When you wake up, breakfast’s on the table and Terezi’s curled up in a big armchair dragged right up against your recuperacoon. Watching you. Waiting. A palmhusk is in one of her hands, possibly from where she’s been recording hours of footage of you sleeping in the fucking slime. You are ninety-seven percent sure this is what gets her off.
“You are a fucking freak,” you say, and she laughs like a dissipated cacklefang.
“Rise and shine, crab apple,” she says, and taps at her palmhusk. “I let you sleep in, as this is the kind of kismesis that I am, but right now you need to eat! I will be here, using the Internet for important professional means.”
You look wrathfully over at the breakfast table. It’s like three slices of grubtoast and a tiny cup of nutrition paste to spread over them. Toy tiny. It’s like a cup for fairies. You lean out of your recuperacoon, dazed and dripping, and give her the middle finger. “Wrong finger,” she says, without looking up. You slowly realise that there are IV drips still shunted into your wrists, and them and the good shit they pack into highblood-grade sopor has you limp and sparkling like a fucking fairy. You process this affront to your dignity very slowly as you give her the correct finger.
You say, “Toasted grubloaf? Seriously, there was nothing better in the palace of the Luminesce but toasted grubloaf?”
“An excellent source of simple carbohydrates and good for settling your sacs,” says the asshole made of elbows in the chair. “Nutritious, yet comforting.”
“You didn’t even get jam -- ”
“Neither did I get you chocolate sauce, whipped cream or cinnamon sugar, which is what you usually put on grubloaf, you abomination,” says Terezi. She’s not wearing her legislacerative jacket; she is curled up in leggings and soft red slippers, and over her undershirt is one of Sollux’s louder waistcoats. “I think we should start testing you for deficiencies. Hypothesis: you are a bulge. No, wait, that’s the conclusion -- hypothesis: you are on a sugar high all the time! Evidence: sugar demand up a million percent since your hatching! Conclusion: you are a bulge.”
There’s a mark peeking out just under her collar, a dusty teal bruise. You’ve got a couple of its inclade on you. Last night the two of you went at it for -- what, ages, how are you even alive, it can’t be legal to screw an invalid to death -- and you’ve both been rougher, considering it was your first official hatepailing, but there was something bright and sour and good about it. Freeing. Less of a dirty secret. Okay, less of a secret.
“I hope you die choked under the weight of your own affrontery,” you say, and she nudges the nutrition mesa closer to you with one foot. Charming. They even had the gall to put this wretched disgrace for a meal on a silver platter, with a crystal vase of royal-red roses, as if that would make you any more cheerful at the prospect of toast.
You end up sulking back in the recuperacoon, eating grubloaf and pulling out your driplines. Terezi steals the roses and sucks them foul and spit-tattered as she types.
“Hooray,” says Terezi, licking a shred of petal from the tip of her nose. “We are now Facilebook official!”
She turns around her palmhusk to show you. You squint at a new section marked, MY BITCHES, under which she has typed LORD CAPTOR and SIRE VANTAS. Beneath that is a single merry Hunterrorist Nepeta Leijon liked this!
“Don’t you have some altar to go defile?” you say.
She sets down the palmhusk and swans over to your recuperacoon, giving your horns two sticky little kisses before she checks the IV. Terezi takes gross advantage of your sad evening state to stick a thermometer antler in your mouth, poke you, prod you, and shake out the antler like she’s actually a trained badass and doesn’t just read ASK A SURGICALLOUS EXPERT columns. She and Sollux have played docterror and nurse with you for sweeps now.
“How is he?” you say, lowly.
“Before or after his thirteenth cup of coffee?” she says. “Because before he was just miserable, and afterward he was jittery and miserable. He and your adorably inarticulate seadweller tore more holes in each other yesterday, and then he left with that horrible clown --”
“I know, I know, I was excited too! But then he returned, alas, sans clown, hooray, and he and Sollux have been tearing holes out of each other ever since. Some of them I’m assuming to be sexy holes, but others look far less erotic.” Terezi hangs the dripline over the IV stand. “There are kismesis wounds and then there are defense wounds. You’re doing a bad thing to them, my little candy apple.”
You don’t say what you want to say, which is fuck, I know, fuck. This would be shameful as it would be clumsy. She drops down to lean over the recuperacoon and stirs the sopor with one claw, and the slime gloops companionably all around you.
“I want you to leave the seatroll alone,” she says.
Terezi sniffs disinterestedly at the sopor on her finger, then wipes it off in your hair. “The Messiah I can live with so long as I never have to see him. Put him in a box. Place a bag over his head! But talk to Sollux and leave Ampora be, or you’ll find yourself in deeper than you anticipated. Ever since you went tearing off after that capricorn, cherry-pie, you have been one long sob story.”
“Did you and Sollux set up an emotionally cathartic moirallegiance,” you say, “or did you both just agree to both be dynamite-laden douchepipes laid around a mountain range rich with dipshit ore?”
“Fuck off,” she says, near-tenderly, and she reaches across to kiss your cheek. You flick her horn. “I mean it, however. This has destroyed you. Sort it out with Sollux, and let that poor seadweller boy alone.”
“Let me guess,” you say, not bothering to sieve the heavy acid out your words. “I don’t have any idea what I’m getting into with the poor seadweller boy.”
“Oh, no,” she says. “Mister Fishface has no idea what he’s getting into with you, and you know it.”
“Because of -- ”
“Not what you’re thinking,” says Terezi. She flicks sopor over your arm. “Bzzt, two wrong answers. You are not going home with the thermal hull tonight. No, because of who you are right now.”
Disappointment tugs its fine mesh around your heart.
“I am so tired of hearing the same song with a slightly changed lyric every fucking time,” you say. “You think I’m the sob story? You are braying up the wrong frond nub. This is bullshit. You wonder why I like my poor old buddy Fins? He never gives me the Karkat, I miss you. I miss you, Karkat. I miss who you were. Who you were, I miss. I miss the troll you are not. I am not missing the troll you are. The missing is in who you are not now -- ”
“When I was in legislacerator training they gave me a chipped panworm,” she says.
You stop, even though you were well on your way to a good roll. Terezi is resting her chin on one hand, the other idly swishing through the sopor. There’s no way she can look at you, but you’ve known this terrible, beautiful girl for a very long time. You can tell when her attention’s away from your face. “I was missing time, you see. Losing moments, forgetting details. It was Nepeta that put it together, halfway through our sixth sweep. You can’t play host to a cerebral modification symbiont without there being tells, and trust a huntress to spot them. Soon as I hit dirt, Sollux wiped it and got it to slither out -- it was entirely gross! You see, I found that I was not really on board with the idea that they were giving my pan over to a higher authority than God. God’s lips to my skull.”
Your vision swims for a moment. Your gorge rises. The grubloaf sits as an awkward lump in your digestive system, more than grubloaf even usually does. “For fuck’s sake,” you say, and you can’t bear it, can’t not let the disgust seep into your voice. “They wormed you? They really went ahead and brainwormed you? They -- brute-forced a whole wing of government rather than just give you, shit, the ethics course -- was it just you? Was it because of your position with Aradia -- your caste -- ”
“They wormed everyone,” she says.
“Fuck. Don’t piss on me, but that’s such a League of Legislacerators thing to do -- haven’t ever heard of consent of the governed, it’s fucking enforced law -- ”
“They wormed everyone,” she says again, and for Terezi, quite gently: “Karkat, they infected each of us. The whole civil service.”
Behind your eyes, the optic nerves feel tight and hot.
“We asked you about yours,” says your kismesis. “You said, and I quote, that even if we weren’t being a bunch of paranoid squeakbeasts you’d rather make out with Maryam’s prettiest chainsaw than let Sollux at your pan with his psionics and besides that you’d like to see the brain worm that could survive more than an apogee in the disease-ridden soup surrounding your shrunken amygdala. And we thought, ‘maybe he’s right?’ We thought, ‘maybe it won’t affect him, considering...’ But then one night I was talking about the government and you threw a coffee cup at my head.”
You say, “Stop.”
For once in her career, Terezi Pyrope stops. The headache behind your eyes brightens and intensifies. You’re exhausted. She does soften, some. She takes your hand and kisses it like she's giving you a favour at a hunt, and gives you a wry smile.
“I plan on taking Sollux away on a break after this,” she says. “You could come too! A regular sexmageddon, if you play your cards right. He and I agreed it’s still moirallegiance if our nooks don’t touch. But now get some rest, you awful douche.”
“I don’t trust you when you’re being this cute.”
“You really shouldn’t,” she says. “I have so much paperwork for you to do.”
She holds your hand until your staccato breathing gets even, gets tired. You don’t want to think. You want to slip away and wake up to a new angle on everything. You want to wake up and be someone who has all the fucking answers, not just wake up and walk like you have all the fucking answers. Before you go under, you think you hear her say, “Don’t forget this time, dear.”
Some may have previously dared call you “hardcore”. But she’s right. Somewhere along the way, you've lost all your steel.
The fishergirl’s standing next to the airlock in hospital robes, when you catch up to her, a helmet under one arm and her cadet’s sash around her neck like an aviaterminator’s scarf.
“It’s not a chain,” she says conversationally. When she turns around, you see the thick, glutinous drip of sea blood out one long finned ear. She has a scalpel and is digging in her aural canal as casually as if she has a fluff-tipped cleaning stick instead. She snickers, high and weird, and stabs. The purple spatters against the red scarf in thick dashes of fuchsia. Her eyes are dilated as hell, she’s high on something, stolen painkillers, caffeine, divine revelation, you don’t know.
“Come again?” you ask.
She repeats, incoherent, “It’s not a chain, they think they can rule a straight line out to infinity but it doesn’t work like that and are they ever going to be surprised to find out? You were always kind to me, you poor stupid Lord, so I tell you this for nothing: it’s a spiral.”
“Girl,” you say, no, you say her name. You don’t remember her name -- “Put the knife down.”
She actually looks surprised, and pulls the scalpel out of her head like she’s forgotten she’s stabbing herself. She drops it and sags against the wall.
“Come here,” she says. “Lord, come here. Give me your hand. I don’t have much time. Come here!”
“Okay,” you say. “Shh. I’m coming over. It’ll be okay.”
“That’s what you think,” she says, and grabs your hand in her own blood-slick grasper. She hunches over it like a palm-reader would, and you think she’s going to kiss it, bless it, mutter a spell. Instead she draws a fat tear-drop shape with her thumbclaw, then gives it two dots for eyes. A tadpole, with a little sad mouth.
“The session is corrupted,” she says thickly. “Vantas, the session is corrupted, it doesn’t matter what these space-lost bastards do to tie down our heads, our hearts, our souls. Or anything at all, I guess. The Gods are coming.”
“Shh,” you say, “Hush, crazy, and sit down. I’m going to call an adult.”
She tazes you in the think-pan.
You bang your horns off the floor, and open your eyes to a dizzily-upside down view of the base of your recuperacoon. You’re back in the Capitol, in the palace. One foot is still awkwardly hooked around the rim.
“Fuck my life,” you say, and roll stiffly to your feet.
Damage is minimal: the horn-ache is already abating, your dignity is squashed flat but will recover, you have a minor crick in your neck and your feet are cold. You’ll survive.
You’ve been out another full evening, at least, probably bringing your hours out cold up to some obscene total you’re not sure you want to think about. However, there is no more food to be found. You might be forced into getting up and dealing with shit like a functional sub-adult who sorts out his own problems with his high pants on. This thought is nearly enough to send you right back into the slime to continue imitating a corpse, but you are a complete champion, so you deal.
You haul your soggy glutes off to the nearest ablutionsuite. You shower off the rich slime and the lingering unease, and you lean your head against the wall and let the shower blast as the tiles slowly stop pulsating. It had felt so real, that latest little headtrip. It had felt so fucking real. Remembrance, not dream. God horrors and day delusions and sundry nasty flights of fancy you are more than fucking familiar with: our own ghost of Twelfth Perigee’s Past dogs you with a nookful of portents and a mouthful of silence and you know how his dipshit shows go so well that you could put on a pantomime. This is the world. Here’s how it’s broken. What are you going to do about it, Karkat? What the fuck are you going to do.
You’re a Threshecutioner. You all dream. It’s just that this latest little pan freakout felt disturbingly like something that might have actually happened to you.
This is why you shouldn’t be alone with Heat’s own gallows-ghouls, they fuck with a guy’s mind. Terezi more than most. You pour half a bottle of shampoo over your scalp to keep your fingers busy, and scrub the whole mess out with the suds.
Part of it’s real, at least. The girl had always been real. Only fishertroll in your cohort, had to fight for it harder than anyone else in the business. She had just spaced out one night for no reason at all and you’d thought, if only I’d done something. You’d thought, if only I could be there for the next one.
You’ve got soap in your eyes. You sniff, scrub clean. Turn off the trap.
Maybe you need to go easier on yourself for a while. A few more escort missions wouldn’t hurt, probably, you could kick back and go to some more parties. Spend some more time on practicums and consulting, sorting out kids’ emotional kinks is easy work and generally pleasant. You’ve been hitting up the high-risk end of the job pool pretty hard, culminating in this unlikely capricorn horseshit and requisitioning the palace’s own Archagent, which you thought would just mean not having to duplicate your mission report to Sollux and a nice smooth outing for the both of you. Heavy lifting is practically Eridan’s job anyway. He gets down to the sick stuff in the dirty corners of Alternia, which was why you told yourself he’d never turn you down instead of the real reason, which is that he’s in love with you.
What the fuck are you supposed to do about all this? The time’s past when you could have made the decision to make no decision. You’ve got a pan-ache already.
As it turns out, the nearest wardrobifier to your suite contains a new set of duds, fresh-woven and impeccably tailored. The soft trousers crackle with static when you run your hand across the fabric. They don’t smell of a damn thing but that particular dusty-clean smell of the printworm. Your sash is hemmed to a perfect length for your waist for once and the sigil on your shirt’s done up in silver thread, not just printed gray, which is utterly swank and you’re going to send Apprentice Maryam a fruitbasket with strawberries. There’s even a folding comb and a little tin of horn polish tucked into one of your shoes. The strawberries will be carved into little animals.
After you’ve shrugged into your jacket and smoothed out your stockings and fussed with your hair and given up entirely on your horns, you check out yourself out in the reflection pane and feel a decent percentage of fine. You’ll never even place at a pageant, but you can wear white and come out looking a sharp and proper piece of badass.
You brave moonlight. The palace’s endless maze of courtyards make for a more appealing prospect tonight, now that you’re clean and clothed and trying to sort out what the hell you’re going to do about the two magnificent assholes currently ruining your life. You fist hands in your pockets and stroll along, kind of enjoying the night and the soft landside breezes, until you catch a sniff of fried confectionery.
You are going to find whatever the hell is making that smell and you are going to eat it, fuck yes. Sniffing intently as Terezi on amphetamines, you follow the thread of sugar and grease through two courtyards, a terrace, a hallway, and out into a third courtyard full of color. The sound of a tinkling fountain delights the senses. So does the scent of ringworms.
