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You Are a Refugee From an Omnicidal Empire

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The first thing your woozy mind registers as you swim into consciousness is the scent of apple and baked goods, followed by a heavy pressure of thick bedding weighing down on you that you're not used to.

Is Sollux making his breakfast in your respiteblock again? you wonder, think pan still rebooting. Goddamn slob. He'd better clean up after himself.

Then the memories trickle back, and you remember that's not something you'll ever have to worry much about again.

Flinging off the blanket, you drag yourself into a sitting position against the headboard and give your eyes a few seconds to adjust to the sunlight streaming through the window. The smell is coming from the long wallside table opposite to the bed, an massive assortment of pastries and sandwiches lined along the surface next to three two-liter cartons of apple juice, one from which Dave's shaking the last drops into a paper cup. He chews on one of those twisty butter roll things as he nods at you.

"I got brunch," he muffles through the mouthful of masticated food.

Your eyes slide back to the excessive lineup of fresh food, trying to make sense of the scene.

"We can't finish all that," you point out. "What are we even going to do with this? Hand it out to homeless orphans?"

"I'll captchalogue what's left," Dave explains. "It stays fresh, and we'll probably need some food on the go."

Sylladexes, yeah. There you go again, forgetting you have a literal god for a friend (boyfriend, you correct yourself to no little satisfaction). Though according to him, those weren't actually specifically a Sburb thing, just something that that kind of... existed in the old universe? As in normal people could just buy personal pocket dimensions from the hardware store, for some reason.

"That's where that grubloaf came from," you realize. "I knew it was too fresh to be some microwaved sweep-old freezeloaf, you cheeky bastard. Where did you..."

Dave's expression dims as you trail off, connecting the dots.

"...did we make that?" you ask. "On the meteor?"

He tried to skim over that period of the game quickly, just oh, by the way, I lived on a space rock with you guys for three years, no biggie, but it's a whole chunk of his adolescence he spent drifting through space with just a few trolls and his sister for company. A fifth of his entire life. He probably got to know your friends just as well as you do now, with nothing much else to for those sweeps.

You've talked your hearts out about the plurality of Karkats, but Dave's also lost a Kanaya and Terezi to the bowels of paradox space. He even dated Terezi a while, for fuck's sake. He's going to have to go through this whole friendship redux thing again with people that haven't ever heard of him in their lives.

"We alchemized an oven with an imprint from a dream bubble," Dave remembers, a nostalgic wist to his voice. "We gave up on the bake-offs after we accidentally burned down the kitchen for the fourth time in a row, but I stole half of Kanaya's last batch when she wasn't looking. I don't think she ever figured out it was me. So worth it—alchemised food tastes kind of, I dunno, not bad, but formulaic? Like cake mix compared to scratch, but times a hundred."

You hear the sound of flushing through the wall, and moments later a disheveled goldblood slams his way out of the bathroom, dripping dots of water on the carpet. Dave trails to a stop, then pivots and ambles back to his pile, not even sitting on it but floating up to hover above the capes, legs crossed over nothing and the cup suspended in the air next to him. The liquid within sloshes around like it's still under gravity.

You wonder how the physics of that works—even if the container itself is weightless, wouldn't the juice still push it down? Do god tier powers simply not give a fuck about Newtonian mechanics? Just how much time did Dave spend on the meteor just messing with stupid flight physics to be pulling this shit off so effortlessly, or does an instinctive understanding come with the package?

Sollux summons a grilled grubwurst to his hand in a sizzle of telekinesis as he takes the chair to your right, not bothering to acknowledge either of you as he scrolls through his palmhusk, another thing Dave managed to recover. The human's also fallen silent, wordlessly munching on his food.

The silent tension across the room is becoming more and more noticeable.

"What did you two cretins do while I was passed out?" you finally demand. If it were just the hacker you would chalk down to another of his sulky moods, but Dave as well? "Sollux, did you go and pick a fight with the fucking Knight of Time at five in the morning?"

"No," Dave says at the same time as the troll snarls "Yeth."

