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The Other Side of the Heart

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Sollux rubbed his hands together and blew into them. Normally he wouldn’t wait outside the car. Especially not in winter. It was hard enough keeping his wiry frame warm inside a vehicle with standard heating. But today was a bit of a special case. A statistical outlier, so to speak. Because normally he wasn’t toting around a belly full of angry dragons that were filling his guts with their flaming breath. It was enough to make him sweat.

And so out of the car and into the cold winter air it was. And for nearly…he checked his watch again. Fifteen minutes. He was used to her being late, but he was starting to get a little concerned with how much dragon warfare his stomach could continue to endure. He rubbed his hands again. He then pulled them apart a bit, staring into his cupped palms. His hands were shaking. Beautiful. She was sure to notice that.

“Hey there.”

Sollux turned around so fast that his foot caught a patch of ice and promptly proceeded to slide out from underneath him. He grabbed the car door mirror, snagging it just before his ass hit the ground. His surprise assailant grinned, her almond eyes alight with laughter. She offered him a red mitten.

“You look like you’ve had a pretty long day,” she said as she pulled him onto a patch of snow with more traction.

He hoped he could pass off the tingling warmth he felt in his cheeks as purely an effect of standing out in the snow for fifteen plus minutes. In fact, embarrassment was the last logical feeling that should have been popping up on the emotional bingo ball machine that was his head. By all rights, he should be getting angry now.

Yes. Angry was good. Angry was less embarrassing than…embarrassing.

“Did you have an especially talkative corpse to embalm today or something?” he asked, trying to inject as much vexation into his slight lisp as he could.

Aradia laughed, moving around to the passenger’s side door and sliding into the car. He got into the driver’s seat and stuck the key into the ignition. As he waited for it to warm up a bit, she dug into her pocket. He felt the stomach dragons getting ticked off again, and he had to clutch the steering wheel very hard to put all his effort into not puking.

A lollipop poked into his field of view. He pulled his head away from it, wrinkling his nose. “What?”

“I had to wait until my dad was out of the office before I could steal one,” Aradia explained. “You like the bee shaped ones, right?”

He plucked the lollipop out of her hand, twirling the wooden swizzle stick between his thumb and forefinger. “These are for your dad’s tea, AA. He’s going to get pissed.”

She gave him a smile as she pulled her seatbelt over her chest. “But you like them. And he’s friends with the lady who runs that gift shop, since he interred her father. So he is able to get them pretty cheap.”

“You know, it’s really weird that your dad gets chummy with the relatives of the dead people he dresses up.”

She blinked at him, her expression simply tinted with confusion. “I don’t think it’s weird at all. People with deceased relatives are still people.”

He sighed, tapping the sucker to his forehead. “Just forget it. That was a pretty stupid thing I said just now.”

She raised a shoulder dismissively. “Just eat your honey pop, Sollux. I think it will make you feel better.”

He frowned, pulling the clear plastic wrap from the top of the lollipop and sticking it into his mouth. Immediately the sweet, warm taste of honey spread over his tongue. He hated to admit it, but it actually did a great deal to calm his snapping nerves. He sucked on it for a long time, staring straight ahead at the road in front of him.

He was fine. He could do this.

He put the car in drive and began to roll forward, shifting gears as he picked up speed.

“So are we going somewhere special?” she asked him, peeling off her mittens and setting them in her lap.

“Why would you say that?” Sollux asked.

His voice cracked on the last word.

Fantastic.

It didn’t slip Aradia’s notice either. “It’s our anniversary, isn’t it? I’m pretty sure this was the day we started dating. After you spent so long dancing around the issue when we had that literary analysis class our freshman year that I finally just had to do it myself at the start of second semester.”

Sollux sucked harder on his lollipop, hoping the motion would keep the blood from rising up his neck and into his cheeks and ears. “I was still adjusting, AA, christ. You can’t expect a college freshman to have his shit together. I mean, look at some of the morons you have to tutor for geology. And that’s geology. The class that the idiots take for a free lab credit to skip out on their other gen eds.”

Aradia put a finger to her chin, frowning. “I suppose the one-hundred-level class does have that reputation.”

“They’re all idiots, AA. Completely, one hundred percent, fucking stone cold idiots. And that is an incontrovertible fact, if you want to know. Because KK and I fucking tested this using top notch empirical methods.”

“So I guess that means you both took notes on the freshman table in the cafeteria again?”

“Damn right we did. I even added some drawings. It was pretty sweet.”

She laughed. “All you ever accomplish by doing that is making it very hard for me to keep a straight face whenever John signs up for a tutoring session.”

“I think I do him a service in my drawings.”

“It’s not very nice, Sollux.”

“No, no, you’re reading it all wrong then, AA. It’s a fucking compliment. His incisors would make our good friend Castor canadensis jealous.”

“The beaver.” She gave him a small smile. “Did you have that ammunition carefully tucked away just to impress me with?”

“I think the more pressing question here is if you have poor Castor’s skeleton tucked away somewhere. Most likely not to impress me with, but just to be generally creepy.”

“I don’t have a beaver skeleton, now that you mention it,” she bit her lip and ran a hand through her loose, dark curls.

“Oh god, please don’t take that as encouragement to get one. The fucking bird skeletons are weird enough.”

“You know it’s all just for research, Sollux. I can never understand why death makes you so uncomfortable. It’s just as natural as being alive. Maybe even moreso!” Her eyes were alight as she spoke, though they were aimed at her lap. She flipped her mittens over, smoothing them out before stacking them up again.

Seeing her get worked up always made his heart squeeze. Even if it was about bird skeletons.

“Besides, I have a very strong feeling that all of this is just to throw me off so that I don’t keep asking questions about our anniversary. We’ve been dating for three years now, Sollux. That’s a pretty big deal, I think.”

He shifted the lollipop around in his mouth, trying to concentrate on the sweet flavor. It did no good though. Not when he could taste the tang of anxious bile gathering at the back of his throat. He pressed the gas pedal a bit harder. He couldn’t keep up this façade for much longer. Soon, he was going to have to pull onto the road they both knew so well. The one way out in the middle of bumfucked nowhere, but a road they frequented often because at its end was Aradia’s favorite Italian restaurant. And at that restaurant was a private room that he had spent the better part of his paycheck in reserving.

He clutched the steering wheel tighter. He was going to throw up. He just knew it.

This shouldn’t have been so hard. He’d been with this girl for so long now.

Christ.

As they made their way out of the city and into the white, snow covered fields of the more rural district, Aradia sat back in her seat and frowned. As Sollux shifted gears again to adjust to the speed of the country road, he saw her turn her head to look out the window.

“This isn’t the way to your house.”

Fuck, she was thinking. She probably already knew and was just making a show of being confused so that he didn’t feel like an utter failure. That was obviously what was happening now.

He’d just have to fucking do it now. Spring it on her before she could figure it out. Fucking punch her in the jaw with pure surprise.

All right, maybe a less violent metaphor would have been a better choice. But the basic sentiment was there.

His hands shaking, Sollux dug into his pocket. Aradia looked over at him, frowning as she sat up a bit straighter in her seat.

“Are you looking for something?” she asked.

“No. I mean, yeah. Just. Fuck, hang on.” Fingers trembling, he looked down briefly to his pocket so that he could see the little red box nestled inside. He pulled it out and quickly proceeded to drop it to the floor of the car. It rolled down by his feet, just next to the gas pedal.

“Ah, fucking dicksauce.”

“Was that a box?”

“No it was a… Fuck, just. Hang on.”

He reached down, biting his lip as he tried to keep his foot steady on the gas pedal. He felt his fingers brush against a corner of the small container. He grunted as he ducked his head a bit further, trying to get a good grasp on it.

“Sollux, the stop sign!”

“Oh fu—!”

The sound of screaming metal blackened his world.

Chapter Text

This was the day that Eridan Ampora met the guys across the street.

He stood in the middle of his new place, just absorbing the emptiness. The emptiness and the garish hue of the yellow walls and brown carpet. It really was the most hideous place he’d ever stepped inside of.

And that’s what made it so fucking perfect.

He took a few steps to the right and walked off the brown carpet and onto the olive linoleum of the kitchen. He peeled off his light brown jacket, pooling it on the white countertop next to the sink. There was a gaping hole in the kitchen where an oven would go. Eridan stood in front of it and held out an arm, lining his thumb up with the marred space.

He actually had no real clue why people did this, he just thought it looked artistic. Plus he wanted to be in a suitably pensive pose while he envisioned the oven he’d picked out taking up the space his thumb was currently occupying. He’d made sure it looked like something out of the eighties. A tan stovetop with heated coils for a range and a black oven door sporting a handle with one of those tacky stick-on strips of plastic made to imitate a dark wood.

It was going to look absolutely atrocious.

He grinned, pulling his thumb back and running his hand through his mess of brown hair. Speaking of which, he had just been flying on a plane for about three hours. About one of which he’d spent sleeping. And that was an approximation, because getting one solid our of sleep on a plane was fucking impossible. But he’d fidgeted and shifted and punched his shitty plastic pillow enough times to make the guy next to him give him more than a few sour stares. So he was sure his hair looked like a mess, and he hadn’t had a chance to get to a mirror since takeoff.

So it was out of the kitchen he went, making a brisk left down the hallway, and another left into the bathroom. The walls were adorned with faded pink wallpaper with tiny white spots, and the medicine cabinet was a rather bulky wood-framed affair. He stood over the porcelain sink and inspected his reflection closely.

Yeah, it was a grim hair situation indeed. He was rather nauseated at the thought that he’d dashed blindly through the Burnham airport in a mad rush to catch his bus looking as haggard as he did. He ran a thumb over his long, angular jaw, feeling the five o’clock shadow that was already waxing over his face despite the fact that it was only four. Load of fucking bullshit was what it was. He combed his fingers through his dark brown hair, trying to get the purple streak running back from his forehead to look presentable.

It was hard trying to make his hair look so effortlessly gorgeous.

He was going to need a bit of product.

He traipsed back to the living room and stooped down to grab his backpack and suitcase of necessities. His other goods would be arriving the next day, so he’d made sure to pack anything especially important to take with him on the plane.

Eridan dragged the whole mess into the bathroom and unzipped everything so he could begin spelunking through his goods. There were a lot of nice shirts to go through, and he didn’t want to wrinkle any of them. It took a careful hand to excavate everything and locate the bottle of product he used for is hair, as well as his razor and shaving cream. He snatched up the bottle of cologne he found on the way too. Why not? This was a completely new place and he was a completely new guy. He wouldn’t be surprised if he had neighbors stopping by to examine his place and inquire into his life story. Who could blame them? He did sort of ooze artistic intrigue. And artistic intrigue had to smell good.

The whole process took about an hour, but it was an hour well spent. He looked a lot fresher for it. He spent another twenty minutes just sort of admiring his handiwork and adjusting his thick rimmed black glasses as he turned his head at different angles.

Damn, he cleaned up nice. He ran a hand under his chin and down his neck to make sure he hadn’t missed anything while shaving. Nope. He had a steady and meticulous hand. He held it up to the mirror, sliding his assortment of rings back on his long and rather knobby fingers. Artist’s fingers. That was what he always told himself.

He took hold of his bags and dragged them out of the bathroom and back into the hallway, scuttling backwards as he pulled them along. He made his way down the hall in this fashion toward the door of the only bedroom, where he did a masterful job of sort of jimmying the handle with his ass to get it open.

He had the most talented ass ever.

Eridan backed into the room. There was no bed yet. Just faded purple carpet tiles and more yellow walls. He slid his stuff into the corner of the room and dug a flimsy cloth sleeping bag from his suitcase. It was one he had found at a rummage sale in the more low income part of his old town. A faded brown affair with a blue and red plaid pattern.

Yep. He was going to do all of this the hard way.

The right way.

He unrolled it over the floor and smoothed it out, breathing in the smell of mothballs as he did. He tried to relish in the odor, but he just sort of coughed and sneezed a little. Whatever, it was the thought that counted. He then squatted in the middle of his sleeping bag and stared at the door of his room.