“And they call me the palace shark,” Eridan says. “Look at you, on the hunt and all.”
Eridan, lounging on a bench under a decorative stand of the trees, blossoms snowed down on his fussy hair, Eridan who has a little pink cardboard carton propped on the end of the bench that’s not covered by a hellish drift of paperwork. The girl that sets up in Flowerfall Square, your favorite stop for pastries, he remembered special. You would swoon if you weren’t too busy routing power to your salivary glands.
“I will duel you for those,” you say plaintively, “I will get a goddamn sword,” and he just laughs and gestures you over. Freak that he is, he’s eating an orange. What disreputable ass eats fruit when there’s pastry around? You pick up the pink carton, sit down on the small clear square of wood, and disdain the world utterly for an even dozen of deep fried sugar-dusted breakfast. Fuck you, grubloaf.
“Gamz made me promise to keep you fed,” Eridan says while you munch. “He ain’t all there betwixt the aurals, the big lug, I’d a done it anyhow.”
You smile, your first real smile of the night, and suck a little rill of grease off your wrist.
“Ocean, meet sky,” you say thickly. “Neither of you are all there.”
He heaves upright. “I can take those back if you’re gonna sass -- ”
You curl up around your box, baring all your sugary teeth, and he just laughs and settles back down.
You kind of furtively check each other over for damage while he pops the last piece of orange in his mouth and swallows it down, seeds and all. He’s got a nice suit on, hair combed, tie sharp as a line of ink, sleepy eyes. Smells of the sea even from here. He must have spent all evening out on the water. You’re not sure if you can put that down to yourself or what, he’s got a stack of paper and huskflats mounded up thick as a tome beside his knee, and two different styluses tucked behind one chewed-up ear.
All the rest of him is chewed-on, too. It’s been at least a night and besides the neat jacket and the carefully done-up hair he doesn’t look any better than the last time you saw him, fresh off the pail -- Terezi did warn you that he and Sollux spent the entire time you were out tearing each other into shreds, but he looks like grub burger. You’re used to the two of them being attached at the face for a really disgusting percentage of Eridan’s time in the Capitol, and you know seadwellers don’t bounce back as fast as warmbloods, but to see Eridan looking this wrecked is kind of unsettling.
“Should I start chargin’ for the view?” he finally asks, on the defensive now that he’s done eyeing your own collection of bites and bruises.
“Only if you cough up the backpay you owe me,” you say. “Don’t think I didn’t catch you scoping out my terry-clad unmentionables last night.”
“I will have you know that that wasn’t a show, that was a disappointment,” he says stiffly, “you don’t got any unmentionables worth mentioning.”
His fins are a hilariously vivid purple, and you leave him to the sad scraps of dignity he has left while you lick congealed worm rime off waxed cardboard. Eridan tosses over a thin slice of husktablet, neatly knocking the box out of your grasp and on to the ground.
“Okay,” you say, picking the husk up by the very corner, “I deign to grace you with my presence and you chuck paperwork at me? Fuck you, sir, fuck you a million times in the aural sponge clot, what the hell kind of base treachery is this.”
“Sign for the capricorn job,” he says, undaunted. “Sol and Lady Pyrope backdated the mission order, so you get a pretty healthy run a credit for what I am entirely sure constitutes a voluntary fuckin’ lark for you. It should tide your ratin’ over for another few days, leastways.”
“Oh, ‘Lady’ Pyrope, someone got impressed -- ”
“Impressed? Never been so glubbin’ terrified in my life,” he says. “I think a little bit a water came out my gills.”
You sigh and sign. The tablet thrums quietly as sestertii start uploading into your bank account. For all that Eridan was right there with you every step of the way, the kid pulls a flat salary from the Palace funds each perigee regardless of whether he’s sitting on his glutes under a fruit tree or helping you haul an auroraboar out of someone’s septic tank. You know for a fact that Sollux skims off a monstrous cut of what little the kid gets in this weird caliginous shuffle that neither he nor Eridan want you sticking your nose in and this, too, is another thing you’re fucking sick to death of. Money doesn’t mean shit to Sollux, who has everything, and Eridan seems just as bitterly determined to act like it doesn’t mean shit to him, either. Proud bastard that he is, he’ll squeeze a denarius off the cuttlefish export ‘till it squeaks, and then completely shrug off Sollux appropriating five aureii off a perigee he barely survived.
“Help me with this shit?” Eridan asks all hopefully, cutting into your very important brooding session.
You moan. “I hate paperwork.”
“Ain’t like I get off to the delight of it all, either.”
“Fine, fine, gimme some.”
He picks up a few more sheets, and this time you catch the unmistakable set of pain in his wrists. When he stretches an arm out you see a flash of raw violet under the cuff, and you are deeply alarmed. Eridan heads off the deep end at warp speed if you get him by the wrists, he goes mad: you know it, Sollux knows it. And yet. You stare at that purple rim and he goes very still.
“Eridan -- ” you say, and you know you’ve hit the wrong tone by the way he bristles.
“Stop it,” he snarls. He tugs his sleeves away. “Ain’t none a your lookout, now, is it -- we’re fine. We’re fuckin’ peachy.”
You say, “Fuck you. You’re getting destroyed.”
There’s a great deal of savage frustration in his shrug. “Yeah? You gonna kiss it all better, Sire?”
Oh, fuck this shit, you’re so tired of them. You lean over, grab his hand, shove his sleeve up, and bring his raw wrist to your mouth. He tastes like salt and copper-tang. He tastes unmistakably like honey and you miss Sollux, all of a sudden, the smell of his offices and the hum of his bees. You’re pretty miserable and this was a spectacularly bad idea, but you keep it together long enough to incite him to heal up properly -- just short brisk licks, ones that keep him still and silent. The weals already look better as you take your handkerchief out and dab the broken skin.
“Give me the other,” you say shortly. When you’re done he’s leaned back against the back of the bench, staring into the middle distance with this awful quiet softness.
“Hey,” he says, attempting a smile. He points to his flap. “I got some more on my face, y’know.”
“Don’t push your luck, kid.”
Your ears are hot with delayed embarrassment, and you want to cry for about a million reasons and all of them involve you being a weenie. Honey and old blood in your mouth and Sollux fuck only knows where, and you are unavoidably messed-up over this stupid seadweller. He reaches out and you flinch, but he only goes and puts a stack of papers on your knees. He’s looking anywhere but at you.
“Thanks,” he says, and he sounds ashamed.
“Oh, shut it. Eridan, Eridan, fuckin’ Eridan, you say somethin’ enough and it loses all meanin’. Makes me miss kid. Makes me wonder what are we even -- no. Sorry.” He puts his head in his hands, his elbows on his knees, and he says viciously, “I’m trying not to be an asshole, here, okay? I really am. I just. I don’t give up, Kar, I never fuckin’ gave up on a thing in my life, look at me, look at this palace I am fuckin’ sittin’ in and you think I’m the type as treats a ‘no’ with any kinda consideration? Fuck that. And now I gotta mind my manners and smile all nice let you dance off to him because a some mystical secret asshole history the two of you got. I love you so much I want to fuckin’ well breathe fire and I don’t have the slightest clue what you’re even on about anymore, either a you, and it’s just-- it’s hard. Okay? It’s hard.”
“If romance was easy I’d be out of a job,” you say.
He huffs a bitter laugh, conceding the point. “What even is it with you an’ Sol?” he finally asks. “Explain it to me. I’ll listen. You don’t hardly care a lick for caste so it ain’t like you’re swoonin’ over his golden credentials, and I’ll grant you the bastard’s pretty enough, he’s fuckin’ well gorgeous while I rock ‘clean’ on a good night, but that’s not -- not enough. It don’t square with you sittin’ there all guilt and grief over the chance you’ll find him later and he won’t be too much of a stone-nooked workaholic to give you the time a night. The fuck did he ever do to earn someone like you?”
Well. That one’s easy enough.
“He saved me,” you say.
“He kept saving me. He has made the pretty fucking heroic pledge to keep on saving me as long as I’m alive.”
“Bullshit,” Eridan repeats, a hard tremor to his voice. “If this’s about your weirdass sickly bloodpusher thing -- look, I been keepin’ quiet on all this on account a I thought you and Captor knew what you were doin’, but -- ”
“But what, assmunch?”
“Sol ain’t savin’ you,” he says. He says it likes it hurts, but he says it. “I’d-- I’d fuckin’ get down on my knees and kiss him right on his narrow nook if he were, but you are not well. You been sick since I fuckin’ met you and you’re sick all the time and you just died, Kar, that ain’t right. That ain’t no ‘saved’.”
You get off the bench. Papers and tablets go everywhere. You walk away. You are full of a weird buzzing numbness and you just -- walk.
Eridan catches up to you halfway across the courtyard, and he doesn’t even do you the courtesy of keeping pace. He grabs you by the elbows and swings you around and the two of you just look at each other, him all alight with the same stupid passion as always takes him at precisely the wrong times, and you just burnt-out miserable.
“You’re rich,” he bursts out with, like you didn’t know or something, “don’t even tell me you fuckin’ ain’t, you’re one a the best Threshies out there, you’re magic, you’re swimmin’ in silver. In credit! You could get anyone on the planet to pump you fulla any drug you care to click your nails at. You could get a fuckin’ full vascular transplant if you wandered out in the street and, and pointed! Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if Threshies could get an adult in to check their broken pump. But I haul you back to him? He ain’t no surgeon, don’t tell me you let that asshole go mucking around in your insides just for the sheer love a him, Kar, tell me that’s not what all this’s been about -- ”
“I’m a mutant,” you say.
“Well, sure,” he says, gesturing at your eyes, and you’re calm, you are ridiculously calm.
“I am illegal levels of mutant,” you say. “It’s not cosmetic, like your hair, or beneficial, like Sollux’s duality thing. It’s, you know, like my horns, okay? My horns, height, ears, eyes -- I hatched out with one hell of a screwed up genome is what’s wrong with me, got a lot of genes that never got assed to express themselves. My natural state is weirdass fucking stunted deviant. When I was five and a half sweeps the Lady Leijon and I were working on Threshecutioner prep. together, and she knew Terezi through an RP ring, who knew Sollux through Aradia, and once Sollux knew me -- you’ve seen how he is around problems. I trusted him enough to tell him mine and I’ve been his pet project ever since. They had to get hospiterminal-grade stuff from the black market for my operations, immunosuppressants and artificial hormones and antivirals and vascular-scrubbers and everything, they didn’t have clearance for it then. They hardly have clearance for it now, and I hurt all the time, and I’m so fucking sick all the time. I’m so tired, Fins, I’m wearing out. You and your girl and that stupid-ass suicide pact you didn’t think I’d suss out, didn’t think I’d guess -- well, I don’t know how much of me is making it to Ascension, either.”
Eridan’s maw slowly closes.
“Kar,” he says thickly, kind of helplessly, and kisses your forehead. He holds you as you tremble, and for a long moment he just lets the silence stretch out.
“Everything that’s left of me,” you finally say, feeling your way awkwardly along, “everything that’s still managing to get up and kick ass and -- and see you in the evenings, call you up, go run around town and raise hell and make this world a better place. All of me. That’s thanks to Terezi and Sollux, alright? That’s what that splendid skinny piece of gilded crap bothered to salvage out of the wreck I got hatched as.”
“Oh, come on -- ”
“You come on, shitpan! It’s true. I love him, he’s -- splendid, that’s what he is.”
It feels trite as fuck on your tongue at first but you’re right, it’s the only word right for him. Splendid.
“He’s brilliant. You know he’s actually decently kind if you squint past the cape and the attitude. He keeps the whole world turning, that kid. When I didn’t know him, when I was little, I thought I’d have to bribe him, bargain somehow, be his spy -- he saves anyone who sneezes at him crosseyed, no question, no fuss, no doubt, no resentment, Sollux Captor will give you anything you fucking ask for, you kick him in the face and he tries to mind his teeth, that’s who he is. You know how many of the nerdlings have stories like yours, like mine -- all of them! The shit I could tell you. And you, you tremendous self-interested douchewagon, you even managed to scrape up the unmitigated gall to ask what he ever did to earn me, you with your fins and your Archagent’s pin, Eridan Ampora, most powerful saltblood on the planet! He gave you a chance, a hope, a life, a fucking job. Gave me the same thing. Real question is, what the fuck can either of us do to pay him back?”
“Well, this one time I punched him right on the bone-bulge,” Eridan says thickly. “Maybe you could just make him a nice card.”
This deflates your dramatic monologue so much that you’re left blinking like a dipshit with a tic. Then you crack up. You mash your face up against Eridan’s very nice and nonplussed shirtfront and you snigger, right up until you feel him relax minutely against you. He says, “You got no sense a propriety, do you,” in an injured tone, and you just laugh harder.
“God,” he says finally, wryly, patting tentatively at your back. “I don’t know which current leads up any more, Kar Vantas.”
“I know,” you say, still laughing. “I know, I know. We’re reprehensibly fucked up. Some Threshecutioner I am.”
“Best Threshecutioner I ever met.”
“Only Threshecutioner you ever met, bulge-boil.”
The seadweller pushes you back by the shoulders and he looks at you, squints your way as serious as a knife to the neck. There is nothing worse than Eridan when he wants to be gentle. It sounds like Tavros trying to coax a broken-winged singbeast, only a lot more inept and a lot more desperate. “I still want you,” he says. All honesty. All self-aware, embarrassed sorrow. “I’m sorry, I know you think I’m awful. I am awful. Worst fucker in the sixteen seas. But I do.”
“Fins,” you say. Your hands are on his shirt. Everything you couldn’t tell him spreads out in front of you like the landscape of a burnt-out city. His actual question this whole time has been, and been obviously: why won’t you let me in? But you can’t, you can’t.
You say, “You masochistic douchebag,” and it comes out like I’m so sorry.
Then you’re kissing each other again, which has the benefit of wiping that awful pity off his face and the downside of being dumb. It’s one of the dumbest things you’ve done in a latest and intriguing line of dumb shit you have committed, which previously peaked with jumping off the Clockwork Tower on a dare and a piece of clothesline. That experience is eerily similar to what you’re doing now. Eridan, whose eager cut-up mouth on yours is a rush and also now as familiar as your childhood recuperacoon. Terezi was right. You shouldn’t be doing this and you shouldn’t be sliding your arms up around his waist, only doing this is the same as it ever was: too easy.
The both of you are completely silent this time around. He’s rough at red kisses, alternating too sharp and too shy, but you lead and he follows and his breath comes in short little tremors as he slides his tongue into your mouth, like he thinks you’re maybe operating under a spell that’s going to give out any moment. You don’t know. You don’t know a damn thing but that you want him back and that having him is probably going to destroy the both of you. Your world has collapsed down to fire and need and the precise and hard-earned knowledge of how to take a troll apart from the inside out. If you go fast enough, if you’re fucking stupid at high enough velocity, maybe it’ll hurt less later when you shatter. Your hands make contact with the soft cool skin at the small of his back and he moans at that, hoarse and quiet, and sways on the spot. You drag your hands up to cup his gillslits like you’ve always wanted to.