"So may I ask what the fuck your problem is?" you growl, climbing to your feet atop the double bed to highlight your simmering frustration. "Look, if Dave wanted to fuck us over he's had a plethora of prime opportunities to do so. Like, for example, by not helping us in the first place?"

Sollux scowls. "We've come to an underth'tanding."

You turn your glare to Dave, who's sipping at his apple juice, unreadably nonchalant even to your honed eye. "We're cool," he confirms. "Just a minor disagreement. Before you know it we'll be setting aside our differences and tearfully hugging it out by the third act. Can't let team drama get in the way of the action movie plot, you know."

"Ugghhh," you groan as you let yourself flop limply forward into the bed again, leaving your head and arms dangling off the foot end. "Whatever you say. I'm not your lusus."

You were joking about auspiticism, but to your dismay the gag's getting less and less funny and starting to seem like a practical necessity if this ship is to not crash and burn. You just finished finagling your way into a red quasi-space with Dave, so no way in hell you're getting sidetracked with ashen meddling. You've already made a mockery of the concept of quadrants, but that's where you draw the line.

"Oh my god, th'ut up, KK," Sollux growls at you. You rear back at the unexpected vitriol lacing his exclamation. "You're such a— goddammit."

"What now?"

He doesn't finish his thought, going back to attacking his food. Bottling up everything and refusing to communicate again, you see. Fucking typical. He's going to pretend everything's fine, but this is coming back to bite you, you know it.

Is this to do with what he was alluding to about Feferi's situation yesterday, before all the surreal shit went down? Or maybe it's whatever's going on between him and Dave? Lingering reservations about your relationship? Who knows what's bobbing around in that labyrinthine mind of his half the time.

Pulling off an awkward half-flip over the mattress edge, you thump onto the fuzzy floor and roll back onto your feet with ill grace, dusting off your clothes as you take an unsteady, half-awake step. Sceptically eying the extravagant nutritional offerings before you, you pick a salmon and cream cheese sandwich and rip open the paper-plastic packaging, sticking it between your teeth. After a brief search you also confirm with relief that Strider had the sense to buy some form of liquid that isn't his precious juice, and snag a lukewarm bottle of coffee as well.

"What's the plan?" you ask as you seat yourself on the end of the bed. "I assume we're not just going to spend the day lounging around in awkward silence. Do we even have anything more than fucking around and running at the sight of danger? We never got around to that part yesterday since a certain somebody conked out at the end." You narrow your eyes at Sollux.

Dave pauses his eating and swallows. "Now's as good a time to start the strategy meeting, I guess? I have a plan. This motherfucker's straight-up overflowing with plans, spilling over the logistical allocation into next year. Most of them just aren't that pertinent to the immediate situation. But if you're talking about dealing with the Empire on your tail... It's simple."

He lets go of his cup to rest a finger on his chin, which sends the vessel into a slow spin from the initial momentum, its contents still somehow staying put in shameless defiance of centrifugal forces.

"The plan is regicide."

It takes a second for you to parse the sentence.

"'re going to kill the Condesce," you repeat. "Straight for the throne. Sure. I don't even have the capacity to be surprised anymore, that part of my think pan's just permanently burned out now."

Not precisely what you expected, but your life has been an endless montage of recalibrating your bullshitometer lately. You have to repeatedly remind yourself again that these are gods, not just unnaturally competent kids with superpowers. Contextualizing it as a bizarre video game cleaves through a lot of the mystique, but their canonical powers still dwarf even many classical gods of human and troll myth. What's slaying an dictator, even an immortal one, to beings who can cradle planets in the palm of their hands and wind the tapestry of time itself around a little finger? What regime can't you topple when shrinking the crownworld down to the size of a thimble and crushing it like a grape is a legitimate threat?

"You got your asses thrashed last time, though," you note nevertheless with a hint of worry. That's another data point that didn't really jibe when you last talked—the Empress is obscenely powerful, yes, but only for a troll, and while you can believe the Imperial geniterrorists figuring out how to graft jailbroken psychic powers to a fuchsia, having the telekinetic strength to move planets?

"I think she was empowered by Lord English then, and had extra centuries to hone her powers, so that her was way buffed," Dave confirms your unspoken question. "I mean, baseline Condy could probably still rip our limbs off with disturbing ease, but hopefully she shouldn't have all her broken powers this time around, and we can just smite her from a distance. I'll be like shooting genocidal fish in their FTL barrel."

