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I’ve always used music as a way to cope with things. Everyone in my life knows that – Karkat especially.

We met each other at the tail-end of middle school and have been best friends ever since, doing a sort of trade-off of holding each other up when times get shitty. I never told him a lot about my brother, while I still lived with him, but what he did know made him understand how much I relied on music as a crutch.

You see, to put it simply, Bro didn’t approve of feelings. I spent most of my childhood finding ways to erase them away from my life, per his instruction, but it really was never a way to live – my cousin, Rose, told me that. I never really believed her, but in truth, she was right. Even though I couldn’t vent to people, or even break the do-it-yourself, arts-and-crafts stoicism that defined my demeanor, I always had music. I was expressing my feelings, just not to anyone but myself. Music became a sort of emotional escape-room, a place that existed only in tapes and CDs where I could mix my worries into something real, just before being forced to banish them away again.

But, I digress. The real situation here is Karkat. Or, rather, it surrounds him. My feelings about him, and about music. It’s complicated.

When I was a kid, I had a lot to vent about, and a lot of tapes and CDs – plus, all the ‘mixing’ equipment I could find at thrift-stores, used-electronics stores, and flea-markets. It was a whole lot of bull-shitting, but it was what I needed to keep my head above the water. I never showed Karkat much of my work, but what I did was all jesting – my ‘ironic shit’, the mixes of my stuttered rap-lyrics about video games and shitty movies, thrown back against a stupid beat. He knew I made other stuff, but never really asked – I think he did, once, and I just shut down on him.

He always did me favors, though – let me use his voice, his footsteps, tap out little beats for me. I’d carry around a little tape recorder, picking up what I wanted to use. But, I never showed him – actually, for the most part, I told him the stuff didn’t really come out, even if it did.

Because, you see, I had a lot of tapes about Karkat, and that was something I could never show him.

One of the things Bro had always made clear in our apartment was that I shouldn’t “get into that fag shit”, because, outside of the fact that I shouldn’t be interested in romance at all, I’m a man, and I shouldn’t be with another man. Period. And when Karkat made my heart skip a beat or made my head fill with butterflies rising from my stomach, I dismissed it the best way I could – by threading it into my mixes.

And when Karkat came out to me, we didn’t talk for three months because I was afraid. I made mix, after mix, after mix about the way he made my head spin and my chest ache. His voice, slightly distorted from the editing, would ring in my ears for hours after I finished them, locking the door to my room and letting myself cry behind the hoard of food and juice in my closet.

We made up. We had to, for the sake of both of us. I apologized, he forgave me. We don’t talk about it. Even in our mid-twenties, we can’t even joke about the three months we spent apart that year. Not that we would. I don’t know.

When I finally moved out of my brother’s apartment and into my own – smaller, dingier – I brought all my old mixes with me, in a big cardboard box. I shoved them into my closet, taped the box shut, and told myself I wouldn’t revisit the feeling inside, because I was finally done with them.

Well, most of them.

Karkat was the exception. My tiny apartment had barely enough room for my mixing supplies, which was really the only thing I brought with me, aside from clothes and my old photography – the cameras they came from having been thoroughly ripped apart and smashed by Bro in a fit of anger over my finally deciding I could afford to be done with his shit. I hung up my photos on the chipping walls, put away my clothes, shoved the box in the closet, and then started mixing again.

I made mixes about the feeling of leaving Bro behind, and about disappointing him. I made mixes about looking forward to something new. I made mixes about worrying about supporting myself. But, mostly, I continued making mixes about Karkat. Every time I filled a CD or tape with mixes about him, I titled it and shoved it into my bedside drawer, hopefully to never be revisited.

As years passed, Karkat and I have seen each other less and less, and my mixes about him dwindled – he’s busy with his adult life, and I’m busy with mine. We have lengthy phone-calls about once a week, but between our myriad of part-time jobs and responsibilities, our friendship slowly and surely got pushed onto the back-burner.

That would hopefully change today, though.

I wipe my wrist over my sweaty forehead, taking a deep breath. It had taken me two whole hours to clean my one-bedroom apartment, which was quite literally just a bedroom and a bathroom. I glance at the clock on the wall. It’s nearly silent, which is why I chose it. I can’t stand the tick, tick, tick of most clocks. Drives me up the wall.

