-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] began trolling ectoBiologist [EB] --
CG: DO YOU KNOW WHAT THE WORST FUCKING THING IS?
CG: ASKING RHETORICALLY HERE BECAUSE WERE I TO SQUEEZE THE PINK FUCKING FAIRY FLOSS INSIDE YOUR CEREBRAL CORTEX WHERE RESIDE WHAT I WILL DUB "YOUR FEE HEE HEELINGS"
CG: WERE I TO WRING IT DRY OF EACH PUSTULENT SPARKLING HAPPY THOUGHT UNTIL NOTHING WAS LEFT.
CG: YOU WOULD NOT HAVE A HOPE IN HORRIBLE HUMAN HELL TO UNDERSTAND.
CG: IT'S NOT HOW MY NAME WILL BE USED TO REDEFINE FAILURE TO THE FAR OUTREACHES OF THE UNIVERSE, A NEW SPECIAL RANK OF TOTAL FUCKING FAILURE ON EACH AND EVERY LEVEL OF FAILING WHOSE PARAMETERS WILL NEVER AGAIN TO BE MET BUT WILL BE USED AS MYTHOLOGICAL REFERENCE.
CG: IT'S NOT THAT I HAVE PERSONALLY FAILED NOT JUST MY ENTIRE GODDAMNED SPECIES, BUT EVERYONE I PERSONALLY FELT ANYTHING FOR. ANYONE I HAVE HAD A SINGLE TINY IOTA OF RESPECT FOR I HAVE MANAGED TO LET DOWN IN SUCH AN AWE-INSPIRING, OVERWHELMING, SUPERLATIVE FUCKING WAY THAT I HAVE GONE STRAIGHT THROUGH TO THE OTHER SIDE TO PURE SUCCESS.
CG: MAKE WAY FOR KARKAT VANTAS. THE UNIVERSE'S BIGGEST FUCK-UP.
CG: EVERYONE ELSE GO HOME.
CG: THE POOL IS CLOSED.
CG: IT'S NOT THAT I HAVE ENSURED THE DESTRUCTION OF PEOPLE WHO I COMPLETELY DELUDED MYSELF INTO BELIEVING I COULD EVER DO ANYTHING FOR OTHER THAN UTTERLY LET DOWN SO HARD THE ECHO OF THAT LETDOWN WILL FOREVER RING THROUGHOUT THE PASSAGES OF SPACE AND TIME.
CG: IT'S THAT
CG: THE MYSTERY UNVEILED ABOUT DYING IS THAT YOU ARE COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY FUCKING ALONE.
CG: AND I HAVE NEVER KNOWN JACKSHIT ABOUT ANYTHING
CG: I HAVE NEVER KNOWN ANYTHING AT ALL.
CG: NOW FOR THE DIPSHIT'S DENOUEMENT.
CG: here I am begging you on my fucking knees I don't know what to do any more if I ever knew what to do which is a diminishing likelihood i
CG: i'm done, I'm out
CG: the worst thing is that I don't know what to do.
-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] ceased trolling ectoBiologist [EB] --
EB: god i am so very sorry.
Here is the list of things that won't make Karkat eat: Goldfish crackers, cheese on toast, cherry tomatoes, Reese's pieces, hamburger, strawberry pudding, rice with soy sauce, rice without, sour candy, boiled egg, chicken soup. Add: Spaghetti-O's.
It's John who tries to feed him most. Jade has also sat patiently with bowls gripped between her knees trying to cajole him into just one bite, just half a bite, and sometimes surprisingly JUST ONE FUCKING BITE!! but it mostly, um, doesn't work. John knows she is trying hard. She cares about Karkat. It's not that Dave and Rose don't care, just that Dave and Rose are awkward about bowls and spoons and Spaghetti-O's and especially about suicidal aliens. Which is unfair to Dave and Rose, because it's not just that, it's awkwardness about the fact that here they are at the end of all things and it's now them and Karkat. They're awkward about the enormity. It is too large to even look at, let alone understand.
So John isn't mad when Dave says things like how's the Last Trollhican? because Dave Strider is also staggering under the weight of loss. Or when Rose says, John, you're spreading yourself too thin for nobody’s benefit, because Rose's first loyalty is always going to be to John. In another lifetime Rose Lalonde might have been sitting there calmly trying to fork Spaghetti-O's into Kanaya Maryam. But he's really grateful to Jade, sitting there hopefully with a bottle of Gatorade, ready to be tagged in when John tags out. John tries not to tag out too much.