"That'th dangerouthly optimithtic," Sollux points out, unimpressed. "What if this is the powered-up verthion of her, brought here the same way you were? We'll juth't all get killed. Again."

"I wouldn't put much stock in that," Dave says. "The batterwitch has been out there terrorizing the universe for a million years, and I refuse to believe that she waited that long dicking around conquering the galaxy with boring old mundane tech just so she can spring her secret powers on us hundreds of thousands of sweeps in the future. I don't think she has that kind of patience. Even if superfishface does show up eventually, she'll be a separate entity from the Empress we're trying to take down right now."

You frown. That's maybe a bit too optimistic for your tastes, as Sollux said, but you don't have a counter-argument at the ready.

"Hey, look," Dave says, noticing your dubious look. "Worst comes to worst, we just beat her up like normal. Last time we were fighting not just her, but also Jane, Jade, Jack—why do we have so many four-letter J names?—the other prospitian, Gamzee, Aranea... wow, Jegus, that was such a mess in the end there. I don't think any of us actually tried to take her on except Rose? So yeah, we don't have the Second Pantheon with us this time or leveled troll players, but I still like these odds a lot more."

"I guess," you grumble, still not managing to keep the doubt out of your tone. "It's just... I thought the original Empress was pants-shittingly terrifying enough, not that I ever thought I'd ever see her except maybe as a decapitated head on a silver platter, but the one you talked about is far worse than anything my imagination could have come up with."

"I'm more worried about the potthibility that her telekinesis might not actually be magic powerth," Sollux finally speaks up again. He's levitating himself in a writhing storm of red and blue energy, a familiar exercise you've seen him perform dozens of times, but this time it seems more... calculating?

"Psionicth are pretty bullthit by themselveth. One good helmthman can drive a battlethip the thize of a thmall moon at for dayth without retht. Bethideth, the hemothpectrum'th not all bathelethh. Goldbloodth aren't conthidered the motht powerful tier becauth highbloodth are weaker, it'th becauth higher cathteth don't get psionicth at all. A futthhia telekinetic being ath abthurdly powerful ath you thaid wouldn't thurprithe me."

He hesitates for a moment, lowering himself to the floor slowly, before continuing as the sparks wink out. "You thaid me and Aradia gave the meteor the push to get to the new thetthon. And I think... I think I could do that as, you know, thith me? Agh, you know what I mean. I might burn our from the exertion , but I think it'th pothhible."

You draw in a surprised breath at the statement. You know Sollux is a powerful mutant, but how big was that meteor? Smaller than the Battleship Condescension, you guess, so definitely within the possible range of modern psionics, but that's with a biowire installation and state-of-the-art transformers.

"You fucked yourself up doing it as Mage of Doom too. Half-died or something? Karkat said you were spraying blood from every orifice, it was nasty as fuck," Dave confirms, a troubled curl to his mouth. "So that's a strike against my theory... but even if that was all the original-flavor Condescension, Jade's still waaay outclasses her at juggling celestial bodies like billiard balls, and we already patched the psychic loophole that let Condy mind-control her last time."

"Look, this is going off topic," you interject. "Back to discussing the immediate future before we get stabbed by more assassins. How the bulge-throbbing fuck are we getting to Alternia with half the Empire on our tail and, you know," you spread your arms, "Two thousand light sweeps between here and there?"

Dave rolls his eyes. "First of all, we don't have half the Empire on our tail. Don't be silly. And for how, well—"

He claps his hands together.

"—we teleport, of course."

Then he explains.

The two of them are squabbling again over bus routes in front of the station billboard while you excuse yourself from their delightful presence to "keep watch", which is mostly a pretext to have a second to yourself.

Earlier, you almost wore Dave down to getting a real vehicle with his overflowing bank account instead of placing your fate in the hands of this wiggler's drunken hiveplan of a public transportation system the country calls infrastructure, but than ran into the small snag of none of you actually knowing how to drive. Even if you and Sollux had been able to afford scuttlebuggies back on Alternia, that knowledge wouldn't be compatible with Earth cars and their cumbersome mechanical controls, and as for Dave, he spent most of his adolescent years gallivanting through fantasyland, so no surprises there.