It’s almost one; Karkat will be here soon. I rub my hands over my stinging eyes, shades discarded on my bed somewhere while I was cleaning. I wander into my bathroom, which is nothing special. I maintain it the best I can, but there’s only so much I can do. I meet my own eyes in the mirror.

I haven’t seen Karkat in months, and, predictably, I haven’t really changed much. My hair is a little longer, shaggier. I don’t make time to get it trimmed. I push what I can behind my ears. I haven’t spent much time outside – trading between staying in the apartment and going to work – so my sunburn has long faded, my complexion an awkward midway between a post-suntan and its natural pale color. My hair is darker than usual, too – it only gets brighter and blonder after being exposed to the sun. My freckles and scars are persistent as ever, though, closely followed by the acne on my face that refuses to go away.

I tug at my shirt, hoping it isn’t too wrinkly. It’s a patterned button-down, something I probably should’ve hung up before putting on. I roll up the sleeves and do a lazy half-tuck, hoping it’ll make me look decent.

Not that Karkat is expecting anything more than usual. I keep having to remind myself how well he knows me; my nerves have been hell about this stupid lunch meetup. I tell myself over and over that I’m done having some kind of pathetic high school crush on him, but –

I groan, running a hand through my hair to fix it. Sending myself in mental circles about my feelings won’t help anything.

My doorbell rings and I jump, cursing. I steady myself on the sink as it rings again. I used to be so immune to little things like that, when I lived with my brother – now, it seems every little noise spooks me. Absently thinking that Rose would have a ball with that information, I take a deep, shaky breath, flicking the lights in the bathroom off and heading for the door.

I push it open and the light hits my eyes fast and hard. Oh, right, I’m not wearing my shades. I blink, adjusting. I sometimes forget how dark it is in my apartment; I prefer to keep it dark. I let my gaze focus on Karkat, who’s standing in the doorway, smiling at me.

His smile is soft and sweet, like it always is when he looks at me. I don’t know how on earth I deserve that expression. He looks the same, but his hair is a little overgrown, as well, curling out from under his beanie and around his ears. He’s got gauges, now – something he always told me he wanted. He’s wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and I can see his now-finished sleeve of tattoos snaking across his skin. The last time we’d spoken in person, he’d told me he was just getting it started.

I feel myself grinning.

“Are you going to let me in or just stand there grinning, you dork?” Karkat asks, and I step out of the way of the door, gesturing for him to walk inside.

“Nice to see you too, Kit-Kat,” I respond, shutting the door behind him. He rolls his eyes at the pet-name. Almost immediately, he sits on my bed, pulling off his beanie.

“It’s dark as fuck in here,” he comments, squinting. His face scrunches up, and it’s cute – a thought I quickly dismiss. I stretch, stepping forward to stand in front of him.

“The lights in here are bright as hell, my dude,” I say, “and I’m trying to wear the shades less.”

“Oh, really?” Karkat joins his hands together on his lap, glancing around, before meeting my eyes.

“Yeah, I was talking to Rose about it,” I shrug, “she said it’d be a good idea to like, help deal with stuff.”

Karkat nods, his eyes visibly searching my face. I’m not sure for what. Silence overtakes the room, and I’m desperate to rid us of it. Even the clock is silent. Always silent. I take a deep breath, then offer an awkward cough.

“You’ll just have to stare at these beauties for a good while,” I joke, rubbing the back of my neck and moving to find my wallet in the drawer of my bedside table. The top drawer, mind you. The bottom drawer is full of –

“I’ve always liked your eyes, Dave,” Karkat remarks seriously, interrupting my train of thought, “they’re unique.”

“Thanks,” I answer, unsure of what else to say. Locating my wallet, I grab it, but accidentally slam the drawer shut on my fingers.

Fuck!” I exclaim, withdrawing them and dropping my wallet. Fuck, that hurts like hell. Pain shoots through my whole hand. Karkat whips around from his spot on the bed to look at me, his face painted with a look of half-anger and half-incredulousness.

“What the fuck did you do?” he exclaims, watching me shake out my hand.

“Slammed my hand in the goddamn drawer,” I mumble, “fuck, that hurts.”

“You’re an absolute idiot,” Karkat stands up, pointing to my bathroom, “go run it under the tap, you clumsy bastard.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I nod, rushing into the bathroom and using my uninjured hand to hastily turn on the tap. I shove my hand underneath the stream of cold water, resisting the urge to continue to shake the hell out of my aching fingers.

