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Lost Teeth Like White Jewels

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-- carcinoGenerosity [CG] began trolling cromwellsAquarium [CA]! --

CA: wwhat
CA: kar its like sundown i aint evven brushed teeth or got dressed
CA: and sols lyin on m
CA: stop that
CA: crazy wwitchery fishshit
CA: anywway i mean not that this date dont sound cute and im glad youre finally askin me out but cant i sleep
CA: i wwas hittin some dude in the face wwith a plank last night kar all strenuously
CA: my lifes hard i nevver get to lie in
CA: reely
CA: im not sayin im shiftin ass just for you but wwhat kind a fishin are we doin and such
CA: wwoww
CA: nice
CA: charmin
CA: kar this sounds just wwhat i wwanted to do wwith my day so you wwont mind if i lie in for half an hour before the pants shittin festivval
CA: if this beautiful thing you and i got is gonna lay roe you havve to just accept me for the special snowwflake i happen to be
CA: evven sol knowws i dont do shitall until i get a coffee and my hair done
CA: so you can just shore up and wwait crabcakes

-- cromwellsAquarium [CA] ceased trolling carcinoGenerosity [CG]! --


-- cromwellsAquarium [CA] has blocked carcinoGenerosity [CG]! --


-- cromwellsAquarium [CA] has unblocked carcinoGenerosity [CG]! --

CA: wwait wwhat

There is really no entrance like kicking down a door.

“Get up!” you shout. “Get up, get up, I swear to fuck I will set you on fire, Ampora, shift it!”

There is really no entrance like kicking down a door when that works, that is. The two jackasses in the recuperacoon do not give a vomit-riddled old shit, choosing instead to feign early-evening death. Most people would take pity -- it really is early, light oozes in-between the seams of the blackout curtains -- but you are an aberrance to mercy. Some may even dare to call you... “hardcore.”

“Count of three,” you warn.

Inside this recuperacoon lies one of Alternia’s most powerful trolls and his most powerful agent, two political powerhouses who pull, yank or set fire to the strings of your monarchy. One the spymaster to the Luminesce herself, one that self-same spymaster’s top agent. Nothing of importance happens in the Capitol without these two either pouring oil on troubled waters or pouring oil on top of a roaring hivefire; it’s just too bad for everyone that they’re raging shitsucks. Dark days for bureaucracy, these.


“Fuck off, Kar,” says the seadweller, and mashes his face back under your moirail’s chin. Your moirail makes a lispy, pathetic gurgle and clutches at Eridan like the fisherfolk’s an overmuscled snuggle toy. “It’s too early, is what.”

“Skipping to three,” you say, and you march over to grab Eridan by one crooked horn. The effect’s immediate. He tries to curl his hands and feet into the lip of the recuperacoon like a reluctant mewbeast, but you have more than dealt with worse before and it only takes a little torque to pop him out. Eridan slides ungracefully down the side of the cocoon, cursing in a way that should by all rights frizz your eyebrows off, and he kicks you square in the stockings.

“Mngffth,” Sollux says coherently, and pokes his head all damp and dazed over the rim.

Eridan is at the very least wearing pants, which upon closer inspection your moirail is not, and you heartily regret that closer inspection. “KK? Give’m back. Spymaster’s orders.”

Thpymathter’s orderth. He is sleep-tongued and slurring, for all that long sweeps of knowing him has familiarized you with every possible fang-mangled bastardization of a sibilant, and you are struck with the same painful tenderness as always. It’s the particular kind of prickly rawness that you only get around this stupid asshole, and it makes you all quiet and dumb with how much you want nothing to ever make him unhappy, nothing in the whole entire universe. You hover your hand over his head instead of quite daring to pat him.

“I’m doing a Threshecutioner’s seizure of your assets,” you say gently. “Go back to sleep, Sol, it’s early.”

“Nn. I’m up.” He heaves over the rim, all long sopor-shiny arms and hair plastered to the fragile dome of his braincase, twin horns glistening dimly, legs that go on for fucking ever. There’s a fumble for his glasses, which are on the wrong side of the recuperacoon, and he gives up in order to loll his long neck against the lip. Sollux and evenings don’t mix, you should have brought a coffee. You also should’ve brought him a robe.

“I -- oh, for fuck’s shit-flipping sake,” you say, and fix your gaze very firmly to the far wall. “Since when do you sleep naked?

He and Eridan both give identical dirty snickers, and you can feel heat all the way to the tips of your ears. Eridan stumbles to his feet, yawning and elbowing at his kismesis, and you can hear the insanely gross soggy smacking noises of two slimy assholes slapboxing. There are a couple of smooches in there. Young hate is truly awful to behold.

“If you wouldn’t mind suspending your sloppy fucking makeouts temporarily, I need to borrow your fish,” you inform Sollux. The wall continues to be a lot more interesting than what your moirail looks like naked, though it also looks like gaudy wallpaper. At some point in her career your Empress listened far too hard to Kanaya, and turned the whole palace fucking frou-frou for the love of her. “Just give me his keys, I’ll hand him back when I’m done.”

“What for?” he yawns, and you can hear Eridan grumpily slope off to the ablution block. Too bad: now he’ll probably be there for half an hour, using up all the shampoo.

“What do you mean what for? I’m a Threshecutioner, I do errands. I keep the world oiled.”

“Since when did you need the extra grease?”

“I’m taking your kismesis out for walksies and you’re ungrateful?

“I demand you get someone else,” says your best friend, and Sollux sinks back down wearily into the slime. Red side of the recuperacoon. There’s light, drippy crimson at his neck and his forearms, and that’s as unsettling as it ever was. “He’s got business to settle for me today. The credit accounting, from upstairs -- ”

“Sollux,” you say, careful as anything. “Ha ha ha. Listen to my joyous laughter, like the pealing of a new grub’s. I have warned you about messing with ‘upstairs.’”

He gives a bony, indifferent shrug, hell’s own shitstirrer. “They haven’t caught me yet.”

“When they do catch you they are going to upholster your ass over a torturecliner, and Terezi and I won’t be able to save you,” you say. This is a pretty old argument, and you’re a little bit baffled at how you two have to have it right now: bickering over all his suicide wishes first thing is unusual. You should be excellent at this point by grabbing Sollux by the smooth handle, but it seems that nowadays you reach out and only get the rough. “This is adult business, and when it all comes out there’ll be hell to pay.”

“If I wanted a doomsday oracle I’d talk to Aradia. If it comes out, and I don’t have the first intention of getting caught.”


“I repeat, if. Thanks for the vote of no confidence, though, I’ve filed it away for later crying and gnashing.”

There is nothing worse than Sollux in this mood. When he’s busy having a delusion of grandeur, he puts on a thick coat of ice and privacy that nothing can shatter. Nothing barring you. Nobody should look this snooty buck-naked and still wet with evening slime, and he has that sharp jaw balanced on his fist as though you’re being both plebian and boring. They should demote Nitram: here’s the Alternian prince.

You kneel down. From close by, you hear the noise of the shower going full bore in the ablution block, Eridan muttering tunelessly to himself, which suits your purposes; this isn’t for his aurals.

“Sollux,” you say, and you make it intent. You imagine that the hard line of his mouth softens as you look at him, which would be a first for about a month, damn your eyes. “Hear me out. You’re a mad genius, you’re the best coder planetside and I would not bet money on you not being the best in our entire civilization, you are made of rainbows and arrayed with fucking stars and brain matter -- ”

He definitely softens. “Got that right,” he says, but in better humour.

“ -- which is why they’re not going to catch you,” you say. “Terezi does your banking for you, you irresponsible bulgenut, she’s just a tealblood, they’d take her to the fucking cleaners.

This is a knee to the shame globes. You know that Sollux would shoot himself for Terezi, or more preferably shoot someone else for Terezi. The sneer wavers. “They’d never get that close,” he says, stubborn, and you just want him to fucking crack for you, like he used to, you want him to stop trying to act as though everything he says is from his God’s lips to his pan -- “because I am brilliant as a fucking sodium flare. Just because you’re scared pantsless of them doesn’t mean you -- ”

“ -- don’t have the right fucking idea of it! Old isn’t stupid, you are underestimating so badly that you’re digging a mining shaft right under estimate and you’re trying to get to the planet’s core -- look. Fuck it. Discussion over. I’m pulling the plug here for your own good, you have got to stop sticking your nook in Fleet secrets before someone cuts it off. You’ll get Terezi killed. And you’ll get Eridan killed first and foremost, have you even thought about that? Seadwellers stay off the cullsheets on a fucking wing and a prayer, you know this.”

Wrong thing to say. He glasses over like permafrost. “Oh, Eridan,” he drawls out, cruel and hissing. “What if I got my kismesis killed -- mine, mark you -- oh me, oh my. Since when was it your place to tell me what to do about my own black partner?”

“Since when the hell was it your place to endanger my matesprit?”

Flinch. “Matesprit,” he drawls. “Hark at him. Matesprit. ‘Matesprit’! Don’t make me laugh. Red half the time, black the other, and you saying matesprit only when you want to prove a point. Who are you flushed for, Karkat, that’s what I’d like to know.”

You see red. The wrong sort of red, however. You do what you usually do, which is count to five backwards and forwards, tap your palm with each individual finger, and maintain control of the urge to push him down into the sopor and hold him there until it fills up all the holes in his fucking pan. “Would you now!” you say. “Would you the fuck now. Hey, I know you personally weren’t hatched this much of a douchebag, so did it come on over time and I didn’t notice? When did people’s lives become playthings to you, you self-absorbed lump of fuck?”

“Lives in general, or simply Eridan’s?”

“Why not Eridan’s, you scabrous nook, Eridan never fucking asked for this kind of shit from you -- ”

“Have him,” your best friend says abruptly. He closes both eyes, one liquid sapphire, one distressingly ruby, and looks like a haughty death mask. “I give you full permission to remove my archagent for however long you require his services. Nobody can ever say I didn’t cooperate with the Threshecutioners. Karkat?”

Your bloodpusher feels the radiant surface temperature of the sun. “Yes?”

“Don’t you ever fucking presume to think you know the first fucking thing about what anyone’s asking for,” he says, and he drops his slim sharp shoulders back into the recuperacoon, slime up to his chin. Sollux gives you the airy wave of his hand he’d give some courtier, all disdain. “Or about other people’s lives. TZ and I break Imperial law every apogee for your condition just to keep you breathing... be sure to debrief me when you’re back.”

Your condition.

He didn’t kiss you hello, and he’s not kissing you goodbye. You stand quietly at the edge of his recuperacoon as though you’re six all over again, desperate for a fight, desperate for anything -- it’s the second season he’s refused to so much as touch you, and you should be used to it. You’re not. You never will be.

So you snap, “Well -- I will.

“Fine,” he says.

“Fucking fine.

“Go, then.”

“Oh, you better believe I’m going.”

“Uh,” Eridan says, nervously leaning in through the doorway, dressed like a froofy douche and smelling like sweet steam. “Am I... interrupting anyfin?”

“We’re going,” you snarl, and grab a clawful of his shirt collar as you storm past. The room becomes a blur of yellow, and you have not literally stomped since you were sweeps younger. The feeling is not nostalgic.

“By, Sol,” Eridan calls back, a little haplessly. You are probably dragging him somewhat too hard. “Choke on a bulge!”

“The both of you can go drown!

Strangely enough, you get the feeling it was far more for Eridan’s benefit than yours, and even more strangely that makes you feel desolate. “Shit, you got him mad fast,” Eridan says to you, stumbling along in your wake. He’s got plum-colored hickeys all down his throat. That’s his business. “Should I be jealous?”


“Yes, Kar?”

“Shut the fuck up.”

You lift coffees off the nerdlings on the way out, then go for a breakfast before you haul the sorry sharkfucker all the way to the docks. Sollux doesn’t eat unless it can be slurped out of a mug in front of a monitor, and you know cash is always tight for fisherfolk. You know the owner of a breakfast cart, sets up in Flowerfall Square, and she gives you free nosh whenever you swing by on account of her kismesis was one of a lot of falsely accused greenies that wound up in the wrong place at a the wrong time for an armaments sting you’d been conducting and you’d made time to personally bail them all out because you are not, in fact, an enormous sack of horsefronds. She greets you with a lot of fawning and plateful of muffins, egg and tripe and boiled blood, and she jerks her hands back like you burn when your fingers brush.

“Got an admirer,” Eridan says, amused, when said admirer is still in earshot and going jade around the nose.

“Crap goes in to your mouth, not out of it, please,” you sigh, and shove an egg muffin at his face.

People get stunning crushes on Threshecutioners -- it’s the coat and the fact that you wind up square at the center of any given clusterfuck, shouting loud enough to mostly cover up how you’re usually the one who started it in the first place-- and it’s not really conducive to anyone’s peace of mind to go spewing wordvomit over any particular unfortunate circumstances. She’ll get over it. Everyone always does.

Eridan scarfs down a healthy fraction of the the plate with the furtive pleasure of a guy who needs way more muffins in his life and way less assholes elbowing him over for chump change, and you order a box of glazed ringworms to split as you walk the rest of the way. The icing gets everywhere and you both spend the last few blocks licking it off each other’s fingers and stepping on each other’s toes, just the stupid friendly shit you used to do with your friends -- back when you were young enough to have friends to be stupid with and not cohorts you had to best -- and it makes you feel halfway normal again. He laughs when you finally pull your handkerchief out, like he really likes you, and you talk about nothing much (your last missions, the best way to get stains out of silk) while you both play at being midbloods, jade, maybe, teal, out for a stroll. But the crowd parts around the both of you, respect and fear, and you’re getting kind of old for pretending.

But he shines, does Eridan, when he’s happy. Kid’s worth a little pretending.

“Thanks,” Eridan abruptly says at the docks. He is tucking his clean hands into his pockets like a wiggler who’s been told by their lusus not to touch anything.

“You can owe me,” you dismiss, reluctant to let him clam up again, and hook your arm through his. “Where’s your boat?”

“It’s a tug.”

“Where’s your tugboat?”

“Over there.”

That’s not a tugboat. It’s barely a tu-. “Shit, I think it’s smaller than I remember it being. You got a bigger one?”

“Yeah, sure, Kar, but I fuckin left it in my other trousers -- ”

“Okay, okay, that was inane of me, get your fangs out of my nook. It’ll do.”

“Oh, ‘it’ll do’,” he mocks, hands thrown out in a way he probably thinks is dramatic. “You reely know how to make a boy feel special.”

You waggle your eyebrows at him. He waggles his back. Then you try to hop on to his boat and almost end up in the harbor when it rocks the wrong way, unexpectedly. The interaction of water and things floating on the water is not your fucking cup of tea, nor was it part of your training.

“Fucking boats!

“Oh my God!” he says, scrambling off the dock after you and shoving your teetering ass farther on deck. The way he looks at you is exactly the way he would look at a floating turd. “Shell and shale, Kar, can you even swim?

“No,” you snort, and press up hard against the little cabin thing -- whatever the fuck it’s called, do you look like a fucking sailor, no you certainly do not -- in the middle of the boat. “That’s why I got you to come along.”

“Oh my God,” Eridan repeats, unhappily. “Oh my God. Why are we doing this?”

“The thrill of the chase!” you say, gesturing grandly out at the water. It sloshes unhappily back. “The lure of the unknown, the call of the fucking wild. We’re gonna find something really big and really horrible and we’re going to kill it so hard that entire sonnets will be dedicated just to describing the new forms of death we have invented. They’ll name constellations after us and every generation thereafter will look up and say ‘oh, it’s Hardass McGee and his totally fucking bloodthirsty angerbuddy, Ragefins Fucksmasher’. Then they will shed a single tear of sorrow that they will never be as cool as we, and Eridan if you don’t start your boat up in one hot second I am going to dump you overboard and figure out how to drive this slagheap myself.”

“No,” he sighs, starting the engine up, “I mean, why are we doing this? The fuckin bay-beast ain’t my look out, and it sure as flippin fuck ain’t yours either, limeblood.”

You drown the urge to massage your temples. “Because you know and I know it’s fucking up the only trading port worth selling at, and none of you seafarers are fucking safe with it splashing around like an asshole and taking big chunks out of your ships every perigee or so. I know you guys think you’re all salty hardasses who can look out for your own fucking selves, but total exoprofit’s gone down like 20% and if things don’t change soon the importers are just gonna raise taxes to take the loss out of everyone’s hides, and Sollux somehow thinks that’s a totally fine solution because if he ever set his nasals outside the palace he’d probably expire from sheer horror, so fuck him, and Terezi practically pails herself with a set of scales every night, she had a fucking palm down her nook when she was forwarding me the proposed tax enactments, I don’t even fucking know what’s wrong with her. And the thing is, none of you are high-caste enough to put in a legitimate fucking call to us whitecoats, okay, whose fucking idea was that, we’re supposed to be looking out for all of you and not just anyone with enough gold up their ass to throw a bribe after their solicitation, how the fuck is that fair, so fuck everyone, we’re going to do this shit if I have to strangle that fish with my bare fucking claws!”

This is a very long speech. Eridan looks at you kind of strangely -- not glazed, just strange -- and your ears are burning again. You lean back against the cab and cross your arms, because fuck the world and fuck the gulls screaming overhead, curse the sea and everything in it. All these years and you still find the weariness sudden, each time. “I just want things to be fair, Eridan. I realize this is a request that seriously puts the universe’s nose out of joint.”

“Yeah, well, I just don’t want to get shit out by a zombie fish,” he says, looking utterly put-upon. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask for, either.”

“Cry harder. I hear these things are attracted to tears.”

“Fuck you.”

The boat lurches back and forth like it wants the two of you off, as it grumbles its way off to the middle of the harbor. You clutch uneasily at the cabin doorway, and try and fight down a rising and completely new kind of nausea. It’s not like your usual spells, the building dizziness that spills sickly out from your racing heart and makes everything shaky and far away, makes you want Sollux and a dark corner to catch your breath; this is different, violent, crammed into you from the outside, and you deeply regret the last glazed ringworm.


You squint blearily across the small, heaving deck. “Yeah?”

“You ever been out on the sea before?”


“Fuck, you’re lubberly. Want to sit down?”

Hell no.”

“God, have it your way. Just don’t toss your gizzard on my deck, is all I flippin ask.”

“I’ll get right on that,” you manage, and go back to clinging for dear life. There is a dull, deafening roar building in your ears and the sea seems to creak underneath you. You are Karkat Vantas, Threshecutioner, fearing only fear itself and whatever terrible trite one-liners you can toss in there, but your current enemy is the sea. And you cannot calm the sea by shooshing it. “Tell me when it’s zombie time. I will be standing here, of my own free will, very quietly.”

“Just sit down before you fall -- oh fuck -- ”

The pitching and rolling is even worse when you’re right down on the deck itself, but at least you don’t have any farther to fall. You’re going to be pockmarked with those bizarre lemony bruises come morning.

Eridan is leaning over you, patting your face very, very gently. His hands are clammy as hell, but they give you something to concentrate on besides your bile sac’s extremely athletic bids for freedom. “Talk to me, buddy,” he says.

“Whose idea was this?” you ask. “We’re on a fucking boat. We are on a boat, motherfucker, I have not forgotten. Why did you let me do this to myself? I have frequently not been on boats before, and now I’ve ruined my record. I hate boats. I want to get off. Fucking shitweasels are your hands ever cold. Don’t stop.”

Eridan laughs, a little hysterically. This close you can see the over-careful knot of his tie, his worn shirtcollar, his jacket shiny with age. There is always something so careful about the way he dresses: even if he wasn’t fashionable, and you know living fuck-all about fashion, he’d be the one who looked the most painful care taken of him. “You have got to stop swoonin all over me, Kar,” he tells you, and runs his thumb down your sweat-slick throat. “A guy’s liable to get the wrong idea, if you go pitchin over like a poleaxed bleatbeast each time he comes callin.”

“Don’t worry, I still think you’re pretty,” you croak. “Stop the ride, I want to get off. No -- no no no, don’t you go anywhere.”

“You are the most pathetic hardass I have ever met,” he informs you.

“I’ll just go have that tattooed over my nook, thank you. So. How do you go about praying for your own swift death?”

There is a sudden, gigantic crashing noise from off the side of the boat, one that ends in a heavy spray like rain. Eridan hollers, and sheer furious terror sends you upright. Blessed instinct takes over, even if the sea’s falling on you in lumps and you’re alone in the dark on a merciless body of poisonous water, and calm settles over you like a suit of armour. You spin him behind you, draw your sickle, and then Eridan has to grab the back of your coat as the boat heaves enormously under your feet. Water batters at the hull like a lost child desperate to come indoors, and you almost go over the side.

It slowly dawns on you that you have brought a small red close-range blade to a fight with a creature at least five times the size anything should ever, ever get, and that Terezi might really have wanted you dead when she forwarded you that proposed dock-tax legislation. If she did, it is a truly lovely piece of planning and you admire her for it.

“Oh, fuck me,” you breathe.

The monster looks down at the two of you -- and down, and down -- and it is gigantic, an enormous wall of patchy scum-colored fur and barnacles and worse things, the squamous shapes of oceanic parasites that heave and thrash against the dirty paleness. Its eyes are jelly-like indigo pits, and its teeth are broken into harsh and deadly-looking splinters. It’s filthy. It is horrifying. It is old.

“Kiss my glutes, it’s a capricorn,” Eridan breathes. “They’re no realer than whales are, Kar --”

It bleats, which is a very real sound! The noise is deafening, a long pulsating HONK that shudders all through you down to your bones, crowds out every thought. It’s a sound that means business. It isn’t until Eridan grabs one of your fucking horns that you realize you’re trying to go over the side of the boat to get at it, kill it, shut it up, save your friend.

“You maniac,” he hisses, “stop it, stop it, keep still.”

He wrestles you down to the deck, presses you down under his body between the sidewall of the boat. He’s very cold and smells strongly of the sea, and you get that he must be trying to protect you, which is just embarrassing as shit. “Please,” he whispers, his mouth sounding like it’s got a lingual twitcher of your hair, “please, please don’t you fuckin move one gill, I’m beggin you.”

“Alright, fuck, have it your way,” you agree, and you round out each word very calmly and cleanly. “You keep your pants on, though, or I’ll take my chances with that seaterror.”

He giggles, a quiet little peal of pure fear. He’s very heavy. Both of you wait in a huge, wave-slapping silence.

That awful bleating rings out again, and you can feel the seablood boy shudder against you. “Oh, fuck me, Feferi,” he breathes. You put your arms around his wide shoulders and give him a squeeze, and he presses his face hard into your hair, and your heart goes a little funny with pity, which is a horrifying disgrace on your heart’s part and not remotely the time, Karkat.

There is a splash from out in the water, and then everything is quiet again. There’s only the sound of the guttergulls crying out to each other, and the low thick smack of waves against the hull. After a long moment you push Eridan off you, and peek over the side just to make sure that nothing’s there.

“It’s gone,” you report.

“Like hell,” Eridan says.

“Gone for now, or deep as near gone is,” you amend, and you abruptly lie back down. When you are tight with adrenaline there is no point in sitting; Threshecutioner’s trick, after a duel your whole cohort would flop down like a bunch of fainting cholerbears. Eridan takes this opportunity to flop his head on your chest. He’s still shaking all over, proving that a troll can face ten murderous fellow trolls at once and yet piss his pants over a seamonster, which shows conclusively he has his priorities in the wrong order. You don’t have the heart to elbow him off you again. Instead, you curl your hand around the back of his neck and hang on: you’re a little shaky yourself. You wonder if he’ll be crass enough to point it out.

He ‘s not. Instead he says, “You were gonna kill it with your bare hands, huh?”

“That was a dumb plan, constructed by an idiot with questionable taste in friends and an extremely loose grasp on reality. I disavow all knowledge of whatever moron was so blisteringly stupid as to emit those sounds from his squawk chasm, and furthermore, fuck you. Let’s have a new plan.”

“Right, then.”

You’re quiet for a while. The back of his neck is astoundingly clammy, cold but still damp. You wonder if you can wipe your hand off on your pants without hurting his feelings. You wonder if you’re in shock: it has been a long time since you’ve seen something you couldn’t shut up with a good shouting-at, best case, or your sickle, worst case, and your thinkpan feels like it’s been flipped right over.

“What’s the new plan?” Eridan finally asks.

“The new plan is you come up with a plan. I’m the landmonster expert, my child, not the seamonster expert.”

“Fuckin frost of hell, Kar.”

“No, seriously, I’m all out. We may or may not die actually die out here, I am sorry to inform you. Is your will all in order? Mine is in triplicate.”

He’s quiet for another while. Eventually, he says with unusual cautiousness: “I got a friend.”

“Congratulations. I’ll bake you a cake.”

“Fuck off. I mean, I got... I know a guy, okay? Hunts just this kinda thing. Seamonsters especial. He gets called around to clean up revenants and ghasts, even, good guy to have around when something’s shamblin around and bits are droppin off, we could call him.”

You sit up. “Well, what the fuck are we lying around palming eachother’s bulges for? Call him the fuck in already!”

“He’s not...” It’s telling to see the collection of grimaces Eridan Ampora is giving you. He rarely beats around the bush on anything, and the amount of shame he’s got in his body could fill a small concave device, but you know if you wait he will blurt it out anyway. “Kar, thing is, he ain’t particularly orthodox, if you get my drift. He is not in any goddamn way a friend to... your people.”

“Handsome bastards?”

“Social enforcement.”

You add up seamonsters to revenants, and called around to ghasts. It’s local enforcement and Threshecutioners who clean up the undead, and it’s local enforcement and Threshecutioners who clean up any creature big enough to set its sight on a troll population, except out in the small fishing villages that have no social enforcement to speak of and sometimes end up relying upon -- “He’s a fucking clown cultist, isn’t he.”

Eridan tips his chin up at you, and his eyes go all narrow and proud because he is obviously senseless as fuck. You are surrounded by people who are missing logic circuits in their thinkpans. “I can make you swim back to shore if you’re gonna clutch your pearls on account a he’s my brother, you bigoted shit.”

You lean against the ship’s railing and sigh long and hard, making it whistle through your teeth. “You know that shit’s proscribed.”

“Fuck the police. I never saw him hurt anybody who wasn’t asking for it loud and fuckin clear.”

“Yeah, and the main tenet of their circus clusterfuck is that everyone is asking for it. They’re fucking zero-sum nihilists, Eridan, how’d you get mixed up in that shit? Clown cultists don’t like anybody, and they sure as shit do not have brothers.

He looks away, that idiot’s pride leaching out of his bearing, and he says, “Um. So.”

Icy regret clutches your innards. “Oh, fuck, oh, man, your moirail’s taken up the paint.”

No! No, don’t you-- she ain’t-- you can’t think that, you can’t, she ain’t. No!” He fucking jitters in place, his hands going everywhere -- down to his flicknife -- and you’ve almost got your sickle out before he realizes what he’s doing and holds his hands out to you, desperate and bare and finger-splayed, and you relax minutely.

“She’s not,” he says, barely a plead. “You got nothin on her, she’s a good girl. I keep her clean.”

And this, then, is the problem of Eridan Ampora: arch-agent, dumbass, smart as a steel trap and thick as a fucking brick. His moirail’s the only thing that keeps him going and she’s a complete mystery that no one’s ever fucking seen. Sollux chews his fucking gizzard out seasonally over her, and she’s mixed up with the fucking clown cultists. Your hands itch for your sickle, just thinking about it.

You rub your forehead in the vain hope it’ll clear up any of this headache. “Your girl’s got herself another quadrantmate,” you deduce. “I’m impressed you managed to stop sitting on her long enough for anyone else to get a shot in. Red, I’m guessing, I fucking doubt she needs ash and you wouldn’t be on terms with him if it were black, would you?”

“I’d kill anyone who tried,” he snaps. “She doesn’t need anyone’s caliginous shit. Gamzee’s sweet as starlight.”

“Gamzee, the clown cultist! Gamzee, the perfect peach.”

“Doesn’t hurt anyone,” he mutters. “And he kills zombies by the goddamn dozen. Zombie anything. Ferals too, just in case you want to go accuse us all of going fuckin’ sea-mad, I am long past carin’. If anyone can take this monster down it’s him.”

You glare out at the waves. Nothing is ever simple, down here, and more and more lately you are lost.

“Hold on a second,” you say, and reach for your palmhusk.

-- carcinoGenerosity [CG] began trolling gallowsConflagration [GC]! --

GC: > :]
GC: >:]
GC: >:O
GC: H3H3H3H3H3
CG: E OR 3?
GC: 3!

You run the search, squint over all the fine print and clauses. Terezi knows her fucking legalese.

GC: PL34S3, 4PPL3 P13, 1M NOT 3V3N SUR3 YOU C4N D13!
CG: <3
GC: <3

-- gallowsConflagration [GC] ceased trolling carcinoGenerosity [CG]! --

You pocket your husk, scrub your hands over your face. You don’t quite know why you’re unhappy: as conversations with Terezi go that one is heartening, except that every time you talk flushed to each other you want to somehow reach through the network and pull her apart, pull her close, open up her ribcage and take gulping swallows of her cold and bitter bloodpusher. Fuck only knows what you’re meant to do about that feeling.

“Love sucks, am I right?” Eridan says, getting it all wrong.

You miss her like hell. You contemplate throwing your palmhusk into the sea. You contemplate a lot of things. “Yeah,” you say, “doesn’t it just.”

His fingers brush your shoulder, hesitantly. Sometimes Eridan can be ridiculously, counterintuitively, unexpectedly sweet, salt and honey underneath. You put a hand over his and just stand there for a bit, as though you have any right to. No one ever touches you anymore. If you could only figure out what the hell happened to your life maybe you could fix it, but you can’t, so that’s that, you’re fucked.

“We doin this?” he asks. Eridan’s a little purple around the cheeks, like he’s embarrassed for you, and you scrub at your face again like you can scour your expression clean.

“We’re fucking doing this,” you say. “Legal loophole: the just persecution of aberrant religious affiliations takes secondary precedence to assistantative resolution of an emergency situation, that being a manifest example of clear and pressing danger to the fabric of society as a whole. Hope your cultist doesn’t mind a little conscription.”

He squints a little, his lips moving as he parses that. “This why you don’t hassle me none about the... you know, Sister... thing?” He makes an awkward, swooshy gesture with one hand that is presumably a representation of his lamentable tendency to raise nigh-unstoppable dayterrors whenever he gets cranky.

“Officially, I don't care. You’re still dedicated to one of the official quinity, for all that you’re a no-class barnacle bulge about the terminology and for all that you are going to die so young for ever having anything to do with the Fair Lady of Light, you’re covered. Personally, I could not give the first unofficial shit, though I’d thank you kindly to never lock a revenant in Sollux’s ablution trap ever again. You know how late he kept me up whining about that little stunt?”

“It was his wiggling day,” he protests, a shit-eating grin slathering all across his sharp teeth. He looks like a self-satisfied eel. “Wouldn’t have been any glubbin special if he couldn’t possibly die of it, Kar.”

“It is entirely disgusting that you even know his wiggling day. What kind of kismesis even are you?”

The boat rocks sharply, and you find yourself stumbling up against him. His arm goes around your shoulder, steadying you, and he drops a quick, surprising kiss on your forehead -- his mouth is cool and burns all the same, like ice on your skin.

“A bloody thorough one. Now come sit yourself down in the cabin, I’ll get you a tarp so you don’t catch chill and expire on me. It’s a long ways back home, and I’ll have to fuckin bury you at sea, won’t I?”

The Corbenic is one hell of a hot mess, and you have to keep craning your neck up farther the closer you get. You’ve never seen a sea-ship so big, nor a wreck so well preserved. It lies across a rocky crescent chunk of sandbar in a great towering streak of ancient metal scarred over with red rust and the bone-white intricacies of corral, shot through with silver threads of patch jobs.

“How did you ever get a drone to repair it all?” you ask. “This is a massive fucking project, Fins.”

“Didn’t,” he says, sounding embarrassed and besotted in equal parts. His shoulders are defiant peaks. “They wouldn’t. We did it all by glubbin hand, every patch. Stole a lot of weldin’ gear our first few sweeps -- though you take me to court and I will lie, Thresher.”

“Damn,” you say, sincerely impressed. “You got hidden depths, kid.”

His fins go a little purple, but he tosses his head, all easy arrogance and pure pleasure. “Coddamn abyssal,” he agrees.

Where the top deck sags nearly to the water line has been turned into a makeshift dock-- there’s a winch, a pile of crates and tanks, and a bright little hiveboat already moored. It’s all rainbow-striped awnings and sagging corners and disturbing half-glimpses of circus votives: you get itchy just looking at the unashamedly sacrosanct mess of the thing, but Eridan bellies the tug right up next to it and lashes sound to the Corbenic’s railing.

“Gamzee’s already around,” he says, pleased.

“Good,” you say tightly. “Great. He looks charming. Are those actual skulls hanging off the front part?”

Eridan glances over with the air of a man who doesn’t care about the décor. “Sure as hell ain’t coconuts, Kar. You goin to faint on me again, or what?”

“At your bad taste and poor life expectancy? That’s enough to put anyone into an unmerciful swoon.” You take a deep breath. “Tell me your own hive isn’t quite this heretically hard on the decency glands?” It comes out a bit plaintive, and he laughs at you.

“I’m fuckin’ prim and proper as any kid who lives in a creaky old hollowed-out battleship,” he says, and vaults the Corbenic’s railings in a single practiced leap.

“She was Dualscar’s, once,” he says, “did you know?” He runs his palm over the railing like he’s touching a flush-friend’s face, slow and sort of distractingly tender. “Served him well. Serves me well for all that, she’s a grand girl. Saw this wreck when I was just a minnow, and some part a me just knew it was home, and so she’s been.”

That arrests your attention from the sloppy heresy of a cultist’s hiveboat.

“Dualscar, like, hold on, like Orphaner Dualscar? Dualscar the Genocide?

“I don’t think there are any other Dualscars, Kar,” he says. He smiles at you, so stupidly proud, and some tardy part of your brain finally, finally goes click and you are breathless with shock and horror. His fucking crooked horns, his jagged sigil, his baffling, relentless, indomitable arrogance! You are the stupidest ass in the world.

“You’re his descendant,” you accuse. “You, Ampora, are the fucking hellspawn of history’s greatest monster.”

He only laughs.

“Why did you think Sollux can’t keep his fuckin’ paws off?” he says, and drags fingers across the bruisy chain of hatemarks on his throat. “Not everyone gets to say they ride herd on Dualscar’s get and are pretty enough to survive, huh?”

“Not everyone gets to say they know who the fuck Dualscar’s get is and didn’t burn his dangerous fucking carcass down to ashes, on account of only Sollux Captor would be dumb enough! Augh, he knew all this time and he did not fucking tell me, that is typical! I am going to wear his gluteals as a fucking hat, I swear.”

“You think I’m dangerous?” Eridan says, looking kind of worried. He leans far over, and pats your fucking head. “I wouldn’t hurt you, Kar, never -- ”

You catch his wrist. “Yes, thank you for pinpointing the crux of my horror with your unparalleled deductive sniffatron, it’s definitely that I am scared of you and not deeply troubling fact that my lunatic of a moirail neglected to inform me that he has been pulling out the fucking pail for Sea King Junior.”

“He never did have no common sense,” Eridan smiles, and he hops over the railing. “Here, lemme help you up.”

You have to swallow your hysterics and grab his hand or risk getting dropped into the ocean, and then you get your second shock in as many minutes on account of there’s his mystery of a moirail, coming quickly down the sloping deck.

Feferi Peixes is, in a word, astonishing. She’s a lot like what you expected -- undersize, like most seadwellers -- and a lot more like nothing you could have imagined. She’s healthy, for one thing. Eridan’s the sanest, cleanest seadweller you’ve ever met by huge lengths (Dualscar’s kid, no fucking wonder he’s made good, now that you know this) and he’s got ears that look like they’ve been through a meat grinder, a continuous suite of scabs and scars that cycle across his face and throat and his big outsized paws are permanently chewed-up. Up against most seadwellers he looks like a sharp and beautiful piece of business, a sword among steak knives, but against his moirail he looks like a dead crow next to a fairy wren.

Feferi is pristine, and the high proud arch of her spine reminds you of nothing more than the way Aradia carries herself at court. The perfect tines of her earfins blaze against the heavy drape of her hair, and her teeth, when she smiles, are finely set and perfectly even. Her lips are full and her jaw is a delicate unbroken point and her dainty wrists bear not the slightest trace of pain. Her complexion is the kind of smooth grey silk that half the Capitol’s goldbloods would bathe in burning shit to attain. She sails across the deck like a kite, all airy speed and grace, and you have to physically force your gaping mouth to close. You realise: if she’s never been off this wreck, she’s never been gotten taught her actual place, her actual status, never met anyone.

Eridan folds down into her strong, thin arms, letting her kiss him all over, and the look on his face is intense, enraptured, a naked burning adoration that feels somehow obscene to watch, even coming from a moirail. The way she looks at him back, the way she turns him from side to side as they talk, inspecting him, is in such a way that it is the other part of the equation. He looks at her like she owns every last part of his soul and she looks at him like she knows, and is glad of it.

Then she looks at you and her eyes are sharp as quills, and you realize that either the world is going to tear her apart, or she’s going to tear it apart. You’re not sure which thought disquiets you more.

“Oh, it’s Karkat,” she says, like you were someone she expected, “you brought home Karkat!”

Her accent’s thick as hell, thicker even than Eridan’s with a high, trilling e and glottal stops so strong their plosives are explosive. This fishgirl sounds as thrilled as if you were a present, and there’s her taller moirail giving a hapless shrug as though to say of course, yes, he brought you home, and she twines her fingers together and does a little spin on the spot. It seems the only way she can divest herself of energy. She nearly jangles from head to foot, twanging with longing, and then she looks at you like she can’t get enough of looking at you. Her eyes are wide as full moons.

“Good evening,” you say, and sketch your best bow on a calculated guess. “Thank you for passage into your hive, Lady.”

This delights her. She claps her hands excitedly together, and looks ready to bust out in a jig.

“You’re more’n whale-come, silly!” she says. “I knew you’d wash up e-ventually! Eridan never keeps his blowhole shut about you, did you know?”

“Shutting up not his strong point,” you agree, and he shoots you both middle fingers in a two-gun salute. For his part, he couldn’t look more anxious than a mother fucking cluckbeast with a whole clutch of cheeping babies. Kid’s hovering, and when Feferi takes a hurtling step towards you he catches her up inside his arms and paps her face sharply. She squirms at the indignity, and clasps her triangle teeth into his forefinger with a warning growl.

“Behave, Fef,” he says pleadingly. You’d never have pegged Eridan as anyone’s conciliator, not with the way he tears into Sollux, not with the way he walks like he’s one taut handspan from wholesale slaughter, but here he is, all splayed-out submission, and she calms. She licks the violet bloodprickles off his bit finger, and he wavers, caught up in embarrassment and fear and tenderness -- with you around, this is an uncomfortably public display of affection, and he looks like he has no idea what to do and is expecting you to grade him on it.

You say, “It’s cool, Eridan,” and you hold your hand out.

Feferi understands the offer right away. She squirms out of Eridan’s grasp, takes both your hands when you offer them and squeezes them tight in her own-- too tight, she’s got the deeps’ deadly power bound up in her slim, pretty fingers -- and then she examines your palms. With perfect politeness, she pulls your hands up and kisses your wrists, formal as any warmblood in a movie. There’s nothing to say she didn’t pull it out a movie. Where are two kids going to learn court manners in the middle of an ocean? When she blows a raspberry into one of your palms Eridan says, strangled, “Fef,” but she just laughs. “Come on,” she says. “I just licked a Threshecutioner! That is one for the history books. Can I get culled for that?”

“Don’t tempt me,” says Eridan. He looks nearly beside himself with love.

“Glub off,” she tells him. Then she tucks your arm underneath her arm and pats it, like your arm is a good animal. “Karkat, my name is Feferi Peixes, I can ab-sole-lutely introduce mykelp. This is my moirail! You know him. You know the ship, too; it’s not hard to get to know a ship, they don’t say glubbing goldfishshit back. So now you just have to meet Gamzee. I would have introduced you to Gamzee before the ship, but we follow a strict hierarchy here. You are at the ve-ry bot-tom. Gamzee!”