So here you are, back to bus hopping.

You survey the area as you wait. There's not much to look at at a roadside bus station in a small-town suburb, but you see... buildings, and... trees? A grocery store with a couple of ATMs, which you guess is where Dave got your breakfast, but other than that just random people's houses and that place you were just staying at.

It's not like you're ever going to come back here again, so no point in familiarizing yourself with the neighborhood. You're not ever going back to anywhere, for that matter. Not to your college, not to that familiar shitty dorm cafeteria for more bland and unfulfilling slop, not to your room with its ratty bed and cracks on the ceiling plaster you've traced with your eyes for fifty hundred times. Not even back to your old hive on Alternia, even if you find your way back to your home planet: if it hadn't been pillaged by scavengers within a week of your departure, it'd have been marked abandoned and torn down for the next cohort of pupates when the last fiscal sweep wrapped around.

(A pop behind you tells you that Dave's slipped back in time to preorder your tickets—you're not sure how well it obfuscates your trail, since anyone tracking Dave's account will see the chain of journeys no matter when he made the purchases, but better safe than sorry, you suppose—and you sigh, dropping onto the curbside bench.)

What you're trying to get at is that you're well and truly hiveless now. No documents, no roof above your head, no money apart from the couple hundred dollars Dave stuck you with. If the time god just winged it right now, absconded to another timeline—he said it doesn't work that way anymore, but the concept of doomed timelines still gives you a minor existential crisis—and left the two of you here, you'd be thoroughly fucked all the way to the Green Sun and back.

It hasn't taken you two days to realize this. It's more of an ongoing process of assimilation, and here shivering in the chilly December breeze with the divine powerhouse in this ragtag bunch of morons taking a temporary break from linear causality, you're ever so strongly reminded how entirely at the mercy of circumstance you are—and holy shit, no Dave's guarding you right this very moment, someone could just walk up and kill you right now. You're practically defenseless; Sollux can at least shoot devastating energy beams out of his eyes, but Karkat's only powers are mediocre sicklekind and angry yelling. What are you going to do against an Imperial Drone?

You're so preoccupied with contemplating your pressing mortality that you don't notice Sollux until he's right behind you.

<Hey,> he says, sending you flailing out of your spot, almost slapping him in the face in your frantic scramble to turn around.

You quickly realize it's not an assassin here to carve your intestines out and you clamp down on your panic, though your blood pusher's still beating like it's trying to leap out of your throat and escape. <Hey,> you mutter back.

There hasn't really been a chance for the two of you to talk one-on-one since all of this started. Not since you stormed out of your old respiteblock in fury that day—yesterday, you remind yourself again—and got dragged into a personal action movie hell. Another argument that seems absurd in retrospect, although perhaps not as irrelevant as you first thought at the time. He was right, wasn't he? He always is in the end, it's part of Sollux' annoying charm.

The troll is silent for a while before he speaks again. <Are you th'till mad?>

<Huh?> You blink in confusion.

He snorts. <All the thingth I thaid about Thtrider. I told you not to trutht him, but he wath the one bailing our thorry atthes out in the end. You'd uthually be all rubbing my faithe in that, all thmug and thuperior and everything.>

<Oh.> You mull it over, looking down at your lap. The troll comes around the bench and sits down at the other end, leaving a seat of space between you. <No. I mean, you were essentially spot on about everything, except that Dave's hidden machinations turned out less sinister and more... benevolent? Well, you saw all the signs and drew a conclusion. I can't blame you for using your damn eyes when mine were firmly bolted shut with denial.>

He barks a humorless laugh. <Friend or foe is a pretty major thing to get wrong, don't you think?>

<You didn't know him enough to judge his character,> you sigh. You don't know why you're defending for Sollux, since he was being a fuckass about it all. Maybe it has something to do with the guilt worming away at you. <I'd say you should have trusted my judgment, but with what a shit I've been, I can't blame you for not having immense faith in the robustness of my mental faculties.>

<We thhouldn't have let it get to that in the firtht place.> He doesn't say it outright, but there's a note of silent accusation lurking in there.