He pulls back with a breathy curse. He swallows hard, licks his lips convulsively. He’s gorgeously wrecked, his narrow pupils finally blown out round for the want of you, his hands set frustratingly chaste at your spine and shoulder. You ache for him to bleed you hollow, shove you against a wall and rip everything he’s ever wanted out of your hide, but he doesn’t. He just stands there and shakes while you brush just your fingertips across the tender rims between each stiff cover and he’s looking over your shoulder, gone tense.
“Oh,” you say, realizing. “Oh, fuck.”
“Nice night, Sol,” Eridan says, all breathless triumph and to his eternal credit he doesn’t do anything more than continue to hold you. His claws fist in your jacket. That’s enough: there’s the distinctive teakettle whistle of psionics splitting air on a molecular level, and you are in motion. You spin Eridan out of the way and he goes -- the lance of blinding power slags a trench of tile all the way across the courtyard, but when you try to get yourself between Eridan and the danger you find yourself hoisted off the ground by the armpits.
“Don’t you dare,” you hiss. You’re not sure which of them you’re angrier at, suddenly, and you lash your heel back against his knee. “The both of you. I’ve had enough, assholes! Don’t you fucking dare.”
“Ain’t your fight, man,” Eridan says absently, attention not on you. Through the spots in your vision you can see Sollux stalking back and forth, a coruscating blaze of anger and very directed aggression. All he needs is a clear shot. You thrash in Eridan’s arms and he throws you into the nearest ornamental hedge. Douchebag.
By the time you kick your way clear of the branches he and Sollux are already going at it, a crazy lightshow of occular blasts and telekenetics and tiny knives. Sollux is tall and grim and his cape is like a slice of the sun, the locus to a maelstrom of solid light. Eridan’s being driven around in jagged circles but keeps coming, eyes as hard as chips of amethyst, crisp and clean and not a wrinkle in his waistcoat. You have time to think fuck, they’re gorgeous as Eridan rebounds neatly off a balcony and kicks Sollux in the head before you reach the both of them, sickle out, and this time Sollux is the one who throws you in a bush.
This is a disaster like the girl whose moirail was allergic to shooshing was a disaster. This is a disaster like the kid who could only get off if their auspistice sang I’m A Little Teapot was a disaster. Lord Captor and Archagent Ampora comprise a significant fraction of the Empire’s future, and here they are wrapped up in the galloping farce that is you unable to pick one damn matesprit and have done with it. It’s ludicrous. It’s embarrassing. You’re really, really turned on.
You struggle up from your bush, spitting out leaves. They’re fighting around the decorative fountain now. Chips of marble shatter in the air like fireworks. It’s easy to forget how dangerous Sollux is when he’s just a bundle of pretty sticks in a cape, fussing over silicomb and wires. But he’s a true-bred highblood, heir to a staggering amount of psychic power, and all hell breaks loose when he actually lets himself lose control.
Fins gets in close enough to throw a punch -- one hell of a punch, nothing pulled, by the snap of the head and the flinch you know Sollux just lost a fang -- and then rings of bi-colored fire blaze up around Eridan’s wrists, crossing them neatly together as he staggers back on strings of light. There’s the gleam of one of those funny little rounded-off clam knives in his fingers as he twists and thrashes, forced into a jerky pirouette.
You see the sheen of sweat on his throat and a slice of hip where his shirt’s come untucked. He dives forward and Sollux meets him halfway and they literally lock horns. The forward curves of Eridan’s crooked jags smash up against the inner set of Sollux’s doubled peaks with an audible screech. Their shoulders tense as they go scuffling, chests heaving, faces vivid with hate. Blood spatters between their feet: pure gold running hot and fast down Sollux’s chin and violet seeping muddily from a dozen wounds.
“Holy shit,” you breathe. You’ve got to stop this. They don’t even hear you.
Eridan slips first. There’s a flash of blade, and another flash of psionics; you can’t see enough to know what’s going on -- but then the seadweller’s going down, and taking his kismesis with him. He cracks his head and horntips on the stones and spits a snarling gobbet of violet right in Sollux’s face on the recoil. Sollux’s answering scream is neither cultured nor sane. Shattered flagstones are wrenched up and over their head, Eridan lying prone on the courtyard cobbles, Sollux crackling like a magnesium flare: one long thigh bracketing each side of Eridan’s rucked-up jacket and the both of them patched all over with dust and grit and dripping abrasions.
The look on Eridan’s face is all black rapture, is that of a boy who will watch the world burn if only he can push someone else into striking the match, aglow with anticipation, squinting and ready. His smile says: do it, oh fuck yes, do it, come on darlin’, DO IT, and the twitch in Sollux’s hands tells you there is every chance that he will.
Your sickle’s in your hand. Your fingers are clammy on the grip and you are tight-skinned and itchy all over from a truly horrible combination of arousal and terror. There’s only one move you’ve got left, one military manoeuvre, one last shot. The Threshecutioner’s friend.
It goes like this: you wave your arms and shout a lot.
“SOLLUX,” you bawl. You wing your sickle across the space between you and it beans the jerkass right on the side of his fuck-stupid nug. “SOLLUX, YOU HEINOUS SHOWBOATING SHITSHOW, STOP IT RIGHT NOW. Have you strung yourself out on ASSHOLE DRUGS? Have you perhaps overdosed? That’s your kismesis, you BILE-STUDDED NOOK TUMOUR! Kindly refrain from murdering the one person in this courtyard who’s had the opportunity to fondle your bulge! You braying lunatic, put down the rocks, slither back to your senses, and explain in small words why you TOSSED ME INTO A BUSH!”
In the end, you don’t know what does it; the shouting, the blow to the head, or both, or neither. Those rail-thin shoulders droop. The psionics calm to a murmurous burr. The flagstones drop clattering to the ground, and you see Eridan blink, slow and puzzled.
“What the fuck am I doing,” says Sollux, and there, he’s back. The self-loathing’s tinged with empty wonderment. “What the hell do I even think I’m doing.”
This, then, is the kid he’s so good at hiding it’s easy to forget he’s in there. Inside that sneering, icy shell of his he burns like a proton storm, all feelings and fire. This is who Eridan gets to deal with on a regular basis, this is who you only get to glimpse through the cracks anymore.
“How am I supposed to lose both of you?” he asks, and his voice is wound high and helpless. “How am I to let you go?”
“Easy,” Eridan mocks, from flat on his back. “You lose.”
Sollux swings around, his cape a tattered gold pennant. He scrubs his face with one long, shaking hand. “I’ll,” he says slowly. “You. I. Okay. Okay. I’ll talk with AA tomorrow. We’ll get you transferred somewhere. Maybe you can work for Pyrope or, hell, with Maryam. You can talk about cravats all damned night.”
The gloating in Eridan’s voice is now bewilderment.
Sollux summons up his glasses up from the ground and just looks at him, all blank jeweltone eyes. He cleans the lenses on a shred of his cape with complete dignity, and his shrug could level cities. “You win,” he says quietly. “Good fight, but I keep trying to shove a square peg in a round hole when -- Hell. Maybe you were the cylinder. Goodbye, you shithead, I can’t finish you off, not even for Karkat. So, I’m -- I’m going to go. It’s been nice. Thank you. There’s -- there’s paperwork. My God, is there paperwork.”
He perches the glasses back on his nose. Then he turns and drifts off over the courtyard, dust settling in his wake. He stumbles a little at first, arms wrapped around himself like an injury, but halfway across the courtyard he’s running, heels hardly skimming the ground. He’s bolting. It’s like watching a hive collapse, Sollux absconding, it’s awful.
The courtyard is very cold all of a sudden. The wind rustles through trees scared free of chirpbeasts long ago. Eridan lies there on the cobblestones, propped up on his elbows, and his eyes are nearly as blank as Sollux’s. “Uh,” he says. “I, wait. Sol.”
He scrambles up to his feet, turns towards you. Doesn’t even dust himself off.
“Didn’t expect that to happen, did you?” you say.
You should have seen it coming. You did see it coming. And yet.
“He ran away,” he says, almost to himself. “He ran away from us.”
“Was I worth it?” you want to know, and you spread your arms out wide, tadaa! One minute you’re getting the hottest fucking show on the planet and the next you’re the match to their pyre. You are perfectly bleak, and the shattered way your fisherkid looks at you is a mirror.
He comes toward you. For a moment you think he’s going to try and claim you, shove you to your knees and wring out a hollow victory from the ashes, and you think you’ll go goddamn shithive maggots if he tries. Instead he just takes you by the shoulders, very gently, very tenderly, and pushes your frontpans together like he wants not to be himself anymore and harbors some foolish notion that being you would be in any way less shitty. You can feel his cool breath. You taste his blood on his lips. But Eridan doesn’t kiss you.
“Go to him,” he says instead, bitter and careful. “That’s right, isn’t it? Sol was wrong, there, we aren’t each other’s. I’m his. You’re his. Whole glubbin’ world’s his. The Lord’s hounds don’t get to run off with each other, now, do they, and fuck me for ever thinkin’ they could.”
“Fins, fuck -- ”
“Classic logic problem,” he says tersely. Terse is the only thing holding him together. Everything’s a mess now, even his hair. “Two trolls go to the Empress, right, claim they conquered the same planet, and the Empress says well sure, best course is gonna be me splittin’ the planet in half with a laser beam so’s you each get a hunk, and the one troll says okay yeah sure but ‘course the real conqueror says no let the other troll have it ‘cause they don’t want the planet to go to waste.”
You’re filled with a terrible quiet. “Give yourself some credit. I don’t think you’d cut me in half, kid.”
“Already tried,” says Eridan. “Couldn’t.”
Stupid melodramatic brinesucking asshole. Stupid sad melodramatic brinesucking asshole. As though miraculously gaining even the slightest fragment of self-awareness, he pulls a face and laughs, though it comes out rough. “I’d get the top half though, if I managed,” he says, “on account a I’m the glubbin’ gentleman here who’s got higher interests.”
“Who says they’d cut me crossways, you nitwit?”
He goes thoughtfully still. “Kar,” he says, testing each word out as he goes. “‘You know I love you, right? You know I’ve never loved anyone like I love you, you know I’m for real, you know I’m red for you as red can be?”
You touch his chest, splay your hands over the beating of his bloodpusher. Blood oozes down a cut from his forehead. You can feel every bit of him. You kind of want a different universe, one where you walked out into the ocean and met Eridan Ampora first, loved him with a graceless, smothering, uncomplicated ease.
Red as red can be. This is the perfect time to say no you don’t, to cauterise the wound with one last unkindness.
“Yeah,” you say instead. “I do. You’re for real. For real, and always backing the wrong goddamned horsaroni.”
Eridan smiles, and that familiar hard, bright self-assurance of his settles itself back behind those narrow eyes. It shouldn’t, but it reassures you immensely. There’s nothing worse than an Eridan Ampora who, at the end of the world, doesn’t even have the decency to scheme. He says, “Yeah, well, that’s gotta be enough. Go on, get, find him.”
Just before you push off, you peck him, impulsively, on the cheeks. “We’re not done here, Fins,” you say, and you step backward a few steps. “There’s stuff you have to know, okay, kid? There’s a hell of a lot of stuff that I’ve -- that I’ve got to trust you with. That I’ve got to rely on you for.”
Inside his smile is something lopsided and clean. “Then we ain’t hardly done,” he says. “We’re not done at all.”
You’ve walked these halls for sweeps now. No Capitol carapace needs to escort you to Sollux Captor’s hivewing. When your name first echoed through the halls like a grand and awe-inspiring power chord, the little wiggler didn’t have a wing to even set up his shit in. He had a mansion off Appleblossom Lane, a cringingly servile position under the palace’s terrifying old ex-Informasochist Master of Communication, and a penchant for helping himself to the Empress’s high-proof sopor. One night he realised he could skim off some unsupervised adult interweb access from the preparation blocks, so he set up three spare servers in a room off the pastry ovens and started jury-rigging the raw cocoon of his future surveillance network.
It was a hell of a set-up, you have to admit. It hadn’t been long after your first course of drugs and transfusions. You were too sick to do much but lie around gaping your seedflap for the unending pastries issued from Miss Provender, the cheerful little carapace that ran the palace’s labyrinthine kitchens. Aradia was down there all the time in a flounce of skirts and ruffles, dainty as a teacup, watching Sollux crack blurry bucket videos on CruelTube or wheeling in her Premier so he and Nepeta could feed crumbs to the beast-baby du jour. Even Kanaya, peeking through her lacy veil to pour the tea or perch on a chair next to your new moirail. Your ex-moirail.
This kind of candyland largesse of unending snacks and pampering could only last so long, though, before the Domestic Dignitary appeared late one day with a broom and a very even expression on his hard black face.
It was a massacre. A catastroshooing. When you were all five sweeps the Dignitary was three times even Sollux’s height and you all got fucking walloped, even Terezi. When he threw the pieces of Sollux’s husktop in the hearthfire the kid didn’t do anything more than sniffle. There are few of the palace carapaces Sollux will listen to -- he’s even sassed the Hegemonic Butler -- but he’ll listen to DD, or more accurately, to DD’s broom. Afterward, you all had to set up the silicomb in a poky block off to the east, and you had to walk whenever you wanted a pancake. It was so unfair.
You don’t know why you’re so nostalgic. It was long ago and the memories are as rubbed-out as everything else near your six-sweep mark, and except for the pancakes and the papping you mostly spent it in a state of loud misery. It was a time in your life marked by impatience, illness, and inadequacy, by endless frustrated waiting, and by being a complete shit to anyone who got in shouting range. Like your life now, only you were even smaller and dumber.
Now you’re still sick and gearing up for fuck knows what, but you’re bigger and you’re better and you’ve had two sweeps of good hard experience to set your horns and stiffen your spine. Let the world throw what it likes at you, you’re Sire Karkat Vantas and you can spin any given pile of shit into silver if you’re given half the chance. By the time you push open Sollux’s office doors and see each nerdling head in its nerdling cubicle turn your way, you’re ready to throw the fuck down.
You pass the rows with a great susurrus of busy typing. No nerd has the gall to say hello. They know which way the wind is sailing, or whatever nautical term best applies to this clusterfuck.
The door to the back offices is closed. It won’t be locked. No door to the apiculture servers is ever locked, just in case. You slide it open and shut behind you, and there he is, a thunderstorm of paperwork, sorting through his inbox and dumping most of it in the trash chewer. Memo slips go sailing after heavy invitation envelopes. The air is thick with static and stationery.
“You call that work?” you say.
“I call this shut up,” Sollux says wearily, not even bothering to look up at you. The fang damage has given his lisp a horrifically endearing edge of whistle. “I call it do you not know how to give me space, KK.”
