that was ticking down to the ship’s arrival. 15 minutes and that number was dropping fast.

“Sollux?” Karkat asked.

His moirail had the look on his face that he only got when he was thinking very hard about something and he bared his teeth at Karkat for the interruption, nearly growling.

“Cut that shit out,” Karkat growled back automatically. “I need you to focus.”

“I am focusing,” Sollux argued, hissing. “You’re the thing that’s distracting me so kindly fuck off!” He said the words with fire behind them but his two-toned eyes were distant, focused inward as his thoughts raced along.

Karkat waited patiently for Sollux to finish concocting whatever plan he was formulating, watching the timer count down with the rest of the humans, most of which were openly giving him hostile looks the smaller the number got. In response he edged closer to Sollux, who was so distracted now that he wasn’t watching out for danger like he should have been.

“I’ve got it,” Sollux crowed, his head snapping up, eyes brightening. “I need to get to the controlhub.”

The controlhub was occupied by D, Jane, and Jade. The monster hellspawn dog watched over them from above, its ears flicking.

“Dave,” Karkat said, tugging at him. “Dave!”

“What is it?” Dave asked, distracted.

“Sollux has a plan,” Karkat told him, biting back his excitement. “I need to talk with D.”

Dave was already shaking his head. “Not possible,” he said. “That’s not a good idea.”

“Dave, please,” Karkat pleaded, taking his hand. “Trust me.”

Dave blinked at him, his face changing as he absorbed the words. “Okay,” he relented after a too long moment. “Follow me.”

Overjoyed, Karkat followed him.

Dave wheeled his way through the crowd. Karkat nearly dragged the still stumbling Sollux behind him because the other troll had the good sense to at last pick up on the tone of the room and kept the psionics to a minimum, ducking to keep his taller frame out of sight.

At the center of the room was D and the others. Dirk caught them at the door. “You can’t go up there,” he said, blocking the way with a sword.

Dave flashed his own sword out of his sylladex and tapped it weakly against Dirk’s. “Come on Dirk,” he said. “I know you won’t really try to stop me with that.”

“Not you,” Dirk admitted, focusing behind Dave on the trolls. “Them? Yes.”

Karkat locked his hands around Sollux’s wrists to keep him back, hissing under his breath to prevent Sollux from launching the stubborn human through the nearest window. “Don’t,” he hissed. “We have to do this their way.”

“I like my way better,” Sollux said simply, his eyes fizzing with power.

Dirk was too stupid to back down from the obvious threat. He didn’t know what a powerful psionic could do. None of the humans did. They just thought that meant good with husktops and fancy lights. They had no idea what was in store for them if Karkat didn’t calm Sollux down.

“Shhhhhh,” Karkat hissed, purring at Sollux only loud enough for the other troll to hear. “Calm down.”

Sollux, the bastard, shook his head. “No,” he said. “I need to get up there.”

“Dirk,” Dave tried again. “Please.”

“I’ll let you pass,” Dirk offered a compromise. “But not them. Think about how it will look to everyone to have the ‘captured trolls’ up with D making decisions?”

“Captured trolls?” Sollux said, one thin eyebrow raised, outraged.

Dave sighed. “We had to call you something to sneak you through our systems,” he said. “Captured specimens was the socially acceptable term to use since ‘honored guests’ would turn a few unwelcome heads.”

“I don’t care,” Karkat said through gritted teeth. “Dirk, we’ve fought together. I wouldn’t ask this unless I had good reason to, but Sollux needs to get up there.”

“Why?” Dirk asked coldly.

“Because I can fucking stop the ship from single handedly taking over the planet?” Sollux offered.

Dirk stared at them through those stupid triangle shades that hid his yellow-orange eyes. “Hal wants to know exactly what you mean by that,” he said a last, swallowing.

“I mean what I fucking said,” Sollux snapped at him, “now will you let us help or not?”

Red text lit up on the underside of Dave’ shades and he wordlessly slipped them off and handed them to Karkat.

The troll slipped them on. Dave was still logged into his account and all of Karkat’s words were in his text color because of it.

