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Perfect Little Freaks: 6.4

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June, 2019

She was having a bad day and she knew it. In a mood since she'd woken up to a field of vision limited to dull blurs and shadows, Terezi had been suppressing the urge to just start screaming into the void. She'd stubbed her toe on the bathroom cabinet, been unable to locate the lecture recording she wanted to listen to again, and knocked her mug off the edge of the counter after misjudging the distance - something she hadn't done since she was thirteen.

Her fingers twitched around her phone and she picked up the TV remote in her free hand to mute the news.

"Hey, Siri," she said. "Call Mindfang."

Three attempts. The third time, her call had been dismissed.

Her fourth call went through to voicemail, along with the next three redials.

Eight tries before she was forwarded directly to voicemail.

"Listen to me, you fucking coward," she snarled into the phone. "I know, okay? I know what you did and who you fucked over, and I know you've been lying to me. You fucking lied to me. I've been defending you for years because you're you and I'm me and I loved you for that, and this is how you repay me? I've been in your corner since the fucking beginning because surely not even you could be that bad, and now I look like a fucking idiot! Everyone told me you'd do this! Everyone told me you'd just fuck John over and you did. You turned around and fucking fucked him over because you didn't get your own way, like always! And you've been doing the same thing to me ever since and for weeks I thought that maybe you didn't tell me because you were ashamed, or at least had some shred of an idea that you were in the wrong, but no, Vriska fucking Serket is never in the wrong, is she? We're over. Don't call me back."

Her phone slipped between the couch cushions when she let it go.

Hands trembling as she flung open the door, Terezi stood just inside the bedroom and listened for a lull in his rapid typing.

"Fight me," she said, then repeated herself more loudly when the typing continued after only the briefest pause. "Fight me!"

There was a blur of lights as she turned, then a sudden, sharp pain in her hand and wrist as her clenched fist connected with the hardwood door frame before she even realised she'd thrown the punch. It was hard to follow the array of sound that came next, but she recognised the creak of his desk chair and the erratic footsteps as he hurried across the room.

"Terezi, what the fuck?" Karkat asked, the alarm obvious in his voice.

She didn't know how she'd ended up on the floor but he was there as well. When she didn't answer his question, he just slipped his elbows under her armpits and lifted her back to her feet; he was leading her back out to the kitchen, she realised. He only let go once she was sitting on one of the stools with both hands lying flat on the counter.

"Didn't you hear me?" Terezi said, after taking a moment to finally reorient herself in the apartment.

"Headphones," he said more evenly. She heard the fridge opening before he spoke again. "Here, it's gonna be fucking cold and it's gonna fucking hurt."

Terezi hissed in pain as he bent the frozen ice pack around her hand. He was right - the injured joint ached more than it did without the ice.

"Fight me," she said again, through clenched teeth.

"No?"

"Why not! Fight me!"

"We live together! I fight you, I end up with a criminal record," Karkat snipped. "And put the ice back on."

"I'm fine!"

"I mean, you're obviously fucking not, but what would I know, right? I'm only the brainless asswad who's busted eight fingers punching walls over the years. Put the ice back on!"

"Bullshit it was only eight! Punching walls is your favourite thing to do that doesn't involve you crying," Terezi said viciously.

"It was the same fingers sometimes. Terezi, fuck, leave the fucking ice on or I'll duct tape it to your hand and tape your hand to the bench!"

"Okay, it's fucking on, see?" She made a big show of laying her right hand flat on the counter with the ice pack pressing down on it, trying not to flinch at the sharp pain radiating from just above her middle knuckle. "And stop moving! You're so loud I can't hear myself think!"

"Fucking finally," he said, eventually coming to a stop directly opposite her. "So, two questions. Why'd you punch the door and why the fuck do you want to fight me?"

"I don't want to fight you, I just want to fight someone and you just happen to be the only person here who is not me," she said bitterly. "So it was you or the wall and you were too busy with your headphones on so I had to fight the wall."

"Yeah, except you don't ever plan to punch a wall," Karkat said; he was moving again, her head turned to follow his voice as he walked back around towards the hallway. "You just kind of explode like a batshit boomer named Karen with fifty eight expired coupons and then suddenly there's drywall on your knuckles. Don't move!"

She scowled at him despite knowing his back was turned. It didn't sound like he was going into their room, and he was too far away to be entering the bathroom. It sucked that he was right, too. She hadn't planned to hit the wall, or anything, really. She hadn't expected him to actually fight her either but it had seemed like the best option in the moment.

"My knuckles are completely drywall free," Terezi insisted.

She tried to lift the ice again, but he grabbed her left hand before she could remove it completely; when the ice pack slipped out of her grip and smacked back down against her skin, she hissed at the sudden burst of pain.

"You'll want these now. It's gonna hurt more later," Karkat said. He took her left hand and flipped it over, then dropped two pills into her palm.

"What are they?"

"Two of Dave's T3s," he said. She listened to him fill a glass and slide it across to the counter for her.

"As if he left those behind," she scoffed, sniffing at the pills in her hand.

"As if you seriously think he doesn't stash backups in stupid places," Karkat said. "Trust me, it's only gonna hurt more later."

Her heart thumped rapidly in her chest. The adrenaline coursing through her system was still in control and it would be at least another fifteen minutes before the codeine hit her bloodstream. Terezi groaned loudly and put her forehead down on the kitchen countertop as Karkat removed the ice pack to examine her bruising knuckles.

He was right, except that he hadn't mentioned the injury would hurt more later because he was going to jerk her fingers around and tape three of them together. He'd kept that to himself until he was already doing it; she almost got her fight then, as he struggled to keep her left hand from tearing either of his away from the task.

A tame swat from the back of his hand wasn't what she'd envisioned when demanding a fight, but she was going to take what she could get. There was no way Karkat would fight her, he hadn't been in a real fight since high school.

It wasn't much later that Terezi was lying on their bed, under the cool breeze of the air conditioner, listening to him work with her eyes closed. He'd ended up graduating a semester late after changing his major and overloading on English subjects to make up for the time he'd dumped into Computer Science. They'd both been busy that Fall, her in the first semester of Law school and him completing the last subjects he needed to graduate; they hardly saw each other for the first six months of her living in New York.

They'd lived together for almost a year and if there was one thing she'd learnt in that year it was that despite his big talk, Karkat Vantas was unbelievably soft. There was nothing feigned or ironic about his passion for romantic comedies and he saw almost all of them in theatres. He cared about his friends so much that he never went a day without checking in on them, and he was always trying to make things better or easier for her even if it put him out. He bought her tampons whenever he did groceries and saw them on sale, even if she wasn't with him or already had enough in the bathroom. He paid rent, if it could be called that, by contributing to food and bills before Dave ever remembered to ask for it, on top of not filming any loud movie reviews during migraine shutdowns. It wasn't hard to goad him into an argument, but a fight? He apologised if he thought their playful slap games got too rough.

Her knuckles twinged, the pain still radiating from her middle finger. He'd called his dad for advice and if the swelling didn't start going down by the morning he was going to drop in after work to check on her; Karkat had already done everything they could for a fracture.

"What are you writing?" Terezi asked quietly, opening her eyes.

"The Men in Black review," he replied. He hit the same key a few times in a row - probably delete, as he changed his mind halfway through composing a sentence.

They'd been to see the Men in Black reboot the night before; she'd joked more than once about him being the most embarrassing person to go to the movies with because he carried a notepad and a dumb pen with a stupid little light on it to take notes. She couldn't even see what he was doing in the theatre and it was still embarrassing.

"What did you hate about it? And you can't just say you hated it because Will Smith was not in it."

"I haven't got that far yet."

"And how much have you written?"

"Almost a thousand words."

"About why it sucked without Will Smith?"

"Pretty much. I really fucking love Will Smith," he said. She knew he was genuinely upset that there hadn't even been a cameo, and did her best not to crack a smile.

"Are you going to write about the movie at all or just about how it didn't have Will Smith in it?"

"I haven't decided. I can always just call it an op-ed instead of a review if I don't get to the fucking point."

"There was a Hemsworth in it," she pointed out.

"No amount of chiseled Hemsworth jawline can make up for taking away the heart of the fucking series. He wrote the theme song!"

"I think you might be biased," Terezi said bluntly. She rolled onto her side so she was facing his desk, even though his back was still turned. "But only a little bit. I have heard a lot about Hemsworth jawlines and I think they are valuable additions to movies."

"That's obvious to fucking everyone, even you." Karkat punched out a few more words and flipped through a few pages in his notepad. "Okay, so I've got jack shit apart from the Will Smith deficiency," he sighed, defeated. "Wanna go out tonight?"

"I broke up with Vriska."

"Okay, Seamless then."

"She wouldn't even answer the phone."

"She's a sociopathic bitch with zero concept of how to interact with human beings unless she's trying to manipulate them," he said.

"And she's my best friend," Terezi said, trying not to sound as close to tears as she was; she hadn't really thought about it too much since the phone call earlier in the day but she felt defeated, and had no idea what to do next. She wiped away the few tears of frustration with the back of her good hand before they could fall onto his pillow.

"Do you want to go out tonight just to yell at people who get in your way on the subway?"

She paused, pursing her lips as she considered his suggestion.

"That does sound like fun."

+++

"You sure you want to take him with you?"

"Very. He'll be fine."

"Okay. But call me if you change your mind," Dirk said as he closed the trunk of Jake's Prius. He walked around the car and leaned against the back door, casually, to wait for Jake to finish emptying his pockets of phones, keys, and snacks.

Hal was already lying across the backseat ready for the drive home, head resting on his front paws when Dirk waved at him through the glass. It was probably for the best that the dog went with Jake since the cats had been on edge around him all week; he hadn't chased them, or even paid them much attention, but his size was intimidating enough to both Mutie and the Mayor that they'd generally avoided him.

He took a certain pride in knowing that his efforts in training the dog from puppyhood were paying off.

"We'll be absolutely hunky-dory without you for a few days," Jake said with a smile, leaning against the side of the car right by where Dirk was standing. "I can promise you that."

"I'll be home Thursday, unless you want a few more days to yourself."

"Thursday sounds fine. Besides, if I don't want to look at you by then I'll just lock you in your basement."

"Harsh but fair," Dirk agreed with a genuine laugh. "And call me when you're home," he added.

"Right-o," Jake said with a warm smile, then gently kissed him goodbye. "Love you."

"You too," he said softly, and pressed a second, lingering kiss to his husband's lips before reluctantly removing his hands from Jake's rear so he could finally get on the road.

Dirk slapped the roof of the car then stepped back with a wave, and stood in the drive until the Prius disappeared around the bend. After a week at Roxy's house filled with animals and their entire family, he understood why Jake wanted to head home early; he'd told everyone he had to finish getting organised for his new job - which started the following Monday - but more than anything Dirk knew he just needed some time alone. Four days would probably give Jake enough time to wind down, but since they each had their own cars at Roxy's, Dirk could push his own drive home back if he needed another few days.

He wandered back inside alone and paused beside the couch where John and Dave were on what had to be their third movie of the day. It was just him left without anything to do - Roxy was in her office, and John's dad was busy with work in the dining room. There was something he'd been meaning to get to, and it didn't seem like the kids were doing anything of value with their time he'd be interrupting.

"You two, with me," he said, nodding towards the stairs.

"Why?" Dave asked. He didn't look away from the TV.

Dirk thought for a moment.

"Because I said so."

"Ugh, there's a classic Bro-ism. Because I said so, I haven't had that one in a while. Yeah, I'm the adult so what I say goes, never mind I'm like a fuckin' adult now too, right?" Dave said as he sat up to look for the remote. "Like a legitimate, legal adult and everything, I even went to a club last month 'cause Terezi dragged us all for shits and giggles because none of us had ever even entertained the notion of going to one before and you know what? It was shit, like it was just so shit we all went home like an hour later and we sat on the floor like what now? Is this it? Was that mess of shittily mixed music and a floor sticky with fuck knows what supposed to be peak adulthood or what because if it was let's make a fuckin' suicide pact right now."

"Kid, shut the fuck up. My room, two minutes. And bring John," Dirk said, breaking in when Dave finally paused long enough to take a proper breath.

"What did I do?!" John exclaimed, looking back at him for the first time.

"I don't know, John, what did you do? Two minutes!"

One down, one to go; he took the stairs two at a time and knocked on his niece's bedroom door.

"Enter," Rose said with a dramatic sigh he could hear clearly through the timber.

She was lying on the floor with her laptop open while Kanaya was sitting up on the bed with a book; she moved it from in front of her face when he swung the door open and poked his head into the room.

"My room, one minute. Bring the wife, what the hell," he said, glancing over the two of them.

"Why?"

"Because I said so," Dirk said with a shrug.

"Oh, well in that case I'd better hurry," Rose said and made a big show of rolling over onto her back, then once more so she was on her stomach again. "It's just that your room is so terribly far away I might perish on the journey."

"Thirty seconds," he said. "The other idiots are coming, too," he added, looking back over his shoulder when he heard the boys' footsteps clamouring up the stairs.

All four of them piled onto the bed he'd only made once Jake had finished packing an hour earlier; he realised he should have just called the meeting in Rose's room since she was already there. It would have saved him from remaking the bed, at least.

"Are we in trouble?" John asked, looking around at the others.

"No one's in trouble," Dave answered before Dirk could say anything. "He used to do this thing all the time when we were kids, you kinda get a say but if he wants to know something then he'll get it out of you, even if you didn't think it was important? It's basically like, you know when your dad says he's not angry, but he is concerned and you tell him because oh shit if he's concerned then maybe there is something going on? It's like that, but only one step removed from a good and thorough waterboarding."

"What the fuck did you eat for breakfast today, dude? Shut up. But technically sure, you're not wrong. So, everyone, welcome to the first official Dirk Strider Group Interrogation in what, four years? Five?"

Dave shrugged.

"John, Kanaya," he nodded at each of them in turn. "It's cool, you're both mostly just here because it seemed like a jerk move to make you wait out there on your own while I talked to my unfortunate progeny. That and I know John's shit at lying so he's gonna make a good point of reference."

"What do you wanna know, Bro?" Dave asked cooly. He was sitting with his legs crossed, and he leant back on his arms in an attempt to look even more casual. Beside him, John looked from him to Dirk, then back again, still obviously confused by what was going on.

"In the last couple of weeks you two have dumped so much information on me that I want to make sure we're all on the same page with everything here. Actually, let's get real, it's three of you. Kanaya, you're off the hook so far, good work," he said, standing at the foot of the bed with his hands in his back pockets.

"Well I'd hate to be in trouble so soon. I'm not even sure it's legal, I did only arrive on the visa waiver," Kanaya said. Rose elbowed her, trying to hide a small smile.

"Let's get this shit started," Dirk said, ignoring the blatent sarcasm dripping from Kanaya's comment. "Rose fucking Lalonde, you got married and you didn't invite me."

"I didn't. I was trying to keep it all on the down-low. You're familiar with the down-low, aren't you?" Rose asked.

"Okay, can we tone down the snarky bullshit for a while? I'm an old fucking man just trying to get some answers."

"An old man who was once the king of snarky bullshit," Rose said. "Unless you've decided to abdicate your throne?"

"I have not," Dirk frowned and folded his arms across his chest. "You dropped out of college, moved to Europe, went to rehab, got married, got a series of tattoos, and adopted multiple cats. Did I forget anything?"

"I think we're involved in a somewhat low-grade crime ring by association, but Porrim's made sure we can't be charged with anything if we're caught," Rose said after a pause. "But I think you mentioned everything. Oh, I have a therapist and depression. Add that to your list and move on to Dave's violations."

"Oh please, like I can compete with you," Dave said; Dirk could practically hear him rolling his eyes behind his glasses. "Let's see. Oh, I know. My YouTube recommendations are all just beauty guru shit right now, because I found out Karkat's been watching them so he can like, learn some shit to help Terezi since she's gonna have mock trials and shit to go to starting in the Fall, right? So he's trying to figure that out and I was like dude, nah, as long as you've got the eyeliner down you're fine because getting that sharp as hell is a total power move for girls, even I know that. But it turns out there's a whole world of fucking drama there and we sort of got sucked into watching it all during our self-imposed lunch hours, so now that's all YouTube thinks I want to watch."

"That's an awful lot to unpack," Rose said when Dave finished talking.

"Yeah, I don't give a shit about that," Dirk said, frowning; he was still trying to process all of what Dave had said, but chose to move on instead of picking it apart. "You knew about everything she was doing."

"Yeah, and?"

"And you managed to keep your mouth shut about all of it. And I'm talking, for years. Like clearly there was shit going on in the background I never knew about as far back as you kids being in high school," Dirk said.

"You're the one who moved to California," Dave shrugged. "I don't mean that in a shitty way or anything, but it's a lot easier for me to keep my trap shut when you're in another state. That and when the alternative is like, creating a huge fucking mess for everyone. Then it's easier for me to just be a huge pain in the ass."

"Don't blame me for that," Rose said indignantly. "You're a pain in the ass of your own volition."

"Truth," Dave replied. "Her secrets aside, there's jack shit about me you don't know. I don't think I've even had a legit secret of my own since like, the third grade. Wait, no, I think I've got a grand total of one."

"Go on," Dirk said; they were off topic but he had the time to kill.

"You always wanna know if I'm doing drugs and shit, right? One time I tried acid, Rose was there because it was like, the summer between my Junior and Senior year and we were at some shit party. What a fucking rebel, right?"

"Yeah, okay, but I knew about that. She showed me the video of you crying in your mom's lap because you thought you were the direct hotline to some old world gods. Try again."

"Huh. Then I'm pretty much out," Dave said with a shrug. "Can we go back to talking about Rose?"

"Sure. Anyone else got some dirty laundry they want to air out while we're here?" Dirk asked, looking over the four of them once again. "No," he said when John looked like he was about to say something. "John, no. Whatever it is, it's probably fine. I don't think you've ever done anything wrong in your entire life."

"But I knew about Rose being depressed and I didn't even tell Dave."

"If we're being entirely transparent," Rose said. "I didn't tell Dave that John was struggling either, but that was under strict orders from John himself so as far as I'm concerned we're entirely even on the matter."

"I had no idea Rose was married," Kanaya pitched in. "Is it too soon for jokes? Or are we still being formally interrogated?"

"It's hard to tell," Rose replied. "Usually it's just me and Dave on the receiving end of a scenario like this. John's a wildcard, he knew that inviting him into the meeting. But you? I think you've not only thrown a spanner in the works, but rather emptied the entire toolkit."

"Okay, okay, everyone shut up," Dirk said, struggling to reign in the conversation. "Look, all I need is to know everyone's okay, and that we all know the important shit."

"I'm dependant on prescription medication," Dave said bluntly. "But that's like, the worst kept secret ever. Dependant, not addicted," he clarified. "Huge difference. I've got all my checkups in September if you wanna come since you're back on the East Coast."

"I might, yeah. Neurologist too?"

"Yeah. So, we done here?"

"No," Dirk said, redirecting his attention once again as he turned back to his niece. "Why didn't you invite me to your wedding?"

"I told you, it was very small," Rose said, shrugging as she avoided his gaze. "I didn't even tell Dave until he was off the plane."

"We even had to reschedule to account for his passport arriving later than expected," Kanaya added. "Do you want to see the photos?"

"Yes, I want to see the fucking photos," he snapped. "Later. You didn't invite me, you didn't even tell me after the fact. Why'd you leave me hanging?"

"Like you can talk," Dave scoffed. "You didn't tell me when you got engaged. I had to overhear it from someone in Pop's office."

"Do you feel left out?" Rose asked; she finally looked directly at him.

He'd forgotten just how intense her stares could be, and he'd been the one to teach her how to make such deliberately uncomfortable eye contact.

"Dude," Dave said slowly. "Shit, Bro, I get it now."

"Alright, alright, everyone fuck off out of my room," he said, waving a hand dismissively before Dave could open his mouth again.

"Really?" John asked.

"Believe it or not," Rose said, as she slid off the edge of the bed. "That counts as a heart to heart conversation in this house."

"So we're not in trouble?"

"John, you're twenty-three. You can't actually get in any trouble of consequence with our uncle," she said, shooing John off the bed.

That was an understatement; he had no real authority over any of them, especially not with them all as old as they were; it wasn't as if they were still in grade school. As they left the bedroom, first Rose, then Kanaya, then John, Dave stood up last and followed him out onto the smaller of the two upstairs balconies and slid the glass door closed behind them.

"You're not irrelevant, dude," Dave said as he lifted himself up to sit on the top rail of the fence, ankles locking between the steel pickets so he couldn't fall backwards. "Like, that's what you think, right? You know what she's like, she's a fucking fortress. It wasn't like she just told me everything because she wanted to, it was like pulling fucking teeth just to get the bare minimum in return over the course of basically our entire lives. But this is all just about how you thought you fucked me up, right? Because you put all that energy into trying not to fuck me up and you think you forgot about not fucking her up or something, right? I mean you definitely didn't because there's one thing we can be totally sure of in this world and it's that Rose is a force unto herself. Should I shut up? Bro? Dad?"

"You're fine, Dave," Dirk said as he leant forward with his elbows resting on the railing.

"Am I right though?"

"You're close," he sighed. "You think shit would have gone down differently if I hadn't jumped ship?"

"What, when you moved out?"

"Yeah."

"No. Like, obviously yeah. But it would have gone shittier, for sure."

"You think?"

"Yeah, dude. You're all married and happy and we've been over this, it's weird as shit, but like, you deserve it or whatever, you know?" Dave said. "And like, do you seriously want to give Rose of all people the satisfaction of being literally the only woman to ever break your heart?"

"She'd be the second, but your point stands," Dirk said with a sigh.

"Huh? Oh, high school blah blah."

"Hey, out of curiosity," he said, turning to look at Dave.

"Fuck, what now?"

"What was that shit John was playing last night? I can't get the fucking melody out of my head."

"Right?" Dave exclaimed with so much enthusiasm he almost overbalanced on the railing. "I don't know how he does it but he's got this infuriating knack for coming up with like, you know, like earworms, but worse. Or better, whatever. Millipedes. Ear millipedes. You wanna go get him to play it again?"

"Yeah, actually. Basement, fifteen minutes. Bring your laptop," Dirk said as he slid the glass door open once more. "And tell him we're recording. I've got enough enough shit with me to make it workable."

+++

Aradia had always told him that everything was already decided. She didn't know when it had been decided, or who had made the decisions, but everything happened because it was meant to happen. It was sweet, the implication that they'd met because they were meant to be, but on a more universal scale her attitude to life became somewhat more alarming; at least, a preoccupation with the inevitable downfall of humanity would have been alarming to anyone else.

Maybe they were meant to be, after all.

She knew that he had a job lined up in D.C. after college. Her entire senior year had been focused on preparing for graduate school, and when she found out she had been accepted as a doctoral candidate at the George Washington University they started packing. The way she talked about internships at the Smithsonian, with more enthusiasm than he'd ever had for anything, made him feel weak all over. He blamed it on this daily medication cocktail.

He worked in an office. He had an impressive resume for someone his age and he knew it; a 4.0 GPA without even trying, freelance work for the Department of Defence and the FBI, a contract position at the FBI, all before being headhunted by the CIA less than a year later. He hated his office, it had too many windows. It was nicer than the desk he'd had outside his old boss's office though, so more points went to the CIA there. He knew they'd only given him an office - a small one, but it had a door regardless - because he was exactly the kind of person they needed but didn't want. He was part of a team but worked independently for the most part, with his boss checking in every few hours throughout the day. The salary helped. He put it towards their ridiculously high rent and living expenses, and the rest went into a high-interest bank account to help pay off Aradia's student loans when the time came.

Sollux slammed the car door closed and gave a courtesy wave as the sedan pulled out from the curb. Every day, someone picked him up and dropped him home again. It was usually someone's personal assistant. They liked knowing where he was. He didn't care, it meant he didn't have to learn how to drive. He'd always had a feeling that driving was something not meant for someone like him.

When he unlocked the front door to their apartment, he let out a heavy sigh and dropped his messenger bag beside a pile of mixed up shoes. The blinds were all drawn and the air conditioner was blasting, but the sticky sensation of the summer still hung heavily in the air.

Aradia was sitting on the floor in just a sports bra and a pair of running shorts, her thick hair piled on top of her head in a messy bun. She didn't look away from her game of Kingdom Hearts 3 when he fell face first onto the couch behind her, and she didn't say anything, either.

The sigh had tipped her off - he needed to just sit for a while.

His stuffy work clothes weren't helping anything either but it seemed too hard in the moment to take them off, not when he needed to hang up parts of the outfit to wear again tomorrow. He settled for loosening his tie.

When he opened his eyes again, hours had passed. His glasses were lying on the arm of the couch but everything else was exactly how he'd left it; he sat up slowly and looked around the apartment.

"AA?"

He felt a slight panic rising when he realised that the Playstation was idling on the main menu and she was nowhere to be seen.

"AA!"

Stop. Breathe. Consider the more mundane options, he told himself. There were hundreds of mundane options before the catastrophic. She hadn't been kidnapped, or left him, or broken her neck. She was at the store, or in the bath, or checking for any post because he never remembered.

He pulled at his tie as he started walking, dragging it out from under his collar before he started on the buttons. Buttons down the shirt, buttons on the cuffs of his sleeves, a button on his trousers. Too many buttons. The ones on his cuffs were the hardest to undo; they would have been easier to deal with if he wasn't also trying to open the bedroom door.

Aradia was lying across the bed with her head hanging off the edge. He felt the tightness in his chest subsiding when he saw her there, and started changing out of his work clothes as if he hadn't just fought off a panic attack. His shirt and socks went into the dirty laundry pile, but his tie and pants ended up on the chair where they always did; he tucked his shoes underneath it, ready for the morning. She was on the phone and he listened to her talking, the constant switching between English and Japanese enough to tell him she was talking to her sister. He didn't understand much, and he wasn't listening just to eavesdrop, but it was nice to hear her voice regardless.

She held up two fingers as he was leaving the room; two more minutes, then she'd be done. He nodded, and walked back out into the living room.

It was almost eight o'clock and they hadn't eaten. He stood in the kitchen and ordered Korean delivery as if being in the kitchen while he stared at the UberEats app counted as cooking.

He was organising his evening dose of medication when she appeared beside him.

"So, how was your day?" Aradia asked, opening the fridge to find something cool to drink.

"Classified."

"Wow, that's still super funny," she grinned, as she poured two glasses of lemonade. "What can you tell me, Mr. Secret Agent?"

"I got two coffees and my boss checked on me five times," he replied. "You?"

"It's classified."

"Funny. I ordered food."

"Ooh, thanks," Aradia said. She held the cool glass to her cheek and leant back against the sink.

"What did your sister want?" Sollux asked, downing half his glass of lemonade at once. He hadn't drunk anything other than coffee all day.

"I'm not even sure," she shrugged. "She's a total mess. She said something about moving but I stopped listening because my secret agent boyfriend walked in and just started taking all his clothes off!"

"I have a desk job, AA."

"Secret desk job."

"I got three kinds of fried chicken," he said, turning back around to pick up his carefully counted pills. He swallowed them, two at a time, and finished off the rest of his lemonade.

Later that evening, when he was lying on the floor and watching her speed through the end of Kingdom Hearts, he reached over and tapped her knee to get her attention.

"You okay?" Aradia asked, turning away from the screen.

"I almost got into the Kremlin today."

"Aw, try again tomorrow, Agent Captor," she said with a familiar grin, gently patting his head.

He was good at his job; it was meant to be.