He put his hands on his knobby knees and rubbed his slender thighs a bit, just to warm them. It wasn’t cold in the room. Not physically. But the chill of solitude was beginning to set in. The tips of his fingers tingled, itching for the phone in his pocket.

It felt wrong not to call her. He stuffed his thumb into his mouth and chewed on his bitten nails instead, trying to assuage the temptation to tug out his cell and let his fingers tap on her name in his contacts list.

No. He’d made himself a promise. This was the beginning of a new life. And he sure as hell wasn’t going to cave on the first fucking day.

Eridan sprawled out on his sleeping bag. He stared up at his ceiling for what felt like hours, squinting at the dingy light in the middle of it. As the room began to fill with the golden light and slanted shadows of sunset, he rolled off his makeshift bed and crawled to the door to flick the light switch on. He then scooted over to his stuff and pulled out his GameBoy Color and his Megaman Xtreme cartridge, which he stuffed into the handheld’s slot. He went back to his sleeping bag and stretched out on his stomach before he began to play.

He wasn’t sure how long he spent dodging enemies and listening to the excited blips of the game, but by the time his house started to shake with the vibrations of bass, it was already dark out. He frowned, looking up and watching as dust began to sift down from his ceiling. He switched off his video game and crawled to his window, putting his hands up on the glass as he peered outside.

Across the street was a little dump of a house. Not much different from his own. It was a tiny little place covered with chipped white paint and crumbling shingles. On the lawn were a few knots of two or three people standing amidst a mess of scattered beer bottles and red plastic cups. Two individuals were nestled in between a pair of overgrown bushes, kissing passionately.

It made Eridan a bit indignant. Not only because there was an obnoxious party going on at the house across the street, but because it was an obnoxious party that he hadn’t been invited to. Did they think he couldn’t get his drink on if he wanted? He wasn’t that fucking sheltered.

He took a moment to remind himself that he had yet to meet any of his neighbors, but he just knew that those were the thoughts that would fly through their heads once he did.

He tossed his GameBoy back into his backpack and rummaged around in his suitcase. He pulled out a pair of tight, faded jeans that were adorned with a few artfully placed tears. He then grabbed a purple tank and a thin white button down. He pulled the articles on, making sure that he buttoned just the middle part of his white shirt so that a suitable amount of skin on his stomach and chest was visible. He then slid his feet into a pair of flipflops and gave his reflection a once-over in the mirror before leaving the house.

He looked both ways before jogging across the street, the beaded bracelets on his wrist clicking together as he went. The people on the lawn gave him a few passing glances, but none of them turned to him.

At least, they didn’t until he invaded one of their circles.

“Hey guys. The name’s Eridan.”

They looked at him, one of the boys taking a drag from a cigarette. A girl with tangled black hair and really shitty taste in shirts turned to him. Her teeth looked especially white beneath her blue lipstick as she grinned.

“Heeeeeeeey, Eridumbass. Are you some kind of party crasher? I haven’t seen your mug around here before,” she said.

“I just moved into that house today,” Eridan explained, jerking a thumb over his shoulder and trying not to be fazed by her words. This was like, ghetto talk or something. He’d just have to get used to it and learn to adopt it.

“Uh-huh,” she replied, looking bored. “I would really like to let you into this fancy shindig we are currently sporting over here, but the truth is, there’s kind of a toll you have to pay. Like an admission fee or something.”

Eridan’s thick eyebrows pulled together in confusion. He hadn’t expected there to be fees at parties like this. But he guessed the lower class had to make their money somehow.

“Okay, what sort a fee are you goin’ to be requirin’ here?” he asked.

“A cigarette,” she replied, opening up her hand and thrusting it under his nose expectantly. “All newcomers are required to let me bum a smoke off them before they can be admitted into the house of partydom.”

Eridan felt his stomach shrink. Shit. Smoking was something he’d never tried, as per the strict health code that had been forced on him at an early age. It allowed him to breathe pretty well, but was now serving to make him look like a jackass in front of these people. He wondered if they could see him starting to sweat. Fuck, one of them was smiling.

“Like, is this your party or something, is that why I’m bein’ forced to submit this fee?” he asked, shoving his hands in his pockets so that they wouldn’t start shaking.

“Psh! It might as well be!” the girl laughed. Her canine teeth looked very sharp. Almost as if she had fangs or something. “Like anybody would come to Karkat’s shitty parties if I didn’t show up.”

“So where’s this Karkat person? Seems like I should be footin’ the bill to him,” Eridan said, trying to keep himself from beginning to stutter. It was a nasty sort of thing that always decided to rear its ugly head when he felt the nerves begin to invade his stomach.

The girl smiled and hooked a long arm around Eridan’s shoulders, pulling him close. Eridan was decently tall for his twenty-three years, but this girl was almost of a height with him.

“You’re a pretty funny guy, Eridan. But it sounds like you’re trying to avoid the toll, here. And that’s just not going to fly. In fact, it almost sounds like you don’t smoke at all!”

Eridan felt the sweat pooling in his armpits. “W-whatever, I fuckin’ take drags all the time.”

“Oh reeeeeeeeally?” The girl grinned. “That probably explains this shitty cologne you’re wearing.”

Eridan pursed his lips indignantly. “It’s not shitty, actually. You obviously don’t have a fuckin’ ounce a taste.”

“Whatever, Eridipshit. How about you just hand over the goods and we can both stop engaging in this really bad excuse for a conversation.”

“I…left them at my house.”

“Ha, yeah right.”

“I fuckin’ did! Christ. Just let me go and I’ll run back to get them for you.”

“Whatever. You’re probably lying, but I’m getting sick of talking to you anyway. Just know that I’ll catch your stupid ass if you try to rip me off by sneaking back here.” She shoved him away and he stumbled across the grass, hopping around a stray beer bottle. The girl’s friends laughed and he glared back at them. Fucking assholes.

He jogged back across the street and into his house, pulling the door shut behind him. He quickly turned and peered out one of the windows in his living room, inspecting the tiny group across the street. The girl with the blue lipstick flashed him a dangerous grin before pointing two fingers first to her eyes and then towards Eridan. Eridan ducked down immediately.

Fuck.

As if he was going to let one crazy bitch spoil his chance to attend this party. He got onto his hands and knees and crawled towards the back door, which opened out behind his house. He crouched in the grass, pulling the door shut behind him before he scuttled to the corner of his house and carefully poked his head around it to peer across the street.

The girl was laughing with her circle of friends. That was good. She seemed suitably distracted. He looked out in front of him to the rickety wooden fence that surrounded his house on three sides. It wasn’t very tall, and he had long legs. He pursed his lips as he inspected it.

Yeah, he could totally jump that.

He waited until the blue lipstick bitch was preoccupied with a bottle of beer before he took a running leap at the fence, grabbing the top of it and trying to vault himself over.

Like fucking Megaman.

Except usually Megaman made his jumps.

The fence groaned and snapped beneath his weight, the rusted wire that was holding the old posts together rattling and crumbling. In a shower of splinters and curses, he tumbled onto his next-door neighbor’s lawn, eventually rolling to a stop on his back. He felt his heart beating painfully in his chest. He sucked in a few panicked breaths, putting a hand over his sternum as he waited for the frantic pounding to calm. He then sat up and patted himself down.

He had somehow managed to survive that fiasco.

He was such a pro.

He crawled on his hands and knees alongside the ruined fence and toward the road again. He gave a cautious peek into the yard across the street and saw that the crazy bitch had relocated. He could no longer pick her out in the yard.

Seizing the moment like a relay runner grabbing the fucking baton, he booked it back across the street, blazing through the trashed lawn and bursting through the front door.

The smell of smoke and sweat and alcohol assaulted his nostrils as the sticky heat of too many bodies lodged in too small of a space washed over him. A couple people shot him miffed looks as he pushed them aside so that he could properly push the door shut. He offered them a quick apology before leaping past them like a spooked gazelle. Just in case the toll girl was nearby.

He stepped out into the living room. It was hard to make out much about the space itself, as it was all blanketed by bodies. He was pretty sure there was a couch on the far wall, but so many people were sprawled on it that he couldn’t be positive. In front of the maybe-couch was a tiny coffee table with a chipped finish, on top of which sat this…flask thing. That was the only word Eridan could use to describe it. One of the couch-dwellers, the tallest of the bunch, stretched out a long, tattooed arm and bent close to the coffee table, putting his lips on top of the flask thing and holding a lighter to a little arm-like projection near the base. He stayed in that position for a while before leaning back and giving a hoarse laugh, smoke spilling from his mouth and nostrils.

Okay, probably a drugs thing? That was cool. He knew about drugs. He was all over that shit.

Just maybe not tonight. Definitely some other time, though. Definitely.

Maybe.

He sidled casually away from the people-couch thing and found himself in a slightly more well-lit area. He blinked a few times before making out a refrigerator and a stove. The kitchen. He scooted around a few guys that were digging through the cupboards, laughing as they pulled out a bottle of clear liquid and proceeded to slop it everywhere as they tried to pour it into their red plastic cups.

Eridan found himself facing a metal folding table with a few folding chairs scattered around it. Only one person was occupying the table. A short boy who was staring down, his fingers gripping at his dark hair.

Eridan pulled up a chair and sat across from him. “Hey.”

The boy didn’t move.

“Oh, are you like, high or something? Just blink if you are, I mean, I am totally knowledgeable about dealin’ with high people and I know they just like to sort of chill.”

“What the fuck are you going on about?” The boy lifted his head, letting his arms flop onto the table. He peered at Eridan through sunken eyes and messy bangs. “Who the fuck are you?”

“Eridan. I actually just moved across the street today, like I’m sure you were wondering—”

“Okay, first of all, I wasn’t. And second of all, Eridan, I’m not high. If I wanted to be sucking off that clown’s bong on his little harem sofa of rainbow delights, I would be fucking doing that. Third of all, I don’t want to talk to you. Like, probably ever. So bye.”

Eridan frowned. But he wasn’t about to be put off that easily.

“Look, I fuckin’ scaled a fence to come here. Like…fuckin’ Spiderman. It was actually pretty great and I’m sorry that you missed it. But what I’m basically sayin’ is that I went through a lot a trouble to get to this party, so you could at least give me a name.”

The boy sighed, putting his head on the table. “Karkat.”

Eridan’s eyebrows lifted. “Oh, Karkat? Some bitch on the front lawn told me that this was your place.”

“It is. When high-ass hippy shithead best friends aren’t seizing it to fucking stroke their huge party boners.” His voice was muffled as he spoke into the table, but Eridan could still pick out his words.

“Okay, so why are you in here then? Do you not like parties or somethin’?”

“I might like parties if they didn’t involve idiots fucking sticking their drunk asses in my shower and shitting everywhere.”

“Oh, wow. Sounds pretty fuckin’ disgusting.”

“It is. By the way, don’t go in the bathroom. Just like, fucking avoid that place entirely. Unless you have some weird sort of refuse fetish in which case knock yourself fucking silly.”

“Nah, I’m not into that sort of thing.”

The boy lifted his head and squinted at Eridan. “Yeah, you don’t look like it. Don’t smell like it either, for that matter. Jesus fuck, what did you do, fill up a tub with daisies and roll around in that shit for an hour?”

Eridan felt his cheeks get hot. “I’m not appreciatin’ the slander I keep receivin’ on account a my cologne. It’s actually really expensive shit, if you want to know.”

“Okay, well, a piece of advice for you then, buddy. Spend your money on something else next time.” Karkat put his head back down on the table.

Eridan scowled and turned away. As he did, he saw someone else enter the kitchen. The newcomer immediately caught his eye. Mostly because he was wearing sunglasses despite how dim the lighting in the house was. Also because his scrawny frame was clothed in a stained white T-shirt and baggy grey sweatpants. He looked severely out of place amidst the other party-goers. He shuffled toward the fridge and pulled out a bottle of cranberry juice before turning back around to leave.

“Hey, dickass,” Karkat’s voice came from over Eridan’s shoulder. “How about you stay out of the cave of computers and endless sorrow and crash with me at the table of ass-romping chuckles for a few minutes.”

The skinny young man paused and looked back over his shoulder. When he spoke it was with a hoarse tone and a slight lisp. “Not interested, KK. Sorry.”