TT: Do you think Sollux can help?
TG: I KNOW HE MEANS WHAT HE SAYS. IF HE THINKS HE’S GOT A SOLUTION TO SOLVE THIS I’M TRUSTING HIM WITH IT.
TG: I’VE SEEN HIM WORK OUT MORE BRILLIANT SOLUTIONS WITH LESS INFORMATION THAN THIS. I’VE SEEN HIM WORK MIRACLES BEFORE. YOU KNOW, HAL, YOU’RE PROBABLY THE ONLY OTHER PERSON HERE THAT KNOWS JUST HOW SMART SOLLUX REALLY IS. YOU ALONE KNOW WHAT HIS THINKPAN IS CAPABLE OF.
TG: ARE YOU REALLY GOING TO DOUBT HIM NOW?
TT: It’s not his brain I’m doubting.
TG: THEN WHAT IS IT? YOU KNOW HE’S ON YOUR SIDE. WHAT’S THE HOLD UP?
TT: It’s us- the humans. They will react poorly to this decision. Only Dave’s family and the other three Starfighters really know that you’re on our side and I don’t want either of you getting hurt.
TG: HAHA THAT’S REALLY FUCKING TOUCHING, BUT WE CAN TAKE CARE OF OURSELVES.
TT: And you’re sure that Sollux can help?
TG: I AM.
TT: Then I will let you help.
TT: But please, be aware that most of the humans here are hostile towards trollkind and they are armed and just as dangerous as Jane.
TT: She’s not normally so vicious, I swear. Being on the GG took a toll on her and I hope her lighter side prevails.
TG: DID YOU REALLY THINK THAT PUTTING SOMEONE ON A CLOWNSHIP WAS A GOOD IDEA? THOSE WALLS BLEED CHUCKLEVOODOOS- OF FUCKING COURSE SHE’S NOT ACTING HERSELF.
TG: BUT OKAY. I’LL WATCH OUT FOR US.
TT: Fine.

Dirk lowered his sword and let Dave push himself past him. Karkat had to help him up the stairs one at a time, and with each clank of the wheels against the steps the muttering chorus of human voices dropped off. Eyes turned towards them. D was staring at them coldly, Jane with open hostility as they climbed up onto the control hub. Even Jade looked worried.

Dirk followed them slowly, guarding Dave’s back.

“Dirk,” D said when they’d reached the top, his voice flat. “Why did you let them up here?”

“They promised that they could help,” Dirk said shrugging. “Besides, they won Hal over.”

D pinched at the bridge of his nose and exhaled. “Hal?” He called out.

The words appeared in red on a large overhead monitor, the Alternian transcription beside it.

TT: I believed that we need all of the assistance that we can get. Why turn down free help when there are potentially millions of human lives on the line?

TT: I don’t want to stand by and watch as another Jakarta incident happens. I liked London, remember?

“I know,” D said, breathing deeply. “But Hal- this is fucking public.”

Hal didn’t miss a beat.

TT: So we show them that not all trolls are evil. How exactly did you think to foster an alliance with nothing but seven willing humans, plus me? This is a chance we cannot afford to miss on two accounts.
TT: Put aside your anxieties D and please, let them help. Because I know they can.

“D, please,” Dave said. “I’m vouching for them too.”

Dirk sighed, looking off-put. “I guess that makes three of us,” he said, rubbing at his temple where the blaster shot would have killed him if Karkat hadn’t drug him out of the way.
Jade brightened. “Let’s hear it then,” she said.

“No,” Jane said, flat and expressionless. “I cannot be a part of this.”

Sollux looked ready to say something because he lacked common fucking sense but Karkat stopped him with a sharp look.

“Jane,” Dirk pleaded. “You know I wouldn’t back them unless I meant it.”

“And you know I wouldn’t because I mean it,” Jane answered sadly. “Dirk, please. Don’t do this.”

“I have to,” Dirk answered. “It’s the right thing to do.”

She looked away. Dave looked wounded.

“Can I get started now?” Sollux asked loudly, the counter at eight minutes.

“What do you need?” D sighed, sounding resigned.

“I need every computer you’ve got, plus every decent coder you have that can follow instructions,” Sollux said at once. “Three of them.”

“Hal can do all of that,” D argued.

“I need physical hands,” Sollux answered, already ripping open the side of a husktop to yank a handful of wires out of it. “I have other jobs for Hal.”

“Roxy!” D called out, leaning over the railing to look over the suddenly silent crowd below. “Roxy, get up here! I need a volunteer that knows how to code as well.”

Dirk stepped forward. “I’ll be number two,” he said.

“Jade,” Sollux said, eagerly dipping into the computing systems as he took control. “Start wiring together as many husktops as you can. I need all the computing power this hub can muster.”

Roxy climbed up the steps and threw herself into the work. Sollux was already racing ahead, counting down the numbers to himself as the counter ticked. Five minutes. “Jade?”

“Ready!” She answered back, wire cutters disappearing back into her sylladex.