+++

-- timaeusTestified [TT] began pestering tentacleTherapist [TT] at 23:42 --

TT: I can hear you still tap tap tapping away in there. You need to sleep eventually.
TT: Sleep is for the weak. Or the old, of which you are one these days.
TT: I'm sorry, Rose.
TT: Are you now?
TT: Here's the thing. My own life is in a very strange place right now and I don't exactly know how to deal with it.
TT: You're happy.
TT: Exactly. Have I been happy before? Sure. But this is just pure, unfiltered contentment with life and all the things in it. It's a hard thing for a guy like me to cope with.
TT: What do you want me to say? Poor you? Would you like a condolences card? I'm sure there's still a crate of old art and craft supplies around here somewhere. We all know I've made you some beautiful cards in the past.
TT: This might come as a shock to you, but I've got some serious control issues.
TT: That is definitely a shock. A revelation, if you will.
TT: I'm currently in an unusual state.
TT: Happy. Call it what it is.
TT: Yes, that. And in my current, unusual state, my brain has nothing else to fixate on so it seems to be trying to over-analyse my past actions in order to find a reason to go back to being unhappy.
TT: There's the uncle I've come to know and love.
TT: I think I might have been overly concerned with the idea that something I did caused you to write me out of your life.
TT: If only it were that easy to get rid of you. Sarcasm aside, you didn't. I never told you anything was wrong because in the beginning I didn't know anything was wrong. Then suddenly everything was. Also, there's the small fact that you happen to be the closest thing to a father-figure I've ever known so of course my instinct was not to tell you anything important. And before you say anything, the 'we love and support everything you do please come to us with your concerns' approach to parenting did work. I appreciate that.
TT: Good to know, considering it was the opposite end of the spectrum to how your mom and I were raised.
TT: So it seems that any style of parenting in this family contributes to extremely poor mental health in the early twenties.
TT: That's it? Parents all fuck their kids up, huh?
TT: That's it. I dropped out of fucking Princeton, do you think that's the action of someone in control of her life?
TT: We've already established that I have a warped sense of what being in control looks like.
TT: You really do.
TT: I am sorry, Rose.
TT: You already said that.
TT: I mean it. For today, for the last few years, for every time you've thought I was out of line.
TT: You were particularly over the top today.
TT: Hindsight is 20/20.
TT: I can't believe you're happy. Imagine being happily married to someone you love, making a living doing something you enjoy, and living in a place you can call your own.
TT: I know you're being facetious but I'm glad you're happily married to someone you love, making a living doing something you enjoy, and living in a place you can call your own.
TT: I'm going to throw up. I accept your apology, but I'm going to throw up.
TT: Don't worry, that's a normal reaction. I make myself sick, too.

+++

When his bedroom door opened, just a crack at first, then wide enough for her to slip inside without making a sound, he finished typing out the last few words of his message and shoved his phone under the pillow.

After spending three weeks back upstate, it was time to go home.

The Mayor yawned when Rose picked him up from the floor; Dave made a grabbing motion with both hands as she lay down next to him with the cat.

"Me or him?"

"Either, you know I'll take what I can get."

They both watched as the Mayor immediately darted off the bed and sauntered back over to his favoured patch of carpet.

"Thrown under the bus by my own furry nephew," Rose sighed. "Do your worst."

"You know I could win a gold medal for this shit," Dave said and shuffled closer to his sister. He threw one arm over her stomach and wriggled the other under her neck until he was comfortable, resting his head on her shoulder.

"You could have at least put a shirt on," she said.

"Nah, I'm good," he said. "When are you leaving?"

"Tomorrow," Rose said. "Mom's driving us to Watertown. We've got a direct flight from Philadelphia after that."

"You're really going back, huh?" Dave asked, hugging her tighter.

"I live there now. My life is there."

"Can I come and visit?"

"I don't know, how do you feel about cats?"

"I really fucking love them, mine is the best. He's never even pissed on the floor, have I told you that? I mean he's thrown up on shit before but like, that's a thing they all do, right?"

"You're welcome to visit, Dave," Rose said quietly. "I'd actually like it if you did."

"Ha ha, you love me," he teased in a sing-song voice.

"I said like, and that was being generous," she said. "What did you want to tell me?"

Dave sighed.

"I wanted to say goodbye now," he mumbled. "Get it over with."

"That's tragic," Rose laughed softly and turned onto her side so she could curl up against him; he instinctively tightened his grip on her. "I don't think we've gone a single day without some kind of contact even with me living halfway across the world."

"It's not the same and you know it," he said.

It wasn't the same at all, he wanted to say. Messages and FaceTime calls were a poor substitute for living on the same continent. But she was doing so much better living across the ocean, so far from her family, and he knew that there was next to no chance of her ever moving back. He'd accepted that much at some point during the past three years, as hard as it had been - not that he was going to tell her in those exact words.

"Well, while we're doing this face-to-face communication thing," Rose said, disentangling herself from his arms so she could sit up beside him instead. "We've talked an awful lot about me and my excessive faults and subsequent triumphs over the last few weeks, but I don't think I've taken the time to tell you how proud I am of you."

"Please," he replied sarcastically, rolling onto his back. "I finished art school, what a triumph in comparison to literally overcoming your own personal hell."

"You graduated and you're now totally independent. Obviously, that's much easier to do when someone just buys you an apartment in central Brooklyn, but the obvious help you've had aside look what you're doing with that excessive privilege," Rose said. "You're supporting two other people and a cat on your income."

"You should really be thanking the furry community for that, like let's be real here. They're probably a solid thirty percent of my income," he snorted.

"Shut up, I'm trying to compliment you and we both know this isn't something that's going to happen again for a very long time," she said. "You get given an apartment and the first thing you do is move in two of your friends and never ask them for a dime. You've followed Bro's example and set up multiple streams of income so you're not reliant on just one. You're just doing whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it, and it just suits you so much. It really does."

"Hey, I even bought some god damn stocks, like who am I? But seriously," Dave said, finally sitting up as well so he could rummage around on his shelf to find his glasses. "We really gotta find something else to talk about, or all this excessive praise is gonna go to my head."

"Please, your ego is already so inflated I'm amazed you haven't drifted off," she said. "You've got one last off-the-record hug if you want to take it."

She didn't need to tell him twice.

He spent the rest of the morning never far away from her, trailing her around the house as they both packed to return home to their respective cities. Pausing every few minutes to trade stories, or take photos, she poked fun at him for every brief hug he gave her until the one as they stood beside the passengers' side door of Dirk's truck. She hugged him back more tightly than she ever had before, until he finally took a reluctant half-step back.

"You're gonna regret giving me an open invitation to come over," he said with a quiet laugh, quickly wiping away a tear as it escaped below the bottom rim of his glasses. Like, just so much."

"I'll hold you to it," Rose replied, her own eyes shining as she struggled not to cry. "You better hurry or John's going to snipe your seat."

"He can't, I called shotgun," Dave said. "See you soon. Promise."

It turned out that John, who had lived as an only child during the years he was old enough to sit in the front seat of the car, had zero respect for the shotgun rule.

It was a long drive back to the city. Dirk had volunteered to make the trip even though it was going to put him more than eight hours out of the way; they'd offered to catch the train instead, but between the Mayor and John's keyboard, it was just easier to drive. Even when they factored in all the stops for food or bathroom breaks, the trip went more smoothly than the combination of Amtrak and Uber ever could have.

By the time Dirk pulled into an empty space just half a block from the apartment, it was after seven o'clock.

"Are you sure you don't want to stay over?" Dave asked, shouldering his backpack as he checked over the backseat for all his belongings.

"Yeah, I wanna get home," Dirk replied.

"Offer's there."

"Thanks, but I'll make it back by about eleven, maybe eleven thirty at the latest and my own bed sounds more appealing than your couch. John! Your phone!"

"Thanks, Dirk," John said. He snatched up his phone from the front seat and shoved it into his pocket. "Thanks for driving us," he added as he wedged his keyboard under his arm.

"No problem. Be good, kids. I better haul ass outta here before I get a ticket for loitering."

"Tell Pops I said hi," Dave said, and slammed the door closed once John was clear. "See you," he added through the open window.

He waved with his free hand as Dirk pulled out from the curb, then grabbed the handle of his suitcase and started walking with John falling into step beside him. With campus housing unavailable until the end of August, John had been left with limited options for the rest of the summer. He could have stayed at Roxy's house or gone home to Seattle, but in both of those scenarios he ended up alone for weeks at a time and that didn't seem like an ideal situation. So Dave had suggested staying at his place instead, despite how cramped it would be; at least there would always be someone around for company, and to keep an eye on him, that way.

Dave had just brushed off John's concerns by pointing out he preferred to work at night anyway, so they could sleep in shifts.

He unlocked the front door of his apartment and put the Mayor down on the kitchen counter.

"We're home!" Dave called as he unlatched the carrier's door so the cat could let himself out in his own time. "Hey, we're home, buddy," he said more gently, leaning down to look in on the Mayor. "You want me to take the harness off or leave it on? On? Sounds good to me."

"Ew, Dave, you smell like nature," Terezi said as she hung over the end of the couch, grinning widely in his general direction. "Or the wilderness. What is a nice way to say 'the middle of nowhere'?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm from the boonies, good joke, Rez. Shit, what happened to your hand?" Dave asked, still trying to coax the Mayor out of his plastic carrier when he noticed the splint taped to her fingers.

"I broke it, Dave. What does it look like?"

"It kinda looks like you broke it, yeah," he agreed. "John's staying for a while."

"John's here?!" Terezi said excitedly. "Aw, hi John, I did not see you walk in," she cackled. "Karkat is out because we have less than half a roll of toilet paper left and Mr. Practical didn't feel like waiting to see if we would run out by morning."

"I didn't ask," Dave replied, unclipping the Mayor's harness as he stepped tentatively out onto the kitchen bench.

"You have been gone for over three weeks, you were going to ask," she said, turning back around to face the TV, the novelty of their entry having obviously worn off.

"I'm like twenty-two years old, Rez. I can go a few weeks without seeing Karkat before the serious withdrawal symptoms start to kick in. He's not even my best friend."

+++

"How'd you know I hid them inside my winter coat?"

"Because you told me you were hiding a fistful of pills inside your winter coat. You were off your fucking face at the time."

"Huh, I guess that does sound like me."

Karkat was sitting on the couch with his feet up on the coffee table, legs crossed at the ankles. Dave was lying beside him, head on his lap, as they both stared blankly at the House Hunters rerun playing on the TV. He didn't know what time it was, but he knew they'd watched at least four episodes of the real estate program since the others had gone to bed. Maybe it was five.

"So what, she just lost her shit and punched a wall? Because that's a total Vantas move," Dave asked when the screen cut to a commercial break.

"She got close enough to figuring out where Vriska was that the bitch stopped talking to her altogether," Karkat sighed. "So she told her not to come crawling back."

"Shit, dude. They're like, best fucking friends."

"Were, apparently."

"Fuck," Dave said quietly. "I mean, this is like total quality news and shit for everyone else, a real ding dong the witch is dead moment in history for sure, but do you think it's all my fault for like, declaring a full on nuclear war on Vriska?"

"Yes."

"Fuck off."

"You asked," Karkat said, and shrugged. "It's obviously your fault, but it's not like she didn't deserve it," he went on. "Just throw it onto the pile of shit in the back of your brain you only think about once every six months, you know the one. Where it comes back to haunt you out of nowhere so you freak the fuck out for a week and drive us all up the fucking wall with your stupid moronic droning about a non-issue then drop it for another six months before the cycle of stupidity repeats."

"I'm gone for a few weeks and all I get is called the fuck out now I'm back, huh?" Dave joked.

"If only you were still gone," Karkat said and flicked his ear.

He said it, but he didn't mean it. For the better part of a month it had been just him and Terezi in the apartment. It had been a while since it was just the two of them like that; Dave had gone away for weekends here and there, visiting his family, but he'd never been gone for more than a week. He'd never taken the Mayor with him before, either. It had been totally different without him around all day.

"Hey, don't wish too hard," Dave replied. "Rose actually said she misses me and wants me to visit her sometime. I could fuck off to Europe for like, three entire months. What would you do then?"

"Break my new three week record for getting a good night's sleep."

"Here's a fun fact," Dave said, as he sat up and shuffled back so he was leaning against Karkat, wedged comfortably under his arm. He tipped his head back to rest on his shoulder. "For a guy who gives probably the worlds' best hugs, like total rib-crushers, John is surprisingly shit at this kind of thing. And don't get me fuckin' started on Rose, she's so uptight about everything it totally carries over into cuddling."

"Lucky for you that John's only second worst on your list," Karkat replied. "Everyone wins."

"You'd lose your absolute shit if I fucked off for three months, dude. I mean, your shit would be flipped even if I didn't because you're a shit flipping champ, but you know what I mean, right?"

"Dave," he said, a little more shortly than he meant. "I get it, okay? I know you missed me, you know I missed you, now can we just move on with our lives?"

"Not after that, holy shit it sounds lame when you just go and say it like that." Dave said with a snort of derisive laughter. "It's like two in the morning, dude. Tomorrow's business hours," he added, changing the subject.

"I'll just be late," Karkat said, shrugging. "I'm only working on my own shit at the moment anyway."

"Wanna book in a lunch meeting?"

"Depends on if you mean spending an hour fucking around watching YouTube or an hour actually leaving the house for lunch."

"The second. I've got emails and shit to do and that'll take me all morning, but I've got a new project I kind of want to start on in the afternoon," Dave said. "I can't tell you jack shit about it though. Like, this is some top secret job, I'm pretty sure I'm not even supposed to tell you it's a top secret job," he went on, digging his phone out from under his leg as he was talking.

"What, you signed an NDA or something?" Karkat asked as he watched the screen over Dave's shoulder.

"Pfft, no. You think even an NDA could keep me quiet? Like seriously, me? Stopped by a piece of paper? Please. Okay, it was like one step short of an NDA but c'mon, like even a court order signed by our lord and saviour Snoop Dogg would convince me to keep my mouth shut," Dave said, scrolling through his Instagram feed. "Here, if you guess I'm not technically saying anything," he added, angling the phone up so Karkat could see it more clearly.

The photo on the phone didn't give away anything immediately obvious. A computer screen. Headphones. Some kind of editing program open on the monitor.

"What am I missing?"

"The obvious fact you're not looking at any of my accounts," Dave replied.

"Fuck off, he's not," Karkat said hurridly, grabbing the phone out of Dave's hand to look at the image more closely. "I thought he said he finished the story. He wrote a literal fucking book about the extended lore and all the other bullshit and said it was over."

"Yeah, but you're forgetting the most basic of relevant information here, dude. He's a huge fucking liar," Dave said as he snatched his phone back. "I didn't say shit."

"He's retired. He quit."

"Liar," Dave repeated. "Massive fucking liar, always has been. Trust me, the guy is totally unpredictable. Anyway, I'm sleeping out here tonight because I told John he could have my bed and I figure I should give him some space. You can stay if you want but dibs on the couch."

"Yeah, because I'd voluntarily choose to sleep out here on the floor instead of in my bed with my girlfriend," Karkat said, so sarcastically that it earned him a sharp jab from Dave's elbow.

He pushed his shoulder forward to move the brunt of Dave's weight off him, then turned as he shuffled forward to sit on the edge of the couch; Dave, left with the option to either fall backwards or support himself without a shoulder to lean on, chose the former.

"We just established that you totally missed me, dude," Dave grinned his usual smartass grin from where he was half-lying on the couch, with his neck at what had to be the worst angle for a neck to be at.

"Goodnight, you insufferable son of a swindling lunatic," Karkat said. He didn't respond directly to Dave's last comment because he didn't need to; the comfortable squeeze of his shoulder spoke for itself.

"Night, dude," Dave replied with a loud snort of laughter.

With a swift spin on his heel, Karkat turned around to face the couch as he continued to walk backwards out of the living room; while Dave only laughed even harder when he bumped into the wall while trying to flip him off with both hands, even he managed a snicker over the admittedly unnecessary dramatics.

Chapter Text

July, 2019

Dave couldn't pinpoint the exact moment he'd first noticed that he was physically outgrowing certain things in his life. He remembered having to readjust the shower head if Rose had been in the bathroom before him, and moving the seat further from the steering wheel if she'd driven the shitbox last, back when they'd shared the so-called car in high school. He figured that he'd probably been in middle school when he'd started bumping his head on cupboard doors and it would have been around the same time that all of his clothes started being too short in the limbs.

He hadn't been able to fit comfortably in a bath since he was twelve.

When the bathroom door swung open, Dave lazily tipped his head back and glanced out from behind the shower curtain. The lights were off but he had a pair of his oldest Wayfarers perched on top of his head, just in case; with four people sharing one bathroom over the summer, there had been more overlap than usual.

"Sup, Rez?"

"I have to piss, Dave. Why else would I be in here?"

"For some of my most rad-tastic company, duh," he said, drawing the curtain closed again as he sunk back into the cool water. He unfolded his legs and stretched them out, flexing his knees a few times before he moved to rest the limbs up against the tiles.

"Your company is not that rad," Terezi replied.

He heard her put the toilet seat back down then turned his attention back to the video he'd been watching on his phone.

The fourth of July had been a long, hot day and after they'd all had more than enough to drink they'd gone up onto the roof to watch the fireworks over Manhattan. At some point, around his fifth beer, he'd suddenly felt overwhelmed by everything that had happened over the past month; his mom was married, he'd seen his sister for the first time in years, John was around every day, and his dad was living back in the same state as him. It was all too much for him to think about after the most he'd had to drink since New Years', so he'd mumbled something about being back in a minute to the entire living room, then disappeared into the bathroom.

That had been almost forty minutes earlier.

"Bullshit, my company is awesome," he said once the toilet flushed, pulling the curtain back far enough to glare in her direction, even though she couldn't see the expression. "Everyone loves me."

"See, that is definitely bullshit," Terezi said. She closed the toilet lid completely and sat down, with her feet up on the edge of the tub. "Why are you in the bath? Do you even fit in the bath?"

"Because I want to be, and no," he said, picking up his nearly-empty beer can from the opposite side of the bathtub. "I definitely do not fit in the bath."

"Ha, sucks to be you, Terezi said, and grinned. "Are you going to stay in here all night?"

"Probably, I've got everything I need, like my phone and another beer, and shit, like I'm in the bathroom so I can piss if I need to, whatever," Dave said, draining the last few mouthfuls of his beer before dropping the empty can over the edge of the tub. "How's the party?"

"It sucks, Dave. This party is you, me, John, and Karkat. I don't think it's possible to have a suckier party."

"Last year it was me, Karkat, and Sollux," he said. "It was so fuckin' bad, you got no idea, that shit sucked harder than the suckiest suck that ever sucked."

"Ooh," Terezi said, cackling. "We are at drunk Dave level two already."

"Bullshit, what's level one even?"

"Level one is when you are loud and obnoxious, but not in an endearing way," she said thoughtfully. "Level two means you have forgotten how to put your words together in clever ways and have rendered yourself incapable of dishing out the sickest of burns."

"And level three?"

"I have only met level three drunk Dave one time," Terezi said. "He was very lame and very cuddly."

"Well lucky for you there's plenty more of this around," Dave said, waving his beer in her face. "It's the Kings County shit, I walked around there yesterday and picked up like, enough."

"John was feeling adventurous so I made him a cherry coke, but instead of coke I used pepsi and instead of cherry flavour I used cherry vodka," she explained, dropping one foot down from the bath.

"Ew, why?"

"Because he is a stupid nerd who likes pepsi."

"It's gotta be a Seattle thing, right? Like, seriously, who even likes pepsi?"

"John does."

"Gross, I can't believe he's my brother."

"He asked me how much was pepsi and how much was vodka, and I said gee, I don't know John, I was not paying much attention to the non-existent measurements on this novelty cup that I can definitely see with my working eyes," Terezi said as she moved again to put both feet back down on the floor, after she kicked the empty can out of the way. "So the chances are fifty-fifty that he's going to be very drunk very soon, because that was not technically a lie."

"Or he just won't drink it," Dave suggested. "Or he could pour it down the sink. Or throw it out the window. Now we're talking way less than fifty-fifty odds. Don't ask, I don't know, math was my shittiest subject at school."

"Everyone knows you were a huge nerd with an A-average."

"Yeah, but I had to study for those A's in math like a fucking idiot because let's get real here, Rez, I'm the fucking idiot in my family. My mom is a literal rocket scientist, like c'mon," he said, knocking back another mouthful of beer. "And for the record, I'm kinda shitty at math, not numbers. I'm good at numbers. It's the algebra and calculus shit that fucks me up."

"One time Tula got a C and mom took us to A&W to celebrate," she said.

"See? That's wholesome as shit. When I started getting A's my mom let me off 'rearrange the entire fucking kitchen' duty for a month, like that was a normal thing that everybody did."

"Your mom is crazy."

"Hey, only I can talk shit about my mom. Man, I love her so much," he said, with another scowl Terezi would never see.

"Aha!" Terezi exclaimed. "We have now seemingly crossed the threshold into drunk Dave level three. It is the early stages, but I am very excited to see him again."

Dave grinned and folded his legs back down from the wall, pushing off the far end of the tub to sit up a little straighter and create enough room for his feet. It wasn't comfortable, far from it, but the water was cool and the time alone with his thoughts had helped to calm him down from his silent panic earlier.

He was about to ask Terezi what she'd heard - her head had suddenly cocked to the left - when Karkat swung the bathroom door open without even knocking.

"Wait, isn't Dave in there?"

"Yes he is!" Terezi said, spinning around on the closed lid of the toilet to face the doorway, now blocked by both Karkat and John. "He is absolutely in the bath, see?"

She was looking in their general direction as she answered John's question; Dave just held up his half-empty can in a silent cheers, unable to think of what to say on the fly.

"Have you been in there this whole time?" Karkat asked.

"Maybe, maybe not," Dave replied with a shrug. "Depends what you mean by this whole time."

"The last thirty fucking minutes."

"Then yeah, I've been here this whole time."

"Hey, when Jade walked in on you in the shower that one time you flipped out, dude," John piped up from where he was standing out in the hallway. "What gives?"

"John, you're my literal brother and Terezi is literally blind. No one's seeing shit they haven't one, seen before, and two, seeing pretty much anything," Dave said. "Also, I wasn't totally fucking wasted when that happened so I had more fucks to give. But that said, I'm gonna get out now so you should all probably fuck off or something because I'm definitely naked back here."

"I mean the lights are off and it's pretty dark so I don't think we'd see much anyway," John said.

"The lights are off?" Terezi asked. "You've been sitting in the bath in the dark?"

"Duh," Dave said. "What's relaxing about a cold bath with a light on, Rez? Answer me that. But like, later. Get out for now."

"Gross!" John exclaimed, disappearing down the hall when Dave threw the shower curtain open. "So gross!"

"I am going, Dave," Terezi said as she finally stood up; she bumped into Karkat in the doorway as she tried to step around him, then dragged him out of sight by the hand.

Dave waved as they both walked away. He worked the plug loose with his toes and pushed it aside to let the water drain. When he stood up, slowly, it took a moment for his knees to bend properly in the right direction; something was stuck, a muscle, or a ligament, but only momentarily. More joints clicked back into place as he stepped out of the tub and back into a space more accommodating of his size.

Maybe it would have been better to just sit under the flow of the air conditioner, he thought briefly, as he flexed his toes to try and relieve the cramp in his left calf.

If nothing else, spending the better part of an hour in a tub of cold water with a local beer and Youtube had successfully rebooted his brain into a more relaxed state. He waited for the water to finish draining, taking with it his level two drunk-Dave neuroses, and flipped his Wayfarers back down onto his face so he could leave the bathroom and rejoin the world's shittiest Fourth of July party.

"Hey, John, how's your shitty cherry Pepsi?"

+++

For Rose, London summers were a complete and utter delight. The warm days and cooler nights suited her just fine, especially with the recent memories of hot and sticky New York City so fresh in her mind. Stepping out onto the street after she locked up the bookstore for the evening, she dropped her keys into her tote bag and set off down the block towards the nearest station.

The sun was warm on her skin and it soothed her in ways similar to the snow back home.

It was hot, for those who had lived in the country for their entire lives. The casual nature of the bookshop allowed her to get away with wearing shorts to work, along with sandals; everyone understood, it was hot. Her blouse, short-sleeved and made of a light, breezy fabric had earned her unending compliments throughout the day. My wife made it, she had said proudly to those who asked where she'd bought it. The sunglasses were secondhand; a pair of well-loved aviators with silver frames that she'd borrowed from Dave when his back was turned.

She checked her phone as she stood on the underground platform, waiting for the next train to arrive and take her home. It was Friday night.

By the time she walked through the front door of her flat, it was almost seven o'clock. She had stopped at the supermarket to pick up the few items requested of her - tampons, laundry detergent, something nice for dessert - as well as a handful of impulse purchases. In exchange, the Indian food had been ordered while she was still on her way.

"Oh yes, I'm sure you're starving and haven't been fed," she said to the two cats circling her ankles as she made her way to the kitchen to unload the groceries. "Hello?"

"Sewing room!"

The response didn't come from her wife, but her sister-in-law.

Rose put the detergent away under the kitchen sink and shelved the various candies and desserts in one of the cupboards. She took the tampons with her and threw them into the bathroom from the doorway, leaving them on the floor, before she wandered into the second bedroom to find the two Maryams.

"Hi," she said, leaning over Kanaya's shoulder to kiss her cheek. "What are we up to in here?"

"Scrutinising the new designs I've been contemplating," Kanaya replied, turning to return the kiss. "I think they're coming together."

"The dress?"

"The dress," Kanaya sighed. "I just cannot get the pockets to sit right with this waistline."

"And what's the point in a dress without pockets?" Rose asked facetiously.

"There is no point, Rose," Kanaya quipped in response and turned her chair away from the table covered in fabric scraps and pattern cut-outs. "You know this."

"Oh, I do," she said more seriously, but paused before she went on. "That would be the door."

"I'll get it," Porrim said, brushing past the two of them to let the delivery into the building. "Make yourselves useful and set the table."

Both Rose and Kanaya made themselves useful by setting out plates and cutlery on the coffee table in the living room. It was a quiet few minutes as they all dished out portions of rice and curry for themselves, passing the plastic containers back and forth until they all had enough on their plates. The conversation started up again soon after, between mouthfuls, as Rose relayed the events of her day; the bookshop was more eventful than Kanaya's bouts of summer study. There had been the usual deliveries, customers, and even a free iced coffee from the boy at the nearby Starbucks who had complimented her sunglasses. It would have been rude not to accept, she said. It was the magic of the sunglasses, attracting her brother's favourite things across the Atlantic.

"Well," Porrim said as they were all going in for seconds. "You both know I have a wonderful boyfriend, don't you?"

"Of course," Rose said.

"And a knockout gorgeous girlfriend."

"Yes, we know," Kanaya said.

"And an equally gorgeous boyfriend."

"Yes, go on."

"And the most delightful boyfriend in the country?"

"It's hard to tell who is who with you using adjectives rather than names, but yes," Rose said as she reached for the last samosa. "Did either of you want this?"

"No, take it," Kanaya said. "If you could pass me the rice, please."

"I'll take that when you're done," Porrim said, reaching across the table for more vindaloo. "Anyway, I only bring it up because if nothing else this kid is either going to be wonderful, gorgeous, or delightful, but I honestly couldn't tell you which until it pops out."

"What," Kanaya deadpanned.

"Congratulations, aunties."

"Really?" Rose asked, a beaming smile slowly working its way onto her face. "You're -"

"A surprise, naturally, but not entirely unwelcome," Porrim said as she took the rice from Kanaya. "You know me."

"More meddlesome than Ms. Meddling Meddler over here?" Rose suggested.

"I would take offence to that," Kanaya interjected. "But don't think I didn't see you throw that box of tampons onto the literal floor earlier."

"How could you have possibly seen that?" Rose asked. "Of course, by that I mean that I have no idea what you're talking about."

"A very smooth save," Kanaya said. "How long have you known?"

"A few weeks now," Porrim sighed. "But I was hardly going to ring you up while you were on holidays to tell you, was I? And then you both looked like you needed some time to settle back in after getting home and here we are a week later. So as of Wednesday, I'm at eight weeks. It's early days yet, but there you have it."

"How did it happen?" Rose asked, spooning out more curry onto her plate. "The obvious aside, I've got a vague understanding of how that works."

"No idea. It's the first time in what could only be described as a very lengthy history that the pill has failed me. If my timeline matches up, and I know it does right down to the specific evening, I can tell you that there is absolutely no way of telling which one of my boys is responsible."

"Have you told mum yet?" Kanaya asked.

"I'll give it another few weeks, if she hasn't figured it out by then," Porrim said. "And I'm sure she'll figure it out on her own, you know what her instincts are like."

"I'm going to be a human aunt," Rose said, still grinning widely. "Unless you're growing a hybrid of sorts in there."

"Unfortunately, no. It's definitely human," Porrim smiled. "But like I said, I couldn't tell you which variety of human. Everyone's happy, of course, and we've always had something of a your uterus, your decisions consensus about the possibility."

"It's just your partners who know at this stage?" Kanaya asked.

"As well as you two, and I'm willing to allow you to spill the beans, Ms. Lalonde, to your brother and to your brother only," Porrim said. "Since you obviously want to let him know he's failed you by only giving you a feline nephew."

"On the contrary," Rose said. "It's probably for the best he's only provided me with a cat who has a job title instead of a name."