No story should end like this. Every time he thinks about the unfairness of it, the unbelievable disgusting ugly unfairness, he wants to throw up.
Trolls usually sleep in bathtubs of ectoplasm, or something. They alchemized a kiddie pool and in a fit of desperation filled it full of Silly Slime -- the NICE-TRY GOOD-EFFORTUB, or so says the Captchalogue deck -- which at least had the result of making Karkat talk. "You unbelievable dumbfucks," he'd rasped, and then he'd curled up on his mattress and not said anything else. This is where he can usually be found.
In this hot and airless little room he smells Karkat’s troll sweat (which smells gross) mingled with the scent of old unwashed clothes (not a great combo). Most of the time he just lies there, not hungry for anything but lying there, tucked up into himself. John tries to take care of him a little, because he can’t bear Karkat lying abandoned like an empty cardboard carton.
He's not getting thinner, but John swears to God he's getting drier. Is he sick? Karkat's the colour of Dumbo the elephant all the time and his skin is a little hot to touch, smoothish but tough, like the texture of handbag. It’s so hard to tell. Every day to keep a routine, he goes in and he wrestles off Karkat's t-shirt and sprays him with a plant mister and he hurts, really badly, for Karkat's dignity. The best days are when Karkat goes dead weight or tries to push him off. The worst days are when Karkat just lets him.
He has attacked John three and a half times. There are moments where everything inside him wells up and tries to get out and he breaks, just screams and claws at the walls and the kids and himself, limbs going four directions as though what’s beneath his skin is coming out as seizure. The Knight of Blood is easily pinned down, but it’s a pile-on and nobody likes it. The third time Karkat closed his hands around John’s throat and pressed his thumbs into the horseshoe bone of his hyoid, tightening down, until at last Dave’s fist snapped back his head.
The last half-a-time he grabbed two fistfuls of John’s shirt and snarled fuck you with a mouth full of sharp teeth, and instead of shoving Karkat away he just wrapped himself around him like a bandage. He could not think of anything else to do. Karkat’s grip gave and he dripped out of John’s arms, rolled himself up into a little troll ball on the floor and trembled like a leaf. In the end John had to step away and not look.
John, says Rose, scrubbing his scratches, you are not equipped to deal with this.
She is totally right, but neither is Karkat. It absolutely positively cannot end like this. John Egbert is not interested in crapsack worlds.
Sometimes now he finds Karkat walking around, in the lazy meandering way a snail goes around a garden only sort of more pointless. Snails have their own snail business, after all, though what that business is John is way too uninterested in snails to guess. Karkat walks like he suddenly can't bear being still.
Karkat bumps into doorways and corridors without thinking about it, not feeling the sharp edges or seeing his feet. When John stands in front of him and awkwardly steers him somewhere else, he just looks at him like he’s not John at all: stares with shadow-lidded yellow eyes bewilderedly as though John is someone he does not know and probably does not like.
John’s seen this expression on him before: it is the same look of baffled contempt Karkat now gives to himself in the mirror.
Karkat Vantas is possessed of arms (two, normal); legs (two, not unique); candycorn-coloured horns (two, small, nubby). It’s the little things that catch John’s eye as strange and wonderfully weird, those hard clawish nails on the tip of each finger that have lots of John-blech underneath them. The dim lights next to his mattress make his hair a shiny plastic black, highlight strange hollows in the bone structure of his neck and the way his elbows hinge to his body. Underneath his skin his bruises are normal, flushed bruise-coloured, and the thin grey of his wrists reveals a network of twilight veins. In the end he doesn’t look so different. In the end, actually, he looks really young.
In another timeline John would have been kind of delighted though-not-in a-gay-way to get to see him up close. He sits next to Karkat’s dingy mattress and looks at him as much as he likes, unlacing his sneakers and threading the laces loudly through each eyelet, hoping that if he is noisy and restless enough something will happen; it never does. Karkat does not call him a shitwagon. Karkat doesn’t really even stir. Either his eyes are closed or they take in the ceiling, or the wall, lying in an untidy pile of himself unable to get comfortable, and it kills John because it’s like holding out to see the last beautiful unicorn and finding one emaciated and sad in a petting zoo. Karkat like this is just -- anatomy.
There’s a part in City of Angels where sad soulful angel Nick Cage tries to figure out why humans cry, and he tells skeptical but vulnerable heart surgeon Meg Ryan he figures it’s all the emotions trying to get out: emotion so intense your body just can’t contain it, your mind and feelings become too powerful and your body weeps.