“Can you do it with just two people?” Dave asked, seeing the lack of volunteers from the floor.

“Sure, why the fuck not?” Sollux answered back without focusing on the human, lines of code racing past the central monitor too fast for Karkat’s eyes to follow. “This is already a fuckin’ crazy idea.”

“What are you doing?” Karkat asked, knowing he wouldn’t get a reply.

“No time to explain,” Sollux said, still typing away. Red and blue began to spark off the ends of his sharp horns. “Hal? Status?”

It always amazed Karkat how focused Sollux was when he had a project to work on, how his normal distracted scatterpanned self could go from failing to focus on anything to equally dividing his attention between several vital projects with ease.

TT: The AC is taking aim at New York.
TT: Dear God. They’re going to bomb Manhattan.

A ripple of fear and outrage ran through the room.

“No,” Dave said silently, shaking his head with fearful dismay. “Not New York. That’s millions of people.”

“Don’t have a fuckin clue where that is, and I don’t fucking care,” Sollux growled, the psionics jumping from his fingers to help type with the speed of a troll possessed.

TT: It’s locking onto its target with a hydrogen-based missile. The damage will be complete and catastrophic.
TT: Sollux.
TT: Three minutes.
TT: If you’re going to pull a miracle out your ass, now would be the time to do it.

“Almost there,” Sollux said, grunting, his teeth bared as a red and blue glow surrounded all of the husktops Jade and linked together so that the entire control hub glowed. “Got it!” He hit enter and Hal immediately jumped to attention.

TT: Holy shit.
TT: That might just work.
TT: HOLY SHIT.
TT: Fuck.

A splitscreen popped up, showing a graphic of the planet and the outline of the approaching fleetship.

“Now,” Sollux said, baring teeth. “We let them come closer.”

“What?” Jane snapped fear in her voice. “Are you insane? That’s exactly what we don’t want!”

“They need to be in range for this to work,” Sollux snapped back at her, his eyes crackling dangerously.

Karkat began to put the pieces together at the same time as Dave. On screen the other dots began to move.

“I’m already seamlessly in the AC’s systems,” Sollux said out loud, explaining away the events on screen as they happened. “There’s absolutely no security behind them because they don’t think that humans are capable of hacking them, so I’m taking over absolutely everything. There’s not a single automated process on ship that I’m not in control of.”

TT: Impressive.
TT: But how does that help anything? If this was a matter of hacking them I could have done that myself.

“Not like this,” Sollux shook his head. “Because I’m doing something despicable.” He hit a button, his face sallow. “I’m turning the oxygen scrubbers off. It won’t affect them but it’ll distract the officials and the captain for long enough to get ready for the main event.”

“Which is?” D prompted them.

“I’m taking out the ship,” Sollux said, his voice hard. “It’s not going to escape me.”

“How?” Dave asked.

TT: Via satellite strike. Five of them at once. He’s been rerouting the spy satellites as we speak. He had them hacked in seconds.

“Those won’t get through the ship’s shield,” Karkat pointed out, confused.

“They will,” Sollux promised grimly.

TT: 10 seconds.

“The ship’s in range!” Roxy yelled, straining at the keyboard.

“Wait for it,” Sollux said, visible stressed out as he hit another key sequence and… and turned off the ship’s shields just in time for those five satellites to rocket around the edge of the planet at 78,000 mph and slam into the class five cikillian vessel. They hit one after the other, each one catastrophic.

The Fleetship buckled under the weight of five separate explosions. A cheer went up from the floor, then another as the ship depressurized in on itself, crumpling. The engines stalled, gravity taking over as the atmosphere began to tear at the unprotected ship.

“How many trolls are aboard a ship that size?” D asked coldly, staring at the screen as the ship went up in flames.

Sollux looked sick. “Multiple thousands,” he answered just in time for the sleek ship to break apart into two halves. The pieces fell earthward, on track to land in middle of an ocean named Atlantic.

“Will any survive the impact?” D asked.

“Yes,” Sollux answered, grimacing, crashing, his intense focus rebounding to hurt him as the migraine settled in. “The ship will hit the ocean and float there. They’ll be hundreds that survive in the safelocked zones that slammed shut when the hull was breached.”

D let out the breath he was holding. “God,” he said, awestruck as he watched the burning pieces of ship fall to earth. “You did it.” He laughed breathlessly and swayed in place with sheer, utter relief.

The blinking red dot that represented a place called New York stood unharmed. The ship crashed to earth and vanished from the screen as it fell too low for the eye in the sky to see. The ocean swallowed it.