You’d been so taken by Feferi that you’d paid no attention to the troll gangling by the fo’castle, except that he wasn’t a clear and present danger. Now you attend. The white paint on his face feels even more heretical up close: it doesn’t help that this is one of the tallest first-cohort trolls you’ve ever met in your life including Equius Zahhak, looking up at his face requires a serious amount of looking up. Someone constructed this guy out of splintered masts and bailing wire and then added on a couple extra elbows. Terezi’s pointy; this kid is just one big slouch. There is something in his calm, dark gaze that’s unnerving as fuck, only then he does something even more unnerving than fuck, which is that he walks forward and hugs you. Your hand drops instantly to your sickle but you are too pinned even to draw it.

“There we go,” he says, as you wheeze for air. His arms are iron bars. You don’t even struggle; what would be the use? “Gotta be where your heart’s all at, you know? Gotta do what just motherfucking comes, and there is a whole register of knowing when you hug a fucker for the first time.”

“Gamzee’s shithive maggots,” Feferi says tenderly.

“We’re all mad motherfuckers ‘round here,” he says. “Damn, your fucking horns are a trip, bro.”

You decide that you hate him.

“Oh, why, yes,” you growl, “when horns were getting passed out I was busy taking my bulge for an exploratory joyride -- twice! -- and hence got saddled with the sorriest cranial extrusions in a dozen universes, no, I can’t do shit with them, yes, they shrank in the wash, I’m borrowing them from a pupa, they’re actually carrots and I snack on them at night, I grind them down one stroke every time I cuss and they used to be longer than yours, brinebucket-- you want to add another noodle-fronded excuse of a dig to the grand endeavor of Make Karkat Aware He’s Got Dinky Nubs, so long’s the subject’s up for jawing?”

He blinks at you and you glower harder. The seadweller girl is laughing madly in the background, which you might appreciate more if her horns weren’t at least a handspan and a half, and Gamzee’s weren’t maybe a halfspan even longer. Then his longjawed face cracks open in a grin, all teeth -- he’s got strikingly nice teeth -- and he lets out this long honk of laughter, just like a seabird.

“They’re all up and miniature miracles,” he says, and rubs his chilly palms over your rounded tips. You are breathless with shock. Everything is terrible, and is tinted faintly of clown. “You are a champion cuddler, motherfucker, am I right?”

“I don’t really cuddle,” you say numbly.

He tucks you flush up against his side. “Bitchtits time to start,” he just says. “I cuddle like a motherfucker. Now let’s get our tucker on, me and my ffefryn were just all sittin down to dinner and I warrant the pot’ll up and fucking stretch to four.”

“‘Course it will,” Feferi says staunchly, “I never knew it to not,” and crooks her arm through yours.

You find yourself forcibly taken off towards the lower decks, and manage to shoot something of a pleading gaze over your shoulder at Eridan. Eridan is following along behind you, looking absurdly pleased in the worst way: wind-whipped, sort of smug, as though watching you get sandwiched between his moirail and his moirail’s matesprit is his idea of high times. When you scowl he just gives you this glorious, shit-eating who, me? grin.

“I’m being molested by a fucking clown cultist, Eridan,” you observe. “And your moirail is under the impression that I am outranked by a ship. A wrecked ship.”

“I don’t know why I didn’t think they were gonna humiliate us both,” he says, which is patently lies. “If it makes you feel any bit better, the goddamn ship outranks me too.”

“For fuck’s sake, Fins, you know that doesn’t.”

“Welcome to the dark carnival, motherfucker,” Gamzee says, and laughs that low, honking laugh again.

Chapter Text

Now that you’re back on solid surfaces you find that you are starving. You are sat in front of a faded tablecloth and a hissed argument between the two moirails as to whether or not a nicer tablecloth should be swapped out, but Gamzee ends the etiquette argument by filling your bowl. Whatever the hell it is, it’s delicious, some kind of seafood gumbo thickened with kelp and awash with tiny clams. It’s spicy enough that you may piss neat acid later. It will be worth every drop. You pour it down your chute just barely slow enough for manners, and Feferi laughs when the pepper makes you sneeze.

“He always eat this much?” Gamzee asks Eridan, pouring you a third bowl.

“Yep,” Eridan says.

“Where the motherfuck does he put it?”

“Fuck if I know,” he says, and gives you this warm, sly little sidewise glance that heats your ears.

You are abruptly embarrassed, and put your spoon awkwardly down on the table. They’re poor, and you’re an asshole. “I didn’t mean -- ”

“Shut your flap before you embarrass us all, Kar, how many free breakfasts have you stuffed down my chute?” Eridan asks. “A pot of stew’s the least we can hand back, Kar.”

“Chill, motherfucker,” the clown cultist says, and pushes your bowl towards you. “If’n you’re hungry, you’re hungry. ‘Sides, you don’t finish your bowl, you don’t get dessert, and that would be damn near disastrous.”

“Well,” you say, smiling. “I fucking love dessert.”

Eridan’s watching you a little strangely. After a minute you realize that he is looking at your mouth, and you are still smiling. You scowl, but he still looks as if he’s stolen a secret and plans on burying it in the back.

“So,” you say, and lick your spoon, and set it carefully back to your empty bowl. “Business.”

Eridan looks as dismayed as the other two look interested. “Business?” Feferi says.

“Much as it pains me, this wasn’t a social call,” you say. “I enlisted Eridan on a clean-up mission of mine, and it’s turning out to be a lot bigger of a project than I’d expected. Enter your bony ass, clown boy.”

“The fuckin bay beast’s a capricorn,” Eridan says, docking his sailboat bluntly in Tactlessness Harbour.

This is a great deal more abruptly than you’d planned on making that particular point. Gamzee goes still. Not a good kind of still. When he talks he speaks very slow and careful: “A capricorn, brother?”

“And he’s gone rogue, is the worse part a this magnificent clusterfuck. Gamz, listen -- you know it might not be -- ”

Eridan is dismissed with a curt flick of his fingers, utterly unlike every other movement Gamzee’s made up till now. There was no hurry to Gamzee Makara in your first assessment, no hard edges to his movements, no need. “Shut your god damned wordhole. I know.”

An awkward pause. Feferi’s fingers wind themselves into knots and she chatters her own teeth until she has to stop herself, and she scoops up her bowl and collects all your dented forks as the rest of you stare. Eventually Gamzee looks away, runs his long fingers through his hair and thumbs his own horns -- a bad, bad sign that has you tensing up -- and he sighs explosively. It whistles through his teeth. “Rogue lusus,” he says. “Well. I sure as motherfuckin’ sure know how to deal with those.”

You are missing something here, and it is irritating as hell. You tap your spoon on the edge of your bowl for attention. “Mind letting the new guy in?”

“Gamzee’s lusus was a capricorn,” says Feferi, clattering dishes at the sink.

The bottom drops out of your stomach. You seen Gamzee’s indigo sigil you’d figured on an inbetweener’s lusus, otter, albaturtle, kelpie, but -- “Holy fuck. Holy fuck, capricorns can spawn lusii?”

They all laugh at that, an awful, mocking burst of three-way noise. “Not good ones,” Eridan says. “Sorry, Gamz.”

“Offense untaken, brother. Ain’t nothing in the seas as all up and is any kinda custodian proper,” Gamzee says, and moves his fingers in a sinuous, distressing wave at you. “They don’t come by, they don’t stay. Ain’t seen the old goat in two sweeps, motherfucker, he is dead and gone.”

“What if he ain’t?” Eridan asks quietly.

“Then maybe he needs to be,” Gamzee says. “You two’re my family, now, he don’t get to fucking wreck YOUR SHIT UP AFTER ALL THIS MOTHERFUCKING TIME.”

By dint of pure instinct you’re reaching for your sickle, but Eridan curls a hand around one of his horns and the big cultist goes still all over, meek as a little bleatbeast. Outside the wind moans around the Corbenic and underneath it Gamzee makes low, grinding grunts, like a wiggler trying to soothe itself. Fuck. He is an orphan, no one calms like that but the perpetually love-starved and it churns your guts to see.

“I know, brother, I know,” Eridan murmurs, over and over, and puts his face up against the cultist’s wild hair. In the background you see Feferi tying the dishtowel into knots, just watching, just watching you. “Settle, Gamz, settle, it’s not worth the frettin’ time.”

“I’m cool. I’m motherfucking chill. Ain’t nobody cooler than us saltlickers, ain’t that right, my popsicle-blooded fucker?”

“We’re so fuckin’ iceblooded our buckets freeze over, man -- ”

“Yeah. Yeah. Soon as I motherfucking up and look at ‘em.”

They bump knuckles and share a terrible little smile, like trapjaws of broken ice, and you have never felt so awkward in all your hatched days. “So you’re in?” Eridan’s saying. “We need you.”

“In as in,” Gamzee says.

Eridan glances at you. “Done and dusted,” you say, “Looks like what we have ourselves here with Mr. Gamzee Makara is a behavioural misdemeanor. I sentence you to -- fuck, Fins, how long is this going to take, rough estimate -- ”

“One day. Maybe two.”

“I sentence you to two days of community service.” You lean forward and pap Gamzee’s mild, puzzled face. You expect the paint to be sticky but it’s smooth and slick as cold wax. You could be touching a doll. “I am now your official service officer. You have the right to a single communication with your legal representative, you have the right to unfair trial, and you have the official right to kiss my Threshecutioner ass.”

“And that’s that?” Eridan asks.

“That’s that, Fins,” you say, and make a little woo, magic, twiddle of fingers. “Sociability has been enforced.”

“I don’t think I even up and got a legal representative.”

“Believe me, you’re better off without one. Mine made a career out of screwing me over, and that’s not as fun as I used to think it sounded.”

“So that’s that!” says Feferi, and she tosses the dishcloth listlessly to the drying-board. “When do we leave?”

There is an awful, three-way stare. If the awkwardness got any thicker you could cut blocks of it and use it for packing material. It’s with a weary, very brittle diplomacy that Eridan says, “Fef, we can’t leave the Corbenic alone, someone’s got to stay and glubbin’ watch it.”

“The goldblood can watch it.”


“Your itty-bitty fingers stuck in dead things ain’t a good combo as of now,” says Gamzee, and they’re both carefully sliding their chairs towards her. “Pearl, you know you don’t go outside tonight.”

“I’m the best swimmer,” she says, with icy dignity. “You’re all oinkbeasts in the water, plump waddling oinkbeasts. I’m the only reliable long-distance fighter. I’m the only everything!” At the last word she is suddenly all froth and spittle, and it rips from her throat with as much grief as anger. “Fuck you. Fuck you! Take me.”

“I’m not putting you at risk, Fef Peixes,” says her moirail, who is very calm and very measured. You actually thought she’d been making a fairly good argument, considering the words long-distance and swimmer, but there run deep strata here of things you don’t understand. “We come to any grief, we get sprung by anyone, you know that’s that. You know you lucked it with Gamz -- ”

“You’ve got your pet land-dwell-er! There’s so many of us! Why can’t I go out? Why can’t I come? Just tonight?” Her claws dig into her own hips and she flexes them in and out, like a mewbeast kneading itself. “I’m useful. It’s on water, I’m more glubbing useful than any of you. This is so stupid.”

“I know, girl -- ”

“What if you don’t even come back? What about that.”

“I love you most of anyfin,” says Eridan. “I always come back to you, don’t I?”

“Fuck you,” she says again, and tears spill down her cheeks. They’re tinged a deeper, ruddier purple than you’ve ever seen any seadweller ever bleed, an unreal color. In this light it’s close to crimson, which is unsettling as fuck. She wipes them away tersely before you can get a better look. “Fuck you, you’re never ever ever letting me out of here, are you? You think I’m a liability! You all think I’m -- you think I’m glubbing crazy, you think I’m a good-looking feral, you think I’m useless -- “

“Fef, sweetheart, please don’t cray -- ”

“No fish puns!” she screams, and she breaks a plate and holds it out when he looks to rise from his chair. The sharp edge trembles in her hand at him. Her breath rattles through her air bladders with each gulp and there are two bright spots of color high on her cheeks. “You want to lock me up here! You want to lock me up here till I rot and then you’ll be fucking free of me, won’t you? You wish the Sisters would just let me die, and then you could go back to land like you want and be -- and be normal -- I’m going to die! Just let me die!”

Both he and Gamzee half-rise until she shepherds them back to sit, their hands strung tight. Her last note is a high, hysterical wail, and she suddenly squirts through her vanguard to vault to the table. You find yourself pressed in with one skinny arm on either side of your shoulders and a faceful of Feferi, wild-eyed, panting, each tooth bared in your direction. She is beautiful, and it’s a high probability she is going to rip out your throat, or that you’re going to end up sticking her with a sickle and it’ll all end like the worst kind of romantic drama. “Tell him I can go,” she says. “You tell him. Highblood.”

You say, very carefully, “Fins?”

“Kar -- ”

She digs her claws into your shoulders, and the noise that comes out her throat is halfway a sob. “Oh, Fins,” she says. “Fuck ‘Fins.’” The fishtroll leans forward and curls five sharp little claws around the scarred-up dish of your ear, suddenly tearless and intent, and you go very still. “You’re halfway to fins yourself, aren’t you? Look at all your funny little scratches! If I finished you up we’d all be matchy. Fins, Fins, Fins, I’m so sick of you and him.”

“Starfish, ffefryn, please,” begins Gamzee softly, and she slaps back “Cau dy ffwcin ceg,” a slippery horror of syllables. “I wish you didn’t love me, I was freer when you didn’t.”

Reflected in the window is their approach. Both of their hands are up in the universal symbol of oh shit, please don’t kill anybody, and you’re not sure whether it’s to her or you -- no. Damn. It’s to her. “Feferi,” you say, “how about you get off me and we talk this one over? I mean, hell, you’re better-looking than most people who usually hold me down, but I don’t want you hurt. I also do not want me hurt, as a frank fucking concern.”

It doesn’t work. “If you treat me like I’m awful,” she says, eyes fever-bright, “then I’ll be awful. I’ll be so awful. Do you want to see? I’ll take you down into the dark and you can drink all the poison your people put in my fucking ocean, I’ll take you down and I won’t even let you die and I won’t let the pressure boil your oculars out, I’ll just have you down in the water and you will hear things that nobody has heard for sweeps and sweeps and sweeps and you can see ghosts, Karcrab, not even my moirail goes with me but I’ll -- take -- you.

All this time she’s been getting closer till she’s straddling your hips with her knees, breaching your chair. Her thumbs are little ovals of ice on your throat and they feel cold as the nitrogen-chilled bars the stamp the jade dedicates with, she is cold as fucking fuck. There’s not exactly something psychic in her but there’s a weight, there’s a dent to the world, and there’s the overwhelming smell of ice and green growing things. And the streaks on her face are: pink.

“You’re fine,” you tell her, right up against her mouth. She smells sweet; her lips are soft; her hands are rough. Her eyes flicker and you think you catch a familiar enmaddened self-loathing in them. You are absurdly sad and embarrassed. “You’re going to be fine.”

Eridan sounds very far away when he says: “Fef.”

“Landdweller,” breathes Feferi, against your lips.

For a terrible moment, everything flickers. Then Gamzee and Eridan are hauling her off you, a skinny little streak of claws and fury, and she lets go and screams like a whistling teakettle. “Pissblood,” she howls, and then a long, utterly filthy stream of words that are obviously the nastiest things she can think of. You give her her due: they’re fairly disgusting. Feferi lashes out at the air with her dainty feet and nearly drives Eridan to his knees, and he’s hauling her arms behind her back even as Gamzee catches one ankle. Her other bare heel cracks a chunk off the table -- strength borne of misery, not just lowbloodedness -- and she howls again.

“It’s all his fault!” she’s screaming. “They killed everything -- said you’d never let a landdweller here! Kill him! He’s wrong! He’s fire, he’s too warm, he’s -- kill him! If you loved me you’d kill him and all of them!”

“Shh, Fef,” her moirail says, and he sinks down with his face in her shoulder and his arms locked around her like prison bars. Every line of his body is etched with fear, and you realize when he dares a glance that it is fear of you, not of the little monster in his arms. His shoulders are up like shields around the slender collection of bones and beads and fury that is Feferi Peixes. “It’s okay, you’re fine, I got you, me’n Gamz both, you’re fine.”

The stuff tumbling out of her mouth is incoherent, hiccuppy with sobs, and has an eerie quality to it. Like Terezi, praying. “I can hear them,” she’s weeping, “Oh, God, Dualscar, I hear them in the deeps, just one, it just needs one, Orphaner, I love you, listen, you never listen to me, let me eat his fucking heart -- “

“No, Fef. No. Hush up. You know we glubbin can’t, love, think it over, we can’t, we can’t, not ever, you know this -- ”

She struggles in his arms. “I can,” she says, “I can sing the song and everything will go away.” Her oculars roll back in her skull and she makes a low, guttural, completely batshit sound. It goes on and on and grates down your bones and your sickle’s in your hand, because if there is one rule you were taught about the ocean it’s that thou shalt not suffer a feral to live. They beat it into you. You put down closer friends. Still Eridan strokes over her face, as though he can bring her back by touching her.

“Slow down, Fef, hushabye, slow down, girl, shush-a-shush, Feferi...”

“Eridan.” The grip of your sickle should burn, but it doesn’t. It’s just another part of you, your red blade. It feels the same as every other time you’ve ever had to use it, and that pan-destroying sound just won’t fucking stop. It won’t stop until you stop it. He won’t look at you. You put your hand on his shoulder and wish it was kindness, and you fucking hate yourself. You feel Gamzee’s eyes boring into your head. “Eridan -- ”

“Give us a minute,” he says, and his voice breaks. “Please, Kar If I ever meant anythin to you give me a minute, this ain’t even the worst I ever seen her, I brung her back from shit you can’t even fathom. She’ll be sorry later, Fef always is, just give me one goddamned minute.”

You shouldn’t. You absolutely shouldn’t. There’s at least two exits out here besides the door, they could be out and away, a feral, a cultist and a fugitive, no life for them left but a last desperate flight that could rack up any amount of collateral damage against whatever other poor trolls who meet them. Trolls with futures. But Eridan looks at you and his mouth puckers as though he might cry, and Feferi keeps making that low, unreal moan as froth bubbles from her lips.

Take Feferi out and you’ll have to get her moirail on the backswing. And her matesprit an instant after, before he knows to come for you, he’s a big cultist indigo and it doesn’t do to leave loose ends. And that will be that, three sweet kids turned into corpsemeat and nobody will blame you. Not even Sollux. Shit happens, he might say, like the time one of his nerdlings went zombie, shit just happens, and he would be sad and shocked and you’d hold him and he’d never keep you up late talking about his precious horrible Archagent ever again.

-- Well, that’s a thought straight from What The Fuck River, feeding into Are You Even Fucking Serious Karkat Vantas You Asshole Bay.

“A minute,” you say. Your voice is very steady. The Laws of Blood are screaming in your head, harsher even than the feral wail out of the girl in Eridan’s arms. You have to cull her. You are a Knight of the Blood and she is mad and your knuckles ache. Your training pounds through your ears to the pulse in your pusher, the laws, the rules, your mandate, no one will blame you, not one single soul in the whole wide fucking world. You are a Threshecutioner, and she is your subject. This is why the culling laws exist, the Laws of Blood, this is why you exist, what you are for.

You walk out of the room.

Gamzee catches up to you outside a few moments after, his big bony hands tucked in his pockets as casually as if he hadn’t just been pinning his matesprit down while she screamed. “That wasn’t her crazy,” he says. “That was my girl mad. She got her deepsea witches, you know, it vexes her motherfucking chronic -- ”

“Shut the fuck up, clown. Get me out of here.”

He looks down at your face, blinks in a great, slow sweeping of lashes. “Oh,” he says, kind of gentle, and puts one of those massive hands up against your cheek. His skin is beautifully cold. You realize belatedly that you’re prickled with sweat all over. You wonder how you must look, but then again you don’t wonder.

“Get me out,” you repeat.

The hand on your face slides down your throat, your chest, a point of coldness you can focus on and wraps around your own hand, over the taut knuckles where you’re still holding your sickle. “Don’t you worry, motherfucker, I won’t let you use that,” he says.

You laugh, a stupid tense bark of a sound. “You fucking fool. I could cull you just for saying that to me.”

He shrugs, and pulls you down the corridor. This ship is a warren, a mess of tip-tilted corridors and hand-busted doorways and sudden drops, and you would be lost in an instant if he were to leave you alone. Instead the two of you move steadily upwards over fractured stairs.

“Do you know how fast a seadweller bleeds out?” you find yourself muttering. “They don’t, you know. You have to cut half the throat off to get anywhere, through the arteries in the neck, their blood’s too thick. Doesn’t even spray, it’s a neat kill, but you never get the smell of it off your hands -- ”

“Shush, motherfucker,” the halfblood says. “I know, brother, I know. This way to the stars, get your move on.”

He delivers you up to the cold, sweet night air as calmly as he seems to do nearly everything, as if he hadn’t just saved you, as if this wasn’t a treasonous betrayal of everything you’re supposed to stand for. For long moments you breathe until the fug of belowdecks is all out your aeration sacs. You look up at him -- bathed in the starlight and serene, for now, as though he were never anything other than serene -- and you wonder if you’re going just as mad as he is.

From up here the screaming is almost bearable.

You’re adorable when you follow the letter of the law, Terezi mocked you once, and don’t you just! You’re not responsible for culling a feral you can’t reach.

Gamzee acts as though he can’t hear it at all. He steers your feet down the slanted deck, to a stack of crates and pulls you down with him on to a pile of neat-coiled ropes. You go gratefully, and clasp your palms over your ears.

“A minute,” you say. “I told him, I gave him a minute. Tell me when a minute’s up.”

“Can do, motherfucker.”

You close your eyes. Behind your eyelids is just the same darkness as always, red-black and full of too many fucking ghosts. You open your eyes.

“So tell me about your quadrants,” you say, because of course that’s the perfect topic when you can’t think of anything else and someone’s matesprit is howling below, their fucking love life. A winner is you.

“Don’t need no black brother,” he drawls right off, “and I’d warrant my bilesacs don’t need one either. I could all up and sincerely appreciate you shifting your bitty armhandles leewards from my motherfucking stomach.”

“Oh. Shit.” You shift a little, but the ropes coil like slitherwyrms and you can’t go far. “...Better?”

“Here, bro,” he says, and hauls you flush up against him, your back to his chest, one arm tucking over your sash. Gamzee Makara is endlessly cool and smells of seasalt, and sopor, and you squirm a little and then just fucking roll with it. His shoulder is remarkably comfortable for someone who’s a sack of bones.

You say: “Ashen, then?”

“Naw, bro. I get my discord on with a motherfuck, I end it then and there, y’dig? Ain’t right letting stuff all up and drag on till you obligate some poor motherfucker to settle your wicked shit for you.”

“You’re telling me you don’t have anything in your shade squares going on?”

He shrugs artlessly. “Shit, bro, I don’t get my motherfucking presumption on as to be like up and telling romantic serendipity to perk its tits up for me on any kind of schedule. That’d be flat-out hands-tied rude.”

This makes you laugh a little, sort of incredulously. You haven’t heard anyone be this respectful towards serendipity since that Troll John Cusack film, the one everybody thinks is a turd but you. “Yeah. Yeah -- I guess you’re right. It happens when it happens.”

“Course I am, my main motherfucker.” His shoulders shift, and he sifts a hand through your hair. “They screwed my horns on tight as bitchtits when they hatched Gamzee, our laughing Lords went and did.”

“How about we never mention your Lords, okay?”

“Sure thing, brother.”

You’re silent for a long time. From where you’re sitting all you can hear is the sound of waves sloshing against the sides of the boat, and the sound of the coldblood’s heart, beating almost as slow and deep. He is decadently still. Nobody could ever be this still.

“You don’t got nobody, though,” Gamzee says, like it’s some kind of intuitive continuation.

“I -- what?”

“I got me a family, motherfucker, got my little sunset sister, sing down the motherfucking moons for me, she would, I got me a damn fine brother. He takes care. He motherfucking cares. You...” his big bony hands come up to either side of your ribs, squeeze like you’re an onion he’s checking for freshness. “... just got stars up in you, highblood. Gonna burn yourself up, you don’t learn to motherfucking share.”

“Fuck you, cultist,” you snap. “I’ve got a family!”

He runs a cold thumb up your face, through the slick of your flopsweat. “Tell me ‘bout your moirail, bro. You even got one?”

“Do you?”

“Sure don’t.”

“Well don’t get any fucking ideas. I do, as a matter of fact.”

“Tell me about him.”

You settle back. What is there to say? Sollux is the keystone of your existence, and it’s hard to put into words without saying, Sollux Captor is the keystone of my existence and sounding a complete bulgesuck. “Nobleman,” you say. “Bureaucrat. Spends most of his time up to his snout in bees and spies. He’s -- quadranted to his work. Might be the third most powerful kid on the planet. After the Premier, I mean, shit, we’re working to set him up to inherit if anything happens to Tavros, but I don’t think he’d hand off his Mastership and Terezi says -- ”

Could you ramble any more? No, of course you fucking couldn’t. You try again: “He’s her Imperial Luminesce’s Master of Information. You’ve got to have heard of him, everyone’s heard of him.”

The patient noise Gamzee makes in the back of your throat says that you are an idiot and should feel like an idiot. “No, motherfucker, I mean tell me about him. You’re all making the wicked noise about what he up and does, bro, not about who he be. He be good to you?”

“Plenty,” you bite out. You push away off to the railing and look at the vast, hypnotic expanse of waves, each one cresting with its own seam of fluffy foam. It’s enormous, but you’ve had the whole night sky and the galaxy underneath your feet and after that even the ocean seems small. You thought once that Sollux might understand it too -- he’s going to be the crown fucking shipwright one day, as though Aradia would have anyone else, he wouldn’t let her, you all know it -- and that you would take his arm, and you would be there with him the first time he saw space. See those bicoloured eyes widen. Feel his hand tense.

… which is all in the steaming horseshit of your imagination, because Sollux has never felt small a day in his life. You live in sick fear of the day it gets him killed.

With a guilty start you find yourself fingering your notched horns, the electric sting of the raw nerves under the keratin. Punishment and precaution both: they always ache a little when you’re down at sea-level atmospheres. Someday you’ll be in an environment where a breeze means a hull breach, and you’re gonna fucking appreciate your notches even more, but Sollux always handles you -- when he bothers to -- like you’re damaged fucking goods.

There is so much of yourself you just can’t tell people.

“You’re not okay, motherfucker,” Gamzee says quietly.

“You aren’t either.”

“No-one is, bro, did I say anyone was? No. But you sure as a motherfuckin’ miracle ain’t.”

You snort, pace a little. Moving clears your head but it’s all screaming now, you can’t get it out from between your aurals and pacing around on this slanted, creaking deck doesn’t help as much as it might. “I’m fine,” you say dismissively. “What’s wrong with you, then?”

“Right now?” he asks. “My main motherfucking malefaction is all up and being we never got dessert.”

“Seriously? Seriously?”

“Serious as a shark attack, motherfucker.” He sprawls backwards on the rope-nest, and his long arms gesture up at a pie tin perched on the railing. “Meant to go bring it down, but we all up and brought ourselves to it.”

Seriously, Gamzee.”

“Sit your glutes down, shortstuff,” Gamzee says firmly, and he plucks the tin neatly off the railing, twirls it deftly across his long fingers.

You sit. “What kind of pie?” you ask helplessly.

“Miracle pie,” he says. The tall inbetweener hitches you back into his lap, then runs two fingers across the top -- the thing in the dish is green and a little iridescent, smells overwhelmingly like cinnamon. Grub jelly, maybe? You are nobody’s pie connoisseur. He holds his fingers up for you, and you take his hand and lick.

It is sweet. It is unholy sweet. It is sweet all the way up to your sightballs and sweet enough to make your teeth hurt. “Wow,” you say.


“Fucking -- yes. Give.”

He scoops more out. It’s a messy and ridiculous way to eat pie, but there’s no utensils and he seems to trust you not to bite. The pie is also good enough that you don’t even care. You’d eat this pie off a cholerbear’s scrofulous ass, let alone Gamzee Makara’s comparatively appealling fingers. You relax, bit by hard-fought bit, and scoop some out for him.

“How did you get so good at cooking?” you ask. “This is amazing. You’re amazing. It’s not fair. I can’t fucking boil water without burning it, you could be a gourmeterrorist if you wanted.”

“We all got our gifts,” he says, licking a long cold tongue across your palm. His own are pressed against your face, sticky and soothing. You find you do not give a lukewarm shit for anything or anybody, you feel like molten gold.

You hum a little, and you scoop the last bit of filling out of the tin. The pie is now gone. “Damn,” you say. “We didn’t... oh, shit, should we have saved some?”

“I can make more,” he says. One of hands makes a sharp, sticky little pap! on your cheek. “Don’t you fret, li’l bro.”

“It’s fine. I’m fine. I’m not.”

You put your head on his shoulder, and you sigh. The hollow where his neck meets his collarbones seems entirely made for your face, and everything else has gone sort of iridescent. Life is amazing. Every annoyance of the night dissolves into soapbubbles, bursting with a little pwip! and then gone forever. Gamzee’s hand is an iron-cool anchor around the base of your horns, holding you fast, and you are limp with how gentle he is, how good, how goddamn great.

“I got you, motherfucker,” he says quietly, and kisses the side of your throat. “Wherever you were before, little man, you’re here now.”

This should be the world’s most ridiculous truism, but now it has alchemized to a profound truth. All your vasculars glow quicksilver. You drift off to the strange, blissful feeling of someone stroking your head, slowly, over and over.

Consciousness comes clean, and you wake like you’ve learned to do: no fuss, no splashing, just a sharp opening up of yourself to lucidity. You sit up without a ripple and climb clear of the thick, gummy slime -- a recuperacoon, you’ve been put to bed to sleep like a normal person. Too late, too late, too fucking late. ‘Miracle pie’ your ass -- you stupid, stupid piece of shit, you now know exactly what the hell he put in them. You’ve just overdosed on sopor and you’ll be lucky if you don’t have a miracle string of heart attacks for the next day or so.

A boy beckons you from the doorway of the respite block, and you bare your teeth at him. He only bares his back, a perfect mirror, and leads onwards. He knows the way up to the surface as neatly as if he belongs here, and you hate him for it.

The rooms get brighter as you travel, like chambers in a nautilus shell, like levels in some sick game. Here the boards straighten out clean and even, here and they’re covered in thick rugs, here and the walls frost over in ornate traceries, gold and garnet swirls, filigreed fish schooling across every surface. Everything is scrubbed high and bright, even the air. Your guide pushes open the final doors -- two huge gorgeous slabs of burgundy-gleaming wood, burnished and filigreed with creatures you have no names for, gods no one’s ever dared to dream of before -- and you step after him, through them, on to the deck.

The same moons shine down across the ocean, but it isn’t your ocean. It isn’t anyone’s ocean. It stretches out in every direction clean, impossibly clean, beautifully clean. The air has a quality to it you’ve never smelt before, salt-sharp, bracing and somehow gorgeous, and the stars shine upwards from the waves. The water’s so clear you can see tiny schools of fish like fireflies, swarming bright in the shallows by the boat. It deepens to turquoise, then true blue, then amethyst in the depths.

In the water dances a girl with long hair and a boy with crooked horns, carefree and laughing. They’ve got gold around their necks and gems around their fingers, and they splash at each other as if mortality is a concept reserved for lesser creatures. Both their bodies are lithe and light and scarless.

“Why the fuck do you think hauling me up here to see this is going to help?” you ask your shadow, and you rest your elbows on the pristine railing. “I know this isn’t right, okay, I know it’s not fucking fair. You want fair, you want me to fix this mess, how about you give me a magic wand?”

He looks at you with your own eyes: grubling-gray and awfully bitter. He is the age that you were the night that the silver shuttle came to take you away from yourself, and he has never gotten a single night older.

Half a magic wand,” you bargain. “Anything! A piece of fucking advice would do. I’ll accept any dumb fucking riddle at this point. Interpretive dance. Whatever.”

Again, he just looks at you.

“Why can’t you just leave me the fuck alone.” You know he won’t.

He puts his hand on your chest, splays five fingers against your vasculars until you can feel your heartbeats commingle and pulse in time. He is dressed in the utilitarian clothes of your childhood, a bare black shirt, simple gray trousers, slip-on sneakers in the same nothing-color as all the rest of him. He’s your ghost. You think you could lay him to rest if he’d only tell you what part of your fucking soul he’s haunting.

When he opens his mouth only blackness comes out, a thick oily tar that spills down his chest, down yours. You try to back up but the sickness sticks you together. His eyes go a terrible burned-out colour as the ocean fills up with that corrosive, unholy blackness, and all the bright and fearless little fish go dark and die.

That wasn’t even a little bit subtle, you think, and then you open your eyes for real.

Gamzee is leaning into your recuperacoon to look at you. His face paint looks horribly like a skull -- you try to imagine him clean-faced and fearless too, dripping with finery, but you can’t. He is unregretfully himself, whoever he is. “Breakfast time, motherfucker,” he says, and splays ocean-chill fingers against your cheek. “You’re crying.”

You wipe your eyes, check the color: clear as always, not even a little bit green. A lot of people don’t even notice when you cry. Aside from that you feel pretty okay -- your mouth tastes like putrid mealworms, your bloodpusher burns like a malevolent ball of fire inside of you, and every breath aches. This is normal.

“Just a bad dream,” you say, and catch his hand. You just mean to shove him away and also to give him hell about feeding you fucking slime, but instead he raises his arm like you’re light as a doll, lifts you right out of the cocoon.

“Nothing better for a run of the gloomfevers than breakfast, my main motherfucker,” he says, settling you to your unsteady feet. Then he ruffles your hair. “I’m making flapjacks with the little faces burnt in, my fairy girl fucking loves her fine ass some flapfaces.”

“Feferi,” you say. “Oh, shit -- is she okay?”

“Fine as starshine, brother,” he says, surprising you. You’d honestly expected to wake up to a feral. “Her and her boy, they bring each other back to shore.”

“Wait.” This is the only time you’ll be able to ask and have a chance of clear answer. “There’s still something you’re all not telling me. Why can’t we bring her with us? What’s so risky about it?”

Gamzee looks at you, then wipes a little bit of stray sopor off your shoulder. “She can’t die,” he says flatly.

“Yeah, I know, but -- ”

“She can’t die,” he says. Translation: conversation over.

No squeezing blood from that stone, apparently. You towel off hastily, scramble into your pants, and step on Gamzee’s gray heels practically all the way back to the ship’s mealblock.

Feferi and Eridan are working their way desultorily through an enormous stack of pancakes, holding hands like they’re the first two kids to think up moirallegiance. The table is whole again, a row of neat metal staples up the crack like stitches across a wound. You realize your sickle is in your hands and you have been expecting a violet abattoir, and sort of awkwardly hook your blade back to your belt.

“Karkat,” Eridan says, low and pleased, and his smile is moonrise. He looks like fifty miles of bad road and there’s thick smeary tiredness under his eyes, all purple, with clothes put on more carelessly than you’ve ever seen him wear. He’s been more chic with his pants off and interrupted in Sollux’s office. You’ve never seen him quite this vulnerable before either -- sleep-slimed groggy is one thing, beat within an inch of his life is another, but Eridan Ampora with his dress-shirt only halfway done up and his bangs falling into his eyes quite voluntarily is a different matter. He doesn’t even have a fucking tie on. When he sees you staring at his bared throat he swallows, hard, and smooths his rumpled collar a trifle awkwardly.

“Hello, Karkat!” Feferi says, startling you, and gives you the perkiest little salute. “Sleep well, crabcakes?”

“Someone could have warned me that your pet lunatic bakes sopor into his pie,” you say, and sit down across from her, staring hard enough that it aches. So what happened to you being crazy? itches your tongue. Gamzee plates you up your own heap of flapjacks, ruffles your hair, and goes off to do mysterious things with the exothermic preparation hull. You peek after him for a long, furtive moment. “Mind telling me what went down last night?”

“You slept all over Gamzee like a little bitty limpet,” she proclaims. Her smile is all dimples and no strain, and she gestures at you with a forkful of pancake. “Glub! It was fucking adorable. I saw it with my own eyes, no lie. You were the cutest.”

The cutest and apparently the dumbest. You rub at your forehead, dismayed.

“Augh, no, that is just -- that’s terrible. You’re terrible. And I’m worse. If I pailed him, just... don’t tell me right now, okay?” You dig your own fork into the pancakes -- they have little clown faces burnt into them, which makes this only the secondmost creepy breakfast you’ve ever endured because you’ve had evening-after breakfasts with Terezi. “I need more food inside me to deal with that.”

“You pail people when you’re high?” Eridan asks, sounding kind of dazed. Feferi elbows him, giggling, and he goes violently purple. You are fairly sure that you’re going kind of green, yourself, that was not any kind of thing to ever bring up. You might still be too sopor-soppy for polite conversation, serves you right for dashing over here like a panicky asshole.

“No,” you say, very carefully, “no, no, and also no, the time for asking horrific personal questions is not this time. It will never be this time. This is the time for flapjacks, and pretending like Karkat fucking Vantas has some miniscule shred of dignity left to his title. That is what time this is, thank you for enquiring, now we know.”

“You are adorable,” Feferi says, and props her chin up on her palm.

“Adorabadass,” you correct, waving your fork at her.

“Adorabubble,” she says.

Eridan laughs, and then nearly strangles on a yawn. “Up all night canoodling, huh?” you say. “You diamond stud. Where’s your coffee?”

He gestures at some corner of the kitchen. “I was getting to it,” he says vaguely, and his mouth splits in a yawn again.

“You need to go easy that stuff,” Feferi tells him, patting his hand sharply. “I’ve whaled on at you before, it’s no good for you.” He gives her a shameless, sloppy smile. It is entirely nauseating to behold.

You pop a whole flapjack into your mouth-- it is just the right amount of salty and chewy and basically perfect, Gamzee was born with a hideous gift -- and you go off to investigate coffee. The world looks a great deal more cheery than it did the night before last, and you are starting to feel yourself again. Caffeine will complete the deal. “Third cabinet down,” Eridan calls over.

Your findings in the third cabinet down bring you only dismay.

“Eridan, you are not the reason why Sollux had a fucking meltdown over the mystery of the vanishing hyperpress,” you say.

“Like hell I’m not,” Eridan retorts.

You pull out the hyperpress. It even has Sollux’s sigil worked neatly in gold on the cap, it was a aphelion present from Terezi and the two of them had nearly turned the palace on its spires last season trying to find it. The printed note left in Sollux’s nourishment block had read YOU WILL NEVER SEE MME AAGAAIN HAA HAA HAA and you had copped a lot of fucking flak over it because somehow Sollux managed to conclude that you were the only kid on the planet that ever used upper case to make a point, and Terezi had managed to conclude that it was hilarious when Sollux was mad at you. You are only not pouring out a molten stream of rage shit because you really need a coffee.

“Do you even know how to use this thing?” you ask sourly, dropping it to the nearest counter.

“If I did would I be sittin here with the mother of all headaches, is what I think you meant to ask, answer bein hell no to the both of those goddamn enquiries. You gonna go slingin base accusations about or are you gonna make me some glubbin java, Kar?”

“You say that like I can’t multitask. I am wounded, boy, deeply fucking wounded. Where’s your fucking beans?”

“Back of the same cupboard.”

“You are both complete doofishes,” says Feferi. When you look over your shoulder Eridan has made himself very small and pathetic, curling up around her like a soggy kitten.

“Don’t you minnow I’m dyin over here.” Back with the fish puns: fuck your life.

“Okay, okay, but only because I was clawful last night,” she says, and throws her arms around his neck as his cheek mashes up against her forehead. They kiss each other on the nose. It is disgusting. Nothing worse than a moirallegiance make-up make-out. Everything feels a little unreal. You avoid having to scope their dotting little pecks on each other’s seedflaps by reaching for the beans, a small carton of Sollux’s favorite -- good shit, dark roasted, ground perfectly even and cut with ripper wasps for an extra kick -- somewhat stale, but good enough. The crushed wings glitter and stick to your hands as you scoop a few fingerfulls into the mixing compartment.

You look around, then, a little stuck -- at Sollux’s office, there’s always a few pots of water boiling away on hot plates, he and his staff use it for melting wax down and throwing together bowls of the trashy instant noodle protein pods they all live off of in crunch weekends.