“Come on, you dick-munching pile of shit,” Karkat groaned. “I’ll get you Chinese tomorrow or whatever. I just need a fucking break from all these assholes.”

The young man stood frozen for a while before shuffling over and sitting down next to Eridan, twisting the cap off the jug of cranberry juice and drinking deeply from the container. He ran the back of his bony hand over his lips as Karkat put his head back down on the table. The three of them sat in silence for a long time before the newcomer capped his juice and slouched back in his chair.

“Boyfriend issues again?” he asked.

“He got all pissed up and started giggling with that blond shithead he’s always hanging around with,” Karkat grumbled into the table. “I don’t even know why I fucking bother anymore.”

“Then don’t. Your moping is actually really irritating, KK.”

“Yeah, okay, says Sollux: resident Lord of the Mopes,” Karkat retorted, lifting his head.

The boy just looked at him for a while. He uncapped his juice again and took another swig. Karkat dropped his head back down. “Okay, forget I said that.”

“Whatever. I really don’t give a shit.” Sollux replied.

Karkat sighed noisily. He then waved a hand at Eridan without lifting his head from the table. “This is Eridan. He just moved into that shithole across the street.”

Sollux looked at him. Eridan fought the urge to recoil. It was a bit unnerving, staring into those dark shades and that expressionless line of a mouth.

Still, he raised a hand in meek greeting. “Hey.”

Sollux did not fail to notice the rings adorning his fingers. “You some rich prick or something?” he asked before knocking back another swig of juice.

Eridan retracted his fingers into a fist and stuffed his hand under the table. He shrugged a shoulder. “If I was rich I’d probably be livin’ in some suite or something. I’m actually an artist. Sort of a jack of all trades. I came out here to seek my muse. You know. Romantic shit and all that.”

“Eheheheh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Sollux said, his thin lips pulled up in a sneer.

Eridan felt his cheeks color. “No, that’s actually what I’m doin’.”

“What are you, some fucking spoiled liberal arts college student?” Sollux asked pointedly. “With all the money and time in the world to burn away while you suck down weed and java?”

“I graduated last year with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, actually.” He paused for just a moment before adding, “Dick.”

Sollux shrugged a shoulder before getting to his feet. “I’m out of here, KK. Come talk to me later when you’re more willing to unstick your forehead from the table.”

He shuffled out of the kitchen. Eridan turned back to Karkat, his lips curled with indignation.

“What a fuckin’ asshole,” he seethed. “Like, who the hell does he even think he is, comin’ to a party dressed like some kinda chewed up slob wearin’ shades like an enigmatic jackass?”

“First of all, Sollux lives here, so no one’s allowed to call him an asshole except me and Gamzee. If Gamzee was ever sober enough to realize that Sollux is an asshole, which he never is,” Karkat said, lifting his head angrily from the table. “Second of all, he wears the sunglasses because he’s blind in one eye, you ignorant fuck.”

Eridan shrank back, his angry bravado disappearing to some place deep in his stomach where it got cold and sour. “Oh. Uh… I didn’t mean—”

“That’s right, you ‘didn’t mean,’” Karkat snapped before putting his head back on the table. “Why don’t you fucking get a drink like everyone else and stop bothering me? I want to sit here and marinate in the juices of my own pathetic love life.”

Eridan shuffled his feet together under his chair awkwardly. “You could talk to me about it if you want.”

“Dude. I don’t fucking know you. Do I need to take my ass to city hall and have them put the official stamp on a restraining order to make this more clear? Get the fuck away from me.”

“All right, fuck. Just trying to introduce myself, Christ.”

“Yeah, okay, well, you did that. Congratulations. Remind me to bake you a fucking cake with your name written out in rainbow icing to celebrate this monumental occasion.”

Eridan stood angrily from the table and stalked away, making his way out of the kitchen and back into the thronging crowd in the living room. Their bodies swayed sluggishly to the pounding music, relaxed laughter swimming into his ears between each pulse of the bass. He shuffled around awkwardly for a little bit, wondering where he was supposed to find alcohol.

“Hey my brother. You look a little lost.”

Eridan looked to his left and saw the long-limbed, tattooed man still sprawled on the couch amidst a blanket of other equally stretched out, relaxed-looking people. He grinned through a haze of smoke, his dark eyes just barely visible beneath a mop of shaggy hair.

“Can I help a motherfucker get his soul search on?” the man asked, his voice a lazy drawl.

“Like, does that involve drugs of any type?”

“Nah, bro. Involves what’s all up in your heart coming out of your eyes and shit. Like, fuck man. ‘Sbeautiful.”

“I’m just lookin’ for some beer or something.”

“Yeah, I feel you,” the man nodded, closing his eyes and bobbing his head to the pound of the music around him. For a moment Eridan thought that he’d forgotten about him before the guy lifted his lids a crack and patted the head of one of the girls sleeping on his lap. “Get this motherfucker a beer, yeah?”

She opened her eyes and lazily reached beneath the coffee table, pulling a beer out from beneath it. Eridan blinked in confusion before tilting his head down and looking beneath the table himself. Sitting there was a huge metal tub full of ice and beer bottles.

“Now you know where to come to seek the motherfuckin’ bounty, my friend,” Gamzee said lazily, pulling the bottle from the girl’s hand and reaching his long arm across the table toward Eridan. Eridan took the beer hesitantly and twisted the cap off. He put the glass to his lips hesitantly before knocking back a swig.

He shuddered and screwed up his face. It tasted putrid. He quickly swallowed the carbonated piss before wiping his mouth.

The olive-skinned man on the couch gave a loud laugh that sound more like the honking of a sick goose than any noise a human would make. “Lookit this motherfucker all up and getting his disgust on. You ever tried that shit before, bro?”

Eridan scraped his tongue over his teeth in revulsion before replying, “A course I have.”

More honking laughter. “It gets better as you go. Just keep swigging like you was drinking from the elixir of life and it was all getting into your heart and making your veins dance a little.”

Eridan stared at him hesitantly before squeezing his eyes shut and taking another gulp. His world spun a little as he lowered his head and swallowed.

“See? Shit’s nearly half gone already. You’re a motherfuckin’ natural,” the man said.

“Yeah, I know. I do this sort of shit all the time,” Eridan said, his voice sounding a bit loud to his ears. He knocked back another swig of beer.

“Yeah you do, brother. I fuckin’ know it like I know my own self.” The man laid his head back against the couch, closing his eyes.

Eridan grinned and sucked down the rest of the bottle’s contents, letting the music pulse through his body, getting deeper and deeper inside him.

Chapter Text

This was the day that Eridan Ampora experienced his first hangover.

He reacted to it with much dignity and class, as was only natural of someone with his upbringing. Because a man of his ilk, with such a penchant for aesthetics and poise, would never ever jerk awake, unable to pry apart his crusted eyes, and stumble around the living room of some unknown household, yelling frantically before collapsing to his knees and throwing up next to the sofa.

Nope. Never.

He would deny it until his dying day.

“Gamzee, Jesus fucking Christ, move your legs. I’m serious. How are you even this high already, fucking shit.”

“Holy fuck. Holy fuck, I’m dyin’. I’m dyin’ right now, this is fuckin’ it,” Eridan sobbed, his mouth and nose burning with the taste of bile and the sound of his own blood pounding in his ears. “I never even made it a whole day, oh fuck, oh god.”

He felt someone tugging at his arms, trying to pull him up. “Come on Puke Princess, let’s visit your Porcelain Prince in the goddamned bathroom so you can consummate your love without getting it all over the goddamned—Jesus fuck!”

The arms released him as Eridan heaved again, slopping more beer-scented bile over the carpet.

“Are you kidding me right now? Tell me your kidding. Gamzee, tell me this guy’s kidding. No no, just nod. Just nod your high-ass head up and down in agreement because JESUS how can you even have that much shit in your stomach? I’m not even… I can’t do this, wow, fuck this.”

He heard footsteps stomping away from him as he put his head on the floor. Like, child’s pose. He did yoga once with Feferi, so child’s pose, that’s what he was currently doing maybe. Or was it down dog? No, down dog was the one where you stuck your ass in the air. He began to laugh through his tears. Maybe if he stuck his ass in the air he’d feel better.

Fuck fuck fuck shit fuck fuck. He felt his stomach clench again and his mouth explode with hot, watery saliva. He whimpered and clasped his hands together and began mumbling incoherent prayers begging for deliverance.

Two pairs of footsteps returned.

“Hell no.”

“You’re not getting out of this one. I can’t handle that by myself. Use your fucking video game arms of untold strength or some shit to get him to the bathroom.”

“I’m going back to bed. I can’t believe you woke me up for this.”

“Jesus, Sollux, come on. It’s either this or you clean up that lovely little pile of steaming beer and…are those Cheetos? Oh my god, holy fuck, this is worse than that one time you and me fed John all those quesadillas and hot wings before deciding it would be a good idea to slam Jagerbombs.”

“Yeah, and you made me clean that one up. Fucking dick.”

“Okay, that’s why I’m attempting to compromise here, give me a little credit.”

“Whatever. Jesus.”

Eridan felt a vice-like grip clamp around his upper arms and heave him upright before beginning to drag him backwards on his ass. Eridan groaned, his head continuing to pound like someone was trying to split it open with a chipper.

“You’re gonna fuckin’…ruin my pants…” He managed to force out.

“I’m going to ruin a lot more than that if you don’t shut up. And I will honestly fucking kill you if you throw up before we get to the bathroom.”

“Who are you?” Eridan groaned as he cracked open one bleary eye and tried to look over his shoulder. “You smell like shit.”

“Yeah, and you smell pretty good yourself right now, thanks.” The young man paused, grunting a little as one of his hands released Eridan and the click of a door opening registered in Eridan’s ears. He was then assaulted by a bright luminescent light before being flipped over unceremoniously and having a hand shove his head toward a toilet bowl.

“Oh my fuckin’ god, it smells even worse than you in here. I’m gonna fuckin’…chuck…” Eridan hugged the toilet bowl like it was the last lifeboat in a stormy sea. A stormy sea of alcohol and nausea.

“Well, you’re in the right place for that now, so chuck to your heart’s content, I guess.” The voice grew quieter as the man leaned out of the bathroom. “Hey KK. You never cleaned the shit out of the shower.”

“Whatever, I’ve got Cheeto vomit to deal with now. I’ll make Gamzee do it when he comes around.”

“He never comes around, but okay.”

“What time is it?” Eridan asked weakly, his voice reverberating off the insides of the toilet. It smelled like piss. He spat into it as he heard feet shuffling back toward him.

“Five in the morning or something? I think you’re the only one who got his ass plastered bad enough that you passed out and never went home. At least I didn’t see any other people out there. But they’ve hidden in really weird places before, so what do I know.”

“I’m gonna fuckin’ die, holy shit…”

“Yeah, so we’ve heard. And I’m only staying in here so that KK doesn’t enlist me to clean up your stomach contents because fuck that.”

“Yeah, ‘sokay, don’t really give a shit,” Eridan replied, resting his head wearily on the seat of the toilet.

It felt like he stayed that way for long enough to let Neptune make a complete orbit around the sun. It didn’t help that his head continued to pound and his nose was clogged with vomit. In his state of mild delirium, he tried to sniff it back, and the burning sting slid all the way into his throat. He groaned, swallowing the deadly acid snot as he heard the man shuffle away again.

“Hey KK, this guy lives across the street, right?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Can we just take him to puke in his own toilet?”

“If you’re willing volunteer, man. Because I’m up to my fucking wrists in Cheeto beer slime out here.”

Eridan felt bony fingers grip his upper arms again and begin to drag him away from the toilet. He clung to it like it was some long lost lover.

“No, no, this is my fuckin’ salvation, why are you takin’ it from me?”

“Because you’re still drunk and I don’t want to babysit you anymore. Come on.”

Eridan clung to the toilet seat by his fingertips before the guy finally managed to tear him off. He wept bitter tears at the parting of the only object in the whole house that had ever shown him true compassion.