You shift uncomfortably. Learning about the god versions of you wasn't as much of a bonding experience as you hoped, or really in any way constructive for your slowly fraying friendship at all. It wasn't all that fun to find out how in another history Sollux left you to your own desperate devices to fuck around with ghosts for all of eternity, or maybe you and Dave fucked off to another universe in pursuit of a doomed quest, depending on how you look at it. Even excluding the death and murder, your entire group pretty much all went to shit in that timeline.

It would be less painful if it didn't mirror how the two of you drifted apart in this world, gradually losing touch despite living every day in literally the same room. How you left Alternia behind and got so absorbed in your personal bullshit that you never noticed your friend still moored in the past, never caught wind of the silent upheaval taking its insidious course back at home.

<Are you mad?> you bounce back, lacking the courage to look him in the eye.

<What for?> he asks, but the brittle edge to his voice betrays that he knows exactly what you're referring to.

So he's going to make you say it. <For being a massive tongue-gouging idiot. For letting you down. For turning into a pansy-ass coward the second I crawled out of the wreck.>

Sollux crosses his arms, muscles in his face tightening.

<I don't underthtand it. How did a motherfucking atthathhination attempt on the Throne thlip your notithe?>

<Why didn't you tell me?> you mutter. <I mean, just tell me, not hand out ambiguous allusions over Trollian.>

He sneers. <I was going to thee how long it'd took for you to find out by yourself. I guess we'll never know.>

The thing is, you finally found out this morning why you're being targeted by the Empire.

Only six days ago, a rogue violetblood made an attempt on the life of the Empress. It's unclear how he got on the Battleship Condescension, or where he acquired the unique weapon used in the attack, but the strike failed. Under questioning, the unnamed troll ultimately revealed that he was acting under orders of the Heir Apparent to the throne, Feferi Peixes.

Thirteen hours later, the first reports made their way to Earth. Eighteen more hours later, the news was officially verified by Imperial sources and broke through to most major outlets. It was no front-page material for the humans—some poor fucker tries to off the Condesce every few weeks, and tragically short-lived rebellions pop up now and then, but any troll worth their salt know the difference between a sugared-up clown getting himself killed over the new Faygo allocations and an Heiress making her preemptive strike.

Apart from, apparently, you. Who never watches television, or reads the papers, or browses troll forums, or really does anything other than sleep, eat, go to classes and hang out with Dave all day. Dave who, in turn, never does anything but sleep, eat, fail to turn up to classes and hang out with you all day. And also perpetrate godly shenanigans, you guess, in light of more recent revelations.

Sollux sent you a short message, read the new2, right after the first article hit the papers. You replied FUCK OFF, thinking it a generic jab at your way of sticking our head in the sand with respect to anything xenopolitical, and put it out of your mind.

He never texted back.

Which is why you only found out about Feferi's attempted coup six days after the fact, after the Condesce released a bounty on suspected associates of the Heiress, after you weathered the first of the hunters and fumbled with help to relative safety, just this very morning. Straight from the mouth of the goldblood hacker this morning after Dave's strategy briefing as a notarized summary of exactly when and where you fucked up.

And that's why the Sollux has been so passive-aggressively pissed at you lately.

<I'm sorry,> you say, swallowing guiltily. <Fuck. I don't have an excuse. None even remotely close to justifying this.>

<He was your friend,> Sollux says quietly. <I mean, I tolerated his existenthe and don't want anything too bad to happen to him, but he was your friend.>

It was reported that the assassin carried a rifle that projected a high-energy stream of blue plasma using unknown technology. A one-of-a-kind rifle you're intimately familiar with. One you've never seen the owner let anyone else touch for the sweeps he's owned it.

<He was,> you confirm, adding another sinking stone to your stomach. <He was a genocidal shitheel, but we... we had something good going on. Even if most of what we talked about was his ludicrous sham of a moirallegiance with Feferi... I miss him.>

Sollux looks at you like you're stupid.

<I hope he's alright,> you whisper.