“Water?” you finally ask.

Feferi gestures, a little meanly, at a porthole. “Help yourself,” she says.

“Water that won’t wreck the taste,” you clarify. “And hot.”

Gamzee comes over with a small, battered, steaming pot. “Here, I was all like to be making some jam for later -- ” You sniff it, suspiciously, and then take it from him when it’s freshwater, pour it over the grounds and flip the cap. The smell rolls up and for a moment you are back in Sollux’s suite, playing with his latest toy over solstice break while he and Terezi slap each other over breakfast cakes and paperwork, the three of you set comfortably against the world.

But no. It’s too salty, here, the smell of the sea twines through everything with the low shushing of waves, it breaks the memory apart.

You haven’t had breakfast with the both of them in seasons, anyway, since before you’d graduated, since Terezi had taken one too many snide digs at you about the notches across your horns or the scars across your face -- you’re a rough customer now, your academy’s making you such a sour tart -- and you’d thrown a cup at her face and it had connected, a splash of black coffee and teal blood across the table. Not a good evening.

“Thanks, man,” you say, here, now, and pat Gamzee’s shoulder.

“Anything for my best motherfucker.” He pets your hair. When he touches you it lingers in a way that makes something prickle uncomfortably in your chest. “So what the ever-loving hell is that bitty miracle thing?”

“A really expensive hyperpress. It makes coffee in -- ” the little machine gives a bright ding! “ -- twelve seconds. Where’re the cups?”

He reaches over your head, pulls down two chipped mugs.


“I all up and just got powdered on hand at this motherfucking momentary particular--”

“There is no just about powdered sugar, shut your seedflap before you drool idiocy all down your shirtfront.”

Gamzee honks out a long laugh, ruffles your hair, and then fetches you the bag while you pour the cups. You steal a scoop or two of sugar and pop them right into your mouth, because some temptations are entirely too much for any kid to cope with and also this shit is delicious. He bops you sharply on the horn with a spoon.

“Gross, motherfucker,” he says fiercely, and you cringe.

“Sorry,” you say, rubbing at the ache. “Sorry, fuck, I didn’t think. Uh.” Your head rings like a struck bell, and you are utterly scrambled -- you haven’t been bopped this hard since you were a fucking knock-kneed screwup shitcrumb of a cadet, and you feel little and stupid all over again. You don’t know if it’s the fucked-up evening or the company or what. He hands you the spoon, and you stare at it like a moron.

“Shit is downright disrespectful, li’l bro, all up and getting your hands inside my ingredients before it even all gets the chance to up and be a food,” he huffs. “It’s unsanitary and motherfucking ill-mannered.”

“Sorry,” you say again. “Uh. Can... Can I still have some though, please?”

He gives you a long stern look and you feel all of two sweeps old. “No hands,” he says. “Hands are for motherfucking cuddles, brother, not for getting all up in my miracle ingredients.”

“Yes,” you say, and very nearly choke on the sir. He’s just so fucking tall -- it’s screwing with your reflexes.

He tucks you into another of his weird, bony, not-entirely-horrible hugs and pats the back of your neck. His hands are warm from all the baking. “Right,” he says. “Long’s we got our motherfucking understanding on, brother.”

“Yeah, okay, it’s your sugar, you’re the boss.” You squirm free. “How much do you want, Fins? ... Eridan?”

“I-- what?” he says faintly. The kid is gaping at you like maybe Gamzee got something weird on your face. You raise an eyebrow, suddenly self-conscious, and he seems to snap out of it. “Oh, uh, usual two scoops, if you’re offerin. Nothin else.”

You snort. Usual two scoops -- that’s how everyone in Sollux’s crew takes it. You think his abhorrent dualism thing’s even rubbed off on Terezi.

As for yourself, you scoop in powdered bliss until your own cup is a beautifully sludgy off-gray and smells more like a cake than a drink, which is just how you like anything you’re preparing to ingest. Sollux says you’re an abomination unto anyone with a functioning taste sponge. Terezi says your teeth are going to rot out and then she will send you a bucket with 1 TOLD YOU SO engraved around the rim. You say that the difference between dessert and everything else is a matter of timing, i.e. you will get to everything else in a matter of time, which is a damn snappy line and shut Pyrope up for a whole five seconds on the one occasion you got to use it.

Then she licked your mouth from one side to the other and went BLUH. It was, at the time, the sexiest thing that had ever happened to you.

Gamzee watches the whole coffee proceedings with a solemn curiosity and he dogs your heels all the way back to the table. “You want to try?” you offer, holding the mugs up to him.

“It’s nasty,” Feferi grumbles.

“It’s the elixir of fucking life, Peixes,” you correct her.

“Sounds motherfucking bitchtits,” Gamzee says, and bends himself nearly in half to take a sip from your mug. Then his eyes go wide and he chokes, and you barely pull back before he knocks the mugs out of your hands.

“That is straight up demon-slapping shit-flipping horrible,” he gasps, wiping frantically at his mouth. “You fucking drink that madness?

“Yes,” you say.

“Hell yes,” Eridan says.

The giant cultist actually wrings his hands at that, long indigo-tinted fingers twisting through each other like pailing snakes, then whimpers all the way back to his stove. Feferi looks at you like you have just kicked all the puppies in the world. You hand Eridan his coffee.

“Here’s your joe, Mister Captor,” you tease. “You’re welcome.”

He only smiles like you’ve given him a real treat and not just the same mug of beans you make at least three times a week for a fussy asshole who never thanks you --

“Thanks,” he says, softly, and his fingers come up, tentatively, and squeeze your own.

You busy yourself with the rest of your flapjacks. This is the weirdest fucking evening.

When they’re done and the plates are drip-drying next to the sink, and the second-best tablecloth has been swept clear of powdered sugar and flapjack crumbs and you don’t have anything to stall with, you lean forward on your elbows.

“One death will wipe it all clean if it’s the right one,” you say quietly. You see Eridan go very still and you see Gamzee’s eyes close but you’ll get your answer, after all. “Want to clarify, Princess?”

Feferi looks back at you calmly, with not a blink of her big, pretty eyes. In the better light here you can see they’re ringed with a shocking shade of pink-purple, very nearly red. Thankfully for you you’ve stared down Her Luminescence herself before and the self-appointed queen of two gutterbloods and a busted-up shiphive does not pose an unprecedented challenge.

“I’m sorry about yesterday,” she says, and it’s genuine. “I wanted to say. I was being a basshole. When I get mad I just -- get aw-full-y mad, it’s hard and I can’t think, but I wasn’t doing it just for the halibut. You shouldn’t pay any attention to the stuff I say when I’m frothy.”

But when she’s not genuine, she’s a shitty liar. “I mean I did not get this old by being stupid, Miss Peixes, and whatever freaky fucking magic you like to buff your bulge with is going to need to get disclosed right here, right now. I’m here to help and one thing I find incredibly unhelpful is a fillet knife shoved into my posterior epidermals.”

She tilts her head slowly to one side. “No,” she agrees. “No, you’re not stupid at all.” She sits back in her chair, puffs her cheeks up and makes a wet, snapping sort of glub! out through her bare gillslits, tossing her long hair behind her. “You’re the wrong heart, though, and that was stupid of me, you see. Wrong heart, wrong rite, wrong death. It wouldn’t have come out properly, thank you for not culling me for it, I should have said earlier! Sometimes I just feel so hard that I can’t -- even think or speak, and we had just met -- how should I have known? I’m still looking.”

“Fef.” Eridan’s gone whey-faced.

“No, he’s got to know. He asked. He can know.”

“Looking for what?” You ask this very calmly.

“The right heart,” Feferi says. She cups her hands together, cradling a small round invisible something. “The right blood. One death will wipe this whole bloody world clean as clean can be, Karcrab, if I can only find it. Just one death will scour all the million trillion injustices out, that’s not expensive, that’s small... It’s a prophecy, you see! The deeps told me so -- no, Eridan, I’ll tell him if I want to -- and the ghosts. You’re a Threshecutioner. You know about ghosts, right?”

It is your turn to sit back in your chair. “I can guess,” you say slowly. “The unjust dead don’t fade quickly. Or easily... and the kids who say that the seadweller die-offs are just tend not to be seadwellers themselves, fancy that. I wouldn’t be surprised if everything below the hundred meter mark was a big psychic clusterfuck of restless spirits and bitty little bones.”

“Correct!” she says. “It is such a clusterfuck.”

“So you hear them?”

She grimaces and for a second she looks very nearly normal, any other girl with bad news to impart. Feferi twiddles her fingers next to her ear, lovely face grave. “There’s the problem,” she says. “They speak to me but I can’t, I don’t, I’m not psychic. Not reely. I can’t hear them how psychics hear them, there aren’t any words, it’s not really con-ver-sa-tion, not with the deeps’ dead. I just feel them. They’re holes in the world. They’re holes and they are leaking.”

You fight down an entirely warranted case of the creeps. “Then what’s this business with the bloodpushers, Peixes? Did you get your baby ghosts to line up and spell out the words for you, or did you just pull body parts out of a hat till you found a suitably ghastly organ to fixate on?”

"No, she told me about it in my dreams!" Feferi says brightly. "Her I can hear just fine, though she's a little hard to understand sometimes, she can get silly as a squid -- just everywhere, pchooooo! But she says it's hearts, so hearts it must be."

"All right, excellent, we're getting somewhere now. Who's 'she'?"

"God," she cries, exasperated. “First and Frogs and Froth and whatever the glub you want to call it on land! Her! The Green Sister, queen of witches, God! She told me you were coming, too, and you came, which means I’m right, that we’re right, that we’re close!”

You look at Eridan. Eridan looks at the table. His whole body is curled towards his moirail like a flame guttering in the wind, and his face is full of a helpless scrunched-up shame.

“Eridan,” Fef says sharply. “You know. You believe me.”

“I,” he says, wavering, and then, “Fef, yeah, fuck me, I do.”

She gives you a look like, so there!, all triumph.

“Well,” you say, because religious lunacy is nothing if not familiar territory. This entire planet is populated with people who believe in five magical sky pixies. “Okay, then. Here’s the million credit question, fishgirl: are you a threat to me and mine?”

“Depends on who’s yours,” she says, and grins like the world’s cutest remora. You do not miss the way she curls into Eridan’s space, threads claws through his tumble-down curls, the openly-defiant possession. A gauntlet, thrown down before you.

But you find yourself smiling back, all grim fangs. Feferi and you understand each other, you think. “Everyone,” you clarify. You adjust your sleeves with two showy little tugs, and you know she’ll get your meaning there too. “Everyone in this whole damn universe.”

She nods, thinking it over, considering it. Considering you. “Not right now,” she says. “I said. You’re not the right heart -- your death would buy us nothing at all. I’m not floundering around.”

“And anyone else’s?”

“Fef,” Eridan says, and his voice -- Eridan, half-shark and half-hurricane, Archagent Ampora, scared only of seamonsters and the death of his moirail -- his voice cracks. “You wouldn’t. Use your pan, love, we talked about this and we talked about this.”

Feferi shrugs, a dismissal with pain in each movement. Anger. Fuck, she’s angry. “You talked about this, Eridan. I guess we’ll burn that bridge when we cross it, won’t we? I’ve never even been to shore. I think you’ve kept me away from it a bit long.” She drawls one claw contemplatively across her throat, and Eridan swallows hard and tucks his face into her slim shoulder.

She shifts him a bit, a practiced jostle, and then she holds her hands out, splayed wrists, wiggled fingers, and looks significantly at your sickle. You’ve seen this in movies -- the old cheap noir flicks, oversensationalized and insincere, you’re supposed to kiss her wrists or cut them clear through like you’re a sleazy mafia don or a corrupt admiral sealing a crooked deal in some backalley dockside slum. You can almost hear the gritty saxophone.

You draw on her, and she nods with satisfaction, grins up at you with every sharky triangle-tooth. “Just one right death. That’s all I’m after! I’m not going to add to the lists of wrong ones. Is that good enough, Threshecutioner?”

You lean forward and kiss each of her delicate wrists, the icy salt of her skin a numbing shock against your lips. You also make a note to get her some better movies. “It’s enough to be going on with, Princess.”

Feferi sees the three of you off, though her knuckles clench dove-gray around the railing and you think she wants to sob. She doesn’t ask to come and nobody offers to let her. You considered it, actually, but it’s not the mountain you want to die on right now. The seadweller won’t talk to her matesprit and is curt again with her moirail, but she bids you all goodbye: she lets Eridan kiss her forehead, a big antique laser-rifle near tall as he is strapped to his back. She lets Gamzee kiss her on the mouth, at first unresponsive until suddenly they’re all over each other, passionate, her arms around his neck and him holding her up with his big hands across her thighs.

“You and I may not see each other again,” you tell her, when she’s done and sucking indigo off her lips. “I’ll be headed off back to the Capitol after this.”

“Oh,” she says, and her disappointment surprises you. Then again, it doesn’t. Kid’s been locked up a very long time, she’d be disappointed if you were anyone leaving. Then she surprises you again by taking your hand and saying, “I’m sorry, Karkat, you must think I’m reely horrid.”

“Hoofshit.” You kiss her on both cheeks, which is polite and proper, and then you say in the seadweller’s frill of her aural: “I don’t think you’re horrid or crazy, Princess.”

The look on her face is a wonder to behold. You say, “I think you’re just a pissed-off idiotic half-pint badass, that’s what I think,” and she laughs and laughs until her shadows are all gone. She blows kisses at you all as you hop over the railing and Eridan gives you a look of such wanton gratefulness you flick his nose, and then the three of you clamber into Gamzee’s boat.

It is bigger than it seems like it should be, all high airy arches and swaying storage pods, big stretches of open space; the sea breeze whips right through it, and between the wind and the waves you are entirely disoriented. Everything reeks of salt, except Eridan’s ridiculous gun which smells like ozone and the distinct possibility of contracting brain tumors off a leaky radiation core.

Gamzee kicks a few pillows together, and pushes you down on them before going off to do arcane things at the steering parts of the ship. You pull a pillow over your face in a desperate attempt to imagine you are anywhere but back on the water. Eridan flops down beside you, and pats you between the horns.

“You have the constitution of a fuckin’ dead beetle, and I am sad just looking at you,” he says, and pushes a little twist of something into your claws. “Here, Gamzee said to chew on this.”

You pull the pillow off your face. “What is it?”

“Saltwater taffy,” he says. You chew it.”

“And I sprout wings and fly back to shore?”

“And it glues your glubbin fangs together, shitbulge, I can only hope.”

You unwrap the paper and grudgingly pop the pink lump into your mouth. Taffy’s a dockside candy for, well, docksiders, and this bit of it is salty as anything, but the sugar gives you something to focus on besides abject misery.

“Feel better?”

You lick awkwardly at your fangs. Your tongue feels heavy and your jaw aches a little, and you feel surprisingly okay. “Get me another.”

Eridan ferries taffies one by one between Gamzee at the front of the ship and you huddled up in the back, and somehow you are back to the bay before you can really prepare for it. You’ve never seen the front side of the Frogs Gate’s stone patron, and as the fisherkids steer the boat through the vast tumbledown archway in the Capitol Wall you stare up at her. The face of the Fair Dreamer stares back down at you, her face solemn and intent under six sweeps of saltwater damage. You look away first, down at your sickle-scarred and stubby fingers, strangely bereft, and you put another bit of candy inbetween your teeth.

Eridan and Gamzee sit up at the bow, talking quietly. You heave uncomfortably to your feet and stumble out to join them. The cultist is standing at the prow, his giant hands twisting over and over themselves and his face set in something terrible to behold. Eridan’s got a hand wrapped around the base of one long horn and is looking more than a little anxious.

“You keep molesting each other and I’m going to have to ask you to get a room,” you say, “and I don’t think there are any on this heaving deathbarge of indecency. What do we do now?”

Eridan gestures at the water. “Gamzee said he could sing, call it up to him, but he’s havin’ an upright freakout. Of all the time to have performance anxiety -- ”

Gamzee makes a terrible, hissing honk, more a click of his throat than anything. “He’s a singer?” you ask, in disbelief.

“A bard.” Eridan gestures from his throat to his head. “He’s got mesmers, he can call up anything, normalways. I seen him put peace into a charging seaghast before, seven feet of claws and rotten muscle and it came to the blade like a fuckin mewbeast, Kar.”

“What if it’s not him?” the tall troll bursts out with, blade-eyed. “What if it is him?”

“Then it’s him or it ain’t!” Eridan says. “C’mon, you won’t know if you don’t sing -- ”

“I don’t remember how it goes,” he says, and tugs big fistfuls of his wild hair until he yanks out the strands. “I don’t MOTHER FUCKIN RECALL, brother, my pan IS FULL OF THINGS THAT ARE GONE.”

“Gamzee,” Eridan pleads, taking his wrists. He nearly gets dragged off his feet as the cultist moans and turns away, and he scrambles to keep up, his eyes wide with fright. “Come on, don’t do this ‘a me, Gamzee, hey, come on, look at me, don’t do this now. Just sing, okay, sing for me’n Karkat, can’t you do that?”

“I fucking can’t, motherfucker! It’s all up and gone on me, I never had no songs--”

“This ain’t funny, Gamzee! You never fuckin shut up most times, and now you go clammin up on me and it’s gonna get me killed, get us all killed -- ”

“I never fucking had any motherfucking songs, they all went!”

“Went where?

Gamzee honks again, a harsh seabird’s call that hovers between laugh and sob. “Where all the dead things go, motherfucker! They putrefy in your thinkpan and your skull DEVOURS THEM, they went, everything went, I ain’t got actual shit --

“Back off, Eridan,” you say, and pull him away from the cultist by his scruff. “He’s having a panic attack.”

“You say that like I didn’t glubbin goddamn notice!”

“You! Go sit,” you order. “Gamzee and I -- come on, Gamzee, you sit with me. Here.”

At that you sit on the edge of the boat, and you tug your shoes and your stockings off. He watches you with the wide-eyed, stupid desperation of a kid at the absolute end of his fucking rope, the kind of headspace where any possible distraction is a benediction. You reach down to untie his ratty gray laces, slip his tattered purple sneakers off. He has incredibly long toes. They twitch under your fingers, ticklish.

“Put your feet in the water,” you say. “It’s nice, isn’t it, just the water. Come on.”

“The songs, motherfucker, my rotted-up songless pan -- ”

“Don’t think about them. They went, you said. Let’s just sit here, okay? Can you do that for me?”

You cuff his pants up, as an afterthought, and then let him ease his long bony feet under the green-black waves. He flinches, all over, then gives a raggedy sigh. “Better?” you ask, and he nods, jerkily. Yours follow suit and the water is shockingly cold, his feet are cold and they’re colder against yours, and your arm is curled around the waist while your side is pressed into his side. Cold shocks are good for grounding. So are hugs, and he’s already starting to breathe a little easier.

“When you were little the world was very big, wasn’t it,” you say, carefully.

“Still is, motherfucker.”

“Fucking true. And empty, isn’t it. Lonely.”

He shudders, and his eyes go flat. Gamzee looks as though you’ve discovered a secret and he doesn’t quite like it, and he says “The whole world is full of space and the space is all fucking filled up with loneliness.” He’s pressing against you. His voice is careful and strange. “What motherfucker isn’t, I ask you that?”

“Tell me what it sounded like,” you say.

He turns his head towards you, his eyes squinched up with pain and puzzlement, and then he starts to cry. It kills you in a thousand ways you can’t define. You didn’t actually think it would be like this, and there’s something deeper and more terrible behind his tears. He is humiliated, you realise dimly. This tall, ungainly kid, this clown cultist, this ridiculous motherfucking hug machine, he’s humiliated, and he’s even resentful, you’d know the flash of that in his eyes anywhere -- he opens his mouth, and all that loneliness comes out in a long, wrenching scream.

It goes rolling clear across the bay. Out of the corner of your eye you see Eridan reach for him but you push him back, just staring. “He’s never done that before,” the seadweller says hoarsely. “Kar, he don’t sound like that -- Kar, fuck, that’s hideous, get him to stop.”

“Stop him now and you won’t be able to later,” you say, locked into the particular clarity you get when you’re right in the middle of a job, this beautiful perfect gray certainty. “Let him do it.”

Gamzee screams and screams and screams, and somewhere it turns into music. You see Eridan clap his hands over his aurals, unable to bear it, and you wouldn’t hardly be able to bear it too except you hear him -- you hear the whining sob, a wiggler’s call for someone who’s not coming, because you sobbed that once yourself. Somewhere inbetween all the stormwaves coming out of him is you, bright pieces of coherency. It shakes you right out of your calm, strips you: you aren’t a Threshecutioner, listening to him like this, you are nothing and no one. Just another fucking lost boy.

He sings about sand, you hear it clear as fucking evening. He sings about sand underfoot and a long, gut-ugly stretch of dark horizon, and about waiting for a rescue that never came, black oceans that swallow up all love, all hope, all peace, the stars shining down like cruel eyes as you look for someone who’s never coming back to you. Now you understand. You can see right through him. You swear you can make out each individual vein under his epidermals, the soft slipperiness of each bright organ. His long last note is a thrum that goes up through your toes and settles in your ribs, making each one feel broken and you cannot breathe for the angry stars bottled up inside you, for how there’s nothing else besides them to keep you going.

As it dies, a great white nose breaches the waves, poking out the dark oil-sheen of the bay. The capricorn. Gamzee says, quite normally, “Oh,” as this isn’t anything to exclaim at -- and then the dumb fuck reaches out his hand. Eridan cries out a warning, but there’s no point. The sea goat’s eyes are eaten-out indigo pits that roll and show the bloody whites and his reeking teeth are broken nubs, but there’s your mirthful martyr reaching his long arms around the matted, greasy length of the muzzle. The sea goat’s muzzle; his lusus’s muzzle.

“Hold him down, kid,” you say, like you need to tell him to not let go. “Eridan. Put your gun away, you asshole.”

“Oh my God, Kar, he’s fuckin ginormous!”

“He’s his dad, show some goddamned respect. We do this his way or we don’t do it at all.”

Gamzee has his face buried in that rot-smelling fur and hangs on. The capricorn snuffs wetly against his neck and lets out a low bleat when you catch yourself up next to him, right behind one tattered finlike ear, and then you stop. Your hands are shaking. You cannot stand having to put down lusii, and on your other jobs at least their kid was dead first and they were mad off the grief of it, gone wild again, and for one awful blind moment all that there is to you is this cowardly fucking tremor. You count to ten, and you tell your hands to still; they do, because still hands are going to be your only mercy. The indigoblood meets your eyes.

Will he feel as fucking awful as you did?

“Easy,” he hums, “easy, Da, easy,” and the capricorn hums back at him. “Good. The sun will set before and ‘hind you, stars will sing you on your way --

You take your sickle, do an eyeball measurement from ear to the spinal column, and you slice. Your blade is sharp. Your hand is quick. You are not entirely a useless asshole. In this moment you are once more a Threshecutioner, and you have fixed yet another mistake made by a pack of useless, mocking miseries who pretend to call themselves God. By the time you’re wiping indigo blood off your sickle -- the rest of it dripping into the water in thick purple gobs -- the sea monster is quiet, dead head nestled in his son’s arms. Their long curved horns are obscenely similar and the echoing curves tear deeply at what’s left of your composure.

“Moons are circling ‘round the planet, banishing the day away,” Gamzee sings, his voice drowned tuneless with tears. “Come what might, come what may...”

“He didn’t feel a thing,” you tell him. Gamzee strokes that fetid white nose over and over, and looks right through you. “No pain. No fear.”

He laughs a little at that, the very idea. It is one of the most humourless laughs you have ever heard. “Now how the fuck,” he says, “would you motherfucking up and scry that?”

“I don’t. But it had better.” The sickle gets hung back on your belt, adjusted to hang perfectly level. “I put my own dad down like that.”

Eridan takes one of those deep breaths through his teeth, the kind you get when someone looks at a particularly nauseating wound. “Welcome to Alternia!” you tell him, knowing each moment how crass and unkind you’re being. He is an easy target: with every cruelty he looks like a barkbeast kicked right in the tail. “You’re not the only orphan around here, moonbeam.”

The capricorn is heavy, and the current pulling his body away from the boat. You see Gamzee staring at the clusters of remoras suckered up against his back, watching as some of them start to peel off his body and swim away. Some goatdad, though, some fucking custodian: he’s so dirty with bayscum that his lusus-white fur he’s nearly indistinguishable from a garbage scow. You in your sharp slick jacket, you with your own dad’s blood sunk into the cracks of your soul, you’re more a proper lusus than he is. It’s Fins who does him the kindness of pushing the capricorn’s head over the side of the boat, blind purple eye lolling up at you all before he starts to sink. Gamzee makes a low, broken noise of anger and pain.

“Shh,” you say, and you stoop to kiss all over his face as though it were the most natural thing in the world. It is. “Shhh. I got you, man. Shhh, shhh.” You touch his cheeks until all that anger has nowhere to go, dissolve his storm like it was nothing, for a moment you’re the God of Wind and Shade, suite-changer, pathfinder, worth something.

The gods have no fucking custodians to mourn.

He clings to you like you’re his lifeline, pulling you into his lap till you are touching nearly everywhere it is possible to touch and the two of you breathe perfectly in time, a closed circuit. He holds you as if he wants to pull you inside him, patch up all his broken places with your body. You only wish that he could. He holds you so tremblingly hard it hurts and it doesn’t feel tight enough.

You have his waxy paint all over your hands, warming against your thundering pulse to an awful bloodlike stickiness.

“Who takes care of him when he’s like this?” you ask Fins. You see the answer before he even starts shaking his head no.

“Fef matches him, some,” Eridan says. “I can head off a bit a his temper but past a certain point I just fuckin get outta his way. I never seen him like this before, Kar, not ever. Not-- empty, like this, shit.”

“It’s been a big night,” you say distantly. “And we’ve done terrible things. Sometimes you just use yourself up.” You stroke Gamzee’s long bony back, and he slowly, shakily, strokes yours. You feel so peaceful, so utterly certain he is breathing just for you, and all that is left to you is that you have to hold on.

“Get my palmhusk,” you murmur. “Tell Sollux that I’m going to be out till tomorrow. Get any cute thoughts about impersonating me and I will feed your barnacle-bedazzled nook to your own fucking cuttlefish, I am just warning you.”

Eridan crouches down by the two of you, slides a hand in your jacket like he doesn’t think he’s getting it back. His touch brushing against you doesn’t feel real. He is as twitchy as if the two of you were bombs he’s never seen before, and he flinches when he catches your gaze.

You don’t really know what you look like right now. You don’t really care.

“And just where the fuck d’you think you’re goin’ instead a back to your moirail, Kar?” he asks quietly.

“Going back with you dipshits, aren’t I?” you tell him and your cultist huddles up around you just to hear the confirmation. “This lunatic here needs a little professionally supervised downtime, you said you’d show me your hive, sharkfucker, it’s time to put your credits where your claws are.”

The seatroll laughs, warm and pleased, one of the best sounds you’ve heard all night. “Fuck you, Kar. I got credit enough for you to choke on. You’ll like our fuckin’ hive enough that you’ll be cryin’ like a grub when we boot your bony ass back to shore.” He looks the two of you over the way he might look over a fine piece of work, obscurely satisfied, and strolls off to the other side of the ship with his borrowed bitty husktop.

“This is just -- professional, okay?” you tell Gamzee. “This is just my job, taking care of sad little whackjob wigglers like you. Don’t get any ideas.”

He shakes his head against your shoulder, and you don’t know if he’s agreeing with you or not. You don’t care to find out. After a while Eridan comes back, sniggering under his breath, shaking his head as he slots your palmhusk back to your pocket. He leaves you two be after that, starts the boat up again on his own, the hidden motors purring away beneath the deck and Gamzee’s heels bumping up against the bow as you surge along in rocking spurts, putting this filthy fucking harbor behind you.

Your clown cultist holds you tight the whole way back, chest to chest, cheek to cheek, and you don’t get seasick at all.

-- carcinoGenerosity [CG] began trolling twinApprehensions [TA]! --

CG: so get your speculatin on as to wwhere karkats gonna be spendin the next wweek
TA: what.
CG: wwith me
CG: eridan
CG: eridan ampora your hot archagent in the case those there prior subtle hintins wwerent fuckin clear enough
CG: im gonna kiss him too

twinApprehension’s computer has exploded!

Chapter Text

Feferi waits midships. By the time she’s bigger than a grey speck on the Corbenic she’s hugging the rail, petrified, counting you all with her eyes until you pull up alongside. You make a sorry fucking sight: waterlogged, bloody, stinking, and Gamzee nearly catatonic in your arms. She gives a low cry, to see you back again.

“Oh, God,” she says, in an ecstasy of dread. “Oh, God, let him be fine, let him be fine.”

She gets her hands all over Fins right off, touching his clammy face and hands as they hold each other and she murmurs “You’re here; it’s you, I’m glad it’s you.” They stand together like the last two kids in the world, conjoined in the face something frankly awful to behold, and you feel a stab of shame go all through you: you’re not the only orphan, you’d mocked Eridan. Well, and so he isn’t. What custodian’s touch does Feferi have to dream about feeling once more, who did she ever have to wait for in the long afternoons? You don’t know, you didn’t ask. You’re a profound shithead.

You go about the business of getting the clown cultist docked and dry. He stumbles along in your wake as you make your way down to the guest recuperacoon from memory. You’re filled with an infinite, exhausted tenderness. You’ve been sailing to and fro on a boat that makes your skin crawl just looking at it since nightbreak, practically, and the sun’s started to bleach the stars out in the east. When he nudges you gently out of the way of a crossbow bolt you hardly have a conniption at all, and after that you let him bundle you up in his arms.

It’s been a long time since anyone bothered to carry you anywhere. Not since you and Sollux were little, and you’d fall asleep in the lab, wake up to him holding you close and strifing your lusus with his psionics. The old crab always did have a taste for mindhoney, he’d go chewing on the mainframes until his spiny ass got booted out into the courtyard to play with Tink and Pounce and whichever custodians were around and he’d trusted you, stupid bug-for-brains, he’d followed you into the shuttle without a single squawk and you really, really need to stop thinking about this already. What’s done is done; what’s gone is gone. You learned that. You are already half-dreaming from tiredness, flickers of nonsense crowding green and ghostly in the corners of your vision.

Gamzee strips you down to your skin and drops you into the thin, silty sopor, and slides bonelessly in after you. This would be going too far, too fast, but it’s professional, he needs you. It’s your job to be there for kids like him, for the lost boys, lonely too-tall grubs with sad eyes and sleepy smiles. You push the crown of your head under his chin: it fits neatly. You feel uncomfortably comfortable, and when he slides his cold hands up under your thorax to rest against your bloodpusher, you don’t protest.

You are dreaming: you know you’re dreaming. The ship twists around you, dripping with a thick violet mat of seasponge and salt water, and a dark tarry mist pools horribly around your bare feet. No fuckawful mirror prophecy, this, the sopor’s too thin for heavy dreaming. This is just a day terror, and fear scrapes its claws down your spine.

Behind a slanted door, two seatrolls huddle over a bony, half-eaten corpse. Adults, massive and thickmuscled -- you flinch out a low bow, old deferential horror sleeting through your guts, but they only look at you like a welcome distraction. Their eyes are white from edge to edge, their skin the silvery-colorlessness of ghosts. Tears glitter on their see-through faces, and their mouths are sloppy with blood. You can see gobbets of stuff stuck between their fangs.

“He’s dead,” the man says levelly. The woman doesn’t say anything at all. She has her folded arms on the corpse-heap, fingers woven together as though she is praying. Her fins are long and fascinatingly delicate, her horns familiar side-curved crescents. Atop the rough sailcloth wrap she has a king’s ransom in gold and jewels.

The man’s on his feet. Barechested and huge, crusted with finery all up his arms and down his throat like some gaudy lobster, you still recognize those lightning-crooked horns.

“He’s dead!” he roars. You realise he’s shouting at you. “He’s dead, fuckin’ roundears, he’s dead! Are ye fuckin’ happy now?”

Behind him the woman gives a low, moaning sob and oh fuck, oh fuck, the body she’s huddled over still has a face --

You wake with a shout, thrashing halfway out of the cocoon. Your blunted claws catch nothing but air, and you slip to your knees from the slime. It’s thin, it’s too fucking thin, how do they stand it? You feel as if you have been rinsing your thinkpan out with sand and you’re still paranoid-shaky, a jumble of bloodlust and incoherent fury. You’re caught in that strange liminal place between sleep and wakefulness, where the dream’s still got urgency and the power to make you mad: they were eating Sollux, they were damn well eating Sollux --

Gamzee rolls over behind you, and you nearly pounce on him teeth-first. You come up short at the edge of the recuperacoon, nerveless with paranoia. Bony fingers still scrape across your braincase: you can’t shake the smell of blood. You haven’t had a spell of terrors this bad since before you went to the Academy. You’d rough it dry with Nepeta on your grassland roadtrips off to the Capitol and end up kicking each other all day in whatever ditch you’d tucked into, and then you’d spend all night coming up with ridiculous, elaborate apologies. The endless green Capitol Plains feel a million sweeps away from this creaking, claustrophobic shitheap of a hive, but the flayed-to-ribbons overexposed paranoia is just the same.

You stagger to the closet-esque ablutionchamber down this way. A rainbarrel and a scoop by the sink -- they live so rough. The water’s cold as fuck but it’s fresh, and serves for you to rinse bile out of your mouth and sticky sopor-gum out of your face. The slime’s thin enough to evaporate off your skin in chilly tremors like ghost tongues, licking down your spine, your arms. You are wired with fear and confusion -- no way you’re getting back to bed for a while. You sneak back into the respite block, snatch up your sickle, your trousers, your crimson sash and your sickle-belt, and you holster your blade with profound relief. Now that you’re not naked, you can head down the corridor.

Feferi and Eridan bunk right down at the waterline, and the sun slants in thick hot shafts of light through portholes and hull breaches. Feferi’s recuperacocoon floats adrift in a half-flooded room, the water lapping in silver-white wavelets at the tilted floor. There is the familiar tang of old spilled sopor layered thick over the salt-and-acid ocean smell.

Eridan sits at the edge of the dry boards, wrapped in a sailcloth cape, with his bare, webby toes just barely touching the water. He looks softly, strangely unreal in the thick obscuring light, some warrior prince out of legend, something quietly and unassumingly magic. When you clear your throat he is up on his feet with a lasergun rammed into your snout before you can blink.

His eyes are a bloodshot mustardy violet, his pupils shrunk to hair-thin slits of fury, his snarl wide and goddamn terrifying. He looks like a shark on amphetamines. For an instant you think you are really going to die, and this instinct sweeps you and your sickle into the most textbook hornlock restraint of all time.

Eridan struggles a little, then goes limp. Good thing, too, as he would look terrible with an amputated horn. Or an amputated head. You’re in no mood for bullshit.

“I give,” he says softly. “Easy, Kar, easy.” He sounds so tired. You let him straighten up, and then you’re holstering your sickle kind of awkwardly, acutely aware that you’re out of regs, you’re barefoot and barechested, sash not even smoothed neat. You don’t even have your jacket, you unprofessional fuck. His eyes linger on your thin, narrow shoulders, your wiry fucked-up scar-corded arms, and he’s probably thinking you look like a stupid civvie.

Eridan’s only got on an old stretched-out wigglerish t-shirt on under his makeshift daycloak, the kind of clothes you all get on allowance. It probably fit him, back when he was six sweeps. It doesn’t fit him now that he’s got the build you get hauling ass all day, every day, and you feel a sharp and petty thrill of jealousy as you watch his muscles bunch and slide along his arms. He draws the cape around himself as he sits back down, clutching his gun to his chest like a pupa comfort-plush.

“‘Sup?” he asks, trying for cool and coming off ‘douche’.

You sit down beside him and test the smooth outer curve of your blade, running your fingers along it. Now that the electric fear-flush is dissipating you are tired as all shit, still cold despite the daylight sheeting through the room. “Just decided to take a walk,” you say, “for my constitution.”

“You got the constitution of a dead mackerel, Kar. Next time, jog.”

“Fuck off.”

You fuck off.”

You make as though to stand and Eridan snags the back of your sash, tugs you back down against his side. One of his arms goes around you, and it’s cold but the pressure is nice. You squirm up a bit, pull the cape closed around you both. The sailcloth crackles stiffly. “God, you’re warm,” he says. “The fuck are you shivering for? You’re like the angriest little toaster.”

“Love me or leave me, Fins.”

You’re both laughing a little, though yours comes through chattering teeth. Eridan now makes as if to stand, grinning like a shithead, and you grab for his waist. “No, don’t,” you say. “Stay, asshole. Just for a moment.”

He does. You huddle close under his cape in companionable silence, and after a moment -- very carefully -- he squeezes you. “Day terrors?” he asks.

You cough out a sad facsimile of a laugh. “Yeah. Yeah, what else?”

“Me too. I mean, obviously, ‘s why I’m here, I don’t, uh, I don’t just hang around my girl’s recuperacoon normalways for shits and giggles, is what I’m saying. Sometimes it just gets... sometimes you just gotta plant your fuckin’ ass down and make sure you’re between your moirail and the world, just in case. You know?”

“I do this with Sollux sometimes. Did. Did this. So I know.”

He shuts up. Not for long, though. “What happened between the two of you?” he asks. “There’s this distance -- ”

“Shut up,” you say evenly. “I mean it. This is the no-go zone, this is your first and only warning.”

He puffs his cheeks up, and for a moment he looks just like Feferi. Then he glubs, a wet shirt-muffled snap of his gills, and pulls you a little closer.

“How’s Gamz doin’?” he asks. “He’s got this kinda chucklevoodoo fear-mongering thing, leaks somewhat when he has a shit night. Makes the day terrors worse. Ain’t never felt it this bad -- he gonna pull through, after what happened?”

Fear-mongering. This was first on the list in the grand scheme of Last Things You Really Needed, and you hiss through your teeth. “Wait, wait, slow your fucking roll, he’s a psychic? He’s a fucking -- oh, nooklice, Fins, he’s a fucking indigo, that doesn’t happen. Receiving or transmitting -- is he just empathic or has he shown any psionic activity? Did he ever get tested? Did he ever get trained?”

Your voice is kind of strangled by the end. Eridan pats your fucking face. You shut up from pure shock at his audacity. He’s looking at you like he thinks your incipient death by proliferating ulcers is cute.

“Chill,” he says. “He’s not going to be anyone’s shipwright any time soon, ain’t anywhere near high-functionin’ enough for people to give half a squid’s fart. It’s just a thing as mostly comes out like this -- dreams and shit. Transmits, like, creeps in the back a your bile-gland. The way he and Fef carry on, I’m up to my fuckin’ fins in weird dream shit all the time, it is a raw flippin’ deal I tell you what -- ”

“You could have warned me,” you bite out.

He only shrugs. “You two were wrecked to hell and back. When would I have got the chance?”

You concede this ground, reluctantly. “He was sleeping pretty normally,” you say. “I checked him over before I left. He’ll be a wreck for a while, but I think he’s going to pull through just fine.”

Eridan scrunches up his nose. “I don’t think ‘fine’ means the same shit you think it means, Kar.”

“I say ‘fine’, I mean he isn’t going to be throwing himself out any airlocks,” you say. “Or -- I don’t know, drowning himself. Whatever you kids do down here to earn yourself an irreversible corpsenap.”

“Eat Fef’s cookin’. Sass a highblood.”


He shrugs artlessly. You’re quiet for a while. You feel steadier, all wrapped up with someone you trust, but prickles of nauseated fear still skitter under your skin. The permanent violet creases under Eridan’s weary eyes make a great deal more sense now, the tight paranoid set of his shoulders. Has he ever gotten a solid day’s sleep in his life?

“I can’t believe you guys put up with this sopor mix,” you say. “You might as well be sleeping rough, Fins, how do you even stand it?”

He blows out a long, thoughtful breath through his teeth. “We bear what trials we got to,” he says finally. The nose of his gun goes skritch against the floorboards, and you fight down a nasty case of the chills.

For a second, he reminds you of Kanaya: of her tight-wound stillness and the way her cool green eyes go hot if you lay a careless hand on her. But Eridan’s got his hands all over you, like he thinks you’ll pop like a soap bubble the moment he looks away. You almost feel you might.