“You alright?” Karkat asks, still in my bedroom. I can hear him tapping his foot. He’s probably biting the posts of his lip piercings, too, like he always does when I worry the shit out of him – I can practically see him doing it.

“I’m fine,” I reply, hissing a little, “can you grab my wallet from the floor – oh, and my keys? They’re in the same drawer that sabotaged my fucking hand. We can go to lunch once I’ve recovered.”

“Fucking drama queen,” I hear Karkat grumble, before hearing shuffling and the opening of a drawer. I run my dry hand through my hair, examining my own face for a moment. My reflection is a little blurry and doesn’t feel like me, but whenever I take the time to look at myself, it always is.

I click my tongue. It’s been at least a minute, and Karkat hasn’t made a witty comment or let out a string of expletives.

I turn, wiping off my hand, and walk out of the bathroom.

“You’re being pretty damn quiet, bro, what’s –”

I cut myself off, because Karkat is standing next to my bed, the CDs and tapes from my bottom bedside drawer splayed over my covers, just a foot away from my discarded shades.

Karkat looks up.

“I didn’t know you were still mixing,” he states, running his hands over one of the CD covers.

Panic floods my system. It’s like I’m stuck on a loading screen, and I don’t feel in control of my body when I open my mouth to speak.

“Those are private,” I say, and I can feel my voice shaking – like the rest of me. Since when was I shaking?

“Are they?” Karkat picks up the CD he was touching and turns it, so the cover is facing me. Scrawled in red marker is the words: ‘its kat again but whats new’. His mouth is drawn into a straight line, and god, he looks so uncomfortable, “Because it looks like my name is all over these, so I think I have the right to know.”

I run a hand down my face.

“Look … I don’t know what you’re thinking,” I say, and he puts down the CD, crossing his arms.

I don’t know where to go with this – my brain feels like it’s going on autopilot, like it’s not connected to my mouth.

“I,” I swallow, and there aren’t any more words coming out. I look down. The room starts to spin a little. I fucked up. I fucked up bad, and I’m not only going to lose the man I won’t admit I have a fucking crush on, but my best friend of like eight years.

“Dave,” Karkat’s voice softens, but I can’t look at him, “Dave, you’re panicking.”

I feel him put his arms on my shoulders, and I immediately collapse into him, shoving my face into the crook in his neck. He smells like home. I haven’t hugged him like this in a long time – not since the last time I panicked like this in front of him. His arms coil around me and he holds me tight.

I almost forgot how nice it feels, how safe it feels. I’ve spent so much time curled up in bed, alone, unwilling to reach out to anyone.

“It’s okay,” he murmurs, shushing me, “breathe.”

“It’s not,” I choke out, “I’m sorry. I just.”

He pulls away a little, looking into my eyes and sighing. His brow is knitted.

“Talk to me,” he says, “I’m not going to stop being your friend over this. But you can’t expect me not to ask questions.”

He’s right.

“They’re …” I pause, taking a deep breath, “they’re love mixes.”

He stiffens in my arms a little, and I have to hold myself back from flinching.  

“You’re fucking with me,” he blurts.

“No,” I reply, shaking my head. I tilt it down, looking at his chest. I don’t want to look him in the eyes.

“You make mixes about being in love with me,” his voice is laced with disbelief.

“Well … yeah. You know I’m not good with feelings and shit like that, and I’ve always used the music to vent, so I got into a habit of just, like, taking all the stuff about you and then locking it away, you feel? And I never really expected to show you, or anyone, and I don’t really listen to them, so I didn’t think it was creepy, I just can’t really hold that stuff in but I can’t put it out, and I’m really sorry, I hope you don’t hate me, or are disgusted with me or –” he cuts me off from my nervous rambling; a step up from panic, at least.

“Shut the fuck up,” he pulls away from me a little, running a hand through his hair, “I need to fucking process this.”

“Yeah, yeah, of course,” I sit down on my bed, watching Karkat pace back and forth and take deep breaths. He bites on his piercings. He keeps glancing at me. I look away. The room is silent for a few minutes, save for the sound of his heavy steps on my soiled carpet. I add to it by tapping my foot, digging my fingertips into the opposite wrist.

“How long?” he asks, and the sound of his pacing stops. I look up at him.

“Since … before high school,” I answer quietly. He glances at me, his eyes like daggers.