<He'th a thea dweller,> he murmurs. <He'll be fine.>

The irony is that trying to kill the Condesce is one of the less cullable crimes compared to, say, desertion. Trolls value competence over loyalty; you don't inspire, you threaten, terrorize any thoughts of betrayal out of your underlings, and then watch your back anyway. Getting ganked by your underling is incompetence showing, and means they should probably have your job anyway. Besides, acting under orders of the Alternian Heiress and de facto ruler of the homeworld is as close to a respectable an act of treason you can perform, and you think even technically legal, though of course a summary total of zero fucks will be given about that.

In other words, someone that manages to sneak on your ship to slit your throat in your recuperacoon is recruitment material, not clown fodder, especially when it's a promising young violetblood. In fact you suspect that might even be Feferi's plan, planting a spy under the Empress' nose under the guise of a credible assassination attempt. Worse ploys have been made.

<We're going to get him back,> you growl. <We have four gods on our side, remember?>

The two of you go quiet again, thoughts going back to how quickly your side of the equation's ballooned out of control—in a good way. Just two days ago, you were fully resigned to wasting the rest of your life away tucked on a backwater planet at the edge of the Empire. Now you've got a war to fight, an Empress to topple, friends to reconvene with, an infinite array of possibilities beckoning just over the horizon. It's terrifying to even try to contemplate, but at the same time exhilarating in a way you haven't felt for sweeps. It's freeing.

The situation is bleak, but there's hope. It's a dumpster fire, but you have every tool you need to salvage it. All you have to do is play the cards right.

Perhaps this renewed outlook on your future is what gives you the clarity to say what you say next.

<I was afraid,> you blurt out. <I thought that if I couldn't help them on Earth, thousands of luminal sweeps away from the action, what was the fucking point? I wanted to remember them as they were, not as dismembered corpses splashed over the infofeeds.I just... wanted to pretend.>

You close your eyes. <I was afraid every time I pulled up the news that the headlines would be 'Caltropian Brooding Caverns Collapsed by Imperial Missile Strike on Rebel Sect', or 'Sea Dwellers Flood Southern Continent Eastern Seaboard', or 'Sazarus Legislacerator Association Lynched by Furious Mob'. That's why I unsubscribed from every Alternian newsfeed. That's why I deleted my Wrathit account, not that I used it for anything before that. And even when it's not them getting hurt specifically, the daily tollcharts are still a reminder that everything's so fucking terrible on Alternia. And we left them there. Just like that.>

It's a feeble excuse. Not even that, just a useless explanation, an account of your weakness. But you wanted to get it out in the open.

<You thucctheeded a little too well at that,> Sollux mutters. <Goddammit, you think I don't know? You think I don't feel the thame thing? I just had the dethenthy to push patht that and keep mythelf on the rotothphere. We at leatht owe that to them for what they did for uth. We have to at least remember.>

<I'm sorry,> you repeat.

<You'd better be.>

For too many seconds, you don't have a reply to that.

You swallow, before tentatively asking, <Are we... are we still friends?>

The pause that follows is unbearable, eventually broken by a single sentence.

<Of course, dumbass.>

You breathe a sigh of relief.

<Maybe you had the right idea anyway,> he continues on. <Getting depretthed over the thorry thtate of Alternia doethn't do anything uthefull. It jutht made me and everyone around me mitherable, and I guethh I thought of that ath thome thtupid penanthe or thomething, but it really ithn't. It'th uthelethh and thtupid and mathochithtic thelf-aggrandizing doethn't get you anywhere. Knowing about the atthathhination didn't thtop me from getting tricked and kidnapped like an orphaned wiggler.>

He's clenching his fist, digging painful-looking indents in his palm. Sollux blames himself, you realize with a shock, a moment too late. He thinks that if he hadn't been taken in the first place, the oliveblood wouldn't have been able to trick you with his Trollian, and all of you wouldn't have been only minutes away from being shipped off to the Condesce's grubby paws. He thinks that he knew and tried and failed all the same, and in his twisted-up brain that's worse than the way you slipped by in willful ignorance. He's not angry at you, he's angry at himself.

And that is so fucking stupid.