“You are the last person anyone should give space to, bulgewound!” you say, and you pull over your usual chair. “You wouldn’t know what to do with it. Give me some of that. Stop tossing all the fancy letterheads.”
“You hate paperwork.”
“I love paperwork.”
“Stop touching my stuff.”
“Then stop throwing away important shit.”
Awkward silence blows in between you two like a stormfront. Dolefully, the Master of Information looks at you, and he rests his chin on long interlaced fingers. His eyes shutter down briefly. Probably didn’t get a hell of a lot of sleep yesterday, considering.
“Karkat Vantas,” he says carefully, sounding out your name like an old tune. “You’re not here to help me sort my files. Take your nubs and go. Go -- look after your new matesprit before he starts a fight in an empty room. Get some rest while you can. TZ wants to give you a booster dose this morning, just in case you catch something off that frigging clown.”
You rescue one of the letters with a curly olive address and sniff at it. Perfume. He takes it from you and drops it unceremoniously in the chewer, where it becomes a puff of perfumed paper confetti. “Parcel Mediator hates it when you do that, give her a break,” you say.
“What do you want with me?”
That question could fill a couple novels, spawn a series of intensely shitty films and a tie-in coloring book.
“I want you to buy Terezi a big fancy ring and send me the paycheck,” you say. “Titanium. With a yellow topaz -- no, a diamond, one of those big glittery treated diamonds. Don’t get sentimental about it, you’re doing me a favour as your moirail’s kismesis -- ”
“My moirail’s kismesis,” Sollux says, rounding each syllable off neatly. One corner of his mouth hooks upwards, and you can see the new gap. “Ah. We’re still inclade. Yes, by all means, brother. Tell me what favors I can do for you.”
Your heart has to pick itself up and wipe its flap off from that one.
“Dance with me,” you say.
He looks at you as though you are plainly an idiot, and have the dangerous kind of pan leprosy. The asshole even peers at you over his specs, like you’re one of his nerdlings and you’ve just suggested you defibrilate a computer instead of defrog it, or whatever.
“No,” he says.
You experience a moment of pleasant, transcendent fury, and you get to your feet. You bang your fist down on his desk so that everything jumps an inch or two, because you hardly give one-tenth of a fuck any more.
“Listen,” you snarl, “there’s three things I’m good for: pailing, papping, and mopping up after screwballs like you, you arrogant pile of cholerbear offal. I’m sick of two of those! What’s the other one going to be, huh? I fucking ask you, huh?”
Sollux has gone fixedly still. His ears are a little yellow.
“I want my lawyer,” he says.
“Request denied,” you tell him, and grab his wrists.
He lets you urge him to his feet, all those long beautiful lines of him. He lets you rest your head on his shoulder, and he sways with you to no music but the hum of his bees. Pretty much everyone else in the whole world’s a little cool to you, everyone but Sollux. One of his hands slips around your waist and you place yours on his shoulder, the room smelling like hot dust and ripped-up paper, his arms familiar to you as the night you first started stepping on each other’s feet in public.
“You’re a dork, KK,” he says wearily. “You think it’s all about the gesture.”
“Sometimes all we have left is the gesture.”
Sollux doesn’t make a rude sound, or tell you that doesn’t mean anything, or fill you in on the etymology of gesture and how it proves summatively that you’re a shitheel. He hums low and gentle, thrumming against the side of your head.
“The stars are up, the night is sweet, and you and I have chanced to meet,” he sings under his breath, all croaking lisp, one of Aradia’s favourite tunes. His breath is so shaky in his throat, his pulse is so fast.
“Shit,” you say. “Remember the first court ball we had together? In the third autumn? Don’t let it go to your head, but you were kind of sexy. First time I looked at you, there on ‘Ray’s arm and wearing some hideous cape, and I thought -- I thought you looked amazing, you asshole.”
He huffs a quiet laugh. “Of course I was, that was my first cape, KN made it up special for me. I was magnificent. Had on enough paint to redo a stateroom. We had to show you career kids up, didn’t we? You and NP and TZ all striding around like conquering heroes in your new jackets and not a thought in your heads for anyone, you were all hotter than holy hell.”
“Ha! We were, weren’t we? I was sorting Nepeta’s hatemail for weeks, she’d flirted with everything that had sentience and bipedal motion. It was atrocious, let me tell you. And we danced -- ”
“ -- all night, I couldn’t let go of you, TZ gave me shit but I couldn’t, it’d been three perigees since your last break -- ”
“ -- and I’d spent it sick as three dead barkbeasts, yeah, and even less appealing. It was the wet season. I’m an ill-starred hatch-bitch, you know.”
“I know,” he says. “By all the ugly faces of God do I know,” and it comes out sieved through surprising venom.
Both of you stutter to a halt. He tilts up your chin in both his long, deft hands. There’s the oddest expression on his face, old sorrow cut with a neutron core of anger. It lights him up from the inside.
“I wish I didn’t love you,” he says.
“You’ve been unbelievably fucking cruel to me this past sweep,” you say. “Sometimes I wish I didn’t love you back.”
“Cruel -- yeah, I’ve been cruel -- ”
“And knowingly cruel, you douchebag -- I mean, I know I was being cruel back but some of the things that came out your flap, Captor, I owe you a sucker-punch -- ”
“It’s been like trying to love a black hole, these past sweeps,” says Sollux. “And you ate all of me, even the light.”
It’s the way he says it. He is not given to flights of fancy, romance, or poetical language. He talks in computer code: whatever gets RUNTO A to RUNTO B. You are embarrassed that you never got past the computer languages with commands like RUNTO.
“Wow,” you say. “Okay. That sure was a thing you just said, turdhoof.”
“You gave yourself up,” Sollux continues tightly. “Gave yourself away, KK, you hate it when I compare you to who you used to be, but I’m the kid who’s gotten to try and tape you back together again, I remind you. I am intimately fucking familliar with all the ways you’ve destroyed yourself.”
Fuck him. Fuck loving him, why does Past Karkat do it so much and Future Karkat never kick the habit?
“So this is your issue,” you say, fisting your hands in the front of his waistcoat. “I’m some walking wounded basketcase you’re tired of mopping after? I ran at a net loss for too many perigees in a row and now you’ve got to withdraw your fucking investment? Because am I ever sorry that the sacrifices I had to make for the good of our entire Empire had the bad taste to throw off your gilded-cage groove, the shit I have to deal with out there in the real world -- the ways I had to make myself worthy of service -- did I gross you out? Is that it? Screw you! This is a rotten sack full of dripping horse testes, this is shit. I notice you haven’t kicked Eridan out of your ‘cupe for having the fucking temerity to be a little dinged-up--”
“Eridan isn’t the Empire’s twice-damned fuck-puppet!” he roars at you, and then his flap snaps shut.
Sollux pushes away from you like you’re rancid meat, breathes hard through his fangs, folds his long hands tightly with his knuckles up to his mouth. Defensive position. It’s not the first time he’s called you a puppet, though this is the first time he’s said it to your face. A slap across the chops would have stung less.
“I think you want to elaborate,” you say very carefully.
He just stares down at you. Pissed-off. In pain. “Two seasons ago,” he says curtly. “You burned half my mainframes. That’s your distance right there, Threshie.”
“That?” you ask, incredulous. “That was what kicked all this off? I did you a favor, you naive fuck. That programming -- I know you didn’t mean it, Sollux, I know, I know you, you’re good, but the code you were formulating was just way too close to treason, it would have crashed half the Fleet’s research hubs. I know you didn’t mean it, I looked the other way, I gave you a chance to fucking learn. We talked it over afterwards, didn’t we? I had to shut it -- had to shut you down, you agreed with me.”
“Sire, you had a sickle to my throat,” he says, and sire comes out like pepper spray. “I would have agreed that the moons were grub jelly if it got us through another damn night.”
The bottom falls out of your digestion sac. You are acid and a terrible scared pain, you are hot all over with nerves. Sollux can’t be a fucking traitor. He’s Aradia’s fucking auspistice, he’s in direct command of so much of the Empire’s future braintrust, if he’s compromised how much have you all lost? How much damage has he done?
“You were sorry,” you say numbly. Stupidly. You are probably in a hefty amount of shock. “You helped me sweep up the ashes, you didn’t know, you were sorry. It was treason, Sollux, tell me it wasn’t deliberate--”
“Fuck the Empire,” Sollux says.
Your pan jangles like a fire alarm.
“How’s that for treason? Fuck their research. Fuck their servers. Fuck their scientists and their bureaucrats and their masters and their laws and their secret machinations and their sanctimonious delusions of controlled succession. And fuck them for thinking they can haul us all into line like domesticated woolbeasts if they find the right crook. Fuck them for what they did to you. And fuck me for letting them.”
You take an involuntary step back. You are shaking with painfully hot horror. Sollux watches you, implacable, unrepentant, and you want very much to cry. You want to bawl. You want to howl in the embarrassing way pupated kids howl, not even snivelling, just outright going a-bloo-hoo-hoo in misery and fear. You thought him running away in the courtyard was hard to watch -- seeing him sit there and spout off at you like some cartoon villain, like he thinks he’s perfectly sane, like he’s got some kind of legitimate grievance, is worse. It’s the end of the fucking world and everything you ever believed about the two of you has been a filthy, foolish delusion.
Things in you begin to clamp.
“Shut up,” you plead, already aching to take him apart at the throat. “Sollux, please. Shut up. Recant.”
“Like hell I will,” he says, and he laughs, bright and fuck-off giddy. God, no, Captor’s gone manic. “They’re parasites, KK, they’re eating us. It was a conspiracy from the start. They want us to be just like them and they’ll chew away every part that doesn’t fit the mold. They’re so obsessed with stability. Continuation. Control. The war machine must roll on without pause, mustn't it? Yes, it must! Damn anyone caught under the wheels. They want Tavros dead. They want me dead. They don’t even care about poor chumps like Eridan Ampora, they’ll just suck him dry and throw him away... they want to wind Aradia up to be their perfect dancing doll and you, KK, Sire Vantas, you are the gun they’ve loaded up and pointed each and every one of us. And oh, if they only fucking knew about you!”
There’s a long and terrible silence.
You look at each other. He’s grinning. Crazy shithead. Crazy daring spoiled-rotten brat. He thinks he’s just sassed some truth to power, he thinks he can take your slap on his wrists. He’s pulled the pin on a grenade he can’t even fathom and then stuffed it right up his stupid chute.
He sounds so reasonable, is the worst part of all this, like he believes everything, just a little revved-up, a little overimpressed with his own swagger. He sounds so normal. You’re not really surprised to find out that you’re some large percentage of crazy, too, but you are disappointed in yourself. You love him so badly. You want to talk. You want to listen. His stupid paranoid delusions that you’re all going to die on Ascension, those dreams of his and the voices, all those afternoons you sat up holding icepacks between his horns while he raved and begged you not to let anyone know how cracked he was. You soothed him down and reminded him everything was going to be fine, but it wasn’t, you didn’t, he’s fucking snapped. He snapped a long time back and fuck you for letting it get this far.
So you sit down next to him, on the edge of his desk.
“You’re going to try and kill me now, aren’t you.”
He says this not like he thinks he can’t take you, but like the saddest part of all this is how he’ll have to waste some time shooshing you out of a fit. Sollux at his snidest. As if this is a prelude to negotiations. Somewhere along the way, Sollux never got taught he was as mortal as anyone, and you -- you’ve never been able to forget.
“Do you see me drawing my sickle?” you ask, and spread your empty hands. Your blade burns at your side. You’re burning yourself, sweaty and tight-drawn with a feverish aching need. You smile a little. “Maybe I’ll talk you to death instead. Sollux Captor, you beautiful idiot, you are bugfuck as a bag of sandfleas.”
The smile he gives you back is a little more tentative. This smile’s sincere. It disbelieves itself but there it is, still on his flap, and tension seeps away from his shoulders. The mad, hard shine is gone. “I take it back,” he says, “the juggalo’s good for you,” and it hurts so badly to see him. One more layer of guilt and shame. One more drop in the molten puddle of fuckuppery. And you -- you just nod.
“All right, let’s talk,” he goes on, quiet and earnest. “If you want to talk, let’s talk, idiot. We’ve been studying the worm, TZ and I, using NP as the control group. From what I understand -- and believe me, I understand every cell of that thing now -- I swear to God I can get it out of you. I’m serious. Just watch me, I’ll bet everything I’ve fucking got. Just let me fork it out of you, KK -- ”
In one swift arc, you pick up his empty coffee mug and slam the base into his temple.
He crumples across the desk. You snag his jaw, twist his head till you’ve got him right where you want him, and slam the cup down again as his psionics flare to crackling, lethal brightness -- you hear that certain sweet-spot crackle of neural circuitry getting traumatically rearranged and he goes limp. His jewel-bright eyes go dark, the power guttering out, then they shutter closed. Psionics always think they’re so invulnerable, the narcissistic shits.
You study Sollux’s slack face, assessing. It should do. Some kids can be culled right away. Sollux Captor, Master of Information, needs to be delivered upstairs live. God only knows what shit a paranoid genius like he is has set to blow on the event of his death. He’ll need thorough interrogation.
You have so much to do. You need to round up the nerdlings. You need to isolate all the mainframes: burning won’t do. You can’t destroy the evidence.
The whole world’s grey and slow to you. You count up the list of casualties very carefully: Terezi is already dead. There will be no saving her, your sharp-toothed girl. You idiot. You’re a fucking idiot. No reason to even bother finding out how far into this mess Eridan is, Archagent Ampora owes everything he is to Captor and not the crown. Without Eridan that pink-purple moirail of his joins the list, there’s no Fef without Fins, and Gamzee -- your Gamzee, your beautiful rawboned cult-painted piece of serendipity -- is his clade brother. No saving a Messiah once the investigation goes underway. You should have done them the favor of a clean execution the moment your heels hit the Corbenic. You want to lie down and cry forever, but you’ve got work to do.
Sollux shifts in his chair. Moans. You -- you don’t bother hitting him again. The pounding in your head is a tidal roar, your vision’s gone starry with it. Everything seems extraordinarily clear and crisp. Nepeta too: sweet and laughing Nepeta, she’s elbow-deep in this shit pile. When you wipe at your face your hand is left wet with gold.
For a moment it is hard to breathe, and your pan stutters to a halt as the pain flexes its muscles in your body. You hadn’t noticed that your pusher is playing in double staccato. No time for a heart attack now. No more time for your body. You’ve got to call in backup. You’ve got to call a shuttle. When you look back at the desk the ghost of the Academy’s Commandant is sitting there, adult and vast as she was when she hulked over your recuperacot. Even when you scrub your eyes, she won’t go away.
“Cadet Vantas,” she says. “You understand the gravity of the situation.”
You’ve got the kind of case-cracking headache that’s inspired bards of old to shit their spangled pants. One of your aural canals feels like it’s been rinsed with magma. “I failed them,” you croak.
“Yes,” she says. “You failed her. She let herself out the airlock. You failed your comrade, and thus you failed us all. How long did you suspect she might be prone to self-destruction?”