“I’ll never fuckin’ forget you, Karkat’s toilet,” he whimpered as he was dragged backwards over the tile and onto the carpet as they moved out into the hall. “Mostly because you smelled like piss. But that’s okay cuz we all fuckin’ smell like piss sometimes.”

“Wow, I can’t even believe this. Where the fuck did you even get this guy, KK?”

“He just came over. Like I can ever keep track of all the fuckheads Gamzee invites to these things. Christ.”

There was another click and then suddenly Eridan felt his ass sliding over, not carpet, but the clammy, pre-dawn dew of the lawn. He tried to lift his hips up, stiffening his entire body into some kind of awkward board so that only his heels dragged across the grass.

“What the…fuck…are you doing?” the guy behind him grunted with exertion as Eridan continued to squirm around in his effort to keep his butt elevated.

“You’re gettin’ my ass wet,” Eridan whined as he got a foot underneath him and began to sort of walk as the man pulled him backwards. Like some kind of retarded, backwards, upside down wheelbarrow race.

“Okay, well, tough shit. We’re going onto the road now anyway, so just sit back down.”

“No, shitfuckin’…stupid ass…shit. That’ll ruin my pants and I’m too fuckin’…classy for assless chaps.”

“Wow, okay, I was exposed to way too much puke and shit this morning to endure thinking of you in assless chaps. I was nauseous enough as it was.”

“Screw you,” Eridan muttered. “I have a fantastic ass.”

“And we crossed the street. Thank fucking god.”

“We did? Shit, my pants…”

Eridan mourned the loss of his pants, even though he could still feel them against his backside as he was dragged over another dew-drenched lawn. He heard a click and the squeak of a door opening and soon he was being pulled back over carpet.

“You left your door open? Piece of advice for you, uptown prick, that’s a really quick way to get all your shit stolen.”

“Whatever, I don’t need your condescension. Like you even know me.”

“I don’t, thank Christ. Let’s keep it that way.” The hands released him, and he felt his head hit the floor. He swore and rubbed at his scalp before he felt a soft breeze and the brush of pant legs against his sides to let him know that the guy had just stepped over him.

“Wait, you’re not really gonna leave me are you?” he asked, struggling to sit up and clear his vision.

The scrawny man looked back at him. “Actually, I am.”

“If I die I’m leavin’ a note sayin’ it was your fuckin’ fault and I’ll get the authorities to put your ass in prison.”

He couldn’t see the guy’s eyes from behind his shades. Shades… He’d met this guy. This guy had a name. Damn, what was it, though?

“Okay, it doesn’t really work that way, but whatever. Write a note if you want. I’m out of here.”

“No, wait, don’t go.” Eridan rolled over onto his stomach towards the man, clutching the guy’s ankle. “Are you sayin’ you’ll really be okay with my death on your conscience? I mean what kind of a heartless fuck are you?”

He tried to pull himself up, using the guy’s calf for leverage, but he was shaken off roughly. He groaned, sitting back up a bit as the man squatted down beside him. There was a pen in his hand and he was fishing a pad of paper out of his pocket. He flipped through a few pages scrawled with numbers and other notes before he came to a clean sheet. He then quickly jotted something down before ripping off the paper and stuffing it in Eridan’s pocket.

“There. That’s my number. So you can call me if you feel death sneaking up on you or whatever the fuck.”

Eridan squinted and picked at his pocket for a while before he was able to stuff his fingers inside and pull the paper out. As he did, the man was already standing, stuffing his items back in his gray sweatpants.

“Ssssollux’s…number…” Eridan read off before glancing at the numbers below. “Hey, is the area code here really—wait, where are you goin’?”

He was half way out the door already. He turned around, his sunglasses catching a bit of the rising sun’s golden light. “Back home.”

“Well, okay, but I’m goin’ to call you.”

“Only if you’re dying, you dumbfuck. That’s an emergency number.”

“Okay, I’ll only use it in the most severe of emergencical cases, like, fuckin’ swear it on my life.”

Chapter Text

This was the day that Eridan Ampora had a most severe emergencical case.

It didn’t happen right away, however. In fact, Sollux had all but forgotten that he’d given the annoying guy his cell phone number almost immediately after he returned to his room. After shuffling back through the well worn path that stretched from his door to his desk and was lined on either side with rumpled shirts and empty chip bags, he sat down on his old swivel chair. It creaked slightly under his weight, though not because Sollux’s wiry frame provided any sort of strain on the object. It was simply showing its age. But Sollux couldn’t bear to throw it out. The handle at its side to adjust the height was broken, but it had managed to break at the perfect level for its owner to slide his knees carefully under his desk while simultaneously propping his elbows on top of it. To him, it was the chair’s final pledge to serve him, even in death. And so it stayed, even as the back rest became more wobbly and the seat irreparably stained with cheese powder from Doritos and cheddar Pringles.

He moved his most recently imbibed energy drink to the bookshelf next to his desk, where it sat with a large group of its brethren. He sometimes stacked them if he got frustrated with coding at all, making little towers or bridges or pyramids. He hadn’t run into coding trouble in some time, however, meaning that they were all just pushed together haphazardly. Some of them had even toppled to the floor, where their logos stared forlornly up at the ceiling. He sometimes liked to think the different brands would set aside their differences and gather together atop their shelf to mourn their fallen brothers. One time when he had been particularly deprived of sleep he even sort of play acted with them a little bit. Staged out an epic battle between Monster and Red Bull and had them fight until they were all scratched and dented and the fallen had lain littered on the floor, oozing the last of their taurine-saturated blood onto the carpet. And when the golden light of dawn had finally slanted through the slits in Sollux’s blinds, the two leaders stood amongst the carnage and embraced as brothers, one dented can against another, promising to start life anew and work together to achieve a great can city atop the bookshelf of promise.

It was about then that Sollux had curled up on the ground, clutching both cans to his chest, wondering how he had gotten so exhausted or how his eyes had gotten so puffy and raw.

Needless, to say, however, that such an occurrence was rare. If the cans ever made their great city, he couldn’t really say. He’d never put much more thought into it besides making the occasional pyramid. Or whenever one of the cans fell off the shelf. He thought about it then. When they lost one of their brothers.

He shifted his mouse around to get his computer to flicker back to life. The forum he’d been sifting through was still up where he’d left it. Leaving for even a second had been pain, especially since the time away had been consumed with taking care of Gamzee’s drunk party-goers. Ever since his binges from about a year ago, the very smell of alcohol was enough to make him feel sick. And so it was with an effervescent relief that he scrolled through the threads again from the safety of his room, checking for replies to any of his posts.

Recently he had become very attached to Minecraft. Though “attached” was perhaps a broad sort of term. “Unhealthily obsessed” might have been closer to the mark, if Sollux gave any kind of a rodent’s hindquarters about the subject of health. The thought of independently developed games had always been a topic of interest to him, as well as a goal he had once pursued. But a lack of artistic ability and the will to learn the ins and outs of rendering had put an early end to that. He had tried collaboration a few times, but found that his personality just wasn’t built for that sort of work. No one could ever fucking do anything right. And so he contented himself with watching the spectacle that was Minecraft unfold.

And by watching, of course, he meant criticizing the developers on the forums.

Obviously, he loved the game. He spent almost every waking hour playing it. But the more he loved any game, the more he got to know it, and the more apparent became its flaws. He had already made several mods tweaking the playability of the game, including a few that deliberately hacked the game’s interface just to show how easily it could be done and how far the creator still had to go. His username, DoubleMobius, was a large presence on the forums, and though he had just joined, he was already inundated with high status and various PMs. Most were just simple requests for information, but many seemed to carry weightier solicitations of friendship. Sollux didn’t do the online friend thing. He’d learned early on that the neediest and most entitled of forum dwellers were the ones that sought to make connections through the guise of friendship. And Sollux didn’t lend his skills to anyone. They belonged to him. To DoubleMobius.

Besides, it would mean death to his respected reputation on the forums if they ever found out about his other handles.

Sollux could never operate under just one alias whenever he made a home base out of a specific website. If he stayed in any place for too long, he would have to create two accounts. One for dispersing knowledge and curt criticisms and the other for brutally ripping apart the accounts of those who displeased him.

And it was very easy to displease him.

He had various methods of screening his IP address so that he was never found out. But it was still an operation he had to handle very delicately, as sometimes the people he decided to unleash his wrath on were nearly as knowledgeable about operating algorithms and hacking accounts as he was. Nearly. Though he was often banned from the sites he terrorized, he was able to take certain measures and make the sleights of technological hand that were necessary to get himself reinstated on the forum under a new alias.

For two weeks now he had been Sons-of-Leda. And for two weeks he had danced a deadly dance with one of the forum mods. The one that was so fucking convinced that the faster level generator had been a detriment to the game’s entire purpose. The poor bastard had noticed him after a few benign posts. But now Sollux was unfurling the fucking ninjitsu scroll of his attack, launching shadows from his account to silently stalk and torment the hapless mod into submission. Publicly the mod was displaying a poised and collected face, one that alerted no one to the havoc that was currently being wreaked on his system. Sollux respected him for that, but this user’s fate was already sealed.

He laughed a little as he went through the mod’s history to see that he had been relentlessly peeling through the forums to pinpoint his attacker. But he was slow. Sollux would have another few days with him at least. And that was enough.

Because in this place, Sollux decided who lived or died.

He was Sons-of-Leda. A faceless terror. The scythe of judgment. And he was also DoubleMobius. The font of knowledge. A beacon of respect.

In this place, he was god.

So it was always disheartening when he encountered interruptions of the irl kind.

His phone lit up on his desk and began vibrating. He jumped and pushed himself away from the computer so fast that he slammed the back of his chair into his bed. He swore, leaping from the seat and spilling a few cans of Red Bull from his bed’s headboard and onto the floor. He jostled the back of the chair to assure it was still at the appropriate level of wiggly-ness before he shuffled to the blinds. He poked his finger through one of the slits and gazed outside. Night. When had that happened? He went back to his computer and squinted at the time. One o’clock in the morning. His eyes flicked back to his phone incredulously as it continued to ring. Who the fuck was calling him at this hour? He leaned over it, staring down at the screen. The number was unfamiliar to him, as was the area code. Perhaps some shitty company trying to run a survey. He ignored it, slumping back down in his seat and pulling himself back towards his monitor. His eyes flicked over the screen and he refreshed the page. In the mean time, the phone went silent.

Only to start up again thirty seconds later.

He glared at it. This fucker was persistent. He continued to stare at it until it went still on his desktop again.

That’s right. Nobody had patience like—

It lit up and vibrated again.

He swept it up in his fist and snarled into it. “I don’t want to take one of your goddamned surveys. My answer is zero to all of the questions. Zero percent satisfaction with whatever goddamned menial service you provided me.”

“Jesus, Sol, I was told to use this number in case of emergencies and it took me three fuckin’ tries before you’d even pick up.”

The brick of confusion that fell on his head dazed him for more than a couple moments. He pulled the phone away and stared at the number again. Still that weirdass number with its weirdass area code. He put the phone back to his ear.

“Who the fuck is this?”

“Eridan. Obviously.”

“I’m sorry, who?”

“You’re sayin’ that’s not ringin’ any bells?”

“I have no idea who the fuck you are.”

“Oh. Well, I’m the guy you helped outta your house this morning.”

Sollux pulled the phone away again. This time to stare at the number in disgust and also burn it into his memory to plant forever on his “do not answer under any circumstances ever again” list.

He put the phone back to his ear. “Okay, well, you better be dying or something because that’s the only reason you should be calling me at all.”

“It’s a good thing I’m not since I would’ve been dead by the time you finally decided to pick up.”

“Okay, well, dead is a thing you’re going to be with one hundred percent certainty if you try to reach me at this number again. Good night.”

“Wait! This is fuckin’ serious. Like, I’m havin’ a serious issue right now and my fuckin’ life is in jeopardy.”

Sollux rolled his eyes. “What, did you get lost in the scary low-income section of the neighborhood with its horrifying-as-fuck graffiti of goldfish?”

“What? No. I need to know what kind a pizza toppin’s you like.”

“I’m hanging up.”

“No, come on, this is fuckin’ serious. I need to know.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m gettin’ pizza of course.”

“I’m hanging up.”