Every time someone reminds Dave about City of Angels he will start listing the ways in which his body is weeping (“so fucking intense I cannot contain it, ooze just god damn everywhere”), and haha okay City of Angels is a pretty terrible movie! And not even “so bad it is good,” more like “so bad it is awful.” But John would show Karkat City of Angels if he could. John would show Karkat anything he could think of if he thought it might help. Anything weird or wonderful or fucked-up, if only it’d make him want something.
Karkat wants nothing. Every breath squeezes out his lungs already sounding bored with itself.
Today John peels a banana, and breaks off slightly smushy pieces with his fingers to put in front of Karkat’s chapped mouth. It’s either offering it to him directly or putting it in his hand, and he knows now if he puts it in his hand it just stays in his hand and things will end up disgusting, or at least there will be uneaten banana. Better to hope that he’ll smell it, sweet and clean, and somehow find it in himself to eat.
John counts to twenty before popping it into his mouth instead. Add to the list: banana.
“These are the most comedic fruit,” he says, more to just have something to say. “You don’t know what you’re missing out on.”
“Stop,” says Karkat.
“Hi,” says John. “If you want celery sticks instead, we have celery sticks? I don’t think they have any nutritional value but Rose likes them with peanut butter, oh crap I guess it’s no good if I’m offering you a food you probably don’t know anything about but it’s green and stringy -- ”
“I’m done,” says Karkat. He lies very still on his mattress with his eyes shut tight. “I told you I was done. Are you a braindamaged wriggler who does not know the definition of ‘done.’”
John says “It’s not done yet,” and he breaks off another piece of banana so he has something to do with his hands. There’s so much he wants to say that he doesn’t know how to, and Karkat’s voice sounds like he is dredging words up from the bottom of an abandoned word mine. “I’m not going to let it be done. You’re my buddy. This is how it works, dude! You are going to be all right because it’s not over.”
For a moment he imagines a flicker going over Karkat’s face, like a nervous tic or a grimace, and he keeps yammering: “Jade and Dave and Rose won’t let it be over, either. This isn’t some kind of mistake or accident. It’d be a pretty amazing accident. I mean, more along the lines of a miracle -- “
“Don’t fucking say that,” says Karkat, and his voice is immediately a little strangled, his shoulders are hunching in on themselves in one big flinch and it’s not anger so much as oh holy god it is panic. His breathing is heaving and flopping around, eyes open and everywhere. “Stop that. Stop. Stop. Don’t ever fucking, don’t, stop, stop, stop.”
“Karkat, I’m sorry -- Karkat, cut it out, I won’t -- ”
“Oh shit,” says the troll unsteadily. It sounds a little more like Karkat of old, only this doesn’t make John relieved or happy: it sounds like Karkat of old trapped and echoing from somewhere, like someone coming down from a painkiller looking at the shape of their pain, and there are a thousand ways he can handle Karkat angry but now he is shaking: “Fuck,” says Karkat, and bursts into tears.
The stuff Karkat cries looks exactly like unset red Jell-O. John’s despair is at exactly 100%. It's worse than spraying him with the plant mister. It's worse than taking off his shirt. By rights seeing this should liquefy his eyes in his sockets, he is beholding an awful mystery neither of them wanted him to see. Karkat turns his face into the mattress but the crying still sounds like what you’d expect, like someone too far gone to stop themselves from howling in misery and fear. Somehow he knows before it quite happens John’s hand reaching tentatively out to touch his trembling shoulder, because he says “Touch me and I’ll kill you, I really will.” John’s hand stops not because he’s scared of the threat, but because he’s scared of Karkat’s desperation.
John’s hands are full of smushed banana and his throat is tight. John is not cut out for this.
Rose Lalonde has been their armchair psychologist since forever. She is less of an armchair and more of a full living room set complete with ottoman. Rose is the queen of all known disorders and some John thinks she made up, and Rose has pleasant debates with Dave over how to index “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” in the DSM-IV. It is completely fucking nonsensical to John! But Rose is a red-hot needle who has always been able to dig deep into you, extract and withdraw surgically, and so it makes even less sense to John that she cannot help.
So many things are nonsensical now: the hours they keep, waiting for Rose’s Mom and his Dad, the alarms they set so that they can neatly have breakfast together like the Brady Bunch. The NICE-TRY GOOD-EFFORTUB, love-abandoned and sludgy. Watching the stars go by outside the window, each one a rocket in the firework display of planets and nebulae and long-tailed comets, the quiet little licks of dark hair on the back of an alien boy’s neck. It all drives him crazy in a way he can’t quite define, and that neither can the DSM-IV.