“I told you this before. She was fine right up until she wasn’t. Her grades -- her grades were fine. She was eating. She drew funny pictures of mewbeasts in her spare time. For fuck’s sake, she got a letter from her moirail every week! Nobody thought she’d just snap like that -- I never thought Sollux, I thought Sollux loved the Empire, I thought he loved -- ”
“Complacency is the sorriest excuse for failure,” says the Commandant.
Blurred with her image, Sollux groans again. She draws her sickle. “Next time pay closer attention, Vantas. There are signs for madness. There are signs of sedition. Learn to see them before the crisis point: we are here to intervene and diagnose, not perform forensics.”
“I thought if I could just reach out to her I could call her back -- she was still talking, if I just kept her going -- ”
The Commandant leans forward, sets the blade to your horn. “And what did she tell you?”
Overlaid with the hum from the apiculture servers is the sound of two dozen Threshecutioner trainees jogging through the halls outside, singing a jody. I don’t know but I’ve been told, a ragged chant: seadweller nook is mighty cold -- you’re fever-warm. You can’t think.
“Nothing,” you say. “Nothing at all.”
The blade bites through the first layer of chitin, a line of raw fire that echoes horribly with the wild crescendo of pain already seething in your braincase. It hurts just as much as it did when she actually did it. There are bright lights everywhere, like falling stars, you brace one hand on the desk’s edge. When your gaze wobbles back to the Commandant and Sollux they fade in and out of each other, memory on reality, dream on consciousness.
“This won’t happen again,” you promise.
“We hold these truths sacred,” the Commandant says, and hooks the sickle forward admonishingly.
“Th -- that all trolls are clade,” you say, feeling your way through the familiar oath, “under the auspice of God, who walks with our feet, and sees with our oculars and works with our hands, and speaks with our voice, and lives in our blood and divided us justly. May each night’s work do them honour and glory -- ”
“Amen,” she says, and the blade leaves your horn.
You lean hard against the desk, gulping miserably for air. Once upon a time you thought that when you had your jacket and had your blade you’d finally feel worthy, righteous, fixed. That you’d have all the answers, not just an embarrassing squawkblister full of questions. But you were just you, and you you remain.
You’ve always only been you.
You wish you could just... put your sickle around your own damn neck for once. The hook through the cervical vertebra, the pull, and you’d never have to care about anything again. No Gods. No visions. No duty. No killing your friends.
“Amen,” you echo, and you slide your sickle to your throat.
Fingers wrap around your wrist and pull them away. You look right into the blazing eyes of the God of Pulse and Haze, who comes to you in the shape that terrifies you the most: wearing the face of yourself at six sweeps old in a shabby sweater with a tired mouth. The room tastes like blood and stale, recycled air.
For a moment you think you’re hallucinating him too, until he opens his flap and says sharply: “Not yet, fuckass.”
Terror wells up in you, terror and an indignant fury. There is no escape for you, no rest, no surcease. You are a Threshecutioner: you live to serve. You live -- a dam breaks. You’re yelling, “Fuck off, everyone can just fuck off,” and for some reason that does it, that banishes him to nothing but dust and the smell of injury. It also reverberates through you in a fuck, fuck, fuck from the tips of your toes to the crown of your pan. Like swearing’s sacrament.
The throbbing in your skull explodes and sends fireworks thrilling through your body, grasping your clattering heart and reworking its damage. Every deformed cell catches fire, burns off the chromatic sheathing that was so carefully piped into you, runs through your arteries with sweet molten ease. You suck in a breath to feed hale lungs, pipes that don’t strain. You glow like reforged iron.
When you turn away from Sollux and walk out the door you feel made of sparks and live wires. The nerdlings already scattered long ago, and in their place stands Terezi and Eridan barring the exit. Their paperwork lies abandoned on the floor like snowdrifts: when they turn back around her face is a mask and he’s gaping.
“Well, now,” she says, and takes a long, measuring sniff. After the initial moment of shock, she grins like a gatorbeast. “Well.”
“Kar -- Karkat, hey,” Eridan stammers, drawing back against Terezi. “Kar, the shell d’you think you’re doin’ -- ”
“Don’t be naive, Mr. Ampora,” says Terezi, and she draws her shining sword from within her cane. “Sire Vantas is not thinking.”
Your sickle is in one hand. Your palmhusk is in pieces on the floor behind you. Did you do that? Where’s your backup? You shouldn’t be this confused: you feel like you could sprint all the way across the Capitol and just keep running into the distance without the slightest strain.
“You’re all compromised,” you say. “Fins, ‘Rezi, I think I -- ” You’re scrubbing at the battering pressure of your headache. They watch with growing unease. You take a breath and say, formally, because they deserve what crumbs you have leave to throw: “Archagent Ampora. Lady Pyrope. You’re both under arrest for conspiracy and treason against the Alternian Empire.”
“I really did not do enough sex to you yesterday, hatenubs,” says Terezi.
You’ll cull Eridan first. That’s your legal right, and you don’t want him privy to the interrogation he’d undergo at the hands of the Imperial infomasochism network. That makes sense, doesn’t it, that’s correct.
You raise your sickle into the first fighting position, blade facing outwards. After a long, unwilling second, Terezi raises her legislacerative blade toward you, one foot placed before the other and ready to advance. Eridan’s hands slip into his pockets, and they come out shiny; he’s slipped on his knuckledusters.
“Commend your souls to any God you want,” you say, “but I can tell you personally that they never did a single decent thing for anyone.”
With the clash of ringing steel, Terezi’s blade whips out to meet your sickle. Each parry sounds out like a bell as you meet each thrust for thrust, knocking the thin sword out the way and beating her back. The air is thick and hot with the stink of fire, of flowers -- she floats backwards with feet as quick as a dancer’s but this fight is not her fight. This is no courtblock duel to win on points and fancy repartee, this is not over at first blood. This is not the night she wins, and you see the tiny furrow in her brow as you knock each blow aside with the blunt curve of your weapon. She doesn’t even want to cut you. She’s handicapped.
Strength sings through you. No pain, no fear. When Eridan’s knuckledustered fists swing out to catch you low on your back you drop, sweep his legs out from underneath him, feel Terezi’s sword whistle harmlessly overhead. It’s almost a game, to hook her blade with yours and toss it across the room. This is the way you should be. This is the way you want to go down fighting with them, coasting on adrenaline and clear burning purpose. Blood sings through you. This is what it’s like to be well, you’re glowing, you’re molten, you’re alive. You could do this forever.
You can’t knock Fins down for long. He springs back swinging, and his titanic left hook smashes into your jaw. You stagger backwards into Terezi, who pins your sickle arm to the small of your back; you drive your heel back and scrape hard over her shin, drive down on her foot, and she cries out in pain. Her grip lessens. You shove her at a wild-eyed Eridan and raise your sickle, and for the third time tonight you get tossed around like a rag troll.
Sollux stands in the office doorway haggardly, dark yellow dripping from a gash near his temple. His psionics flicker over you as you struggle, and brave as an imbecile, Fins Ampora throws himself right at you in this opening. Even in your full strength he hits you like a ton of bricks. You’re smeared down to the floor and your sickle’s pressed to your side as he grinds down on your knuckles to break your grip. There would be a dozen ways to break this pin if you were bigger, if he weren’t a fucking seadweller with steel for bones and a moirail even twistier than you can get. Every move you try just has him hanging on tighter, till your hands are numb lumps and your throat is raw from screaming at him. You make him ride out your thrashing like a cavalreaper, you make him earn every pound of pressure. He backhands you in desperation, each ring cutting a fine trail over your cheek, and the flecks of your blood spattering on his face gleam like rubies.
It takes him a moment to really get it and when he does he goes stupid with horror. You no longer care. Your blood streams its true shade down your face, leaves strawberry clots. Your crushed knuckles are bruising pulpy-rust. You kick him away and he falls back on his ass, scrambling for distance.
You’re already rising, hands smeared garnet. Redder than roses. Redder than fire. Red as a carapace, as one of God’s first hatchlings. You spit molten crimson and half a tooth to the floor.
Eridan’s eyes are so wide you could drive motorized vehicles through them and make a neat exit through his gaping mouth. You kick him off and he doesn’t even fight you, just launching unsteadily back to his feet. The fists that were readied like a prize fighter’s are now slack, and it’s just Terezi with her sword at the ready and aimed your way. You meet it with bloodied hand and the point of your sickle.
“Oh, Sisters,” says Eridan.
You say, “Guess again.”
“Ah, shit,” says your ex-moirail, muzzily, leaning hard in his doorway. “You ungrateful shitpan, you just broke my wiggling day celebration mug. And my head. My head with my mug. You psychotic monster.”
Terezi’s sword is trained on you. “Are you concussed, Mr. Appleberry?”
“How do you tell? Nnngh, are there supposed to be four of ED?”
Your blood is fresh and red on Eridan’s knuckles. All he can do is look at it, eyes darting to his fingers to Sollux before back to you again. Then to the blood. There’s a droop to his shaking shoulders.
His expression is all peculiar, scrunched-up assessment. A weird mate to the way Sollux looked at you two sweeps gone, only his battered face is even more betrayed. Like even if you’re convinced there has been a royal cosmic screw-up somewhere along the line, he’s not entirely sure you could be the worst kid in a dozen galaxies to get saddled with this inconvenient facsimile of divinity.
“You’re God,” he says.
“Funny,” says Sollux, with no humour at all. “That’s what I said, first time.”
“And you’re a fucking idiot,” you snarl, “I’m a mutant.”
“But I’ve seen him bleed,” he says unsteadily, “seen that shit with my own two oculars, it was lime as lime could glubbin’ be -- ”
“Turns out,” Sollux says, “that’s what you get when you mix teal and gold together, or at least, what you get when you mix ‘em in an endless fuck-you-go-round of blood transfusions. Lacks panache and we’re all continuously anemic, but we were only five and out of ideas.”
“Now you know the secrets that we keep, Archagent,” Terezi says, sword unerringly swung your way. She does not bother jerking her chin toward Eridan. Everything about him seems crestfallen, right down to the fins. “Oh dear, oh dear, he’s never regenerated his blood before. Appleberry, was there a particular catalyst for this episode of bugshittery?”
“What do you think? Just his brainworm, what else.”
“Brainworm?” There’s no tremble in Eridan’s voice. He just sounds like someone pulled the rug out from underneath him, shot the rug, shot the rug’s inclade, and burnt the rug in a dockside garbage pit. “What d’you mean, like with B-movie parole criminals?”
“Like this generation’s entire social enforcement,” Sollux says. “They got scared, see? Used to be one in TZ too. There’s one in Nepeta but it never seemed to take, she’s fine, I’ll... I’ll fucking show them scared.” He tries to come forward but has to scrabble against the doorway for balance. His eyes are inky-dark. “Fuck.”
“Oh my God,” Eridan says faintly. “Sol, oh my God. Oh, fuck. What’re we goin’ to do?”
“Thanks for talking about me like I’m not even here, bulgesucks!”
“Mr. Ampora, please make sure the doors are barred,” says your kismesis. “My sour cherry, you just brained Sollux with a coffee cup, you are officially in time out.”
“All three of you are under arrest for high fucking treason,” you say. It is the only thing that makes sense. You are a flood of fire. You are one long scream. In you is no grief nor sorrow nor regret. “Master Captor, you will co-operate with a Fleet interrogation. Legislacerator, you too. Ampora, you’re for the cull.”
“The doors, please -- ”
“Eridan,” you say, and point where he needs to come and kneel. “Now.”
Eridan’s dragging one of the heavy husktop desks in front of the locked entrance, and he’s staring at you with a shattered, lonely expression. Like a lost barkbeast who just got told it would never be loved, and then kicked in the face. “Wow,” he says softly, and he sounds legitimately terrified. Good. “Uh. How aboat no.”
You count to ten, back and forth. “Fins. Come on.” You try to modulate your tone. You try a smile. It comes out all fangs and he flinches, and when you start towards him Terezi’s sword prickles at your sternum. “Hey, come on. It’s me. My sickle’s sharp; I’ll make it quick, bro.”
He turns his face away. “Are you even hearing yourself, you dreadful douche,” Terezi is saying softly.
“Loud and fucking clear.”
“Really,” she says, and with a sudden jerk her sword is flipped back into its sheath. “You are in your right mind, then? No, the Threshecutioner has declared himself to be in the right mind, so we must assume good faith! As a legislacerator of the Cruellest Bar I will assist you in this investigation, as is my legal right. Do you agree?”
Sollux is saying, “Terezi, what are you doing,” but she loves justice. There is nobody she loves so much as justice. You’ve been coming second to justice and third to God ever since you shacked up with her, you can trust her on this one. Your pan concurs. You say crisply, “Agreed. Not that you’re not a seditious scumsucking traitor, but will you carry this out for the Empire?”
“Tell me the charges.”
“Sollux Captor is to be arrested on charges of criminal disloyalty, conspiracy to overthrow one’s government, obstruction of the civil service, disavowing obligations as part of the Alternian secret service, suspicion of sabotage -- help me out here -- ”
“Espionage,” she says promptly.
“Yes. Espionage -- ”
“Which makes my charges number the same, only also an accomplice, being a hapless tealblood in a moirallegiance with a powerful troll,” says Terezi. “Which also has Mr. Ampora here accessory, not accomplice, as he is a lowly seadweller. This carries a lesser penalty but due to his blood renders him unfit for further duty to the Empire and is a culling sentence, not an execution sentence. Am I correct?”
“You are correct,” you say, “only you’ve left out the nerdlings and any charges I also receive in the process, I was in a moirallegiance with him the whole fucking time -- that’s not going to stand up in court, it’s criminal negligence on my part -- and let’s not forget the culling orders I should by rights get, with my genetics, after we do Ampora we’re going to have to wait for backup to get here to arrest us properly -- ”
“I love it when you say words like criminal negligence,” she says warmly, and whirls around. She reaches up to grasp the sensitive frill of Eridan’s buccinae ear between thumb and forefinger. He is too startled to do anything but go along with her, gnashing and stumbling the whole way as she leads him over to you. When she forces him down you’d think for a moment that she leans to whisper in his tweaked ear, that her flap moves at his aural shell, but then she’s up again. It doesn’t matter. All you hear is the pounding in your pan and the silence in your heart. You get him on his knees the rest of the way, and Sollux is already spitting out a curse before Terezi stops him with a single gesture.
“If you want us to all go down together, my poor lost ember,” she says, “then I suggest we start the proceedings professionally. Take your sickle. I will recite this man’s charges.”
Eridan does not say you glubbin’ grubberfuckers or whatever. He doesn’t even try to scramble away. When you look down at him he simply looks baffled. Your pity for him is confirmed, and it also confirms why you could never have taken him on. Here’s Fins on his knees in front of you and ready to die without so much as a swear word, not merely because he thinks you’re some kind of divine monster but because you’re Karkat Vantas and he doesn’t know how to love without worship. He doesn’t understand that the price for love’s admission shouldn’t be getting destroyed.