It was much later that evening, long after Porrim had left for wherever it was she was heading on a Friday night, that Rose found herself listening to the soft lace curtains fluttering in the breeze as she watched her wife feign sleep. It was too hot to close the windows entirely and the traffic outside still built up whenever the nearby traffic lights switched to red, but she was warm and content, and surrounded by cats. Her inability to sleep was, for a change, fuelled by joy rather than despair; Kanaya rolled over to face her and begrudgingly opened a single eye to confirm that she was indeed still awake.

"This heatwave is absolutely your fault," Kanaya said, with a small frown. "Clearly it's followed you home from New York."

"That is indeed how climate change works," Rose quipped. "God forbid someone journey from Hawaii to the Arctic."

"Hm," Kanaya said as she closed her eye again. "I have the strangest feeling that Jade is set to make that trip next week."

"Blaming everyone but yourself, I see. I do recall you wishing, back in the depths of winter, for the unending cold to disappear into the void and never return, or something along those lines."

"You dare to quote me to myself like that when I am suffering, Rose? I could file for divorce on those grounds."

"Go ahead, I'll purchase a fountain pen for the paperwork and start practicing my calligraphy."

"You wound me," Kanaya sighed. "And why are you still awake? Is it to enjoy my suffering?"

"We're going to be aunts," Rose said quietly. "Real aunts to a human child."

"Human perhaps, but a product of my sister."

"Oh, shush, you know she's made for it."

"She'll be amazing," Kanaya mumbled. "Now go to sleep and stop thinking up ways to kidnap this human child."

"We have to decide what kind of aunts to be," Rose said. "Are we going to be the strict kind? Take a leaf from my uncle's book and be doting but sporadically absent? Spoil the child at every opportunity?"

"We're going to be overbearing and over-involved and you know that perfectly well," Kanaya said, with as much feigned sharpness to her tone as she could manage as she was drifting off. "Go to sleep, Rose."

"Goodnight, Kanaya, light of my fucking life."

"I'd make an obscene gesture in your direction but my arms have melted off, so you'll have to imagine it, if you would."

"Of course."

Rose was warm in the summer breeze, content, as she closed her eyes and started counting slowly down from a hundred to try and trick her own mind into a more calm place. She breathed deeply a few times, but gave up on it, and the counting, before she even made it to the eighties.

"Just how overbearing would it be to start looking at infant socks? They're just too small to be real, right?"

"You need to get on my level, Rose. I've had an Amazon wishlist for this since I was fourteen."

+++

-- golgothasTerror [GT] began pestering timaeusTestified [TT] at 09:16 --

GT: Prepare yourself for what im about to say because i have no doubt its going to knock your socks clean off.
GT: You were right and living out of hotels again after an extended break from doing so is driving me batty.
GT: So permission granted to begin scouring property listings and expand our already unnecessary portfolio. Keep in mind that i need to be able to launder my own work uniforms in house with more parameters to be decided shortly.

TT: Is this you trying to sext?
GT: No im being serious. I know you love the bureaucracy that comes with contracted purchases.
TT: I'm so turned on right now.
GT: Youre not. Im being serious!
TT: So am I.
GT: Oh shut it. Keep it close to work and look for two bedrooms. It doesnt matter if theyre small but i have an idea in mind that not only saves me from myself but also solves another problem. And stick to a REASONABLE BUDGET!!
TT: I went into your office on Monday afternoon, by the way. I found no less than four abandoned mugs with milk in them strewn around the room, so if you've got any recollection of there being more than four, for the love of God please tell me now or I'll have to quarantine the room in another five weeks.
GT: This is exactly what i mean by an idea which saves me from myself. Look i just want to be able to make my own breakfast and spend a nice half hour in the bathroom without being interrupted mid shit by housekeeping because i forgot to flip the flipping sign on my door!
TT: Very specific of you.
GT: Its happened twice now.
TT: What's your idea then? It's going to impact the search.
GT: Id like to give our john the option of living there to keep an eye on the place in the weeks im at home. Hes currently sleeping at daves flat and it might be nice for him to have somewhere not at his college to go for some down time.
TT: Interesting proposal. But let's get back to the search parameters and financial details. Who's buying?
GT: Happy to do it myself but youre welcome to invest.
TT: Still turned on, for the record.
GT: Shall we call it fifty fifty?
TT: Let me crunch some numbers first but I'll find the optimal split. I'll see what I can find within a ten minute walk and organise walkthroughs for this weekend, how's that sound?
GT: Like someone is a little too keen but it would hardly be the first time for that!!
TT: Hey, I'm not the one who started a conversation with the sexiest opening they could dream up.
GT: Youre insufferable.
TT: You lasted a week and a half in a hotel before deciding to dive right in on another property purchase, colour me impressed. Really.
GT: I think i might have left half a slice of toast on my desk.
TT: You did, and I found it already. Dave says you're catching up with him this weekend, what's the plan?
GT: I've got a shoot on saturday morning so ill be busy most of the day but hes apparently going to change my mind about in and out being as good as it is. I was following the conversation for the first half but then he went off on a bit of a tangent and i sort of tuned out.
TT: Sounds about right.
GT: Im at work now though so i should probably head off. Send me the links to any potential properties you find and ill browse them later on while i suffer in my hotel.
TT: I'm prioritising the search over my own work, I'll get you a full list complete with viewing appointments by lunch.
GT: You are incredible.
TT: Don't you know it.
GT: Sorry i wasnt finished. You are incredibly overzealous!!
TT: Says he who just told me to find him an apartment so he can shit in peace. Remember back when I told you that was something you miss when you're raising two kids, and you just laughed? Well who's laughing now, English? Who the fuck is laughing now?
GT: Still me. But im not the one turned on by bureaucracy which is admittedly not the oddest thing ive ever said in that regard, is it?
TT: Talk to you later.
GT: Did i just regain the upper hand in this contest of witty words?
TT: Love you, talk later.
GT: Ha!

+++

"Hey," Dave said, knocking on the doorframe before he propped himself up against it. "I'm microwaving lunch, you want anything?"

Karkat gestured briefly over his shoulder with a finger; surprisingly, it wasn't his middle finger. He finished punching out the end of his sentence and went back to fix the few errors he'd made before finally spinning his chair around to give Dave his full attention.

"What?"

"You hungry?"

"Why?"

"Because as it turns out the clock keeps moving no matter how totally absorbed you get in your work, and I mean that as like, a general you, not you you, because I'm guilty as shit too, but it's three in the afternoon so I was gonna nuke some shit from the fridge. You want in?" Dave asked as he glanced around the cluttered but tidy room.

"Fuck. Yeah, shit. I was busy," Karkat replied, turning back to his computer. "Give me five."

"Tell me about it," Dave said. "But hey, I've made some good fucking progress today, remind me and I'll show you later. Any food requests?"

"Yeah, don't spit in it."

"Got it," he said, with a mock salute to the back of Karkat's head before he turned to walk back to the kitchen.

He pulled a second plate out from the cupboard and moved to stare into the fridge. After carefully considering the lack of viable options, he pulled out an assortment of takeout containers and started trying to split the leftovers as equally as possible; at least, he tried to split everything evenly but gave himself the obviously larger half of naan bread, since he was the one doing the cooking.

Karkat showed up just as the microwave beeped loudly to indicate that his lunch was ready. Dave slid the plate across the counter to him and swapped in his own food to heat it up as well, then tossed two forks down onto the bench.

"Pad thai and korma, what a fucking combination," Karkat said. He snatched up one of the forks and took his plate across to the couch, where he sank down into the far corner to eat.

"There was more pad thai so if I ate that you'd bitch about getting a raw deal with the korma, and if I had it I'd bitch about you getting the noodles, so I split everything to avoid the bitching but here we are, bitching anyway," Dave said as he dropped onto the other end of the couch and put his feet up on the coffee table. "So what're we watching?"

"House Hunters International."

"Good, I mean this is obviously the superior House Hunters. Oh shit, you know this dickhead is gonna want his giant ass backyard in the middle of Barcelona, what a fucking idiot," Dave said through a mouthful of noodles.

He almost dropped his plate when the front door burst open.

"What the fuck?" Karkat, on the other hand, managed to spill korma down the front of his t-shirt.

"Sorry!" John exclaimed as he almost fell through the doorway with Terezi on his back. "It's an emergency, but like a super gross emergency! Coming through!"

"To the bathroom, John! The bathroom!" Terezi shouted as he went to put her down in the kitchen.

"What happened?" Karkat asked. He'd managed to scrape the food back onto his plate before he abandoned it on the coffee table, hurrying after John.

Dave shovelled the last of his own lunch into his mouth before he followed as well.

"So what happened?"

Dave stopped in the hallway and peered into the bathroom, where John and Karkat were hanging back as Terezi stood in the bathtub with water blasting out of the faucet.

"I have garbage water in my crocs!"

"I said I'm sorry!" John exclaimed, backing further away from the tub so he could avoid the splashback. "I thought you heard me say to watch out because there was a huge pile of trash right there!"

"Obviously I did not hear you, John!" Terezi yelled back as she fumbled over the various bottles of shampoo and other shower necessities until she found her own body wash, and doused her feet and shoes with the soap.

"Don't you have like a crazy sense of smell or whatever?"

"Yes, and I was too busy smelling all of the other garbage in New York because all of New York just smells like hot garbage!"

"Wait, so who's fault is it?" Dave asked, struggling to keep up with their back and forth arguing.

"Don't fucking encourage them," Karkat muttered.

"John was too busy playing with his phone to tell me about the trash bags!"

"It was important!"

"I stepped in garbage!"

"It was Jade!"

"Oh, if that is the truth then you should have just told me that before I yelled at you," Terezi said as she finally kicked off her shoes. She crouched down in the tub and started scrubbing between her toes.

"Really?"

"No, John! I am blind, remember!"

"So are we finally throwing the crocs out or what?" Dave interjected from the doorway. "Hey, hold up," he added.

John ignored his comment, as well as the hand that reached out to get his attention, and shoved his way past Dave out into the hallway; Dave leant back and watched as the door to his own bedroom slammed shut behind him.

"I am going to hack my feet off at the ankles," Terezi said. "And then I am going to put my feet under your pillow while you are sleeping!"

"John left," Karkat said, waving wildly to get Dave's attention. He gestured to himself then Terezi, then from Dave to the bedroom, scowling as he pointed to the phone in Dave's hand. "Dave too. What do you want me to do?"

"Hack my feet off at the ankles and put them under John's pillow while he sleeps!"

It would have been funny if he hadn't recognised the look on John's face as he'd stormed out.

Dave took the hint and stepped away from the bathroom door, trying to step lightly so it seemed as if he'd already started moving before Karkat's last comment. He knocked on his bedroom door and waited, even though it seemed pretty obvious that John wasn't going to respond. After a few moments he opened the door anyway and latched it closed behind him.

"Hey, dude, she'll be fine. We'll take her to the Mayor's vet and get her up to date on some shots or whatever, you know she's just being dramatic because she can," he said, as he sat on the floor and leaned back against the side of his bed.

John was lying on the rug, staring up at the ceiling. He didn't respond to the joke so Dave waited before trying again.

"This is Terezi we're talking about, right? One time, I almost walked her directly into oncoming traffic and she's still like, one of my best friends. And I mean like shit, Karkat's almost let her fall off a subway platform fuck knows how many times and she still wants to fuck him, so I can pretty much gauruntee you she'll get over this pretty quickly. John?"

John had taken his phone out instead of listening to anything Dave was saying. When he seemingly found what he was looking for, he held out the device in Dave's general direction and waited until he took it.

The iPhone screen was filled with back and forth messages; he skimmed them over, trying to work out what it was that John wanted him to see.

GG: i have no idea john!!
GG: i have no idea when i will be able to visit you because i am so busy all the time dealing with the mess grandpa left me to fix!!
GG: he couldnt even leave that mess somewhere easy to find and now i have to figure out how to get from kiribati to this island but he never let me take flying lessons so i cant even do that myself!!!
GG: stop asking me i will tell you when i know!!!!!

Dave closed the messaging app and switched off the screen to John's phone, then tossed it over his shoulder so it was up on his bed.

"Dude, you gotta remember I've been through shit like this with Rosie and Mom, I can't do shit unless you tell me what you need me to do," he said quietly.

"It just doesn't stop being so dumb," John said, turning his head. "I know it's dumb because now Jade is mad, and I'm lying on the floor like a dumb idiot loser. Why doesn't it stop being dumb, Dave?"

"I don't know, dude. I'm not the guy who can answer those questions, I'm just the guy who can temporarily band-aid the situation so it's a bit less shitty for a while. I mean, I'm also the guy who can run his mouth so fast his brain doesn't realise the dumb shit he's saying and make everything worse, but mostly the band-aid fixes," Dave said. "I'm real good at making appointments and shit too if you need me to schedule anything in, but shit's up to you," he added, more tentatively than before.

"Maybe."

"You run the show, dude. You wanna go out for some one-on-one secret best brother buddy burger time?"

"Can I just lie here on the floor being sad for a while first?"

"Yeah, sure. I'll give you some privacy," Dave said, pushing himself up from the floor. "You know I'd cut off my own dick if it meant I could just lie on the floor being sad for you, right? Like I know that's such a dumbfuck Gryffindor thing to do but everyone knows emotional management is more of a Hufflepuff thing."

"But I'm a Hufflepuff," John said, rolling his head over to watch Dave as he moved.

"Okay, so it's more of a Karkat thing than a me thing, I'm more of a 'want to fix it' guy."

"But Karkat's a Gryffindor too, isn't he?"

"Yeah, he is," Dave said, with a soft snort of laughter. "But he's like, the Spiders Georg of the house, he got all the feelings knowledge and the rest of us just got the pure unadulterated self sacrifice bullshit."

"Huh."

"Yeah, whatever. I'm gonna get back to work so when you're finished lying on the floor being sad just come find me, okay? I'm like, work-working, not just fucking around."

"Okay," John said.

"You sure you wanna be alone?"

"Yeah. Thanks, Dave."

"See you later, bud," he said, closing his bedroom door again as he left; on the opposite side of the hallway, Karkat and Terezi's door was closed as well.

Dave dropped heavily down into his desk chair and tipped his head back, just briefly, to try and process everything from the last twenty minutes; there was no way he was getting any more work done for the day. He gave his iMac a few minutes to wake up properly and swiped across to catch up on a handful of chat windows.

+++

-- turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering gardenGnostic [GG] at 15:48 --

TG: harley
GG: hi dave!!
TG: dont hi dave!! me
GG: D:
TG: holy shit i cant believe im saying this but here we go
TG: i mean i can believe im saying it but i cant believe i have to say it
TG: but holy fuck harley theres a good fucking reason your grandpa never let you take flying lesson and as your cousins cousin slash somehow common law brother i am actually forbidding you from doing just that now hes out of the picture
TG: jesus fucking christ

GG: im not an invalid dave!! just what do you think gives you the right to tell me what i can do?
TG: because a
TG: i have john lying on the floor wallowing in his clinical fuckin depression because youre not sure when youre visiting
TG: you dying in a self inflicted plane crash would fucking end him
TG: b
TG: youre not an invalid but youve got a fucking condition that puts you out of action whenever you emotionally swing too far
TG: and we all know the medication doesnt fucking help with anything except sometimes getting you most of the way through a full nights sleep
TG: and c
TG: i dont want to fucking read about you dying in a self inflicted place crash
TG: is any of this getting through to you
TG: you fly you die
TG: hire someone

GG: wow
TG: so help me i will call your dad
GG: i get it okay!! you can stop now :(
TG: do you really get it or are you just saying it to shut me up and youre gonna do it anyway
GG: i have not decided yet and its none of your business anyway!!!!
TG: except it is my business when your decisions are gonna irreversibly damage my brother
TG: who by the way is already irreversibly damaged but lets not add to the trauma
TG: why are you so stubborn

GG: because i havent slept in two days i dont know where i am going because im following a fucking treasure map left to me by a bonkers old man who didnt tell me any of this before he died!!!!!
TG: okay but did you tell him any of that before you ripped him a new one
TG: or did you just skip straight to the ripping
TG: trick question
TG: he showed me and im pretty fuckin sure you skipped straight to the ripping

GG: uuuuuugggghhhhhhhhhhh
GG: everything is so messed up right now

TG: youre telling me
GG: i just need more time to fix all the things im fixing before i can even think about coming home at all!
GG: i have two weeks off work because we are in between shoots right now and thats the only reason i can even do this but noooo john keeps asking me when i can visit
GG: i have a map dave
GG: grandpa had an actual map with an actual x marked on it

TG: thats it
TG: an x on a map
GG: no he wrote the coordinates as well i think the x was just for effect
TG: no one would have ever guessed your grandpa liked doing things just for effect huh
GG: no they would have he did that a lot
TG: look harley
TG: you do what you gotta do
TG: but were all being like
TG: real fucking gentle with john right now capiche?
TG: give it a day apologise to him and tell him you were stressed
TG: its mostly true
TG: ill tell him to stop pushing

GG: shit!!!!
TG: ?????
GG: i found a pilot gotta go
GG: tell john i love him and ill talk to him tomorrow!!!!!

TG: cool okay
TG: tell your hellbeast i said bork

GG: :P :P :P

-- gardenGnostic [GG] ceased pestering turntechGodhead [TG] at 16:13 --

+++

-- turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering carcinoGeneticist [CG] at 16:13 --

TG: all g
TG: question mark

CG: WE'RE DEBATING THE PROS AND CONS OF STERILISING THE OLD CROCS VS. BUYING A NEW PAIR.
TG: bin the old get some fashion sense case closed
CG: SORRY, NEW PAIR ACQUIRED. THEY'LL BE HERE TOMORROW WITH FREE EXPRESS SHIPPING.
TG: youre an enabler you know that right
CG: SOME WOULD CALL IT SUPPORTIVE.
TG: supporting unhealthy behaviours sure
TG: im taking john out for burgers when hes done lying on the floor being sad for a while
TG: thats a direct quote btw

CG: OKAY. I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT WE'RE DOING YET.
TG: a romantic viking croc funeral down the east river
CG: I'M NOT THAT MUCH OF AN ENABLER.
TG: i mean you are
CG: COMING FROM MR. 'WE'RE ALL BEING LIKE REAL FUCKING GENTLE WITH JOHN RIGHT NOW'.
TG: harley you fuckin snitch
TG: is she just sending you screenshots now

CG: ONLY WHEN YOU'RE BEING A BITCH SO PRETTY OFTEN THESE DAYS, I GUESS. HOW LONG ARE YOU PLANNING TO LET HIM WALLOW TODAY?
TG: about ten more minutes
TG: turns out hes got this whole thing with jade going on in the background so its not like he had a meltdown over the garbage water
TG: id invite you guys but i told him it was just gonna be us to get him to agree

CG: WHAT A FUCKING SHAME.
TG: now whos the bitch
CG: IT SURE ISN'T ME, CONSIDERING WE'VE JUST DECIDED ON OUR OWN PLANS FOR THE REST OF THE NIGHT.
TG: gross
TG: i mean like go for it be safe dude high five
TG: but gross

-- turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering carcinoGeneticist [CG] at 16:20 --

Chapter Text

March, 2007

"Yeah, I'm here to pick up the Lalonde kids. I got a call about Rose a while ago."

Dirk had made it to the school in thirty eight minutes, including the time it took to rifle through multiple baskets of clean laundry still sitting around in the basement.

The administration office seemed far less concerned than he was about the phone call he'd had from the school nurse. The woman continued to click around on her computer for a few moments - a few moments too long for his patience - before informing him of what he already knew; Rose was in the nurses' office, and Dave was in his classroom. He thanked her, and rejected the offer to usher him through the halls. He knew where they both were.

He knocked on the door to the office before opening it to let himself in.

"Hi," he said. "I'm Rose's uncle, you said she had an accident. What happened? Is she okay?" Dirk asked.

"Did you bring her a change of clothes?" The nurse asked.

"Yeah," he held up the grocery bag in his left hand, frowning. "Is she okay?"

The second time he had to ask, he found himself asking a little more aggressively than he'd intended - no one seemed to be willing to tell him what had happened over recess.

"She's fine," the Nurse said dismissively, gesturing for him to hand over the bag. "I'll take this into her. Is her mother home?"

"She's in London for work. I'm listed as a secondary guardian, I live with them," he said, frowning.

"Well when she gets home, she might want to talk to her daughter about how to prevent accidents like this in the future."

"Right," Dirk said slowly, as the truth of the situation clicked in his brain; it was no wonder none of the administrative women wanted to tell him why he'd been called into the school. "Okay, sure, I'll make sure I bring it up. Tell her to wait here when she's changed, I'm just gonna go grab her brother so he doesn't have to get the bus home alone," he added as he finally handed over the plastic grocery bag.

Fucking schools nurses, he thought. They'd never not been useless.

He left the office and turned down the next hall to where the fourth grade classrooms were. He'd been to Dave's parent-teacher meetings earlier in the school year, pretending to have just tagged along with Roxy to help wrangle the kids. It still hurt - killed him, more like - to feign only mild interest in how his kid was doing at school. He'd loaded his sister up with questions to ask before they'd left the house before the last series of meetings, and when she'd forgotten one of them he'd gone back to ask the teacher himself.

He peered through the small window on the classroom door. Dave's back was to him as he worked furiously on a writing task, his sunglasses on the table beside him. His head was down, resting on his arm, as if he was deliberately trying to work in his own shadow. One ankle, in its oversized but warm snowboot, was wrapped around a chair leg while the other leg bounced silently under his table.

Dirk knocked.

All the kids in the room snapped their heads around to see who was trying to come inside. The flurry of activity caught the attention of their teacher as well, who smiled when she saw him standing there.

"That's my uncle!" Dave exclaimed, roughly pushing his chair back from his table. "Hi! Why are you at school? This is my classroom, you never see my classroom!"

"We're going home early, Rosie's not feeling too hot. Go grab your bag," Dirk said, as he pried Dave's arms loose from around his waist. "His sister's been in with the nurse," he said as the teacher walked over to see what was going on. "Sorry for taking him out early, but I don't really want him on the bus alone. Anything you want me to get him to do at home this afternoon?"

"No, we'll catch him up tomorrow. Dave, remember to push your chair in before you go," she said.

"Uh-huh," Dave said, his head popping out from the collar of the sweater he was struggling to put on properly in his excitement.

"You might want to come in and help him," the teacher said, watching as Dave tried to put his coat on inside out and upside down.

"That okay?"

"Of course."

"Okay, okay," Dirk said, stepping into the classroom in time to prevent the worst of the coat disaster. "Give it here," he said, reaching out for the coat. "Go do the chair thing and get your glasses, I'll fix this."

"Okay," Dave said. He ran back across the room, shoved the chair back under the table and snatched up his worksheet in one hand and his glasses in the other. "They broke!"

"What?" Dirk asked, indicating for Dave to turn around to he could put the coat on. Dave turned, and held out the worksheet; Dirk took it, then put it between his teeth so he could use both hands to finish getting Dave dressed again.

"This bit falls out all the time," Dave said, trying to push the lens out of the frame. "Look!"

Dirk took the glasses and put them into the pocket of the coat, just to get them out of the way.

"Show me in the car," he said, doing up Dave's buttons for him, after giving back the worksheet. "Hands," he said, after picking up a pair of gloves and working them onto Dave's outstretched fingers. Finally, he dragged a beanie down over Dave's eyes, then flipped the hem up just enough so he could see. "Okay, let's go."

He picked up Dave's school bag and threw it over one shoulder, so he could carry his snow jacket and still have a spare hand.

"Bye!" Dave said, waving mostly to his teacher but vaguely in the direction of the table he'd been sitting at earlier.

"Thanks for that," Dirk said to the teacher, closing the classroom door as they both stepped back out into the hall.

"We just had recess!" Dave exclaimed, once it was just the two of them. "Are we really going home?"

"Yeah, I told you, Rosie isn't feeling so great. The school called and asked me to take her home early."

"Did she throw up?"

"I don't think so," Dirk said. "But don't ask her, I think she's sad about feeling sick."

"Okay," Dave said. "Can we have Burger King?"

"Maybe. We have to go to Walgreens first. Look, I'll think about it, and we'll ask Rose what she wants. We're gonna be nice to her today, okay?"

"Okay," Dave huffed, as his boots made a loud squeaking noise on the linoleum floor. "Did you talk to Mom yet?"

"Not yet, buddy. I think she's still asleep though, so she might call us tonight," Dirk said. "Hey, looks like we gotta get you some new shades too, huh? Lucky we're making a stop anyway," he added, changing the subject. Roxy had already been on her work trip for a week, and wasn't scheduled to be home again for another two. He'd already had Dave sleep in with him twice.

They were back at the nurse's office by then. Dirk knocked again and opened the door, to find Rose slouched in a chair by the desk with all of her things at her feet.

"Ah, there you are," the nurse said. "I've given her some Tylenol, and the clothes she was wearing this morning are in her bag."

"Did she throw up?" Dave asked curiously.

"Shh," Dirk said, gently directing him back out of the office. "Thanks, we have to make a few stops, she should be alright until we get home, right?"

"She should. Off you go, then," the nurse said to Rose, who silently picked up her bag and brushed past Dirk out into the hall.

"Thanks," he said, and pulled the door closed again as they left. "Here, gimme that," he said to Rose, taking her school bag and slinging it over his other shoulder. "You okay?"

Rose shrugged. She didn't look at him as she pulled her gloves on; the task seemed to take longer than it should have, as she avoided looking up at him.

"Bro says we can get Burger King!" Dave explained as soon as they stepped outside into the brisk March air.

"I said maybe," Dirk frowned. "I'm still deciding."

He unlocked the driver's door of the camry first, and reached around to lift the lock on the door behind. With the keys in the ignition to start running the heater, he popped the trunk for the kids' bags. Dave had already scrambled into the car and crawled across the back seat to unlock Rose's door for her; he was talking about something that had happened at recess, mostly to himself, as his sister tried to ignore him.

Dirk threw the school bags and Dave's snow jacket into the trunk, slammed it, and sat down in the driver's seat.

Fuck he thought, as he pulled his cell phone from his pocket. Nothing. He didn't know why there would be, he hadn't sent messages to anyone all morning.

Maybe he should.

He started writing a text - When you get a minute, I've got a question you might be able to help with. It's about women. - but deleted it instead of sending it. Jake English might have been taken countless anatomy classes - and even had relationships with women - but that didn't mean he'd retained any useful information about periods.

"Are we going to Burger King or not?" Dave asked, pouting at him from the back seat.

"Dude, I never even said anything about Burger King, you're the one who brought it up," Dirk said, tossing his phone down into a cup holder. "And when you did, I said we'd ask Rose. So Rosie, what do you think? Burger King or no Burger King?"

Rose just shrugged again.

"No fair, you suck!" Dave said, obviously annoyed at not getting his own way.

"How about we make a sick deal and call it a yes to the Burger King, but drive-through only and you can eat on the way home?" Dirk suggested, looking at the kids' faces as he turned around to back the Camry out of its parking space. "No sodas, and if you spill your sauce I'm teaching you how to use a steam cleaner."

"Deal!"

Dave, content with the deal Dirk had offered, talked non-stop between the school and the Walgreens parking lot. It was hard for Dirk to keep track of everything he was saying in between avoiding potholes and glancing at Rose in the mirror every chance he got, so the conversation was much more one-sided than Dave would have liked and petered out halfway to the drugstore; his obvious displeasure morphed into a sulking clinginess, clutching his uncle's hand as soon as they were all out of the car.

"Okay," Dirk said, pausing briefly in the doorway to shake the slush off his boots. "Dave, go pick out a new pair of glasses and you've got ten bucks to spend on candy. Add it up as you go, because it all goes back on the shelf if you're so much as a nickel over. Got it?"

"For real?"

"For so real."

The candy deal was enough to both turn Dave's mood back around, and keep him occupied for at least five minutes.

"What about Rose?"

"You're picking for her too, so get some shit she likes," Dirk said, finally able to work his hand free from Dave's surprisingly tight grip. "Glasses and candy, that's it. Rosie, you're with me."

"Can't I go with Dave?" Rose asked, begrudgingly following her uncle in the opposite direction to her brother.

"I kind of want your input," Dirk said. "This is new territory for the both of us," he added, wrapping an arm around her shoulders in another attempt at comforting her. She made a noise, as if she was about to say something else, and even though he left space in the conversation for her to go on, she fell silent as they turned into the next aisle.

Dirk had always felt like he was a pretty smart guy. He knew a lot about making music, and could build or fix almost anything mechanical. He had a pretty good read on people and could talk politics and philosophy in the same conversation, but the older he got the more obvious gaps in his knowledge became.

There were some things even living with his sister couldn't prepare him for.

"Excuse me," he said, waving to get the attention of a middle-aged woman stacking shelves at the other end of the aisle. "Can I get a hand?"