“Everyone’s got an important job to do,” you say. One of her brittle truisms.

Eridan runs his hand over his laser rifle. “Yeah,” he says. He sounds shocked. “Yeah, I -- fuck. I like that. That’s just fine. Everyone got their job.”

He puts his chin between your horns. You think of waiting for exam results with your fellow cadets, the way you’d host sneaky movie marathons on the big screen Sollux’d sent up for you and all the kids that were flipping their shit the hardest would pack into your dorm with snacks and romcoms and you’d all stay up through the day in each other’s laps, snarking and sniping and falling asleep in soft clingy heaps. This is almost nothing like that, but not entirely nothing like that -- Eridan’s soft enough, under all the snarp nails and attitude problems. You close your eyes for a second -- just one bit of a second -- and then it is evening.

Breakfast is a great deal less awkward than you’d expected it to be. Despite a profoundly shitty day’s rest you feel fine: stable, at least, and some of the surface exhaustion has cleared away. Gamzee sits with Feferi in his lap, feeding her scrambled roe with all the gawky seriousness of a daddy stork, and you and Fins agree under duress to skip coffee. He shoots you a fond look as he pours out some weak tea, both of you wry and conspiratorial, and you lean your chair up comfortably against his and pull over your breakfast.

You lay out your basic plan: you’ve got about a week to spare before your time/assignment ratio starts skewing beyond all reasonable estimations and you’re called onto the fucking carpet for it. Gamzee needs supervision, and you kind of need a vacation. You can dick around here four days -- five at the outset -- if they feel like putting up with you for that long.

Eridan snorts. Feferi looks like you’ve cracked a joke that she doesn’t quite get but expects to have explained forthwith. Gamzee smiles, slow and wobbly, and rests his cheek against his matesprit’s hair.

“We’d never send you away, brother,” he says softly. “Stay as long as you like.” Feferi nods firmly. You’re really kind of touched.

The world falls away over the course of the night. Seems like you’ve always been sprawled next to Feferi as she salts your eggs, Fins pushing her elbows off the table as your mad clown messiah goes to heat toast made from thick hive-made grubloaf -- apparently saying if I eat any more I swear to your fucking juggagods I’ll puke means second helping, please in dipshit. You’ve always rolled your eyes together with Eridan as Feferi and her clown cultist fight out the after-meal grace, hands clasped together as they thank two separate sets of fucked-up Gods for their food. You’ve always climbed up on deck when the evening’s still streaked in abalone-pinks overhead, making yourself useful, pulling up crabtraps and checking over ropes and holding a hammer as Alternia’s archagent plays carpenter drone: you standing like a mealy-mouthed mute as he strips off his shirt and slides a plane up and down a join, sprinkled with sweat, shoulders a bunch of muscle.

He shines, here, they all do. He is at peace in a way you have never seen a seadweller be, settled like a calm and competent jewel in the midst of this hardscrabble little life.

You all strife on the broad, moon-drenched deck around midnight, with the moons high and warm; with four of you there are enough for teams, two against two, one against three, it’s the kind of sociable workout you don’t get regularly anymore and have sorely missed. Eridan is all gutter manners, teeth and elbows and tiny knives, and he laughs when you sweep his feet out from under him. Every now and then he manages to pull you down too, and he glows with pride as you untangle yourselves.

Gamzee fights with clubs, and he fights like a butcher: blunt unsubtle precision strikes straight for the head as if you were so much stupid meat, and no defense against a sickle slipped under his guard and around his throat. He is terrible, he is a disgrace to his caste, you down him every time.

Feferi is a lancer, of all things, swings a trident longer than she is with arms like graceful reeds and can knock you across the entire length of the deck if you’re not careful. She’s the most dangerous of any of them and she knows it, and they know it too. In another world she’d have a mount and carve a deadly wake through the battlefield, and in any world you would pay good money to see her go head to head with your Premier. After the fight you lie in piles, sweaty and breathless and laughing and it’s all just easy. It’s so easy.

Towards morning they haul you to the icy sunken shiphold, a smooth black lake that laps against the hull. It looks like some barbarian cathedral down there, portholes open and streaming, festooned with strings of old fairy lights that wink their reflections upon the water’s surface. It’s also cold as a witch’s nook, and they all swim in it stripped down to trousers or less: Gamzee and Eridan mapped over with scabs and scars and Feferi sliding between then like a slip of naked lightning, perfect and clean. They grab at your clawing hands and pass you around past the point where your feet lose the floor, you splashing like an imbecile, and Gamzee says “Hold your breath,” and “Kick a mite faster,” and Eridan says “You reely fuckin’ suck at this.” Feferi just laughs and tugs at your ankles like a sudden riptide.

They don’t let you out till you are stupid and half-drugged with the cold, water driggling out your stuffed-up aural canals. By that time you’re so slow and stiff you just float, Gamzee putting a careful hand to the small of your back, bobbing up and down on the water like driftwood.

“Hey,” you glub, mouth sloppy with salt. “Look, I did it.”

You roll over to your front, the saltwater stinging at your face, and you manage a thrashing,sea-dog paddle all around him. He hauls you close, till your arms are moored safe around his neck, and you’re so far past the point of even shivering that he feels perfectly warm. You’re exhausted, and it feels really fucking good. You are a goddamned champion.

“You’re beautiful, brother,” he says, steadying your heaving ribs, and he hauls you back to solid flooring.

Feferi gets you a towel, and Eridan lets you borrow a pair of his old jeans. It takes two cuffs up at the bottom to get them to fit but it feels weirdly, guiltily good to be in civilian clothes again. It feels like you have fallen assbackwards into someone else’s life and like maybe you could just keep it warm for them while they’re gone. You have scalding coffee and fried calamari up on deck and watch the stars wash out against the morning light, and it is so easy to pretend that this is all that there could be to you. Feferi pokes interestedly at where the webbing isn’t between your toes, and laughs when she gets kicked in the face.

At some point she clucks over the tired bags under her moirail’s eyes, and harries him off early to her cocoon. This leaves you to a last cup of sweet tea with Gamzee and a sleepy walk off to his. With the fisherkids doublebunking you could steal Eridan’s spare, you suppose, but -- the clown holds your wrist, tight, like he thinks he might drown without you. Like he thinks you might drown. He’s so big and so terribly fragile and he needs you still, so you go.

You dream of falling down into moonless oceans, black filling up your thinkpan and pouring down your wind chute. You dream that something warm in the endless dark takes your hand, squeezes it tight.

You hang on back till evening.

What they are doing to you is as unsubtle as it is beautiful. You see them coming a mile off, breakfast again, chores, a lazy midnight game of soft-edged cards, and you’ve still got no defense to it. You feel like your callouses are growing callouses as you work all night in the strong sea air, making plans to head back to shore tomorrow night, maybe, if you’re outstaying your welcome -- and they just laugh and deal you into another round of Hearts. There’s no interweb access this far out to sea, and you think they’re mostly happy with it, they make their own fun, play their own games. Feferi has come up with variations on Cull The Onion that’d make even Sollux’s head spin -- that’d make even Tavros Nitram’s head spin, and your Premier can do things to cards as should be illegal on any dozen planets you’d care to name. He had a long time alone when you were younger, with a deck of cards and a wheelchair.

Orphaner Dualscar’s son builds elaborate sandcities with his moirail and combs out her hair and combs out Gamzee’s hair, his killer’s hands steady on the combs. He stays up late teaching you to fix nets and read the next night’s weather as it rolls in with the tides. Everything in the Corbenic should’ve been claustrophobic as a Threshecutioner dorm but worse, rubbing up against three other people’s relationships, quadrant worries and godawful fucking pet habits, but it’s not like that at all.

Worst that happens is that of an evening you’ll all be crowded around the spotty ablution mirror, everyone elbows and doing four different things at once: “Gamz, fuck,, watch it,” Eridan will squawk as -- yet again -- Gamzee’s forearm swipes his hair gel.

It’s crowded. You don’t mind. Embarrassing, yeah, sure. Each time Gamzee starts quietly unbuttoning Feferi’s blouse you and Fins have to make yourselves scarce because they don’t actually care who’s around, these two are not the type to play cluckbeast with -- you’ve seen both of their naked asses, for fuck’s sake, help you, you’ve seen their bucket -- you just end up on the deck, fishing or pinning out laundry or talking about sweet shit-all.

You’d never tell him, but listening to the thin, sweet noises she makes or the low, thankfully inaudible stream of what the fuck your clown cultist is saying to her, you feel -- you’re comforted, not aroused. Like the easy physical comfort of the Academy, before you’d gotten too close to the center of things and all of a sudden they all looked up to you. By then it was too late and your every touch meant too much, went too far, and you had to start going to sleep alone again just to play it fair.

Here no one takes you seriously and you all sit around in your underwear, drinking soup while your clothes flap dry over a fire, and you make a close circle of shoulder to shoulder: Gamzee, one arm wrapped around your waist or Feferi, hand stroking at your hip in the light, absentminded way she does because nobody’s ever taught her not to play complete grabass just because she wants to; and Fins, Eridan Ampora, hand over your hand with his claws very light at your palm. They’re a wild tangle of red and white all knotted up with each other here together, siblings and custodians and stubborn tender lovers, and they keep reaching out. When Eridan cuffs up another set of his trousers around your ankles and rests his frontpan against your knees, smiling, it’s hard to ignore how much you want to reach back.

It’s funny, but this battered, wild-eyed hatch-bitch has somehow wound up your very best friend. You know that if you said jump, he’d be hopping like an imbecile and giving you his middle finger all the while, and you think -- you know -- that if it was you unbuttoning his shirt like Gamzee strips down Feferi he’d forget there was a world to watch. You could wipe that eternally wary little crease between his oculars with one touch to his overchewed mouth. You know, and you only wish you didn’t. It’s not fair to him to let him settle for you, not with the way he thinks you forged each and every star and hung them just for the hell of it, and it’s not fair of you to lap up all his hero-worship for your lovestarved gratification.

“What’s she like,” says Feferi one night, “your red lover?”

The worst part is, for a moment you don’t know who she’s talking about. You’re top deck, boiling down water in the big cauldron Fef presides over like a creep to get the deposits left -- not nice work, and in all this salt, salt, salt you’re beginning to feel fucking brined -- and with a start you figure out who she means. Figure out what you’re forgetting. “Terezi?” you say. “We have got to fucking teach you how to be less nosy, Peixes, you don’t just go around asking what someone’s lover is like.”

“I didn’t ask about buckets!”

“It’s you; you’re asking about goddamn buckets. You’d ask the Empress about her buckets.”

Her eyes sparkle. She drums her heels down on the Corbenic’s hull. “Karcrab! Does this mean you think I’ll meet her one day?”

Considering you’re not sure they wouldn’t just take out their weapons and go at it, Feferi alight with holy vengeance in her heart -- yeah, you’re sincerely doubting that one, actually, this has got to not happen -- you avoid that one like a fucking dancer. “Which one? I don’t fucking want you near either,” you say, and she sticks out her tongue. “Okay. Fine. You wanted Terezi? She’s clever than me and she’s cleverer than you. She’s cleverer than anyone I’ve ever met. Drives me bugfuck shitwarrens.”

“The way you talk about her, sometimes I think you’re awfully pitch and that’s right, isn’t it?”

You do not want to get trapped into a conversation with Feferi about your red quadrant, the availability of your red quadrant, the fullness of your black quadrant, or romance in general. The conversation will not be innocent. “Hey, guess what. Remember my life lesson up there about not saying whatever comes to your demented little mind?”

Glub. Don’t care, don’t care! Is she pretty?”

Lots of people would say no, or that she was vivacious if they liked her, or horrifying if they didn’t. You just answer honestly. “Yeah. Knockout. Stunning. I’m using violent words on purpose because I think you’ll get my drift, but yeah, she’s -- she’s pretty. She’s pretty amazing.”

“You miss her?”

“Yeah,” you say, and you both don’t talk about how you looked at this little fishergirl for five seconds having obviously forgotten you ever had a red quadrant in the first place. This at least means she’s taken one of your lessons to heart.

It bugs you the whole night through, and then slightly worse than that it doesn’t, because you forget to let it sting at your valves. Everyone here is underneath your skin, buried deep down in your epidermals, and they are widening the distance you have worked for so fucking long to bridge.

Sollux hasn’t touched you in two seasons, and you and Terezi communicate in pokes and prods, when you get to see her at all. Here a tiny seadweller girl pushes her head up against your chest, or her rougher counterpart throws a comfortable arm around your shoulder, or a clown cultist takes you up and presses his face to your hair while humming low and lovely deep in his echobox. You sit with Gamzee on the deck and you shuck clams, or gut fish, or peel crabs, and at intervals he puts down his knife and he pulls you into his lap. If either of you weep you don’t tell a soul.

“Then I hope that missing her stops hurting,” says Fef.

You startle out of your thoughts. You look at her wide smile, free from artifice, and you want to agree: yeah. Yeah. I hope missing her stops hurting. As though you don’t have to remove the source of the pain, you just have to remove the pain itself. Sometimes you worry your entire nervous system to shreds about Feferi. “It always hurts when you miss someone,” you say, “I know you know that, it’s carved in fucking calligraphy on your coronary valve. Get back to business, princess; salt’s boiling dry.”

Tonight Eridan has his head in Feferi’s lap and she is dragging her claws through his curls, combing them this way and that as they lie on the moon-drenched deck. He is a sprawled-out, gangling disgrace of a troll, and you’d be embarrassed for him if you weren’t already used to the way he lets himself be utterly and shamelessly owned.

“Okay,” you’re saying, enjoying yourself, “so we’re starting to freak the fuck out, right, we have half an hour to check back in and we have managed to turn up this grand total of one black pail, and she’s saying ‘let’s just paint it gray,’ and I’m saying ‘no, no, it’s got to be around here somewhere, they wouldn’t send us on an impossible errand, that would be counterproductive!’”

He’s also crying from laughter -- Feferi’s shaking almost too hard to sit up straight.

“Yeah, I was actually that naïve once upon a time. So she gets out this can of gray goop from the supply closet and I’m jumping up and down saying ‘no, no, that shit is for caulking the shuttles’, and she’s saying ‘shut the fuck up I don’t care’, sort of smearing this club shape on to the damn thing over the spade and I -- hardcore genius that I am -- I try to do the headlock we’d just learned that morning. When I was six sweeps old, I weighed half a grubloaf. I weighed half a cupcake! I basically sort of climbed on top of her while she kept going, it was sad as fuck. Didn’t do a damn thing. So she’s slopping this goop all over and it’s starting to steam, I shit you not, and I’m sort of madly tugging at her horns and then, of all things, we hear footsteps.”

You’re combing through Feferi’s hair, curling thin sections of it up around your fingers and pinning it in loops so it’ll dry into bouncy waves. It’s an interesting experience -- Terezi rakes her hair back into place every evening with just her claws, Sollux keeps his hair clipped short because of static or whatever, and Tavros and Equius would probably ram a lance each right through your palms before they let anyone else mess with Aradia’s hair. You’ve never really had much opportunity just to mess around before.

“So I freak out and she freaks out and then we see the kid poking his greasy nasals around the corner and we realize at pretty much the same time that she’s caulked my hands to her horns, and that this random interloper is the guy she’s been trying to impress this whole time, it’s mister hardass longhorns cali-crush. She rams me against the wall at the same time I try and sort of kick the pail behind us and we both go over in this monstrously tragic heap. Legs everywhere! We were fucked. We were so fucked!”

“No,” Eridan gasps and “No!” Feferi exclaims, and they both just look at you, slackjawed with breathless delight. Sollux and Terezi never look at you like this and it feels frankly fucking awesome.

“Motherfucking yes,” you affirm. You’re starting to lose your own shit a bit, choking on giggles. “She’s just crying and hitting me, and -- and I- I’m kicking and squalling, getting the living daylight smushed out of me and my ass -- this is, this, this’s the worst part -- my ass is very firmly wedged inside the goddamn filial pail.”

The clown cultist is also messing around with your hair, which should feel weirder than it does. He’s got you tucked neatly into the big gangly wireframe of his thorax and folded legs, and he runs his cold claws pleased and aimless all over your head.

“And this kid looks down at us, me specifically, just about ready to breathe black fire and challenge my fucking ancestor to an honor duel, hurrah, hurrah, apparently the crush is mutual, and I say, as reassuringly as I can: ‘Don’t worry, man, it’s an ashen bucket!’”

Gamzee finally laughs at that, a low hoarse honking like an emphysemic foghorn. He tips back on his elbow and he laughs and laughs, and you lie back against the long bony quivering streak of him and laugh some yourself. It was an awful fucking story: you are the grand high fool of the whole damned universe. You hadn’t grown all the skin back on your palms for a perigee from the chemical burns. Hell, your hands are still a little silvery.

You let your head rest against the clown’s sternum, listen to the slow peaceful wash of his pulse. He wraps you up in his big arms like you’re something precious, still gasping a little from the delight of you, and you close your eyes against the starlight. You are very tired, it’s been a long night and when aren’t you tired? But it’s good, all of this, being with these kids. You feel good.

Eridan breaks off his snickering abruptly.

“Are you -- ” he says and Fef says “Is that -- ” and you realize with a jolt of utter horror that you have been purring. The weird hoarse thrumming noise is coming out your own benighted wind tunnel.

You sit up fast. Your face is very hot. You swallow hard a few times and now the only noise is your blood pounding too hard in your aurals, aware that three saltlick kids are looking at you like you just ate sunshine and shit out stardust.

“Oh my god,” Eridan says reverently. “I thought they cut your squawkblisters out in the fuckin’ Academy.”

Gamzee opens his mouth to say something, takes a breath -- you shove his jaw closed with your hand, and his teeth click together loud in the quiet. His eyes are dark and very intent, and he turns his mouth into your palm.

“No,” you say thinly, “No, sorry, nope, goodbye, goodnight, sorry, I’m really fucking sorry, I gotta go.”

You scramble off to your feet, storm away. You can’t be here. You can’t be doing this. Your ears are ringing and your mouth feels all weird and you want Sollux, you do, you really do, more than anything. Everything smells like salt and iron and old weathered wood. You scramble down the slanted deck to where it meets the ocean waves-- you know your way around now. There’s nowhere on this ship they can’t find you but at least there’s a few places where they’d have to come looking for you.

You sit down on the cool sand that piles up against the outer hull of the ship, let the icy waves burn at your toes, and your curl your arms around your head. Your pants are too tight and your shirt is too lose and your jacket’s folded up neatly in Eridan’s respiteblock because no one but them were going to see you tonight anyway. You feel young and stupid and very alone and you haven’t ever, not once in your whole life, purred before. Not even with Sollux when you were crashing at his place, drugged on heavy meds and watching movies through your fevers on his couch. It had hurt him even though he never said anything and his quiet, guilty disappointment hurt you back. You didn’t think you actually could: you thought it was just one more bit of you that came broken, like your eyes that never turn green no matter how many perigees go past and your horns that never grow to points. Like your endless draining farce of a fucking ‘blood condition.’

You try again, your face pressed against your kneecaps, you try to purr. But there’s nothing, you can’t find it. You don’t know how. It’s not something anyone can fake, you know this, but it still burns to feel the emptiness in your throat all over again. There’s only the slow sound of the waves and the pounding of your pulse in your ears, too fast, too loud.

After a long time, there’s a low shushing noise interrupting the quiet. You peer over your arms to see Gamzee settling his bones down to sand beside you -- not too close, just within arm’s reach. It is a very careful distance he sets between you. You don’t reach out and neither does he.

“‘M sorry,” he mumbles.

“Me too,” you say.

He scoots closer in an embarassment of shitty stealth and crunching sand and he looks at you with a question in his eyes. You give the universe’s most minute nod. It’s with no small relief that he drapes one heavy arm over your shoulders, and it’s with no small relief you kind of tuck yourself up in his armpit. Eventually the sun starts to stain the horizon a faraway pink.

“They broke you,” he says quietly. “I didn’t know, brother, you look all clean and clear from the outside, like you’re a glass thing. But they up and fucking shattered you all to pieces in your guts. Splinters all the way down, I motherfucking see it.”

You clench your hands around your sides. What happens up there stays up there: beyond all the the funny stories you can tell about buckets and slumber parties and stolen sashes, underneath the silly civvie stuff, what was done to you was what had to be done for you to be who you needed to be. No-one can possibly understand who wasn’t there. No-one who was would ever, ever tell.

“Gamzee, I can’t,” you say tightly. “We can’t do this. Leave it be.”

“Where’s your dad?” he asks anyway. “What waters did you lay him to sleep in, Karkat?”

“Fuck’s sake. Gamzee.” You try and get up but he’s got his long cold arm around you and you’ve been asked this before, kids all concerned, stupid and sweet. You should be able to tell him the same story you told them all: “He’s being taken care of upstairs,” but your voice hitches traitorously. It’s different. You can’t hide from him. You don’t even know why. You cannot begin to fucking hide from this mild indigo kid with his dead dad and his ocean-coloured eyes, sharp as the poison ocean, his concern for you a bullet through your pan.

“Karkat, Karkat, best brother,” he says, pulling you close. “Come on. You already told me he was motherfucking dead.”

Your dad, his blood dripping from your hands and the whole shuttle quiet with shock and grief, the stink of all that blood in the confined space, the deaths of all your custodians heavy on your tongues. They’re being taken care of upstairs, their broken bodies long since fed into the communal gardenshrines and coming back up as white sacred flowers. The gardenshrines are still and solemn and will never be like the stinking horror of that first ride up.

You’re monsters now, you’d all been told, the blood of your lusii still on your hands. You were stupid little dipshits and mad with the horror of what you’d all just done. After the massacre all you could do was listen when they told you, so gentle, all quiet: Not trolls. Oh, kids, you’re worse. You’re vicious dumb animals, but you wipe your sorry lacrimals and walk out this shuttle with your heads held high and we’ll make you into proper custodians. Filthy little fucks, we’ll clean you up. Don’t worry. We’ll bleach you bright as starlight, curatricides, and set your shameful paws to proper use.

“He’s being taken care of upstairs,” you repeat dully. “Gamzee, we can’t do this.”

The clown cultist touches your cheek, under one of your eyes, rubs his damp fingers together. You never met anyone with harder hands.

“Anything you motherfucking need, brother,” he agrees slowly. “Anything you want.”

“When the Violet Sister balled up the sea she meant it as a hiding-place,” Feferi tells you, the next night. You’re soldering a hinge. They hook up a blowtorch to their generator and melt metal like there’s nothing to it, building doors in a way that makes you realise you have never actually put any thought into what a door entails. “To get away from the Old Ones so they couldn’t see in and she could keep herself to herself! But she took the Green Sister down to hide with her, and the Green Sister got pretty glubbing bored and lonely, so she made all the little creepy things first -- sea spiders and cucumbers and whelks, thinking the Violet Sister wouldn’t notice. Then fishes, loads of fishes. What she didn’t know was that the Violet Sister had been doing the exact same thing, but she was making all the things to live in the deep oceans where she thought the Green Sister wouldn’t see -- ”

“The Goddess of Light and Rain doesn’t create,” you object. When Feferi found out you were an atheist she took it as a challenge. “You made up a myth based on Frost and Frogs and split it in two.”

“Please, poor ignorant land boy,” she says. “You’re as bad as my morayeel. Who made the squids and the anglerfishes and the hagfishes? Who made the tentacled things at the bottom that we can’t name, just in case they hear?”

You pass her the soldering-tin when she gestures for it. “They had a fine fucking time slapping their swimbladders and making themselves, small fry. Seriously, if you’re up to date with your science modules this isn’t even a little inexplicable, you’re sticking your head in the sand and fuck me if I’m not up to my nook in fish puns. I am so goddamn sick of fish puns. If I never see another fish pun in my life it will be too soon.”

The wind whips her unkind laughter away. Your point stands, though, you saw the list of education modules she and her moirail did -- even if there’s some utterly weird shit in there, they bought whatever looked cheap apart from the cores -- so she’s not dumb by design. It’s not understandable like Gamzee’s approach to the world, because as far as you can tell he took a couple vocabulary modules and gave up entirely.

“Just because you gave science names to a process doesn’t take God out of it,” she says, melting fat drops of solder carefully on a join. This argument’s so Terezi Pyrope it makes you think you’re six sweeps and shouting at her in debate. “Why do you think catalysts are so random.”

“Why do you waggle your silly frond at religion if evidence of it is utterly fucking indistinguishable from science?”

“Why do you trust so much in glubbing science? I bet there’s all kinds of science concepts you can’t explain, you just trust they’re true shrimply because they’re scientific -- ”

“Because there are verifiable checks and balances put in place with the entire bulgefucking practice. I’ve had this argument before, princess, you’re not telling me anything new.”

Feferi blows on the solder, apparently for luck. “The Green Sister made you and me!” she says decidedly. “Explain that, atheist.”

“Listen, the onus is on you to prove me wrong here. Let’s just say your Green Sister had the good taste to be nowhere near me when my slurry came out, Peixes -- ”

Feferi dimples. She also gives you a sly wink. “You smell like her,” she announces, and she turns off the blowtorch and buries her nasals right under your chin. This makes you nearly jump a mile. “You smell green. Green as green could be. You don’t even know where you came from, and you don’t even know where you’re swimming. Glub! Don’t you know how lucky you are?”

“What’s lucky about smelling like the cavetroll excuse for winters?”

“Because I would have slit your throat otherwise,” she says. Then Feferi leans over and wraps one cold arm around your neck, and she kisses you before you can tell her to keep it in her pants. Her kiss is a seadweller’s kiss, slow and cold and lingering, right on the mouth.

It takes her a while to get done. “So,” you say, like some truly admirable asshole with kettledrums of cool. Your aural tips are shamefully hot: this shit is not your fault. She’s pretty in a dainty, inviting way that Terezi would never bother with attempting. Nobody would say vivacious where Fef’s concerned, they’d just go straight to lovely, and no matter what type of yours she doesn’t meet you keep on getting clotheslined by her. “What was that for?”

“That’s just for luck,” she says. Her smile shatters you. “And also because you are so adorable.”

“Adorawesome,” you say numbly. “Get it right.”

“Oh, glub, whichever,” she says -- laughing like she couldn’t possibly give less of a shit about anything, and that is Feferi Peixes all over.

The tiny seadweller turns the door around in her hands-- it’s three times her size in every direction, easily, a big sluicegate sort of affair to filter the water that comes in and out of their flooded hold, and she doesn’t care one scoop of sand that she’s screwing with the laws of physics just by slinging so much mass around so casually. She holds the solid slab of iron and fiddly latches over her head like a leafcutter murmex writ large and cute, waggles goodbye with one webby bare foot, and skips off the slanted deck to go see if it’ll fit.

You check the soldering set is turned off, and start coiling up the gaslines.

“Hey, Fef, shore up a mo -- ” Eridan says, popping up from a hatch with his arms full of blueprints. “Oh, hey, Kar. She gone?”

“Just did the hinge. Off to see if the door’lll fit.”

“It won’t, I just checked our friggin’ math.”

He sits down by you and grimaces: he whistles out a wobbly sigh through bare gillslits that ruffles his slack, unbuttoned shirt. He lets himself be such a fish out here, it’s kind of charming and kind of unnerving. No amount of money would convince him to bare his slits back at the Capitol, let alone breathe through them audibly.

“I do not want my glutes around when she figures out no amount of jamming’s gonna get that thing fitted,” he says eventually. “Let’s go hide up at the fo’castle.”

This time of night, the Corbenic’s tip-tilted fo’castle is nicely warm with moonlight and salt-bitten pillows, and you are more than happy to curl up in the squashy nest with Fins and contemplate the star-scudding clouds. No court here, no city sounds, no beeping on your palmhusk -- you set it to silent a while back, and you haven’t regretted doing so. The waves grind against the rocks and you’re all protected here, you’re in a fucking outpost fortified against the force of nature itself. It’s a powerful feeling.

“So, why exactly do you keep Feferi locked away?” you ask, after a desultory game of that one looks like a hopbeast wears thin. “Facts: she has an entire library of anger management issues and coming into harbour’s never a breezy pail for you guys, but seriously, cooping her up isn’t doing either of you any favors. She needs more socialization than just you and your clown -- good for her though he undoubtedly is! -- if you want her to keep happy, Fins, happy actually comes under the umbrella of safe. If you’re worried about how she’d handle herself in a fight, my professional assessment is she could tear anyone’s head straight off and probably make out with it after.”

“Kar, you think it’s all easy and you don’t even glubbin’ know.” Eridan draws his thumb across his bare chest, two curves and then a sharp straight line. “Her ancestress was the Incandescence,” he says.

This is so far from anything you were expecting Eridan -- dour, skeptic, cynical Eridan Ampora -- to spout out his seedflap that you snigger with astonishment. “You’re shitting me.”

He sets his jaw. “Shittin’ you not.”

“I don’t know how you missed this, poor ignorant fucking squidling you are, but the Incandesce is a made-up campfire boogieman to scare wigglers with. She’s in the same category as the Twelfth Perigee’s Eve Gift Drone and -- and -- the Spring Hopbeast With Innumerable Eggs. Thought you were going to bone up and tell me she was some offensive piece of anti-seadweller propaganda, kid, isn’t that your bag?”

“Bet your sweet glutes she weren’t, Kar.”

You laugh again incredulously at his nerve. “Seriously, nope. I am falling down all these fucking nopes here. I can accept you’re the Orphaner’s kid because his sigil’s historical record and I am unfortunately not blind, but you need a better excuse than being demented and believing in fairytales. There’s superstition and then there’s dipshittery, Fins.”

“You ever heard the term ‘historical revisionism’, smartass?” Eridan sneers, and rolls over to face you. The anger on his face struggles with what you’re realising is pride. “You don’t even know what you didn’t get taught, now, did you, Kar? I know what I’ve fucking seen.” He taps his frontpan. “I put shit together, goldblood. I get my investigatory deducement on. A whole floppin’ mess a what you swank goldies get taught is flat fuckin’ wrong, and I -- ”

You are up in his space without quite knowing how you got there, straddling his lean, cold stomach, knees at his gillflaps, pinning him still and vulnerable. Your fist is cocked back and ready to punch him directly in his slanderous sharktoothed maw. Your pan blares with pain: there’s one thing you never say to a Threshecutioner, there’s one thing you never say to the Mother’s fucking Blood, and that’s accusing the Fleet of untruth. Eridan cannot just waggle his stupid saltwater wordfrond any which way he likes. You’re not a zealot, you’re not a blind believer, but everything he just said is set on the reeking midden heap marked SEDITION.

Contradicting mandated Fleet Schoolfeeds is -- is -- treason. It’s taking a huge anti-intellectual revisionist dump over everything you’ve ever held dear. It’s -- foul, that’s what it is, that’s the only word you can find for it. It’s foul.

“Do you even know the shit dribbling out your flap right now,” you breathe, “or are you just making sounds for the hell of it?” You are breathing. You are breathing very hard. Your pulse is a noisy metronome. “Tell me it’s the second, Fins, I would really appreciate a take-back before I have to give you a blueblood monocle.”

“This sure as shit ain’t hot as I thought it might be, previous,” says Eridan slowly, though you are pretending you have no idea what that’s meant to mean. His eyes are wide but his pusher isn’t hammering: if anyone’s been on their back in front of a cocked fist before, it’s this guy. “Yeah, sure, Kar, whatever you say. Yeah. Sorry aboat that, and all.”

“Yeah, well -- ”

“Sorry you’re bein’ so fuckin’ crazy.”

“Fishsticks,” you say, “don’t push me right now, okay? I mean it. The amount of pushing you are doing, I could use you to plough a field made solely out of the frayed ends of my fucking patience.”

If there is one thing you have no time for in the universe it is revisionism. History isn’t a fairytale; history is a lesson, and people who go back and manipulate it out of shape are doing the same shit as people who try to tell you two plus two’s five. Abhorristorians can justify their own existences doing what the fuck, you don’t even care, because all that matters is the plain timeline you got in your Academy text: the plain facts of what happened, and the facts that make you who you are. You are the heir to all that’s come before you. Other kids’ll be the heir to what comes after. Your skin prickles with a mixture of anticipation and nausea.

“Know what’s funny,” says the boy underneath you, “not funny ha-ha but funny weird, what’s funny is how you get a little more hemocastey each time you’re fuckin’ mad at me. Kinda breakin’ my heart here, brother.”

“Oh, come on, that’s undiluted horseshit -- ”

“Is it, Kar?”

“Revisionism is counterintuitive nookwash,” you tell him tightly. “It goes against everything I work for, douche. This isn’t religion, this isn’t cloud fairies or the quinity, this isn’t the Sisters or whatever the fuck Gamzee believes in, I’ve been with him for nights and damned if I can work it out.” Your fingers knead convulsively at his throatstem, dragged back over his shirtcollar and his buttons, fisting in the material. “History is there for a reason, Fins! It is disrespectful disservice to you and me and everyone in our goddamn species, your ancestors, hell, the fucking Dualscar -- if we don’t admit it for what it was. What it is. We don’t revise it.”

There is a certain expression he gets on his high-boned, arrogant fucking face when he’s in a hateful mood, and you see the curl of his lip even now. It’s like a raised flag warning everyone of incipient dickbaggitude. “All my fuckin apologies, Sire,” he says. “I didn’t mean to stick my ignorant flappin frond in your highblood history books.”

“Eridan -- ”

“I forgot all that was infallible Imperial inerrancy,” he says. “Shit, there I go again, forgot I weren’t allowed to know big words either. Ain’t I a prize ass tonight! So, Kar, they also have it on perfect authority that you’re completely out your pan-washed gourd?”

You rear back and you pop him one hard in the eye. Wouldn’t do to punch a prettyboy anywhere else. Eridan yowls like a stuck mewbeast and you grab one of his crooked horns, giving it a single warning yank as he squints at you balefully. He says hoarsely, like he’s hardly been interrupted, “I mean, what the shell’s goin’ on here? I call ‘em as I see ‘em and you flip into murder mode on me?”

“You’re accusing the Threshecutioners of deliberate misinformation, you cruel nookblister,” you bite out. “You’re telling me that they’ve been lying in a way that would compromise what we do to the point of -- ”

“I’m tellin’ you you’re programmed! Flippin’ finny fuck! This is your replacement for God, isn’t it? Here was I thinkin’ you were one of the only ones a us who didn’t need one, but you gotta have one all the same.”

Before you can tell your hands to stop you wrench hard on his horn, wringing it till you hear him cry out. “When I tell you you’re crossing a line,” you say quietly, “I mean you are crossing a line. This is the mountain I die on, Ampora. You go too far and -- and I’ll be done with you, okay? I have a breaking point, just like anyone else.”

“Over schoolfeeds?”

“Over sedition.”

That makes him bristle, stupid proud asshole that he is. You feel his solid tense bulk beneath you and you know he’s holding himself in, doesn’t like to be on his back, is painfully unhappy. You’re both unhappy. You know that he’s not throwing a punch that he dearly wants to throw, and you appreciate it through the red fire of your revulsion. You remember a voice, light and mocking: you’re so good at following the letter of the law!

“Eridan, don’t you make me do this,” you say, and it comes out very near pleading. “I’m a Knight of the goddamn Blood, I am first and foremost and finally and forever a tool of Empire. You can’t -- you can’t just say this shit to me.”

He looks up at you for a long, long moment, and something in his face softens. “I’m sorry, Kar,” he says, and he sounds genuinely contrite. “Get off my friggin’ front, will you, and we’ll talk ‘bout this like trolls. All right? Man to man. I’ll mind my fuckin’ manners all you like.”

Eridan releases a breath as you roll off him and settle back on your haunches. It’s a kind of surrender, at least.

“Will you have a fuckin’ frothin’ conniption,” he says slowly, “if I at least tell you my point a view? That ain’t illegal yet, right? Consider it a hypothetical, so’s you don’t have to locate a mountain to go die on.”

Eridan’s no fool, or you wouldn’t be so irritated. You’ve seen the list of his education modules -- every history and political theory unit he could fit to budget in and you wouldn’t be surprised if he took them all with one hand down his pants. “Okay. Shoot. Go ahead.”

It takes him a few moments to gather his thoughts, you huddled on your knees beside him as he awkwardly pillows his arms beneath his head. He rolls over to his side and when he looks at you, his oculars are less sullen, ringed in that bright, ridiculous purple that makes you think of violets. It doesn’t help that when he’s this upset he stinks of freshwater and flowers.

“Okay,” he says. “Shore. Well -- a lotta what’s in the schoolfeeds is true, or true enough, it just ain’t complete. Thousand sweeps ago the Incandesce and Dualscar united all the seadwellers, right? Cut a bloody swathe through the warmbloods, they was all formation fighters and fancy with it and had no goddamn clue how to fight a bunch of berserkin’ fishertrolls. We were spearthrowers then, and longrange snipers, we knew how to think in three dimensions and you poor fuckers all landlocked point-and-click melée -- ”

“You don’t have to give me the hand-to-hand nerd breakdown.”

“Yeah, whatever, philistine.” He waves one hand as though conducting music. You realise with an awkward start that whatever weird ideas he’s got lodged in his thinkpan, he’s passionate as hell about them. Eridan is alight with enthusiasm. “Okay, I’ll skip the good parts, all the blood’n guts and glorious warmblood massacre -- yeah, yeah, stone the seadweller, I get it -- but, they don’t make it, right? They take all these beachheads and they make incursions all the way to the Capitol but they don’t make it.”

“The Summoner,” you say.

“The Summoner,” he says, and his dockside drawl is thick enough to chew on in his contempt. You want to pop him a pair of spectacles for that. “May the moons shine out his saintly ass. So the Summoner comes along and the ocean creatures rise up, that’s the Sunderin’, and we seasuckers get ganked by our own bloody cavalry. Our armada’s wrecked. Dualscar goes before the high courts an’ your petty mayfly landqueens and you know how it goes, that’s true enough as makes no nevermind, no moral. Wonder what the whales’d say now about drownin’ their own kin?”

“Whales are extinct, bulgemancer.”

“Kinda my glubbin’ point, roundears. But fuck me, Kar, she was real, real as the Summoner and the Orphaner. The Witch-Queen. The Rift Princess. Dualscar’s death-dealer. Some of ‘em even called her the Little Sister, you know that?”

“The Incandescence,” you say darkly. “How the fuck do you even know? History is facts, not polishing your nook on maudlin folklore.”

The sneer he gives you is fit for any lord, black and grand and terrible. “I seen her ghost, ain’t I? Damn it, Vantas, but I’ve seen her glubbin’ ghost.”

There is a vicious despair in him. It carries enough undercurrent of misery that it calms you right the fuck down, because he needs you a lot more right now than he needs your anger. Your hand gropes back for his hand and his fingers slowly, reluctantly twine through yours, holding fast. Some of the sneer goes out of him and leaves him empty. “Durin’ the day she goes walkin’ on the waves, and, y’know -- this ship’s haunted. That’s one thing I like about the Capitol, no ghosts. The dead press close 'round this wasted shitheap like squeakbeasts when the sun’s high noon and there’s nothin' but poison water for leagues -- I’ve seen her fuckin’ face! I know my girl, Kar, I know who she sprung from!”

The fishertroll sits up, still holding your hand, and he catches up the other one all in a rush. “You reely wanna tell me the Incandesce’s daughter got a future here? You think that come Ascension I can go to the ships and say hey, here’s my girl, she’s the snailblood, you think a single shuttle’s gonna open its doors? Fef’s a dead woman walkin’. All I want is a little more, a coupla sweeps, and that ain’t much -- just her, alive, till it’s time for us all to go?”

Fuck your eyes and your aurals and your thinkpan, it makes sense. It makes superstitious, fucked-up sense of the most impractical kind, but it makes sense. You can’t believe you’re busy staring down the loaded barrel of Orphaner Dualscar’s get, a treasonous shithead who somehow resulted in Eridan Ampora. Your friend. Your damn good friend, kneeling before you with his workman’s hands soft around your own and cold as rain. Blood roars in your head, your pusher flutters painfully damn near out your thorax, and you don’t know what to do.

You extricate yourself gently from his grip and you roll to your feet, stare down at the deck below, your arms locked behind you. All these kids are your own, now. All crimes incurred in life are absolved by death, that’s the cornerstone of legislacerative practice: you doubt Terezi could convict a kid for what their ancestor got up to, doubt she’d ever want to. It’s why the fishertroll at your feet is still alive sweeps after his kismesis knowing exactly whose slurry he spawned from.