“No! Jesus, I’m gettin’ pizza for you. Christ, do I gotta fuckin’ get a piece a paper and spell it out for you?”

Sollux squinted. He checked the clock again and tried to calculate when his last meal had been. Too long ago, since Karkat had fallen through with his promises of chinese. Again. Lying fuck. He rested his elbows on either side of his keyboard and stared meditatively into the screen.

“Proceed,” he replied.

“Uh…okay. Well, I’m starin’ at the menu here and they really don’t have the selection I’m used to but I guess that’s kinda to be expected from these small town joints or whatever. Also the guy at the counter is starin’ at me and it’s kinda startin’ to make me uncomfortable.”

“Wait, small town joint? Are you at fucking Toppers?”

“Uh, yeah, I think that’s what the sign on the front said.”

“Jesus fuck.” Sollux had to put a hand to his forehead to prevent the sheer level of bliss from cracking his skull apart. “Okay, a triple order of Baconstix, and…I’m not paying for any of this, am I?”

“Not unless you want to.” Eridan then proceeded to mutter something quickly in a garbled voice.

“What?”

“I didn’t say anything,” he replied. And again, more garbled, quick speech. He then cleared his throat and said more clearly. “Must be the background noise. I think someone else is orderin’.”

Sollux was fairly certain that this guy was crazy. Which would explain the offer of free Toppers. Still, he was never one to examine the teeth of a gift horse.

“Okay, whatever. So, triple order of Baconstix and one of the buffalo chicken pizzas. Actually no, fuck that. Taco pizza and an order of hot wings. Bone-in wings, I don’t want any of that boneless shit. Also, like, a fucking tub of ranch. And root beer. I haven’t had that shit in ages.”

“All right, fuck, should I get a pen or somethin’ to take notes?”

“Yes. Take notes. Because if you screw any of this up, I’ll fucking end you.”

“Christ, fine. I’m tryin’ to perform a gesture a kindness here and all your bein’ is completely brash about the subject.”

“Well, that’ll teach you to use this phone for non-emergency calls.”

“I’m buyin’ you pizza, you ungrateful ass.”

“That’s not something I asked you to do. And it’s not an emergency either, so you can shut up about that before you decide to make another comment.”

“I’ll make as many comments as I fuckin’ like, first of all. Second of all, is this hangover helper pizza, like, a thing that actually works? Because I’ve still got this massive headache that I’m startin’ to seriously wonder if I’ll ever recover from.”

“You’ll recover from it. And don’t get that pizza, it’ll make you puke again, and I’m not answering another phone call from you while your head is in the toilet. Actually, I’m probably not going to be answering another phone call from you again, period. Just so you know.”

“The next time might be a real fuckin’ emergency where my life is on the line, what would you do then, Sol?”

“Stop calling me that. It’s Sollux. I really don’t think two fucking syllables is too much to ask of someone to pronounce.”

“What, so no one calls you Sol?”

“No.”

“Wow, that’s pretty unfortunate. Sounds a lot less shitty than what you’re currently referrin’ to yourself as.”

“Thanks.”

“Yeah, no problem. I’m always willin’ to provide my opinions on shit since I have really respectable taste and everything.”

Sollux was rather amazed to detect no hint of sarcasm in Eridan’s words. And he didn’t want this asshole’s idiot level to sour the taste of sweet, sweet Baconstix in his mouth.

“Okay, well, good luck ordering my pizza. Also, you should tell the guy at the counter that KK wants his dick.”

“What?”

“Later.”

Sollux hung up the phone and set it back on his desk. He then proceeded to stare at it for a while before turning back to his computer.

Fucking irritating weirdo.

Chapter Text

This was also the day that Eridan Ampora conned the guys across the street into helping him move into his new place.

He pulled his phone away from his ear to see that Sollux had hung up on him. He glowered at the device for a time before he pocketed it. He ran through the mental list of Sollux’s order once more and decided he really didn’t care if he fucked one or two things up. Because Sollux was a dick and really this whole operation only required the most basic generosity to find a firm foothold on success.

He shuffled around a bit, trying to look casual before he approached the counter. But the guy there was just so…

Uncomfortable.

Eridan backpedaled and made his way around to the large menu framed on the wall, staring at it as if it held some secret to eternal youth. But it didn’t. And Eridan didn’t really stare at it that hard either. He snuck a slow, subtle glance to the side before snapping his eyes back to the big picture of breadsticks in front of him.

God, the guy just kept looking at him.

And smiling.

Like, a real smile.

Who the hell was that happy working in a pizza joint at one o’clock in the morning?

No one.

No one natural.

Still, Sollux’s final words to him were intriguing. He snuck another little glance at the guy. Maybe he wasn’t smiling, actually. Maybe his teeth were just that big. He did have rather unfortunate incisors… If he could just muster up the will to look at the kid for more than a few seconds…

He glanced at him again. This time the boy raised a hand and waved.

“Are you ready to order yet?”

Well, the point in subtleties was now effectively demolished. Eridan took one last glance at the menu in an attempt to make it look like that was indeed what he had been so focused on. He then smoothed his hair back and made his way toward the counter. As he got closer, he realized the guy’s smile was genuine, though so too were the unfortunately sized incisors. He had to try very hard not to stare at them as the boy stood there and continued to be unnervingly content.

“So, uh,” Eridan began.

“Oh, I forgot the whole formal greeting thing. I’m still pretty new at this. So, uh, welcome to Toppers!”

“Oh, yeah, right, I kinda figured that was where I was, but thanks for the greetin’ and shit, I guess.”

“Heh, no problem.”

Eridan stared at him for a while again, taking in his square glasses and the black hair sticking up from behind his pizza visor. Finally the boy’s smile began to disappear.

“Uh, are you going to order anything?” he asked.

It was too tempting for Eridan to resist. Of course he wasn’t going to say what Sollux had told him to say. He wasn’t that fucking stupid. But it had made him curious.

“Are you familiar with Karkat?” he asked, leaning casually up against the counter.

“Oh, Karkat?” the boy looked mildly surprised. “Yeah! I actually was over at his house for that party yesterday.” His smile widened. “I think I saw you there too, actually. Were you the one belly dancing on the table?”

Eridan pushed himself away from the counter, feeling his cheeks starting to get warm. “Uh… I don’t…actually remember doin’ that. So no, that probably wasn’t me. I mean, I was there, but I was drinkin’ beer and doin’ shit that definitely wasn’t dancin’, so…”

“No, I’m pretty sure that was you. But don’t worry, Gamzee sort of does that to all the new guys. It’s kind of like his version of initiation I think. Did you throw up at all?”

“Uh…no. I fuckin’ drink all the time so that shit was nothing for me, to be honest. I just walked it off the next day. You know. It was really no big deal.”

The kid laughed. “Really? The first time Gamzee got his hands on me I threw up everywhere. It was really gross! Especially because Karkat and Sollux were kind of helping him. Like, Karkat told me that eating would help me not feel so dizzy and so I listened to him. That was a really bad idea, though, because that just made the whole throwing up thing even worse. I would go into details, but you’re probably ordering food. I think? So I’ll just spare you.”

Eridan stared at the boy as he went on, his brows knitting closer and closer together and the corners of his lips turning further and further downward. It was as if some particularly sour odor was making its way closer and closer to his nostrils. This boy was unnaturally nice. Like, weirdly fucking nice. And weirdly observant too. Since Eridan was one hundred percent certain that he hadn’t danced on a table. Because he would’ve remembered that. It was more likely that this boy was just inventing excuses for staring at him from the corner like some kind of stalker.

It was then that Eridan came to the sudden realization that this kid definitely wanted his dick.

He was instantly both very disgusted and very flattered. Because it was not as though he could blame the poor guy. He was rather obscenely attractive.

He would note it down for later. He would have time for the inevitable crowd of people after his precious crotch cargo in time. Right now was all about getting pizza and perhaps some dirt on Karkat. All very necessary pieces for getting his neighbors to do him a couple simple favors. Nothing huge.

“So, uh, you’re impartin’ all this personal information with me but I still don’t have a proper name to call you by.” He leaned carefully back against the counter, his necklace swinging as he bent forward slightly.

“Oh, sorry! My name’s John.” The boy smiled before putting his fist to his chin thoughtfully. “And I think you’re Eridan, right?”

“Yeah. Is news a my arrival already bein’ circulated through the city?” He gave the boy a rather sultry grin. No harm in using a little sex appeal to get some information.

The boy’s smile never faltered, but he did frown a bit. “I’m not really sure about that. I just know it because you were yelling it. You know, when you were on the table.”

“Okay, I’m tellin’ you that wasn’t me.”

“But you said your name was Eridan.”

“Okay, let’s stop talkin’ about this, it’s gettin’ really fuckin’ pointless.”

“Whatever you say, I guess.”

He was starting to dislike this John person. He cleared his throat and stood up a bit straighter, too flustered to employ his sexual attraction properly. “So I heard somethin’ interestin’ about you and Karkat maybe bein’ a thing.”

John’s smile vanished, his brow creased with confusion. “Oh really? Um, I’m pretty sure that’s not true. I guess I can’t speak for him. I mean, he does invite me to Gamzee’s parties a lot and stuff, but he never really talks to me once I come. Except to make me eat wings and diss all my favorite movies. Which is really dumb because he has the shittiest taste in movies ever.”

“Uh-huh.” He was rapidly losing interest in this boy. Clearly a case of “too dense to notice signals.” And poor Karkat didn’t have the necessary sex appeal that Eridan obviously did. He’d have to consult with his ornery neighbor to see if he was interested in this weirdly happy stick of a boy. Perhaps at the cost of a few more favors, Eridan would offer some tips on how to become a bit more appealing, an area in which Karkat desperately needed assistance.

Two days in and he was already making this town dance like a puppet on his strings. Damn, he was so fucking good.

“Anyway, I’ll just order this pizza and get outta here. Got places to be and shit.” He sighed, casually running his fingers through his hair as he took another glance at the menu.

“Okay, what can I get you?” John’s smile reappeared and he readied his fingers over his computer.

“Uh… Okay, let’s see… Wings…and a tub of ranch…”

“Boneless or regular wings?” John looked up from his computer to peer at him.

“Uh. Christ. No, he said he didn’t want the boneless shit.”

John laughed and typed it in. “Okay, anything else?”

“Yeah. A pizza. Can’t remember what kind though.”

“Who was ordering?”

Eridan blinked. Why would that matter? “Uh, Sol was.”

John tilted his head a bit in confusion. “You mean Sollux?”

“Does seriously no one call him Sol? It just seems so fittin’.”

John smiled. “Sollux usually orders the buffalo chicken pizza, but since you’re already getting wings, I’d go with the taco pizza.”

“All right, whatever, just put that in. You’ll get the blame if it’s wrong.”

John laughed. “Yep, I guess so. Anything else?”

“Sticks. Or some shit like that.” Eridan waved his hand dismissively.

“Okay, baconstix. You should probably write this stuff down next time. They always order a lot of shit.” John finished typing in the order and then printed out a bill for Eridan, sliding it across the counter toward him.

Eridan looked at it before slapping it as he suddenly remembered. “Oh fuck, that’s right. Triple the order a those sticks things and I also need a root beer.”

John took the slip back and crumpled it up before stuffing it in his pocket and making Eridan a revised bill. He slid this one across the counter and Eridan nodded approvingly before handing John his credit card. After a few swipes and button pushes Eridan had nothing to do but wait while John hopped back to make his food.

After what seemed like a life-age of the earth, the gangly boy returned, balancing root beer on top of a stack of boxes. He slid them carefully onto the counter for Eridan. “Sorry if some of it’s cold. I’m still pretty bad at timing everything to come out right.”

Eridan shrugged. “I’m not eatin’ it, so I don’t really give a shit. But thanks anyway.”

And then began the long balancing act back to his street.

It wasn’t that far away. Only a few blocks. But a few blocks under the burden of about twenty pounds of food seemed more like a nighttime trek across the vast expanse of the Sahara. He had to stop more than seven times to set the food on the ground and wipe the off the sweat beading on his brow. The last time he thought he might not make it. Karkat’s house was in sight, the windows lit despite it being nearly three in the morning, but he just couldn’t do it. He had to plant himself in the grass for a long while, putting a hand to his chest to make sure he wasn’t about to go into cardiac arrest. After a good ten minutes of meditative breathing, he managed to gather up his things and complete the last leg of his journey.