“Karkat Vantas is disassociative and largely unresponsive,” says Rose, and unpicks a row of garter stitch. “I’m flattered that you think so highly of my talents, John, but this particular injury of our troll friend has no exit wound. His is an emotional contusion. I cannot perform your circus act of spiritual trepanning -- “
Sitting in front of him her hair is pale blonde and her skin is pale white, though her eyes are huge and dark. Every fingernail is neatly bitten down to the quick and he realises, yet again, how awkward and unsure she is, though she holds herself like the arbiter of all dignity and wisdom and it is a horrible pain in the ass. He wants to shake her, only it’s really not her he wants to shake. But if she could quit sounding like the dictionary and irony had a shitty sloppy makeout he would be really grateful, really really grateful, because he loves Rose and she knows how to do this and he doesn’t.
“I don’t know what to do, John,” she says. Ugh ugh ugh. “I never read up on Post-Treatment For A Clusterfuck. My -- grimdark ways aren’t exactly helpful with this specific type of miasma. I don’t know what to say to him. To be honest, I don’t even know what to say to you. All I can say is that -- if the sheer act of wanting better would change anything -- if that was all I had to do, want -- “
She is stumbling over her own tongue. It is, in its own way, a little bit akin to the horror of plant-misting Karkat.
“I never didn’t want,” she says, and drops a stitch. “Oh, God! A double negative.”
“Rose -- “
“Fate is an unkind bladder that has pissed hot horror in all our faces,” she says. “I want him to be all right. There, a sincere prayer: John, I want him to be all right... Kanaya would have been so much better at this.”
There is absolutely zilch he can say to that, so he just sits next to her for the longest time and she unpicks her knitting into a crimped, curdly string of wool. Afterwards they hold hands as tightly as you can possibly hold hands, the tightest, her hand fixed hard to his own. It is a pretty hardcore kind of hand-holding. There’s a kind of desperation in it: it means don’t let go, don’t fall out of view.
The worst part about dying, said Karkat, is that you are completely and utterly alone. John begins to think the worst part about living is the idea that you leave everything behind all the time no matter what you do, the slow inevitability of going under and watching the surface disappear, Dave folding his sunglasses over and over in his hands all John, were we not bad enough dudes to rescue the President? You can never go back to before.
He makes his decision. It sucks. It is the only decision he knows how to make.
Not that that makes it suck any less.
That night he gets out of his bed and walks the dusty metal path to Karkat’s room, feeling the dimples of the old steel underneath each bare toe. John wears his pyjamas like a suit of armour, like the knight of the Green Slime Ghost T-Shirt And Boxers, opens the door without a knock and does not flinch at the shadow curled knee to shoulder on the grubby mattress. When he lowers himself to sit on it, all the springs rasp together with squeaky metal tongues but Karkat doesn’t move; when he lies down meekly with his back to his back Karkat doesn’t move; it’s only when he reaches out for Karkat’s hand that Karkat attempts to kill him.
Unfortunately for Karkat and pretty fortunately for John, the Knight of Blood is long past being able to kill him at all. His nails scratch down John’s face. His throat just garbles out sounds, and his fists pound down on him with all the force of a good pillowfight. He just lies there and tries to push away Karkat’s hands, becomes a sandbag, thinks sandbag thoughts as the punches get weaker and the moves get markedly lamer. It’s when the troll boy realises that he is yanking at tufts of John’s hair that he gives up, just totally gives up, rolls off and covers his face with his hands. John covers him up and hides him away and puts an arm around him, hears the heave of his breath and feels the dry heat of his skin through one of Dave’s shirts. He closes his eyes and hugs him as though it is some final move. The God-Hug. The Hug of Ages. Yea, Verily, The Ur-Hug, From Which All Other Hugs Were Formed.
“If you go down you’re taking me with you,” says John.
Karkat rasps, “Get your disgusting slippery paws off me.”
“I decided to use emotional blackmail,” he says, “if you go down, I’m going with you. Mutual destruction. And if I die Jade and Rose and Dave will probably just explode on the spot and haunt us forever! So we’ll all go down like that -- “
“ -- fuck you, Egbert -- ”
“ -- and no good would have come of anything, anything at all -- ”
“ -- why the fuck would I give even half a cup of lukewarm shit -- ”
“ -- the worst of all possible worlds,” says John. “Because you care more about happy endings than any of us. You always did. You actually care more than just about anyone I’ve ever met. I know you must be pretty burnt out on caring, but I’m banking on the fact that you probably care about me and the others enough -- ”
“ -- you could not be more fucking wrong -- ”
“I am always going to be with you now,” says John, and every struggle taking place in his arms is weaker and more pathetic and less invested in the act of struggle, “sorry, I just am. We don’t live in a better world and I’m not going to live in a worse one, and, uh, my life would suck pretty hard without your jerk self in it. Wake your stupid dumb ass up, Karkat. I really need you.”