“Call the coastguard,” D said. “They’ll need to go pick up the survivors. Hal, oversee their transport here if they surrender peacefully.”

TT: I will have the lower levels prepped for them.
TT: Do you think they will surrender?

“No,” Karkat said, shaking his head. “The Empire will never surrender, even in a hopeless situation.”

TT: Then we will forcibly capture as many as we can. You and Feferi can sort them all out when she gets here.

“We’ll treat them well, but we have to get to them first,” D said, running his hand over his face and sighing. “Otherwise the government will grab them and no one wants that.”

Jade jumped up and down in place. “That’s why we’re the Alternian studies division! We get preference over all things Alternian, including trolls!”

Karkat raised his eyebrows at her. “I thought you were a private sector?”

“We are,” Jade confirmed. “This is just the title we work under.”

TT: Wait.
TT: Somethng’s going on with the two parts of the AC.

“What the hell?” Sollux growled under his breath as he struggled to hack into the broken ship. “They sent a distress signal?”

“What?” Karkat said, pushing past Jade to peer at the screen in disbelief. “Why the fuck would they do that?”

“Why not?” Dave shrugged from his chair. “That seems like the only thing they’ve done so far that makes sense.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Karkat fretted, his dull panic sharpening as Sollux pulled news feeds up that showed the Empire trolls climbing onto the top of the floating vessel. “Fleetships can’t send distress signals- that’s illegal.”

“Then what happens when they need help?” Dave asked, concerned.

Sollux snorted, his face dark. “Don’t ever ask the Empress for help,” he recommended. “She’ll probably decide if you need help then you’re better off dead.” He watched the screen intently, his red and blue eyes unblinking. “Watch,” he said, sounding sick. “I’m more worried about what will happen after the Fleet gets that message then what might have been in it.”

“Why?” Dave asked, also wheeling himself closer to see.

Karkat felt ill. He knew the protocols as well as Sollux did. He gulped, waiting.

Hal figured it out first.

TT: Oh no.
TT: Shit.
TT: She would really do that, wouldn’t she?

“Why the fuck do you think you haven’t been able to capture and ground troops for longer than a few hours?” Karkat said, guessing but filling in the pieces anyway.

TT: A ship just jumped out of hyperspace. It’s coming from around the dark side of the moon as I speak.

Sollux push himself away from the screen his fingers trembling. “I’m not watching this,” he growled. “I’ve seen enough of Her cruelty to last a lifetime of sweeps.” He walked off before Karkat could stop him, weaving his way through a crowd of humans that parted like grass in the wind to let him pass.

“What’s going on?” Dave asked wondering aloud what the others must have been thinking. “What’s the other ship doing here?”

TT: It’s a small ship, an envoy vessel so meaningless that its unnamed.
TT: From I can tell it doesn’t have the firepower behind it to pose a real threat.

“It’s not for you,” Karkat forced the words out, sweating. “It’s for them.”

“Can it carry them all?” Dave asked, still not getting it.

Karkat looked at his matesprit sadly. Gog, the human was so naïve about what the Empress was willing to do to keep her assembled masses under Her control.

That was when D seemed to understand. “Dammit,” the older human cursed. “Goddammit!” He kicked at the wall with his foot and then kicked it again, harder.

“Dave,” Karkat said gently. “That ship is here to kill them, not rescue them.”

Dave’s jaw dropped open in confusion. “Why?” he asked, staring hard at the screen. “What good would that do her?”

“It sends a message,” Karkat said, swallowing thickly as Hal recorded the ship, this one fully protected and shielded from hackjobs, began its decent. “The next ship She sends won’t fail if they know what’s waiting for them if they do. Also, it keeps the lowbloods on board out of human hands, because they’re sure to flip sides the instant they know they can. She’s protecting her interests.”

The ship dropped lower, breaking through earth’s atmosphere easy as a knife through water. Its sleek, deadly design scattered the sunlight from the water as it hovered above the damaged ship.

Dave looked away as it opened fire on the survivors, squeezing Karkat’s hand hard enough that it hurt.

Karkat watched the massacre wordlessly, then when it was over and the shots fallen silent, he spoke. “Gog, he said. “I hope Feferi gets here soon.”

 

Days on earth: 59
It was raining the day Feferi arrived. Her flagship splashed down off the coast of a place named DC, which had a house of an important color in it or something. In any case, the humans flipped their shit.

It took some string pulling from D and Hal to get the chaos to settle down enough to respond to the memoboard that opened automatically once the rebel flagship came into range.

cuttlefishCuller (CC) invited carcinoGeneticist (CG) and twinArmaggeddons (TA) to memoboard [n--Ew fri-----Ends!]