Panting under his burden of greasy treasure, he kicked the door weakly. As it opened before him, Karkat’s short, rather stocky frame was revealed from behind it.

“Dear sweet milk from God’s heavenly tits, Sollux wasn’t lying.”

Eridan’s arms shuddered a bit, causing the root beer to sway dangerously on top of his stack of boxes. “Can you like, take this or something?” His voice was strained with exertion.

“Uh, yes. I can take this with more tenderness than that with which I would pick up my firstborn child. Because I couldn’t eat my firstborn child. Which makes this shit infinitely better than children. Gamzee, how about you get off your ass and help me with some of this?”

Eridan began to shuffle his way carefully into the house when suddenly his burden was lifted. He blinked up through his glasses, still shivering with exhaustion, to see his olive-skinned, tousle-haired savior. The man smelled distinctly of an odd smoke that Eridan could only guess was some kind of drug. But his smile was relaxed and easy, and he offered Eridan a grateful pat on the head before taking the boxes into the living room.

As Eridan closed the door behind him, he heard the sound of a foot connecting with wood.

“Sollux, get your ass out here. Your magic pizza fairy came.”

There was a click and a soft creak of hinges as Eridan sat down on the sofa in front of the coffee table where Gamzee was organizing the boxes. He was lining them up and opening them, his movements slow and his enormous hands almost…tender? Eridan’s lip curled in unsettled confusion. He wondered for a moment if this guy had taken Karkat’s tangential “firstborn child” ramblings seriously.

Karkat reappeared moments later with Sollux in tow. Eridan frowned at the wiry young man as he shuffled in behind his shorter friend, his expression largely hidden by his dark sunglasses. But beyond that, Eridan distinctly remembered the man sporting a white shirt and gray sweatpants the last time he’d seen him. He was wearing the same thing now, his hands hanging limply at his sides and his jaw shadowed with stubble.

Eridan’s observations were interrupted by a swift kick to the ankle.

“Ow!” he yelped, clutching his calf as he looked up to his short, angry attacker. “Are you fuckin’ serious? That was my leg!”

“I know,” Karkat replied. “Did you think I was aiming for the couch?”

“I just bought you guys pizza! Are you sayin’ this is the type a treatment I’m deservin’ in this situation?”

Karkat threw his hands up, rolling his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, thanks forever, we owe you our lives, blah blah. But you’re in Sollux’s spot. And that’s throwing off my entire ability to tear into hot wings. And it probably messes with Gamzee’s fucking feng shui or whatever kind of hippy shit he’s into these days.”

“Nah, I ain’t got no kinds of problems with our seating arrangements being as they’re going to motherfuckin’ be,” Gamzee replied as he came and eased himself down next to Eridan. He put an arm around the young man’s shoulders. “You just sometimes gotta let the asses fall as they will and just appreciate the kind of shitfuckin craziness of it all. Like, you can’t control that, man.”

“Yeah, I don’t really give a shit either, to be honest,” Sollux said as he bent forward and began gathering pizza and breadsticks in his arms.

“Okay, can I just say that I get really fucking pissed off at how much shit you guys never give about anything? Like, honestly, I think this is where all my anger issues stem from. I have to get pissed off for you because you guys are just too high or depressed to fucking do it for yourselves. We are like a fucking jigsaw puzzle of emotionally stunted assholes and when you put us together we make this awesome tapestry of a completely dysfunctional anal sphincter.”

When he was finally finished, Karkat’s arms were spread as if he were delivering the holy gospel. Sollux had also managed to eat half the box of breadsticks in that same amount of time. What resulted was reminiscent of some kind of Renaissance painting. Except instead of Jesus in front of his rapt worshippers, it was just an angry kid in a sweatshirt standing over his scruffy, starved roommate.

Eridan was kind of worried about what he’d gotten himself into.

“All right, I’m done. See you guys later.” Sollux grabbed the bottle of root beer by the neck and began to shuffle back toward his room.

“Wait, you can’t leave yet. I haven’t even made my proposition,” Eridan burst out, torn from his thoughts.

Sollux turned and Eridan was faced with those emotionless shades once more. And once more he had to fight from quailing beneath them.

“Uh, okay. Because I just wanted to remind you what you agreed to. You know, durin’ our phone conversation. Remember, Sol?” Eridan’s voice was bloated with implication. He thought about quirking a coy eyebrow, but decided it would probably be too much.

Sollux’s thin, rigid line of a mouth tugged down in displeasure. “What?”

“You know. I told you what you’d be agreein’ to if you let me buy you pizza. And don’t think you can avoid it by sneakin’ off to your room so soon.”

Karkat, who was now sitting beside Eridan on the couch and face-deep in taco pizza, looked up, his cheeks stuffed with beef and sour cream. “Tholluckth…? Whot ith he tolkin about?”

Sollux’s lips grew even thinner. “I don’t know. Good night, guys.” He turned to leave again.

“You said you’d help me move my shit into my house tomorrow. Or I guess it would be today.”

Sollux’s and Karkat’s reactions were instantaneous. “What?”

Eridan recoiled, wiping off a bit of the pizza Karkat had spewed onto his glasses. He sat up slightly, getting a bit defensive. “I told you. I would only get you free pizza if you agreed to help me unpack my shit and take my furniture outta the movin’ van.”

“Sollux! You fucking traitor! Traitor! Take back your demon pizza, I don’t want it!” Karkat began grabbing chunks off the pizza and flinging them at Sollux, who held up his root beer bottle as a kind of flimsy shield, stumbling out of range. “Fuck you! I can’t believe you sold me out for Baconstix!”

“I didn’t!” Sollux objected as he ducked a spray of lettuce. “Jesus, KK would you just—” he threw the bottle mercilessly at the raging boy “—stop!” As Karkat yelped and curled up on the couch to protect himself, Sollux whirled around to face Eridan. “And you! Is that what you were muttering under your breath?”

Eridan tried to hold his ground as firmly as possible. “I was very fuckin’ distinct with you, Sol, and I think it’s shameful that you’re tryin’ to wriggle your way outta this after I was downright generous with the lot a you.”

“What’s generous is that I’m not already over there strangling your stupid ass,” Sollux snapped. “I can’t fucking believe this. Fuck you. We’re not your moving service. Free pizza doesn’t mean jack shit, especially not when it was just some kind of con.”

“Okay, yeah,” Karkat added as he uncurled himself from his defensive position now that the threat of flying root beer bottles was no longer imminent. “As much of a dick as Sollux is, I’m more inclined to believe that you’re just a lying bastard. Plus you puked Cheetos onto my carpet this morning and I’m still not okay with that in any way. Seriously. It was up to my fucking elbows. And still warm.”

“This is fuckin’ unbelievable, I mean, here I thought I was doin’ good business with trustworthy guys and here you all are, backin’ out a the deal we made.”

“We didn’t make a deal, you fuck. You mumbled shit into the phone and then said, ‘free pizza,’” Sollux seethed.

“I can’t help that your underdeveloped brain filters out anything that doesn’t have to do with stuffin’ shit in your mouth,” Eridan snapped back, shifting his weight forward to stand and defend himself if he had to.

“Haha, this pizza is fuckin’ shittits bananas, man. It’s like…two foods makin’ love. Right in front of my eyes. And if I eat it, it’s going to be like…inside me. All that love.”

Everyone froze, verbal slurs bitten short. They all looked to the man leaning back in the sofa, holding a piece of pizza before his face and staring at it carefully. It seemed as though a mutual agreement had suddenly been reached.

The fight was suspended on account of Gamzee.

“Uh…are you plannin’ on eatin’ any a that…?” Eridan asked hesitantly.

“Nah, bro. As much love as there is on this little triangle of food, there’s also death. I don’t do the whole dead animal thing, man. Makes me feel all discomforted.” He set the pizza down, smiling distantly.

“Oh fuck, all of this shit has meat on it, doesn’t it?” Karkat began shifting boxes and peering at all the goods within. “Sollux, you asshole. You just had to get bacon on your fucking stix, didn’t you?”

Sollux put a hand to his head, sighing as he brushed back his hair. “I was in the midst of severe hunger throes, Christ. I needed nourishment.”

“Okay, but that doesn’t excuse you from being a big vegetarian-insensitive dick.”

“Nah, it’s cool,” Gamzee replied. “I got some shit in the fridge that I can sink my teeth into.” He then raised his eyes to Eridan and gave the man a lazy smile, his eyes half closed. “Where’d you say you was all up and making a residence at?”

“Uh…” Eridan was still unsure what to make of this strange, instantaneous truce. “Just across the street.”

“I don’t have any things of an obligatory sort of nature to up and get myself to tomorrow.” He shifted his eyes away from Eridan and began nodding slightly, as if listening to music that only he could hear. “I can help you move your shit, bro.”

Eridan sat back against the couch, stunned. “Really?”

“Yeeeup.”

“Oh. Well. Uh. Thanks. That’s very…decent a you.”

“Nah, bro, it’s chill.”

Silence permeated the room. Gamzee continued to nod to his silent music. Eridan sat ridged, his hands balled into fists on his knees as he slowly turned his eyes to Karkat and Sollux. Karkat was flicking meat begrudgingly off a slice of pizza while Sollux stood motionless beside the table, his expression impregnable as always.

After a few more minutes of silence, Karkat shoved Gamzee a slice of meat-free pizza and the man picked it up and began to chew, continuing to bob his head.

Then there was more silence.

And then Eridan stood.

“So I’ll see you guys in the afternoon then?”

A communal grumble of “yeah” served as his reply.

“Well. Okay then. Thanks.” Eridan slowly backed toward the door. “I guess I’ll see you guys later, then.”

He made his way hesitantly out of the house before beginning to walk across the street. He half expected someone to come tearing after him in a stand of last-minute objection. No one ever did.

Sweet, sweet victory.

Chapter Text

It was on this day that Eridan Ampora saw Sollux Captor’s eyes.

But before that, he had a dream that he was falling.

Those were the dreams that always worried him. Not that the dreams themselves were any kind of an issue. They were fake, after all. And fake things had no business being a part of his business, which was most decidedly real and of the utmost importance at all times, no exceptions.

It was the waking up that he hated.

He rolled onto his side, gasping, clutching his chest, his heart palpitating so fast beneath his trembling fingers that he felt like this time it surely marked the end. And, as usual, his mind flipped through his mental notepad of thoughts with wild abandon, making no distinction with regard to significance, snagging and tearing at some of the more delicate pages.

Who was going to tell Feferi if he died?

What were his parents going to say?

He hadn’t even finished learning all the chords on his guitar.

Would this house just go up for sale immediately?

Would his father have trouble selling it due to the chilling tale of the young man found dead by his moving crew?

He’d never even had sex, what a fucking scam.

Would anyone remember him?

Anyone at all?

Finally, his thoughts slowed, along with his heart, and his brain came down off its electric, antemortem high. He rolled onto his stomach and let his face fall into the pillow, groaning as he sorted through the mess his mind had made of his thoughts, trying to reorganize things into comprehensive stacks.

He breathed in the scent of his own shampoo as he recalled the night before. Right. He’d have a moving truck stuffed with all his worldly possessions arriving soon. At which point he would be receiving assistance from the generous household across the street.

He flopped his hand over to his side where he’d placed his duffle bag the night before. He made no contact with anything but the floor. He tried again, trying to flop his hand in a different place. Slightly to the left. Again, his fingers found nothing but the carpet. Sighing exasperatedly, he lifted his head from his pillow and squinted at his bag, which was sitting just out of arm’s reach. He leaned forward, yanking it toward him before rummaging around through its depths, extracting his watch from the clothing stuffed inside.

It was about two o’clock in the afternoon. His truck was scheduled to arrive at around three. He sighed, slowly pushing himself up into a sitting position and running a hand through his hair. He didn’t really need a shower, but the thought of warm water running down his skin was a pleasant one. He grabbed a fresh set of clothing: a simple t-shirt and some khaki shorts, and made his way to the bathroom.