But it’s not him you’re worried about. Feferi’s record is clean, practically nonexistent; no debt, no infractions, all standard education modules complete. Not so much as one sestertii’s worth of bad credit. You checked. You know. By all accounts she barely exists, Eridan’s kept her so cloistered away from the system. There’s no grounds for culling her, other than wearing the same skin as the Battlewitch herself.

Nobody would blame you for taking her head off her shoulders, though. They’d want it at the Academy. They’d want to put her shockingly ruddy blood on a slide to see what it was made out of, and afterwards they’d shake your hand and say it was preventative maintenance. That’s the worst part of this whole fucking mess, Feferi Peixes would be regarded as little better than a plague.

She’s just a kid. Like Eridan. Like, you suppose, you.

“Does she know?”

“She knows,” her moirail says. “Maybe even more’n I know, she has these dreams... She don’t intend to do anyfin aboat -- about it, though. That I know of.” He essays a sickly smile. “You’ll get no rampages from either her or me, I swear it on anything you care to name. Anything. We just want to get by long as we can manage.”

“I could try and talk to Aradia -- ”

“No.” It’s very final.

“Shit,” you say, and scrub at your face. You have the beginnings to a massive skullache. “Shit. Okay. We have a couple sweeps with her, that’s a definite. If she doesn’t want to pick up where Dualscar’s armada left off we can at least clear her calendar somewhat to help her out -- ”

“Wait.” Eridan pushes up to stand, dusting off his shirt and looking stupefied. “Couple moments ago you’re bawlin’ over heresy and ready a pulp me fin from fuckin’ fin, and now you’re glubbin’ about -- what?”

“About giving her a longer leash! I might have stodgy Threshecutioner values, you pusbulge, but I worry about her too! Being the descendant to Girl Hurricane is one thing, but having a couple sweeps left to live is a goddamn practical issue. I’m not letting her spend them stuck on a boat with a bunch of jerks like us. Let me take her into town, at least, it won’t harm to give her a bit of socialization -- ”

A strange couple of emotions go to war on his face. One of them is what you saw the night you tossed him a one-dupondus frog bracelet in goodbye, not realising that Sollux’s batshit agent could ever look that tender. Other emotion’s the stiff panic you saw when he held down his moirail and begged you not to cull her for a feral, right before you turned away and walked out the room. Now he’s curled up taut as a hedgeurchin. You have no idea what could be a sicker secret than Fef’s heritage but there it is, something vast and terrible that you’ve been stepping on the edges of ever since you got to the Corbenic.

What the fuck is it? Eridan’s already given you enough ammo that you could slit her pipes and spill her across the deck, but you live in their hive and let her wrap her arms around you and kiss you with her cool flowery mouth instead. You’re practically clade-knotted, you’re in this deep, but there’s something deeper you’re not given access to.

But. “She screams,” says Eridan.

“Yeah, like a banshee. So?”

The fishtroll looks at you dead in the eye. His own have rings of deep, dangerous orchid, and he does something you’ve never fucking seen him do: crosses himself like any seadweller pagan, forehead to mouth, fins to bloodpusher. Sign of the removed eye, the gills, the heart. “When she wants to, things -- die,” he says hoarsely. “Don’t know if it’s the Incandesce in her or what. And if somethin’s dead and she -- it ain’t like a dedication, Kar, it’s -- don’t make me talk about it any more, I don’t fuckin’ want to. Sisters keep the peace.”

You lapse into silence again, stand back by his side. Eventually he sighs and smooths his lapels crisp, old habit, as much a comfort now as it is Sollux twisting his rings around his fingers or Terezi picking at her claws with her crow’s head cane. That wigs you out a little.

“If you tell anyone about this I’ll kill you, Threshecutioner,” he says. His voice is perfectly level. “You hurt her, you do anyfin to hurt her, I will kill you. I know you wouldn’t want to, I just don’t care. You’re my best fuckin’ friend and I will kill you ‘till you’re stone dead.”

That stops you short. “I’m your best friend?”

Something flashes across his face, momentary confusion and a very wry hurt. “What? Yeah, ‘course you are, who the hell else would I have? You love my moirail and you love my moirail’s crazy clown-ass matesprit and you put up with me, I ain’t lookin’ a gift hoofbeast in the mouth. Never had a friend like you, Kar, world won’t give me another.”

“Oh,” you say, and find yourself smiling. Eridan stares at you for a long, long moment, then abruptly reaches out to kiss your cheek. His mouth is swift and earnest like the sweet rough kid he is.

“I really do like you, you glubbin’ dipshit,” he says, taking your hands, and there is something too tender in his eyes to even look at. Nobody’s taught him how to mask what he’s feeling, not this. “God help me, I like you so much. You won’t tell anyone ‘bout Fef, will you? You keep that promise, even from Sol?”

“For now,” you compromise, though it makes your bile sac turn over a few times. You’ve got too much to consider and not enough space in your pan to set it all. “We’re going to have to have this out, someday, Fins, put this on the table and have a solid crack at squaring it, but I can swear on blood and blade that I don’t want anything to happen to her either, if I -- if I have to stand in front of her and scream down the whole stupid world. She’s a troll, not a seadevil, and if she makes it to Ascension sane and sober she’ll have earned a shuttle berth like anyone else.”

“Oh,” he says, and he looks at you like you just coughed up thirteen extra moons, helpless and wondering and all choked with emotion. For a moment you think he’s going to -- do something, but his something is folding you into a tight, kind of awful hug. “God, Kar, of all the stodgy fuckin’ Threshecutioners I could’a been saddled with, what’d I ever do a deserve you?”

He pulls back after a long, long moment, and you squeeze his hands with your own, wordless with something nameless and awkward. He’s got such big puppy hands, beat all to shit but with sweep’s left of growth in them, if he gets there -- he gets all still, as though his breath can’t make the rest of its journey out his oxygen sponge. If he gets there. If, if, if, and you wouldn’t bet on his odds, much as you’d like to. He’s cold and smells ridiculously of fish and flowers and he’s so screwed up and so, too, are you. You are an utter confusion of pity and worry for this stupid fucking boy and his tenuous fucking life.

“Now let’s go help Fef melt that fucking sluice gate back down,” you say roughly. “She’s wasting all our time kicking crates around, it’s not economical.”

He snuffs, once, hard, through his nasals. “Yeah, shore,” he says, and leads the way down to the deck.

They’re all breaking your heart, is what they are doing, they are carving you into agonized little bits: these three kids on the very edge of the world, clinging by their broken fingernails and finding the space to love each other anyway. And fuck your pan, glands and bloodpusher, but you wonder when you’ll wake up as their fourth.

You fuck up. It was inevitable. One clear season’s morning with the ocean calm and the moons sailing amenably overhead, you all eat your dinners on the Corbenic’s deck. You sit with plates in your laps on the stairs and Gamzee wraps himself around you the whole time, and you just fucking let him. There’s nothing wrong with his big solid weight behind you and him giving you bites off his fork until you see Eridan and Feferi in the exact same position, perched on the stairwell with her legs thrown over his legs as she peels his shrimp.

You and Fins sort of look at each other. He gives you this big shit-eating grin and a wink, and you’re too distracted with the feeder-obsessed voodoo merchant behind you proffering his fork to give him some kind of rude gesture. You realise that you all end up like this each and every night, nearly, two bookended pairs, partnering off. Like it’s natural. Like there’s an understanding here. You want to shut the empty stable door where all the hoofbeasts escaped and tell Fins just how wrong he’s getting it, that this isn’t at all what he thought it was except that of course it’s what he thought it was, and it’s probably what Gamzee thinks it is, and goddamn if you don’t know what it is too.

The guilt is familiar now. Your thoughts break through the dividing wall to scream a long, well-deserved litany at you: you egregious cheating pail of fuckpus, you’ve been explaining your slutty pale glutes away for fucking seasons and seasons and now you’re dancing lap tango with the first troll willing to need you, you faithless fecal knot -- on and on, dulled only by the gentle slide of Gamzee’s hands to your knees. The two seadwellers opposite have already put their plates aside so that they can slide their arms into each other’s jackets, finishing this tableau to make you all look like the set-up to a moirallegiance porno. You want to scream till you hemmorhage up all your worthless organs.

It’s a bad night for your brain.

You are saved by Feferi Peixes’s endless need to get some sugar: she wriggles away from Eridan’s grasp and sits next to you both on the stairwell and strokes the inside of her matesprit’s elbow, saying, “Kiss me,” as simple command. His grip on you turns slack as he winds her hair around and around his wrist and jerks it back a little, a rein, kissing her, and usually you’d watch this indulgently but tonight you’re out. You push up and lean against the railing, saying “Kids, go and re-introduce yourselves to the concept of a room,” more sourly than you intended.

They do, mercifully, Fef tossed over his shoulder with kicking legs and laughter as Gamzee gives you a sloppy, soppy grin, brushes his fingers against yours before carrying her away -- “No audience, fine fairy girl,” he’s saying -- and you’re left alone with Fins, who is lurking around under the guise of picking up the plates. You feel strangely empty and wretched as he clatters them around, petty and fucking frightened, that’s what you are. Frightened as a fucking fleetbeast in the headlights.

It’s not the time for your friend to stick his frond in, but when has Eridan Ampora ever waltzed with the concept of tact?

He says: “You two glubbed about this yet, Kar?”

“What?” you say, numb and stupid as anything, and want to kick your own teeth in.

“Gamz,” he says, and he comes to the railing and tumbles a few empty shrimp-shells off into the shallows. “You know, how you two are pretty much shittin’ diamonds.”

“I hope he knows better to,” you say tartly, “because I’d say no. And: no. Also: fuck no, I’m a moirailled man. He can pack those diamonds back up his waste chute, I can’t do anything with them.”

“Kar, you turd,” he says wearily, stacking plates, “what d’you call you both being tucked up in each other’s fuckin’ pockets this whole time, platonic? Who’re you kiddin’? You might wanna tell him your intentions on account a I think my brother’s there are crystal clear.”

You are fussing with your ring, picking and pressing at the yellow diamond like it’s some kind of reset button, like it can possibly save you from all this. Your hackles are rising so quickly they’ll soon launch into space. “Wow, would you look at that? I’m not wearing my jacket, so this explains how you forgot I’m a fucking Threshecutioner, whose job it is to neutralize threats and keep the peace. I came here to keep the peace. Nothing less, nothing more!”

He’s gaping at you now. “Oh my bloody fuck, would you stop scurryin’ off behind your fuckin’ title every time you get the least little bit discombobulated, Kar, I’m just sayin’ -- ”

You snort, cut him short with a hand raised in warning. “What, that we’re such a cute couple? He’s like some purrbeast I fed once and now he thinks I’m his daddy, I gotta take him home? Now you’re saying we should get fucking handfasted and I can take him to the Flower Ball! Dress him up in a tux and ribbons and parade him around in high company, that’d really work! That’d really help!”

“I’m just sayin’ that I can count the smiles I seen out of you before this week on one goddamn flipper, and yet for some reason you been lit up like a string a fairy lights since you got here. I’m just sayin’ there’s somethin’ here you’re not gonna thank yourself for ignoring! Why you gotta make everythin’ so flippin’ complicated?!”

Both your voices are rising. “Because things are complicated! Because what about Sollux?”

“Cut that asshole loose! He’s a big boy, Kar, and you know things ain’t been right between you two for seasons, don’t you try and tell me you’ve been any kinda cuddly with each other.”

You dial yourself back, only you dial yourself back the wrong way, cold anger instead of calm. Instead of turning around and walking the hell out of there like anyone intelligent and professional would, you find yourselves staring each other down like a courtyard quadrant spat, like any moment the two of you are going to draw swords. “Listen to Mr. Objective here. You’re his kismesis, douchelord, I bet you cream your genes over the thought of Sollux getting dumped! Going to saddle up your white fucking seahorse like Prince fucking Charming and wreck his shit while he’s all splayed-out and vulnerable, huh?”

“Fuck you. That’s not fair.” There’s an injured tone to his voice, and that just makes you madder.

“Fuck fair. Fuck you! Fuck you twice. This is fucked up, and you’re not fucking helping. He’s good to me and I can’t -- I can’t just downsize him like some outdated tech!”

Eridan throws his hands up in the air, milking some unseen divine teat. “Fuckin’ bloodied shitbuckets, hark at him, ‘good’ to you -- tell me that ain’t how you really think, Kar. Good? Good? He treats you like a nerdling he don’t have to pay!”

There is once again ample opportunity for you to turn away and catch your breath somewhere, but opportunity’s puddling around your ankles. “Yeah?” you say, knowing your voice is taking on that glassy, segmented snarl it gets when you’re too amped up for your own fucking good. “Yeah? You think I’d be treated better here? Goddamn but I am so gratified to have Eridan Ampora, accredited quadrant counsellor, tell me who I should be kissing! It’s not as though his quadrants are at all an incestuous boondock slurry -- ”

Too late to take it back. Overhead, the seabirds screech.

“The fuck,” he says lowly, “is that meant to mean, Kar?”

“You’re all bleeding into each other! You live alone here out on this wreck and you’re all miserable codependents, do you think I haven’t fucking noticed? Did you think I was too pan-putrefied dumb to cotton on to how you all touch each other? The other two I can understand, but you’ve been around the Capitol long enough to know -- ”

“Zip your flap.” Eridan’s bright violet, right up to his frills, purple with shame and anger. “Keep it zipped.”

“ -- it’s ugly,” spews out your mouth, a torrent of desperate, tiny-minded shit. You have touched all of them too. You touch Gamzee Makara like touching him is going to get outlawed any night now. “Hell, if I hadn’t been here you would’ve just gone down with them, admit it, you’d be pailing your moirail and your moirail’s matesprit right now because you’re all in each other’s grills and you don’t know how to get out. I don’t -- I don’t want a part of that, all right? We’re trolls, not fucking animals!”

Now the flush in his cheeks is somewhere near plum. He looks livid. This must be what Sollux sees all the time, only he thinks it’s magnificent and you want to puke pure bile.

“I’d rather live in a wreck and fuck my moirail and her matesprit like a low-blooded perv, like you’re insinuatin’ -- ” and somehow he manages infinite dignity -- “than be a highblood with a moirail who don’t care, and a matesprit who can’t even fuckin’ love me.”

You belt him across the face before you even think to move your hand. But he doesn’t snap into parade rest like a chastised cadet; he just touches his split lip tenderly, wonderingly, and the shocked-thin slits of his pupils are like windows into the abyss. This is the second time in a week that you’ve hit him for completely shitty reasons.

“Well,” he says unsteadily, “that wasn’t what I was plannin’ for tonight, that’s for shore.”

“Shit. Nooksucking fuck.” You are at the very edge of your despair. “Kid, that was beneath me, I am so sorry. I don’t even know what’s wrong with me, Fins.”

“I’ll give you that one for free, you really fuckin’ don’t,” says Eridan, very slowly, and he runs his tongue over his own blood. You realise something fucking terrible. His eyes are too bright, and that his lacrimals are welling up in a way he’s trying to blink off. For a moment you want to seize him and beg on your terrible fucking knees for absolution, wipe the last five minutes clean as though they never existed, but you’re not the deity you pretend to be and you’re in significant pain. “But I can admit I was bein’ a douchebag too. I’m headin’ the fuck below for a while on account a washing-up don’t ever do itself, and maybe you can just -- stay the fuck up here, and use the time to screw your horns on straight.”

For a very long time you lean against the railing, arms draped across it like a desolate lover. Your pusher is fluttering so hard you’re finding it hard to breathe, your right arm sore and spots dancing a kickstomp on your oculars. You feel like you could keel over. You try to concentrate on your breath: emptying your airsponges then filling them up again, using the calming methods you’ve told so many people so many times to up and fucking use. After a very long time pulse subsides. In the end you scale the crow’s-nest with its squashy, saltbitten cushions and worn blankets, and you rest in a pile of them almost exhausted with shame.

There have been a couple times in your shit-stewed fuck-up existence that you’ve said unforgivable things, wounded with your tongue because you could. If you could rip off the part of your twitcher where the stupidity was and offer it to the fishtroll in a giftbag, you damn well would. There is a tiny violet smear on the pad of one finger, and you wipe it off on your borrowed trousers. You don’t know how long you sit, numb to yourself, until your palmhusk nearly vibrates itself out of your pocket, playing Who Let The Woofbeasts Out loud enough to rattle your fangs.

It’s not funny and it’s not cute, because you’d switched the fucking thing to silent. Terezi Pyrope has her gear-bitten God on one side and Sollux Captor on the other, and you brace yourself for a full frontal assault to your dignity as you thumb the device open.

GC: IIT2 hott
GC: al2o dumb and 2niiffy ii gue32
GC: nope
GC: we are 2O dunk
GC: *durnk
GC: text iiit
GC: W3 KNOW SUCH MYST3R13S NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
GC: ye2.
GC: ye2 and cute moviie2 of animal2, there wa2 thii2 fuckiing blubberbea2t 2tiickiing out it2 tongue, and ii wa2 goiing to 2how iit two you but ii want two get iit 2traiight between u2, i am not 2howiing you the moviier with the blubberbea2t 2tiickining out iit2 tongu3.
GC: hahahaha ii fuckiing KNOW.
GC: anyway what ii am tryiing two 2ay iis.
GC: ii am drunk and ii am happy for the fiir2t tiime iin a fuckiing week. thank you h&c for thii2 mo2t gloriiou2 giift of booze.
GC: but ii am not an alcoholiic, i 2imply have an emotiional dependence on liic liicq driink2 becau2e all else iin thiis crap2ack world ha2 abandononed poor 2ollux captor to hii2 fuckiing doom of beiing forevver allone and mii2erable forever.
GC: STOP >:\
GC: hahahaha iit’2 ok tz.
GC: look at thii2 priime example of long dii2tance moiiiraiiliiing.
GC: fuck there are two many fuckiing ii’2 in there.
GC: do you know what the alcohol really doe2 kk. want two know what thii2 pupa can pull.
GC: iit take2 away the voiice2, oh whoop2, i forgot you NEVER FUCKIING BELIIEVED IN THO2E
GC: ii haven’t 2tarted.
GC: becau2e ii never 2topped
GC: ii never 2topped hearing tho2e dyiing 2cream2 and knowiing them for what they were
GC: ii ju2t 2topped telliing you about them becau2e
GC: thing2 were ea2iier betwwenn uss when ii wa2nt rammiing my fuckiing horn2 up agaiinst your2tupid rah-rah long liive the fuckiing empiire bull2htiick, i gue22
GC: not when you get the fuckiing 2hake2 whenever you thiink any part of your preciiou2 empiire ii2 iin danger. cryiing at that one biit every tiime iin that troll wiill 2miith moviie wiith the alien2 and you practiically concu2223d tz wiith a coffee mug la2t fuckiing tiime 2h3 sugge2ted we try and 2crub aal tho2e fucking loyalty mods out ofyour 2orry overprogrammde lobe2tem2
GC: out of u2 three you were alway2 the goddamn liiabiiliiity
GC: alway2
GC: fuck ii’m drunk.
GC: long a2 ii could, thre2hiie
GC: 4H 1 S33
GC: Y3333333333333S >:] >:] >:[
GC: >:;
GC: hey kk.
GC: remembrm when we were two young for boo23e.
GC: 2hhut your whore mouht iii was2 goiing 2omewhere wiith thii2
GC: remembre when we all got drukn off godawfull carapaecc candycorn hooch adn we played 2triip poker taht one tiime
GC: fvuckiing amaziing
GC: fuckiing
GC: fuck
GC: karkat
GC: are you fuckiing your2elf
GC: iiiiiiii mean liike
GC: can ii f
GC: kk
GC: kk 2he ii2 2O 2IICK
GC: 2he ju2t made me driink water and we are 2eriioou22ly 2poonining riight now
GC: liike actuall hardcore 2nuggggle2 ii am tpyiing thii2 wiiht my braiin frm t floor
GC: the fuck do youu have 2 2ay about tii2 rampaant fuckery
GC: kk ii am goiing two kii22 her
GC: ii2 that ok
GC: two late, ii kii22ed her, iit wa2 amaziing, you weren’t there.
GC: holy fuckiing fiire of god 2he ii2 goiing to tuck me up that ii2 not even a typo
GC: are you jaellou2 yet
GC: ye2
GC: ye2
GC: ye2.
GC: ii mean NO im
GC: youre
GC: fuck
GC: ii ju2t
GC: am drunk.
GC: iim a drunk petty ba2tard
GC: kk im so sorry well ha2h thii2 out when you get back ii promii2e ju2t come back to us already PLEA2e
GC: also fuck you ii hate you that2 al2o a htiing htasait ha2t 2topped beining a thign
GC: kk
GC: ii am two
GC: and drunk.
GC: oh man, 2he kii22ed me again, ii am a 2tud, 2UCK IIT
GC: waiit we are goiing two kii22 the 2creen 2o you know what you are mii22ing
GC: there diid you feel iit
GC: you diidn’t becau2e the iinternet doe2n’t worki that wa2y haerawahahhaha

-- gallowsConflagration [GC] has ceased trolling carcinoGenerosity [CG]! --


Chapter Text

You wait til breakfast’s safely served before you say, “I’m heading back.”

Three faces stare back at you over the salty kelp porridge, the complete picture of bewilderment. You have to clarify, “Tomorrow. Back to the Capitol,” before it dawns on them what back means, and that you had a back to go to. Eridan hides his hand best; he simply keeps on drinking coffee as Gamzee halts and Feferi goes the colour of ruddy cement. You could bottle the silence and sell it as Syrup of Awkward.

“Already, Kar?”

“I’ve got things that need doing back shore-side, I can’t sit around chafing my nook and having a vacation. I get too used to this, I’ll want one every sweep.” Nobody laughs at your wholesome, comedically scintillating joke. Feferi is picking at her food, and you look at her because you want to look at the other two even less. “Come on, princess. Don’t be like that. We’ll still have Trollian, you can feel free to clog my chatbox as much as you want. Everyone else certainly fucking does.”

She opens her flap to say something, and from the expression on her face you know it’s going to be something you won’t know how to respond to -- but then the look transmutes, gets iron resolve from somewhere. “Then,” she says, “then we’ll have to have a going-away dinner. Won’t we? I’ll go hunting, we can’t just have last night’s chum for your -- for your -- going-away.”

There are no tears in her voice; just an infinite courtesy. You had wondered about fits and weeping, and for some reason this makes you feel a gigantic bulge-sucking asshole. This is a promotion from simply feeling like a bulge-sucking asshole. You dare a look at her moirail; he is sipping his sludge impassively. You dare, more tentatively, a look at her matesprit; Gamzee is as empty and serene as a washed-up shell. His expression couldn’t be more unreadable than the paint on his face.

You feel wretched. “Don’t do it on my account, Peixes, we’ve got last night’s leftovers -- ”

“I’d like to, Karcrab,” she says, “let me.”

There is a gloomy pause. From across the table Fins reaches for the sugar. This is added to the already-adulterated coffee until when he stirs it, the spoon is a little sluggish to move. “Then I’ll take you over in the tug, early evenin’,” he says briskly. “Just give my fuckin fuel expenses to Captor, ‘bout time he started payin’ for my gas -- ”

“Naw.” This is a very quiet interruption. Both of you turn to look. “I’ll take him, brother, don’t get your fret on. No skin off my motherfucking nasals.”

“Gamz -- ”

“I want to.”

“I was planning,” you cut in, “to call in the coast guard and make them justify their fucking existence by giving me a lift. Seriously, I can make my own way back.”

“The coast guard?” Eridan gestures contemptuously with his spoon. “Shell and shoal, you idiot, coast guard won’t come near the Corbenic. One, over my stiff dead body, two, they’ll be founderin’ on the rocks here like it ain’t even a thing. Nah, Gamz can take you if he’s of a mind to. Seriously, I see the coast guard ‘round here and I open fire, I shit you not.”

“I’ve a mind to,” says the clown-cultist.

“Okay. Sure.”

At that his moirail pushes her bowl away noisily, wringing her hands together and tugging every digit in its socket. There are two high spots of colour in her cheeks. She says, all in a rush, “I’ve got to go start,” and bolts up from the table, fleeing from the nutrition block like a cavewing out of hell. Eridan watches her go with a downturned mouth: to the left of you, Gamzee simply keeps eating. You understand jack shit.

“Kar, she got her own counsel to keep,” the seadweller’s saying, but you ignore his weary mouth and you head off after her. It’s too late in the game to leave any of them now. Tomorrow you’ll be gone, and you don’t want to leave unanswered questions behind you. Your unanswered questions, that is; you may be a flaming fucking hypocrite, but there are plenty of things these three kids have to ask you that you can’t answer. In for a sestertii, in for an aureus.

Outside the sunset still ripples at the horizon. It graduates from socket-hurting pinks to deep cherry oranges, descending down the orders of blue until the center of the sky is black. Out here there’s nothing around, no factories, no buildings, no smoke, so every star studding the sky is set clear and cold as diamonds. In this early-evening ripple Feferi squints against the light, heaving out the Corbenic’s old gangway.

She lets you help heave until the metal strikes the rock below with an unhappy clang, and then she grabs the cockle-bag and the digging-stick. At no point does she look at you. You say, “Kid,” and she just purses her mouth: at “Princess,” she is skidding down the gangway and towards the rocky outcropping the ship’s beached on. You follow her down. “Feferi.” No such luck.

The fishgirl traipses across the tidal pools to the sandbars revealed by low tide, past the cuttlefish aquaculture reef and over to the shiny leather-coloured sand. Soon she is prying up cockles from their hiding-places and filling the bag with their grey frilly shells, letting you squat and drop them in the bag like you’ve done for her a couple times before.

“I didn’t actually do anything this time to warrant the silent treatment,” you say. “I own that I am often a squelching, gritty asshole, but not now. You always knew I was going to leave.”

“I know!” she bursts out. The wind is sticking her curls to her mouth with seaspray, and she keeps having to spit them out. “I know, I know, I know I couldn’t keep you, I don’t think anyone gets to shrimply keep you. But why does he have to go too?”

You got left out of the loop here. “What? Who?”

“He never settled anywhere in his life!” She is doing a serious number on the cockle-holes now. It is a calculated cockle genocide. Sand flies everywhere. “He never settled anywhere, I mean, he met -- do you know how he and I even met -- do you know, do you even, do you glubbing even comprehend -- ”

After a moment she bites her tongue and takes a heaving breath. Feferi says in a rush, “Do you know the story of the fairy and the fishertroll?” She doesn’t wait for you to say no, because of course you fucking don’t. “The fishtroll fell in love with a beautiful land fairy, and the land fairy fell in love with them, but couldn’t breathe water. So the fisher made them a beautiful fish-skin that let the land fairy sea-breathe, and they went glub glub glub underwater and consummated their red quadrant, but then the land fairy wanted to go back on land to their moirail...”

Another cockle is levered out the sand so furiously it does a little somersault. “But the fishertroll got frightened,” she says, high and tunelessly sing-song, “and yanked off their wings and sewed the fairy up in the fish-skin, so that they couldn’t leave, and the fairy got frightened too and tried to flop back on land but they couldn’t get the skin off in time and they died there, just like that --

“No, glory, I’m getting mixed up,” she says suddenly, all despair. “That’s the nasty version. The other version is that the fairy found their wings and escaped back to land, and flew away forever, and that’s the point -- I can offer a fish-skin, but you’re wings, you can take him home.”

You are so utterly bulge-fuckingly lost that they couldn’t position you on a map with a satellite and an electronic compass. You take a wild stab at it anyway: “Peixes, I am not Eridan’s magical wiggler-tale wings.”

The expression she gives you plainly states that you’re a moron. “No,” says Feferi, “but you’re Gamzee’s. Gamzee’s going with you, you glubbing idiot, Gamzee’s going too.”

This information sets off nitroglycerin deep in your pan’s cortex. This information is unwelcome. Like a stuttering dipshit you say, “It’s just a lift, kid.”

“Just a lift!” she parrots. “Just a lift! Once he hauls anchor he goes and once he drops anchor he stays, and he told me that when he met me and I brought him home and put him in this stupid fish-skin -- he wanders where he wants to, and he might be red for me but it’s pale that makes a hive a home! Oh, Sisters,” she says, and she covers her face with one hand.

You’re on your feet and already reaching for her, but she drags her fingers down her face and takes a shuddery breath. When Feferi speaks again she sounds calm and stiff. “I won’t be the first dumb little fisherkid who got left for the land,” she says. “I just didn’t want it to be this soon, that’s all! He is my other very best friend.”

“I’ll send him back home to you, kid.” Your gut is heavy with a weird grieving impatience. You kind of want to shake her, tell her everything’ll be okay and how to deal, but you can’t. “I’ll turn his glutes around the moment we hit the Capitol. He’ll be back in a couple nights.”

She is already shaking her head. “Moirails need their moirails.”

“I’m not his moirail.”

“Get that through his pan, then,” she says, “if the other won’t go through yours.”

The waves rustle on the little rocky beach like white paper. You drop to your haunches and fish a cockle out of its watery hole, dropping it into the bag with the rest of them, and you reflect on the fact that your life’s the worst kind of romantic drama. You would have turned the movie off in the first fifteen minutes. Unrealistic characters, for one thing. Unlikeable protagonist. Why did everyone in the whole fucking universe want the flat of his hand? What makes his hideous face and lumpy body so fucking appealling? You want your money back.

“That’s enough,” says Feferi eventually, and shakes the cockle-bag. “I’ll have to pickle what Gamzee doesn’t use, and my pickles aren’t as good as his. I’m going to miss his cooking. I’ll get all skinny again... look at my tummy, he put some fat on my subcutaneals -- should’ve seen me before, I was like a ray-fin -- stop!”

Your flap had opened to give her shitty, inadequate reassurance, but she stops you in your tracks. “Just have fun tonight,” she says. “It will be fun. Look! I’ll smile if you do.” Feferi demonstrates. It is, as usual, worthy of record. “Gamzee will get out his squeezebox. We haven’t had music since you came or anyfin. I wish I’d learned, but we never budgeted for music modules.”

The acid still churns in your digestion sac but you’re used to that by now. You are simply filled with a very old, very stale regret for the entire world. Instead of mouthing platitudes you set down the cockle-bag and you take her hands, turning her palms upwards and tracing the base of her fingers.

The two conciliatory bands on her right hand are somewhat pitted; they don’t have the tools to galvanize their metal out here. “You’re not dead yet, kid,” you say.

“These look like pretty good paws for something nice and fancy. Cello, guitar... violin, maybe, that’d tickle your Sisters’ fancy. Why don’t you learn?”

Her nose wrinkles up. “Isn’t it dreadfully dear?”

“I should rightfully be disbarred for what I am about to spout,” you say, patting her palms with your thumbs, “but if you look in the right places -- which you shouldn’t do, because shit’s unbelievably illegal, and you won’t do when I am anywhere in the vicinity -- there’s a roaring market in jailbroken infomodules. A criminal one, and no one should use it, and the markets are so far underground you would need to hit Alternia’s core and take a hard right turn into hyperspace. But if someone hypothetically did decide to take their education into their own two greasy claws and damn the consequences, they might find a violin feed on the cheap, so long as they didn’t happen to mind shanties over concertos.”

“Reely?” Her eyes could not sparkle harder if you had told her there were free pink horsaronis in the offing.

“Reely,” you say. “The violin’ll be an upfront expense, but the funny thing is that by the time they’re third-hand and some bluegill with nine fingers is selling them off the back of his lusus’s shell they’re usually called a fiddle and you can get one for a good kick in the guts that won’t go warp overmuch in sea air. Give you something to do other than diddle your cuttlefish when Fins isn’t around.”

There’s a whump from the gangway. You both look over to see Gamzee sloping over, big hands in his pockets, picking his way through the rocks to the intertidal zone. It’s funny to think of how familiar his slouch is now. “Hey, you painted asshole,” you say. “I was just telling your matesprit to pick up an instrument instead of a broom for once in her fucking Cindertroll existence.”

“Hell, yes,” he agrees, all moony smiles, and you kind of love him for it, and for how Feferi lights up. He says, “There’s the best idea as ever got presented to a brother. You and a motherfucker could play together sometime, starfish, if you’d a mind to.”

Some of the tension sinks from her shoulders. She says, “I’ve definitely a glubbing mind to,” and lifts her mouth to be kissed, which he bends over to perform. When they have finished swapping way too much spit than is tasteful to do when you are right there, Feferi looks as though she has been granted a minor reprieve. “You’ll play tonight, though, won’t you? And I’ll make Eridan sing?”

You say, “He fucking sings?” and they laugh raucously, and some of the tension seeps from you, too. Not everything has to be a complete shit-smeared catastrophe. Soon you’ll be home. You can regroup and fix up the tatters, and maybe when you look at Sollux things will now make some semblance of sense. “This I have to hear.”

“He’ll have to do god damn something,” says the clown cultist, “‘cause when you were gone, my chill coldbrother up and poured your breakfasts out to the motherfuckin’ partysquids.”

Both you and the little seadweller look at each other with narrowed eyes. “You hold,” she suggests. “I’ll punch.”

“As a Threshecutioner I have to advise you that violence isn’t the answer here, my child,” you say. “You hold and I’ll mess up his overgelled douchebag hairdo.”

At that point you are convinced that when you want it to -- when you are absolutely determined it has to, or you’ll take an acrid rage-piss on the whole miserable universe -- things do, in fact, work out for the better. Sometimes you’re forced to believe.

After Eridan’s been soaked down to stringy curls and enough indignant histrionics to float a raft of duchesses, Feferi takes off to sea. She kisses you both, cold and quick, and you are left in charge of her regular duties as she skins overboard with half a sack of cracked cockles into the sea to go bag ‘something nice!’ She’s small and her swimming skirts are all bleached out grays: she’s gone in an instant, just one more piece of the water. You think of this pretty little girl all on her own against the world and something awful in you that you entirely don’t want to think about twinges, hard and ridiculous. Eridan hardly blinks, too busy with rinsing sand and soup out of his hair, and if he’s okay, you’re okay.

You mend some nets and sweep sand down the deck and prying a few barnacles off the hull here and there. You crack a nail but by the time Eridan stops sulking over his haircreams you’re feeling pretty proud of yourself, and you and him and Gamzee settle down to a few hands of Impaler before there is a splash and a squelch and Feferi clambers up a gangrope with a thrashing shark twice her size slung over one narrow shoulder. You lose your fucking shit, scrambling up to brace yourself between the two boys and the monster and groping yourself awkwardly for a sickle you’d left belowdecks. Your bloodpusher rattles you apart with shock and horror.

“Shark,” you gasp out. “Holy fucking -- shark!”

Eridan peers around your hip, then groans. “Fef, you shit-for-shells, you promised you’d stop goin’ after the snappers this size!”

“We can salt what we don’t eat,” she says carelessly, and drops the hulking corpse to the deck. Her trident wobbles in the thing’s braincase like a toothpick stuck into a truck. It flops once, twice, and she brings a heel down on the bladelike tail. The mouth gapes open, a deathtrap of hellish teeth and bruisy violet gums, and you go very still. You have seen Nepeta bag bigger prey, and toothier predators, but not both at the same time and besides the point this is a motherfucking shark: the day terror of the seas wrapped up in pale, purple-bruised flesh. A semi-mythical promise of death, one of the Bright Lady’s fucking complacency, and here it lies dripping before you.

Feferi pulls her trident out of the thing’s head with a small, entirely mundane squelch. It twitches, flops weakly, and you nearly jump out of your skin. The three seahatched do nothing as unkind as laugh at you for it, and you hate them a little.

“Fuck me, Peixes,” you say shakily. “You do know how to send a boy off, don’t you?”

She laughs, proud and lovely. “Oh, I just did the fun part!” she says. “You poor dorks have to butcher it, I’m out!”

She gives the three of you a satisfied, possessive once-over, then swaggers off on wobbly legs for a nap.

You have tangled with the grand colossii of the northern steppes, you have hunted the great jeweled wyvrins of the eastern forests, you have prowled the Capitol’s Septics after rogue seadwellers and you have spent a very exciting week with Nepeta Leijon dressed in cloaks and googles, hauling your wiggler asses off after dragon turtles across the searingly bright alien islets of the planet Ariadne for your midsweep Acadamy Review. You have never even so much as seen a shark in real life before, much less had one dumped still gnashing before you for dinner.

“They don’t really bite when they’re this dead,” Eridan says, amused, and he takes your hand and lays it, plop, on the thing’s pointed snout. “Check the epidermals, though; they’re teeth too. Give it a feel.” The skin is sandpaper rough and electric, and when the jaw moves, weakly, you nearly die right there and then. Adrenaline is like liquid fire all through you and everything feels like a miracle: you are crouched in front of pure violet murder, papping a shark, and it can’t do shit to you back.

“Damn,” you say. You laugh. “God damn, they’re actually real.”

“Slightly less real, now,” he shrugs. “I keep tellin’ her ‘cut it out’ but there’s no talkin’ to her when she’s got an idea in her glubbin’ head -- ”

“Like moirail, like mate,” you say, and he laughs too. You slide your hand down, carefully, and finger one fang. It’s flat and triangular, a perfect arrowhead. This thing could bite anything it liked clean in half. Touching it feels... unreal, realer than real. You are quite frankly thrilled.

“Shhh,” you say to it, and dare to stroke along the rim of that terrible mouth. A beady purple eye blinks at you, stupid and full of hellfire and dying, and you rasp its sandpaper skin again. “Shhhhh, go gentle, there’s a love. Shh.”

It gives a last, terrible shudder, and goes still.

“Fuckin’ hell,” Eridan says, “are you ever a piece of work, Vantas.”

“Best piece of work the mothergrub ever did,” you agree distantly, and lick a little purple blood from your fingertips.

The fisherboy punches you in the shoulder and then heaves the body over, exposing pale gray-violet belly. Gamzee slowly unfolds up to his full height as he and Eridan fondly regard cartilagination.

“Be a dear and get the friggin’ knives -- and a spice rub, Gamz,” he says briskly, “Karkat, hope you’re ready for some real fun.”

The clown nods and heads off, whistling. Eridan slants a terrible grin at you, cruel and fond and all challenge, like he really thinks you’ve never been guts deep in some poor animal before and parceling out monster meat. Like he thinks you’re going to watch him split open a toothy leviathan and faint. Okay, maybe when you were five sweeps, yeah, but a catgirl put paid to that.

“I didn’t think you kids were going to start the party this early, is all,” you say, and get to your own feet. “Let me just fetch my glubbing sickle and I’ll show you poor fishfucks how I have fun.”

Later that night when a horrifying mountain of murderfish has been rendered down to bones and teeth and the aroma of Gamzee’s cooking has filled the Corbenic, when half the cupboard’s worth of crockery has been taken up on deck and all the pillows in the whole ship have been mounded up in drifts, when the night has risen to the occasion by being clear and crisp with not a breath of wind and your jacket waits waits whitely on a hook in the hallway, you all shindig. There is unreal amounts of party on this ship tonight. You’re stuck on a rock in the middle of the sea on a broken-down shiphive and you all rock it sideways.

You all eat dark, fragrant sharkmeat until, going by percentage, you’re a good deal more seadweller than you were pre-dinner, and the steamed cockles are so good you don’t even bother with bowls. You all just sit around the steaming pot with forks and eat them until your eyes are streaming from the spice and the garlic powder. Then you make room for more. You all look like jackasses: Feferi in a cute frilly dress and Eridan with a perfectly knotted tie like he’s going to a society ball, Gamzee in an inside-out t-shirt, his hair braided up with pearls and shells, and you wearing a button-up far too big for you with a frankly masterful woven collar of abalone clasped around your neck. You’re all strewn around on mats and pillows shoving fresh flat bread in your flaps and talking with your mouths full like a decadent pack of Gamblignant royalty. You’re all fucking magnificent.

“Okay,” you say, when the leftovers have been acknowledged as hazardous to everyone’s health and you’re giddy and heavy off overeating -- “okay, I was promised dinner and a show. Fins, you’re the show.”

Gamzee’s pulled out some seriously toxic bathtub liquor out of somewhere. What gets a seadweller drunk doesn’t get a landdweller drunk, merely dead, and in any case you suspect that the liquor contains fermented Faygo. They’ve all got chipped mugs full of the stuff straight and you’ve got a mug of half coffee, half sugar, and a few shots of pure carbonated hell to taste. You don’t feel drunk: simply alert and awake and amenable, whereas Feferi’s already giggling and Eridan’s rakishly sprawled across your lap like he thinks he’s a saucy bucket-wench.