A few stray curls fall into his face. You want to brush them away.
“KK,” says Sollux. He sounds dazed and glassy, like he’s drunk.
“Turn your head away, man,” you say. “I don’t want you to see this.”
Your pity for him is also suddenly overwhelming. Your pan stutters, but fires back up the only two things you know anymore: they’re traitors and you love them all, and thus you are all necessarily going down together. For the Empire. For the continuation of the Alternian Empire. For the glory of the Alternian Empire. For the love of the Alternian Empire.
Terezi is pattering off like a machine, quick and precise: “Archagent Eridan Ampora, you have been charged with accessory to high treason: having carried out the acts of high treason with or without knowledge of such. I have sufficient quadrant evidence to charge that you have aided, abetted, counselled, commanded, induced, procured, fussed, complained and harangued for high treason against the High Fleet Empress of Alternia. You have also been charged on low treason for wearing that tie with that shirt. You will now be culled. May our five-person’d Quinity ward your soul.”
Sollux begins staggering toward you both. He might be bleary from one hell of a concussion but there is murder in his mouth, and you have to snap, “Terezi,” before she leaves your side and goes to deal with him. She leans up to do something you’ve never seen her do to anyone: wraps her arms around his skinny shoulders, holding him close. He stands struggling pathetically against a girl half his height before he stops, and his shoulders slump.
His voice is curt when he says: “KK, if you touch him I will figure out a way to end you. I will work out how to put you down. If you touch him I will burn you from the inside out, and I’ll work out how to keep you dead.”
A sigh leaves you like a shudder. “If you’d worked that out before we got this far, we’d all be a damn sight better off.”
Your sickle is already at Eridan’s jugular. If he swallows, he’ll bleed for it. The pain in your thinkpan is terrible now. It’s like the headache you had before multiplied and had a whole grubclutch, but you ignore your swimming brains and keep your gaze trained on him. You are going to look at him the whole time. You owe him this much; watching every second, the deep sweet violet of his irises, each nick and tear on his fine-boned face.
“I love you, kid,” you say, and it doesn’t do anything but make him blanker. “I fell in love with you a long time ago. Flushed for you all the way through. Sollux, sure, always, but you too. I never would have been able to choose. If you have any statement left to say in your defence, say it.”
“Kar,” he begins, quiet. His eyes are on your face. His mouth is drawn tight. He licks his lips just once.
Then he grabs you by the lapel and punches you hard in the bone bulge.
It feels like someone has tasered your junk. You haven’t been punched in the bone bulge since training, and it was regarded then as a dirty move by a whole bunch of kids who thought they’d re-defined dirty moves. Your body must have keeled over and curled up like a freeze-dried game grub, but you don’t remember the keel: just that you’re lying down in bright, shocking pain where there should really not be this amount of pain.
Your sickle is kicked away, and then there’s three different faces crowded above you: foremost Eridan, who is alight with the kind of baffled indignation that ends in brawls.
“C’mon, Kar, snap out a it,” he’s saying, contemptuous. “I ain’t lettin’ anyone off me while I got my girl to live for. Look at you, you mewlin’ fucknub! You who wouldn’t harm a hair on her head. This isn’t you. This isn’t glubbin’ you, I don’t know jack spittin’ shit about worms but what I do know is that this ain’t you.”
“Oh, fuck,” you wheeze.
“I apologize for the gamble I just made with your life, Mr. Ampora,” Terezi’s saying, far above you. “I do not apologize for what I just forced you to do, as it was hilarious and I will cherish the memory always. Karkat -- my dear darling douchebag, please, listen to them. Out of the mouths of pupas and fishertrolls. You have kissed everyone in this room and would let any of us eat your liver without anaesthetic, what in Time’s name do you think you’re doing?”
It’s Sollux who is putting his hands on yours. Long warm fingers. Careful, merciful: tears begin to prick at your eyes and then something in your pan shifts just enough. You claw your way back. A terrible, destroying guilt floods over you, fear and misery both, and the sedition to the Empire rings through your skull over and over but now you can stand back and look at it and fear.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” you say. You finally confess. “I don’t know what I’m fucking doing. Fuck. I nearly -- I fucking nearly -- I don’t want any of you to die, not ever -- ”
“It’s the worm, KK,” says your ex-moirail. “I told you. It’s in your brain.”
There is a lot of pain happening in you, both emotional and physical, with special mention for the fact that your junk just got uppercut. Your nook probably is rearranged forever. Nobody’s going to want to look at your groin any more without hissing through their teeth in unaroused sympathy, it feels like it got punched inside-out.
You struggle to sit up and your hands are on Sollux’s shoulders. “Get it out,” you say as you dig your claws into his flesh. “Get it out. Please. Get it the hell out my sorry brain, Sollux, please, don’t let it -- don’t let me go on like this. I’ll kill you all, swear it.”
“It’s going to mean pan surgery,” he says.
Your jaw is beginning to chatter, your fangs catching on the flesh inside your mouth, tremors -- spasms-- work their way up your vertebral column. You’re twitching under their hands, gasping. A symphony of falling apart. You’re having a civil fucking war with yourself. “Do it.”
“It’s going to mean pan surgery right now,” he says. “And I’ve got two and a half concussions.”
“Sol, are you friggin’ shore -- ”
“I could do it with six,” says the Master of Information grimly, “but it’s his choice.”
You don’t have to think about the choice.
“Do it,” you say, “before my mind gets fucking changed for me.”
A lot happens really quickly. Eridan’s skinning off his jacket and placing it beneath your head, which is an act of devotion so passionate that you’re a little blown away by it. Your legs are being pinned down to the ground, and someone’s inserting a wadded-up handkerchief into your mouth. Your arms are pinned to your sides, and one of them’s sitting on your legs as they fumble with your collar.
“ED,” Sollux says. “Can you choke him out? I’m less likely to blow an ear off if we can get him still -- ”
“Oh, please, Mr. Captor!” says Terezi. “Let me.”
Her slender fingers collar your throat, press down on your windpipe. The last thing you see before the aching in your airsacs eats away the world is all three of them: a trio of solemn faces, all see no evil, lisp no evil and squint no evil. If your pan gets blown out in the next ten seconds, your only regret will be that there wasn’t a fourth wearing facepaint. You surrender.
You slip easily between the bulging, iridescent shapes of day terrors till you find yourself on a broad, flat gray surface. Light plays strangely in the darkness, the undulating sacks of horror all around the rooftop casting a pearly, glistening tone to your skin, to the metal plating, to the skin of your shadow as he takes your wrist. Around you are ranged four washed-out shapes, painted small and sad as wigglers. Everything is indistinct, no matter how you squint: these are not your Gods. These are not your friends. These are children. Your double doesn’t come looking like your lost self this time: he comes again as a troll in shabby grey, hooded and old.
Your double tips his jaw a little, gestures you to look up.
A planet hangs above you blazing purple-green-gold, bare of the Moiré interference shielding that should reduce it to a perfect neutral gray from space. It’s upside-down and all wrong, too bright, too young, but it’s gorgeous. It’s yours. You stretch out a hand and your other self catches it, catches you. Your feet hit heavy back on the decking.
The first meteor comes out of nowhere, a shining crimson drop of blood, and when it hits the planet you don’t even get it, at first. It splashes fire, a bright spark, it spreads black like a drop of ink in water. Then a second and the darkness spreads, the smouldering fire, and then a third, fourth, meteors coming from nowhere, peppering the bright skin of the planet, breaking off pieces. It’s burning up. You scream: you have been screaming for a long time, a long helpless grieving wail, and you try to thrash free.
“Let me go,” you beg, “let me go.”
His lips to your ear: “Are you ready?”
“Yes,” you say. “Yeah, fuck, yes. Let’s go.”
His feet come off the decking, too. You get a flash of his silver eyes, red-lit in the fire and the madness of the destruction above you, and you push off from the rooftop, strong and sure, towing him along. You’re flying, the two of you, arrowing up towards the slaughter, eager, certain, and past a certain point you realize you have no control over your path, you are falling, you are burnt red and hurting and so, so ready to hit --
When you wake up, you smell supper cooking from down in the kitchens, below Sollux’s respite blocks. Sollux is sequestered in one of his loudly-upholstered armchairs, tapping at his palmhusk. His new moirail is perched right next to him with a huge book open and tonguing the footnotes. The blackout curtains are drawn tight against the midday glare. For a moment you wonder if -- but then out the corner of your dried-out oculars you see Eridan feet-up on a desk. He’s in his shirtsleeves and his chair is tilted back at a ridiculous angle. He’ll break his fucking neck if he’s not careful. You close your eyes and relax.
You don’t have a headache, which is what you’d been expecting: your face just feels tight and a little sore, as if you were stuffed up from a bad headcold. One of your aural canals aches. All in all, you don’t feel as bad as you could do, and you actually feel a hell of a lot better than normal. You know this is only due to your blood bubbling along merrily as bright and red and unnatural as the day you came out the Mother, which means you’ll have to enjoy not feeling shitty while it lasts.
“This is the point where you tell me I’m clinically brain-dead,” you say.
Your twitcher is swollen and weirdly dry, so it comes out braih daa, but it’s gratifying how three sets of horns swivel towards you. It is more than you deserve, considering what you were about to do, that three trolls drop everything they were doing and stand by Sollux’s red-slime recuperacoon; first Eridan, beaming like starlight, and then Terezi leaning over the lip to paddle sopor over your feet. Last of all is Sollux at the foot of your cupe, tall and gracious with tired eyes, a stunning knot forming on his forehead, and a glass of clear water.
“KK,” he says, “face it, that wouldn’t change a damned thing.”
As you sit back in the sopor, warm fingers tilt up your chin, hold the cup to your lips. You drink gratefully. When the glass is empty you are directed to look deep into the sightless red eyes of one of your oldest friends, and her face is as grave as though someone told her grey was the new rainbow.
“Sire Vantas,” she says. “The Empire is a suppurating boil on the ass of the galaxy. The Civil Services are rife with Fleetside corruption, the system itself is broken, the hemocaste is a cruel joke, and we are each of us slated for assassination before we turn ten. How do you feel regarding all that?”
The old echo of pressure in your head is -- just that, a pressure. Anxiety washing through synapses that flash nowhere, no neurons fed with fresh orders. For the love of the Empire. For the glory of the Empire. For the honour of the Empire. For ever and ever, amen.
“The Gods are coming,” you say.
“Well, fuck, you broke him,” Terezi says. Sollux makes a thick, distressed noise and you pap him on autopilot. That’ll take some adjusting to. You swing a leg over the rim of the recuperacoon, then another, sitting on the lip with his shoulder to prop you up.
“No, I’m serious,” you say. “It makes sense. It all makes sense. Sweep ten -- all Sollux’s voices, he’s precognitive. Ascension: everyone screams and then there’s nothing, if he’s hearing it this clearly then we need to take it as fucking writ. And God won’t leave me the fuck alone -- won’t leave hardly any of us alone, look at us, three dedicates in the room--”
“ -- four,” Sollux says, sheepish. “Pulse and Haze.”
“Seriously, man?” you say, disappointed. “For fuck’s sake don’t tell me you have a crab tattoo on your prairie-flat ass.”
“Who else would have better dominion over fate and family -- look, it just pays to be respectful, you fuck, you’re under his watch too --”
“Seriously, man,” you huff.
“See?” Sollux says, and Terezi cackles merrily.
“I told you he’d sneer, you god-hopping floozy!”
Eridan says, “Where the hell are you gettin’ all this from?”
“Asks the kid who takes marching orders from Light and Rain on a regular basis,” you say. “Feferi too -- she’s onto something. One death will wipe it all clean if it’s the right death, and if I can’t die yet -- ”
“Who’s Feferi?” Sollux wants to know. Eridan looks deeply alarmed.
“A girl with her head screwed on a lot straighter than I wanted to give her credit for,” you say, and see him relax minutely. “Look, I don’t think everyone dies. I don’t know why the hell we would all just die, it’s a gigantic waste. God is encapsulated on the other side of reality and they’re trying to come through -- ”
“Karkat,” Sollux says, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but slow down. You’ve just gone zero to holy war in half a minute.”
“No, shut up, look,” you say, aware that you are sounding more than slightly manic and not giving a damn. “The Empire is made of people, okay? We hold these truths self-evident, that all trolls are clade under God. It’s not some graven ideal that exists outside of space and time, it is specifically and entirely made of you guys. If the greater good involves taking out a significant fraction of this cohort’s ruling class then something went seriously wrong somewhere and we need to re-evaluate our priorities, not whip out a blade and start shutting up anyone who says anything uncomfortable. I didn’t fucking sign up to be the dipshit tool of a bunch of shadowy assholes sitting around thumbing their nooks up in space and playing stupid games with all our lives -- ” you slither all the way out of the recuperaccon and bump awkwardly into Eridan, “-- why the fuck would I appreciate a bunch of adults using a mind parasite to get me to do what I already want to punch God in the bulge for? When they show up I am reserving such a smack, I’ll get Fins to do it -- ” you try another angle and manage to bump into Eridan again. “Sollux, did you fuck up my center of balance or is this louche asshole trying to herd me back into the slime?”
Sollux shrugs. “Both, but it’ll probably grow back with your aural canal.”
“I just think you need to slow down before you start sneezin’ brainmatter,” Eridan says. He’s like the world’s purplest fluffchirp-herding barkbeast.
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” You brush him off, and then you make unsteadily for the door to the studyblock. “Fuck, I’ve got a deadline, this is exciting. Come on, we have to get ready. We’ve only got a few more sweeps before shit goes down and I need to look over your plans -- ”
Terezi hooks you unmercifully by the horn and hauls you back cupeside. You are wrestled up to sit on the rim again. “Not that the enthusiasm isn’t warranted,” she says, “or appreciated, but as the sole voice of reason and law in this den of macho iniquity, I hereby decree that Karkat Vantas needs to wait ‘til his pupils are the same size before he goes and singlehandedly overthrows the government.”
“It wouldn’t be singlehandedly,” you say, struggling to keep her from shoving you right back in the slime. This is very important to convey. “I’d have you guys. You already have you guys, I would just be along, now. We’d all be in it together. Also, you could read the husktop screens for me.”
Terezi looks very serious. Then she flicks your snout. “You,” she declares, “are so high.”
“But I’m right.”
She grins. “But you’re right.”
There’s a weird, rattling sigh from Sollux, and for a moment you think you’re about to receive another dressing-down, another disappointment, another diagnostic of what you’re wrong about. You don’t get it. He’s scrubbing down hard over his temples, taking off his spectacles to hook into his waistcoat pocket, and pressing down hard on each eyelid. He gives another sigh, and then you realise he is smiling. Sollux has a spectrum of smiles and most of them are in the range of douchey sneer, but this one is heartfelt, wry, and tucked into it is something weirdly close to tears.
“You haven’t talked about reform,” he says, “in a very long time.”