He’d sort of forgotten how shitty the room was, in all the excitement of the day before. He grinned at the hideous pink wallpaper. He was going to enjoy fixing the place up. As he stood in the shower and washed himself off, he went through a mental list of all the acceptable color combinations he could employ in such a space. Maybe, if his music career really took off, he could start putting on additions and expanding rooms. The bathroom would definitely need a size adjustment if he was ever going to settle down properly with his future man. Because no matter how much he loved someone, Eridan Ampora did not share mirrors.

Or sinks.

Or shower shelf space.

Or shampoo.

Or shaving cream.

Or cologne. No, he would never share cologne. Who the hell wanted to share scents anyway? That was simply an offense of a level so grievous that he could barely stomach the thought of it for more than a few seconds.

By the time he had shaved, dressed, and sculpted his hair perfectly in the mirror, it was well on its way to being three. He slipped on his flipflops and made his way out the door, crossing the street to see how his able-bodied recruits were progressing with their own preparations.

He noticed that the yard was still largely littered with beer bottles and red plastic cups. He curled his lip at the sight of it. If he was going to maintain any kind of a reputation in this town, he would have to keep strict tabs on the conditions of the households surrounding his own. Especially the one belonging to these three. They were all quite obviously crying out for his guidance. Eridan knew that they were all probably secretly glad to have been recruited by him for today’s activities. He would lend their lives some purpose, he was sure.

Puffed up with his newly established sense of altruistic pride, Eridan rapped on the door. It slowly opened and he found himself staring up into Gamzee’s relaxed face.

“Morning, brother,” the taller man stated, lifting one hand in lazy salutation.

“It’s actually afternoon, but your effort was decent enough, I guess,” Eridan replied, ducking under the man’s arm and making his way into the house.

It was as if an alien race of pizza-based organisms had landed in the middle of the dwelling and staged full apocalyptic warfare on the residents within. The boxes were torn up, the grease-stained remains lying scattered over the carpet. An empty root beer bottle stood up-ended in a wilting plant by the TV. Pizza crusts adorned every horizontal surface, including, it seemed, the blades of the ceiling fan in the middle of the living room.

“What the fuck happened here?” Eridan asked as he cautiously plucked up a piece of crust from the couch and held it between his thumb and forefinger.

“I’m not all to be really knowin’ since I guess my mind has other plans for those memories and maybe they’ll stop and visit some other day when I’m ready for them to be all up and revealed to me,” Gamzee replied. If it was supposed to be an explanation, Eridan didn’t know which part of it was supposed to clarify anything.

“Well, never mind that, then,” he sighed, setting the crust back down where he’d found it, for fear of inviting any sort of pizza fallout to his person. “Are you guys ready to be gettin’ yourselves over to my establishment? I’ve got the movin’ truck scheduled to stop by at around three.”

“Is it three already? Damn, I keep trying to catch time with my hands, man, but it’s like some kind of excited jack rabbit and just hops its fluffy little tail away from me like it does.” Gamzee made a motion of catching some invisible thing between his hands, smiling down at his clasped fingers.

“Well, it is three already, yeah, so I’ve come to tell you that you better have yourselves ready to help me like you fuckin’ promised to do.” Eridan crossed his arms, his chin lifted defiantly.

Gamzee gave a soft chuckle. “Do you like motherfuckin’ bakery, bro?”

Eridan dropped his chin. “What?”

“I got some motherfuckin’ shit all bakin’ in the oven, my friend, and soon our nostrils will be assailed by its loving pie pheromones.” He smiled easily as he began to make his way over toward the kitchen.

Eridan followed him. “Okay, I studied pheromones in college, and those are definitely things that a pie can’t produce.”

As Gamzee passed through the kitchen’s narrow, door-shaped entrance, he paused, putting his hand on the wall and turning to Eridan with a rather sad expression.

“Ah, bro, you shouldn’t be all up and discouraging of what sorts of scents a pie can produce because that’s just the sort of thing that could get them up to deciding not to make that wicked shit for our noses to enjoy.”

Eridan squinted at the man, his jaw slightly slackened as he tried to puzzle out the nonsense that Gamzee was spewing. At last, he could only reply with a question.

“Are you high?”

“My thinking is always sky-level, my brother,” Gamzee responded, his lazy smile returning as he made his way into the kitchen and pulled open a drawer. “I like to keep my thoughts up on a higher plane, like where clouds would be existing at if they ever sort of switched modes of reality like a thought is prone to motherfuckin’ do. And I’m like, why should I be keeping myself tied down when there’s a whole universe to explore and my mind’s got motherfuckin’ butterfly wings?”

He pulled on a pair of oven mitts and opened the oven door. A wave of heat washed over Eridan as Gamzee crouched down and, as if he was plucking a baby bird from its nest, pulled out a steaming pie tin. Eridan craned his neck to get a good look at the pie couched within. The top was covered with a golden crust, and the slits for venting had been carved in the shape of a smiley face. The room was soon filled with the buttery smell of baking.

“All right, little pie bro, you just get your wicked motherfuckin’ chill on up here,” Gamzee said to his steaming creation as he set it on a little baking rack next to the oven. “And don’t be lettin’ anyone know you’re motherfuckin’ ready until we help our good bro Eridan with his moving shit.”

Eridan watched, at a loss for words as Gamzee closed his eyes, still smiling as he slipped off his oven mitts and replaced them in the drawer. He lifted his bare foot up a bit and closed the oven door before turning back to Eridan.

“So…can we get goin’ now, or what?” Eridan asked, trying to inject some indignant authority into his voice, but failing rather badly under Gamzee’s relaxed expression and the scent of pie flooding his nostrils.

“Yeah bro, we can go motherfuckin’ anywhere as we get to be setting our minds to.” He shuffled out of the kitchen and down the hall. Eridan followed him. The trip took him past the bathroom, which he peered into for a moment to look upon Karkat’s toilet with a deep sense of brotherhood. The toilet seemed to stare back at him in acknowledgment, as if to let Eridan know that it would be there whenever troubled times were afoot. Eridan gave a nod of somber gratitude before continuing on after Gamzee.

The tall man turned right as the hallway came to an end, forking off in two separate directions. Eridan followed him as he stopped before one of the doors and went inside.

The room was fairly cluttered, with clothes crumpled on the floor and tossed over the back of the desk chair. Sunlight filtered in through the slats on the blinds in the window. It created bars of gold on the rumpled, dark hair of the head poking out from underneath the huge comforter on the bed. Gamzee shuffled around a few magazines scattered on the floor and patted the sleeping boy’s head.

“Hey, Karkat, it’s time to up and get yourself out of bed.”

Eridan crouched down and picked up one of the magazines littered on the floor as Karkat gave an unintelligible grumble and tried to swat Gamzee away. As Gamzee patted Karkat’s head again, Eridan flipped the magazine over and looked at the cover. People. Eridan raised an eyebrow and began thumbing through it. He didn’t have a ton of interest in celebrities, but if there was a magazine sitting out for him to read—

A hand descended from nowhere and slapped the item out of his grasp and onto the floor. Eridan jerked back in surprise, his eyes flying up to meet the bleary gaze of the short boy standing in front of him. Clad in a baggy T-shirt and boxers, his hair wild and dark circles smudged under his eyes, Karkat looked even more dangerous than usual. But, remarkably, he didn’t say a word. He simply shuffled past Eridan and down the hall, slamming the bathroom door shut behind him.

Gamzee smiled and made his way from the room. Eridan stood, dumbfounded, in the middle of the floor for a moment before he reached down to pick up the magazine once more and scampered after Gamzee.

The taller man was at the other end of the hall now, peeking through a crack in the door. Eridan ducked under his elbow so that he could get a look into the room as well. He couldn’t make out much, but what he could see made his stomach twist. There were empty food containers everywhere, and the clothes were so thick upon the floor that it was hard to make out the carpet’s true color. Gamzee pushed the door open a bit more, revealing the bookshelves and the desk. Every flat surface was covered with cans of energy drinks. The bed itself was littered with books and loose scraps of paper, as well as a pile of clothing shoved up by the pillow. Eridan wondered briefly how any human could possibly find room to sleep on such a thing when his thought was cut short by the sight of a pair of feet sticking out from beneath the desk.

Gamzee waved a hand through the door, but made no move to enter. “Hey, Sollux, it’s time to be gettin’ into a conscious sort of zone, bro.”

There was a groan, and the lanky stick of a boy emerged from beneath the desk. The blinds were shut, keeping the room rather dim, but Eridan could see Sollux sit up, pressing the heel of his palm to one of his eyes. It was the first time Eridan had seen the young man without his dark glasses. As Sollux pulled his hand away and blinked his eyes open, Eridan squinted, trying to catch a glimpse of the blind eye that Karkat had mentioned when they’d first met. Indeed, the young man’s right eye was clouded over and distinctly lighter than its brown twin.

As Eridan continued to stare, those eyes both suddenly turned to him and narrowed.

“What the fuck is he doing back here?”

“We made a pact, bro, to be all helping our good buddy Eridan into his new living place,” Gamzee replied, making no move to open the door further.

“He’s not our ‘buddy,’ GZ, he’s a sleazy mooch and a con-artist.”

“All right, you can be thinking what you all have your mind to be set on, but I made pie.”

Sollux frowned. “You say that as if the fact that you made pie has any sort of bearing on my feelings regarding this subject.”

“I’m just sort of making information about the baked state of my pie go in your general direction, and I’m also just sort of hoping we could all eat it together with a motherfuckin’ beverage after we all got on like a couple of choice bros lifting possessions for another bro.”

Sollux sighed. “Whatever. I’ll be there. Just get out of my room. And don’t come back while he’s around.”

Gamzee slowly pulled the door shut. Eridan stood, his nose wrinkled a bit. The room had exuded a foul sort of odor. Like old food and stale air and sweat. He was grateful to be able to follow Gamzee out into the pizza-ravaged living room. He couldn’t help but cast a curious glance back over his shoulder though. Back toward the room and the young man inside. The one with the blind right eye.

“Okay, so are we going to get this shit done or what?”

Eridan turned to see Karkat standing just inside the living room, clothed in jeans and a sweatshirt. His hair was a bit more tame now too. As if he had at least run his fingers through it and patted it down a bit.

Eridan cleared his throat. “Well, the movin’ vans should be here soon, so—”

“About that. If you’ve got fucking movers coming, why the hell can’t they do this shit for you?”

“Well, because they’re only paid to get my boxes outta the van, aren’t they? And I can’t very well leave boxes lyin’ around my establishment. I mean, I’ve got standards. Not to mention the fact that if they don’t put my furniture in the right spot, I’m goin’ to need help makin’ the necessary adjustments.” Eridan crossed his arms and sniffed after he finished. This was all just basic to him, but he knew he was going to be met with objections from people with Karkat’s sense of taste.

“I can’t believe this. So we’re like your interior decorating crew? The paid movers get to go home after moving the shit into your house, but not us, oh no. We’re there under some bogus agreement to make your house aesthetically pleasing? Fuck that. I’m going back to bed.”

“Hey, bro, is your nose all letting you in on the secret of what I got myself up to this morning?” Gamzee smiled at Karkat from the couch just as the boy was about to turn and stomp back off down the hall. Karkat’s gaze snapped to him as he paused mid-stride. His eyes then drifted slowly up to the ceiling as he inhaled deeply. His eyes flicked back to Gamzee.

“Strawberry pie?”

“Yeah, motherfucker.”

Karkat sighed before walking over to the couch and plopping down next to his taller housemate. Gamzee smiled and began to bob his head slowly, tapping the arm of the couch in a sporadic rhythm with his thumb.

It was about then that Eridan moved to the window and peered across the street. In all fuss of trying to round up his three neighbors, the moving van had already come. It sat parked in his driveway, and the two men were busy carrying all of his goods onto the concrete.

Eridan pushed himself away from the window. “Ah fuck, they’re here already. I’m gonna head over there. You guys can just show up when you’re all accounted for, I guess.”