He gives you a deeply disconcerted squint. “Kar, you got woesome misinformed, here.”

“Oh, no, I fucking didn’t,” you say, flicking his snout. “Mr. Makara over here made the dinner, Ms. Peixes provided the good looks and raw materials, and you sing for your supper. So. Up and sing, bitch.”

This provokes instant furore. Eridan’s protests float over the top: “I ain’t halfway the drunk I’d need to be to sing, Vantas, no way, no glubbin how, and anyway there’s no accompaniment -- ”

“Well, would you up and gander.” With the air of a magician, his moirail’s matesprit pulls out a seriously battered accordion out from underneath a heap of pillows, trailing his fingers over the round shiny keys as it lets loose a musical wheeze. “Miracles, brother, you needed accompaniment and here it comes like it motherfuckin’ heard you.”

“Gamz, you fuckin’ traitor.”

“Aw, I ain’t, though -- ”

At this point Fins is blushing from genuine embarrassment, which, it has to be said, is highly endearing. You’re full of good food and you’re sipping awful coffee, and you’re buzzed just off the starlight and the trace amount of jet fuel that’s in this thing, and you can’t help but laugh until your sides ache. Feferi’s already clamoring, “Do ‘A Thiefbeast’, or ‘Hunterrorist, Bring Me The Head of My Matesprit’ -- ”

“Cod, Fef, you’re in on this too?”

All of you are sniggering too hard to feel sorry for him. The violet flush is creeping over his high, fine cheekbones and down nearly to his throatstem, and when he holds his hands out beseechingly for mercy Gamzee just smiles and squeezes out a chord. You hadn’t pegged the clown cultist for musical, and that’s endearing, too, though currently it’s Ampora’s distress winning the trophy for shit that shouldn’t be this cute.

You say, “Do ‘I’m Seven Sweeps Come Summer’. Then do a flip.”

“You’re all prize shitheads,” says Eridan, but now he’s laughing a little too. He knocks back the rest of his drink and gets to his feet, trying to look put-upon. There’s no sign in him now of the Capitol’s hard-ass archagent, a sneering gangster, a dockside bravo: he’s just a giggling, good-looking kid with silly hair and a tie, brushing himself down as the opening chords sound out. “Fuck all three a you.”

Frankly, you were expecting him to be terrible. The earlier smirks you got on the beach promised what you thought would be the best bad singing you’d had since the Threshecutioner Karaoke Evenings. When your friend’s flap opens to, “As I walked out one second spring,” out comes a liquid lovely tenor that proves you are an assumptive fuckwagon. Unschooled, sure, rough as guts, but overall it’s gorgeous, you’ve been had. His moirail is laughing at your slack-jawed shock. You wonder if Sollux knows about this particular talent: you’d bet your horns he doesn’t.

Eridan gets through ‘Seven Sweeps’ and ‘The Gamblignant’s Black Love’ and ‘Lumber Technician, Spare That Arboreal’ before he cries off ‘Spare a Hoofbeast, Mount A Cavalreaper’ on account of still not drunk enough, and you whistle your applause until he collapses next to you with fresh amounts of booze. Both of you punch each other’s shoulders gamely.

“You sing somethin’, you hatch-bitch,” he says.

“Sure, douche. Absolutely. I have the full breadth of Threshecutioner cultural heritage behind me, here’s one we used to sing in training -- Feferi, you want to learn ‘There’s A Hole In My Bucket’?”

The resulting conflict is noisy, and in the end Feferi is left disappointed by pale directive that no way, no how, is she ever learning ‘There’s A Hole In My Bucket’, even though you argue that you’d only sing the first ten verses and it’s a goddamn education to hear. This gets you out of singing, anyway, which is good because your full range is monotone.

There’s a couple more songs. They’re all drunk and you’re caffeinated and happy and it’s got the same result, so you sing together in a four-part bellow til you’re hoarse. You end up using Fins’s not uncomfortable frame as a couch, and now his blush is less embarrassment and more the flush of someone who has seen sobriety come and go.

In the end he says, “Fef, darlin’, do my favourite,” and Feferi gets up and curtseys prettily to you all. After the obligatory catcalls she begins to sing with a thin, sweet voice, sweeter for being wholly unselfconscious: “Oh, I’ll no more go a-roaming,” and you recognise the tune.

Oh, I'll no more go a-roaming,
In the dark and in the gloaming
for I know now where my hive is
and it's back to shore for me!

Sweeps I've gone a-sailing,
Left my moirail dockside wailing,
but I know now where my hive is
and it's back to land for me!

When you remember them all you want to remember them like this, you think -- all it takes is the smell of an oily rag for you to get putrid with sentimentality -- just like this, as they are now. You want to think of Gamzee smiling to himself and doing a pretty fucking competent job on the keys, considering he’s most likely blazed as he is drunk. You want to remember Feferi with a fistful of skirt in both hands and showing the worn hem of her petticoat. You want to remember Eridan with his killers’ hands set comfortable around your sides, his eyes like violets, looking at her as though his moirail is the only moirail in existence.

Seas I've been a-traveling
and my soul it's been unraveling
but I know now where my hive is
and it's to your arms for me.

It takes a little more of Gamzee’s truly noxious brew for you to think it’s a great idea to teach these kids to waltz. “Eridan,” you say, giddy and on fire, “this is the last fucking time you prop the ballroom walls up with your shoulderblades at Court! You utter bucket-fucking disgrace of an Archagent.”

He says plaintively, “I ain’t there to dance, Kar.” A long purple curl has come out of his coif and is hanging down on his frontpan, and he’s squinting at you in the way that makes you suspect his vision isn’t anything to write home about. “I’m there to -- I am there to prop up the fuckin’ wall, that’s what I am. A glorious fuck of a prop.”

“Well, I am, and I’m tired of having to go around with snooty lordlings playing grab-ass instead of, instead of someone I actually might want to goddamn dance with sometime this sweep.”

The expression Eridan gives you is soft and incredibly fond, and with exaggerated care he gets up and strikes what he obviously thinks is a dance pose but instead -- as you inform him -- makes him look like he’s got six different kinds of palsy and all of them are located in his self-respect, but you take him through the rudiments of the waltz. He’s not bad -- hands chaste, feet careful, smile blinding -- but Gamzee’s awful. Both of you keep laughing into each other as Eridan claps the beat slightly out of time and you go whirling around the scrubbed dark deck of the Corbenic.

Tallest leads, which means you’re a natural in Eridan’s arms, can compensate in Gamzee’s, but you’re a limping horrorshow in Feferi’s because it’s been so long since you’ve had a shorter partner you’ve forgotten not to follow. You all end up in ungraceful heaps on the floorboards, heaving with the exertion of laughing too hard at nothing all that funny. Thin smoke-coloured clouds drift overhead, veiling the starlight and softening the sky into luminousness, and you close your eyes. You’re relieved. You’re an immense bad-ass. You’re magnificent and immortal and you shit sunshine.

One of your hands is in Gamzee’s. The wind blows over and cools the heat in your cheeks, smelling like salt and the sour scent of sand, and you want to remember this moment too. It’s been a long time, since you just let yourself exist and didn’t hear the unending question in your pan asking you why you even fucking are. Who you are. What you are. The truth is that a lot of the time you walk around Alternia acting like you can solve all of its problems and there’s a part of you that knows you’re its biggest problem, you’re a promise that you can’t keep. You’re unworthy of everyone around you.

Tonight you don’t listen. Your cardiovascular jitters a couple beats, but when you tighten your fingers in Gamzee’s he squeezes back and eventually the pain goes away, and you feel as though you’re utterly fucking safe. You’re secure. There is nothing you can’t hold on to or come back to, even the two trolls waiting back in the Capitol. When Gamzee extricates himself you feel weirdly bereft: you crack open a lid just in time to see him curled up around his matesprit, sliding his hand slowly up under her skirts.

“Yeah, so, Ampora,” you say loudly, sitting up and joggling Eridan’s shoulder. “We have business right now on the other side of the ship, remember?”

The face he makes indicates he thinks you’re out of your mind, but then his gaze slides over to the other two and it changes to queasy embarrassment. Feferi has her eyes closed and her head spilled back and is already making sounds that will haunt you forever, so it is with haste you hustle your friend away from the scene of the crime and over to the Corbenic’s aft.

At the rear of the ship you both lean against the railing, douchefucks extraordinaire, completely content in each other’s company. You’re his best friend; is he yours? Leant shoulder to shoulder and satisfied with the silence it feels a sure thing. When you look at him he is absurdly familiar, from the silhouette of his crooked horns to his beaky nose, his torn-up aural frills, the chips and scores that map out his face. This kid is wrecked, and kind of magnificent with it.

“I like it back here,” he says. “Look, clouds’re clearin’; you can see fair half my zodiac constellation, down on the edge -- it’s the Wing. Fef’s the Candle, so it’s set already. I think Gamz is the Rainbow, but damned if you can ever see it from here. Where’s yours, I’ll tell you if it’s seeable -- ”

“God, Fins,” you say, nearly dreamy. “What am I going to do when I’m gone?”

You are fiddling with your ring, twisting it this way and that in the groove it’s made at your fingers. A honey-gold topaz diamond, wrong shape, wrong colour. It looks even more alien with the string and shell bracelets shackled around your wrists, with the salt on your tongue and under your nails. Then your hand is covered with Eridan’s, grey on grey.

“Stay,” says Eridan. He is looking at you with tipsy earnestness. “Trade that topaz in for indigo. I mean -- I mean, hell, Kar, you’re as good a hand ‘round the place as a fishtroll born, and don’t take that as a glubbin insult, damn you. Stay, c’mon, we’d be family.”

Your vision swims. “I can’t,” you finally croak. “There’s so much work to get back to -- my fucking inbox -- ”

“So come back after,” he says, and now his face is alight with something completely awful. “No, listen -- the Corbenic’s your hive if you want and I know you like it, you smile and everythin’. You belong, stop kiddin’ yourself. Fef adores you and you’re crazy for Fef, right, just like me and Gamz are, and Gamz -- you’re fair fuckin’ foolin’ yourself that you and Gamzee Makara ain’t written in the stars. It’s a friggin’ romcom. We could be your harbour, we could be your home, and you can’t tell me you ain’t in the market for one.”

You close your eyes briefly, and the sockets themselves feel strange and hot. “I don’t have a home,” you say, as gently as you can make it. “Not the palace. Not the Silver Station up in orbit, either -- they tore down my hive the night I went up to the academy. We serve without fear or favour. We don’t have homes.”

“Stop bein’ Sire Vantas for five motherglubbin’ seconds at a time,” he says sharply. You want to laugh at this idea, but what bubbles up in your throatchute sounds halfway between a squawk and a hiccup. In you is the sum of all dignity. “I know you’re down there somewhere, Kar. I seen you. What’s Karkat the troll want? You ever ask yourself that?”

“That kid died on his sixth sweep. Get it through your pan, Fins, you can’t name one drop of the blood on my hands. You don’t know. You can’t know, okay? You have not the faintest fucking clue.”

“I know Threshecutioner ain’t shorthand for swapped the right to ever be happy.”

This is a depressing summation of everything that Eridan doesn’t get. You look at each other. There’s nowhere else to look, not at the water or the fine ruined shell of the Corbenic herself or wherever the fuck your constellation might be. Eridan’s mouth is set in a passionate snarl of worry and he smells like starch and brine and booze. When he rests his cool hands on your shoulders he hovers upon the edge of something irreversible and no, oh, God, not this. Not now.

“I want to know what you’re runnin’ from,” he says doggedly. “Threshecutioner corps don’t ban you from the quadrants, so I just want to know why you don’t deserve -- why you can’t even try, for fuck’s sake -- ”

The seadweller cups your face in his cold fingers. In his eyes there is something as awful as it is tender as it is infinitely stupid. It’s like seeing a falling rock from far below, unable to move as it comes whistling out of space to squash you flat. Eridan looks like he did when you first clapped eyes on him: proud, in pain, clamorous for you as a gull is with a scrap of shiny trash. He has looked at you like that every second since.

This hurts every single goddamned ill-starred time.

“Oh, fuck,” you say in dread, and he kisses you. Whole lifetimes have passed since you were kissed like this. It is a blight upon the universe that anyone could want to kiss you so much. The night shrouds in as he quietly kisses your mouth over and over, a whole trash dump of reeking, toxic longing, and you do the worst thing that you could have ever done to him. You kiss him back.

The alcohol on his lips makes yours feel numb, and considering it’s culljuice Faygo wine there is every reason to believe you’re going to shed a couple tastebuds when he parts your lips with his own. You take fistfuls of his stupid button-up shirt and go to fucking town -- just tasting him, letting your teeth scrape, deepening until you have sold all your decency for the slide of Eridan’s tongue on yours. He touches your face, your hair, brushes the base of your horns. It all feels better than anything has any right to, and when you shudder he laughs into your mouth.

You are a selfish shitheel. You pull away and he just gives you this slow secret grin, eyes too bright, certainly not sober, and you are starting to suspect that you might not be the picture of sobriety yourself. Your bloodpusher strikes against the inside of your chest in a rib-battering waltz and you are completely hung up on his lips, his cool solid body, the press of his abdomen against your own.

“Oh, my God,” he says, giddy.

“Eridan,” you say, incoherent. You’re probably trying to say something, but you are the all-encompassing bastard of the universe and it’s not coming out. “Eridan.”

“You and me, we’ll go down in history,” he says. “You can’t say you never thought it, I know you have, I fuckin’ know... you’n me, Hardass McGee and Ragefins Fuckslammer. Just like you said. Kickin’ every ass available ‘til we forced some worldwide ass embargo.”

“Eridan. Idiot. Eridan.”

Stupid little licks of his hair are falling down to his face that you want to tuck back. You want to go back to the very first troll who thought up romance and tell them look, well, nice idea, but it never works out and also you’re a gigantic shitwad who’s ruined my life.

He says, “I’m in love with you, Kar.”

The seas do not boil, the sky does not rend, the moons don’t fall out the sky in rose-green unison. “I mean it,” he continues, as though the problem is you doubting his veracity. “Never met anyone like you, fuck, you’re perfect -- I’d never ask for anyfin else, if I got you. You got my family here, you got me. I love you. I love you, man, I promise, whatever you want -- ”

“Stop,” you croak. There are bright spots dancing in front of your eyes and your shoulders are shaking. He stops immediately, letting go of you and raising his hands palm-outwards in the universal signal for guess what, I’ve stopped. This too breaks your bloodpusher with a curious absoluteness.

“Talk,” he says, and he sticks his hands behind his back like a child not wanting to break something. “Talk all you like.”

Eridan is flushed and bright-eyed and intent, and not for the first time you think he’s fucking lovely, so much more beautiful than he has the right to be. And he is looking at you as though you are a rare example of love and stardust, as though you’re some kind of exotic goddamn beakbeast, or a fine and fancy teapot. As though you’re not a washed-up worn-thin bundle of scars and screwups that only a moirail would love and yours doesn’t anymore, and you --

“I’m so sorry, kid.” There is salty blood on your teeth. The words come out with difficulty. “I’m so sorry. I don’t love you like you love me.”

For a moment his face falls. Then he rallies and says, “I don’t care.”

I care. And it’d kill you. It would kill you every fucking day.”

“I can wait.”

“Barkbeasts wait. Trolls don’t -- fuck, not on my account, Fins. Please. Don’t settle for someone who could never be harbour to you, I’m not worth it.”

“Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t give a fuck,” says Eridan, drawing himself up as haughty as a prince. “Tell me that kiss didn’t mean glubbin’ shit, I’ll back off.”

“I can’t, because it did, but it doesn’t matter, there’s someone else -- two someones.” The boy opposite you looks as though you’ve backhanded him twice. “I am unbelievably fucking sorry. I could not be sorrier.”

“But -- Pyrope, you’re black for Pyrope -- ”

“I’ve taken a dump on three out of four quadrants,” you say. “I’ve screwed up in bulk, don’t you get it? I might’ve lost her and I need her, Fins. I might’ve lost Sollux. And it doesn’t matter how pale I am for Gamzee Makara -- there, I goddamn said it, you happy? -- if I’ve screwed up with Sollux the rest of me doesn’t make sense. I’ve been royally fucked-up over him since I was five, I can’t say yes to anything about anyone. Not until I know what the hell he and I are doing to each other.”

All the colour drains away from his face. He says, “Yes to -- red or pale?” and you just -- you nod.

“Sol,” he says. His face is flat. “Sol has that much hold over you?”

Both of you stare each other down. Eridan’s still drunk. You never should have let him do this still tipsy, you irresponsible nooksuck. He abruptly takes your shoulders and looks as though he wants to shake you, or wad you up between his palms and tear you apart, eyes wild -- and he kisses you again, like he doesn’t know what else to do. Do you dodge it? Do you fuck.

Eridan flings himself right into you like an explosive that can destroy whatever part of you belongs to people that aren’t him, like the tidal waves that crumble down Capitol walls, the levees they have to rebuild each season. All of a sudden you are very calm. It takes your breath away, that overwhelming force, how much parts of you want to kiss him back and have him lead you somewhere quiet so you can become each other’s, but the rest of you is silent and sad.

“Nobody’ll ever love you like I love you,” he half-gasps, into your mouth. “They don’t even know how.”

“Please stop,” you say, unhappy beyond all possible description. Through a fug of increasing pain you reach up and stroke his hair and you press your frontpan to his, feeling the hard humiliated shake all through his body. You pity him endlessly. “Please, I -- I know, I really fucking do. You love with every part of yourself, Fins, it’s a goddamn embarrassment.”

Eridan wrenches back as though he can’t be far enough away from you. His fists are clenched and his head is down his voice shakes, each exhalation ragged. “Sollux fuckin’ piss-sucker Captor gets everythin’ handed to him on a silver platter with, with bows on -- and what the fuck did I ever get, other than nookfuls a sand?”

Both of you are breathing raggedly now. Yours whistles merrily out your oxygen sponges, high and nasal. Never mistake calmness for numbness. You are, in fact, off your fucking chump.

“Sure,” you husk. “Sure, poor you, it’s not like he’s been appointed archagent by a kismesis that thinks he hung the fucking moons. Eridan who doesn’t gatecrash the palace every perigee because his lover changed the passwords to ‘swordfish’ just to mess with him, not like it’s Eridan, Eridan, Eridan each word he says to me, did you know that? Eridan did this and Eridan screwed over that mob boss and Eridan can raise revenants on command because the brightest face of God goddamn bestows her eldritch benedictions smack-dab on his barnacle-blistered nook, KK! Not he’s the best worst thing I got, KK, never had anything like him, never will!

“Poor Mr. Ampora! Let me just grab my bulge with both hands and have a morbid sorrow-wank over the tragic fucking death of your attention span. You really think I don’t know what it’s like being second best?”

During this pestilent screed his eyes have been getting wider and wider, until they’re the approximate size and shape of saucers. You’re heaving for air.

“Are you jealous of me?” he blurts, and laughs a high strange laugh. “Over -- Sol?”

“And why the fuck not?” you demand, and the laugh dies sharply in his throat. All the while your blood pounds in your aurals. “I’ve got fucking scars down to my soul, brinesucker, and do you think that earns me anything? You think that nets me so much as a bucketfucking pat on the head from Sollux fucking Captor, sharkpailer extraordinaire? You have Feferi fucking Peixes who is so beautiful I could puke and so messed-up and so great, and there’ll never be anyone for her but you, and Gamzee -- Gamzee would crawl on his belly over broken glass if you needed him to! Just pout and you have all of them at your beck and fucking call! No one fucking touches you once you’re wrapped up in this white corpse-cloak, not if they knew you, they take you away and when they’re done with you you don’t fit right with anyone you used to know, you don’t get warned that your best friends’ll look at your fucked-up ears and your fucked-up manners and just see a big fucked-up failure and he’ll never -- never fucking -- so much as kiss you goodbye -- ”

You’re strangling on your own snot. Each breath is a bullet to your bronchiae.

“Ah, shit,” you say distantly, and sag hard against the railing. “You-- you never failed at a damn thing in your life, Eridan, and it’s not like I don’t love you back. Don’t you talk to me about jealousy.”

You miss the railing entirely, though, your hands stupid-numb, and instead you slide in a liquid heap to your knees, hacking for breath and generally being a complete embarrassment. To your utter horror your breath gets harder to catch instead of easier. Each cough makes your eyelids curl up. This episode has been building up slowly over the past few days and you thought it could wait a little longer, but the tell-tale heavy, hard burn is spreading from your sick vasculars out to your shredded, throbbing horns. Of all the people you didn’t need to look pitiful in front of, you think bitterly.

You tip shakily to one side, something going pop in your head, cutting all your strings, and distantly you feel the thick warm rush of blood pouring out of your nasals. Your bloodpusher kicks once, and then suddenly it’s not kicking at all.

Holy shit. You’re not just having palpitations. You are having a fully-fledged heart attack. This is it: this is what Sollux and Terezi always warn you about, if you push yourself too far. Now your pusher has seized like the engine of a worn-out spaceship, and you’ve got no more energy left to do anything but pitch flat on to your face. The salt and silk texture of the ancient wood under your snout expands to fill the entire universe, that and the gaping black hole where your heart should be.

“Fuck!” Eridan says, and you feel him touch you, the back of your neck, your hair where it falls into your face. You are bundled up into his arms, fighting for every scrap of air and then unable to fight at all. Everything keeps blacking out. You taste liquid at the back of your throat. This is it: this time, you’re going to die.

“Gamzee!” The shouting comes from far away. “Gods and fucking fishes, Gamzee! Feferi!”

There is the thunderous creaking that a six-foot subjuggulator makes as he pounds up a slanted deck at warp speed, all claws and panicky honking. The blackness subsides briefly to Gamzee Makara’s face, and then you’re blind and deaf and dull to anything but fear and confusion. There are many wet, cold hands all over you. You don’t care.

“No,” you slur. “No more. I’m done.”

Your heart detonates.

CG: Y----ES!
CG: SUR-----------E I GU--ESS
GC: ...
CG: DO---ES T)(IS )(APPEN A LOT W)(--EN YOU DO IT???????
CG: D---EATH TO ALL LANDDW-----ELL------ERS!!!!!!!!!

-- carcinoGenerosity [CG] ceased trolling gallowsConflagration [GC] --


It’s dark. You’re alone. You sit on the Corbenic’s railing at the prow and watch the waves come in and out against the sandbar. The water is a pure crystal blue, and you don’t think any amount of words could describe the bright swarm of fish that glint and dart beneath its surface. A single moon hangs in the sky, white as a ghost’s eyeball and very small, and the light is silvery-colorless. Nothing makes any amount of noise, besides you.

Well, shit.

“Let me out,” you say. You bury your head in your hands-- even the sound of your own pulse is better than the silence. “Hey. Look at me. I’ve moved right to bargaining. I’ll be good, just let me out.”

There’s not even your ghost to keep you company. You pace back and forth on the deck, skirting the grey-hearted shadows, listening to your own breath, the dull scuff of your feet against the polished wood. You’re not sick, here. You never are, though the light makes your knuckles burn a mocking, unnatural crimson. You feel strong in a way that you never do in the waking world, you feel whole and healthy, as if you could rise right off your feet and breathe fire and kiss someone without having a coronary.

You don’t try to breathe fire or fly, though. Just in case.

“Where are you?” you demand. “Come on! Get your sorry ass out here, you coward!”


“Scared?” you say, knowing your voice is rising thin and mocking and ugly. The echoes around you transmute it. “I just want to play, shitweasel, come out and we can have some fucking fun! To hell with dying, fucker!”

Only silence, and the gurgle of your throat. There isn’t even anything to kick over, all the coiled ropes and stacked crates of the Corbenic gone in this shadow-version. Only smooth black wood, the long bright stretch of railing, the unbearable expanse of sea.

The doors to the lower decks, though -- on impulse you stride open and you throw them open. Nothing and no one, but it’s somewhere to go, and you’ve been up on deck watching fishes for what feels like hours. With a last suspicious glance over your shoulder, you descend.

The ship changes as you go. One wall falls away and you find yourself spiraling around a wide shaft of open space, the silvery light from the deck quickly fading out to nothing. There’s only darkness, and the steps ahead of you. The wall under your fingers that remains shifts from richly inlaid wood to wide bare metal panels, and then, after an age -- after something like three hundred panels, once you start counting them off -- a thick coat of vines and moss. You falter, startled, and your next step is in thick green grass.

The bottom chamber of the stairwell is a garden, ringed with strange trees and tiny jewel-like beakbeasts that flash and flit across the flowered boughs. They hover over the flowers and dip in to drink, their wings a high feathery hum. The grass underfoot is springy to walk on, unbelievably fucking green, green as spring -- and at the center of the trees and the flowers four kids sit, on squashy pillows around a high red fire.

“Took you long enough, fuckass!”

This is said entirely too cheerfully by a girl all in green. Her skin is pale as ice. The others are watching you across the dancing flames -- you think of the bright crests of clouds, and of lightning, and of the white-hot hearts of flame.

“I have to say,” says another, “you are a little tardy. Shoes off, please, and come over.”

“My shoes?”

“Wow, dude,” says a third, “you don’t just keep your shoes on when you’re in somebody’s heaven.”

“What a dick,” says the fourth. “Alert the newspapers, we got a hardass over here.”

This is ample cause for you to try to return up the stairs, but when you look around you find nothing, they’re gone. You are trapped in the hell dimension. Four kids regard you avidly, eyes coloured bright as jewels except for the last one, who is hiding his gaze with dark glasses.

“Fuck,” you say, “me,” and you kick off your shoes and you slouch over to the firepit. They’re toasting marshmallows. They are toasting motherfucking marshmallows on long black skewers. Trying to map this hallucinogenic metaphor just makes your pan ache. You sit down and the God of Wind and Shade passes you a fresh skewer.

“Don’t eat those all at once,” says the God of Heat and Clockwork, leaning against his pillow. “We’ve been watching your relationship with juvenile diabetes go from friendly to committed. I mean damn, son, best part’s when you weep-binge like you just got told you’ll never be pretty.”

“One, go make a heartfelt concupiscent commitment to fucking yourself. Two, I don’t even believe in you.”

“And yet,” Light and Rain says delicately, rearranging her skirts. “Oh, and yet.”

“And yet I keep fetching up in this hellhole, yeah, yeah, I know. You’re persistent delusions, I’ll give you that.”

“Technically this place isn’t hell or a hole,” Wind and Shade says. “It’s kind of an encapsulated --”

Technically you can play pat-a-cake with my bulge, sky-sucker. What’s going on?”

“You are... clinically dead right now!”

Frost and Frogs’ green eyes are scrunched up with mirth. You are glad you provide these people with so much entertainment. For a moment something in you wonders, shit, is this the last time? but they don’t look as concerned as they damn well ought to. In fact, despite all the attention they should be paying this issue, the Architect is merely stealing marshmallows off other people’s skewers.

“But it’s okay,” she continues, bringing you out of your reverie. “Feferi can bring you back. I think. When we’re done with you.”

You kick lightly at her pillow, and it shimmers: moss green, jade-green, moon-green. “Do I call you Sister, or Godhead, or what -- or should I just get on my knees and lick your nook right off, your Worship?”

“Wow, maybe you should stop hitting on me!”

“I’m not hitting on you!”

“You are completely hitting on me!”

For all that you don’t believe in them you still always somehow expect... grander creatures, larger ones, magnificent and alien. Except for their pink-tinted paleness they could be anyone. They could be any group of douchebags, only they’re a group of douchebags that somehow chose to screw with you.

“Okay, stop hate-hitting on each other, it’s getting weird,” says the Storm Caller, and he directs your numb hand to hold your skewer closer to the fire. His eyes are like a second-summer sky, and he gives you this little wink like you’re a friend he’s happy to see and he’s not some figment of your imagination holding you in its thrall. The earnestness in his face is completely fucking nonsensical.

“So,” he says. “How’re you holding up?”

You burst out laughing at that. It’s tinged a little with hysteria. “Well, let’s look at the laundry list! I’m clinically dead, you’re my Gods -- who I have revoked, need I remind you, repeatedly -- and you want to know how I’m doing?”

“Well, yeah!” He punches you lightly in the shoulder. “I mean, wow. It’s been a while, Karkat, and between all these sloppy makeouts and cry-fights I have to say that you look like a sack of crap.”

“I feel like a sack of crap.”

God says gently, “‘Sack of crap’ isn’t an emotion, numbnuts.”

You dip the marshmallow further into the fire and watch it burn: the sugar goes up in rainbow tongues of flame as the outside turns black and molten. This is the problem. It’s the same problem always. The Gods are relentlessly kind, terribly kind, and it is this unbearable particular that you cannot fucking stand.

“I’m fucked-up over my moirail,” you say, staring into the flames. Admissions crumble out your spillmaw. “I’m cheating on him with a clown cultist. I really, really like the clown cultist. I’m black for my matesprit. I’m a bulgemunch to everyone around me. And I kissed Eridan Ampora.”

“I love this soap opera,” says the Architect. “Does anyone else love this soap opera.”

You don’t dignify this with an answer, and his fair Sister turns to you instead. “Speaking of Mr. Ampora. How was he?”

“Fucking amazing.”

You feel electrified with despair. But she only nods, bending her pale head over her marshmallows and picking off blackened chunks. “He’s turning out well,” she says. Her eyes are like amethysts and the pink moon, her painted mouth perfect as a doll’s. “I suppose I made the right choice of seadweller after all.”

“Nope,” says her sister. “He is a total douche.”

“Douchebags are my divine province.”

The Lily-seeder throws a marshmallow at her sister’s head. Halfway across the fire it becomes a snowball and explodes on the Fair Lady’s face in a splatter of ice. She sends back a hail of needle-sharp rain and then everything is a blur of precipitation and undignified screeches, and the fire huddles low in its nest. You stare.

“Ladies, please.” The boy next to you is shielding you from the worst of the ice with his arm, and you can feel the warmth of his skin even through his sleeve, the way he radiates. He’s laughing. “Have some manners, guys, geez! You’re scaring our ‘guest’!”

The God of Wind and Shade crooks his fingers into air-quotes at that for no fucking reason you can fathom. But: “You are pooping my party,” says the dawnwraith, and “It’s not as though he’ll melt,” says the queen of the witches, but they settle down with one last soggy marshmallow beaned off Frost and Frogs’ forehead. One sister slides next to the other, and one daymare of the deeps spends the next few minutes with her head langorously pillowed on the other’s knee as she is fed bits of burned sugar.

The Gambler kisses the top of your head so sweetly and so gently. “They are just rambunctious all-powerful ladies, I guess, like sexy, angry elves,” he says. “Their bark’s worse than their bite. Like sexy elves! But okay. I am going to give a firm but friendly directive that we need to get down to business. Here’s the deal, Karkat: to get what you’ve never gotten, you need to do what you’ve never done.”

“Which is?”

“How the hell would I know?” You get tapped right in the center of your chest, and the kid -- the God -- lays the side of his cheek on the top of your head like the two of you are bulgebuddies. He says, gently, “You know: the answer was in here all along.”

The Wordsmith says, “Bro, that is the lamest thing you have ever fuckin’ said.”

“Shut up, man.”

You blurt out, desperate: “I know I fuck up everything I ever touch -- I mean, I was wrong about everything, for sweeps -- ”

“Think of it this way,” Light and Rain says, and opens her mouth to receive another marshmallow. She does even this with deathly grace, though it’s a little ruined by waiting for her to chew and swallow. “Is it worse to have been wrong, or to continue to be wrong? Change your course, my errant Knight, and you will at least be wrong in new and interesting ways.”

“Huh,” you say. “Am I your knight, then, Lady?”

She smiles. “They sank us into every fold of your brain, Karkat,” she says softly, as if reminding you of something you’re temporarily foolish enough to have forgotten. “You can’t dismiss us without peeling off your own shadow.”

“You’re all of ours, dipshit,” Frost and Frogs says, tugging at your snow-white sleeve. “You promised in paperwork and everything, don’t think we missed that.”

“Some snares you can’t wriggle out of, no matter how hard you kick,” Wind and Shade says, and he glitters his empty fingers at you. “Hey. Nothing in my right hand, nothing in my left... but what’s this behind your ear?”

What is overtly slid up from out of his sleeve and snatched from ‘behind’ your aural shell is a marshmallow. “Hey, look, it’s a miracle,” he says. “Guess you can’t be an atheist any more, right? Haha!”

“You are dumber than fuck.”

“You are so dreamy when you’re mad, dude! You’re like a precious little firecracker.”

His dark-haired Sister says, “Who’s hitting on who now??” which further indicates you are surrounded by idiots. You cannot escape even in the confines of your goddamned skull. This is you, dying. Before you die, your thinkpan’s released tons and tons of endorphins that made you feel a range of emotions, all of them stupid. It’s tragically beautiful.

The Godhead waves the miracle marshmallow at your scowl before you can properly detail exactly how many ways he needs to go fuck himself. You let him feed it to you for reasons you don’t want to go into, and you chew while you think. It is the sweetest thing you have ever eaten in your life, transcendentally delicious, the sugar melting on your tongue.

“You got anything to say, Wordsmith?” you challenge the quiet specter of Heat and Clockwork.

He looks at you for a long, long moment, and his eyes are like embers behind his dark shades. The Chronarch reminds you horribly of Terezi, the way a smirk is hidden in the corners of his mouth and the way he cocks his head, like a dainty smartass dragon, to one side.

“Stay true to your hearts, Knight,” he says finally, and reaches right through the fire to palm the center of your chest, right over the interlocked arcs of your crimson sigil. “Skip to the good fight and tune your charts right, you’ll blaze like starlight, mark my fucking sight. And furthermore if you don’t stop giving my dedicates so much shit I will char your eyeballs right out of your skull, big man, don’t think I can’t.”

“Fuck you, bulgesack,” you say, and you can’t help but it being a little bitterly. “I’ve been competing with you for Terezi our whole relationship.”

“Fair’s fair, asslord.”

“What’s that meant to mean?”

“Means I’m a hottie with a body,” he says, and then the God takes his hand away. Your sigil is a reverse print of divine blood on the papery brightness of his palm, and you can feel the same lines start to seep sticky-warm down your chest. This place is starting to give you a headache.

“Sick burns,” the Lord of the Skies says, and you can’t tell if it’s in mockery or affirmation. He gets elbowed in the head by his blue-eyed brother, regardless, and then they go tussling across the soft grass, kicking and laughing. The girls whoop and catcall as Wind and Shade and Heat and Clockwork do nothing so dignified as beat the ever-living shit out of each other, match called when the first gets the other in a headlock. After a couple hard prods to the gut, a miniature tornado and a squall of tiny, inexplicable fires, they slump down to the ground together. Without hesitation or worry, Wind and Shade reaches over and kisses Clockwork’s quirked, half-smiling lips.

They’re a family, you realize, they’re inclade -- beyond all the pretty psalms and stories, they love each other. The Pathfinder is already standing and wiping grass stains off his front, turning to you and giving you another arch wink as though every stupid piece of shit he’s ever done was for your benefit. You ache all the way down.

“I wanted this,” you say aloud. It feels good to say it. “I wanted this with Gamzee and Eridan and Feferi and -- and Sollux and Terezi and Nepeta -- and everyone. I want a family too, you know?”

“We all want a lot of things,” says Lady Snow.

“I want a pony,” says the Architect, still tumbled on the grass with his glasses askew. You catch a glimmer of his unguarded eyes: they are the colour of rubies and live coals, and it makes your guts lurch.

The Stormcaller says, “Karkat, we want you.”

The last God is watching you, through the darkness. She makes a little circle with one slim white finger, looking behind you, and you dare to follow her even gaze. You don’t know why, after all this time, you evince any goddamned surprise. There is your ghost in the darkness: skulking in the shadows beyond the ring of firelight, hands shoved in his pockets. The rings around his pupils gleam opal-gray.

“No,” you say. “No, fuck no, not him.”

He comes towards you regardless. The God of Pulse and Haze comes to you smiling, dressed in unassuming greys. As reflections go he is cracked and warped; he looks more like some weary, hiveless traveller than the Worldspinner and the Sickle-maker. Worse, he looks at peace with it, and the soft and steady smile on his borrowed face is obscene. You are full-up on angry fear and sick with anticipation, and when he rests his hot hands on your shoulders you almost feel yourself ignite.

You don’t know what you expect. To be swallowed up, or to turn into a molten pile of slag, you’re not sure about anything any more. You just wanted to live your life without threat of omen, the supernatural, or being the tool of a rank and butt-leaking destiny. No more questions. No more visions. You want to tell him that you can walk away any time you fucking want, to come at you, asshole, but he hugs you instead. The Visionary wraps you in a big squashy embrace. Your pusher starts beating again, once, twice, gigantic flaming meteor-strikes of pain, and you short out.

The fire dies. Everything goes dark, and you begin to slip away.

“Don’t be a stranger, Karkat,” you think you hear the Green Sister call, “and tell Feferi that Jade misses her!”

You wake to the sound of water. Your eyes are crusted shut; it takes some effort to open them. When they come ungummed you’re staring at the ceiling of Gamzee’s fishing-boat, the single hand-cranked engine guttering noisily outside. Waves buffet the ship, rocking on the swells.

You try to focus on the interior -- the hand-painted walls and the things in jars, clinking madly behind their safety rails -- the long strings of lights and the empty bottles of Faygo -- but it’s visual soup. Dizziness works its way through you in concentric rings, one after the other after the other. You pass out again.

The second time when you wake, you’re lying on Gamzee’s pallet. Next to you sits Eridan, hunched up on a stool like a gallows crow and half asleep. He looks almost sick with exhaustion; a long violet curl is hanging lank on his high, broad forehead, and there are bruisy shadows beneath his eyes. He looks fucking terrible. Stabs of pity roil in your gut. You raise your shaking hand to your bloody, lip-split flap, but when it comes away all you can see is sour-apple green.

This is a relief. You’d wondered, for a moment.

“Hey,” you say.

Fins startles awake and nearly falls off the stool in a panic. He makes a mad scramble for you before remembering, apparently, everything that’s happened, and then he schools his face and simply touches your shirt and looks at you. “Coddamn it, Kar,” he breathes. “You frightened the livin’ shit out a me.”

“Where are we?”

“‘Bout two hours out from the Capitol,” he says, “you were gone, Kar. Your pusher gave out. Fef had to bring you back, and it was touch and fuckin’ go, that’s for shore. You still with us, man? You gonna make it?”

“Once I get to my meds,” you say, half-wheezing, “I’m in the clear. Where’s Feferi?”

“Back on the Corbenic -- she’s a good girl, didn’t make one glubbin’ bit a fuss. She was lookin’ out for you.”

Your brain throbs. Everything in your body feels broken. Take it back, get the warranty, you need a fresh model. Somehow with a dry tongue and a sore throat you say, “I’m sorry, Fins,” and he knows you don’t mean for scaring him.

“Fuck you,” he says quietly. “Damn your horns and blight your glubbin’ bulge, Karkat, you don’t get to be sorry. What’s done is done, is done. Okay? We’re fine. We’re gonna be fine, you and me.”

“We’re -- ” You can’t breathe again, until your body remembers the finer points of how to exhale. Your tongue catches painfully on your teeth as you work through just how pathetic what you’re about to do is, which is on the scale between extremely and ludicrously. But death didn’t kill the stupidity. And you’re scared stupefied. “Are we still friends?”

Eridan makes this terrible, hitching laugh, and you watch with dazed wonder as he starts to cry, strutting hardass that he is. Then he leans over with and kisses your face, wetly, one cheek and then the other, as though he can make you whole with just his mouth.

“There must’ve been a hole in your birthbucket,” he says. “Kar, you won’t get rid of me ‘til you say so. You don’t get to be glubbin’ sorry, and I don’t got to be for lovin’ you, either. You can’t get me to stop.”

“I,” you rasp, and “yes,” and “okay, then.”

There’s a shadow at the cabin opening, pushing away the bit of blanket tacked up there. “Brother,” says the clown cultist, “you take the wheel,” and the seadweller has to scarper to go and look after the engine. When Gamzee’s face swims into view he is kneeling next to you, and his face is hard and sharp and cold.