"Can I please go with Dave?" Rose begged, already walking backwards faster than the woman could approach them. "Please, Uncle Bro, Dave needs my help."

"Okay," Dirk sighed. "Make sure he picks out a decent pair of glasses, the last ones had those fucking penguins on them, the dancing ones."

"Happy Feet!" Rose said quickly as she bolted out of the aisle.

"Her first time?"

"Huh? Yeah," Dirk said, when the Walgreens woman reached him. "Look, I'll be the first to admit this is way out of my league, so lay it on me."

"No wives or girlfriends ever given you a set of instructions?"

"Honestly? Never. Look, she's only eleven, what are we gonna need?"

+++

"Rose?" Dirk called, knocking on the bathroom door. "You doing okay in there?"

The kids had eaten in the car on the drive home, with him glancing in the rearview mirror to try and catch any honey mustard spills before they happened. As soon as they had come to a stop in the garage, Rose had snatched the Walgreens bag - candy and all - and run upstairs before anyone could stop her; Dave had been lying on the living room floor playing Tony Hawk's Project 8 on the Playstation 3 since they walked in, and was still there, as far as he knew.

There was no answer from inside the bathroom, so he cracked the door just enough to make sure she could hear him.

"Can I come in?"

"Yeah," Rose answered quietly.

She was sitting on the closed toilet, wrapped in her towel, hair still dripping water onto her shoulders. The bag was lying untouched on the counter. Dirk sighed, kicked the wet bathmat aside, and sat down on the floor.

"I'm sorry, Rosie," he said, reaching up for the bag. He rummaged through the plastic until he found what he was looking for; he broke off a large chunk of the cookies and cream bar and held it out for her, then took some for himself.

"Why?"

"Because you're stuck with me right now, and what's the one thing we all know about me?"

"You like going to work in Texas," she said; she took a small bite of her chocolate at first, then shoved the rest of it into her mouth.

"You know I do," he laughed. "I meant closer to home."

"You take forever in the shower?" Rose suggested, talking through her chocolate.

"Okay, now you're just being mean," he said. "I know we've talked about it before, but I don't exactly know a lot about girls."

"Because you like boys," she said factually.

"Yeah."

"That means you kiss boys, right?"

"Yeah, I've kissed a few boys in my day," he laughed again.

"Why?"

"Because I liked them. That's just what you do when you like someone, you kiss them."

"I know that," Rose said, as if it was obvious. "But why?"

"What do you mean, why?"

"Why do you kiss boys? Boys smell, especially after Gym. And your face is itchy."

"I like the way boys smell and I like itchy faces," Dirk said with a shrug; Rose pulled an obviously disgusted face. He laughed again, and reached into the bag to fish out a pack of Always. "Here's the thing, I don't know any of this stuff because I don't really talk to any girls about it. And when we were kids, me and your mom weren't even allowed to talk about it in our house. I know she didn't really like not being allowed to talk about it, so if you and me are learning about it at the same time, we might as well talk about it, right?"

"Maybe," Rose said cautiously.

Dirk looked up, after skimming the writing on the pack, and held it out for her.

"There's instructions on the back. There's even a picture, look," he said.

"Why weren't you allowed to talk about it?" Rose asked, as she accepted the pack from him.

"We just weren't," he shrugged. "Do you want me to leave so you can start getting dressed?"

Rose looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook her head.

"You can just close your eyes in case I need help."

"Okay," Dirk laughed. He pulled his knees up and put his head down so he couldn't see anything, except Rose's hand when she reached down to the floor to pick up her clean clothes.

He was still sitting with his eyes closed when he heard a series of small but hurried footsteps out in the hallway.

"Why is everyone in the bathroom?" Dave asked, the door creaking as he tried to open it.

"Go away!" Rose shrieked. "I'm not even dressed!"

"Is Uncle Bro in there?"

"He's not looking, go away!"

"Why?"

"Because my vagina is bleeding! Go away Dave!"

Dave's footsteps disappeared even faster than when he'd arrived; Dirk was glad his head was already down so he didn't have to look away to try and hide the fact he was laughing as hard as he was.

"I said you and me can talk about it, Rosie, I don't think Dave was exactly ready to hear that," he said, hoping she hadn't noticed him laughing at what she'd done.

"I don't care," Rose said, bluntly. "I'm ready so he has to listen to me. Can you fix my hair?"

"Sure thing, sweetheart."

+++

"Okay, here's your list of options," Dirk said as he pulled out the empty chair next to Dave; Jaspers bolted out from under the kitchen table and disappeared up the stairs.

"Bye!" Dave called, head popping back up from where he'd been half hanging off his chair to watch the cat leave.

"Options," Dirk said again. "I can give you all the relevant information here, out of my mouth, or you can read it in this book."

"The book," Dave said quickly. "Not your mouth. It's girl stuff, isn't it?"

"Yeah."

"The book."

"Okay, start at the start and end at the end. You can ask questions if you want but my actual mouth won't hesitate to give you the one-hundred percent real-life true answers," Dirk said, as he slid the book across the table; Roxy had bought the book about puberty a year earlier knowing they'd need it sooner rather than later.

"Really?"

"Yeah, what's the point in lying when you're trying to learn shit?"

Dave pushed his glasses up onto his head and narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

"Did you ever have sex?"

"A lot," Dirk answered, grinning at the vaguely disgusted look he got in response.

"Why?"

"Because I wanted to."

"Yeah, but why?" Dave pressed.

"Because I liked the person I was doing it with."

"Did you even do kissing?"

"Yeah, the kissing comes first. Usually, anyway."

"Like movie kissing?"

"Yeah."

"You did movie kissing?" Dave asked, eyes wide.

"Yeah," Dirk said. "That's enough questions for someone who hasn't even started reading their book yet. You do that, I'm gonna start making some hellaciously cheesy mac and cheese for dinner. Sound good?"

"Do I have to read out loud or can I read in my head?"

"In your head."

Dave opened the book as Dirk stood up from the table; Dirk noticed the final, slightly grossed-out look Dave gave him as he ruffled his hair on his way to the fridge.

The kitchen was quiet for a while after that, the TV on in the background running just for noise. Rose was up in her room; Dirk had left her alone with the option to come downstairs at any point but she had seemingly opted for lying on her bed with a book. Every so often, in between him grating three different kinds of cheese, he heard Dave flip a page. The reading was accompanied by the occasional giggle, as well as shuffling pages.

Dirk was working on slowly melting the cheese into the sauce when Dave's chair pushed back and the kid appeared right beside him at the stove, book still in hand.

"I have a question," Dave said, the book propped open on one hand as he turned the pages with the other.

"Shoot, dude."

"Is this book porn?"

That caught him off guard.

"Say it again?" Dirk said, just in case he'd heard the question wrong.

"Is this porn?"

He had not heard the question wrong.

"Okay, I'll bite. What's porn?"

"Mom said naked pictures are porn and it's for grown ups, but this book has naked pictures and you told me to read it," Dave said. "Look," he added, pointing to one of the photos he'd found. "Look!"

"When did your mom tell you that?" Dirk asked, glancing away from the stove to see what Dave was pointing at.

"I couldn't find my DS and I was playing with it in your room so I looked in your room, and mom was helping me, and I know I was playing with my DS there because you were showing me how to play Diddy Kong Racing properly because I kept losing," Dave explained, flipping the page again. "And I was looking for it and I found a magazine with naked people in it and Mom said it was porn and put it back. Look, there's a lot of naked pictures in this book. Look!"

"Okay, okay, hang on a sec," Dirk said, tossing the last handful of cheese into the sauce. "What was the question in all that?"

"Mom said porn was just for grown ups but you gave me this book and it's got lots of naked pictures in it."

"Okay, so," he said, wiping his hands on the kitchen towel beside the stove. "This book is totally cool for kids because how else are you gonna learn what the inside of an actual human body looks like?"

"But this is the naked outside of a person, see?" Dave said, brandishing the book towards Dirk, who finally took it; he turned off the burner and walked back over to the table, Dave following closely. "And there's lots more!"

"Yeah, but there's inside pictures, too," Dirk said. He flipped a few pages as Dave jumped back up into his chair and turned the book back around. "See?"

Dave laughed loudly when Dirk pointed at the side-by-side anatomical images, and knelt up on his chair to reach over and shuffled over a few pages.

"But look at the naked ones!"

"I think we've established that I've seen naked pictures before, dude," Dirk said. "I wanna go check in on Rosie, any last questions for now?"

Dave furrowed his brows thoughtfully as he turned the page again.

"Yeah, if it's okay to look at naked pictures in the kitchen, why did you hide naked pictures in your bedroom?"

Chapter Text

August, 2019

"Hey, are you busy? Trick question, I know you're not," Dave said as he invited himself into Terezi's bedroom, rapping his knuckles on the half-open door as he walked past so she couldn't accuse him of not even knocking.

"I am not," she replied suspiciously, looking over in his direction. "What do you want now?"

"Number one, why would you just assume I wanted something like that? I mean, it's a pretty broad generalisation, like can't a guy just waltz on in and visit one of his best friends without making a huge song and dance about it? What if I was just here to check up on how you're doing? That's always some kind of probable."

"What is number two?" Terezi asked; she rolled off the edge of her bed to stand up, reaching back to close her laptop.

"Huh? Oh, yeah, number two, I'm totally after your expert advice. How do I look?"

"Like a big stretched out blur," she frowned. "Kind of. I am sure you look exactly how you want to look."

"Cool, aspect ratio fucked blur, I can work with that," he said. "So, do I go for the black skinny tie or the red skinny tie?"

Dave held up both ties, one in each hand.

"Why? Do you have a hot date?" Terezi grinned as she shoved him out the door and back into his own bedroom.

"Watch out for the shit I left on the floor, it's just shirts I decided I hate and need to burn as soon as possible," Dave said, glancing at his own reflection again as Terezi settled cross-legged on the end of his bed with the Mayor. "I've got an interview."

"Ohh," she said slowly. "I was going to say red because we are both big fans of red, but if you are trying to make money then you should probably play it safe."

"Yeah, that's what I thought," he said, tossing the red tie down onto the pile of discarded shirts. "You think the black on black on black is gonna be too much?"

"I think anything is going to be too much, it is almost ninety degrees outside, Dave," Terezi said.

"Okay, cool, I'll turn up with my nips out and they'll ask me to sign a contract on the spot, bam, cash in my pocket by tomorrow."

"Do not be that guy, you complained about that guy yesterday."

"Just because Starbucks don't make it explicitly fuckin' clear you have to wear a shirt, call me crazy for thinking you should wear a shirt in Starbucks," he said, flipping his shirt collar up so he could tie his tie.

"What is the job?"

"Some Manhattan tech bro shit," he said. "Not a total start up, but they're big enough to need a full rebrand so I'm looking at a solid few months' work."

"Sweet," Terezi said.

"Yeah," he agreed, fixing his collar once the tie was in place. "Boots or brogues?"

"Are your pants fashionably short?"

"Surprisingly, no. My ankles are totally covered so I don't upset anyone's delicate sensibilities this time around. I can get away with the boots right? I like them more," Dave said, already working his feet into the boots without waiting for an answer. "So the most important decision of the day is coming up and I'm pretty sure we all know what it is," he said, looking over his outfit once more before sliding the mirrored door over to get into the drawers inside his wardrobe.

"You chose the boots," she said; it wasn't a question because they both already knew he'd made the decision.

"Yeah, I just said I like them more. Okay so the big decision is gold or silver because I can do glasses frames in either, but if I go with the silver it means I can even wear this fancy-ass tie bar that makes it look like I wear ties more than I really do."

"Are you just making decisions now and wasting my time because you have remembered that I don't know what gold or silver look like?"

"Doesn't mean I don't appreciate your input," he shrugged, sliding the silver-framed Aviators into the breast pocket of his shirt. "What were you doing that was so super important, anyway?"

"I was listening to YouTube," she said, trying to make it sound more important than it was. "Silver," she added after a pause. "And the fancy tie thing, you want to look like you are already rolling in cash so they think you are a catch."

"Good fuckin' thinking, ninety-nine," Dave said.

He slid the wardrobe door closed again so he could examine his reflection in the mirror once more. Satisfied with what he saw, he snapped a photo for Instagram but the lamp on by his bed wasn't producing enough light to get a decent picture; he deleted the image and made a note to take one later.

"Sooo," Terezi said encouragingly. "Describe it to me in your usual amount of excruciating detail."

"I'm not gonna lie, Rez, I've got a pretty solid John Wick vibe going on right now. Okay, so you saw The Matrix like a billion years ago, right? Well Keanu still looks like that, like exactly like that, because holy shit the guy has aged like a fine wine, I can tell you that for a fact. Anyway, imagine that but all black and then imagine it's me not Keanu Reeves so everything is a bit shittier but also more fashionable because I don't think I'm gonna need to stab a guy in the neck with a pen today, right, so I can get away with a slimmer fit suit because I don't need the dexterity," Dave explained while he tried to brush his hair with his fingers, eventually satisfied with how it was sitting. "And let's face it I'm scrawny as fuck so anything but a stupidly slim fit suit would look like I'm playing dress up for the day."

"I know I asked for the excruciating details, but yeesh," Terezi said, pulling a face. "And I am very sorry to tell you this but I don't remember what Keanu Reeves looks like."

"That's the real tragedy here," he said. "Remind me later and we'll have a memorial service for your unbelievably tragic loss. The point is I look both professional as hell and hot as shit. Or professional as shit and hot as hell, they both work."

"I am sure your completely average amount of healthy ego will come across without you needing to mention it."

"Shit, I hope so. A big job like this is starting to push five digits for a few months' work, it'll look sick on my resume," he said, as he picked up his blazer in one hand and the Mayor in the other. "Living room, if you want to keep talking," he added to Terezi.

"Want is subjective in this situation," she said, following him anyway. "You know I am always torn between wanting you to shut up and wanting to see how far the bullshit goes."

"It's a tough decision," he said, tossing the blazer onto the kitchen counter. He littered the Mayor's head with kisses before putting him down on the back of the couch, next to Terezi's shoulder. "Okay," he said, checking his phone. "Uber in five, interview in an hour."

"Do you have everything?" Terezi asked, scratching the Mayor's chin when he meowed loudly after Dave abandoned him.

"Yeah, I think so," Dave said, sliding his iPad Pro into the back pocket of his folio. "Printouts of some shit to leave, all the usual paper shit, iPad to show them any other shit they ask about, phone, that's it, right?"

"Yeah."

"Cool," he said. "Okay, cool."

"You are not nervous, are you?" Terezi asked.

"Pfft, no," Dave said, shrugging into his blazer. He did up a single button, slipped the silver-rimmed Aviators onto his nose, and picked up his folio again. "I've got this shit in the bag. Thanks for the fashion advice."

"You know I am all about fashion advice," she said. "Good luck," she added when she heard the jingle of his keys.

"Thanks, Rez. I'll be back in a few hours with a signed fuckin' contract, just watch me. Dave Lalonde's a fuckin' catch."

+++

"Toothbrush?"

"Got it."

"Toothpaste?"

"Dirk, honey, if I forget my toothpaste, I forget my toothpaste," Roxy said, frustrated, as she tossed her toiletries bag into the suitcase lying open on her bed. "If you want to micromanage my honeymoon, I need you to realise that includes picking out my sexiest undies because that's next on my list."

"Just trying to help," he said, with a small shrug.

"Are you sure? The sexy ones are all in the third drawer, I'm gonna go make some decisions," she said, poking her head back out of her walk-in robe. "You sure you don't want to choose for me?"

"Point taken," Dirk replied, rolling his eyes when she was out of sight again. He was sitting on the chair by her vanity; she hadn't even started on her makeup yet and he was supposed to be driving them to the airport in just half an hour.

He'd driven up to her place the night before, because someone needed to be around to feed the cat. Originally he'd planned to drop them at the airport and take Mutie back to his house for the two weeks his sister would be gone, but the cat was blind in one eye and had deteriorating vision in the other; it was less stress to move Hal for two weeks than Mutie.

He'd finished installing the security cameras back home before he left.

"Red or navy?"

"Either," he replied.

"Nah, you gotta choose," Roxy said, a hint of laughter in her voice. "You wanted in on the decisions, c'mon. Red or navy?"

"Navy," he said exasperatedly. "Happy?"

"Are you?"

"You know it doesn't even matter, right?" Dirk said. "You're guaranteed as much action as you can get just by nature of the trip being a honeymoon, regardless of how much thought you make me put into choosing your underwear."

"You didn't even have a honeymoon," she said pointedly.

"Not entirely true. We had a few days in Seattle and I promise you, underwear was the last thing on my mind."

"That's because you've always been a man of incredibly predictable taste," Roxy said as she emerged from the closet again with an armful of assorted items; Dirk tried not to obviously cringe as she unceremoniously dumped everything into the open suitcase, knowing she'd never go back to actually lay everything flat. "Questionable at times, don't get me wrong, but predictable."

"Fuck, can you blame me? Jake's ass is never disappointing and trust me, I've spent a lot of time looking at it to try and find a bad angle but shit, there just isn't one."

"See? Predictable," she said, throwing another bundle of clothes into the case.

"I'd die for that ass," Dirk said without a single trace of irony.

"I know," Roxy replied, sympathetically patting his cheek. She leant over to start packing her makeup into another small bag, carefully selecting certain items and leaving others behind. "While it's just you and me," she said, more gently than before. "Thank you. I know you funded this trip almost entirely yourself."

"Not as much as you think," he said, standing up from her chair to go and stand more out of the way. "You'd be surprised."

"Surprise me then," Roxy said; she threw three lipsticks into her makeup bag, unable to decide between them. "You blacked out the cost with a sharpie, I know, but I know a teeny tiny bit about physics, remember? It didn't take much to hold it up to the light to see right through your shitty attempt at covering up the numbers."

"You don't think this is long overdue?" Dirk asked as he leant back against her ensuite door frame.

"How much?"

"Dave pitched in two thousand."

"Holy shit."

"Right?"

"For fuck's sake though, don't ever bring it up. Rose transferred me five hundred in pounds and said it was the best she could do, it's only her working full time right now. Jake put in a grand, and we took another from our joint account and called it John's contribution."

"That still leaves over half the total outstanding," Roxy said as she crammed her makeup bag into the suitcase and closed it, crushing the large sunhat she'd had perched on top of the mess of clothes.

"You deserve it," Dirk shrugged. "Really."

"I know you're just trying to distract me from the numbers," she said. "And I want you to know that I know it, but I'm going to humour you anyway because honeymoon aside, this bitch is in desperate need of a vacation."

"Thanks, appreciate it."

"So what are you going to do for two weeks while you're stuck here?" Roxy asked, hauling her suitcase off the bed. She glanced around the room in case anything important stood out but seemed satisfied with what she'd packed; Dirk knew that there was another suitcase sitting by the front door that had been there since before he'd shown up, packed by her husband and probably full of all the practical things they'd need while they were away.

He pushed off the doorframe and followed her out of her bedroom and onto the stairs as they continued talking.

"I've got some work to do," he said, hands in his pockets. "At home I've been doing some mixing, then some bathroom work, then fuck knows whatever I feel like. Without access to the unfinished bathroom, I might actually focus on this shit and get it done. I've been talking to Houston and they've got me booked in for a series of meetings in late-September, which is pretty sweet. I think it's the same week Jake goes in for work again, but his dates aren't set in stone yet so that might change."

"Retirement is nice for some, right?" Roxy said. She stepped off the bottom stair and wheeled her suitcase across the house to the front door, then doubled back to sit down at the kitchen table with her brother.

"I'm only doing it because I want to, my contract expired years ago," he said. "I just had this idea and I want it out there with the rest of my shit, you know? Consider it an epilogue. Then I'll go back to being retired."

"Artists," she scoffed dramatically. "But hey, I told you I'd be ready on time and I've got six minutes to spare!"

"Great, that means we've got six minutes to figure out which one of you two is in the front with me and who's in the back with Hal," Dirk said; the dogs' head popped up over the back of the couch when he heard his name, but disappeared again when he realised he wasn't being called.

"Or Hal could stay here, you're just doing the airport run," Roxy suggested.

"He could sit in the front and you could sit in the back together," Dirk countered.

"Who are you?"

He couldn't help grinning when she started laughing - he knew why it was funny, even if he wouldn't admit it. He'd never wanted a dog, or even had particularly strong feelings about them one way or another, but less than a year into owning one for the first time he was completely enamoured.

"He likes car rides," Dirk said, trying to regain control of his facial expressions. "And he misses Jake."

Roxy's accusing stare sent him over the edge.

"Honey, it's your car. Just tell us where you want the dog," she said, still smiling her all-knowing smile.

"Fuck off," he said sarcastically, as he stood up from the table. "Okay, the airport express leaves in two minutes," he said, loud enough for his sister's new husband to hear from the dining room. "Bags in the bed, humans in the back seat, and Hal, you're with me," he ordered, with a short, sharp whistle to make sure he had Hal's attention.

Roxy laughed loudly, and in response he just flipped her off as he walked past to find his keys.

+++

He knew they were all staring at him and for once the attention was entirely unwanted.

He'd walked back into the apartment two hours after leaving, looking much more disheveled than when he'd left thanks to the oppressive, sticky heat of the city. He was carrying his blazer and tie, and the top few buttons of his shirt were undone; he'd dumped the extraneous clothing on the living room floor, next to his work chair, and kicked off his boots under the desk. His folio hadn't even made it that far and was lying on the end of the kitchen counter, where he'd abandoned it as he walked past. The only additional item he'd returned with was a still untouched venti vanilla sweet cream cold brew he'd bought while he waited for his Uber to show up.

No one had said anything, but he knew they were all stuck trying to break the tension. Karkat had gone back to cooking, his rough chopping more aggressive than before. John had turned the TV volume down so the sounds from the Crash Team Racing remake were less intrusive.

There was a full thirteen minutes of conversational silence before Terezi spoke up.

"So," she started slowly, dragging out the word. "How was it?"

Dave picked up his coffee and reluctantly turned his chair around to face his friends.

"I think, and I'm not completely fucking sure, but I think I just got discriminated out of that office," he said.

Terezi caught herself mid-laugh.

"Bullshit," Karkat said, slamming a cupboard door. "It's a shitty fake out, he's pulling some classic boo fucking hoo, today sucked pity me horse shit and in ten minutes he's going to be all psych, you fucking morons, of course I got it because I'm me. Right?"

"I walked out," Dave said, shaking his cup to help mix the cream into his coffee.

"After you signed the contract," Karkat said bluntly.

"I'm not getting the contract," he said, just as terse as Karkat. "I walked out."

"What happened?" John asked. He was leaning over the back of the couch by then, game paused, still obviously trying to figure out if the mood was all a fake-out or not.

"I walked the fuck out, John," Dave snapped. "Sorry, fuck. I was blindsided by a bunch of fucking tech bros, my ego is in the god damn gutter right now. Do you know how embarrassing that is? Tech bros, dude. Like if it was Disney or some shit, then yeah, whatever, your hands are tied under the laws of Mickey fucking Mouse, but some guys with a moderately successful app suite should be incrementally more accommodating than the biggest conglomerate in the world."

"What do you mean?"

"News flash, John, Disney own everything now," Terezi pitched in.

"Duh," John said. He pulled a mocking face at her, knowing she wouldn't have seen it even if she was looking in his direction.

"Dave," Karkat said roughly, as he slammed a fresh chopping board down onto the counter. "Tech bros being douchelords isn't fucking newsworthy. What happened?"

Even with Terezi and John in the room, Karkat's tone had changed halfway through his question. It was as if he'd realised there was no cover-up, that Dave was telling the truth about walking out of his interview; the question was asked with genuine concern.

Dave rattled the ice in his plastic cup again and took another drink. It was hard to pinpoint the exact moment where he'd noticed things going downhill.

"I emailed them yesterday. I put it in fucking writing. They asked if I needed anything, laptop, projector, the usual shit. Like, usual for this kind of interview anyway. They want to see work examples, right? Makes sense. I said nah, I've got it covered because that shit's all on my iPad anyway, but I'm gonna need a room without fluro lights and shit," he said.

"Let me guess," Karkat started. "Fluro lights."

"Better," Dave replied. "Fluros, corner office, no blinds. There's three guys on the panel and the bro on the end gives me one of these," he said, using his free hand to mime taking a pair of glasses off. "Like sure, maybe I forgot to take them off when I got there or something, right? I put that in the fuckin' email, too. Guys, I know I look cool as shit but don't ask about the glasses, it's a whole thing and totally irrelevant. So they start talking and this guy does it again, so I just ignore him right because maybe he didn't catch up before the meeting. Like it wouldn't be the first time, some of these places are garbage at running interviews, like total shit, but that's another thing altogether."

"Buzzfeed are like that, fucking idiots, the amount of shit they lose before you even walk in," Karkat muttered. "Peel these," he added, pushing a bag of onions across the counter to Terezi.

"Anyway, they were asking what I've been working on lately and I'm talking about the last few jobs I've done, and this guy won't let it go, right? So he just totally interrupts me because I'm already talking, and goes like, hey, you forgot to take your sunglasses off, so I just say, no I didn't, and keep talking up that bakery job I did a while back. And I can see him getting all worked up, like totally just filled with unfounded internal rage, right? So I finish what I'm saying and get all, look, sorry, I can't, even if you turn off the lights there's too many windows and I'm not even wearing my contacts because I emailed about it all yesterday when your HR department asked if I needed anything," Dave went on.

He paused to take another swig of his iced coffee.

"You are not wearing contacts today?" Terezi asked curiously, as she picked up a third onion to start peeling.

"Don't," Karkat muttered.

"Nah, I'm not," Dave said as he finally stood back up from his desk chair. "Why would I? They asked if I needed anything and I said just some moderate darkness and yeah it's probably an unusual fuckin' request but I asked anyway because who knows what I'm gonna be able to deal with a full twenty-four hours in advance. So I just pulled up the email I sent them, packed up my shit while they read it, then grabbed my iPad and walked out. Like, what the fuck? What the fuck? Has anyone, literally ever, walked into a job interview and been like, whoopsie, forgot to take my sunglasses off? No? I didn't fucking think so," he snapped. "Am I in the wrong here? Like, c'mon, dude."

He dropped down onto the stool at the opposite end of the bench to Terezi and slumped forward to rest his cheek on the cool countertop.

"You think they did it on purpose?" John asked, still sitting on the couch; he'd muted the TV entirely at some point while Dave had been talking.

"Yeah," Dave said. "They knew. I told them, I've got a condition that's exacerbated by exposure to harsh light, and that's verbatim. If you don't want to hire me, whatever, like wasting my time when you want to go with someone else is a dick move, but I get it. It's the whole point of doing interviews, so you can't say you didn't get a chance, so that's whatever. But acting like you didn't get my email when you've gone out of your way to make sure you're doing everything I said not to do? We walked past like four empty offices on the way to this one, like shit, I'm not braindead."

"This is very new to you, Dave," Terezi said. He could almost hear genuine sympathy in her voice. "You are not exactly the ideal candidate for petty discrimination and I say that as someone who is still your friend even when you are insufferably you."

"Why do you think I never bring it up?" Dave said, lifting his head up to continue the conversation. "And I'm talking like, outside of my immediate family and pretty much you guys, I literally never talk about it. I played that card like three times in four years of college and I'm pretty fuckin' sure at least two of those four were just incidental moments when I decided that yeah, I just can't do that. Like, I get it, I fucking get it, this minor inconvenience that actually dictates a large portion of my daily life is something only I'm dealing with, right? And I mean shit, we all know the obvious. I'm white, so major points there. I'm a guy, jackpot on that. Rich parents, great, straight to the front of the totally lucky and privileged queue Mr. Strider, right this way. I get it."

"It is a miracle that you are not more of a douchebag," Terezi nodded.

"Fuck off," he said. "Like you're right, and I mean that's most of the point here, isn't it? Sure, all the bonuses you get just for being a white guy in modern America aside, I got lucky. My mom is in some kind of niche science that pays her like half a million bucks base salary if she's not joking about it but we've all met her and yeah, it could go either way in reality but she also does guest lectures and consulting and fuck knows what else on the side, right?" Dave said, as he dragged his iced coffee closer so he could drink it without lifting the cup from the counter. "I've got no fucking idea what Bro's financials look like because he won't say anything specific but I garuntee you he knows what all his accounts look like down to the dollar. But like, he had a legit career. He got all the money that comes with success and invested it and he's got assets coming out his ass, residuals checks every month, like, I don't even know. Jake's on a top salary as well, and he's in the same boat as Mom. Colleges hire him for lectures and shit all the time."