<We got away,> you say. <That's all that matters. And now we know, we're prepared. We have the Knight of Time on our side. We've a step ahead of the Empire, maybe even shaken them completely. Just wait a few more days, we'll be on the other side of the galaxy, you'll see Feferi again, we'll finally get some real food for once, and everything. Will. Be. Fucking. Awesome.> You punctuate the words with punches to your palm.

Sollux nods.

<Talk to Aradia when you get back,> you suggest. <She'll love this whole thing. You'll get enough spooky non-insights and cryptic advice to last you sweeps.>

He snorts, this time with a tad more humor.

You stretch your arms.

It makes you feel guilty to think this when one of your friends is rotting in the brigs of the Battleship Condescension, another is fighting a losing war against the Empress, and the others have no doubt entrenched themselves in similar mortal peril befitting of the murderpit planet you came from, possibly a few in the exact same mortal peril by allying themselves with Feferi if you know them at all, but—

Despite everything, things are looking up. It's a long climb, but you'll get there.

<I'm dating Dave now,> you casually add just for the hell of it.

<I know.>

You jerk in surprise. <Wait, really?>

<He told me thith morning,> Sollux snorts. <He wath tho nervouth about it too. I'm pretty thure he thinkth I'm your luthuth. Like I could do anything to thtop him.>

You chuckle. <Sounds like Dave alright.>

<I'll jutht be thtanding over here watching the slow-motion train wreck of your fumbling interspecies romance.>

<I'm gratified by your unshakeable faith,> you inform him, relieved that this didn't have to explode into another stupid argument. A welcome anticlimax, for once.

Leaning back, you let the silence stretch on, but it's no longer fraught with tension. For a while, you just enjoy the morning air on your face, listening to the gentle birdsong you'll miss once you're back on Alternia.

<Speaking of Dave, it's been a while. Where the fuck is he?>

You unlock your palmhusk to check the time. It's been a few minutes now, and didn't he say he'd be back in a second?

You glance around.

"Sup," a voice comes from right in front of you, startling a shriek out of you as your device jumps out of your hand and clatters to the pavement. Your head whips back to the front, and there the god is, folding away timetables with flicks of yellow. "Miss me?"

"How do you know exactly when to do that?" you growl, because there's no way that wasn't intentional. You can see the insufferably satisfied pinch in his cheeks. The serenity of the moment's gone now, along with your rare cool. "Does your divinity package come with built-in dramatic timing for all your smug asshole trolling needs?"

"Don't question it, dude."

"It actually does. You have a fucking dramatic timing power."

Dave rests a hand under his chin in a faux-thoughtful pose, humming gravely. "The secrets of the Kiddy Camper Handysash are not meant for the likes of mere mortals."

"Ugh," you groan. "Goddammit, let's just get going. What bumfuck town of nowhereville are we crashing next?"

"Foxton," he says, handing you two tickets. You give one to Sollux and inspect your own. You've still got ten minutes before your ride gets here. "Two hours. Woo. Then lunch and another ride, and we're a third of the way there already."

"I can't believe we don't have a better way to do this," the goldblood grumbles. "We could make a fake airplane out of cardboard and let me fly uth there."

"We need to wait for the other three to get to Alternia anyway," Dave shrugs as he hands out more pieces of paper, a second pair tickets and a hiking trail leaflet. "We're already ahead of schedule. Getting there faster would just mean more time sitting on our asses twiddling our thumbs."

"Let's not rehash this asinine argument again," you groan. "Haven't we wasted enough time on this?"

While the two continue bickering in utter disregard of your exasperated demand, you open the leaflet you were given, inspecting the path marked in haphazard red marker by Dave winding through the American countryside. You haven't heard of the place before, but you guess that's why the Pantheon chose it. It's certainly not for the rich biodiversity.

You flip back to the front cover and commit to memory the name of your final destination. The site of your departure. The Payette National Forest. Completely unremarkable and uninteresting unless you're a biologist, conservationist or geographer, but what you're looking for isn't the forest itself, but what lurks somewhere among its acres of trees and sands, stashed safely from prying eyes. There your true target roams the untamed wild, awaiting patiently.


First guardian of Earth.