No paint. You’ve never seen him completely without paint. Beneath the white make-up he has a homely, raw-boned face, a pointed jaw and an unlovely slash of a nose. Frankly, it’s a face you wouldn’t want to see in the early morning coming down an alleyway, because it would make you want to piss yourself. This is compounded by how he’s looking at you now: his eyes are flat gold discs and his mouth is a grim knife-cut, and you can believe this boy is a subjugglator, a Mirthful follower, an axe-crazy clown priest.

“You okay, best beloved?” he says.

You can’t manage anything above a whisper. Your skin, you realise, is burning: not the boiling heat of your heart attack but a sickly wet sweat, prickling at your hairline and your hands. “I’m going to be fine, Gamzee.”

“Good,” he says. “Because I’m yours. You’re mine. No more can’t and couldn’t, we’re motherfucking doing this or you slit my chute right here, my dear. End the charade. I got the wicked revelation when you left me, you wanna hear? Nobody got a better lookout for you than I got, not your Gods, not your goldblood. Stick that down your chute and you lodge it in your knowledge barrel, motherfucker, DO YOU FUCKING COMPREHEND?”

When you put your palm up against his cheek, for all your arm is numb and trembling, his balefire abates. It takes considerable effort to hold your hand there: you are trembling like a leaf, and the dizziness is returning. You break every promise made to yourself and say, “Pale for you,” and he sags further, cups his big hand around yours. “We’re pale, asshole. Don’t leave me.”

He doesn’t, not when you slip out of consciousness again and not when you stumble back in. You’re out of the woods as far as your valves bursting themselves open is concerned, but when Feferi brought you back she somehow wiped out the rest of the immunity your meds afford you: your body’s eating itself, your blood is shedding its sheathing under the onslaught of your immune system. You need the kind of medical attention that comes out of a small secret room tucked away inside Sollux’s labyrinth of suiteblocks, his golden hands warm as they slide needles up inside your veins, Terezi’s teal fingers cold as she monitors your pulse. They walk with you in the corners of your vision, and some dim part of you is aware that you are delirious.

Gamzee sits with you the whole unbearable trip back, stroking your hair. He slips in and out of focus, his face a hollow-eyed smear, steady and watchful. He would be nearly the same in any universe, and it is beyond comforting.

“White as white, brother,” he says.

You drift.

Chapter Text

You don’t much remember that arrival, to the Capitol. It’s a marvel that the fucking putt-putt distillate engine got you there in the first place, let alone before you slipped into the coma that would have designated the first rejection. You’re not going to die: you’re sick of dying. Dying once in a day is acceptable. Dying twice indicates a profound lack of effort. Time flows along in delirious lumps, visions clogging you up till you could crack your head open and it would be a relief. You’d be doing everyone a favour, except for whoever was on cleaning duty.

When you surface the third time the ceiling’s changed to toothpaste-coloured tile. You’re on an assessment platform, half-covered with a ratty old jacket. When you try to kick it off your legs don’t work, and the back of your mouth tastes like a bunch of sick barkbeasts went on a mouth-shitting expedition.

You know this room. You’ve been here before. You’re halfway black for the ceiling tiles.

There’s a hand on your head, curled gently around one of your horns. It’s a single point of comfort on the vast shit sea you find yourself treading.

“Hey,” Sollux Captor says quietly. “How’re you doing?”

“Sollux?” you ask stupidly. “Is that you?”

“Yeah, it’s me. God, if I’d known I’d have flown out myself, gotten you back inside an hour -- TZ said it was all handled, you’d be fine. If this is you fine I’m a fucking flounder. Teach me to listen to lawyers.” He’s moving around you, fitting medical things together on poles and cords, muttering away. A lot of your life has been him, medicine, poles and cords, and you’re weirdly cheered at this, it’s familiar. “Give me your hand.”

You flop an arm out towards him. He slides a needle into your wrist, smooth as long practice. At this point your veins are collapsed into themselves like Equius’s mouth at a dirty dayclub, but Sollux is used to neatly finding a point of entry. Your vision keeps splitting and lurching sideways, over and over in time with the feverish pan-cracking headache pounding through your skull, it’s miserably distracting. A numbing tingle starts to spread out through your arm, and you sigh with relief. Drugs are your friends. Drugs are your fucking quadrantmates, for all you care.

“That’ll kick in, soon,” Sollux says, like you somehow don’t know. “We’ll get you stabilized.”

“Hi,” you say, belatedly. “Hello, Sollux. It’s good to see you. I mean -- fuck, listen to me. Get over here, give me a hug already. I have been dead way more than I wanted to be, I earned a hug.”

He comes over to your side, slides his narrow butt carefully onto your cot. You haul him down to you one-armed, awkward with your dripline. He lies against you like a stick of driftwood, but fuck is he ever warm. You’d forgotten how warm he could be, like an engine. You press your face to the crook of his neck and breathe him in: he smells of coffee and mindhoney, of wax and that funny burnt smell that overtaxed husktops get. He smells like home.

“I missed you so much,” you say, and your voice kind of cracks with relief. His short-cropped hair is like fine velvet under your fingers and you are so terribly glad. You pet his head, clumsy and hurting, and bit by bit he relaxes. It’s been lifetimes since you could get him to relax. This is good, this is right: holding him close, watching his thin, fine-boned face smooth into fondness. He looks down at you, his mismatched eyes glowing in thin vivid slivers under his long lashes, and his lips quirk faintly.

“Look at you, you disaster,” he says quietly. “I’m glad to see you back.”

“Look at you, you fucking apocalypse,” you say. “You’re actually smiling for a change.”

“KK, for fuck’s sake -- ”

“I should make a memo and glue it to all your husktops. Item one, Sollux Captor should smile more, he’s Goddamn beautiful. You’re Goddamn beautiful when you’re smiling, did you know that? True fact. True -- yes, good, like that, keep going. Why don’t I ever see you like this anymore?”

You touch his face. He’s just grinning, all his big endearing fangs out, but his eyebrows are a pained crease.

“You pathetic idiot,” he says. He rubs at his eyes with those long, elegant fingers of his. The thin skin under his occulars is deeply bruised, gold-tinted with tiredness, and the smile withers away as you watch. There’s an iron sadness to him, it tugs at you. He says, grimly, grimacingly, “You don’t even -- you don’t even know anything, do you.”

He traces your face, he presses a thumb to your lip. “When’s the last time I’ve seen you smile?” he says quietly.

“Um.” You squint, try not to lick his finger. “Now, right...? I’m smiling now.”

“Now,” he agrees. “Now, when you’re approximately two-thirds opiates.”

“But,” you say, and try to cast around for a counterargument. You are increasingly convinced you have entirely lost the plot of this particular exchange, if anyone ever bothered to hand it to you in the first place. You look up at him, Sollux Captor, lean and tired and looking back down at you, his skin so soft against yours, and you say, “But I love you?”

He takes a sharp breath and pushes back, abruptly.

“No, Sollux, wait. Please, man. Wait.”

You lean up, just far enough, and kiss him. He goes very still and you brush noses, press a little farther. Everything is silent and perfect and happy, and your burning fucked-up blood sings all through you. You can feel his teeth part as he breathes out a long, shaky breath, and then he is gone, pushing off the cot, rubbing his hand over his mouth.

“Can you not,” he says quietly. “Can you just -- as a personal favor, KK, can you maybe not dive smooch-first at the nearest target the moment your blood toxicity skews, just this once, that would be absolutely fucking delightful.”

“Right, sure,” you agree, though you have no idea what he actually asked. He might have told you there’s sackbear piss in your IV, you’ve no idea. You lick your lips. You feel fantastic. Specifically you feel mostly dead and also thrillingly high, and you could hardly give less of a fuck about anything. “Come back here, Sol, you flighty idiot.”

He circles back, tense and wary. You curl fingers into his sleeve, tug him down to you.

“I like you,” you tell him, giddy with revelation. “I want you, I miss you, I love you. Kiss me. I’ll die again if you don’t.”

Something in his face goes startlingly hard. He steeples his fingers over your hand, firm and a little repressive. “This is new,” he says lightly. “What am I seeing here, genius? Your own personal remix of waking up under a fucking couch with AA?”

Your sweat’s beginning to cool on your skin, and you laugh. “Shut up, bulgemancer, we were six and Aradia had weed -- ”

“Six and a bit when it was ‘educating’ EQ. Six and a bit more when it was ‘experimenting’ with NP. Hat trick.” His voice is wry and startlingly bitter. Both of you should be laughing, because you’ve laughed yourselves sick over this before, but you’re not now. “Pizza slug delivery kids who had an appealing variety of home problems. Parliament lordlings with self-esteem issues. You’re a tough barkbeast to keep on the porch, asshole. The only thing I’m surprised at here is that it’s taken you a whole sweep post-graduation to get around to trying for my comparatively unappealing ass.”

“You were my moirail, you fuck,” you say. “I wouldn’t -- ”


Wow, have you ever fucked up. For a second he’s stricken and stricken obviously; just a second, and then he struggles dignity back around him like a suit of armor.

“Are,” you amend. It’s a lie. Your mouth is numb; your tongue is thick and stupid.

“How about,” he says, “how about we have this conversation at a later date. Before we keep rehashing every argument we’ve ever had, again.” His voice is measured and brittle. He says, “I don’t think either of us are exactly at our best right now,” and he fumbles for your driplines.

“Sollux,” you slur. “No, please -- wait, I’m sorry.”

He just looks at you, still and sad through the gathering haze, and he touches his fingers to his mouth. “You’re always sorry about something,” he says. “Hell, so am I, nowadays.”

You wish it were uneasy, but the drugs in your dripfeed send you off to a heavy sleep. You don’t dream.

You come back to yourself like pushing up through thick paint; everything is slimy-thick and rainbows, and the rise and fall of noise in your ears only reluctantly resolves itself into some kind of dialogue.

“ -- so how much do you seasuckers know?”

“Not enough! He don’t glubbin’ tell me shit. All I know is I’ve seen more blood pour out his noseholes than I ever wanted to, thanks -- what the shell’s goin’ on with him? And don’t you dare fob me off any longer, I will scream.”

It’s stupid, how much the broad accent of Eridan Ampora makes you relieved. How stupid eager it makes you that Sollux stayed too, crowding out the dread, that you might have both these kids by your side. You reach out for them but your hands don’t work -- you fucking loathe being this doped.

You slowly become aware that someone else has penned up your hands up in their cool claws, and when you squint myopically there’s Gamzee next to you. That’s the last level of relief. When you blink up at him his face seems strange and dark, just as it was back on the boat, and you realise: he’s not wearing his paint.

Beyond that, at the foot of your medical platform, Sollux and Eridan are doing their level best to destroy one another face-first. Their attention is laser-targeted not on you, the kid they’re apparently fighting over, but on each other, their mouths and hands and spade-struck eyes. It’s the same scene as you always get when either of them get within a hundred yards, a vicious, showy demonstration that the two assholes think the rest of the world’s just the set stage for their fucking foreplay, and the surge of resentment that wells up inside you is startlingly acidic.

“I -- is he wakin’ up?”

“Not for a while. Now if you’d kindly park your purple asses back outside--”

“Not a glubbin’ chance. Spill your shit, Sol, I ain’t afraid to hit a nerd.”

This prompts a bitter, mocking laugh from Sollux. “Oh, we have a badass over here! Firstly, I could bounce your bilesack off the ceiling in half the time it’d take you to even cogitate twitching one of your contemptible greasy fronds strifeways, and secondly what medical procedures I assist Sire Vantas with are fucking classified Imperial business.”

“Don’t you pull rank, Sol, I’m your glubbin’ Archagent!”

“This doesn’t entitle you to some magical level of clearance, you wad! Your mission’s over, your duty’s discharged, now take the creep and get out my sight. So help me God, Eridan, get out.”

Their voices are rising. “Piss off. He ain’t a creep, and we got the right to be here, you’re bein’ one unreasonable piece a -- ”

“ -- right to be here? Right to be here? Hilarious.” His voice bites, as though he’s ripping inept code of some poor nerdling to shreds. “Let’s unpack that. See, the hilarity’s in how I don’t see either of your shitty excuses for a color on his fingers. Bottom line: fuck off, ED. Don’t push me tonight.”

Eridan squares his shoulders: you can tell from here, even if it looks like someone’s sprayed your vision with plant mister. Both of them are up in each other’s personal space, shoulders and jaws set like prize fighters ready to go. The air sizzles like a storm warning. Shit’s about to hit the rotating blade.

“Yeah, well,” says your fishtroll friend, low and dangerous and fuck, why is he always fighty when he’s sulking, “maybe that’s on account a no rings, not on account a no claim.”

Oh, shit.

“Whose claim.” There’s no answer, or if there is it’s too soft to catch. In any case, Sollux repeats: “WHOSE CLAIM?” and it crackles through the room.

“Slow down, crazy,” says his Archagent with dripping disdain. “The creep over bedsidewards. And -- and I made an offer, just no completed trade.”

A long pause.

“You poor deluded bastards,” Sollux says.

There is a kind of exhausted horror in his tone that hurts to hear: he should never sound like that, not your Sollux, but you can hardly even understand what he’s saying. You’re so fucking useless, huddled like some wasted husk in cool clown arms, and you think that he must think that you’re still under. Everything is all flowery and shadows keep fogging up the edges of your vision, too sweet and vague to see through, you keep phasing in and out.

There’s a snatch of conversation you miss. You tune back in to: “You poor dumb gutterbuckets. You think you can just blithely be in love with him? They make those kids tear out their damn hearts to be worth their pretty little white coats and I received fucking front row tickets to that horrorshow. I can tell you mudpuppies right this instant that KK’s no one’s but the Threshecutioners’, and he never will be. He doesn’t have anything left to love with, he signed it all away for a silver sigil, nothing left to him but a wind-up pity puppet that thinks it’s still a real boy.”

Eridan says quietly, “You cold bastard.”

“Can it. Get off your high hoofbeast and go home.”

“Not budgin’, Sol.”

He laughs, a terrible rattling noise. “Do you know,” he says, almost conversationally, “do you fucking know how many kids have stood, Eridan, right in front of me, their grubby hands all fisted up, asked me for his fucking hand, as if I’d give him away just like that, as if there was anything to give. Do you even know? My moirail is mad as a fucking clockwork cuckoo and --”

“HE’S NOT YOUR MOIRAIL!” Gamzee roars.

This is the first time that he’s entered the conversation, and it’s a hell of an entrance. His voice reverberates around the room and comes back in strange echoes, puddling under the bed and in the shadows from the curtain. The other two go very still. It’s testament to Sollux Captor’s brass shame globes that he manages to stare down the face of that and walk closer, step away from his kismesis and look at Gamzee. Both of them really look at each other for the first time, and you are briefly glad that you’re stoned.

They’re both ridiculous amounts of tall. Different as the pink and green moons otherwise, to look at: prim and tidy Sollux in his highblood’s golden cape, his collar pressed and his claws manicured to elegant hooks. Gamzee looks as though he’s been dragged through two storms upside-down and that neither one taught him to wash his follicles, all paint and salt and tattery traded clothes that wouldn’t fit anyone properly.

“Maybe not,” Sollux says brightly. “Maybe not! Like he ever keeps me in the loop on anything anymore. Maybe he’s not my moirail! Maybe you and Fins here actually managed to warm his mummified grey vasculars back up like we’re all in some tacky bodice-ripper, maybe he’s going to go live on the fucking ocean with you and learn to catch crabs with his filial pail, I don’t know! But until my ring comes off his finger I have final fucking say over his sorry little corpse, you squidpailing piece of fish feces, and I say GET YOUR FILTHY GUTTERCLAWS OFF HIM.”

The Subjugglator makes a high, terrible shriek, a ringing warcry, and launches himself over you at Sollux. Everything is noise and lightning and you reel, clutching at the gummy skin of the cot, and try to struggle up. This is one of your sleep horrors, it’s got to be, you’ve seen this one before and there is a terrible sinking agony inside you, you’ve seen how this one goes, Sollux’s dead eyes and indigo sticky-cold across your hands.

“Don’t --” you slur. “Sollux, please --”

Sollux is leaning over Gamzee, his foot on the cultist’s long throat, crackling red and blue all over like a firework. His expression is terribly intent, like Gamzee is a string of code that he is just about to unravel. You have no idea what’s going on anymore, and when you reach for your sickle it isn’t there.

You drag yourself off the cot, bit by careful bit, and the dripline’s support pole goes clattering over regardless. The three of them all go very still and quiet, watching you. Eridan makes this abortive movement towards you, and hesitates at a sharp warding gesture from his kismesis. Sollux himself just stands there, his eyes wide with something you can’t even guess it. You make your way over to Gamzee -- you have done physical training unwell, before, you’ve scraped through any amount of trials dizzy with fever and bloodloss and infection and all manner of things, but this is really bad. This is the hardest thing you have ever done, you are driving your sick meat to the very limits of its capacity to serve your purpose. The garden is so close, grass under your hands one moment and swept tile the next, it’s all you can do to hang on to this side of the world. Sollux backs away from you as you come close, his shoulders up through the haze like a wary cat and Gamzee gasps for air as the pressure comes off his windtube.

You bury your face in Gamzee’s heaving chest, your ears ringing. “Tell him to let us stay, brother,” he gasps, hoarse and urgent, and you curl your numbing fingers into his raggedy shirt. He smells of the sea, dirty in a beautiful way that has nothing to do with blood.

“Sollux,” you whisper. “Please, I --”

Then Sollux kneels down and touches you. His fingers are sweet as honey on your face, and you gasp, wrap both hands around his thin beautiful wrist, shocked stupid and unsure. You search his face out through the haze, every graceful line of it pointed down at you, tall and pale and clean and whole and rich and gold, this universe, this Sollux, you’re home. He kisses you, slow and lingering, and you melt all in one quivering burst. He holds you up.

“Tell them to go, KK,” he says against your lips. “I can’t work like this.”

“I -- Sollux--” you croak. You have no words. “Please--”

“Karkat, tell them.”

“Sollux -- ”

“No,” Gamzee says, curling claws into your shoulders, curling up around you like a cage of bones. “DON’T YOU FUCKING SAY IT.”

“You can’t be fucking serious,” Eridan says flatly. “You can’t be fucking -- what the fuck, Sol, this is sick -- ”

“Don’t think you have special fucking privileges to cross me just because I deign to fondle your fucking barnacles every now and again, Eridan,” Sollux says, so calm, so very wonderfully beautifully calm. Did you do this to him? He strokes his thumb down your cheek, across your lips and you shudder with the warmth of it, clutching at his arm. He lifts you up, away from Gamzee, and crushes the cultist back down to the floor with a lash of power.

“Gamzee -- ” you protest.

“Shoosh,” Sollux says. “Shhh, now, I got you, KK. I’m here.”

You grunt, overwhelmed, and he curls a hand around one of your horns, firm and sure, the feel of him vivid-bright against your notches. You curl into him as everything else in the universe fades gently away, and he settles you back down so gently to your cot.

“Oh my God,” Eridan says, from very far away. He sounds upset, and you can’t hardly bring yourself to care anymore. There is nothing to you left but pain and Sollux’s warm hands on you, giving you everything he hasn’t been all these seasons, all at once, it’s too much, too perfect. You’re still dreaming but you would do anything not to screw this up again, anything not to lose him to the darkness and the silence where he crumples like a wrung-out rag, his blind black eyes staring away from you over and over again. The flowery sweetness of God’s garden presses close enough to gag you and all you want is to stay like this, in Sollux’s arms, forever.

Here is good -- this flickering space where he loves you, this is where your home would be, if you were allowed to have one.

“Karkat?” Sollux prompts you. “Tell the nice fishy freakshows to fuck off, won’t you?”

“Karkat,” Gamzee says. “Brother --”

“You heard him, get out,” you slur. Your voice is worn down to grit, and you are so, so tired. All you want is Sollux, and for Sollux to want you in return.

“And you,” you say, anyway.

“What?” he asks.

You press a kiss into his palm. “You don’t get to use me like this, you ass,” you say with great effort. “Fuck is wrong with you lately, Sollux, I don’t. I don’t even.”

“Karkat -- ”

“Get out before I bite off a thumb,” you grit out. “Come back when you’ve scraped up some kindness, these are my very good friends and I order you to stop being such a shit. Now get out!”

It takes him a few seconds to realize you’re serious. He lets you go, takes a stumbling step back, then another. His eyes are round as buttons and he doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself at all. Eridan takes him by one narrow wrist, grinning.

“You heard the man,” he says. “Sire Vantas wishes to be alone. C’mon, Gamz, let’s hop it.”

“What.” Sollux says flatly. “Hang on -- Eridan, stop yanking --”

The door opens, the door closes. You are completely alone. The last thing you see is Sollux’s very surprised face, not a little betrayed, pulled out by one bony arm.

Kanaya has a phrase: cutting off one’s nose to spite your pan. Your triumph is very bitter.

You wake slowly but cleanly, this time. You’re stretched out neatly on the cot, a fresh towel draped over your scrawny unmentionables and the driplines to your wrists running clear saline. When you raise your free hand to your face it’s heavy, a little shaky, but green-knuckled. Your forehead’s dry. You’ve got that hollow, dizzy weakness that comes from a lot of days of lying around being various percentages of sick as hell but aside from that you’re surprisingly good. Sollux is a fucking wizard.

You sit up, picking at the dripline bandages. Muffled conversation comes through your block’s closed door, and you’re curious. It hardly constitutes a stealth operation to slip your driplines out, wrap the towel around your waist, sneak off the cot and over to the door.

“Growin’ up changes fuckin’ near everyone, you coddled shit-bubble. You’re seriously havin’ a nervous breakdown on account a he ain’t the kid he used to be? Which of us still are, that’s what I’d like to know!”

“Yeah, and you don’t know, bilgewipe. You don’t know a damn thing-- you know what’s left of him, after all the pan-scrubbing? He likes sweets. That’s it. That’s the entirety. Aside from that it’s all the job, the job, the job, you can’t get him to plant his glutes in a chair before he’s off trying to settle it in a loving matespritship with the desklamp or something. Only thing he’ll stop being one of our Mother’s Shining Knights for half a minute at a time is wiggler sweets.”

Sollux and Eridan again; from the sound of it they’re stomping around in the hallway right outside, talking about you again. It’s both flattering and a little creepy. A bigger creeper is you, you suppose, you’re the one with your ear pressed up against wood like some second-rate spook. And... you’d known Sollux disapproved of you and yours, but -- not like this. He sounds wrecked, he sounds grieving, he sounds nearly seditious, and it pours a shameful sort of fire through your vasculars, up your brainstem. A familiar tension headache starts to gather: every part of Academy protocol was necessary, you’d explained, you’d thought he’d -- agreed -- or -- you’ll deal with it later. They’re still talking.

“Look, Sol, that’s what I’ve been sayin’. None of us can go back to who we used to be when we were wigglers, it don’t work that way, you think I ain’t never wished -- and I ain’t arguin’ his funny little predilection for spontaneous acts a Imperial bloodlettin’ ain’t irritating as all Goddamn fuck. But there’s a kid as still walks and talks even once you peel him out of that jacket, Sol, and you should see him smile. Gamz is good for him. Hell, I’d fucking warrant I’m good for him-- ain’t either a us mopin’ around comparin’ the poor kid to his own ghost! If anyone’s the fuckin’ problem here, Sol, maybe you might wanna introduce yourself mirrorwards.”

A long, pained hiss.

“Your Gamz is going to get him strung up before the Silver Board for treason if he wants to make an issue of his false Gods.”

“I think technically we’re the ones worshippin’ the false Gods.”

“I think technically you should shut your trap before your brains dribble out, you lewd fuck.”

“My brother’s beliefs, wack though they indubitably fuckin’ are, are not actually your most pressing concern right now, is what I’m bettin’ here. What I’m bettin’ here is the source a all your flappin’ is like to bein’ more about my brother’s hands, and their protracted introduction to your ex-moirail’s face. Am I right?”

“Wow, guess who’s getting a raise for that brilliant deduction. Of course I’m not happy at getting superseded by some vent-chested web-fingered face-painted inbetweener! I’m so profoundly not happy that you could kick-start an antimatter cascade with the sheer negative mass of my happiness!”

“Yeah, well, you were a shit moirail, anyway. And you are in additionals a mouthy casteist prick askin’ for a good punch in the chops, so, thanks for that.”

“Oh, I’m a shit moirail, says my kismesis.”

“Who the fuck would know you better, I ask you? You’re petty, you’re vain, you got one holy hell of a temper, you never listen to nobody--”

“Now who needs to get themselves to a mirror?”

“When’s the last time you ever actually sat down and spent any serious time with him, anyway, ‘stead a sulkin’ round your office self-flagellatin’?”

“I can’t lose him twice!” Sollux shouts, and his voice cracks with it. “I thought I could and I was the stupidest sack of shit in any given universe! Ampora, I sent him off to space and he came back some starry-eyed stranger, and you stand there with your stupid smug face and talk to me about sulking -- I thought I could. I thought if I distanced myself I wouldn’t care when he junked my ring, left me behind again. He doesn’t require me. He doesn’t require anyone. Listen, asshole: they scooped out his soul and quadranted him to his career, and the fuck can I even do for him anymore, really? The fuck am I even worth to what he is now. I just -- shit -- I just didn’t think it would hurt so much to let him go again, off with that clown, off with you, and I can’t. I just cannot.”

“Are you crying?” Eridan asks, all throbbing astonishment.

“No. I. No, I’m not, fuck you. Fuck me for saying all that. Barkbeasts die with more dignity than I do.”

“Oh, hell. Come here, you heaving romantic disgrace. Shh.”

“Pity me and I will feed your ocular jelly to the next crop of queens, Eridan, swear to God -- ”

“Shhh. Shhh. Only contempt, now. I’m gonna hold this over your head when we’re full decrepit, promise you that.”

There’s a long, wordless moment: they rustle together, Sollux takes a number of harsh breaths, sniffs once. You cannot believe how much hearing his misery kills you. It’s like your whole pan cringes away from it. He was never the crier: you were. Sometimes Terezi, who is tearless up until the point where she needs to weep, at which point she will weep herself dry.

But not Sollux. You can count the number of times the boy has let you witness so much as a sniffle, as your moirail, on one paw. You look up at the unnecessarily hideous ceiling tiles, and you listen to the ugly noise of him trying in vain to keep the mucus in his membranes, and you realise: he’s doing this in front of his kismesis. You’re not shocked and amazed by your failure, you’re just fucking acculturated to it by now, and the realisation sinks into your spine like slow poison. He’s not your moirail. You can’t be his. It’s all over.

“I gotta lay it on you,” says Eridan, almost too quiet to be heard. “Sol, I -- ”

“Admitted you loved him, nookstain?” You don’t need to see to guess at the comedic look of what the fuck, probably followed with an even more comedic expression of are you a witch, on the seadweller’s face. Kid likes to think he’s the only guy in the world who can deduce shit.

Please.” Captor continues. “I’m many things, but I’m not stupid, ED, I knew you weren’t taking him off for some shallow tumble. I’d have cared a lot less if you had, frankly, the list of kids he hasn’t played sexual schoofeed with is vanishingly small. But no. You’ve been pitydrunk on him since the first time he laid mouth to your slimy cheek. You look like a constipated salmon each time he walks in the room. You’ve probably already got rings designed.”

“Eat shit.”

“You’re fucking shameful. So. You’re not smug, which means he didn’t say yes, but the tortured stares you’ve been giving his unconscious rind aren’t as tortured as I’d anticipated, which means you think he didn’t exactly say no.”

“He did say no.” Eridan’s voice drops. You want to not smile at its tragedy, Goddamnit. You want to be really sad. You are really sad. There’s just something about his misery that’s funny as fuck, endearingly so, all the theatrics of it. Eridan’s woe could light up an operahive -- he’s probably never had a feeling in his life that didn’t rattle his teeth. “Kar said -- he fuckin’ said -- you love me too much, I can’t love you like you love me, can’t commit to glubbin’ anyone til Sol Captor sorts me out he’s the gunwhale of my existence a-bloo bloo bloo -- ”

Sollux’s voice is tight. “He said what.”

“He said you, you fuckin douchewash! He said he had to sort shit out with you. All the shit. After callin’ me and mine codependent and messed-up and quadrant-smearin’, which was a fuckin’ crock but never mind, that’s fine, sure, just lay one on me as makes me see sunlight and then go tell me you can’t do shit without Sol’s say-so -- ”

“Shut the fuck up,” says Sollux, “for one miserable second.”

“He don’t know what he is to you,” says his kismesis lowly, “and you don’t know what he is to you either, and fuck you, Sol, if I didn’t -- don’t you ever call me disloyal again, I could’ve just kissed him a couple times harder and he might’ve come ‘round -- ”

“No, he wouldn’t have. And I’m not counting the massive heart attack. One stupid dalliance per person is his limit and you won’t see a second, the only kid he’s ever let win him for keeps is Terezi Pyrope, who could win a game of bullet roulette with all chambers loaded. He loves that girl more than he’d ever love you or fucking I or fucking anybody else, although I’m not sure anymore about that cultist he dragged in out of nowhere...”

“Gamz is staying whether you like it or you don’t. Serendipity, asshole.”

There’s silence again. You feel like a shitheel for listening, but you can’t stop. You feel even worse when you hear: “Stay away from him, ED. You’ll get your heart broken, and I’m not interested in the proceedings. If you had a cell in your skull you’d be gone before he woke up. If you could take an order you’d be gone before he woke up.”

“Are you jealous -- ”

“Ha! Jealous! Jealous?! You have no idea how hard it is looking any kind of good next to you, do you? Look at you, you’re some fashion-plate dockside action hero, the two of you go out and kick sabertoothed aurochs in the face on your weekends. Fuck can I say to that. Oh, hey, KK, check it out, I pushed some buttons on a keyboard, I sure do live on the raw and bleeding edge of danger! Go cram ‘jealous’ up your wastechute and tell your guts hello for me.”

“You are jealous -- ”

“No,” says Sollux. “I’m just saying, if you want him to be happy, swallow it down. I hope you choke. It’s what we all do, and it’s what we have to continue to do if we care at all for him, you fucking pestilence. You stand there presumptuous, fucking presumptuous -- ”

“ -- ‘prethumptueth’ -- ”

“ -- suck a rusted pail, Archagent -- you have no idea the things I’ve done to keep him from self-destructing under the weight of his own misery, and you’re not interested. If he wanted you for a matesprit, he would have said so. If he wanted any of us for a matesprit, he would have said so. If he’s given up and gone black for Terezi it’s less your business than it even is mine, you ridiculous fuck. Fuck off. Go home. None of us can have him, so stop hounding him about it.”

There is silence. There’s a perfect silence inside your skull, so it matches.

“You’re red for him too,” says Eridan.


“You were tryin’ to get to the red through the pale,” says Eridan, “fuck, that is a legendary heap a dipshittery.”

More silence, this time with a distinctly upped danger quotient.

“You were red but he was flippin’ with that legislacerator a his so you settled on pale and thought you could bide,” says the fishtroll, and his voice is getting more and more strangled. “You know Gamz is serendipity on account a you’re not, you’re just bein’ a shithead because you want him, you’ve choked it down -- I glubbin’ knew it! Fuck, you’re flushed for him, you’re in red, you bastard, and you let him go along with no idea. No wonder the poor kid don’t know a diamond from a dungheap when it comes to what the two a you noxious losers were ever on about.”

“And you dare to stand there bold as brass and think you can tell me how I feel because -- ?”

“Don’t you fuckin’ question me here.” That’s real anger. That’s his pre-stabbing-people hiss. “You and I, we’ve flipped more’n once. I know how you love.”

Holy shit. You needed to know that like you need a knife-hole in the vascular valves.

“Didn’t I say if you mentioned that outside the respiteblock, I’d blast your daylights out?”

“Take your best shot. You’re so flushed for him you can’t see straight, you wreck.”

There is a baroque, dignified air to it when Sollux says, “Me, and the rest of Alternia.”

Silence again. You have counted up to three hundred and fifty-two tiles in the ceiling, but you lost your place a couple times. Your chest hurts. You’re exhausted, suddenly. If you could wish yourself away you’d already be a thousand miles from here, steadily walking into the middle of nowhere and you’d just walk and walk till there was nothing left of you. You can barely fucking parse it when Eridan says, haphazard: “He said he was jealous of me, didn’t he. Over you.”

Sollux doesn’t answer. The fishertroll says, “You got no right to it. No fuckin’ right. You’re a perfect prince with his own chunk a palace and brutal dominion over the whole cohort, and whatever, you got no right -- you’re powerful. You’re rich. You’re a highblood! He looks at your legs.”

It takes a lot of self-control for you not to splutter. Sollux sounds like a confused wiggler when he says, “What.”

“Okay, so, you know -- you know that time you were in that little stupid silk bathrobe thing you got, the thigh-length one, the green -- he walked into a door, I shit you not. Where’d you even get that, ain’t your style.”

It is with rueful weariness that Sollux says, “I think that one’s courtesy of our Mistress of Fashion.”

“Explains the fuckin’ lace. Sol, I don’t even know what you want any more, I don’t think you glubbin’ know what you want any more, don’t jerk my frond round like this -- ”

“Lace,” says his companion, “is the first fucking thing you shred when you get going,” and then come the unmistakable sounds of smooching.

You draw away from the door. There’s more muffled rustling, a thump, and then Sollux moans, soft and hungry, and you take several very large steps back. Part of you wants to sit down and cry until you come unglued. Another, larger part, wants to open the door. Both those parts are deeply stupid and will get you nowhere good.

Yet another part itches to contact the Board and -- you overrule it. Sollux is loyal to the Empire; of course he is, how couldn’t he be -- and an unwarranted investigation would only weaken his capacity to safeguard your Empress’s intentions, or get him removed entirely. You know there’s a dozen lazy shithead lordlings that would only treat the Mastership as a self-aggrandizing powergame. That would be infinitely worse than a kid who just sometimes has a few doubts about the efficacy of how the Threshecutioners care to conduct their business. You’ll explain again, or get someone else to; it’s pretty clear he hasn’t been listening to a damn word that’s dripped out of your facegash for two sweeps solid now.

God, he’s even been mourning that stupid kid you used to be. Like you’re not better now, not stronger, sharper, older; like it wasn’t a mercy-cull, to leave the useless shell of that dumb little wiggler behind you. No, you’re just some gross revenant shambling around with the real Karkat’s face on, according to Sollux Captor! That’s hard to take, any way you want to look at it. That’s not even remotely treasonous, that’s just a big sad stupid kick in the shame globes.

No wonder everything’s gone directly to shit since you came back planetside, you went and murdered the kid he actually wanted, paraded the scarred-up corpse right in front of his face, like hey, Sollux, look what I can do! And now he’s some fucked up combination of flushed and grieving and bitterly, obviously resentful of both states. He doesn’t know what to do about you. You don’t know what to do about you.

There are two exits to this room, if you count a narrow ventilation shaft as an exit, and, hey, you do. You drag the cot quietly over, flip the cover open-- ha, Sollux hasn’t remembered to lock it -- and hoist yourself in. A few kicks and you’re perched neatly in a narrow tunnel, and you hook the vent cover back up with your heel. He’ll guess where you headed off to the minute he sees where the cot was left, anyway, but the closed vent will serve as a poignant fuck you, Captor, I do what I want. You hope it hurts him: you’re angry enough that the thought of his wounded face feels good. You are serious, headache-inducing, blood-churning levels of angry -- and desperate and wounded and scared and sad, you don’t even know, you can’t tell. You’re sick. You’re done.

Scooting along through the palace vents a good deal easier when you were all little five-sweeps-old wigglers, but your shitty half-assed molts are for once in your favor and you still just barely fit. Aradia’s riddled her palace rotten with secret passages, and between them and the subterranean blocks’ ventilation shafts you can get pretty much anywhere if you know the trick of it. You take the first shaft that goes straight up, kicking and scuffling awkwardly, straining your shoulders, and you nearly bash your horns concave when you find out someone’s put a very large potted plant half-over the exit grille.

It’s not the most dignified entrance you’ve ever made, but you manage to shove the grille half open and tip the pot over. Then it’s a grunting squeeze and a few undignified flops and you are sprawled out in one of the courtyards, clear moonlight and a fresh flowery breeze soft on your skin.

You are deeply tired of flowers. You get up, dust the worst of the vent grime off, and head for the nearest sound of somebody cleaning something. Fuck your life, it’s the dumpy little carapace Sollux and Kanaya split: the Courtyard Darling, according to your classy friend, and the Courtyard Dunkass according to the latter.

“S-- sire Vantas!” squeaks the little palace carapace, clutching a sheaf of fabric swatches to his chestplate. “An honor! Also why are you naked!”

“I could tell you but then I would have to kill you,” you say, “On account of how it has been a very long and very weird week and the first guy unfortunate enough as to crack the seal on the pressure tank that is Karkat what is your goddamn problem and why are you fucking naked in a courtyard talking to some dumbshit carapace is going to get his face blasted off, and you’re about the first guy I’ve seen in a while I wouldn’t like to brutally render down to constituent molecules of aggravation. I’m tired. I’m filthy. I’m starving. I just made a very daring escape from having to listen to two squelching prolapsed assholes play mouth-pong up against my sick bay door, and now I have a nookfull of cobwebs. For the love of all that is holy, I need you to stop asking questions and start helping me alleviate the symptoms of I’m a Goddamn wreck and I am going to pass right out in this flowerbed in like ten seconds if you can’t provide me with some decent alternative. Face down, game over, here lies Karkat Vantas’s dirty glutes and the sum of all dignity.”

The carapace just blinks at you. When God was handing out pans to his first children, this guy evidently wound up with a muffin tin.

“I want a bath,” you say gently. “Can you get me a bath?”

He squeaks again, scurries off in front of you. Inside of ten minutes you’re in one of the fancy guest ablution traps, sprawled out on black marble with blissfully hot water streaming over your horns, scrubbing off with a soft washcloth and a cake of fantastically silky perfumed soap. There is something to be said for living well. There is a lot of somethings, there is an entire library of something. Fun as it was to kick around the Corbenic and play Wild Thing, you missed hot water so much.

“Bring me cake,” you say to the hovering carapace. “Something big and fucking fancy. And chocolate. With bacon roses and two tiers and some kind of jam in the center, raspberry for preference. And I want my clown, he should be hanging around somewhere, tall guy, kind of ugly, horns like he was first in line when someone was handing out headgear guaranteed to wreck your shit. He doesn’t bite. If he does, smack him one for me.”

“Yes, Sire,” the little guy says, eyes the size of saucers.

Let it never be said you don’t have your priorities in order. You sink into the water, and for the first time in what feels like forever, you think you’ve got control over your life. You’re making things happen. The emotional cortex of your thinkpan may resemble a blown-out lightbulb; your love life might be in tatters; your pump biscuit may, in fact, be issuing you with a written warning not to pull this type of shit on you again; but you’re back where you belong. Issuing authoritative, friendly commands.

“And I want buttercream,” you shout to the retreating back of the carapace, inspired. “None of that fondant horseshit! Nobody likes fondant!”

Nothing very much happens for a peaceful quarter of an hour. You scrub off the accumulated dirt from a week’s worth of cold-water showers, knowing that sitting around in the steam is giving you palpitations but not giving even a fractional shit.

The door opens.

“Where’s my cake,” you want to know.

“I dunno,” Gamzee says. “Kind of a cosmic motherfuckin’ mystery, you put it all like that and shit. Where’s anyone’s cake, man.”

You choke back an entirely undignified kind of squeak, and sink hastily down to your ears.

“Hi,” you say after a long pause, kind of stupid. He stands at the edge of the bathroom like he’s sussing the tiles out for tripwires, and the silence stretches out thicker than steam and twice as hard on your bloodpusher.

“Hey, bro,” he finally says. “No hug?”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, get over here,” you snap, and come out of the water a little. He slouches over and crouches at the tub’s edge, and when you touch his shoulder he hisses in surprise.

“That is warm as fresh and flaming shitballs,” he says.

“Welcome to civilization, you wretched yahoo,” you say, “we got indoor plumbing,” and then he’s got you held tight, all cold greasy arms and saltrim, and the last ills of the night slop off you. You might let out something like a sob. It might also have been a pipe malfunction. He pats your face and you try to fend his grimy hands off and things get kind of ridiculous.