"You're off topic," Karkat said, taking his onions back from Terezi once she finished peeling them.

"I know, but I'm also not even on the topic yet," Dave said. He propped his head up with one hand, elbow pressing into the counter to help support the bad posture. "Because that's it, right? That's the family I come from. I've got an apartment and no student loans and my own pretty fuckin' solid income. Like, can I complain about this? Probably fucking not, right? Boo hoo, the guy who doesn't need it didn't get a job because some tech bros thought he was so god damn fashionable and full of himself he just wanted to keep his shades on inside."

"But that's not the point," John said. He'd moved from the couch by then and was standing in the kitchen as well, but at what he'd deemed to be a safe distance from Karkat and his sharp knives. "Right?"

"Right," Dave said. "I think. I don't know, that's the point. I'm pretty sure that's my point," he added. "Like, the rest of my existence outweighs this one shitty encounter, you think?"

"It's shitty, yeah," Karkat agreed, tossing his knife into the sink. "But people eye you off on the subway for totally different reasons. Usually because you're doing something stupid as fuck even by subway standards, not just having my face."

"That is a pretty stupid thing to have," Terezi cackled. "But he is right. It is all just a different kind of the same thing and there are only ever losers. I think that they are in the wrong because they have blatantly violated ADA laws and do not care at all, so you should leave them a terrible online review or talk shit about them on Twitter, because Twitter will care more than the real world."

"You want me to ask Sollux to doxx them?" Karkat offered as he clattered a series of saucepans around trying to find the one he wanted. "I don't think it's illegal now he's working for the CIA. If it is, it's the same kind of illegal as the shit they just pulled on you. You can complain, but no one will give a god damn shit."

"Nah," Dave sighed. "But fuck, I put on a fucking suit in ninety degree weather for this horseshit."

That was an understatement. After wearing the suit for only a few hours, it probably needed to be dry-cleaned.

"You have my permission to wear nothing but your stupid little running shorts for the rest of the day," Terezi said. "That always makes you feel better."

"Aw man," John whined. "That's not fair, you don't have to see it!"

"Exactly," she said, laughing again. "It is a nice thing to do though, Dave has had a bad day."

"He's got a fucking point," Karkat interrupted. "You don't have to stare at that nightmare-inducing scene for the next however many hours."

"I'll take it," Dave said, turning on his stool to stand back up. "We all know how much I love my stupid little running shorts and fuck, like you guys look any better right now. Hey, Rez, since you were gonna ask before he tried to shut you up," he started.

"Did you show them?" Terezi asked excitedly, spinning her own stool around to follow the sound of his voice as he walked off towards his bedroom to change.

"Yeah, I showed them my fucked up eyes on the way out."

"I knew it!"

+++

There had been something incredibly nostalgic about the time he'd spent back at his sister's house, so far upstate and isolated from the rest of the country. The days had started to melt into one another without two young kids around to give him a routine, but everything else felt so familiar it was hard to believe so much time had passed since he'd last shut himself in the basement office to work.

The closet was filled with all the old equipment he'd left behind when he moved to California. It still worked, he'd discovered, underneath almost seven years of dust; he'd had to order a few new dongles to connect everything to a more modern laptop, but the online ordering and delivery was a lot faster than it had been back in the day.

So he'd sat, day in, day out, scrutinising every beat he laid down. Potential lyric changes were scrawled on the desk or wall with whatever pen or marker was closest when he needed it, alongside new character designs. It was how he'd always worked.

Things were different though. He was doing it because every aspect of the recording was something he wanted, his ideas. He'd always had full creative control over his albums but if he'd wanted to make them, the release dates they gave him were non-negotiable. They'd never written clauses into his contract forcing him to make a certain amount of albums because he was so unpredictable; no producer in the world could have predicted that he would have been as successful as he ended up. They'd signed him on talent alone, not concept, hoping that eventually his way with words would end up being useful and they could use him as a writer for other artists. It was why there were so many loopholes in his contract that let him maintain that level of control, and legal ownership, of his work. They'd never wanted his content - he was twenty years too early.

Now, though, his entire back catalogue read like a series of online shitposts and his streaming numbers were still going up, over six years after the release of his last album.

The vocals were still rough; he couldn't record those properly under he got back into a studio. Everything else was almost done, though. After a single week alone to think, to focus, uninterrupted even by his own hand, the bulk of the work had been done. Eight tracks. Three new characters had been worked into the narrative, their designs still unfinished. The ideas were there, but he hadn't got around to setting up his sewing machine yet - it was still in its case, perched on the far end of his work bench.

His phone buzzed silently, and his heart beat faster.

It was all so different than before.

GT: Ethan allen express. Friday 17:54 at saratoga springs.

His sister was going to be home on Saturday morning. He could feed the cat before he left, and was even willing to drive her new two-seater BMW to the airport in advance and get a cab home, because at six minutes to six o'clock on Friday he was going to be at the Amtrak station in Saratoga Springs.

In the beginning they'd easily gone months apart, both travelling near non-stop all year round. He'd had kids to worry about, kids who didn't know about the relationship he'd built on long-distance phone calls and weekends in hotels in cities he had no other reason for visiting. He'd almost walked out on it all, more than once, because he thought he was asking too much; it had never occurred to him that it was the distance keeping them together.

As much work as he'd managed to get done by hiding away in Roxy's basement for the better part of two weeks, Friday was only three days away.

Three more days alone to agonise over minor audio edits that no one but him would ever even notice.

TT: You want a ride from there?

He put the phone down again and swapped it for a pen, changing a few words on the note pad lying open just off to the left of his laptop. The pen tapped a few times, in tune with a newly familiar beat, and he edited another few lines as well, while the train of thought was there.

His cell vibrated again almost immediately.

GT: Well i dont plan on walking home!!
TT: You love hiking. What's the problem?
GT: If i have to hike home from saratoga springs i might as well hike myself straight to sleep when i get there!
TT: Sorry, but that's not on my itinerary. I've had to reduce the available nap times over the next four weeks to factor in all the contractually obligated, thorough marital fucking.
GT: You know if we ration the snarky conversational asshattery enough we might even be able to fit that in twice.
TT: Conversational asshattery aside, I'll be there ten minutes early.
GT: I know.
TT: I'll do groceries on the way. Start thinking about what you want me to pick up.
GT: Milk dog food spaghetti coffee strawberry jam.
TT: Write it down. I'll call you later tonight, let me finish what I'm doing and take Hal out first.
GT: As long as its before ten ive got a seven am call time tomorrow.
TT: Noted. Call you at nine thirty, see you Friday.

Jake's final reply was a short series of emojis; Dirk couldn't tell if it was intentional, if it meant anything, or if Jake had just picked up the phone without locking the screen first and sent them accidentally.

Some things were no different than they'd ever been.

"He's coming home on Friday," he said quietly, scratching Hal behind the ears when he put his head on Dirk's knee and whined for attention. "Not long now, huh?"

Dirk pushed his chair backwards, just a little, and stood up with a small groan; he'd been sitting for too long, and Hal probably needed to go outside anyway. He saved his work and closed his laptop, and picked up his phone.

There was another message waiting for him on the screen.

GT: Sorry i dropped my phone trying to cross the road and its struggling to keep up with my demands. I hope those faces dont mean anything too filthy!

+++

"What happened to your phone?"

John stared at the smashed iPhone incredulously.

"It got run over by three taxis and a motorcycle."

"Why?"

"What do you mean, why?"

"I guess I mean how, not why."

"It was on the road and the traffic lights changed, that's how. Oh, looks like we're here," Jake said brightly as he changed the subject, consulting the map on his phone one last time. "At least, I think we are. The GPS in this thing could have gone kaput in the accident."

"Wait, there was an accident?" John asked, narrowing his eyebrows out of concern. Jake hadn't said anything about an accident until that moment, and suddenly he realised there was definitely more to the story than he'd already heard.

"Well I hardly planned to drop my phone in the road and have it run over by three taxis and a motorcycle, did I? Of course it was an accident. Can you double check the address for me?" Jake asked, peering over John's shoulder as he pulled up Google Maps. "See? Out by half a block. Although, that's still totally amazing, don't you think? Relying on satellites for mundane tasks like this, I mean. Who would have thought?"

John frowned harder as he looked over at the obviously shattered phone still in Jake's hand.

"I don't think you can fix that."

"Me neither," Jake sighed, clapping John's shoulder as they started walking again. "It had a good run."

"Yeah, no one else has an iPhone 5 anymore."

"What do you mean? I've only had it less than a year."

"They still make iPhone 5's?" John asked incredulously, checking their location against the pin on his map as they passed another few buildings.

"They did last time I had to buy a new one. I've had a lot of phones, I'm sure you can imagine why," Jake said. "Oh, it's this one here. How long was that?"

"Uh, about thirty minutes," John replied as he checked the time. "That's a lot further than my dorm, but way closer than Dave's place."

"That's because Dave was so well suited to living in Brooklyn that Dirk refused to even look anywhere else for his apartment," Jake said. "Brilliant, the agent's here already. Jake English," he added, introducing himself with a hand out. "And my nephew, John."

"Nice to meet you both," the agent said, with a large, fake smile. "Let's go have a look, if you're ready."

"Fantastic," Jake said, hurrying through the open doors to the building after her.

John followed, a few steps behind.

He knew that Jake was looking at apartments because Dave had mentioned it in passing after conversations with his dad; what he hadn't known until two days earlier was that Jake fully intended to have him live there as well.

Jake had invited him along to the inspection, proposing that they travel there from his college to see how long the commute would be, and John had agreed. Thirty minutes wasn't bad - it was faster than driving into Seattle from Maple Valley had been, at least. He'd already paid for the Fall semester of dorm accommodation but Jake insisted it wouldn't be an issue, not once he factored in the few months it would take for all the paperwork and settlement processes to go through.

John had tentatively agreed.

"Go have a wander," Jake said, as they stood in the living room. "The bedrooms are at opposite ends of the flat, so one over there, and the other down there. I'm not fussed about which one you'd prefer, they're about the same size but the master does have its own bathroom so we can always argue about that later. The point is, it feels quite a bit more private than the other places I've seen this month. What do you think?"

"It's great," John said, peering down the short hallway off the kitchen. "I think."

"A bit dated, and not in the way I particularly like, but it's functional," Jake said as he stood in the kitchen, hands on hips as he surveyed the entire living area. "There's a nice bit of wall over there for a very large television though."

The agent said something else then, and Jake nodded as she spoke.

John crossed to the other side of the apartment and wandered into one of the bedrooms. It was bigger than his dorm room but not by much, and far smaller than his room back home. The whole place felt crowded by furniture but he'd been expecting that; it was an apartment in New York City. The apartment was smaller than Dave's place, but it was going to be him alone for half the time. It was definitely big enough for that.

"So, thoughts?" Jake asked, walking in behind him to examine the master.

"If I have this room, you get the bathroom with the bath," he replied, snapping a few photos on his phone.

"Quick thinking, John, but I've just been down there and the tub is a bit too small for anyone older than six."

"I don't know, Dave doesn't fit in his bath but he definitely uses it," John said, pulling a face at the Fourth of July memory.

"I can't imagine that was comfortable."

"It really wasn't."

"I mean for him."

"It definitely wasn't for the rest of us."

Jake laughed loudly, and led John back out into the living room with an arm around his shoulders.

"Conveniently located bathroom aside, I really do think you'd like the other room more," he said, walking them down the short hall behind the kitchen.

"Are you asking me or telling me?" John questioned suspiciously. "Because it sounds like you're telling me."

"Good catch, Johnny-boy! I'm telling you. But have a look anyway and we'll discuss it over something, pizza most likely unless you've got any specific requests," Jake said, patting his shoulder as they stopped in the doorway of John's soon-to-be bedroom.

"I kind of just want Wendy's," John shrugged. "It's nice," he added, a little more enthusiastically. "I think my stuff would all fit okay."

"Perfect! Let's go and find a Wendy's to work on our plan of attack."

+++

"I just can't stop thinking about it. Like, I'll be almost asleep and oh shit, there it is, back in the forefront of my mind. Remember that fucking disaster you fell into last week? Holy shit, why can't I get over it? Like, what the fuck is wrong with me, right? It was shitty, yeah, but just move on you fucking idiot."

"Okay, now imagine that but it's something new and exciting every fucking day."

"I know! That's what's fucking me up so bad, it was one time!"

Dave slammed his custom frappuccino down onto the Starbucks table; he'd used his rewards stars and asked his favourite barista to make him something that tasted like an apple pie, and the resulting experimental mess of cinnamon syrup, coconut milk, and apple juice was kind of close. It wasn't totally disgusting, at least.

Across from him, Karkat just raised an eyebrow in response to him slumping down further in his chair.

"So you having zero idea how to deal with a poor attempt at discrimination aside, are you only freaking out because you've got like eight medical appointments next week?"

"No."

"So, yes."

"I'll give you a maybe, but that's my best offer," Dave said with a frown. "Like I know we've gone over this ad nauseum and I'm really fucking aware the whole thing makes me come off like a let me talk to the manager Karen trying to cash in a coupon that expired in nineteen sixty-five, but I keep coming back to thinking that maybe, yeah, I should've just sucked it up because who's ever had a job interview in a dark room before, right?"

"And we've been over that what they did was completely fucking illegal, but there's no way they give a flying horseshit about it," Karkat said, rolling his eyes. "It sucks dick because you're a grown fucking adult who knows exactly what's happening and your pasty white ass hasn't built up an internal discriminatory bullshit barricade."

"See, you telling me that makes it worse."

"Why, because I got called a terrorist in the first grade? Sure, but at the same time the real racists can't even be racist right," Karkat shrugged. "Swings and fucking roundabouts."

"What if my shit's getting worse?" Dave asked as he picked up his frappuccino again. He sucked up a mouthful of caramel through the straw; it was unexpected, but made the whole thing taste more like an apple pie than before and he could appreciate the surprise.

"It's not. Just like every other year, your shit is as fucked as it's going to get."

"Okay, but humour me. What if it is, right? Like, what if part of my brain's been fried from a decade of almost weekly migraines and it decides to start shutting down my vision privileges, huh?"

"You've already got all the white American male privileges, quit hoarding," Karkat said, picking up his own iced coffee.

"Not helping," Dave groaned, as he slouched down even further in his chair until his neck was resting on the top of the backrest. "What if this is the year they cut off my codeine access?"

"You can afford the street price."

"Really not helping."

"What? You can. Remember you've got all those one-percenter privileges, too," Karkat pointed out.

"Hey, that's overshooting the mark by a few billion, we're probably top five at most," Dave retorted.

He'd returned his cup to the table by then, and was pushing it around half an inch at a time, just for something to do with his hands. He knew he was making everything worse by dwelling on the interview and how he'd handled the company ignoring his requests; Karkat was right, he'd never really come up against anyone who'd so obviously tried to test if he was faking. Way back in grade school he'd struggled, but that had more to do with the fact that they were all still only learning the extent of his condition.

"Did you tell your dad?"

"Pfft," he snorted. "Yeah, because him going full on batshit attack mode on them would definitely fix shit," Dave pointed out. "He's coming down Wednesday night so he can come to the appointments with me, I'm not sure where he's staying but he said he'll figure something out," he said, sitting back up properly in his chair and pulling out his phone. "That's lunch hour over."

"It's Friday. How much are you really going to get done between now and four?" Karkat asked, shaking his own coffee to redistribute the steadily melting ice cubes. He was looking at his phone with the other hand, and didn't look up to ask the question.

"You drive a hard bargain, dude, but sure, what movie did you want to go see?"

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It starts in fifteen minutes and the Uber will be here in one, that gives you two minutes to piss once we get there."

"No, I've got like twenty minutes to piss because unlike some raging lunatics I don't need to sit through all the commercials," Dave said as he stood up and pushed his chair back in against the table. "It's you, you're the raging lunatic."

"What's that? You don't want to take up my generous offer of free popcorn?" Karkat asked incredulously, dumping his empty cup into the trash as he followed Dave out of the Starbucks. "The car should be over there," he added, vaguely gesturing across the road.

"It's not generous, you've got a fucking voucher."

"The generosity was in the sharing."

"Oh, dude, what if we both go for the popcorn at the same time and our hands touch?" Dave laughed, dramatically clutching his own hand to his chest as if it was contaminated by schoolyard cooties. He checked for traffic before he darted out in front of a bus to cross the street, with Karkat trailing just far enough behind that his crossing earned a loud honk from the bus driver.

"I've got an extra fucking voucher, dickhead."

+++

As the train pulled into the station - a full minute early, he noticed - he reached over and scratched Hal between the ears when the dog let out a loud whine, moving his hand down to grip the back of his collar just in case; if Hal bolted and he wasn't ready, the force would likely dislocate his shoulder.

"Easy," he said in a low voice, as the train's brakes screeched on the other side of the terminal building.

The week had dragged. The night before had dragged. The two and a half hour drive down from his sister's house had felt more like eight. The cashier at the Saratoga Springs Price Chopper would have been asked to hurry the fuck up if she hadn't been a fifteen year old trainee.

At least he'd remembered to feed the cat before he left.

Hal whined again as assortment of passengers started dribbling through the station doors, standing up despite Dirk's best efforts to keep him sitting; he lifted one front foot impatiently, then swapped it for the other, tail suddenly whipping back and forth.

Jake was trying to navigate his suitcase around a bollard, but one wheel kept getting stuck.

"Okay, go get him," Dirk said, finally loosening his grip on the dog's collar and unclipping his lead. With a hard pat to his hindquarters, Hal barked once and bolted across the concrete.

A big dog at the best of times, especially for his age, Hal ran his full hundred and ten pounds into Jake's open arms and immediately knocked him off his feet. They both crashed hard into the ground but somehow avoided any head injuries, and instead of trying to get back up Jake just lay on the ground laughing as Hal sniffed and licked at him, returning the affection with endless scratches.

"Whoops," Dirk said sarcastically; he'd left the bench and was standing beside the both of them. "He got loose."

He held up the end of Hal's lead.

"I'd almost consider believing that if you were anyone else," Jake replied from the ground, still scratching Hal behind the ears as the dog sniffed him up and down.

"Want a hand?"

"Hmm, probably. Although, it's not a bad view from down here."

"Keep it in your pants, English," Dirk grinned, offering a hand to help Jake up from the concrete. "Long enough to get the cold groceries home and into the fridge, at least."

With Jake back on his feet and holding Hal's lead so the dog could walk beside him, Dirk reached for the abandoned handle of the suitcase and slipped his other arm around Jake's waist, tucking his hand into the back pocket of his jeans.

"That was what, a grand total of two minutes before you went for the subtle arse grope?" Jake asked with a laugh, turning to kiss his cheek as they walked.

"Six weeks, two minutes," Dirk corrected, with a more obvious squeeze; the first hadn't even been that subtle, when he thought about it. "So, how was work?"

"Absolutely bizarre. I've had possibly the strangest six weeks of my life, and we both know that's a whopping claim to make but I think it might be the case," Jake said, patting Hal as they crossed the parking lot. "Did you have any idea how much people talk about me on the internet?"

"Yeah, that's one of the threads I moderate myself on the website, why?"

"You what now?"

"Dave says it's too weird for him to do, so it's me or the bots and the bots miss a lot of shit," Dirk shrugged. "I get it. And you knew this shit, people have been talking about you on there for years."

"I knew, but I didn't exactly know. Why would I be a topic of online conversation?"

"Because you're a hot piece of ass with a brain that works in mysterious ways," Dirk said, dropping his arm from around Jake so he could lift the suitcase into the bed of the truck. "And shit, like there's aging gracefully and then there's that," he added, waving a hand in Jake's direction as he opened the back door for Hal.

"Oh, please," Jake said dismissively as he climbed into the passengers' seat.

"You think what's on there is bad, you should see the shit I've deleted," Dirk said seriously, closing his own door behind him. "Hey, dogs in the backseat," he added, pushing Hal back between the two front seats when he tried to climb over.

"I'd rather not," Jake murmured, as he reached across the console and pulled Dirk over to kiss him deeply. "Home," he added, but not before he cut short a second kiss.

"You don't have to tell me twice."

With one hand on the wheel and the other resting on Jake's thigh as they drove down the highway towards the old manor house in the woods, Dirk almost veered off the road when Jake announced he'd finally bought a new phone.

Chapter Text

September, 2019

The biggest surprise hadn't been the runway overgrown with weeds, or the diesel generator stocked with gallons upon gallons of fuel. Finding the water pump had been more of a relief than anything else, and the house itself had been completely expected. It was the photos that caught her off guard when she'd found them, locked in a small trunk and buried in a hidden cellar just big enough to store what were obviously her grandpa's most precious belongings.

Jade had no memory of ever visiting the island before, but the photos told her otherwise.

The house had been locked up when she'd arrived. Its windows were shuttered to protect the glass and there was no clue as to when anyone had last been inside; it had taken a week to air out the musty smell that clung to all the soft furnishings inside. Bec had been the one to find the cellar, a week after that, when he'd lost one of his favourite toys under the bed.

Of course Grandpa had a hidden cellar. Why wouldn't he?

The air was drier in the cellar and it felt much cooler that it was above ground. The space could be measured in just a few feet, but it was full of old suitcases and plastic storage boxes each filled with things that Grandpa had decided were vital to keep. In one of the suitcases, Jade found a stuffed bunny she'd lost when she was four and some of her old clothes from before she'd gone to live in Seattle for elementary school.

Bec curled up beside her as she sunk down onto the timber planks and crossed her legs. The photos were a combination of old film shots and polaroids taken all over the world. Her and Grandpa - who was so much younger than she ever remembered him looking - together in remote jungles, and major tourist locations alike. As Jade flipped through the photos, her image became younger and younger until she found an envelope stamped with a date: April, 1997.

She frowned, fingers trembling just a little as she lifted the top flap of the envelope. She knew what would be inside, there was no way it could be anything else. Bec lifted his head to rest on her thigh when he noticed the change in her demeanour and she stopped fidgeting with the envelope long enough to give the dog a reassuring scratch on the chin; she was okay, and he could relax. He licked her hand and she thanked him with another scratch, and picked up the photos again.

The first photo was of a cake. It was so unnecessarily large and covered in so much buttercream that there was only one person who could have possibly made it; the message piped onto it, Happy 1st Birthday, John! was even more of a giveaway.

"Look, Papa," she said, showing one of the next pictures to Bec. "And John," she added, pointing to the baby sitting on her uncle's knee. "Grandpa," she said, indicating the man who was holding a squirming toddler and laughing as she tried to grab at the cake. "And me."

The next photo was of a woman - John's mother - helping him to blow out the single candle placed on the edge of the cake. After that, more of the cake before it was cut, including one of John's dad and a second woman posing proudly beside what was obviously their creation.

"That's Mom," Jade said quietly to Bec, who just licked her trembling fingers again. "My mom, not John's. I guess she helped Papa with the cake?" The next photo was her and John with cake on their faces and in their hair, sitting in the backyard of her uncle's house. "And that's my Dad," she said, pointing to the first photo of her father she found. He was sitting on a lawn chair and laughing at the cake-covered babies as they struggled to get any of the sweet treat into their own mouths.

As Jade flipped through the remaining photos in the stack, she paused on the last shot for long enough that Bec whined with concern.

It was a photo of everyone who had been at the party. Grandpa had obviously set his camera on a timer, and only made it to the back of the group with seconds to spare - he was blurred around the edges, captured mid-laugh. John was sitting on his mother's hip and reaching across her for his dad, who hadn't yet realised his attention was wanted. Her parents were standing as well; her father was next to his brother, laughing as own her mother held up her in front of her. She was smiling as well, as she licked a stray smear of buttercream off her fifteen-month old daughter's cheek.

Jade smiled to herself, a small, sad, smile; none of them knew what was coming, and soon. She flipped the last photo over on her knee, intending to take a digital photo of it with her phone, but the familiar looping handwriting on the back of the picture caught her eye before she could even reach for the device.

Last photo of Jane. Taken in Maple Valley, WA. April, 1997.

+++

"Any new medications since your last appointment?"

"Nah. Just the Tylenol threes and fours when I need them and the Epi-Pen in case I eat some fruit, but I haven't done that in like forever so I'm just blowing money on these things every six months, right, so sometimes I think I should just go apeshit on a pineapple to justify the cost, you know? Oh, allergy pills, but just for normal pollen allergy shit because that's off the fucking charts right now. I normally get Allegra but I think I took a Benadryl this morning because it was all we had left. Is that gonna be a problem?"

Dave finally paused once he asked his question, cracking an eye open to look over at his ophthalmologist, who was still skimming through his file and making notes wherever they needed updating.

"It shouldn't be."

"That's a goddamn shame," he blurted out, unable to stop himself. "Shit, sorry, I'm good," he added.

His leg was bouncing but he had zero control over it; his nerves were shot and for all his jokes about the Epi-Pen, there was so much adrenaline already coursing through his system that it felt like he'd injected it already.

"You sure about that, kiddo?"

"Sure about what?" Dave asked. He didn't bother turning his head to look over at Dirk, who was sitting in a spare chair closer to the door. He could already imagine the look on his face; concerned and amused at the same time, getting some form of twisted enjoyment out of seeing him suffer. Maybe. Maybe he was just concerned. "Sure as shit I'm having a heart attack right now, but y'know they say it's medically fuckin' impossible to tell the difference between a heart attack and a panic attack until someone drops dead, right? Like, the heart attack will kill you dead right there and then but the panic attack will just make everyone around realise you're a shithead who can't control himself in a totally normal situation. Maybe it's not even a normal situation that's doing it, maybe it's all the recent puppet exposure bringing back some kind of fucked up flashbacks to waking up to Cal in my bed and you shaving two rooms away so it absolutely couldn't have been you who put him there because you were busy shaving, y'know? The point is, if I drop dead in the next few minutes, I'm gonna need you to keep John away from my laptop because yeah he knows my passwords but I think I left Po-"

"Okay," the Doctor said, interrupting Dave mid-sentence as he spun his chair around. "Your paperwork is all up to date so we're ready to get started. We'll do a few baseline tests, check your vision and general eye health then drops and a few more detailed tests. Do you need anything before we get started?"

"Yeah, a fistful of Xanax but I'll settle for someone to shoot me with a tranquilizer gun, right in the throat. I even know a girl who'll do it, free of charge," he replied.

"Funny," the ophthalmologist said, as if he'd ignored everything Dave said. "Okay, you know the drill, Mr. Strider. Chin on the bar just in front of you and eyes open."

"A drill works if that's all you've got, sign me up for one of those."

He knew what to do, and he knew what was coming. He'd been through the routine at least once a year for as long as he could remember; he'd had the tests every four months between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, back when the migraines had started becoming almost alarmingly frequent. The answers were always the same. He could see, but they didn't know how or why, and there was nothing wrong with how his brain was interpreting the images sent through his optic nerve. His irises were defective, his pupils didn't respond normally, and that was that.

Dave punched himself in the thigh to try and stop his leg from bouncing, and opened his eyes.

+++

"Anyone home?" Dirk called out as he unlocked the front door of the apartment. "Anyone?"

"I need you to shut up, and hurry up," Dave mumbled from behind him. "Think 'm gonna hurl."

"You're definitely going to throw up," Dirk said, guiding his son inside and pausing long enough to lock the door and toss the keys onto the kitchen counter. "And we both know it, so you're gonna set up camp in the bathroom until you do because I'm already on vomit duty these days thanks to the dog. I can't stop him puking wherever he feels like it but I can park your ass where it needs to be."

"Thanks, Dad, love you too."

"I've always been proud of the way you turn a valid sentence into something so bitterly sarcastic," Dirk replied as he helped Dave to sit down on the edge of the tub; he immediately leant against the wall to help keep himself upright. "You good?"

"Peachy," Dave said, flashing a weak thumbs-up with his eyes still closed. "Can I get some water? Ice, lots of ice. Tylenol, too," he added, as he peeled off his sweat-soaked t-shirt and dropped it onto the floor. "Don't care, all of it, call the factory. I'll still take the tranq gun."

"Your wish, my command."

"Blood says you're obligated."

"Bud, you're twenty-three, we're years past obligated," he said, picking up the shirt so it didn't just stay in the middle of the bathroom floor.

"Only twenty-two, relax."

"Still years past the obligation phase," Dirk said. "Where's the Tylenol?"

"Second drawer, next to my bed. Not the top drawer. The second one, oh, fuck," Dave groaned, lurching forward to rest his elbows on the toilet seat. "Evacuate," he added, a burp gurgling up from deep in his throat as he waved a hand towards the door. "While you still can."