Outside the metal husk they are travelling in, the planets wheel around. Stars die. Stars are born. Black holes are formed. A multitude of space stuff happens and time moves by, and John waits with a hammering heart for it to all come to nothing and for Karkat to close his eyes and shut everything out once more forever.
Being thirteen is hard, and nobody understands.
John’s heartbeat slithers arrhythmically against Karkat’s own, he realises, a polka of non-matching pulses. Karkat’s forehead droops against his, the tips of their noses touching, and he smells like burning garbage in a tunafish laboratory and John has actually never been this sustainedly close to anyone, ever, which is wow kind of awkward and a revelation and not important right now. Karkat lets himself be held a little confusedly, John thinks.
“You’d never,” he says.
“Prankster’s gambit,” says John. “Who knows. I am a wild and crazy guy, Karkat.”
“You’re a fucking useless sack of oxygen-deprived brain sac is what you are,” says Karkat, “and move your arm up, I’m lying on it.”
At this point he realises that Karkat Vantas has, well, woken up.
Everything he says and does is kind of beautiful. Every flicker of his wide-awake eye is amazing to watch, every shiver as he comes back to himself and up, and it is all so overwhelmingly amazing and terrible that it hurts. He flinches but never dribbles out of the hug, which fills John with a tenderness that makes his stomach ache. He wants to say: I love you! I really do. Any way you want if you want it. Maybe he already has said that.
“So,” croaks Karkat. “What do I have to do.”
“Uh, live, basically,” says John, for whom heavenly angels are performing a hard rock rendition of Yesss. “Save a universe. Come with us. I don't really know where we're going, but you should come.”
“You unbelievable grubfucker. You are doing nobody any favours. You are not doing me any favours though I only believe you want to do me a favour because you have won the award for the most egregious loser. You are a miserable misguided shithoof who doesn’t know the first fucking thing about anything -- ”
“ -- hey -- ”
“ -- which we seem to have in common,” says Karkat. “Get me to your stupid shitty excuse for a recuperacoon.”
The NICE-TRY GOOD-EFFORTUB is exactly as disgusting as it looks. When they lie down in the Silly Slime it makes a disquieting shlurp!, but they seem to share the feeling at the moment that if they let go of each other the world will disappear. They hold hands like kids at a crossing as they slide in, both saying “Shit,” as the stuff glops all over them. Their legs don’t quite fit, but they manage to lie down. The goo oozes over the sides. The NICE-TRY GOOD-EFFORTUB is not big, so Karkat has to put his head irritably on John’s shoulder.
Well. There’s nowhere else to put it. Well. John wanted him to put it there. There is no use protesting about this being gay. The gay horses have already bolted from their gay stable with a fabulous whinny. He is surprisingly okay with this.
Apart from little gloop, gloop sounds the room is silent, just that and their ragged embarrassed breathing, their feet lined up hanging out the end. John is aware of everything, as though his senses only just decided after thirteen years to open up and take things in: the scent of warming slime and wet clothes, sweaty troll and old tears, the feel of Karkat’s hand holding a fistful of John’s t-shirt. How the air tastes, how the darkness blurs all the edges in the room to fuzzy softness. They are tucked into each other.
“They’re dead, Egbert,” says Karkat now, in a strange voice: wondering, almost, like a child reading a word it didn’t understand. “Terezi, Sollux, the others. They’re all dead. They’re never coming back.”
And it is the first time that they believe it.
Here is the list of things that won't make Karkat eat: Goldfish crackers, cheese on toast, cherry tomatoes, Reese's pieces, hamburger, strawberry pudding, rice with soy sauce, rice without, sour candy, boiled egg, chicken soup, Spaghetti-Os, bananas.
John knows that there is a strong possibility things are going to be okay. In the morning Karkat’s fingers are still laced around John’s left wrist like a drowning man, fierce and ashamed and suspicious of his own hand, but this too is part: not knowing what to do is now an adequate mystery: they are going to be all right. They are going to be all right.
Here is the list of things that will make Karkat eat: Betty Crocker cake mix.