“That was before I came out,” he states.

“I know,” I reply, almost instantly, “I didn’t know what … I didn’t know what the feelings meant, back then. But I was making mixes about you, yeah.”

“You ignored me for three months,” he snaps.

“I was scared,” I whisper, “I was young. Bro was … you know what he was like, ‘Kat. I was confused.”

“It hurt.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

The silence returns, and Karkat looks like he’s doing everything in his power to restrain himself from just leaving. I wouldn’t blame him. I bite my lip.

“The thing is,” he says, looking down. His hands are knotted into tight fists, “I spent so long trying to get over you.”

“You … you were …” I can’t form the words I want, and as I search the part of his face that I can see, all I can find is a pained look and teary eyes.

“Yeah,” he replies quietly, “I was in love with you. And I … I think I still might be. But I – I don’t know why it doesn’t feel good to find out you feel the same fucking way. It just hurts.”

I cross my legs, rubbing a hand over my face.

“I don’t know,” is all I can say.

“Can I hear them?” Karkat requests, suddenly.

“What?”

“The mixes,” he turns, finally looking me in the eyes. His look is so pained that my heart aches, “can I hear them?”

I nod, standing and walking over to my computer. I pull out the remote disk drive, as well as my old cassette player.

“Pick one.”

He walks over to the bed, carefully selecting a tape and handing it to me. It’s an old one, titled ‘karkat called me today and i cant feel my chest’.

I stick it in the player, hit play, and hold my breath.

I remember making this one, as it plays. It starts out soft, the tapping of my fingers against the bathroom mirror, followed by a distorted banging sound I’d recorded of myself jump-dancing to a song I like. They melt together into a sort of sweet whistling – well, it had started out as whistling.

Then, my ‘rap’ falls in; well, it’s less of a rap and more of a sort of spoken word. It’s a rambling poem about hearing music in Karkat’s voice, the words re-arranged in places, overturned by the sound of a whistle or bang in others. In the middle of the song, the whistle and rap disappear, leaving only the beat as a little, very old recording plays. It’s from when Karkat and I were in ninth grade, something I’d asked him to record for me.

“You’re stupid,” the Karkat in the recording says, laughing, and the melody returns as the ‘id’ repeats, repeats, repeats. And the rap returns – rambling words about how I can’t tell him how I feel, about how much it hurts. The song finishes with a record scratch – which feels so typical, I think to myself – followed by the static-ridden finishing of the little recording from ninth grade, me mumbling ‘thanks, man’.

I tap my fingers on my desk, my other hand rubbing the back of my neck.

Karkat is quiet, when he turns to me. There are tears welling in the corners of his eyes. It feels like there’s a little tear in our relationship. The kind where the seam just starts to rip, where you can see the hole starting to form.

“It’s not that I don’t love you,” his voice is so soft, “it’s just been so long.”

“I know,” I say.

“Do you want to try?” he asks, and I feel my eyes widen.

“What do you mean?” I respond.

He takes a step forward, putting a careful hand on my cheek. He gives me a moment to pull away, but I step into it, wrapping an arm around his waist and leaning down. He presses his lips to mine, and it doesn’t feel like the spark of love at first sight, but a sweet, soft, kind of sad feeling. Like we’ve missed out on something, a bittersweet look at an eternity that could’ve been. It refreshes me. It sends a flood through my system, a crashing wave of intense love that’s deeper than butterflies.

We break apart, and he presses his forehead against mine.

“It’s nice,” I say, quiet, hoarse, “to finally be able to do that.”

“Yeah,” he replies, voice just as low as mine, before an even quieter word is spoken, “Dave?”

“What?”

“Can you play another one?”

I nod against his forehead, feeling my heart lift a little. The box in the closet crosses my mind, but I push the thought away. That’s something for another time.

As we listen to tape after tape, CD after CD, littered with old recordings and confessions and hidden feelings, I feel closer to Karkat than I ever have in my whole life. We join lips again, and again, and again – crying, then laughing, then reminiscing on everything we’ve been through together, then doing it all again.

Slowly, carefully, I feel us stitch up the little hole we created – the little nick in our relationship beginning to heal, as it grows into more than the friendship we’d cherished so closely. For once, finally, I can admit that I’m not only ‘crushing’ on Karkat like an emotional, teenage wreck, but completely, utterly, unashamedly in love with him.

And that feels like enough.