Dirk rubbed Dave's shoulder and gave it a rough squeeze before he left the bathroom, taking the shirt with him.

It had been a long time since he'd seen Dave immediately after a complete eye exam. Living across the country had meant flying in just for appointments and after he'd done it the first time, Dave had discouraged him from doing it again. He'd stepped back after that, because he knew why he'd been asked to stay in California - the kid was in college at the time, he wanted space. He'd kept up from three thousand miles away instead, asking for just as much information as Dave was willing to give.

So when he'd been invited to sit in on both the morning's neurologist appointment as well as the eye exam, he'd jumped at the chance to visit for a few days.

Dirk opened the door to Dave's bedroom and switched on the ceiling light because even though it was only four in the afternoon, the room was pitch black. The bed was unmade. Dave's bed was only ever made the first night after he changed the sheets, because neither he or Roxy had ever thought bed-making was important when the kids were growing up. Roxy still didn't believe in it; her husband, on the other hand, was an Olympic champion. Dirk had only started making the bed because in a twist that went against everything the man stood for, Jake English had always made the bed, and that was an easy compromise to make.

He had no idea how long it had been since he'd seen Dave's bedroom. There wasn't anything surprising about it, except that it was cleaner than he'd been expecting. A few posters were stuck up on the wall and there was a single shelf covered in what were obviously the most favoured jarred animals, and a handful of skulls. All his dirty clothes were in a laundry basket, except for the few that had obviously been deemed clean enough to wear again - those were draped over the side of the basket. Dirk tossed the t-shirt he was carrying into the hamper as well, and turned to the bedside table.

He automatically reached for the top drawer but remembered that Dave had specifically told him the Tylenol was in the second; he had zero desire to know what was stored in the first of three drawers. The second, when he opened it, rattled as the assorted pills rolled around in their canisters.

"Fuck," Dirk muttered to himself; if he hadn't known about the migraines, he would have dragged Dave to the nearest rehab centre by his hair. The drawer was filled with empty orange prescription bottles, dating back at least three years. They were all definitely Dave's - his name was printed on the labels - and there was nothing in there that he hadn't been expecting to find, but seeing just how many times the scripts had been refilled set off an involuntary parental reaction.

He tipped two Tylenol 4 pills out onto the bedside table and closed the drawer, and went to fill a large glass with ice water.

Dave was hunched over when Dirk walked back into the bathroom. He was still sitting on the edge of the tub, but his arms were folded on the far side of the toilet seat so he could rest his forehead on them instead of holding it up over the bowl. Dirk sat down next to him and lay his forearm along Dave's spine, patting him between the shoulderblades as he drew in deep, shaky breaths, the same way he had comforted his son when they were both so much younger.

"I'm good," Dave mumbled, lifting his head far enough to avoid any splashback as he flushed. "Feel so great, how d' I look?"

"Like shit," Dirk replied, moving his hand as he stood up again. He ran a washcloth under the faucet and passed it back to Dave so he could wipe his face. "So what's with the codeine shrine in your drawer?"

"Keeps my ego in check. Big head gets big headaches," Dave said. "Mouthwash," he added, standing up unsteadily to move to the vanity. "Still can't see."

"Here," Dirk said as he picked up the bottle. "Which cup is yours?"

"Batman."

"Solid choice," he said as he poured a shot of Listerine into the plastic Batman tumbler by the sink, and passed it to Dave. "Not to tell you how to live your life at all, but you got a good amount of upchuck on your shorts."

Dave just groaned again as he spat out his mouthwash and dumped the entire cup into the sink without rinsing anything. He stood still for a moment, bracing himself on the edge of the counter with his eyes closed.

"Okay," he said, turning unsteadily. "Drugs, lots of drugs. Please."

"You need a hand with the shorts?" Dirk asked, guiding Dave across the hallway and into his bedroom. "Here, sit," he added once they were beside the bed.

"Think that's weird," Dave mumbled, accepting the glass of water in one hand and his pills in the other; Dirk watched him knock both back at once, then drain the entire glass. "Thanks," he added as he fumbled with the button and fly of his shorts, dropping them to the floor as he fell back onto his mattress, unmoving. "Made it," he murmured. "All gee."

Dirk leaned over to pick up the abandoned shorts and helped Dave to turn onto his side, even lifting his head to slide a pillow under it for him. He squeezed his shoulder again but Dave just shrugged him off, so he threw the shorts into the laundry basket and pulled the door closed on his way out, leaving the bedroom in darkness.

+++

-- tipsyGnostalgic [TG] opened memo on board CHOLDREN UR MAMA NEEDS ATTN at 18:46 EST--

tentacleTherapist [TT] joined memo!
ghostyTrickster [GT] joined memo!
turntechGodhead [TG] joined memo!
gardenGnostic [GG] joined memo!

turntechGodhead [TG] is an idle chum!

TG: ok i dont no what time it is 4 all of u rite now
TG: but mama is home n sad n lonely an tryin to sort out this big new family so i need to kno
TG: whos gonna b home for xmas and where do u wanna have xmas???

TT: Almost midnight; not sure; not in John's dorm room.
GT: it's the same time here as it is at your house, roxy! and i guess it depends on what you mean by home.
GT: we can't have any parties in my dorm because i don't think that's allowed.

TT: How boring. My dorm was a delight.
TG: u lived in one for like mayb a semester
TT: What of it?
TG: man my dorm back in th day was fab
TG: i lived in dorms for like six yrs
TG: or 7 i dunno

GG: its almost lunchtime here!! bec says hi!!!!
TG: jadey bby where are u and y are u so hard to call
GG: because im using my satellite connection so its kind of hit and miss :/
TG: ok but where are u
GG: i think im home?? did you know grandpa owned a whole entire ass island???
GT: an ass island?
TT: An ass island?
TG: ass island lmao
GG: :(
TG: ok ok back to me
TG: i wanna start organigeing xmas
TG: lol organigeing
TG: just got my nails done srry
TG: we can go 2 seattle or upstate ny or super upstate ny or brooklyn
TG: danm we got lots of places

GT: when you say brooklyn, do you mean dave's house?
TG: y
GT: okay but no. it's way too small.
TG: yeah but hes not here 2 say no so i thought y not try
TT: I am not flying across the Atlantic to sleep in Dave's asscrack.
TG: ok ok so seattle or upstate or super upstate
TT: Why are there two New York options?
TG: bcase dirk isnt here to say no
TT: Shall I also volunteer my flat as an option without consulting my wife or our children?
GG: i havent been to europe in so long!
TT: You are absolutely welcome any time, you know.
GG: oooohhh ill see what i can do, maybe theres a small team out that way that need some help for a while. my boss has been totally accommodating lately <3 <3
TG: tryin to do a huge xmas over here!!!
GT: toilets.
GG: mine is composting!
GT: gross. my house only has two.
TG: oh good point
TG: i have 5 is that enough

TT: For nine adults, two dogs, and two cats?
TG: u want me to install more
TG: mby in the hallway
TG: not gonna lie i wanted 2 see what dirk would do if we all turned up

TT: If you want to be the one to surprise him, be my guest. But just so it's in writing, I will not play any part in surprising a man who has never once enjoyed a surprise.
TG: tru
TG: siiiiiiiiigh
TG: what a shame u all have to come 2 my house for xmas its decided
TG: johnny ill tell dad 2 organise working frm home for dec and u should remember 2 bring dave
TG: rosie we can play the but noo mom i dont want u to pay for flights game but we shuld wrap it up by mid nov ok
TG: jadey u keep me updated where u are but u are totally coming this xmas u have missed 2 many and i will not stand 4 u avoiding my lovely lovely house anymore
TG: davey u can train or drive or whatev bring john
TG: everyone agreee

TT: I have the strangest feeling you really just steered us all into the decision you wanted.
TG: no!!!
TG: gonna go start cleaning
TG: love u all babies
TG: :* :* :* :* 1 each lol

+++

He was hesitant to call it a date, but only because the entire evening had been built around what he wanted to do. He had tickets that were non-negotiable. He wasn't even planning on using the preview screening as material for a blog post, or a video, or any kind of review; that could all wait until the general release date. But he'd managed to get tickets, two tickets, to the pre-release screening of the Downton Abbey movie and so the rest of the night had just been arranged around them being at the Williamsburg Cinema fifteen minutes before the previews were scheduled to begin.

Terezi had even been on her best behaviour the entire time, and her most petty jab at the end of the film - that it was nice to see that Lady Mary was still a petulant bitch - was a sentiment he agreed with wholeheartedly.

When she was the one to suggest heading straight home after the movie finished, of course he agreed. He'd just spent two hours with her pressed up against him, under his arm, so he could rest his cheek on her hair as he watched a big screen adaptation of one of the most romantic television series he could remember airing in his lifetime.

She'd kissed him in the elevator. It was a long, lingering kiss that meant it was entirely up to him how the rest of their night went; he kissed her back, softly, slowly. That was what he wanted. Boring, she'd quipped as the elevator doors opened on their floor. He just kissed her again, one hand in her hair and the other trailing down to creep just under the hem of her shirt, assuring her that next time they'd do it her way. She laughed again, her most reserved laugh with none of the cockiness she gave off in public, but stopped short when he added a much more specific detail of his plans for the evening. They were at the apartment door by then, and she agreed that while that did sound incredibly satisfying, exactly how satisfying was most likely dependent on how many times he was willing to repeat what he'd described.

"How much time have you got?" Karkat asked in response, the question obviously rhetorical.

"Well it is not even ten o'clock yet but I do have a very important class in the morning," Terezi said, lifting her tinted glasses up into her hair as she followed him through the open door. "But all of my classes are important and if I am late because I have to spent all night with your face between my th - what?"

Karkat had stopped only a few steps into the apartment, causing Terezi to bump into him as she tried to close the front door behind them.

"We've got some fucking company," he said through gritted teeth, a sudden rush of anger rising in his chest before he could even register the shift in his emotions. As he threw his keys onto the kitchen counter, he slammed a fist down to try and release some of the immediate feelings of rage at having his plans interrupted, but it didn't exactly help.

"Shit, hey, kids, what's up?"

It was never going to stop being weird, Karkat thought as he flexed his fingers. Finding out that Dave's father was Di-Stri had been one of the most polarising moments of his teenage years, and the fact that the guy treated him no differently to anyone else Dave had ever known or been related to still fucked with his head.

And he'd just interrupted one of the most perfect dates he'd ever had.

"Hey," Karkat said cautiously, as he kicked off his sneakers. "What're you doing here?"

"Watching SVU, mostly," Dirk replied from the couch. His feet were on the coffee table, and he had his cell phone in one hand and the TV remote in the other. "And vaguely fulfilling some of my regularly scheduled parental duties in the laziest way possible."

"Ohh," Terezi said slowly, after dumping her bag and removing her shoes. "Dirk?"

"The one and only," Dirk replied, and turned the volume down a few notches. "He's been out for about six hours, I've checked on him a few times to make sure he's still breathing."

"Is he?" Terezi asked.

"Unfortunately for us, yeah," Dirk scoffed. "So what's been going on with you two?"

"We were just on a very romantic date," she said, dropping cross-legged onto the free end of the couch. "Karkat cried at the movies, and I did not laugh at him at all."

"I did not," Karkat protested from where he was still standing in the kitchen. "A few well timed tears isn't fucking crying."

"Oh, it absolutely is," she retorted. "Anyway, we were going to have equally very romantic sex but I think we have been cockblocked because it would probably be weird now, right?"

"Can we talk about literally anything else before I throw myself out the fucking window, please?" Karkat tried glaring at her, as useless as it was, but only succeeded in getting a laugh out of Dirk in response.

"Sorry, I would've fucked off if I'd known what was at stake," Dirk said, grinning. "I still can, if you want."

"It's okay, you've totally ruined the mood already," Terezi said brightly. "Karkat will not be able to get this out of his head for days, so can we all just move on and talk shit about Dave while he is presumably in a drug-induced stupor?"

"Yeah, he's totally out of it," Dirk confirmed. "What do you want to know?"

"What have you got? I am running very low on embarrassing material these days, even though you would think living with him would be an endless goldmine of embarrassing material," she said, turning her head to try and figure out where Karkat had gone.

"Fuck, there's all the usual embarrassing kid shit like pissing his pants when he was probably too old to be pissing his pants, but he's got next to no shame so embarrassing was always hard to pin down," Dirk said.

"No fucking shame, more like," Karkat scowled as he dropped down into Dave's work chair behind the couch; at least there he wasn't directly in Dirk's line of sight and could buy himself a little more time to calm down. "But we all knew that."

"That is not entirely true," Terezi said. "Last week he was very embarrassed because he posted a photo to the wrong Instagram account and now his DMs are full of people telling him that he has done a very bad Photoshop job on fucking up his eyes."

"Was that he one with the cat all over him?" Dirk asked.

"Yes," she said. "He accidentally posted it to one of his most public accounts. He was very embarrassed by that, Karkat had to spend a whole night consoling him just because hundreds of thousands of people saw the top half of his face for the first time. You could not even tell that he waxed his eyebrows, or so I am told."

Karkat snorted; he'd almost forgotten about that incident.

"He did what now?" Dirk asked, grinning as he turned to Karkat for confirmation.

"She dared him," he said with a shrug. "Put him on the fucking spot so there was no way he'd say no."

"We were already there because I can't see my eyebrows," Terezi explained.

"Sure, obviously," Dirk nodded.

"It was not even a hard sell. I just bet him that he would be too chicken shit to do it and he sat down before I could even put a monetary value on the situation. The only disappointment was that he did not scream."

"Interesting," Dirk said, glancing down at his phone. "Look, not to say I don't enjoy a good gossip about my kid and his twisted system of shame, but how about I fuck off so you can get on with whatever you were doing?"

Terezi laughed loudly, and turned to look at Karkat over the back of the couch.

"It is worth a shot," she said, flashing him a wide grin.

"Up to you," Karkat shrugged noncommittally, trying to sound far more relaxed than he felt.

"Like I said, I would have fucked off earlier if I'd known what I was interrupting," Dirk said as he stood up, checking his pockets for his wallet and keys. "Trust me. I've been there, done that."

"Is that too much information?" Terezi asked, her head following the sounds of Dirk's footsteps. "It feels like too much information."

"It's not," Karkat interrupted, before she could say anything else. "It's a perfectly appropriate amount of information between adults having a normal conversation, I'll lock the door," he added, standing up as well and following Dirk back across the apartment. "The deadbolt. From the inside."

"Nice save," Dirk said. "At the risk of sounding like a normal overbearing parental figure, he'll probably wake up in another hour or two looking for drugs so if you hear him, can you tell him he's already had the T4's? And his door's open just enough to let the cat in and out, so take from that what you will."

"Yeah, whatever. Sounds like a totally normal Thursday night around here," he muttered. "Okay, bye."

"Thanks, Vantas."

Karkat slammed the door and flicked the bolt across, immediately kicking his heel back against the timber.

"Do you want me to ask the question or should I just let you explode in your own time?" Terezi asked from the couch. Her glasses were back down on her face, resting on the tip of her nose as she hung over the arm to face his direction. She propped her chin up with one hand.

"What question? That was a totally fucking normal interaction we just had with Dave's uncle slash father slash whatever the fuck he's going by these days," Karkat replied shortly, moving as far as the kitchen counter; at least there he could slump forward and while the surface was cool on his cheek, it was hard enough to rattle his skull when he smacked his forehead against it.

"Actually he is John's uncle now," she corrected. "And the obvious question is actually two questions, because part two is very dependant on the answer to part one."

"What's the question, Terezi?" Karkat asked. His face was still pressed into the kitchen counter.

"Part one is do you want to talk about it, because you kind of seem like you are stuck trying to decide whether or not you should throw a tantrum."

"I haven't decided yet, ask me again in ten minutes. What's part two?"

"Am I still getting laid tonight?"

"Ask me again in ten minutes."

"Okay," she said. "Or."

"Or what?"

He looked up, and Terezi's head was lying on the counter next to his; he hadn't even heard her move across the living room.

"I am going to go to bed, and when you have finished having your tantrum you are welcome to join me," she said. "I am going to be very naked though. That part is non-negotiable but I am open to a wide range of other negotiations."

Karkat huffed and Terezi laughed again, that same laugh she'd given him in the hallway earlier; she wasn't laughing at him, just at his unnecessarily over the top reactions to the world at large.

"Give me five minutes," he mumbled.

"Five is much better than ten," she replied, reaching over to pat his cheek.

She was gone when he opened his eyes. He pulled his phone from his pocket as he crossed the room and threw himself down on the couch; he had five minutes, and he was going to spend every second of that time feeling ridiculously sorry for himself.

The phone vibrated in his hand and he almost dropped it onto his face when the alert popped up on the screen.

TT: Sorry for being an unexpected boner kill. For what it's worth, it seemed like you were still in with more than a chance to me. Remember to wrap it up.

+++

-- golgothasTerror [GT] began pestering ghostyTrickster [GT] at 07:24 --

GT: Johnny boy! Are you awake at this hour
GT: haha, hi. yeah i'm having breakfast, there's tater tots this morning so i'm waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting cafeteria lady when she brings out a fresh batch. are you awake at this hour?
GT: Use your head i messaged you first
GT: oh lol. what's up?
GT: Absolutely nothing i just wanted to see if you were awake
GT: really?
GT: Of course not! I have some *very* exciting news!
GT: very exciting, huh? as exciting as the cafeteria lady shouting to the cafeteria man to hurry up with the tater tots?
GT: Far more exciting than tater tots!!
GT: i don't know about that. she looks pleased with his answer so it won't be long now.
GT: I assure you this news is more exciting than deep fried potato breakfasts
GT: is it though?
GT: It is astounding news that could very well reshape the very nature of all of our lives john
GT: but is it more exciting than jade promising to be at roxy's house for christmas for the first time ever?
GT: Actually thats some very exciting news but whats this about christmas
GT: oh lol roxy must be super lonely because dad's in seattle so he can go to work at work, she talked to me and rose and jade and dave's idle account last night about we should do for christmas this year.
GT: Did she now
GT: yeah, dave's idle account didn't say much.
GT: Imagine trying to organise things for christmas in september
GT: haha yeah. she did kind of just actually say she was pretty lonely without dad though.
GT: Im sure she is but if we could get back to the important issues here that would be tip top
GT: still no tots.
GT: John focus. We have officially made an offer on the apartment you and i examined a fortnight ago and are currently in negotiations to get a better price. Of course by that i mean dirk is in negotiations with agents and appraisers and even a bank manager i think
GT: wow, he went straight to the manager, huh?
GT: Not a manager just one of those experts they have who try and convince you youre getting the best mortgage they have ever offered. Naturally he doesnt believe them so hes called in another expert to read over some paperwork with him and there may even be a lawyer involved although that could be the expert. I dont know at this stage hell give me the run down when he gets home tomorrow
GT: focus jake :P
GT: Is this not exciting news
GT: it sure is! but are you sure you want me to live there next semester? i can't afford it without more student loans and boy do i have a lot of student loans already. my college fund didn't exactly fund this much extra college.
GT: Dont be daft im not expecting you to take out thousands of dollars in loans for the privilege of having your own private toilet!! Consider it house sitting more than anything else
GT: are you sure? i'm still not sure you're sure.
GT: Im very sure
GT: gotta go, good luck with the bank manager!
GT: John

ghostyTrickster [GT] is an idle chum!

GT: Oh of course the tater tots were ready werent they

+++

His room was dark, but that was nothing new, and when he finally chanced opening his eyes the dull screen of his phone was still out of focus. Siri told him it was after seven in the morning and he groaned; his head was throbbing and he had a sharp pain somewhere behind his left eye, but it felt like he'd managed to sleep through the worst of the migraine.

He fumbled around for a pair of glasses as he sat up, head heavy; bathroom, water, drugs. That was all he wanted, in that order, and maybe another six hours of sleep. He'd settle for six hours of lying in the dark.

Eventually he made it to the kitchen, fumbling along with a hand on the wall, then the counter, then a row of cupboards, where he downed three glasses of water and was filling a fourth when the Mayor jumped up beside him and meowed loudly.

"I have fed him already, he is lying to you."

Dave choked.

"Mornin'," he gasped, coughing over the sink to try and stop his body from thinking it was drowning in half a mouthful of water.

"You still cannot see, can you?"

"Kind of," he said, gulping down the rest of his water once his throat cleared. "Too bright, too fuzzy, 'm too sensitive to the drops. Takes just long enough to clear that I get to shit myself until tomorrow. So you were there the whole time, huh?"

"I was being very obvious," Terezi said from the living room. "But you weren't listening."

"I'm not hashtag blessed with your full-time blind babe super powers, Rez. I think I pissed all over the fucking bathroom," Dave said as he ran a hand down the Mayor's back, giving in to the cat's persistent demands for scratches.

"You could sit down."

"I was sitting down."

"Ha, what a bitch," she said, pushing him aside to get to the dishwasher; he hadn't even heard her move until she was right beside him. "Speaking of bitches, last night when we got home your dad was here."

"Why's he a bitch?"

"He is not, Karkat is the bitch."

"Yeah, that checks out," Dave said, filling his glass again to take back into his room. "How'd the movies go? Did he cry?"

"Of course he did, ugh, he's so dumb I love it," Terezi said with an air of feigned disgust. "We got home and your dad was here so we had to pause our date for Karkat to have a tantrum."

"One day I'm gonna tell him to his face how weird it is to idolise the guy who thought he was helping the situation when he tried to simultaneously rip out two of my baby teeth with his bare hands," Dave muttered, more to himself than Terezi. He scrunched up his eyes to try and clear some of the haze in his vision, but it didn't make any difference. "Post-tantrum nap, got it," he added.

"I think he is just sleeping," she said dismissively. "He got over it very quickly."

"Bullshit he did."

"I assure you that he was too preoccupied to run his mouth with his petty first world complaints."

"Gotcha," Dave said. "Remind me I owe you a fist bump later, 'm going back to bed," he added, picking up his glass again. "Have fun at school, don't start any fights."

"Law school is all about starting fights," Terezi said as she collected her lunch from the fridge. "Actually, it is about winning fights and I am unbelievably good at it."

"Yeah, you are. Later," he said.

Dave was exhausted by the time he collapsed back onto his bed. When he reached for his medication, he took a pill from the first bottle he picked up; he didn't care how strong it was, as long as it worked. The sharp pain behind his eye was still shooting back into his skull as he picked up his phone to dictate a message for Dirk; he was totally fine, but also totally going back to sleep and would text some actual words later.

How much later it was when he suddenly jerked awake, he didn't know. Unsurprisingly, he still had a headache but the stabbing sensation seemed to have subsided sometime during his nap. It was the door, he realised when he noticed the strip of light; his bedroom door was open and it was most likely the sound of it opening that had woken him up.

"Not dead," he mumbled, rolling onto his back as he gave a weak thumbs up. "What a champ, didn't die in the night, love it."

"Unfortunately for us," Karkat replied snarkily from the doorway.

"Bitch," Dave snorted. "I heard you went ballistic last night."

"In my piss poor defence, that's a fifty-fifty possibility on any given morning."

"Eighty-twenty."

"Sixty-forty, best offer."

"Seventy-thirty, that's the magic number," Dave countered.

"Speak for yourself."

"I'm still pretty fucked up, dude. I forgot what we were debating halfway through," he said. "You gonna sit down or fuck off?"

"It's almost twelve," Karkat said, pushing off from the doorframe he was leaning against. He crossed the room and sat down on the foot of Dave's bed, then shuffled back to lean against the wall. "Friday."

"Tell my boss I'm calling in sick," Dave replied dismissively, dropping his arm over his face to put off dealing with his still-blurry vision for just a little longer. "What's he been doing, anyway?"

"Slept on my desk all morning. He was taking a shit last time I saw him. You do mean the Mayor, right?"

"Yeah, I miss him so much."

"Want me to go find him?" Karkat offered.

"Nah, I'll get up soon," Dave mumbled. "So rumor on the schoolyard grapevine says you got lucky last night even though you cried over a period drama."

"Fuck off, I wasn't crying. I shed an appropriate amount of tears at the appropriate time."

"Okay but the real punchline here is that the actual Di-Stri knows you bumped uglies last night."

"You're so fucking lucky it's a crime to beat a cripple to death in his own bed," Karkat snarled, kicking Dave's foot when it started getting a little too close. After a brief moment of silence, he exhaled sharply through his nose, as if he'd been struggling to reign in another outburst. "So do you still feel like shit?"

"Like shit, but shit warmed up," Dave said. "Still got a headache. Still got a pain in my ass no amount of opiates can touch."

"Do you want me to fuck off?"

"No," he said; he didn't care if he'd said it too quickly for it to be any kind of cool. "This is such a bitch-ass move but I want you to do the opposite of fuck off right now and help me out because I can't see shit. I know it's totally taking advantage of your instincts to coddle anything this pitiful, but I really need to piss right now and I really need a hand getting there asap, if that's not a wildly overreaching thing to ask your roommate," Dave said as he sat up on the edge of the bed.

"Roommate? That's the downgrade of the century," Karkat replied shortly, swinging his legs back off the end of the bed.

"Can we save the semantics debate for when I can think of some good semantics? I'm low on words right now so I'd savour it if I was you."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Hurry up though because I'm not cleaning your piss off the bathroom floor again."

"Hey, I tried," Dave said; Karkat scoffed but started leading him out of the room anyway, standing behind him with his hands up on his shoulders.

"Not hard enough, just fucking sit down this time," he said. "Bathroom door," he added, so Dave could push it open.

"Ugh, I was. Still managed to piss everywhere."

"Dumb bitch," Karkat laughed loudly and stepped back out into the hall, leaving the door open behind him.

"You want to play that game, huh?" Dave asked, continuing the conversation even though Karkat had obviously walked out of the bathroom. "Even hopped up on meds I can play that game and win, because I invited Bro over for pizza night. Now who's the bitch?"

+++

-- timaeusTestified [TT] began pestering tipsyGnostalgic [TG] at 12:42 --

TT: Roxy.
TG: r u still in nyc
TT: Yes. I'm on my way to a meeting with a lawyer. Or, with my lawyer since it's the same one I used to buy my last house. Look at me adapting to my new home location and finding a new, more local lawyer.
TG: thats bs six counties over isnt local
TT: I'm buying in this county. Ergo, local.
TG: ergo insufferable
TG: hows dave

TT: Alive. He slept until an hour ago but I'm heading back to his place after my meetings, I'll update you then.
TG: any upd8s on his results
TT: Same as they've always been. He's getting a new pair of prescription glasses, just a minor adjustment and nothing he wouldn't have needed at this age even without the condition. They're also trying him on blue light filters since he spends all day looking at screens. Again, standard for someone of his age and profession with just a few tweaks to account for his other issues.
TG: good news??
TT: Good news.
TT: Less good news for you.

TG: ??????
TT: At the risk of sounding dramatic, you're a spiteful bitch who ruined everything I have been meticulously planning.
TG: ???????????????
TT: Since when do you plan for Christmas in September?
TG: omg who told u
TG: omg srsly
TG: u wanna do xmas
TG: at ur house

TT: Is that so farfetched?
TG: but i hve 5 toilets
TT: Weird flex. I have four.
TG: u rlly wanna have xmas at ur house?
TG: whole family, mayb 2 dogs, etc?

TT: We both know that at some stage I crossed the point of no return and now my life is disgustingly normal and as close to perfect as things get, and not even ironically.
TT: My plan is to ride that out as long as possible and push it so hard it rolls back around to a new stage of irony.
TT: Big house, happy husband, pet dog, open fire. Which part of that doesn't scream cozy family Christmas?

TG: u make me sick
TT: I know. But like a normal person, I was going to wait until at least post-Halloween to even mention Christmas.
TG: u had the idea in june yeah
TT: March. I packed our single box of Christmas decorations and asked Jake if he'd want to host the holidays.
TG: ur cute
TG: a ragin lunatic tbh
TG: ur sure?