You’re not really -- used to being with a moirail, naked. Sollux wasn’t the type. Isn’t the type. Shit. You’re just still not used to this, to him, and it’s time you allow yourself to get used to it, because it’s not going away. You’re going to give yourself this one. Gamzee doesn’t have to go away.

You’re ready for this.

“Peel your rags,” you finally sigh, shoving him reluctantly away, “and get in here.”

He can’t, quite. It’s too hot for him -- his fingers scald a grapejuice purple when he dips a hand in. It’s a frank shock to the both of you, and a scramble off to the taps for some cold. The steam’s entirely cut and the trap is a few bare shades warmer than luke- before he’ll stop fussing and slip in.

You flick some bubbles at him. He flicks some bubbles at you.

“The water here sings itself such different songs,” he finally sighs, a strangely mournful sort of dreamy, and draws a disturbing face in the soap foam. “All sweetness and little deaths, brother, and the fishes come in the shape of funny little trolls with fire in their veins. Ain’t no kind of right.”

“Fuck, I missed you,” you say and he’s back at your side like an octopus made of elbows.

“You’re full fraction of my soul, hotblood,” he says, and presses lips to one horn. Wet as you are, the feel of him conducts all through you, grounding tip to toes with the feel of Gamzee. You tuck your face to his shoulder and take a long deep moment just to enjoy the feeling of absolute shelter.

“You are filthy as all hell,” you finally mumble. “We are going to introduce you to the concept of soap.”

“I know what soap is,” Gamzee says. Not insulted, just informative.

“You shake guts off your hands and wipe down with a hunk of distillate antiseptic,” you remind him. “Isn’t the same thing.”

“Clean is clean.”

“And you’re not.”

You can feel the grimace work all through him.

You pull back. “Let me,” you say, and you touch his big axeblade jaw. He kisses your fingers, all trust, and you might as well be fresh hatched for the way it makes you feel. You take the milled cake of pale saffron soap -- Feferi and Eridan used a chunk of slimy brown stuff rendered down from ashes and lye, which prompted an embarrassing breakfast debate whereupon it turned out all soap’s made that way and you’re a cosseted asshole -- and, after only a moment’s hesitation, you set to scrubbing his back.

What follows between you both is one of the most intensely pale moments of your life, somehow further than you’ve ever gone in a way you can’t fathom. It’s like your first time all over again. It’s like your first time was just messing around, leading up to this. Each swipe of soap and the washcloth would probably be serious material for some hardcore moirallegiance mag. When you’re done the water’s totally gross and you’re as wrung-out as the washcloth.

You both lie alongside each other in the tranquil afterglow, water going from lukewarm to tepid as he makes himself into a perfect cocoon all around you. His hands are gentle along your sodden scalp, thumb idly, peacefully, at your horns, and you’re legitimately unsure anymore where you leave off and he begins. His pulse is an unhurried metronome in your aurals, long slow lulling waves that have you drifting, and his purr is a long lazy thrum that echoes through your own throat, too. It's intimate as fuck.

He sings, almost absently:

Fly to me, my long-lost starling,
You’ve spent long sweeps in disarray.
Cease your empty tears and snarling,
No more from your love I'll stray.

Come what might and come what may,
My arms will keep the morn at bay.

The suns will set before and 'hind you,
Stars will sing you on your way.
Moons are circling round the planet,
Banishing the day away.

Come what night and come what may,
My hands will keep the morn at bay.

Gather to me all your soul songs,
Blacks and reds and gentle gray.
When my arms can stretch no further,
Will you grant my dying-day?

Come what might and come what may,
My kiss will keep the morn at bay.

It makes weird fucking echoes off the ablution tile, splitting into fragments of sound that freeze all the hairs on the back of your neck. By the end of it you’re driven up tight and kind of trembling against him.

“Shoosh,” you say, clinging helplessly, and kiss his cool mouth. “Shh, okay, I get it. I got you.”

“They’d have to kill me, brother,” he says up against you. “To pry you out of me. Have to take you from my pulp.”

“Can we please have a whole ten minute stretch that doesn’t turn hilarious amounts of morbid?” you want to know.

“Maybe I’ll up and mother fuckin’ learn,” he suggests, shamelessly languid, and you both kind of devolve again into heavy snuggling, which is not getting you anywhere. With a lot of reluctance, you sit up in the bathwater and make a face at the combined dirt, which has rendered the trap a kind of sickly greyish colour with bits of debris.

“Let’s get out,” you say. “This is like taking a wash in the harbour.”

Both of you take your time of it. You have a few extra rinses and then sit around on the floor with a hillock of towels, and you companionably dry each other off. Being naked with Gamzee is just basically like being naked with yourself. You’re not ashamed. Neither of you has a lot of meat on your bones, and he’s skin and sinew where you’re just a pile of wasted nibs. It doesn’t matter. He’s lovely and he loves you. He is intensely precious, and what you’re about to say fucking hurts.

“Gamzee,” you say. “You have to go back to Fef. You and Eridan both. Without me.”

He’s squeezing more water out of his hair with long fingers. You reach over and work a tangle clear. “Never was any fucking good at returning to shit,” he mutters, “wasn’t how I was brung up, don’t you know? You do your piece and you move on, bro, you let the horizon have you, not what’s under it. I ain’t predisposed to rulin’ punctual, like all... some chart, man, I can’t fit myself to no one’s schedule for nothing. How do I go back?”

“You love her, man.”

“Never meant to,” he says, frankly. “Never gave much time to quadrants. Quadrants weren’t time of mine I wasted. When I met her, she and me were going to slit each other gizzard to gulp. But she was just such a tiny motherfuckin’ mite, I mean -- long before we got to talking and got to fucking, understand, I was just red when I laid eye on her, didn’t have a choice about it. Even when I was thinking about killing her I was struck red from inside to out. And it ain’t like she all up and meant to chose me outta any line-up. Miracles aren’t always out to get their kindness on.”

You say, “We didn’t choose each other either.”

“Well.” His smile gets a trifle sly. “Brother, you I had to work for. All marked out with that bitchtits jacket and wound up squalling fit to bust, yeah, you I’d all up and snatch from any line up you please to motherfuckin’ stand in. Choose, hell.”

Gamzee is such a dipshit. You can’t help but laugh.

“So what?” you say. “Come on. Look at me. What are you even afraid of?”

He looks at you, a little searchingly. The blue of his eyes is deeper and sweeter than any ocean blue. It’s like the purple striation in ice, the colder you go. “With starfish and me, there’s a lot to be afraid of,” he says, thoughtful. “I don’t think you even know how much there is to be afraid of, with me and starfish.”

Well, isn’t that a fucking comfort.

“You are the most unhelpful lump of pus anyone ever made a moirallegiance with.”

“Aw, bro, I don’t mean to. It just -- seems crazy like I won’t want to run off eventually,” says Gamzee, and he reaches out to flick your damp forelock. “All know thyself, Gamzee Makara. I ain’t like to change. Some parts of me never change. Every time I run off I’m still there, waiting for me. What if I break her pump biscuit, beloved? What if she and me bleed each other out? You ever want to only remember someone all smiling?”

Yeah. You have.

“Tell me what you love her for,” you say. “Tell me what you two even talk about in the gaps between fumbling out a pail.”

“What we like eating,” he says, thoughtfully, “and what we like dreaming. And what we like killing. We chew the wicked heresies, some, on our good nights. I am making sweet progress turning over her faithsacks, believe you me.”

You laugh with no small amount of relief. They’ll probably be together for fucking ever.

“So stay with her,” you say. “You take your boat back to her boat, and you sit there, and you talk about demons with your beautiful little psycho princess ‘till your heads fall off, and you live happily ever after. It’s that easy for you, you ungrateful shit.”

“It would be if you’d come alongside too,” says your moirail, and catches up your hands. He pleads, “You and my brother Eridan, me and ffefryn. Moirails and matesprits. Make out like all motherfucking conciliatory, two by two, you know what I’m saying? Pure magic, that’d be, we’d be tightest clade. Be a sailor’s knot.”

“Eridan and I can’t work red,” you say dully.

“He loves you. He loves you like blazing and I have all and entirely had it up to here watchin’ him burn for you. Boy wants you to sign your name to him like crazy, get shit official. Paint it red. Get a ring. Fill a million motherfucking pails, whatever you want, he’ll give it to you and give it glad and it won’t be sin. He wants you to have him so bad, well, fucking take him already. The hell is your hold up?”

“Because of every fucking single thing you just said!” you shout, feeling close to agony. “All Eridan Ampora knows about affection is how to let someone own him. I can’t let him just -- surrender himself like that. It wouldn’t be a relationship, it’d be a fucking rout. I could make him cut out his tongue for me, clip his claws off at the knuckle, do a jig on broken glass -- I don’t want a dockside concubine, Gamzee, I don’t want some pitystruck panting beaten woofbeast slavering away for every glancing tpat on the head, I don’t need anybody’s worship, I just--” God, fuck, fuck you, your eyes are burning -- “I just want my friend back. I just want my friend.”

“You’re sweet on him.”

“I could not stand to love him like he wants me to. Not one second.”

He relents a little and tucks you back close to him, instead of arguing further, he wipes a big rough thumb under your stinging eyes and you come perilously close to losing your shit entirely. You take deep misery gulps of air and curl you stubclaws around his big bony rack of a torso, burying yourself in the thump of his heartbeat.

You realise Gamzee’s been saying your name. Maybe for a while. He tugs at your aural tatter.

“Mmmngh,” you object.

“Best friend,” he says kindly, “stop twisting your pan around all that brain-drain romantic drama.”

At that you pry your face off his rind. “Fucking come on--”

“No one loves you like you want them to, motherfucker, too much, not enough, it don’t matter none and it’s a long sight more’n you got with that bitch of a blue you got squatting in your heartbox as is. I ain’t stupid. I seen you hurting for her. That girl is tears, brother, that girl is righteous pain. Squeeze out your squeamish, flip your shit already, and take what you can get. Fight her frontways.”

You take a long, terrible moment to rub your face against his shoulder and fumble for breath. Then you admit: “I still love her.”

At that, he actually laughs. He rumbles with it. He pets your hair and he asks, “And your motherfucking mustard eyesore? Your heart sing love for him, too, now? Pretty little gilded fuck that he is, you want to be his landside pretty little boy? Take his jewels, kiss him soft?”

“I... yeah. Fuck me. I love him too.”

It’s the first time you’ve let yourself really say it, and known it for truth. No I love him but, or I love him except, just: I love him too.

Gamzee goes still and serious, and pulls you off him just enough to fix you with those stunning cold eyes of his.

“Bro, beloved, bend your fucking pan to me: you are all like to being in fair fancy fucking in love with the whole Goddamn world. You cry love and it is a motherfucking remark upon the weather. You drip pity like a wrung rag. You sing sweet rapture like a songbird. You are never not going to be brutal fucked up over every kid as so much sneezes your way.”

That hurts and it hurts brutally. No one ever said moirallegiance was the kindest quadrant.

“They call you Sire, here,” he says. Almost conversationally. “I was all up and lost as to that at first because I was like, what even is that all supposed to be on about, calling a little kid like that for. But it’s you, isn’t it, you’re all like to being our dad, all of us, and that’s motherfucking right. That’s good.”

He kisses you, cold and intent, and it melts some part of you utterly. He’s all stern ease.

“Don’t you ever take anyone’s shame for sharing yourself,” he says, “not even your own,” and there’s his fierceness, his sharpness, his eyes blaze cold and you are transfixed. “You are an upright miracle, brother, and there’s not enough of them to go around and if anyone really loved you they’d take your merest regard and consider it LIFETIME SUFFICIENT. You’re a gift and that is fuckin’ that.”

“Gamzee. Fuck’s sake.”

He puts his hand right over your mouth.

“You want your friend back, nothing more, nothing further, if that’s really what your heart is all up and telling you, best beloved, you give it to him straight. You set your terms. He’ll abide. Kid’s had enough no in his life, one more won’t do him a lethal harm.”

“Yeah,” you say. You swallow down a hard lump of something namelessly painful. “Yeah, fuck. You’re right.”

You sit up straight and collect your scattered wits. “God, I’m hungry.”

Your moirail seems to have the same idea that you do, because he’s reaching for his shirt. You stop him; to be honest, his clothes are a hygiene hazard. Court can go and get him more. When the little carapace pops back into your ablution chamber and clears his pipes respectfully, you fire him off a salute. “Did you get the cake?”

“Yes, Sire, but I’ve got -- well, that is to say, we couldn’t -- ”

“You had to get cherry jam,” you say gloomily.

“Strawberry, but -- ”

“This is acceptable and everything else is shitty little details,” you inform him. “I promise, so long as the cake meets my demands, and let me promise you that I’m not that fussy when it legitimately comes down to the cake, there is nothing you could tell me that will ruin my night.”

“Lady Pyrope is holding the cake hostage in the Green Room,” says the carapace meekly. “She wishes me to convey you her gratitude for the bacon roses, they were a divine act of foresight and also her favorite.”

This ruins your night. You don’t even bother to wait for clothes delivery. You’ve been naked once today; you can be a little less than naked again. You wrap a towel around your middle, abandon your moirail, and you let your stomps ring down the hallway in a terrible carillion of fury. Your tread heralds pain. Your step singes. When you get to the Green Room, you kick the doors open and bellow challenge:

“Those were mine! You know I like bacon more than you!”

Terezi Pyrope is perched next to your cake, completely denuded of bacon foliage. She holds the last little bacon bud on a fangpick, waving it around in front of her over-powerful sniffer as though to enjoy the moment. She is sleek and spiny as some kind of desert plant, her legislacerative jacket pressed and her boots new and shiny. It’s been a while since you two were in the same room. It’s been fucking forever.

She peers down her long nose at you. Because her eyes are blank, deranged scarlet marbles, this involves staring significantly just over your shoulder. As you gape in anguish, she sprawls over the table in what she obviously thinks is a pose of great sensuality, only it looks like someone spilled a box of matchsticks. You are very reluctantly turned on.

“Threshecutioner Vantas,” she says. “At last. We see each other plain.”

You say, “Legislacerator. Hand over the fucking bacon, and nobody has to get hurt.”

She goes and dips the bacon rose into the very nice chocolate icing spread over your cake. You watch in open dismay as she raises one tack-sharp knee and surveys her prisoner, the bacon petals glistening with nearly-black buttercream. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, crabapple!” she says brightly. “I have impounded this cake. This bacon is all that remains in my weregild taken for the fact that you are a douchebag, you should not be back on solids yet, and you are not even wearing any clothes.”

“Objection! On what grounds are you impounding my cake?”

“Objection overruled. This cake is a witness to your depravity. After cross-questioning, I have surmised that this cake is prime evidence of your licentious ways and entirely undeserved decadence.”

“None of that is illegal. You can’t impound a cake on account of my character flaws, you screeching, hard-nooked harpy.”

“You also did not serve intent to eat like a whole packet of hogbeast by yourself.” She reaches out and languidly, with the very tip of her long tongue, licks a drip of buttercream off the rose. Like everything else about Terezi, you objectively find this disgusting and subjectively find it the most charming thing anyone ever did to bacon flora. “I object.”

“Well, I object to your face.”

At that, she actually laughs. She has a blueblood’s serrated triangle-teeth behind her soft full lips, oceanic and intimidating. She’s gorgeous when she grins. You love her like a kid who was hatched without a single drop of sense in his sanity sacs.

“Sustained,” she says. “Come over and kiss me hello already, you bitter shithead, I missed you.”

You cross the room and bend in to peck her cheeks, only to be hauled summarily onto her lap and subject to a blisteringly thorough cavity search. You allow this because she tastes unwarrantedly fantastic and because, for many terrible reasons, you missed her too. She has one arm around the small of your back, you’ve got both hands fisted in her crisp crimson lapels, and when you pull dizzily back for some air she pops the rose right into your stinging mouth.

“There,” she says. “A reward for good behavior! When you serve the law, citizen, the law also serves you.”

You put one hand over her obnoxious flap and ignore her long enough to savor the taste of something that had once owned four legs and a tail. She waggles her tongue against your palm and sneaks her icing-greasy hand underneath the backside of your towel and gives your butt a firm squeeze. You experience a moment not entirely dissimilar to peace: that Terezi is as shameless as three barracudas packed into a trollsuit is one of the dearest fundamentals of your life.

“Stop dying on me,” she orders, behind your hand. “It’s rude, Karkat. It displays a gross lack of manners, and also a lack of understanding on how I hate it.”

You take this time to chew and swallow. You also take this time to tilt up her chin and kiss her, bacon and icing notwithstanding, as she thickly says “Gross!” and kisses you back. Both of you take a moment to breathe in, nose tip to nose tip, everything thickly flavoured with the beautiful taste of top-quality oinkbeast and chocolate icing rich enough to taste in your bones.

You say, “I came back, didn’t I?”

“Only because God loves you, though why we are not entirely sure,” says Terezi. She kisses you again. She has that particular God-look on her face: half reverent, half smug as fuck. “I prayed until I got a visitation! He Who Wields The Sword revealed to me such mysteries.”

You snort. “Were these mysteries revealed to you while you were drunk as hell?”

“Perhaps,” she says, three quarters smug as fuck and accelerating. “In any case, I am pretty sure God loves your butt, because when I prayed for him to keep special tabs on your butt, he said ‘okay sure’ and ‘stop talking to me about Karkat’s butt’.”

Her forehead presses gently into yours. Her fangs scrape the tip of your snout. With great care and understanding, she slides her second hand down to rest comfortably with its partner on your posterior. Her claws make little pinpricks into your skin, light and teasing, and when you shudder up against her she purrs right into your ear.

“Still atheist, you screaming zealot,” you say breathlessly.

“Still taking that as a challenge, sinner!” she says.

You canoodle.

Way too soon into trying to work Terezi’s cravat off, the door bursts open. You break liplock and crane around to see Eridan Ampora, standing in the doorway looking completely fucking wrecked, bites all down his neck and disappearing into the barely-buttoning silk shirt that belongs on the Master of Spies, not him, hair a riot of curls and the top button of his trousers hanging louchely unbuttoned.

His tie is knotted haphazardly around his neck. His mouth’s been chewed to obscene tatters, his jaw hardly wiped clear of gold and gutter-violet. You’re embarrassed just looking at him: he’s like a caricature of guess who just got bucketed.

“Gamz,” he bellows, “we have to get you fuckin’ outta here, that pet legislacerator’s on the warpath -- ”

The pet legislacerator cheerfully clears her throat.

“Oh,” he says, pinched halfway through to a squeak, on account of Eridan Ampora has hilarious issues with authority. He looks at Terezi. Then he looks at you, and his eyes widen: oh dies on his ragged lips, because as you belatedly remember you are straddling your girlfriend’s lap wearing a towel and nothing else.

This is all made worse by the fact that Eridan takes leave of all his fucking senses and gives you another once-over: his wide gaze travels from your toes all the way up to the tops of your horns, then goes back for seconds somewhere around the vicinity of your ass.

You remove Terezi’s hands from your behind, tuck the suddenly inadequate amount of terrycloth up higher around your hips, and you feel a blush start to creep all the way down your neck and to the tips of each aural shell. You’re going to kill him.

He says “So,” to your towel and then thoughtfully stalls on saying anything else until you are pretty sure you’re testing the limits of how embarrassed you can be before you die of it.

“Disgustingly besmirched ruffian!” says Terezi. “Introduce yourself immediately.”

His attention is wrenched back to her. He drops her a bow so gracious it could have been clipped out of a ballroom if it weren’t for the pornographic drip of purple it spatters against the floor.

“Archagent Eridan Ampora, an’ it please you, Mistress,” he says. He licks nervously at the ruin of his lower lip. There’s a vivid pool of dark gold inside one exposed clavicle. Fuck. He looks like sex dragged pail-first through a hurricane. He’d look like this for you inside one hot heartbeat, only that’s approximately the second-worst thought in the universe because the flipside is you’re longing for that heavy gold splashed across your shoulders, too.

The first-worst thought is how he could come over and join you and your sniggering legislacerator any second now. You have something wrong with you.

“I see,” Terezi says, while you churn. “And you are the moirail of the girl with very bad spelling and a heavy foot on the shift key. Excellent; I’m truly excited for party times. Did you come here by way of Lord Captor?”

“Yes’m,” Eridan says, cowed by a sack of nails with a loud voice and blood more blue than green.

Her eyebrows waggle. “Was he good?”

Mortified, Eridan automatically mumbles, “Yes’m,” and looks as though he wishes a hole would open and swallow him up. God, he looks like a kid getting told off by their lusus, looks all big silly hands and drooping shoulders, it makes the whole of you want to smile.

“Terezi, you fucking perv,” you chide, and have to choke back a squeak when she sucks on your horn, long and slow and cool and your coherence dissolves into shuddery little bits. When your vision stops being composed primarily of stars, Eridan is just standing there. He looks like someone put everything he ever wanted in one pile and then set it on fire.

“I would cross-question further, but you have pleased me,” says the legislacerator magnanimously, and wipes her mouth with the back of one sharp wrist. “I will let you complete your mission. You may locate the Gamz in question and remove him to the location of your choice without having to complete the Trial of Worth.”

“Um,” says Eridan.

“Don’t listen to her, there is no fucking trial,” you say. Your voice is a hoarse croak. You really want him out of here before you do something as dumb as let Terezi pail you right in front of him. Her hands are already sneaking back under your towel. You get out in one hasty burst, “Look, Gamzee’s probably still where I left him in the ablution chamber, can you give Terezi and me a moment? Scrounge up a meal or something, I’ll find you both later. Also, you ridiculous douche, change your shirt, only Sollux thinks that’s hot.”

“I think it’s hot too,” Terezi says, judiciously.

“No one fucking asked you,” you snap.

Eridan has gone small and sheepish. He bobs another bow to Terezi, gives you one last lingering ogle -- you honestly can’t blame him, Terezi’s mouthing your other horn, now -- and the door clicks neatly shut.

It takes all of three seconds for Terezi to break down into giggles, her frontpan dropping to the crook of your shoulder.

“His face!” she hoots. “Next time I’m going to ask him to do a little dance. I bet he would.”

“You cruel bitch,” you accuse, but you’re laughing too. “Fuck, it’s a wonder he didn’t have a stroke then and there. This is a kid who I have personally witnessed consume a shark for dinner, and I think if you glared just right you could probably get him to do the dance in a funny hat.”

“My dearest sexiest God, Sollux has the worst possible taste in hardasses,” she says. “Present company excluded.”

“Of course.”

“Of course!”

The two of you savor a long, fond moment of mutual despair. These are the things you would rather die than lose: the way her eyes glint when she smiles, the waggle of her eyebrows when she’s genuinely pleased, the particular way your insides turn over when it’s just the two of you alone together and she regards you like you’re hers and she’s happy for it. You are disastrously hot for her.

You finish taking her cravat off and kiss the hollow of her throat, then lower, unbuttoning her shirt as you go, and she breathes out roughly and catches your hands before you even get to her bra.

“How about,” she says thickly, and clears her throat. She’s got vivid blue-green splashed all over her cheeks. “How about we talk over our problems, Karkat, like the mature and level-headed professionals that we like to pretend to be.”

You moan in frustration. “We can do that after.”

“You’ll just fall asleep after.” She tilts you back from her. “Knock it off. We didn’t sort our shit the last three hundred times we made out instead of talking, this is not going to be the exception.”

“I like making out instead of talking.”

“I know. Alternia knows. Do I need to make you get your own chair?”

“Here’s fine,” You squirm on her lap for the sole and malicious purpose of watching her go brighter teal. Her claws catch your hips tightly and you run your tongue over your blood-prickled lips, you run rounded claws down what narrow sliver of skin you’ve manage to expose on her. Tilt your throat back. Her breath goes flatteringly ragged. You need this, need to stop thinking --

“Karkat Vantas,” she says warningly.

“So talk!” you snap, knowing you sound sulky as all hell and not really caring. “Fuck did you come here for? It sure as shit was not to steal my breakfast, and, evidently, it wasn’t even to pail me even though it’s been a fucking perigee since we’ve so much as shaken hands -- ”

“It was to try and stop you from making any stupider decisions than you already have been,” she says. She bops you with a gentle fist right between the eyes. “Past a certain point, Karkat, watching you fuck up goes from second-hand embarrassing to completely excruciating, and enough is enough! You are seriously considering going out flush with a kid who puts on a tie post-coitally at our age, and you are consorting, and consorting shamelessly, with your salvaged subjugglator! You know, he’s not some sundered fiduspawn ratlinguini you can tuck under your arm and nurse back to full stats, Karkat, he’s a Mirthful Messiah. A time-bomb.”

That cools you down some. “Fuck you, he’s sweet and I got his issues on lock-down. He grows on you if you give him half a chance.”

“Like a completely adorable case of horn shingles, I expect!”

There it is again, the rising stormfront of hostility. This is not an exchange of views anymore, this is not a spate of witty banter while you play sprightly grabass, this is something bleakly combative. You are perched on either side of a widening rift, hurling words aimed to hurt. When did it start to feel more thrilling than sad? She looks at you, her face set and intense, like she wants to chew your head off and lay eggs inside the cavity and the only reason she hasn’t yet is she’s not sure if she’s going to go for the right occular as a point of entry or the left. When she runs fingers down your vertebral chute it’s all claws.

“Fuck, Pyrope, what is even your problem,” you grit out, a long sight more breathy than you meant to.

“You say that like I only have one,” she says, just as heatedly. “Let’s work backwards in chronological order! Problem one: you are a disgrace whole and entire. Problem two! When he isn’t tearing chunks of his Archagent, Sollux is drinking. Drinking and also obnoxiously maudlin. That’s problem three. Problems four through infinity intimately involve a capricorn--”

“Don’t give me that load,” you growl. “You forwarded me that legislation and told me it was ‘Go Time!’ because you knew I could take care of it.”

“I forwarded it to you because you’re cute when you’re angry, and because the it I thought you would be taking care of involved maybe schmoozing up some tariff regulators, not hatching out a deranged scheme to strut your many and varied suicidal tendencies in front of Sollux’s pretty seadweller who think sharks make for delightful moonlit brunches! Karkat, you wasted wreck, you need to know your limitations!”

“I’ll know them when I meet them. It needed doing, I did it, I’m still here. You’re welcome.”

“These are the things you can no longer do,” she says coldly. “You can’t lift more than a quarter of your body weight. You can’t strife more than a ten-minute round. You can’t eat complex carbohydrates. You can’t head off into the watery ass end of nowhere for a week to play sea-savage without keeling over stone fucking dead, Karkat!”

You are furious. Of all people to throw this shit in your face -- “I came back! I always come back! So what does it even matter!?

She makes this thrilling ripsaw of a snarl. “You are blind, Karkat,” she bites out, “and coming from me you need to take that as writ, and what’s worse is you are so stupid about it! You are fucking wasting yourself! You need to manage your resources!

“You,” you hiss, “you, Terezi Pyrope, are a heartless Goddamn jackass. When are you and Sollux going to get that all the crap people get put through -- all this shit isn’t a game for some kids, this isn’t FLARP, this isn’t Fiduspawn, this is real life! Wasting myself? On what? What would possibly be better to fucking reserve? We have to give everything we can, that’s what we’re for, life’s too fucking precious to diddle away on -- on shit like stats, and rules, and minding bullshit limitations -- you don’t get bonus points if you get to the end of the level with a full inventory!”

“The only kids who are dumb enough to think that life isn’t a game are the kids that are losing.”

“Fuck you. That’s fucked up.”

“You’re fucked up!”

“I’ll show you fucked up--”

You’re not sure which of you exactly makes the first move, but abruptly you’re kissing like the world’s ending. So much for talking it out. This smooch is all sharp edges, all brutal intention and no playing around, as if she wants to drill through your pan, pare out all the chunks of your brain she thinks make you too dumb to live. You hold on to her like you can make up for every night you’ve ever spent apart.

Maybe she’s right. Maybe you’re stupid, crazy-- maybe you’ve got these rotten spots in you, maybe you’re defective. But you’re going to keep saying what you believe till she fucking listens to you. There’s times you want to lay down and never get up and times when you’re so hungry to just be done with it all-- but never when you’re with her, thrashing up against her claws. She gives you something to strive for.

She pulls back and you almost scream. Your blood is a bright green shout of saturation against her glossy black lips.

“You’re not entitled to your blaze of fucking glory just yet, action hero,” she says, heaving for breath, and licks her teeth. “You don’t get to call it quits this early. We’ve got too much to do.”

“They can bury me at sea and I’ll still climb back up and spit in all their faces, and yours too,” you promise her. “I don’t quit.”

“Promise me,” she says, and brushes your hair out of your eyes. She is tremendously, shockingly earnest. “Please, Karkat, promise.”

“I promise.”

She nips at your lower lip and lets you kiss her harsh and intent for a while, just enjoying the back and forth of teeth. She’s terrible, terribly fierce, terribly cruel, terribly good at all this. You’ve missed her so much: she’s harbor, too, in her own goading Godawful kind of way. Two people in this entire world have kept you clawing your way back from God’s quiet, beautiful garden: Sollux, from love, and Terezi from sheer spite.

“I think I hate you,” you breathe into her mouth. “You’re smart as fuck and you’re Goddamn cruel from it, TZ, you drive me nuts and we haven’t properly gotten along in -- perigees. Seasons. Ever. If you’d ever fucking deign to pry the gears out from excretionchute long enough to give half a shit we could rule the fucking galaxy, but you and Sollux--”

That makes her still. She drops her head to the juncture of your throat and shoulder, and sucks hard enough to make you squirm. Then she licks you, long and slow, back up to your ear. “Me and Sollux?” she repeats, throaty.

“You’re going to get yourselves killed,” you say, and she fucking shrieks at you, bursting into wrath.

“I’m keeping him alive,” she screams, yanking on a mouthful of your ear between her teeth, she closes fangs around your jaw, your throat, she’s blazing angry, she stinks of flame, you’re not entirely sure she’s not just going to straight-up rip your throat out. “You narcissistic little goblin, you think you’re the only kid who ever figured out how to care? You think you invented moirallegiance? The day they come for Mr. Appleberry Blast will be the day they step over the ashes of my spiteful twisted corpse, you awful shit!”

“Whoah!” you say, and grab at her through the blizzard of fangs. You’re a little numb from the sudden shift into shouting and everywhere she’s chomped you stings. “Fuck it, Terezi, hang on a second -- ”

“I will never let him die,” she says, “do you hear me? Never.

She slaps you hard enough to snap your head around. You go squashy and breathless with shock. Hacking for air, you push back as best as you back from her grip, trying to get enough room to see clearly.

She has tears lacing her cheeks with teal and a dangerous blue tint to her nose. You wipe a thumb over her cheek and she bites your knuckles for it, then scrubs her face with one crisp sleeve. The stains are hideous. You want to apologize, but you probably don’t have the right.

“There was an assassination attempt while I was out, wasn’t there?” you ask grimly.

“There are always assassination attempts,” she hisses. “This one was just less stupid than the others. You weren’t there, Karkat, you’re never there for him! You tell him not to do what he needs to be doing, you go sit, moirail, stay, moirail, like we’re all still a pack of wigglers playing clade-cave in the courtyards and then you’re gone while he gets stem-deep into the kind of shit he didn’t notice because you should have been there to suss out beforehand! You need to be there for him and you aren’t.

The world’s tilted sideways, and you’re losing your balance. “Where the fuck is this even coming from?”

There’s a defiant, hard set to her mouth. She licks her flap once, then twice, clearing away the blood. “Sollux and I have been sleeping together all week,” she gets out, all in one burst. She takes a deep breath, laughs at herself a little disbelievingly. “There. I said it.”

The world lurches sharply. You stare at her, and despite knowing the depths of its hypocrisy -- despite knowing you’re a douchebag, that you’re a cheating and faithless douchebag, that you left your hive with the door wide open for anyone to claim your lawnring -- that he’s not a lawnring to be claimed, he’s a real person with a bloodpusher and blood and just as much right to pick his partners as anyone-- you feel betrayed. You feel robbed. You feel heat in your cheeks, in your eyes.

“You what.

“I love him,” she says, with utmost dignity. “I know him, crabapple. Horns to tail. I’ve been holding off since last spring, but he was drinking and not eating, and he was all fucked up over loving you -- I want him. He and I work. I am not sorry to say that we are in a thoroughly serendipitous honeymoon, except I’m sorry that it makes you hitting on a clown convenient.”

She grabs up your hand, holds up up between the both of you. She taps one painted thumbclaw against your yellow diamond ring, a double-click of black enamel against stone, one-two, one-two, and there’s something cruel and set and hungry in her blind red eyes. It’s not the right shape or color for you and you both know it but fuck, you love it anyway, this stupid little mustard-yellow square, it kept you sane while you lost everything else you had up there.

Every late night, every spaced-out colleague, every fresh coat of blood painting your hands murder-colored, every time there was nothing between you and the glaring stars but the awful endless gulf of your failures, you still had that ring like a noose around your flesh, like a lifeline, telling you not to take that long last walk out the short airlock. Telling you to hang on, that someone still needed you, that someone was down there planetside looking back up while you were looking down. You would rather have lost the whole hand-- you would rather have junked your whole arm -- than lose this ring.

It’s the last bit of him you have to hold on to.

“Karkat,” she says lowly. Coaxingly. “Take him red, and have me black. No more dancing. No more dissembling.”

“Who the fuck died and put you in charge of my quadrants?”

“Come off it, you proud imbecile. You’re ace at foursquare and you are a magnificent disaster at sorting your shit. How long did it take you to realize Leijon was crushing ash on you?”

Two thirds of your sixth sweep. Terezi has a deeply terrible point, but a point nonetheless, and she reads your surrender off your face with a long cold tongue.

Instead of crying, you curl your hand into a fist. “Can we all stop being jealous of each other over Sollux?” you grit out. “It’s not cute and I am not having anything like a good time.”

“You own him,” she says bitterly. “You own him from the tip of his mustard nose to the tip of his mustard toes, you have since the start of us. You precious darling imbecile, I can’t believe I have to schoolfeed this into your gnashing idiotmaw at seven and a half, we’re jealous over you.

“Over my ghost, maybe,” you say, and old bile comes out but you don’t fucking care anymore. You seriously don’t fucking care. “Over the kid who wasn’t a Threshecutioner and had time for you! Over someone who put you both first, I mean, shit, I was always tagging along after you two and then when I go off and do what I want to do -- the only thing I ever really wanted for myself -- suddenly I’m used goods? Suddenly Sollux is lying to me for sweeps? That’s shit in a bucket, Terezi! You were flushed for who I was and black for who I became, and okay, fine, sure I’ll hate you for that, it hurts -- but what do I do with Sollux? You can sneer at me all you like for being a little sweet on Ampora but out of all of you apparently only the goddamn sea savage has the basic courtesy not to be in love with my six-sweeps old ghoul! I don’t even know if Sollux is even willing to stop holding the basic facts of entropy against me!”

At this spiel, all she does is lick the surprised, unhappy tears off your cheeks. Just two. But they were there. She gently touches your face, as reverent as prayer.

“You are going to hurt for the rest of your life because of what you let them do to you, my asswrenchingly stupid black cherry,” she says. “But the thing is! The thing is, underneath all the pan damage you are still exactly the same kid as you were before you let them fit you for your cute little snowsuit: you have more heart than anyone I ever met and all your pain is holy fire, coming up through your cracks, it burns you from the inside out while it keeps the rest of us so very warm. None of us would turn from you, not for one moment, while you still wanted us.”

You are silent for a long while, trying to turn this around in your head.

“You’re wrong,” you say again. It comes out kind of squashed and uncertain.

“Never,” she says. “I will have you till the end of the world, crabapple, and Sollux would probably try to hold on for longer.”

She taps your finger again. “Now shut the fuck up and give me that ring.”

You pull it, quietly, off your finger. You’re kind of surprised it goes, but it’s perfect workmanship -- it’s the kind of dilating design meant to grow with a kid, and it slips right over your knuckle. There’s hardly even a divot in your flesh, where it was.

You hold it up to Terezi. She plucks it from your fingers, sniffs it once, and drops it to the floor. Then she picks up her cane from where it’s leant against the wall and drives the butt hard and fast down on the stone. Nothing much happens. She drives the butt of her cane down again, harder, and this time the ring rolls a little reproachfully away. You both stare at it, nonplussed.

“That would have been very dramatic,” Terezi remarks, “were we not in love with a boy who casts his rings out of titanium.”

You laugh. It’s half sob, but it’s still a decent fraction of mirth. God, it’s shamefully true, you are ridiculous amounts of in love with a kid who thinks wrought iron isn’t hardcore enough.

“Fuck, I bet that thing cost like twenty aureii, it’s like three aureii just for a raw topaz,” you say.

She laughs, too. “Sollux would not know what an aureii was if one jumped up and bit him on the bone bulge,” she says. How did you ever miss her waxing pale? She drips with proprietary dismay. She says “God help us all,” and you’ve never heard her so tender with pity in your life. You wouldn’t have even guessed she could go that gentle.

It suits her.

You grab on to her arm for balance, crane down -- scoop the ring back up off the floor. “You Legislacerators and your dramatics,” you say. “Not everything has be a piece of theatre, you know that?” You hold her right hand up, and pop the ring onto the proper finger. It’s got a faint scuff of white across the honey-colored stone from her cane. You wipe it clean with the pad of your thumb.

“There,” you croak. Your voice wobbles shamefully. “Buy him something really fucking sparkly to parade around in. Blue topaz. He’d be thrilled.”

She grabs up your hand while you’re still struggling with yourself -- your left hand, and she brushes one fingertip to her split lip, and she dabs a big spot of teal just in front of your first knuckle. All business again. “While we’re on the subject, it’s about time I saw you in my color, too,” she says. “We’ve been fucking around long enough.”

She’s right, and it makes something spark inside you: anger, triumph. It’s long past time the two of you laid formal claim. You lace your hands together and kiss her hard, all teeth and challenge, all grief. It feels good: she bites you back and it’s clean and honest, a healing kind of pain.

“What do I even do about all the rest of it?” you finally ask, all tired out, head lolling against hers. “It’s just so fucking complicated--”

“You have a night,” says your kismesis. “I will be cruel to be kind. Or vice-versa! You do better when you’ve got a mission! You have one night to go and tell him how you feel. In the process, darling, you’ll take that good-looking seadweller and tell him to go home if you want to salvage any little bit of not just what the two of you have, but what he and Sollux have together. They’ll tear each other apart over you if you don’t settle this for once and for all.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Now who’s being too dramatic?” she asks. “It’s exactly that easy.”

“But Sollux, fuck, I only found out he was interested in the last night or so, what if we’re moving too fast, what if we’re not -- ”

She cackles. “Moving too fast! After two sweeps! It’s the simplest thing you’ll ever do: you go into his office and you pry the bottle out of his nook and then you finally let him -- and him only be the kid taking your pants off. Then you two make out till his twisty little doublehorned head falls clean off his shoulders. Then we all live happily ever after, the end.”

“Like I said: it is not that fucking easy.

“Psh. Trust a Legislacerator to know the difference between simple and easy, cherry pie.”

You touch your fingers to the bloody spot, and you close your eyes.

“Coward,” she mocks. “You’re only ever brave when it’s other people’s hearts serving collateral, aren’t you?”

You feel like you’ve spent this last while more out of your head than in it, but this last bit of slander hits something hard and bright in the confusing whirlwind fluff that has become your life and resounds.

“Choke on a bucket of sand, Pyrope,” you tell her sharply. Determinedly. “I was hatched the bravest motherfucker on the planet and I am going to go sweep Sollux Captor right off his stupid feet. I’ll just -- I’ll do things my own way, the right way, or I won’t do them at all. ”

“Ah, now, there’s my Karkat,” she says, and strips off your towel.

Chapter Text

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.

Sollux --

“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 go.

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.”

“He’s God.”

“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.”

“Down, boy.”

“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: yeah i got the knowing of it.
TC: you’re one BUSY MOTHERFUCKER. :o)
TC: lIkE a bUzZbEaSt, yO!
TC: :oD
TC: :oD!!
TC: Do:
TC: :oD
TC: Do:
TC: ha ha.
TC: hOnK.
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 handfast.
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: bring him safe too.
TC: ◊

-- gallowsConflagration [GC] began trolling arsenicCatnap [AC]! --

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