CC: )(----Ey! karkat, sollux, i’m )(er-------E!
CC: w)(ale are you guys? are you really making me search the w)(ole planet? i kinda want to- it’s got so much ocean! Wow!
CG: NOT WOW FEFERI, THAT’S WHY THE EMPIRE IS GRINDING THIS PLANET’S BULDGE. THE EMPRESS WANTS THIS PLANET’S SEAS TO TART A SECOND BROOD PLANET.
CC: o)( no!
CC: but wait, your’-E aliv-E!
CC: karkat i t)(ought you were dead :(
CG: I KNOW, I’M SORRY, SOME SHIT WENT DOWN AS I’M SURE YOU’LL UNDERSTAND. THE MISSION WAS A SUCCESS. SOLLUX WAS FREED AND RECOVERED.
CC: w)(ere is h-E?
TA: hey ff
TA: iit’s me
CC: )(ow do I know if its reelly you and not some kind of crabtrap?
CG: FOR THE LOVE OF FUCK.
CG: OH YEAH, BECAUSE I’M SURE THAT THE EMPIRE IS JUST ITCHING TO DRAG YOUR FISHY ASS ALL THE WAY OUT TO THIS SCREWBALL NOWHERE OF A SHITTY PLANET JUST TO KILL YOU. DO YOU REALLY THINK THE EMPRESS WOULD PUT THAT MUCH EFFORT INTO LURING YOU HERE? REALLY? FUCK, FEFERI, I CANT EVEN. YOU’VE MADE ME CAN’T EVEN. LOOK AT ME EVERYONE- I’M THE GUY WHO CAN’T FUCKING EVEN WITH THIS! FUCK!!!!
CC: ok you’re reely you
CC: Sollux?
TA: ii’m not goiing to deba2e my2elf with tryiing to prove iit’2 me. who the hell el2e would type liike thii2?
CC: ok okay! i’ll bereef you.
CC: w)( ere are you two )(iding?
CG: SOMEPLACE CALLED A TEXAS, IDK HONESTLY. THERE’S SUPPOSEDLY A CONTENENT BETWEEN US.
CC: then i’ll come find you!
CG: NO!
CG: WE’LL COME TO YOU. WE’LL BE THERE IN A MINUTE, OKAY? THE HUMANS WILL FREAK OUT OF YOU MOVE THE SHIP ANY MORE.
CC: w)(ale okay………. I’m just so ---------------Excited to se-E you!
TA: ii can tell. that e nearly left the sentence
CC: sollux! that’s right! it did nearly leave the sentence :) yay!
TA: omfg
TA: you’re really that exciited two 2ee me? ii’m fuckiing touched ff
CC: w)(ale of course i’m )(appy to see you silly! i t)(oug)(t you were dead. i mourned for swe-Eps.

“Okay,” Dave said, tearing Karkat’s attention away from the memo as Sollux continued to type away. “Let’s go. We need to get over there. Roxy had a transportilizer pad installed in the White House a long time ago in case of emergencies.”

“Alright.” Karkat nodded. “Once second.” He grabbed at Sollux and drug the other troll to his feet, the psionic glued to the husktop screen.

The DC transportilizer pad was massive, built for mass transport. Karkat wondered what the DC moniker stood for as he and the other human, all of them from the looks of it, gathered onto the pad.
As it turned out, Karkat still hated being transportilized. It fucking sucked. He hated the feeling of unraveling and then reassembling, plus if felt like it took forever. Sollux, conscious for the first time on one of these, took it harder than most would have, throwing up in the grass as soon as the ground stopped spinning.

The sky was unlawfully blue overhead, sunny, bathed in light that still made Karkat’s skin prickle with remembered fear. Artfully shaped trees that reminded him of Kanaya stood like sentinels to the sides. A building with white columns stood to the side, men wearing black swarming everywhere.

“Get down!” One of the strange people yelled. Karkat stood his ground as weak, frail Dave put one arm across his chest in a feeble attempt at protection.

“Hold it!” D waved the man away, taking charge. “IT’s just me and my family, dude. D Strider, from the Skaia Net division. We’re here about the ship.”

“Well it’s not your concern,” the man answered, not spotting the two trolls lurking in the crowd. Hal, for once, kept up with the translations. “The airforce will be on scene in three minutes.”

“No,” D protested, stepping down from the pad. “That’s what we don’t need to happen.”

“I get that you want to study it but that ship is too close to DC to be allowed to stay,” the man said.