You reach out, but he cheats and floats you back into the slime. You splash him like an asshole kid and he splutters, throws his arm up -- so you hook him neatly by one sharp elbow, and use the momentum to spill him into the recuperacoon. He’s got all his clothes on. You don’t mind. You hold him close with sticky arms and are fucking unshiftable as he begins to unbutton his coat and take off his shirt, tossing sodden clothes over the side and complaining all the while.
“KK, you prize-winning dipshit,” he says, but you headbutt him in the neck until he shuts the fuck up. How could you have ever thought about culling him, this brilliant boy, your old friend? How could you have even considered his blood on your hands? You want to never let go. You want him to stop shaking. You feel it in him, a fine and badly-hidden tremble, and it tears you apart. He must have been so fucking scared. He must have been so fucking scared for so fucking long.
“You’re going to tell me everything, you fake-weighted shit merchant,” you say firmly. Both of your half-stand, half-float, in the heavy slime. “You’re my hostage. You stay until we sort all of this out, you got me?”
“Whatever -- ” Sollux attempts dry, but his voice cracks. He clears his throat and he strokes your hair. “Okay, KK, yeah.”
You don’t mean to kiss him but shirtless and capeless he looks so destroyed, so resigned. His dignity lies in wet tatters around him. So you do. You grab his face and you haul him down so that you can kiss his lips, and you mean to just stay there a second, just a brief peck, but then he’s kissing you like you’ve been away a thousand sweeps and you’re home from the war, arms thrown desperately around your shoulders. You realize: this is the first time, really the first time, that you’ve kissed him whole and clear and sober, without pretense. Without whitewashing it. It’s as though you haven’t kissed him before, and away from all dissembling, away from the bullshit, it’s as though he hasn’t kissed you.
The rest of the room goes soft and bleary. Next to the recuperacoon Terezi also clears her throat loudly-on-purpose, which sounds like nails having a swing dance inside an industrial mangler.
“Mr. Eggplant Surprise, why don’t you come with me?” Before he can protest, she loops her arm through his elbow and starts to guide him towards the door. He is too horrified to toss her off. “We should rustle up some lunch before our pet action hero goes on strike for a nine-tier cake. Stick with me. I am the Mayor of Kitchen Town, and I know where the best snacks reside -- ”
“ED stays,” says Sollux.
Over your head, both of them carry out a complicated communique via eyebrow. Eridan is playing I’m Too Much Of A Hardass To Have Feelings with his face and losing spectacularly.
“As you wish,” says Terezi eventually, and releases Eridan’s arm. She comes back to reach out for her moirail’s hand: she gives his wrist a courtly kiss, smeared tears, slime and all, and he gives her an expression you’d be embarrassed at if it wouldn’t be seriously hypocritical. You’re surprised to find that there is no real pain. No jealousy. She darts in and nips your ear sharply, and then she saunters out his quarters with more tact than you generally give her credit for.
She says obliquely, “Be kind,” and then she shuts the door.
The closing door leaves awkward silence as its echo. Eridan stands at its threshold. It is a little bit heartbreaking to see a well-built seatroll try to make like wallpaper as you keep your arms around Sollux, especially when Eridan Ampora’s about as wallpaper as an industrial spill of fluorescence. As always, he wears his heart right there on his douchebaggy over-tailored grey vest and his need on his fuck-awful striped tie. Quite unconsciously, he is twiddling the topaz spade around his caliginous finger, caught between pain and ostentatious dignity.
“Kar,” he says painfully. He’s staring lasers at you through lowered eyelashes and you have never been so miserably aware of every pump of your bloodpusher.
“Shut up,” you say.
“No, hey, you shut up -- look, we gotta get some things clear between us now -- ”
“Don’t worship me,” you snap. It all floods out of you, pleading and bitter, too much old bile: “Don’t you dare. Not after tonight, not after anything. You know what happens if this gets out? If you want to make my blood an issue? If I’m God? Then I get myself a shiny ticket to go pail the Imperial chain of succession right in the knifeholes and sell off Nitram and Megido and everyone, all of us, to be collateral crowbait on the offchance that Ragnarok would look good on me. I don’t need a panworm to tell me that this is shit best kept locked in the deepest septic tank we can get, this is not a fight anyone’s going to possibly win -- I’m just some stupid fucking mutant kid, okay? Just an unfortunate genetic quirk. You try and worship me and I’ll bite your nose off, I really will.”
There’s a sloped, strained smile on his dinged-up face. He ventures a little closer, both hands stuck in his pockets, and he stops before the recuperacoon. A respectful distance away.
“Actually,” he says, “I was goin’ to say -- that I hope you and Sol are happy, you fuckin’ freak, not like he deserves anythin’ but crotch leprosy and a kick to the bum but whatever, I think you two got wrote up long afore I was here. I don’t care about your blood. I thought I would, but I ain’t. Not after what you know aboat me and that’s none a your friggin’ business Sol Captor so don’t even ask, but -- ”
He takes in a long breath. Eridan being self-sacrificing is obviously a difficult business. “If there’s anyfin Fef taught me it’s that love ain’t how happy someone makes you, it’s how happy you want someone to be,” he says. “I also know that you wouldn’t -- Sollux, if you’re laughin’ at me I will knife you so help me Sisters.”
“That’s the shittiest line I’ve ever heard,” says Sollux. “And you are the dumbest kid I have ever had the misfortune of loathing.”
“Fuck you -- ”
“Shut up for a second,” Sollux says, so seriously that instead of firing back with you shut up, Eridan actually goes quiet.
“A classic problem of logic, ED,” he says slowly. “Listen.”
Eridan freezes. He looks as though he was run over by an ice truck and there were no survivors. You say lowly, “Captor, fuck do you think you’re doing,” but he waves you off with one impatient hand.
“Two trolls had a contention once, and went to the Empress claiming they conquered the same planet,” he says. “The Empress considers both would-be planet-snaggers and says, but of course, the only fair thing to do would be to split it in half, yeah? With a laser beam, naturally. One useless half to each claimant, but justly divided. One of the trolls agrees that this sounds fair to them, but the other troll says no, let the first troll have it, that planet can’t go to waste.”
There’s nothing quite as condescending than Sollux when he’s lecturing. It’s like he oozes a thin, terse covering of smug. You kind of want to bite one of his ears off.
“Okay,” says Eridan softly, and his knuckles are pale orchid but his back is straight as a ramrod. “I get it. Fuck you, okay, I get it, would you stop saltin’ the fuckin wounds -- you won, you’d always won, I was a bulge and I was stupid to ever glubbin’ think that someone like me could a got someone like him -- I’ll go, I was goin’--”
“Sollux, I swear I’ll fucking -- ”
He clamps a thin, warm hand over your mouth.
“And the Empress says,” says Sollux, “that a planet is more than something requiring mere ownership, and that conquering is merely the start of a long process that’s deadly fucking dull, which is where this comparison ends. And she says, you’re both correct, and martyrs are as useless as tyrants.”
Eridan looks one second away from the same thing you are: punching Sollux in the mouth. And Sollux just looks at you, and his kismesis, and smirks.
“What if it wasn’t about which of us ‘got’ him?” he asks, all condescension. You can hear the quotation tongs as he mocks his kismesis. “As I recall, the man said earlier: I love you both. I never could have picked. Can’t fault his taste in plurality. Why force a choice?”
The world judders to a halt for a few seconds.
“I meant what I said,” you say, after swallowing hard a few times like you did as a kid. “I’m not going to fill up my quadrants for the sake of filling up quadrants. That’s Cosmotrollitan horseshit. I can’t pick between you, so I’m not going to.”
“So pick both.”
Eridan makes a noise like a sack of squeakbeasts being stepped on. Once you realise that this isn’t the world’s shittiest joke or the worst and ugliest time to bait him, you find yourself saying: “I haven’t even agreed to let either of you date me, let alone -- ”
“You’ll agree to let us court you,” he says. “Why not?”
You expect a because this is glubbin’ perverse from the fishertroll corner, but he and Sollux’s eyes have met. Whatever passes between them is not an invitation for them to roll around on the floor punching each other, but something more dangerous. “What,” he says slowly, “like -- whoever courts him best, wins, or -- ”
“No,” says his kismesis. “Idiot. You and I trying to win him all to ourselves has gone over about as well as a square wheel. I mean both of us courting him together.”
Colour is heightening in your face. You can feel it. You know that -- unhappily -- this will be an insane cherry red, rather than your usual lime blush. You hate that you’re doing either. This is not a time to be flushing like a concussed wiggler.
“I’d be keeping one of you a secret,” you say.
“Yes,” says Sollux.
“I fucking hate secrets.”
“You’ve had a long time to get used to the idea of them.”
Eridan’s still staring, a little glassily. You feel Sollux’s half-amused, half-irritated sigh against your hair. “Oh, come on, ED,” he says. “Convinced I’m going to show you up at each turn?”
He jostles you some back into his arms, and you have enough time for the bottom to abscond from your digestion sac before he breathes, “Then you’re right, because I can easily do this better than you,” and sinks his teeth into your shoulder.
You make some noise that’s embarrassing and not worth writing home about. For his part, Eridan looks as though God came down and just punched him in the bone bulge, each in turn.
“Oh,” he says, and approaches the cupe, very slowly. He is alight with something terrible. “Oh, now, well. This your fight, Sol? This is how you wanna play it?”
“You know how much I enjoy seeing you lose.”
You’ve actually had this half-asleep fantasy before, but this is fucking ridiculous.
“Wait,” Eridan says, and for a moment you think he’s come to his senses and isn’t going to participate in what has to be -- what’s got to be -- the most unfair, can’t-work proposition of all time, it can’t work and if they give you five minutes you’ll think up the reasons, but he does something worse. You had forgotten: his heart is as soft as yours is, and much squishier than supercilious Sollux Captor’s. “I just want you to say it first. For real, coddamn it. What you said before, only you were busy bein’ crazy.”
Sollux is busy cleaning blood away from your shoulder in soft, tender little licks and kisses. That’s going to look completely insane; you don’t want to see.
“You lovin’ him and you lovin’ me,” he says. “Say it again.”
“You idiot,” you say. “You insecure flounder, of course I love you, I’ve been awkwardly flushed over your clammy dinged-up purple bones for like half a sweep now, you’re my best friend -- ”
“I thought I was your best friend,” Sollux says.
“You’re my worst friend,” you say. “You let me host a brainworm for two sweeps and you always hog the popcorn on movie nights and your capes make you look like you’re FLARPing the grand high lord of yammering ponces. You’re thoroughly on friend probation, you glittery shitshow.”
Sollux hesitates on his next kiss. You impatiently joggle his chin with your shoulder and he snickers, relieved, licks you throat to ear. You let yourself lean back against him and he gives you a squeeze -- a real monster of a hug, like he used to -- and you’ve missed him so terribly, even though you were the one who’s been missing. Even if he turned all his guns toward you out of self-defense. It makes your lacrimals prickle.
Eridan is staring at you kind of dazed and smiley.
“Okay, yes, what,” you want to know, and poke him between the oculars. He just keeps beaming.
“You love me,” he says. “Like, you really do, you ain’t just sayin’. I mean, but you did just say. Say it again?”
“Fuck’s sake, you maudlin shit,” you sigh, and grab him by one crooked horn. “Get in here, sweetheart.”
He actually shivers at that, but he still goes “Hang on, hang on,” and fumbles at his tie. He can’t get the knot unpicked at first. With Eridan, it is somehow an act that butters your lower intestine over the Capitol flowerbeds that he doesn’t shred the whole thing off, doesn’t discard it, but matches your gaze and slowly, carefully folds it up, drapes it over the back of a chair. When you give his horn a tug he makes a throbbing, helpless growl and unbuttons each button of his waistcoat in three seconds flat, skinning it back. This startles you more than a little. Sollux gives a wolf-whistle. He grins, head ducked shyly down, and shrugs his shirt off all in one piece with the vest. These get folded nearly, because it’s Eridan. You are confronted with a lot of bruisy purple gills and unfairly nice abdominal musculature.
“Well,” you say. “Uh.”
Sollux laughs like an asshole. Like an asshole who has touched all over those abs. A turbo-asshole.
Eridan climbs into the recuperacoon with you both, grinning. “Come on, Kar -- darlin’ -- let’s show him how it’s fuckin’ done -- ”
“Uh,” you repeat. “Courting, okay, this isn’t a race to the pail -- you punched my junk, you’re on friend probation too--”
“Go easy, I get you,” he murmurs, and he kisses you, sweet and meltingly hopeful.
The problem isn’t that you’ve never had Eridan stripped down to trousers for you before; you spent most of last week trying not to dignify the kid with any untoward attention as he made umpty-million excuses to clean out the crab traps with a lot more posing and flexing than scrubbing some gunky wire with a brush should possibly involve.
The problem is that now you are surrounded by warm slime and Eridan’s big cool paws get cupped so gently around your hips, careful of his claws, and it’s really hard not to take a handsome well-built turned-on fishertroll personally when he’s trying so hard to be cute. And growling, on the edge of each breath, as you stroke carefully over his gillslits, stifled like he’s trying not to scare you but doesn’t know what other noise he should be making.
Sollux is breathing out an answering rumble against your skin each time in response, a little hiccupy and absent-minded, they’re amping each other up without even noticing. They’re so bad at red affection, so raw and new with it, so tangled up in black with each other -- it’s too fucking endearing. Sollux is kneading warmly at that one spot at the base of your skull that turns you into a bleary pile of fluff -- not fair, so not fair -- and watching you kiss his kismesis, and then he leans in and runs fangs over Eridan’s fin, almost squishing you up between them, and their enmity clicks abruptly from adorable to dangerously pornographic.
This would be okay with you on a pretty much indefinite basis, but after a brief interlude of chewing on each other like they want to get a citation for rank indecency, Eridan lets out a pretty nasty snarl and tries to haul you into his own lap. The way it wrenches your knees reminds you, sharp and horrible, that it can’t possibly have been a full night since all this shit went the fuck down, and you hiss with shock at the completely unsexy amount of pain between your legs that flares from an ache to an assault. Both kids freeze up, and Eridan’s eyes are round with distress.
“Oh God, oh man, I can’t believe I glubbin’ forgot -- Kar, I’m so sorry.”
“Hst. It’s okay,” you say tightly, patting his shoulder. You eel backwards in the slime, squirming out from his grasp and Sollux’s both. You wrap your arms defensively around your knees and struggle for breath. “What I was saying -- what I meant to be saying. Is. Fucking slow down.”
“I’m really, really, reely sorry -- ”
“He’s really sorry,” Sollux agrees solemnly. “Behold how sorry he is. You can still make out with me, though, right?”
“Not tonight,” you say, before Eridan can pop him on the head wound. Peeled out of the sandwich -- seeing the both of them shiny with slime and bare in the lamplight -- you are goddamn mourning for the fact that you lined yourself up for a stunning affront to the bulge just a while back. Everything feels dreamlike, unreal. Like you’ll wake up and this would have all been one of the better hallucinations. But it’s not a dream. This is actually happening to you.
