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    Karkat escaped out the stage door as soon as the show was well enough underway that any equipment malfunctions that were going to happen would’ve probably happened already. The soundproofed door cut off the worst of the noise, but that just meant he had to take his earplugs out so he could hear if something went wrong.

    At least these Arson Clinic assholes don’t think they’re gangsters, he thought. The crowd’s not all that rowdy. But their stage setup, holy shit. How many boxes of fucking blinkylights can two nerds play? How do you even play a blinkylight box? The ‘records’ on those turntables weren’t even records, they were some kind of digital controller. Since when is nerd rap a thing?

    He lit a cigarette, took a long, hungry drag, and blew smoke at the orange-tinted city night. “You could be flipping burgers,” he reminded himself.


    Karkat took a cautious step closer to the door as someone stood up from behind the edge of the truck dock. You got some weird people back here sometimes. It was just a generic scene kid, though. Blue t-shirt, black hoodie, knit cap, tight too-short jeans showing mismatched striped socks and ‘distressed’ red hi-tops. Shoulder-length black hair — a change from the standard bangs-over-the-eyes cut, but it kind of screamed ‘I’m pretending my name is Skrillex.’ And those goddamned black-framed glasses every loser was wearing now. Probably not even prescription. Too bad; there was a pretty face under all that poser.

    “You’re not supposed to be back here,” Karkat said firmly.

    “Huh? Oh! Yes I am.” The poser fumbled a stage pass out of the neck of his hoodie and resettled it to hang outside.

    “Lemme see that.”

    The kid bounced up the steps like he was full of helium instead of bullshit. Fuck, since when do they even make legs that long? His jeans aren’t pegged, they’re just made for humans instead of giraffes. He grabbed the stage pass as soon as it was in range and gave it a sharp tug, making the lanky kid bend down a bit, even though it wasn’t strictly necessary.

    Unfortunately, it was legit. He released it with a snort. The tall kid never stopped smiling. Probably on E. “What were you doing back here, throwing up?” Karkat demanded.

    The kid gave a dorky laugh, shoving his hands in his pockets and hunching his skinny shoulders up. “I guess I kinda lost my tolerance for crowds. I just came out to get some air.”

    Karkat pointed at where he’d been hiding and raised an eyebrow. “And everybody knows the air under loading docks is especially goddamn nice this time of year.”

    “Oh.” Another laugh. “I dropped something.”

    “Money, drugs, or your phone?”

    “No, just —”

    “Then it’s not worth crawling on the ground for.”

    The boy wasn’t listening. “— this little pink rubber alien I got out of a gumball machine in Phoenix. It’s my lucky alien. Or it was. I guess its luck ran out.”

    Karkat blinked slowly. He was starting to get the impression this wasn’t drugs talking. Mental retardation, maybe. He took another lungful of cheap tobacco, then tongued his left lip ring thoughtfully, letting the smoke drool out of his mouth. Narrowed his eyes at the way backstage-boy’s gaze was suddenly fixed on his mouth, goofy expression going slack. Yeah, I know you want a faceful of genuine hardcore, but I don’t fuck hipsters. Hard luck for you. “Look. Kid.”

    “John.” The boy stuck his hand out. His grin reappeared, wider than before.

    Karkat ignored it. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this fact, but when that show’s over, it’s over, and whatever radio station you won that pass from is not going to give you another one just because you wasted your brush-with-fame opportunity looking for rubber aliens in the alley.”

    “I’m here both nights. I’m a friend of the band.” John’s hand was still sticking out. He waggled the fingers. “Now you tell me your name and you shake my hand.”

    “Yeeeeah, that’s not how I remember it,” Karkat drawled. John’s grin only widened. With a huff of annoyance, Karkat slapped John’s hand, more get-that-out-of-my-face than high-five. “Karkat.”

    John tilted his head in a really infuriatingly twee way. “Karl?”

    “Karkat,” Karkat enunciated, spitting the syllables hard, but John was already distracted, looking at the stage door as if that would help him hear better.

    “Oh no, are they really doing this?” He looked as eagerly horrified as a grade school kid who has just watched some braver kid smear rubber cement on the teacher’s chair.

    He did have an expressive face, Karkat had to give him that. Except why am I evaluating this moron’s attractiveness? Just because he blank-faced when I played with my piercing doesn’t mean he’s a prospect. “Doing what, rapping? That’s what you came here to see, shortbus.”

    “No, listen, they’re playing Lil’ Cal.” He pulled the door handle, but only opened it a crack, enough to unseal the soundproofing. That made it easier to tell that the rhyming voice was different than it had been a few minutes ago.


    “He talked some moronic trash about Tav and put it up on Youtube. He’s such an asshole. I can’t believe they’re actually playing it.”

    Karkat snorted. “Oh, okay, you’re on a nickname basis with Tavros Nitram, I respect you now.”

    John flapped a hand like a flustered kindergarten teacher and opened the door a bit more. Now Karkat could make out words.

    “— you shiverin in fear I gonna pop-pop-pop an drop you inna river. You singin aim high, bitch I areddy there, end a the day I still a gangsta, you a white faggot in a wheelchair.”

    The crowd erupted in boos and hooting. Shit, this could get rowdy after all. John’s eyes were sparkling with joy, though, and he bounced on the balls of his feet like a teenage girl. “Ohhh Tav you got this, don’t let Dave take it, you can do it —”

    “Move,” Karkat snapped, flicking the remains of his cigarette over his shoulder. If the crowd turned unpleasant, he’d have to help security. John scooted through the door so he could get in, and they both jogged up around side-stage to where they could see without being seen. Karkat thumbed his earplugs back in, working his jaw to settle the pressure.

    The light-and-video display was cycling awkwardly through a few simple patterns, because the light tech hadn’t been given a chance to prepare for this digression. Without their psychadelic laser bullshit, Arson Clinic looked a lot less impressive. Just two guys, two tables full of ridiculous sci-fi equipment, and a whole lot of cables. There wasn’t even a mic stand, because the duo used headset mics.

    To be fair, they weren’t necessarily trying to look like pop stars. Nitram used canes to walk, and Strider needed both hands to play his fake records. It made the stage look naked, though.

    Nitram clomped awkwardly forward to just behind the monitor amps, his fancy-ass steampunk-looking leg braces flashing in the stage lights. He’d ditched his shirt since Karkat last looked in. Damn, the dude was ripped. That huge tattoo of a stylized buffalo skull across his back was tacky as shit, though.

    “Oh my gosh,” he said in the goofy, little-boy voice that was his gimmick. “Who was spinning his beats, Vanilla Ice?”

    The crowd’s laughter didn’t quite cover Dave Strider’s contribution from behind the turntables: “Yeah, I remember that one from the Ninja Turtles movie.”

    “Cal, that is so fresh.” Nitram sounded absolutely sincere. “Dave, I think we should spin vintage too.”

    “Nah, I forgot my giant clock necklace,” Strider said blandly, pokerface unruffled, and started cooking up something slow and heavy, somehow ominous and silly at once, like a Disney villain. After a couple of bars he dropped in that stupid wobbly bass that made amps walk across the stage, so that by the end they’d be a good two feet forward of where Karkat had placed them before the show.