TT: Yes.
TG: kk heres what ive got so far
TG: me n him
TG: u and urs
TG: all 5 kids n bec

TT: Food, beds, gifts, decorations. I know. I'm on it.
TG: omg
TG: u kno im all about whatever wacky shit ur into u just gotta tell me

TT: We've been over this. You're supposed to just assume that everything involving me needs to be run by me six months in advance.
TG: lmao sure thats gona happen
TT: I'm about to walk into my lawyers' office. I'll call you later and we can talk about whatever issue led to you trying to plan something three and a half months in advance.
TG: thats easy im lonely
TT: Obviously. But right now, I can't hear your problems over the sounds of me and my husband officially becoming property tycoons.
TG: tycoon is a bit 2 much
TT: Two guys, four properties. Tycoons.
TG: im a wizard tycoon lmao
TT: Yeah, you are. Go use your powers for good.
TG: siiiiigh i guess ill go rite another award winnig discussion paper abt my top secret deep sapce project i gotta redo the math
TT: Space tycoon.
TG: ooh i like that
TG: gonna put it on my new buiieness cards
TG: see ya :*

-- timaeusTestified [TT] ceased being pestered by tipsyGnostalgic [TG] --

Chapter Text

January, 1987

His face was impassive as she walked through the living room, deliberately taking her time to pass from one doorway to the other. She noticed the way he drummed his fingers on the arm of the couch, his other arm in his lap as he clutched the VCR remote. His cheeks were flushed, just a little, as if he'd overheard someone talking about him from the next room over.

Or he'd been caught doing something he wanted to keep to himself.

"That was Mom on the phone," Roxy called back over her shoulder from the kitchen. "We're having chicken pot pie for dinner and she asked me to put it in the oven. She's leaving the office in ten minutes."

"And?" Dirk replied, annoyed. He hit play on the remote, and the Oilers game from the weekend started up again on the TV. "There, see? That side step," he added, as if continuing a long-abandoned conversation.

"And is your buddy staying or what?"

In the living room, Dirk shook his head tersely at the other boy who seemed equally as alarmed by Roxy's suggestion.

"We're just watching Gretzky. He's leaving in four minutes."

"Why four?"

"Two minutes in the period, two to put his jacket on."

"Fries or pasta?" Roxy called, slamming more cupboards.

"Fries! Shut up!"

She seemed to make even more noise after that; stomping around the kitchen in her heavy slippers, rummaging through oven trays, opening and closing the fridge.

Between the sounds of his sister trying to cook dinner for the family and the crowd cheering on the recorded game as the period siren rang, Dirk reached across the couch and pulled the other boy towards him by the front of his shirt; he kissed him, hard, then pushed him away again before either of them could forget where they were.

"You want to borrow the tape?" Dirk asked, raising his voice and making his footsteps across the living room as equally obvious as his sisters' in the kitchen. "I already watched it twice yesterday."

"Sure, I'll bring it to practice tomorrow," the boy said; Dirk's ears pricked at the kitchen sounds coming closer.

The visitor was standing in the foyer by the time Roxy trudged back into the living room; Dirk was back on his end of the couch staring intently as Bob Barker introduced the prizes for that evening's episode of The Price is Right.

"Rad. Later."

The door slammed, sending a light flurry of snow into the front hall.

"So why were you watching the game for a third time?" Roxy asked, dropping down onto the other end of the couch from her brother and offering him the bag of Cool Ranch Doritos she was carrying.

"Just the highlights," Dirk said without looking away from the TV game show.

The tips of his ears were still red.

"Cool," she shrugged, and dug her hand into the bag.

"Don't you have homework to do?" Dirk snapped.

"No, I finished physics," Roxy said brightly.

"What do you mean you finished it?"

"I mean I finished the textbook. I finished physics."

"It's only January."

"Yeah, my teacher is gonna get me some shit from one of his college professor buddies to do for the rest of the year," she said, as if the fact she'd finished an entire semester of work almost four months early was nothing. "So are you guys dating or what?"

Dirk felt the colour draining from his face even as he struggled to keep his expression flat.

"I'm not a fucking fag."

"That's not exactly what I asked," she said, rolling her eyes as she licked all the flavour off one side of a perfect dorito. "I just asked if you were dating."

"I'm not," he said, through gritted teeth.

"Not dating or not a fag, because at least one of those things is a lie," Roxy said, as one of her legs shot out to stop him from standing up. "Dude, just tell me."

"I'm not telling you shit," Dirk snarled, shoving her leg hard enough that the momentum forced her to fall off the couch completely and spill her doritos onto the white carpet.

"Hey!" Roxy shouted after her brother as he stormed out of the living room. "I was just asking!"

His bedroom door slammed shut so hard that his third grade school photo fell off the wall in the hallway.

+++

Roxy didn't bother knocking, because she heard the Beastie Boys start over for a second time from her own room next door; it was loud enough that Dirk couldn't be doing anything that required him to actually concentrate, but not loud enough that their parents could hear it from downstairs.

Even Dirk knew better than to try that shit when MacGuyver was on.

"Fuck off," he said bitterly, flipping a page in Lord of the Flies. "I mean it, fuck off!"

"Nah," Roxy said, settling down on the bed next to him with her legs crossed. "Didn't you already read that over the summer?"

"Test next week," he muttered; if she wouldn't leave, he could just ignore her. At least she'd closed the door behind her. "What do you want?"

"I saw you," she said. "I totally saw you macking on him so I came back up here, but then Mom rang so I tried to be as loud as possible," Roxy said, watching her brother's face closely as she spoke. "I mean, I kind of knew already, but you knew that I knew, right?"

Dirk risked glancing up at her over the top of his book, his eyes flicking up and then back to his spot on the page without skipping a word.

"What do you mean you knew? There's nothing to know."

"I literally saw you with your tongue down his throat."

"No, you didn't."

"I mean, I did though."

"Take a fucking hint, what's your damage anyway?" Dirk snapped, slamming his book shut. "You saw shit, okay?"

"Chill out, I'm not gonna tell anyone, fuck," Roxy said, rolling her eyes. "I don't care, like, at all."

"Whatever."

"Serious, I don't. If I cared I would've left your porno magazine in the bathroom last October instead of shoving it into your backpack before anyone else saw it." She let that comment hang in the air between them. "And I wouldn't have convinced Dad to pay for that team building camp you went on at the start of the hockey season."

He just stared at her in the moment of silence between The New Style and She's Crafty.

"I'm not like that," he said, narrowing his eyes as he cautiously tested her response; not that he'd admitted to anything.

"Like what?"

"That."

"Gay," Roxy supplied, when her brother seemed incapable of even saying the word. "I already told you I don't care."

"Shut up!" Dirk yelled as loudly as he dared, diving forward to tackle his sister off his bed. "I'm not a fucking faggot!"

He had her pinned to the floor by then, one fist clenched as it gripped the front of her shirt and the other resting on the carpet beside her face; to her credit, Roxy had only been briefly shocked when he knocked her backwards.

"Okay, okay," she said, raising her hands in surrender. "You're not, whatever. Just your boyfriend is, right?"

"Shut up!" Dirk hissed again. He lifted her off the floor by her shirt, just far enough that when he let go, her head dropped roughly back onto the carpet. "Get off my back and shut up, because the absolute last thing I need in my fucking life is you getting me kicked out, or kicked off the team, or my fucking face kicked in!"

Roxy just lay on the carpet beneath him, waiting. When she didn't say anything, Dirk sat up on his knees and ran his hands through his hair; he was shaking, but he didn't know why. When his sister dragged herself back on the carpet, disentangling her legs from his, he didn't try to stop her.

"So on Saturday night, I was at this party, right, and I totally made out with one of the senior girls from the Catholic school," Roxy said, tightening the scrunchie in her hair. "It was freaky hot."

"What?"

Dirk had only just made it back to his feet by then, and for the briefest moment he considered kicking her, hard, in the ribs. He clenched his fists again and stepped over her instead.

"What?" Roxy shrugged. "I was totally drunk. It was still hot though, and she was a good kisser. Whatever, we're talking about you not me and now it's your turn."

"It's not a fucking game," he snapped. "Why can't you get that through your thick skull? There's no game, there's nothing to talk about, just leave me alone!"

"Okay," she said irritably, as she sat up on the floor and leant back against the side of his bed. "Like, you can say that if you want but it seemed kinda like you were totally okay with it when you were all over him before."

"I'm okay with it, but you know who's not? Dad. Or Mom, or basically anyone else in this fucking city, or state, and I've already had my ass handed to me over it this week because that's my fucking life, right? I get my ass beat by one guy every fucking week or he opens his mouth and I get my ass beat every day by whoever wants to take a fucking swing," Dirk hissed. "Are you happy now? Lucky you, now every time you fuck up you can parade me out like I'm so sorry for embarrassing you again Daddy but at least I'm not a huge queer like Dirk!"

"You're okay with it?" Roxy asked after a tense silence, more gently than before.

"Yeah. Not really, I guess. I can't do anything about it, so," he shrugged; it was more of an involuntary twitch than anything else.

He couldn't do anything about it. He'd tried for years, because he could manipulate almost anything if he tried hard enough. Everyone made a big deal over Molly Ringwald movies but even watching them over again on video made no difference - she was pretty, yeah, but it was almost like he knew she was pretty because everyone said so. He didn't want to kiss her, didn't want to take her to prom, nothing.

He'd seen Top Gun at least four times in theatres, and it wasn't the action sequences he kept replaying in his mind.

Roxy patted the carpet beside her and he sat down, reluctantly, leaving enough space between them to let her know he needed the distance.

"If it helps, I'm really, totally okay with it," she said.

"Bullshit," he snorted.

"What? I am. It's wild, I know, but I've known you your whole life," Roxy said. "And I've seen you do some pretty fucked up shit so if you're gay it's like, not even the most radical thing you've done this year."

Dirk vaguely recalled the school suspension he'd been given a week into the Fall semester; he'd deserved it, because he was solely responsible for setting off the fire alarm in the hopes that his shop teacher would forget to give him a detention for smoking after the evacuation.

"I am," he muttered. "Queer."

"I mean, the hardcore gay porno magazine I found in the bathroom kind of gave it away," Roxy said. "It wasn't mine and that's our bathroom so it was a pretty quick process of elimination. How'd you even get that, anyway?"

"Stole it."

"Aw, you're doing petty crimes without me now?"

"We stole smokes like, twice," he said.

"That was fun," Roxy said with a smile. "We should do it again sometime," she added, elbowing him when she noticed he was peeling the corner of his thumbnail. "I won't tell anyone, cross my heart."

"I'll just deny it if you do. I don't look like a fag and I'm not gonna start dressing like one."

"What if someone finds out?" Roxy asked. "What do you want me to do?"

"Tell them I'm not," Dirk scowled. "Because in two and a half years I can move to the city, or even fucking California if I want. It's not that long."

"What if it's Mom and Dad that find out?"

"I'll kill myself before they can ship me off to fuck knows where to get my ass beat, but like, institutionally."

"No, really," Roxy said, elbowing him again. "I wanna help, what if they find out?"

"Yesterday when you were watching MTV Dad said if I ever came home looking like Boy George he'd beat me himself," Dirk said. "Then I passed him the wrench. It was a bonding moment."

"So we don't let them find out, cool," Roxy said. "I hate to break it to you but I'm getting out of here for college as soon as I can, like for different reasons but we've got the same shitty parents so you can't hate me for it."

"That's not why I hate you," he scowled.

"You don't though, I'm the best older sister anyone could ask for and here's the deal that proves it," she said. "College, right? So that means you've got half a year of me to just like, make a totally big deal of myself around here. You know, like if they focus on me there's less attention on you. I'm willing to do pretty much anything except get pregnant, because they'd definitely ship me off for that and you'd just be back to square one. I applied to Princeton. Astrophysics."

"Cool. They'll probably take you just because you're a girl."

"I know, it's awesome. I totally played that up in my application letter."

Dirk chewed the corner of his thumbnail to even out the jagged edge left behind where he'd torn it earlier.

"Did you really kiss that girl or were you just trying to make me feel better about existing?"

"I kissed her, yeah. It was kind of hot but I think that was only because my boyfriend was watching. I just wanted to see what it was like," Roxy shrugged. "It was okay. You still haven't told me if you've got a boyfriend."

"No," Dirk said, still staring across the room. "He's got a girlfriend, anyway. We just fool around sometimes."

"He's cute," she said, with a sad smile her brother didn't see. "How long have you been just fooling around?"

"Since hockey camp, before the season," he admitted. "He kissed me so I punched him for thinking I wanted him to. Then I kissed him so he punched me. Sometimes we skip the punching, but it's hard. There's always people watching who'd do a hell of a lot worse than throw a punch if they found out. You really won't narc on me?"

"Not for macking on a guy in the living room. But if you ever fuck with my super nerdy equation chalkboard again, I'll snap every single record you own."

"Wasn't me," Dirk said quickly.

"Yeah, because Mom can do calculus." They both laughed at the thought, Roxy more loudly than her brother. She put a hand down on his knee and pushed off the floor until she was standing. "I gotta bounce," she said.

"You think things will ever change?" Dirk asked suddenly. "Like, actually change?"

"You mean like, in general? I hope so," Roxy said, patting his head as she sat back down, on the edge of his bed this time. On the floor beside her, Dirk leaned over to rest his cheek on her knee. "But I don't think anything's ever gonna change in this house. You're pretty cool though. I'm on your team, promise."

"Great, a hacker girl and a faggot, fucking amazing team." The record moved on to the next song. "Awesome, my favourite track," he deadpanned.

Roxy burst out laughing and fell backwards on her brother's bed as the sound of Girls filled his bedroom.

Chapter Text

September, 2019

"How much time do you think we've spent in airports?"

"You don't have a spreadsheet?"

"Surprisingly, not on me. I could probably put one together but we'd run into the persistent problem in our lives that is your haphazard approach to filing tax receipts," Dirk said, failing in his attempt to sound as cocky as he'd intended; as far as Jake's faults went, his disdain for paperwork was one of the more endearing ones. He put his coffee cup down on the Dunkin' Donuts table and used his free hand to check for the backpack on the seat beside him; it was still there.

"Oh, ten points to Slytherin for the use of haphazard in a sentence," Jake said brightly as he stirred a third sugar packet into his own cup. "But I'd wager a good year or two of our lives, thereabouts."

"Yeah, that's what I figured."

"Don't get snarky with me, we're only here because you decided to come out of retirement. Again."

"We've been tossing around the idea of calling it a resurrection, but it feels too heavy handed," Dirk said, idly stirring his his own coffee without taking his eyes off Jake. "I'm leaning towards reinstated."

"I assume the heavy-handedness comes from a narrative issue rather than the overt religious overtones," Jake said. He swiped the stray sugar crystals off the table and dusted his hand off on his jeans.

"Yeah, the end of the album was pretty final but I left it deliberately ambiguous in terms of what happened to us, remember? Resurrection is the wrong word. I don't know what the right one is yet, but I'm working on it," he said, picking up his cup again. There was a moment of silence between them as they both drank their coffee, knees deliberately bumping each other's under the table. "I left the hotel information on the fridge in case you need it," Dirk added.

"I noticed," Jake said. "And you've got everything? I'm only home until Saturday so I can't post anything after that if you've forgotten it."

"Clean underwear, three copies of every digital file, two pairs of sunglasses, six caps, and Cal. What else does a guy need?" Dirk asked; he automatically reached out to touch the backpack again.

"I watched you pack a full bottle of mouthwash for a two week stint in Houston, a city well known for having access to basic amenities including, but not limited to, chain stores like Walgreens."

"Contingency," he shrugged. "I should head through, fuck knows how long security takes when you're carrying all this shit these days," Dirk said. He downed another mouthful of coffee but left over half of the drink behind when he stood up and slung the bag up onto his right shoulder; Jake picked up his own take-away cup before they moved. "Why're you taking it?"

"I haven't finished," Jake pointed out, swishing the cup in his hand to show just how full it still was.

"But you hate it," Dirk pointed out.

"I do, actually," Jake frowned into the cup and sniffed it again, just to be sure. "I thought the extra sugar might help, but it really only made everything worse," he added with a sigh, abandoning his coffee next to Dirk's as they left the Dunkin' store. "Right, so you're off for the next two weeks, I'm back on call as of next Monday, but you'll be home the week after unless something catastrophic happens. Does that sound even close to the correct timeline?"

"Yeah. And you're due home the weekend after Halloween. Remember when I retired so we'd be travelling less?"

"Oh, this is all entirely self-inflicted, don't expect any pity from me," Jake said with a grin, coming to a stop once they were as out of the way as they could be in an airport terminal.

Jake had a point. Dirk knew he had a point, and appreciated that he was being tactful enough not to point out the obvious - that Dirk's desire to head through security much earlier than even he usually would have was an obvious signal that he was tense about something.

"I'll call you from Charlotte if there's time, otherwise it'll be tonight after I get into Houston," Dirk said shortly, checking the time on his phone. "Probably around nine."

"Whenever you get a minute," Jake said, gently running a reassuring hand along Dirk's jaw, while the other wound its way over his shoulder and into the hair at his nape. "I'll be up most of the night reading my endless pile of graduate student applications for a supervisor anyway," he added, almost as an afterthought.

"How many do you get to pick this year?" Dirk asked, his own hands wandering until one came to rest against Jake's chest as the other reached up for the fingers trailing through his hair.

"Two."

"Lucky kids," he murmured as he leant in to kiss Jake goodbye; he moved back, just an inch, but Jake still had a hold on his jaw and pulled him in again for a deeper, lingering kiss.

"Now go and enjoy being a professional musician again," Jake said, as he finally moved his hand from Dirk's cheek. "And try not to make an absolute arse of yourself."

"Those things are mutually intertwined," Dirk said with a laugh. He pressed one last kiss to Jake's cheek and, reluctantly, let go of the hand that had found his during their goodbye. "I'll see you when I see you," he said, turning to join the surprisingly short line for TSA screening.

He didn't look back, because somewhere deep in his gut he had the feeling he was asking too much by going back to work, even if it was only a once off.

Dirk was rifling through his backpack when he felt a small hand tap him on the leg.

"Is that your boyfriend?"

A girl was standing behind him in the queue, one hand clutching the belt loop on her mother's jeans as the woman sorted out their luggage.

"Who, me?" Dirk asked as he turned around, cautiously looking to the woman for some kind of permission to even acknowledge the question; the last thing he needed was anyone accusing him of trying to kidnap a child.

"Oh, God, sorry! You can ignore her, we've already explained that it's rude to ask strangers things like that," a second woman said hurriedly, looking a little sheepish as she reached past the first for another plastic tray to empty her pockets into.

"It's okay, I've been there," Dirk replied with a laugh. "Sorry to bust your bubble, little lady," he added, crouching down in front of the girl to answer her on her own level. "But he's not my boyfriend."

"Oh," she said, frowning so hard she looked almost angry. "He should be your boyfriend. He looks nice."

"What if I told you he's something even better than my boyfriend?" Dirk asked, still smiling; the girls' parents just looked embarrassed.

"Better than being your boyfriend?"

"Yeah, he's my husband."

"What's a husband?" The little girl asked; she would have been about five, he guessed. It had been a long time since Rose was that age.

"Boys are called husbands when you marry them," the first woman said, patting the girl's hair as she gave Dirk an apologetic look.

"Ohh," the girl said, nodding. "I don't get it," she added with a confused pout.

"I married him," Dirk explained. "He was my boyfriend for a long time, and then we got married so now he's my husband."

"Oh!" The girl seemed more excited after that, her frown disappearing to be replaced with a huge grin. "Like how my Mommy and my Mom are married!"

"Exactly like that," he laughed, standing back up and placing his backpack on the x-ray machine; he left a hand on it since there were still three bags ahead of his for scanning.

"Sorry," the woman said again, looking overly apologetic. "We're working on the whole concept of not blurting out every thought you have to total strangers. It's not going so well," she added with a laugh.

"It's cool," Dirk said. "Really. My kid started talking one day and I don't think he's stopped to take a breath since, and unfortunately for all of us that was twenty years ago. He came good in the end," he added quickly. "It stops eventually, then they just save 'em up to ask you instead."

The women laughed, nodding in agreement.

His bag lurched forward on the x-ray belt and he let it go, stepping through the metal detector as he tried to keep an eye on the scanner and his bag; they ushered him aside, like he'd known they would, to examine his bag more closely.

He was partway through explaining that his concern wasn't for the bag itself, but the contents, when the little girl yelled out goodbye to him. He waved at her and her parents - who were still mouthing the word 'sorry' at him as they dragged her towards their gate - then turned back to the agent.

Dirk struggled not to laugh as he started explaining for the second time that Cal, tucked away in the backpack, inside a pillowcase with his limbs tangled around himself, was absolutely insured for well over a million dollars. Somehow, the concept of insurance seemed to be harder to explain to an adult than his husband had been to a five year old.

There was something bizarre but wonderful about the idea.

+++

Within just two hours of waking up Dave had run four miles, showered, eaten an oversized bowl of Lucky Charms, and snuck the Mayor more treats than he deserved after being forcefully dragged out from inside the kitchen cupboards again. He'd emailed Dirk the final drafts of his album art while he was eating and had taken a business call about a possible job sometime after Halloween. On his way out the front door at only nine thirty-six, he picked up his laptop in his free hand and took the stairs down to the lobby.

It still amazed him how much he could get done when he woke up without a single pain receptor in his head demanding his undivided attention.

"Good morning, how would you like your pumpkin spice today?"

"In a grande doubleshot on ice, with an extra shot," Dave replied, grinning as he looked up from opening the Starbucks app on his phone.

"Swipe when you're ready," the barista said, gesturing towards the register with a flourish. "So, who's winning PSL bingo?"

"Me by a landslide, obviously. Look, I'll level with you," he said, leaning forward and continuing in a mock-whisper. "I don't think Karkat takes this most hallowed and sacred of seasonal traditions seriously."

"Yeah, same," the college boy said with a laugh, glancing down at the register. "All good."

"Thanks," Dave said with a wave, moving to wait at the other end of the counter. It wasn't long until his iced coffee was ready despite the morning commuters still passing through; he picked up his plastic cup - complete with personalised doodles on the side - and found a single table available towards the back of the store.

It took him an hour to sort through even half of his notifications.

He skimmed all the replies to his Godhead accounts, responding to some of the messages that made him laugh and liking a random handful. He did the same for his work account and finally his private one, liking photos that John had posted of his new favourite practice room piano, as well as a boomerang Mom had put up of Mutie trying to drink from the dripping kitchen faucet. It was the emails that took the longest; he replied to three separate work offers, rejecting two based on the lowball payment they offered, and requesting more information about the third.

Sometime during the hour, Dirk had replied to his email with the drafts attached.

Working with Dirk had been different this time around. When Dave had done album art or t-shirt designs in the past, it had been a much more casual arrangement. He'd been paid for the work, sure, but he'd still only been a teenager and was convinced that there had been backup designs in place. Dirk had never explicitly said he'd commissioned his old designer to come up with an alternate back cover for his final album, but Dave was sure it existed. A normal idiot wouldn't have trusted a seventeen year old, let alone someone as fastidious as Dirk.

This time around, it was all business. Dirk only replied to his emails on weekdays, and only if they came from his work account. He'd sent back the track art four times already for more edits, and rejected two possible design outlines for the cover before he liked the third enough to approve a full draft. He'd been a little more relaxed over the promotional spots and had asked Dave to come up with something clever based on four different lyrics, so the ads would only make sense once the tracks were out. It was one of the most demanding jobs Dave had ever worked. He opened the email, expecting another solid week of editing suggestions to be inside.

Dave,

Tracks 1-3: Please finalise.
Track 4: Add shadows in the doorway. Human and puppet.
Track 5: Add gleam to puppet eyes.
Tracks 6-7: Please finalise.
Track 8: Car license plate should be capitalised. Puppet limbs to be less human. Makes the distinction between the two more obvious.
Promotional spots: Please finalise all.
Cover: Minor decrease in opacity of sunglasses. Remove gleam from puppet eyes. Add artist signature in bottom right.

If possible, all edits to be finalised by C.O.B. Wednesday, 3 October CDT.

Di-Stri

Dave had to read the email twice. After months of major changes and discarding so many ideas, the words please finalise seemed almost unbelievable.

He'd be done by the weekend.

Di-Stri,

Edits for tracks 4, 5, 8, and cover will be sent for approval by C.O.B. Friday, 27 September CDT. All files will be available in multiple formats as discussed once all are approved for publication.

Off the record: with publication so close, I'd like to request permission to show final approvals to my roommate.

Dave Lalonde

The reply came less than a minute later, while he was replying to a photo of Rose's three cats all sitting on her windowsill.

Dave,

I don't remember making you sign an NDA.

Di-Stri

Dave closed his laptop and ordered two venti cold brews to go. The temperature was pushing eighty degrees and the humidity hadn't lifted at all since he'd last been out; at least it was only a few blocks to get home.

Resting the paper tray with the two coffees on top of his laptop, and balancing the entire structure between his hip and the wall, he managed to turn the key in the lock without destroying anything he owned. He nudged the door open with the side of his foot and stepped into the kitchen, narrowly avoiding the Mayor when he kicked his Nike slides off into the pile of shoes behind the couch; as much shit as he got from everyone over them, he maintained that if Terezi was fully blind and allowed to wear crocs, his half-blind status gave him the right to wear shoes that were half as ugly.

"Hey, shithead," he said gently, setting down the coffees on the counter; this time, he put them beside the laptop instead of on top of it. "You miss me?"

The cat meowed loudly and jumped up onto the counter in an attempt to get more into Dave's face. The effort earned him a series of kisses and scratches before Dave just picked him up, cradling him like a baby.

"Hey," he said, wandering into Karkat's bedroom through the open door. "You busy?"

"Do I look busy to you?"

"I dunno, you spend a lot of time staring at blank documents these days. Like, for a while there I thought it was some kind of meditative thing," Dave said, standing beside Karkat's desk as he gently rocked the Mayor back and forth.

"It's not. You went out in public like that?" Karkat asked, turning his chair around to continue the conversation.

"These are my longest inseam gym shorts, dude, what's the problem? There's like, an entire five inches of extra leg coverage going on here than when I'm actually running."

"Thank fuck it's finally Fall."

"Why?"

"Because in Winter you pull out the bullshit tights and no one has to look at that," Karkat said, gesturing wildly in Dave's direction.

"Hey, in Winter you'll be thanking me for the shorts because holy shit do the bullshit tights just act like a neon sign pointing to my junk or what? We all know they do," Dave scoffed. "Anyway, you've got a minute, right?"

"Yeah," Karkat sighed, closing his still-blank document and shoving his keyboard back. "What do you want?"

"For starters, I got you a coffee," Dave said. "And I want to show you some shit I've been working on for a while," he added casually as he walked back out of the room.

The Mayor twisted and dived out of his arms when they were back in the living room. Dave let him go, but pulled an exaggerated sad expression as the cat darted back down the hall and disappeared into his bedroom. He picked up one of the stools as he passed the kitchen counter and moved it to beside his desk chair, then shook his mouse to wake up the machine.

"Which is mine?" Karkat asked, appearing a few seconds later to examine both of the iced coffees still sitting on the bench.

"Either, they're both the same," Dave replied. "Bring mine over too. Anyway," he added, patting the stool. "Take a seat."

"If this is just more furry porn, I swear to fuck," Karkat said as he sat down, avoiding Dave's outstretched hand at first so he could smack the coffee cup into his face, condensation and all.

"Surprisingly, it's not," Dave said, taking his coffee and ignoring the trail of water left on his cheek. "Okay, so remember way back when I got home from Mom's place and I totally didn't tell you anything about how Bro was considering maybe doing one last project?" he added, opening one of the folders on his desktop.

"Yeah, then you never mentioned it again," Karkat said suspiciously. "Neither did he."

"That's because he was busy doing some big deal to get studio time and a release window," Dave explained, as casually as possible to try and limit the amount of shit he knew Karkat was about to flip. "If nothing goes wrong, it's coming out on Halloween. He's in Houston right now."

"Fuck off," Karkat said quietly, sliding his own iced coffee onto Dave's desk. "Get fucked, he's not."

"I've been working almost exclusively on his shit since June," Dave said with a huge grin, hitting the outside of Karkat's thigh with the side of his fist. "Like, Patreon shit aside, I haven't done any other big projects since then. It says a lot about the guy. I mean, he pays well but expectations are higher than whatever's above sky high, but he's fucking nuts, right?"

"You were doing some weird monster thing," Karkat said accusingly.

"What, this?" Dave asked, swiping over to a second desktop on the Mac. "I mean, I guess I'll finish it eventually. I thought Rose might like it but her birthday isn't until mine, so I've still got months. You think she'd like it?"

"This is horseshit."

"Dude, it's really not. He asked me to do everything. All the promos, the cover, the individual tracks. I'm down to what should be the last round of edits and they're due next week. Wanna be the first person that isn't me or him to see the cover?"

"Stop fucking around and show me!"

+++

It was light out, and not because of the endless stream of headlights that passed by her apartment at all hours. It was morning. She'd slept through the night without waking even once, something that happened so rarely she couldn't even remember the last time it had occurred.