“That ship,” D said, his face hard, “might just be our only hope. Now call off the fuckin’ airforce.”

“On who’s authority?” The man sneered.

Sollux snorted with withheld mirth as the men argued, his eyes flashing as he stage-whispered to Karkat. “Do you want to find out how far I can throw one of them?”

As curious and frustrated as Karkat perpetually was as his normal state of being, he declined and tried to reel Sollux in before someone got hurt. “Just call Feferi over here,” he said, his lip twisted up in the hint of a snarl from the tension thick in the air.

Dave couldn’t get his wheeled chair off the platform without help. Karkat longed to go and carry him down but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be seen just yet so he stayed behind the shield of Roxy, Jake, and Rose’s bodies. Dirk helped his injured brother down while Karkat watched with gritted fangs.

“Done,” Sollux whispered back to him, snapping his husktop shut. “She’s on her way.”

D, Jane, and Jade were still arguing with the men in black while John watched with a worried look on his face. Karkat rolled his eyes and let them argue away because he knew these new humans wouldn’t understand a single fucking word he said.

A frenzied stirring caught his attention. Something black, hovering on the horizon, growing closer and closer, flanked by smaller dots. Feferi.

He recognized the rebel flagship immediately, the ship flanked by smaller drone piolets to the sides as Feferi honed in on Sollux’s location.

Karkat felt a wave of crushing relief roll through him at the sight. To see his home ship intact and flying proudly, steered by none other than a crew he’d hand-picked for excellence and bravery… it did a lot for his battered pride. What a sight they made.

The men in black didn’t have the same thought- they flipped the fuck out. Sollux thought it was hilarious; he wouldn’t stop laughing his ass off as the flagship hovered overhead and cast the lot of them in deep shadows. The ship’s engines growled above them, chittering and snapping as they cooled. Karkat shielded his eyes to look up at it as Feferi’s royal pod broke free and began its decent.

“Oh wow,” Dave said, wheeling beside him to whistle up at the drones. “I’m really watching an alien spacecraft land on the Whitehouse lawn.”

Karkat just blinked as the ship threw up a cloud of dust, hovering over the grass. Then with a smooth slide the door snicked open and the gangplank lowered itself just in time for Feferi to throw herself forward like a force of nature.

“Sollux!” She yelled, sprinting down the walkway as fast as her multicolored skirts would allow.

“Oh shit,” Sollux said, red and blue sparking off his horns. “I’m fucking done for.”

“It was nice knowing you,” Karkat joked back, right before Sollux lifted himself with psionics to fly over the heads of the assembled, disbelieving humans to crash into the Heiress at full-speed. Feferi halted his reckless advance with stunning ease, pulling the taller troll into an embrace, already crying happy tears as she hugged him.

Karkat couldn’t hear what they were saying from this distance, but he could have seen the way Sollux was looking at Feferi from this planet’s moon. Then the skinny bastard kissed her on the mouth and Karkat thought his own bloodpusher would explode with satisfaction at the long overdue occurrence. “Thank fucking gog,” he said, grasping Dave’s hand.

Dave smiled at him, exhilarated as a new group of men came out of the white-painted hive. “Holy shit,” Dave said, squinting at the new figures. “That’s the President.”

“Hello!” Feferi called out to them, giggling, the crown of the Heiress holding back strands of her wild hair as she grinned fishbone fangs at the humans as the dozens and dozens of other rebel ships began to appear in the skies overhead. “I heard you had a problem with the Empress. We can help with that!”

The President stood with open-mouthed shock at the sight, swallowing thickly. D was still arguing with the men in black and the argument had progressed to the point where D was waving a sword around. Sollux was still giving Feferi a moonstruck gaze like a wriggler with their first flushcrush. Now it was up to Karkat to fix the hard part that came next.

Karkat sighed, Dave’s comforting hand tight in his. “Let’s get to work.”

 

Days on earth: 60
Rose was staring at him from across the room. It made Karkat feel uncomfortably watched. Her violet eyes missed nothing and she was making no secret of her glare.

Dave’s sibling came closer. Karkat stared back, unwilling to get hostile with her but he would if he had to. Dirk was okay with Karkat’s presence here in the human base. Roxy was ecstatic about it. Rose was a mystery. He couldn’t glean her feelings for him in relation to Dave, so he went back to his husktop, messaging Feferi and Terezi about plans for a future meeting with D and the President.

Rose moved again, closer until she was lounging in the chair directly across from him. Her eyes bored holes through his skin from the intensity of her staring.
Karkat had enough. “What?” He snapped irritably.

