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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.