She reached out a hand and lightly brushed the backs of her fingers against Kanaya's bare shoulder, momentarily unsure of her own intentions. When her wife stirred, only slightly, Rose turned onto her side and replaced the gentle touches with a series of light kisses, littering them as far as she could.

Without opening her eyes, Kanaya blew her a kiss. Rose took the gesture as a sign to continue, and did.

"Good morning," Rose said softly; at some point, she had moved to rest comfortably on her wife, and was hunched over with one leg on either side of Kanaya's hips as she continued to kiss her skin.

"It certainly is," Kanaya replied, still half asleep as she reached up to stroke Rose's hair. "What do you want?"

"Cut class today," she said as she left a trail of kisses up Kanaya's throat. "I'll call in terribly sick to work and apologise profusely so we can just stay here until the cats are convinced they're dying of starvation."

"Which will be at seven fifteen precisely, as it is every morning for the poor neglected creatures," Kanaya mumbled, stretching out as best she could with Rose sprawled on top of her. "Clearly you have an ulterior motive."

"I do not," Rose said. She pressed a final, lingering kiss to Kanaya's collarbone and sat up, shifting her weight back as she stretched her arms up above her head. "My motives are anything but ulterior."

"I'll admit that this is a lovely view to wake up to, but I know you and when you are, as the kids say, angling for something."

Rose frowned slightly.

"Have I been too subtle in my attempts to keep you in bed all day for a rather obvious purpose?"

"Oh, no, that was obvious from the beginning," Kanaya said as she sat up slowly, giving Rose the opportunity to shift her weight without losing her balance. "I just wondered if there was more to it," she asked, leaning back on her arms.

"There really isn't," Rose said. She put her own arms up around Kanaya's shoulders, her hands toying with the ends of her wife's hair. "I'll settle for you skipping your early morning study session which still leaves us with a very respectable two hours."

"I might be persuaded into that. But I really should feed the children first."

"Why do you insist on fucking up my groove?"

"I need the mild thrill of it to keep me going," Kanaya said, smiling coyly as she unceremoniously pushed Rose sideways back onto the mattress.

Rose, who had not been expecting her own wife to shove her without so much as a warning, yelped at the sudden, involuntary movement of her entire body falling.

"You dare?" Rose asked incredulously.

"I do," Kanaya said as she swung her legs off the edge of the bed and finally stood up. "I'm going to be back in three and a half minutes, so I suggest you use that time to do anything that might need doing before you are entirely unavailable for the next two hours."

"Seriously?" Rose asked as she followed Kanaya out of the bedroom and through to the kitchen. "I slept through the entire night and thought I'd try testing the limits of this fortuitous day."

"Seriously," Kanaya replied as she reached for three tins of cat food. "I don't have a class until ten and nor do you start work until then, why not?"

"Those two little words every married woman wants to hear regarding the prospect of sex, why not?"

Rose was leaning up against the kitchen doorway, chewing on the corner of a thumbnail to try and keep herself from grinning too widely as she waited for Kanaya to finish feeding the three cats that had all materialised at the first sounds of footsteps coming from the bedroom.

"Oh, this is a problem," Kanaya said with a frown; she washed her hands and leant back against the edge of the sink to dry them with a tea towel.

"Hmm?" Rose acknowledged, raising a curious eyebrow.

"I gave you three and a half minutes but I'm definitely done here, so it seems your time is up early."

"I'm devastated," Rose said, pushing her shoulder off the doorframe and taking a few steps back. "Absolutely crushed by the news, so completely incapable of processing the ramifications that I'm already halfway back to bed," she went on, wandering back into the hallway. "I'm just ruined."

She heard Kanaya's footsteps following her, speeding up as she did; Rose dove back onto the bed with a shriek, and tumbled over the pile of pillows that had spread throughout the night.

"You slept through the entire night?" Kanaya asked, once she had pinned Rose down on the mattress.

"I did."

"That is absolutely worth celebrating."

+++

A lot had changed in almost seven years. He knew that. He was expecting that. What he didn't know was that his reputation was something that still lived on through the studio executives; it could be good or bad, depending on the situation. If someone was slacking off, he was a reminder of just how much creative control they willingly gave their artists. If they signed on a new kid who thought they could demand anything they wanted, he was a reminder that you had to earn autonomy.

One thing that hadn't changed, possibly since the beginning of time, was the studio's receptionist. As soon as he stepped into the heavily air conditioned building she was out from behind her desk and hugging him as if he was one of her grandchildren; he'd known her since he was just twenty three years old.

"Oh, my Lord! They told me you were coming in today, honey, but who'd believe it?"

"Not me," Dirk laughed at her enthusiasm. "Not fuckin' me," he added, hugging her back until she patted his shoulder and let him go. He leant on the front counter when she sat back down and waited while she picked up the phone to call through for him.

"Now, they gonna come and get you because we've done a whole lotta work out the back and the last thing we need is you gettin' lost and scarin' off the interns," she said, hanging up the handset.

"I'd never."

"You would and you have, honey, believe me. Quick, tell me everything before you go," she said, waving a hand to demonstrate the urgency.

"There's too much, what do you want to know the most?" Dirk asked, grinning.

"Your man?"

"Married him. Next."

"Your boy?"

"Couldn't be prouder. Next."

"You still got that awful sidekick of yours?"

"In my bag as we speak."

"You married him?" She said, doubling back on their speed-round of conversation.

"Married him," Dirk repeated, still grinning.

"You're fuckin' with me, honey."

"Sorry," he said, lifting his left hand up off the counter to flash his ring at her. "Married the shit out of him and get this, we've got a dog."

"You do not!"

"I'll show you the photos later," he said as a door opened. "This guy has a business meeting and we both know I've never been late in my life."

"Ten minutes early, like clockwork," she said. "Don't you dare leave me hangin' on them photos!"

"I'd never," Dirk said as he left the counter with a wink.

As soon as he sat down in the meeting room, at a long table surrounded by empty chairs, he felt a sudden rush of nostalgia. The chairs were still the same. The room was new but the furniture was all the same. He'd done his share of arguing over this specific table, years of it, and he got the feeling they'd even dragged out his old favourite chair; it reclined further than most of the others but never made him feel like he was about to overbalance and tumble backwards.

"Sorry to break it to you, but the county's come down hard on the whole 'smoking in workplaces' thing in the last few years," his producer said, sitting down on the opposite side of the table.

"Never stopped us before," Dirk replied, unloading his laptop from the backpack.

"Yeah, so we finally got a massive fucking fine. We could only get away with the 'private premises' loophole for so long. We've got a rooftop garden now."

"What the shit happened around here? New construction, rooftop garden, you still make music or what?" Dirk asked.

"Sometimes. Speaking of," his producer said, sliding a loose sheet of paper across the table to him. "Your schedule for the next two weeks. We got you a few hours every day in the booth and most of us are in all day. There's a few new guys I've organised to drop in and meet you, see what you've got, and no I haven't forgotten just how much you hate working with new people. The two highlighted in orange are the ones I think you'll get a kick out of working with, they're real fuckin' good. Got a total ear for nuance. Not saying you need to take up their offers, but give 'em a go and see what happens. Live a little."

"Thanks," Dirk said, skimming the page. "And the rest of the time?"

"There's a few spare desks in the intern office, take your pick."

"Nice," he said, as he flipped the paper over to check the back.

"Seriously? That was a joke."

"Nah, it works for me. I did everything up until now in my basement, anything's a step up."

"You've still got a reputation around here, don't go blowing it on your first day back," his producer said with a laugh.

"Good or bad?"

"Both. Depends who you ask. There's old timers shitting themselves over your inimitable work ethic making them look like slackers, and a fresh batch of college interns shitting themselves over the chance to see your fucking puppet in the flesh."

"Felt."

"What?"

"Cal's made of felt, contrary to popular belief."

"Sure. Anyway, if you've got any issues with the schedule, hit me up over email because I'd rather not end up in a fist fight in the break room."

"I threw one punch, one time. You punched back, and I never reported you to HR for it," Dirk said pointedly. "What was that even over?"

"I don't fucking know, we were both young, stupid, and probably high," the producer said, shrugging. "And we didn't even have HR in those days. Anyway, we haven't made any date changes on our end. We're locking it down in two weeks, another two for extra advertising, and an October 31st digital-only release. We're still working on the exact timing for the vinyl. Our usual printers might be able to get it done because it's such a small run but that hinges on us sending them the masters by next Friday. We're in talks to get your whole back catalogue reissued through them in early 2020. You've got a meeting about it next week."

"No surprises there," Dirk said. "Show me where the intern office is. I want to get started on this shit."

After four days of working endlessly on his shit, Dirk found himself sitting on the edge of a raised garden bed up on the studio roof as he lit a third consecutive cigarette. Getting back into production-mode was an even bigger challenge than he'd anticipated. Putting together the music at home was one thing, where he had all the time in the world to just fuck around with the sound and make as many changes as he wanted, just because he could. But working to a schedule, and with other people, was starting to wear on his enthusiasm for the project.

If he hadn't called in so many favours to do it in the first place, he would have flown home already.

"Sorry for interrupting, but did you want anything from the store?"

Dirk managed - only just - not to choke on his cigarette smoke when the intern asked a question; he hadn't even heard the door open.

"Way to give a guy a heart attack, champ," he said, as he ashed his cigarette into the corner of the garden. "Which store?"

"Any within two blocks."

"You already going or does it all hinge on me?"

"Already got a list a mile long, if that's what you're askin'," the kid said.

There were so many interns and Dirk had no idea how to make the most of their persistent offers of help - he'd spent so long away that a genuine display of Southern hospitality seemed suspicious and insincere, especially coming from someone Dave's age.

"I wouldn't say no to an iced coffee if you've got a free hand to carry it back. And if you walk past a place that sells 'em, get me the tackiest postcard you can find, and a couple of orange sharpies," he said. "I'm talking, full on 'Texas in one image' shit levels of tacky. What time is it, anyway?"

"Just after two. Anything else?"

"Nah, just that. Meet me back in the office, I'm heading back in after this," Dirk said, using his thumb to move the cigarette between his fingers.

"Yessir, I'll be back real soon."

He heard the door close as the intern left, and he got the feeling the slam had been deliberate.

He also chose to actively ignore the fact he'd been called 'sir'.

Dirk took a final drag on his cigarette and crushed the butt against the inner edge of the garden wall. As he exhaled, the smoke hung in the thick, humid air longer than it did back home; he'd been outside for twenty minutes in ninety degree heat and could feel the sweat beading up all along his spine.

It was two o'clock, and he'd already used up his studio hours. If nothing else, they'd locked down the third track that morning and had it lined up for mastering before the end of the day.

He contemplated, just briefly, lighting up another cigarette, but he'd already committed to trying to quit again as soon as he got home, and it was going to be hell enough. Instead, he plucked the three filter ends from the dirt and tossed them into the trash on his way back inside the building.

They'd brought his favourite chair up from the meeting room on Monday as soon as they'd realised he was serious about working out of the intern office. He'd taken over one of the empty desks on the far side of the room and no one had said anything; the interns all seemed to alternate between ignoring his presence, and trying to make as few disruptions as possible. Some of them had spoken to him for more than a few minutes and picked up conversations here and there, but the old crew had been more than right when they'd told him that his reputation was still going strong.

Dirk flipped off the lights when he walked into the office and dropped down into the ancient swivel chair. He threw his cap onto his desk, then scooted his chair down to one end of the room. The two interns in the office didn't even look up. He picked a video on his phone, ignoring his messages, and sent it to the Apple TV.

"What're y'all watching?"

"Shh."

Dirk hadn't said anything when they started talking; it wasn't like he'd told them they had to be quiet but they'd taken it upon themselves to sit silently while the video played, each one telling the next to pipe down as they entered the room.

"Iced coffee. Postcard and sharpies are on your desk," one of the interns said; the one from the roof, he realised.

"Shit, thanks," Dirk said, taking the plastic cup. "Pull up a chair."

"What are we watching?"

Dirk thought for a moment, trying to figure out the best way to explain why he was watching an educational video clearly intended for elementary school students.

"The love of my fucking life looking even more relaxed than he does with a pistol in each hand."

+++

-- timaeusTestified [TT] began pestering golgothasTerror [GT] at 15:13 --

TT: Hey.
TT: I love you. I don't think I've ever said it enough.

GT: Dont be ridiculous! I think by this stage im fully aware that you do even if you dont say it every chance you get.
TT: I hear you, but I'm going to say it more often. I love you. Everything about you.
GT: Are you alright?
TT: I watched your pilot episode. I put it up on the projector in my communal office in Houston and watched all eighteen minutes and thirty six seconds of it with an audience of College-aged interns.
GT: Oh golly! What did you think?
TT: Of the show? It's great. Nice balance of humor and education, and it'll be a slam dunk when they sell it to National Geographic for syndication after the first season.
GT: Thats the plan!!! How did you know?
TT: It's a logical leap. And you told me months ago. You love what you do, don't you?
GT: Of course i do thats why i do it.
TT: You can tell.
GT: Good! And did you learn anything? Hahaha.
TT: I learned that you exude so much genuine enthusiasm for your work even when things are going wildly off script. I think I needed to see that today.
GT: Youre not okay are you?
TT: I am. Were you okay after that ape took your glasses?
GT: Technically speaking capuchins are monkeys not apes but yes i was fine.
GT: They were all very surprised when i told them it wasnt my first shot of antibiotics *just in case*!

TT: Wait until they hear about all the stitches you've given yourself. Are you covered by their insurance?
GT: I should hope so! There is a remote possibility that ill do something that slips into loophole territory but im sure i can deal with that when it eventuates. But back to you!
TT: I told you, I'm okay. This week has been something else.
GT: Have you made any solid progress?
TT: Not really, I just had three smokes.
GT: Youre under zero obligation to act like you care about that until the end of next week.
TT: Good, because they came from my second pack since Monday. But I locked down another two tracks this morning. Then I had a brief crisis over the fact I'm too fucking old for this and contemplated throwing in not just the towel but the entire linen closet.
GT: Do we have a linen closet?
TT: We have linen shelving in the basement. I'm working on it. Anyway, in the least surprising plot twist possibly ever, I've forgotten how to work with other people and it's been killing me. Somewhere along the way I'd forgotten the simple fuckin' fact this is a total passion project and there's nothing obligating me to be here. So I took a break, chain smoked like it was 1999, and watched the love of my fucking life do what he does best.
GT: I lost a fight to a *capuchin* of all critters! That was hardly me at my best.
TT: Don't fight the monkey. I want you to be the first to know, I'm launching the ad campaign at five tonight. Six for you.
GT: Fanfuckingtastic!
TT: Hey.
TT: I love you. I mean it.

GT: I'm sorry, but I'm a married man. I cant go cyber flirting with random rappers who think they are famous!
TT: Think, huh? Track two is paying for that linen closet. I might have to scrounge up some extra change before I make the trip to Home Depot if it flops, but the point stands.
TT: What are you doing?
GT: Now? Grading papers or trying to at least. I think i need a new computer because this one is trying my flipping patience!!!
TT: What's wrong with it now?
GT: It has no concept of urgency.
TT: Do you have eight Chrome windows open, each running an improbably high number of tabs, going back to the last time you shut it down properly?
GT: I thought you fixed that issue.
TT: I did, by closing seven Chrome windows and an improbably high number of tabs.
GT: Aha! I only have three open so what now mr tech whiz?
TT: Close the other two windows.
GT: Seriously?
TT: Bookmark the porn like a normal guy and close the windows.
GT: Very funny!!!
TT: Trust me, the tits will still be there when you reopen the page.
GT: I still think I need a new computer.
TT: That worked, didn't it?
GT: Somewhat.
TT: Here's a wild idea, shut it down completely.
GT: Youre a lunatic why would i bother with that when it can just sleep overnight?
TT: You're right. The computer will be just fine after it has a nap.
GT: Dont you have things to do and places to be? Or did you go all the way to houston just to carry on like you do at home?
TT: I'm about to launch the advertising campaign for my first album in six years which, in case you haven't guessed, is absolutely going to be my last. What about you, don't you have things to do?
GT: I thought i might browse through all these lovely breasts. Did you know the internet is just an endless stream of them?
TT: I'd heard rumors. Just remember to grade those papers when you're done.
GT: When i say endless i mean endless.
TT: I love you. Just in case I haven't mentioned it lately.
GT: It sounds vaguely familiar!!
TT: I've got to write a caption for this post. Two hours should be enough.
GT: Of course it will be.
TT: Says he of little faith.
GT: All of this somewhat flirtatious conversation aside, i hope it all goes well this afternoon. I know its something youre only doing because you wanted to so i need you to just fucking relax and enjoy it. Its absolutely going to be your last chance to do this professionally. I love you and i just want you to look back on this fortnight as a net positive instead of a chore.
TT: Yeah, I already had that kick up the ass today. I'll call you later tonight.
GT: Lucky i have all these internet babes to keep me company until then. Did you know blue hair is exceptionally popular these days?
TT: Well shit, that's enough to convert me.
TT: And I figured it out, in case you were wondering.

GT: Figured what out?
TT: Resurgence. The right word is resurgence. For example, going forward there will be a resurgence of me stating my love for you in plain English because the more convoluted methods, such as remodelling an entire historic building for you, aren't always clear.
TT: I love you.

GT: I know.

+++

At twenty-three years old, he still spent an inordinate amount of time dwelling on everything he'd done in the past. If he threw a spoon into the kitchen sink, the loud clinking sound brought back the time he'd hurled a baseball bat across his seventh grade classroom and shattered the third floor window. When he locked the bathroom door even though he didn't need to anymore, it was because of all the times he'd barricaded himself in to avoid his brother. Every time he - or Dave - covered his fingernails in a solid black polish, he thought about the fistfight in tenth grade that had led to him being kicked out of his second high school for drawing blood.

There was a soundtrack to the countless self-inflicted misfortunes of his teenage years, and that soundtrack was Di-Stri; as far as he was concerned, the single biggest misfortune of his entire life was the moment he'd realised why he recognised Dave's uncle on the very first day they'd met in person.

So when one specific Instagram post caught his eye, he stopped scrolling for longer than he would have for almost any other image. It was a short looping video, less than three seconds in total, but he let it play a few times before he even realised what he was looking at; an outline of Di-Stri's infamous sunglasses, flickering in and out of existence before appearing a final time, shattered, with a bright red static erupting from the cracks.

"What the fuck?" Karkat exclaimed, far more aggressively than he'd intended.

"What the fuck what?" Dave asked from the opposite side of the kitchen counter. "What did I do wrong now?"

"Possibly nothing, probably everything."

"It's meatloaf, I don't think it's a real thing you can fuck up, dude. I guess I could like, throw it in the oven and forget about it until tomorrow but short of fucking up that badly it's gonna be fine."

"Did you make this?" Karkat asked, turning his phone around to show Dave the still-looping video.

"Yeah, it's the first of the four teasers," Dave replied as he pushed his glasses back up his nose with the back of his wrist. "Oh shit, he posted it already?"

"He posted it already."

"Oh, fuck, I thought he'd tell me first."

"That's your biggest fucking concern, huh?" Karkat snapped. He reluctantly liked the image and scrolled down, then back up to see the video loop again, before he closed Instagram completely and dropped his phone face-down on the benchtop.

"Yeah, because it means my phone's gonna explode and I've only had it for a week. Like c'mon, I'm a Pro phone user now I gotta be profesh as shit all the time," Dave said, as he tore off the corner from a packet of soup mix with his teeth, then dumped it into the bowl of ground beef.

"Okay, that's how you fuck up meatloaf," Karkat said, frowning.

"Nah, it's what Mom does. She calls it a hack but we all know she's mostly shit at cooking. Anyway, what does the caption say?"

"Resurgence."

"I bet it took him like two hours to write that. Not even joking," Dave said seriously. "You're actually like, shitting yourself over this aren't you?"

That was an understatement.

Instead of betraying just how much he was shitting himself over a three second clip, Karkat lazily raised a hand and flipped Dave off while his back was turned.

"I get it," Dave continued before Karkat could think of what to say. "Like, it's still weird that you of all people are into his shit, but I know people are into his shit, right? People have been into his shit for most of my life and I get that him suddenly dropping some new music six years after he quit is a big fucking deal. Shit, that life changing moment at that dumb party back in my senior year? Almost didn't happen because Philosophize was on in the other room. It's just like, I grew up with that guy strutting around the place, y'know?" He was talking more to himself than anyone else, Karkat realised, but he was listening anyway. "And yeah, I give you shit for it but I probably would even if I wasn't related to him because I gotta give you shit about something, right? I called him yesterday and he said I'm totally good to tell you something about it. Not any of the details or storylines or shit, but something pretty fucking cool for us huge pleb nerds," Dave said as he transferred the meatloaf mixture into a rectangular pan.

"How cool?" Karkat asked suspiciously. "If you know it and you're allowed to drop it this early, there's zero fucking chance it's worth knowing."

"I already said it was only gonna be cool to huge pleb nerds."

"Out with it, Lalonde!"

"John's got a sample on Track Six and I helped mix it," Dave said, moving towards the sink so fast that the envelope Karkat snatched up from the end of bench only just grazed his shoulder as it flew by.

+++

After so many years of his restless nights, Aradia had developed an intuition for knowing when Sollux was about to jerk awake with his head full of twisted dreams and a sense of impending doom.

She lay awake on her side, one hand tucked under her pillow and the other stroking his cheek, as he relayed as many details as he could remember about the series of nightmares he'd had in the few hours since they'd gone to bed.

"It's not real," she said calmly. "None of it's real, like always. You're okay. We're okay."

"We're okay," he mumbled, and kissed the heel of her palm as she moved her hand back to the pillow by her chin.

"How awake are you?"

"Uncomfortably."

"Get dressed," Aradia said, kissing his forehead in return. "It's only two thirty."

She didn't tell him where they were going when they left the apartment. He knew why they were waiting on the side of the road, but she refused to tell him more than that; she felt his fingers tighten around hers when they boarded the near empty bus and sat down behind the driver.

He was still tense when they arrived at their destination.

"It's the grocery store," Sollux said flatly.

"We were awake anyway and there's less people here now than there will be in the morning," Aradia said with a smile. "Do you want to push the cart?"

"No," he said. He pulled a cart from the end of the bay regardless and pushed it through the open doors.

They wandered down the aisles in near silence, browsing through items they never would have considered purchasing in the daylight. They didn't need half the things he put into the cart - candy, a pair of socks he liked, a tech magazine - but it didn't matter. Aradia picked out tinned soup, two bottles of her favourite shampoo on sale, seltzer; they both piled in ready meals and snacks that caught their attention.

At the far end of every aisle, away from the eyes of the shelf-stockers and minimal check out workers, she made him stop walking long enough to kiss him reassuringly; it took until the furthest aisle for him to make the first move, but when he did he pressed her up against the glass door of the milk fridge and kissed her over and over, as if he'd run out of the processing ability to do anything else.

They caught an Uber home after she paid at the register with a copy of his credit card.

"Hey," Sollux said when they were back in their kitchen, stepping around each other and over the grocery bags they'd dumped in the middle of the floor. He stuck out his tongue to show her the Valium pill before he swallowed it and she just laughed.

"That's a hint if I ever saw one," Aradia replied, reaching up to stack the excess seltzer cans on the top shelf. "Go, I'll finish this," she added with a gesture towards the empty plastic bags strewn around the room. "There's only one bag left, I'll be there in two minutes."

It took her less than two minutes. She knew because he told her, as she stood by her side of the bed and swapped her dress and bra for a tattered NYU t-shirt, that she'd only taken a minute twenty-six to finish unbagging the last of the groceries. She laughed again, scooping her hair up into a large, messy bun with the scrunchie from her wrist, so that when she lay down in the crook of his arm the bulk of it stayed out of his face.

She wasn't sure how well he could see the screen of her Switch without his glasses on, but he was pressed up against her and moving around so he could look on regardless. He had one arm stretched out under her neck and his chin resting on her shoulder; he'd shifted a few inches up the bed and rearranged his pillow to make the effort to watch her play Stardew Valley.

"I think I'm going to marry Leah," she said quietly. "Or Harvey. I don't know yet so I'm wooing everyone."

"New game?"

"Yeah, this is only Fall Year One," Aradia explained, walking towards the mines. "You any better?"

"I'm alive," he replied. The hand that had been wandering along her side worked its way up under her shirt, fingers running over her warm skin until he stopped to rest his hand on her chest; she didn't say anything when he did, because she knew he wasn't trying to start anything, not then.

"We're alive," she agreed. "Even when we're not, I'll still let you touch my boob."

"Good," Sollux said. With a yawn, then a kiss to her shoulder, he moved his head again to press his forehead up against the nape of her neck. "Skeleton titties," he mumbled with a laugh.

"Stop memeing and go to sleep," Aradia laughed. She put the Switch down after saving her game; she'd walked back to the farmhouse when Sollux had started to feel heavier around her, as if he was finally relaxing for the first time since he'd woken up a few hours earlier.

They fell silent then, breathing in time as they lay curled up against each other in the early hours of Saturday morning; she didn't have class, he didn't have work, they could sleep forever.

"Skeletitties."

+++

Terezi's head jerked around suddenly when she heard frantic footsteps outside the apartment door. It was too early to be the others, and besides, she could only hear one person in the hall. She frowned, turning the rest of her body to stare at the front door with a set of chopsticks clutched in her fist, just in case.

The door burst open, and she stood her ground.

"Dave?"

It was only John.

She dropped the wooden cutlery back onto the coffee table as she stood up; it was only John, but something was wrong. He was breathing too hard, as if he'd run right up until he stopped outside the apartment, all the way from the top of Manhattan. He'd probably only run from the subway, really, because there was more to it than that.

"John?" Terezi asked curiously.

"Where's Dave?"

"It's Saturday night, John. He is on a date."

"What?"

"It is with Karkat, obviously," she laughed. John didn't say anything, leaving her to try and backtrack on the joke. "He is with Karkat. John? Why are you being weird?"

John had groaned loudly, obviously frustrated as he sunk to the kitchen floor; she heard him drop unceremoniously onto the hardwood as something hit the timber roughly.

"Where are they?"

"What was the crash?"

"Huh?"

"You sat down and something else made a loud noise, John. Did you break something already?" Terezi asked as she moved to stand beside him.

"Oh, it was probably my bag," he said after a moment, his mind obviously somewhere else. "I was at the library. I have a book, it's really fucking complicated."

"And now you and your book are on our kitchen floor."

"Yeah."

"Why are you on our kitchen floor?"

John was either being deliberately evasive, or whatever had caused him to run from the subway was even worse than he was letting on, because he just made another loud noise of frustration and sunk even further down until he was lying on the floor.

"When's he coming home?" John asked. "Dave."

"I don't know," Terezi said honestly. "Do you want me to text him?"

"Why?"

"To find out when he will be back."

"Oh," John said. "Yeah. I could text him, I guess."

"I think I should text him," she said. "Just stay there. John?"

"Oh, yeah," he said. "I forgot. I just nodded."

"I did not see you for obvious reasons. I'll be back," Terezi said, snatching up her phone from the coffee table as she hurried back through the apartment to her room. She closed the door around behind her to keep her voice from travelling as she called up Siri and dictated a text.

GC: D4V3 YOU N33D TO COM3 HOM3 NOW B3C4US3 JOHN 1S LY1NG ON TH3 K1TCH3N FLOOR 4ND H3 1S B31NG V3RY 3V4S1VE 4BOUT WHY. WH3N 1 S4Y NOW 1 M34N NOW SO G3T YOUR 4SS INTO 4N UB3R F1V3 M1NUT3S 4GO!

"I got you a pillow," Terezi said as she sat down on the kitchen floor next to John; he took it. "Are we all going to live here on the floor now?"

"Can I?" John asked, his voice smaller than she'd heard in a long time.

"John, you are being a dingus, and not in your usually endearing way. What is wrong?"

"I can't tell you," he said.

"I live here with Dave and with Karkat, two of the biggest dorks who are always doing embarrassing things, I can handle it," she said, lying down next to him with her own pillow.

"It's bad," he said. "Really, really fucking bad."

"John?" Terezi said, after he went silent again. "Whatever is wrong with you cannot possibly be that bad."

"She's back," he said quietly. "I mean, here, I guess."

"What?"

Terezi's voice came out far less sharp than she'd intended, but there was something about the way he was acting that had her on edge already; part of her already knew who he was talking about before he said it.

"I saw her, she was outside my dorm like it was a normal place for her to be," he said, his voice even smaller than before.

Terezi reached out and took his hand, squeezing hard enough that her fingernails dug deep into his skin; John didn't even flinch.

"Are you sure?" Terezi asked, just as quietly.

"It was her. Vriska's here."