“Nothing,” Rose said airily, still glaring.

Karkat had the unwelcome thought that if Rose had been the one enlisted on the TG in Dave’s place, they would have killed each other. This human was made of ice.

“Karkat,” she said, speaking at last. She rolled the syllables of his name around in her mouth like she was chewing on them for the taste. It was unsettling.

“What the fuck do you want?” he asked, nervous.

She tilted her chin at him, her eyes luminous. “What are your intentions with my brother?”

“Intentions?” Karkat asked with a sinking feeling. He had an idea where this conversation was headed and knew it would be no where pleasant.

He shot Dave a quick message.

CG: YOUR HUMAN HATCHMATE IS BEING WEIRD. SHOULD I BE CONCERNED?

Rose answered him. “Your intentions with my brother now that the two of you are in what I understand to be a committed relationship.” She hadn’t blinked once since she’d started talking.

Karkat laughed nervously, then shut up when he saw that Rose’s face was serious.

“Was I incorrect?” She asked. “Are you not in a committed relationship?”

Were they? “We are,” Karkat answered, because fuck troll traditions and quadrants. He wanted Dave.

“So you’re planning to stay with him?” Rose asked curiously.

This is where human connotations came into play. If she had been a troll Karkat would have been confused about why she was interested in knowing this. The only reason for a non-moirail to express interest in clearly taken red quadrants was to try and remove the competition. Since Karkat sincerely doubted Rose was vying to kill Dave and take his place to woo him, Karkat was left to remind himself that human siblings didn’t work like trolls did. They all expressed care and interest in each other beyond the quadrant system.

That didn’t make this any less fucking weird.

“For as long as he’ll have me,” Karkat said, through gritted teeth.

“Hmmm,” Rose hummed suspiciously, narrowing her eyes like she was taking aim. “So you love him then?”

He’d heard that word before, but still had no idea what it meant. “I don’t know,” Karkat said. “I don’t know what that is.”

“Love?” Rose asked, raising her eyebrows. “It’s the feeling in your heart you feel when you’re close to someone. romantically close to someone, though there’s platonic love as well.”

“I am romantically close to Dave,” Karkat admitted, hoping an admittance would throw her off the chase.

“But do you love him?” Rose asked again.

“How can I tell?” Karkat asked, somewhat interested despite himself. Love seemed to be a big deal to humans. He wanted to know more about it.

“Love is permanent,” Rose said one hand over her bloodpusher. “It’s a feeling that lingers. It leaves behind a scar when it gone or lost, or taken away. Humans feel it for each other and once we fall in love we don’t often fall out of it.” her voice was a warning he couldn’t understand. What was she trying to tell him?

That was a scary thought, a feeling that Karkat couldn’t escape. What kind of emotion left behind a scar like that? “That sounds stupid,” he said, huffing.

“No,” Rose said. “It’s wonderful and terrible all at the same time. Love makes you powerless and gives you the strength to accomplish anything.”

“That’s a contradiction,” Karkat protested.

Rose waved him away. “Humans are full of contradictions, Karkat,” she said.

“I’ve noticed,” Karkat said dryly.

“I’m worried about my brother dating you,” Rose told him matter of factly. “I’m worried that he cares for you more than you care for him. I’m worried that you’re going to hurt him.”

“I’m not going to hurt Dave,” Karkat said, shaking away the ridiculous thought. He didn’t think he could. His thinkpan shied away from the very idea of accidentally hurting his matesprit.

“do you regret it then,” Rose asked him. “Meeting Dave?”

“No.”

“Do you regret falling for him?”

“NO,” Karkat growled, glaring back at her. “What’s with the fucking interrogation?”

Dave finally answered him back, the bastard.

TT: aw shit is it rose
TT: she gave me the break down yesterday
TT: dont worry im on my way to rescue you just stall her for a little longer

Karkat took the words to heart, sitting straighter in his chair.

Rose leaned closer, her ace expressionless. Her eyes were hard. “He didn’t have a chance,” she said sadly. “Dave didn’t stand a chance against you.”

“What do you mean?” Karkat asked, intrigued.

“The instant he met you hiding in the walls and saw your eyes, he was doomed to fall for you,” Rose said. “I know my brother. I like to think that I know you as well. You are made of nothing but his emotional and physical kryptonite. I sent him to that ship to fall for you, so if he gets hurt its our fault, you and me. That blame’s on us.”

“What blame?” Karkat asked, confused. “Dave’s fine now. He isn’t hurt anymore.”