“We have all the time in the world, okay? Sweeps. I have all the time in the world to do this correctly, this isn’t pailing practicum. We’ve got longer than one session.”
Eridan leans back into the side of the recuperacoon and languishes kind of beautifully, kind of douchebaggily. But his kismesis says, surprisingly measured: “Quit it, ED. Remember, it took us half a sweep to work up to pailing.”
“I wasn’t goin’ to put out for you -- ”
“‘Put out’ nothing, you were terrified -- ”
It takes your middle fingers fired directly between them to get them to shut the fuck up. To make it a little less ashen, you also draw the both of them closer, stand between them with your arms around Sollux and Eridan’s about your hips. It is ridiculously easy to get him to do anything. You don’t know how long this magic will last before he clicks back to his usual obstinacy. He presses his forehead to your shoulder and breathes like each moment’s too much to bear, and you can feel the same underneath Sollux’s skin: something taut and disbelieving, a little clamorous.
All three of you sink down until you’re chin-deep in red slime, so strong it makes your eyefringes curl. You all hold orbit, and you hold each other.
“There’s still a hell of a lot to say,” you say lowly, “and once it’s said, no reason why you wouldn’t both do the sensible thing and sprint off into the backdrop.”
Sollux takes your face in his hands and he kisses your frontpan. He touches you as cautiously as he would a live wire, as reverently as one of his queen bees. “Stop stepping on your cluckbeast eggs before they’ve hatched,” he says. “Yeah, I know this is rank hypocrisy. Shut it.”
“But -- schedules, man, we should chart this, I mean what if I flip with Terezi and you know I probably will -- ”
“Then we deal with it,” he says simply.
“What if you and I flip, what if you two flip -- ”
“Bite your twitcher, we ain’t ever flipped in our mothergrubbin’ lives,” says Eridan in a hurry, proving he is not actually the smoothest lump of diahrrea in town.
But all Sollux says is, “We’ll deal with it.”
His skin is warm against yours. Eridan’s is cool and sweet. Holding each other isn’t as crowded or as claustrophobic as you’d worried, isn’t as diluted as your burning ridiculous romantic soul might’ve feared. It’s just all three of you. You’ve wanted to hold Sollux for so long. And, fuck you, you’ve wanted Eridan’s arms around you for a really embarrassing length of time, they both have come into your existence like a ton of bricks and you’re groaning faintly underneath the spill.
But Eridan says, “What d’we do about -- rings, then?” and all three of you pause.
“You can’t both have them,” you say. “Publicly, anyway. There’d be a fucking uproar. I’m not ready for that kind of uproar yet, nobody is.”
“Don’t know,” he mumbles into your shoulder, half-drowsy, half-woebegone. “I’d say this place is ready for some glubbin’ uproar.”
“KK’s right,” says Sollux. His fingers are smoothing behind your ears again. “Just ask TZ. There’s indecency laws they’d have us up for. Don’t know about you, but I’m not going down on a fucking indecency law. I’m going down for a conflagration.”
Even sleepy, it still makes a shiver run through you: not the old amen shiver, but just -- a complicated disquiet. You can feel the ghostly old edge of pale worry, pale exasperation, but some new red spark in you flares up and murmurs bring it, then. If you’re really flush for these kids -- and you are, you are -- then you’ll be with them every step into the pyre, hand in hand. You all stick together clammily like pill bugs, and then measuredly, calmly, Eridan says, “Well, it ain’t goin’ to be my ring on Kar’s finger.”
“Fins, if this is more awkward self-sacrificing, I want you to know it’s not hot on you.”
“Fuck off -- I mean you get Gamz or me official, like, not both, and he needs you,” he says, and he’s unhappy and you hate it. “So you got to balance him out with Sol. One brinesucker on your conciliatory finger’s mark a just how flippin’ gracious you are. Two’s a kink. You think I can’t play this game? I been playin’ this game all my life, you smug goldie fucks. You and him, you can do shit if you’re on the records as bein’ flush. You’ll be this dark season’s hot new power couple. Whereas look at me, Eridan Ampora, I’m just one more scandal.”
Next to you, Sollux reaches out, and he quietly threads his fingers through Eridan’s hair. His fingers loop around a crooked horn. They stay that way for quite some time, silent as a skeleton, before he drops it. You realize yet again that both of them have something you’ll never be able to touch either, that your name on the dotted line here is probably as difficult as theirs.
“I’m just doin’ it for Gamz,” he just says, gruffly.
“If we’re still here in a sweep you’ll get your scandal,” you say. “That’s all. A sweep. If you want to pull out before then -- either of you -- you can go for any reason, no ifs, no ands, no buts. But if we want to make some noise after a sweep, then by fuck, we’ll make some noise.”
You end up with your head half-pillowed on the lip of the recuperacoon, cheek in the slime on Sollux’s shoulder. Your hand is clasped on top of your belly by Eridan’s larger, more anxious one, fitted together like puzzle pieces jammed into the frame by an irritable wiggler, but you’re fitting. Holy fucks, you’re fitting. Your pusher feels as though it can at last be quiet, just right here, right now, between these two bodies.
“I want to have your ring anyway, you dissipated fuck,” you say softly, and his fingers squeeze down.
And Sollux says, “Just to match yellow.”
For how long you all drowse there, baffled, feeling unreal, you don’t know. By the time the door creaks open you’re not paying attention to anything but how sleepy you are and how familiar the angles of your -- matesprit’s, if he plays his cards right -- collarbones feel, what a triumph it is that you’re sleeping next to Sollux and you’re both okay.
This can’t last, part of you says. Come evening the magic will disappear. Wake up, fuckhead. Just smoke and mirrors. For a moment you wish you’d get some visitation, some hallucination telling you that this is the right thing to do. You’d actually pay Fleet credit to see the Douchebag of Wind and Shade leaning over the recuperacoon and assuring you, eyes storm-blown and amused, that this was the right path for you: but there’s nothing, nothing but the room and the warm and two trolls by your side. You expected to feel smothered. You don’t. Fuck you, douchebag, you don’t deserve this, but you’re fine.
You’re more asleep than awake by the time a Terezi Pyrope, skinned down to her breeches, jumps into the fray.
Sopor sprays everywhere. You hadn’t even heard the door creak open. There is 200% more elbows in the dip than there were before, and considering Sollux Captor, you’ve reached peak elbow. She wades in, making sopor slosh nearly up and over the rim of the cocoon.
“This is police business!” she announces, in tones that probably ring off Aitvaras. “This party is a douchebag hazard!”
She’s holding a big covered dish like it’s the severed head of something she’s proud to have slain. When you’ve all struggled back upright and she’s sure she has your attentions, she whips the covering off.
“Oh,” you say. “Wow, fuck you.”
Terezi delicately tweezes a floppy slice of grubloaf off the dish with her long painted claws and lays it gently, delicately, between your horns. Eridan is making a terrible breath-held rattling beside you and you realize dimly, through the haze of your black reverence, that he is trying not to laugh.
“This time,” she says tenderly, “my dearest piece of liquorice, I have brought you jam, so as to mitigate your cosmic horror just a trifle.”
You perk up.
“It’s cherry,” she adds.
“Terezi, you fucking demon,” you curse, but when she pulls the jar out from under one armpit and waggles it you make a lunge regardless.
“Someone stop him before he drinks it neat -- ” she starts, but too late, you’re already tilting your head back. “Oh. Oh, that’s so nasty. Even for me, that’s nasty.”
You flip her off, swallow thick, syrupy cough-medication tasting gunk, lick your teeth. You taste pectin and stewing sugar. The thing about jam is even when it’s foul-ass shit, it’s still jam. The craving for sweet stuff has dulled -- it’s not the relief it might’ve been if you were busily being abraded from the inside -- but you’ve got a taste for it, and it’s still good. Sollux takes away the jar before you can get outside more than half of it, the bulgesuck. Eridan looks like you have just done an exceptionally charming trick. He is your favorite.
“I’ll give this back when you deign to put it on an actual food, and not a second before,” Sollux says.
“Eat shit and die twice,” you say. “Fins, fetch me that condiment.”
Eridan obligingly wades forward. He and Sollux have a brief and spirited tussle, snapping at each other’s ears and growling high and giggly like little wigglers. It’s the cutest thing. You sit back with Terezi, ducking claws until she slings an arm around you and draws you close. There are way too many people in this recuperacoon, this is a fire hazard.
“That’s the cutest thing,” she says. “Karkat! That is the cutest thing. I forgive all three of you for what I suspect you have committed, because that’s delightful.”
“Yeah. They’re good for each other.”
“Bring them both to our handfasting,” Terezi says. “They will be so decorative.”
“Sure, yeah -- I, what? Us? You think we’re -- fuck, you really think we’re ready?”
She tweaks your nose. “This feels right,” she says. When you look at her, she is more content than you’ve seen her for a while, the workaholic shadows beneath her eyes a memory of nastier smudges. “I’m ready to throw down in front of any amount of party. Let’s have one with blackjack, and hookers. In fact, forget the party.”
“So basically, you invite your colleagues and I’ll invite mine.”
“We could have a mass deprogramming,” she says.
“We could play The Game Where You Move Your Body Into Inelegant Shapes Attempting To Match Limbs To Coloured Dots, Designed Less To Test Flexibility Than It Is To Be Hilarious And Anticipatedly But Never Actually Erotic If Drunk,” she says.
Eridan’s sniggering; you resolve never to let him and Terezi alone in a room together, ever again. “No,” you say. “You are not fucking ruining my first handfasting.”
“Oh, someone’s Handfastzilla already -- ”
You dunk her roughly under the slime and the fight resumes. Sollux gets ricocheted on top of you and your teeth click neatly together. There is a brief altercation involving all of you, the jam jar, the tray, and then both these objects being tossed out the recuperacoon in a flash of psionics and Eridan’s overhand. His forelock is a vivid fuschia. There’s jam in your hair and jam in the sopor, blending horribly. You think you have some up your nose, or at least, that better be jam. It’s all immature as shit. You feel better already.
By the time you have all settled down under the lead douchebag’s orders -- “I will turn this recuperacoon back around, so help me God,” -- you’re licking fruit off your fingers and watching as Terezi very carefully gets fed the last of the grubloaf by a blatantly toadying Eridan.
“Fuck this for a game of Ruffiannihilators,” says Sollux, hauling Eridan off his moirail by the hair. “Everyone quit it before this becomes an orgy. I haven’t got the fortitude.”
All of you simmer down into something vaguely resembling respectability. Not that there was any respectability in the first place. There’s four of you in the cupe and the slime is a terrible stew of wayward moirallegiance, pitch-black hate, and some blasphemous quadrant horseshit. But it’s your blasphemous quadrant horseshit, fuck it. In the recuperacoon are some of the people you love best in the world. After a moment Terezi says, “Fortitude’s what he named his junk,” and all of you crack up.
It is a subdued, slimy, jam-flavoured saunter into hysterics. Every time Eridan’s undignified, hysterical snigger squirts out of his clamped paw you’re all done for, you’re lying there laughing like cacklebeasts. It couldn’t be an orgy anyway. In the future it is very likely you will touch every part of all of them you can get your hands on, but right now nothing seems more chaste than lying here all together, even with the two newlyrails playing with each other’s follicles. This prompts a brief war for control of Captor territory.
“Children, please,” he says, joggling you. “You’re both pretty.”
“I’m prettier,” you say in unison.
Sollux settles into the slime. You find yourself tangled against Terezi’s long spiny streak of backside. Behind you, Eridan shifts around and carefully, shyly, slides his fingers through yours. When you go “Mmn, huh?” he squeezes tightly, kisses your battered knuckles, and you can -- you can feel his smile, against the back of your hand. You melt.
“Next time you invite me out fishin’,” he murmurs, “I’m gettin’ up early.”
-- carcinoGenerosity [CG] began trolling terminallyCalamitous [TC]! --
TC: heeeeeeeeeYYY, BROTHER.
TC: YoU rEaDy tO.
TC: GET YOUR SAILING UP AND ON YET?
CG: YEAH, SOON.
CG: I’VE GOT TO DELIVER THIS FISHY DOUCHEBAG BACK INTO THE BOSOM OF HER ROYAL FUCKING DEMENTED PEIXESNESS.
CG: BUT I CAN’T STAY LONG, BRO.
CG: I’VE GOT A MISSION BACKLOG SO THICK THAT I COULD BUILD A RUSTIC CABIN.
TC: yeah i got the knowing of it.
TC: you’re one BUSY MOTHERFUCKER. :o)
TC: lIkE a bUzZbEaSt, yO!
CG: I AM SUCH A BUSY MOTHERFUCKER THAT YOU CAN SEE MY DUSTCLOUDS FROM SPACE.
CG: I AM SUCH A BUSY MOTHERFUCKER THEY ARE HAVING TO INVENT NEW UNITS OF TIME TO MEASURE ALL THE SHIT I GET SORTED.
CG: THEY’LL HAVE TO ISOLATE THE ASSHOLE ATOM TO MAKE MY CLOCK.
CG: BUT LOOK. ON THE BRIGHT SIDE.
CG: I THINK YOU SHOULD COME BACK WITH ME THIS TIME.
CG: I’M KIND OF GETTING HANDFASTED.
CG: TO TEREZI.
CG: YOU’RE STANDING UP AS MY MOIRAIL.
CG: YOU HAVE TO WEAR A SUIT.
CG: THAT IS ABSOLUTELY ZERO PERCENT AS CUTE AS YOU THINK IT IS.
TC: ha ha.
TC: CONGRATULATIONS, BEST BRO.
TC: dIdN’T I tElL yOu?
TC: for everything there is a season,
TC: time to HATCH, time to HARVEST, time to PAINT, time to SING.
TC: TIME TO FUCKIN FAST.
TC: time to fuckin handfast.
CG: IS THERE ALSO A TIME TO FUCK EVERYTHING UP WHOLESALE AND BE DATING YOUR MATESPRIT’S MOIRAIL.
TC: hAhAhA, yEaH!
TC: all the time in the globe for that yo.
TC: what needed to be dead is dEaD.
TC: what’s alive is live and well and motherfuckin living.
TC: YOU COME ON HIVEWARDS NOW, STARLING.
TC: bring him safe too.
CG: YEAH. I WILL. KID DESERVES AN ACTUAL BREAK.
CG: BE HOME SOON. ◊
-- gallowsConflagration [GC] began trolling arsenicCatnap [AC]! --
GC: OH R3D HOT P1SS ST1CKS
GC: W3 4LL JUST M3SS3D UP YOUR SH1PP1NG CH4RTS SO GOOD YOU H4V3 NO 1D34!!
AC: :33 « h33 h33
AC: :33 « oh, mew!
AC: :33 « i am certain efurything is going compurrletely according to plan
GC: 1 M34N 1T 1 TH1NK 1M 4 L1TTL3 B1T 4SH FOR TH3 F1SHTROLL >:[
AC: :TT « ok no