“Do you have any regrets?” Rpse asked him, prompting. “Think about it. this isn’t how you pictured your life turning out, is it? Your only goal was to rescue Sollux and now look at where you are- on an alien planter planning a rebellion for a different species.”

“I don’t regret it,” Karkat told her, thinking about it. “Yeah, this isn’t exactly what I had planned, but I’m okay with it. I wouldn’t give up meeting Dave for the Empire itself.”

“Good,” Rose told him sitting back again with a satisfied grin. “You should never regret love.”

“Still don’t understand that,” Karkat chimed as Dave rounded the corner as fast as he could, booking it across the smooth floor with his wheeled chair that he nearly didn’t need anymore.

“Karkat!” Dave called out, waving. “Yo. Wassup?”

Karkat rolled his eyes with a grin, his hero. Instinctively knowing that this interrupted meeting with Rose wasn’t over yet, he silently met her eyes.

Rose stared back, her eyes as deep as the voids between the stars.

 

Days on earth: 65
Organizing a rebellion wasn’t easy but Karkat had the practice and the patience to manage it with flying colors, even when accounting for the wider planets obvious reluctance to join into an alliance and its seething mistrust of the Red Cult.

At least the President turned out to be a pretty chill guy, suspiciously sympathetic to the Cult’s cause and willing to at least try to make an alliance work, which was more than could be said for the dozen other world leaders Karkat spent the next few perigrees cursing at.

It helped that when the next time the Empress sent a destroyer-class vessel to assault earth, Feferi and her crew ate it for grubmunch. Damn, it was great to be home.

Karkat send his time ferried between the flagship the Certified Castoff, where he reunited with Terezi and Kanaya and Tavros and, yes, even Eridan. No one was saddened by the news of Vriska’s just death, though Karkat’s gut still clenched uncomfortably tight at the memory. He got to introduce Dave to his friends, a delightful meeting that he dreaded for days until deciding to just get it over with already.

Of course, he had worried for nothing. Terezi hit it off with Dave immediately, snickering over crude jokes together. Tavros was chill with him. Kanaya was enamored by his sister Rose and kept sneaking off-ship to meet with her for some reason that Karkat couldn’t fucking understand because Rose still creeped him out.

The Red Cult set up a base on the dark side of the moon and drone dropships ferried back and forth both trolls and humans between earth and the starbase. Another battle was won out in the Glob’g’goly system, and then suddenly the Empire didn’t have any class 4 destroyers left. The loss of the AC hurt the Empress deeply, as well as it’s twin ship the CT which went down to Feferi not a week later.

They were winning. The tides had turned, to quote Feferi.

After that more nations began joining the alliance and Karkat’s job was made easier in turn by the huamn’s social pack-bonding ridiculousness as they tried to make friends with the trolls. Surprisingly, a lot of them succeeded.

Karkat had thought that Dave was special, that he was an aberrant human, an outlier that had learned to tolerate Karkat’s alien presence only out of desperation and lack of choice, but this alliance was proving that trolls and humans could actually get along. It was a fucking miracle.

What was really miraculous though was watching Dave take his first few steps, walking on his own for the first time into Karkat’s waiting arms. The human was healing, he was healed, Dave was okay now. He was strong and hale again. He could walk and run and fight with the best of them, still blurring too fast and out of sight in the friendly spars that they held for training.

Dave said the words one day, watching the flagship cruise along the sky as he and Karkat walked below in the base, the slowly revolving orb of the heavy blue planet a dramatic backdrop to them. “Hey, Karkat?” Dave said. “I love you, you know that right?”

Karkat stared at his human matesprit in the newly created moonbase as they took a break from planning their first proactive attack on the Fleet. Once he could have claimed not to know the word Dave used; trolls didn’t have a word for that in their language, but Hal had specially programmed it into the gab collars just for Dave, just for this moment. He’d talked to Rose again, and Roxy too. They had slowly taught him the word and what in meant for Dave, and suddenly Karkat had a word that fit the quadrant-mixed rush of emotions he felt for the pale human.

“I know,” he answered, facing Dave who removed his shades to stare directly into his red eyes. “Dave, I love you too.”

There-he’d said it! He’d said it and Dave hadn’t run away. He was still smiling softly at him.

“I feel like I’m flying,” Dave said, leaning into him, grinning. “Forget Icarus- this is what flying feels like. This is everything I’ve ever wanted.”

Dave smiled into him, dipping down to embrace him as Karkat kissed him like the world was ending, because it was, and they were the ones who’d get to create a new one.

And they’d do it together.

The End.