Even after he arrived, spoke to the moving guys, and proceeded to watch them unload all his worldly possessions onto the driveway, his neighbors still hadn’t shown up. He was sitting on one of his boxes, flipping through the magazine he’d nicked from Karkat’s room, when two of them finally decided to arrive.

Eridan looked up as Gamzee and Karkat crossed the street and made their way up the driveway toward him. Eridan quickly stuffed the magazine into the box he was sitting on before standing to greet them.

“Where the fuck is Sol?” he asked.

“Dude, that’s not his name. Also, I can’t guarantee anything, okay? Sollux is his own guy. His own extremely grouchy guy that, when forced, is not above the kind of violence that could separate your head from your scrawny twig neck. So don’t push it, all right?”

Karkat walked past Eridan then, inspecting the boxes while Gamzee simply grabbed the one nearest to him and began to take it up Eridan’s driveway and into the house. Eridan stayed where he was, watching as Karkat squatted down to peer at something more closely.

“You’ve got a guitar?” the smaller boy asked, jabbing his finger at the sleek black case.

“Yeah, it was a graduation present a sorts. I’ve been teachin’ myself the fingerin’s as well as the basic chords and shit. I’m hopin’ to produce my first masterpiece by the end a summer.” Eridan’s face lifted as he imagined all the record deals he could sign with an exquisite enough composition.

The thought was quickly swept away, however, by his own hand. He sat back down on one of his boxes, leaning forward so that he could be as close to eye level with the squatting boy as possible. Karkat’s eyes flicked up to meet his, staring at Eridan through his long, wild bangs.

“What?” the boy demanded.

“Does Sol ever come out of his room?”

Karkat looked away from Eridan for a moment before fixing his gaze back on him. He lifted his upper lip slightly, just enough for his teeth to show. “Why the fuck does it matter to you?”

“I’m just askin’ out of a basic obligation to social decorum, but I gotta say, Kar, that it’s pretty fuckin’ obvious that the guy’s got issues. I’ve only been livin’ across from you for hardly two days and I already know that he hasn’t changed his shirt in all that time, doesn’t eat much, and has a room that looks like the inside of a used vacuum cleaner. Also, I’m not sure if he sleeps on his bed either, since when Gam went to go wake him up, he crawled out from underneath his desk.”

Karkat stared hard at Eridan’s guitar case for a while. At last, he replied, “Sollux doesn’t sleep under his desk. He just sort of sits there and listens to his awful techno garbage for hours on end. At least, he used to. I haven’t done a hell of a lot of best-friend-sitting lately, since this is a wild fucking improvement from how he used to be. Like, they should put this improvement in a goddamned zoo. Because hell if it was ever meant to be enclosed in our domestic property.”

Eridan’s eyes narrowed, and he pursed his lips bemusedly. “You’re losin’ me here, Kar.”

“Okay, that’s not my name. I am not a fucking automobile for you to drive around and use to move your shitty musical instruments. Is two syllables honestly way too difficult for your egregiously empty cranial cavity to force over your drooping lips? Like, please tell me that this isn’t actually how fucking stupid you are.”

“Christ, Kar, I’m just tryin’ to establish some sense a camaraderie between us, seein’ as we’re neighbors and all.”

“Okay, well, dickass, deciding to give me a cutesy fucking nickname is not the way to do it.” He backhanded one of the cardboard boxes next to his elbow. “Nor is conning me into helping you move your shit around. Seriously, how do you even own this much stuff?”

As if to answer his own question, Karkat yanked the lid off one of the boxes near him and peered into it. “What are these, books?”

“Yeah. For research. And some for enjoyment, like, but they’re pretty silly and not worth mentionin’.”

Karkat sighed and slammed the lid back in place.

“But what was it you were sayin’ about Sol? About him bein’ better now than he used to be.”

Karkat continued to stare at the box of books he’d just closed, his brows sunk low over his eyes as he spoke. “Listen, idiot-boy wonder, if there’s one thing you’re going to have to get through your head around here, it’s that you should keep your grotesque proboscis out of other people’s business. Because if you prod hard enough, the answers tend to snap shut on your face like a fucking bear trap.”

He picked at the corner of one of the boxes as Gamzee came back out, picked up a potted plant, and went back inside again. Eridan kept his lips pressed together, practically biting his tongue in half to avoid making some remark and derailing Karkat’s thought train yet again.

“I told you Sollux was blind in the one eye, right?” the boy asked at last, ripping off a chunk of cardboard and inspecting it closely.

“Yeah. I actually saw it today too, when he woke up. Like, the room was dark and shit, but since I sorta knew to look for it, it was pretty obvious.”

“Yeah, it is. Which is why he does the whole enigmatic-asshole shades thing. He doesn’t like people asking him about it.”

“So are you gonna tell me why, or what?”

Karkat peeled a layer off his chunk of cardboard, exposing the rippled interior beneath. “Sollux didn’t always live with Gamzee and me. He used to have his own place. He worked all the fucking time to keep up with the payments because his family was, and still is, too broke and apathetic to help with anything. But he’s kind of this…masochistic asshole who takes pride in that sort of thing, I guess. Doing all that work by himself and making his own way. Or he was. Before he got into the accident.”

Eridan blinked, trying to lower his head further to meet Karkat’s gaze. “Accident?”

Karkat refused to look at him. Instead, he just continued to pick at the cardboard between his fingers. “Yeah, accident. I was pretty fucking clear in delineating the whole eye thing, so it makes me wonder where the fuck you thought this story was going.”

“I don’t know, I was kinda just waitin’ for you to tell me outright.”

Karkat sighed. “Sollux was dating this girl all through college. And then one night about a year ago, he ran a stop sign. Three fucking seconds was all it took and he was minus one eye and a girlfriend. The end. Happy you asked?”

Eridan felt a stone settle in his stomach. It was more serious than he’d expected. He supposed Karkat was right. That one had kind of snapped shut on his face. He tried to ease through it, however. “So what happened with the whole college thing?”

“It didn’t. After that shit, Sollux went into his room and never came out. He lost his job and his chance at a degree, and, after defaulting on payments for a few months, his apartment.” Karkat began to rip the remaining cardboard in his fingers into tiny pieces. “Sollux and I were kind of best friends throughout high school and college. So I knew he was never going to ask for help, even though everyone and their canine companions knew he needed it. So I just took Gamzee with me one night and dragged him off the streets and back to our place.”

“So what, he’s a freeloader?”

Karkat turned to him furiously, his teeth bared. “Okay, are you actually looking to lose your head, here? Because you are just making a bed on the goddamned chopping block and painting a dotted line across your neck in melted chocolate. I mean, was I not fucking clear with you? He killed his girlfriend. I mean, not really, but that’s how he sees it and so that’s the frame of fucking reference we have to deal with, here.”

“I mean, I heard you, Kar. And I’m not sayin’ that shit is easy for anyone to handle. But you said all this happened a year ago. And I’m just wonderin’ how things stand now, since you said he was better.” Eridan’s expression was simply curious, the death threats rolling off him like raindrops.

Karkat’s ornery expression flickered, and he dropped his gaze. “Okay, well, to be honest, it’s not like we really need money from him to put him up. Gamzee might not look like much, but his parents are actually really fucking well off. Like, I think they enjoy wiping their asses with Benjamin Franklin’s face, if you need any help visualizing it. And they also don’t give a shit about anything, so it’s kind of like no-questions-asked if Gamzee ever needs extra cash. So we moved into this place on Gamzee’s dime after he and I got done with school.”

Eridan’s eyebrows lifted slightly with sudden realization. “Is that why you two kind of do whatever he says?”

“What? If you’re talking about our uncanny inability to say no to that shithole, it has more to do with the fact that he lies around talking about miracles and smoking weed and loving animals and baking fucking strawberry pies with smiley faces on them than it has to do with his cozy financial situation. I mean seriously, how the fuck are you supposed to give the middle finger to a guy that just baked you a strawberry pie with a smiley face on it? You answer that for me, because I’ve been trying to work my way around it for years and I still haven’t come up with anything.”

Eridan had nothing to say to that. “All right, so my understandin’ here is that Sol survived some horrific accident and he’s been dealin’ with that by holin’ himself up in his room for days at a time.”

Karkat shrugged a shoulder. “Yeah, I guess that’s the gist of it.”

“And that you’ve been respondin’ to this by pretty much lettin’ him continue to live like he’s been doin’?”

Karkat seemed to catch a whiff of the antagonism swelling in Eridan’s voice. “Yeah. Why, do you have something to say about it, dick prince?”

“Only that it’s the most offensive waste a life I’ve ever had the displeasure of observin’,” Eridan remarked, leaning away from Karkat and regarding the boy with a stolid expression.

Karkat bared his teeth. “Oh is that so? Should I write up a formal fucking apology to you in which I describe the way I’m going to get down on my knees and beg for clemency on account of unscrupulously subjecting you to my best friend’s offensive depression?” He stood suddenly, his eyes boiling with rage. “Or should I just take your head in my fist and smash your face against your fancy fucking guitar case until there’s enough of your teeth on the ground to make a fucking pick out of? Then maybe you can strum a little tune about your life and how fucking hard it is being you with your fucking boxes of shit and your fancy fucking house and your goddamned goal of…what did you say your plan was? ‘Finding your muses’ or some shit? God, how fucking difficult your life must be. Why don’t I just stuff your pompous head up your ass, maybe there are a few muses floating around in there?”

He finished by slamming his foot into the nearest box, sending clothing bursting over the concrete. Eridan gave a cry of dismay, reaching for them just as Karkat spun and kicked at Eridan’s guitar case, sending the instrument tumbling over the cement.

“Stop it! Fuck!” Eridan yelled, lunging for his guitar.

Karkat already seemed to have lost interest in destroying Eridan’s things, however. Instead, he turned around, beginning to storm back toward his house. Eridan gave an exasperated sigh, pushing himself to his feet and scrambling after the boy, catching Karkat’s wrist before he’d even made it to the end of the street.

“Don’t touch me, you jackass,” Karkat snarled, snapping his hand away so violently it caused him to turn to face Eridan completely.

“Fine.” Eridan balled his rejected hand into a fist at his side. “But let me just say that the only thing I was tryin’ to tell you is that treatin’ Sol like he’s a fuckin’ egg isn’t goin’ to do any a you any good. Him least of all.”

“Okay. I’ll definitely take that advice to heart, especially considering how goddamned much you know about any of us.” Karkat turned to storm off again.

“And you don’t know the first fuckin’ thing about me either, all right?” Eridan snarled, yanking on Karkat’s wrist again.

The boy whirled around. “And what the fuck is there to know? That you have literally fuck-all to worry about because mommy and daddy are paying for you to go chase your fucking artistic bullshit?”

“You don’t know that—”

“Well, it’s true, isn’t it? Tell me that’s not what’s going on here, and I will literally get down on my knees and lick your pedicured toes.”

Eridan pressed his lips together, his chest burning.

“That’s what I fucking thought.”

“Okay, well, regardless a what you think a me, my thoughts on the subject aren’t gonna change. He needs someone to treat him like a human being, all right? Not a fuckin’ glass statue. If he’s really your friend, you owe him better than that. You owe him a better life than what he’s got locked up in his room.”

They stood there for a long time, glaring at one another. They said nothing more and made no move to step away until they were interrupted by a rather grainy voice with a soft lisp.

“So are you guys just having a lover’s spat while GZ does all the work?”

Karkat dropped his malignant gaze and turned his eyes to Sollux, who had come up behind him from across the street. “You took your sweet time. I had to converse with this asshole for almost ten minutes.”

“I’ll make sure to sacrifice a Red Bull to your altar in order to beg your jackass gods for forgiveness,” Sollux replied. He then tipped his head up, turning his face toward Eridan. His mismatched eyes were hidden once again behind his dark sunglasses, but he looked somehow less gaunt than he had when Eridan had seen him in his room.

“So are we doing this, or what?” Sollux asked after the three of them stood in silence for a time. Karkat gave a derisive sigh and Eridan’s lips twitched in a smile.

“Come up here. I’ll show you what you guys need to do.”

The rest of the afternoon passed in relative peace. What surprised Eridan, however, was how much strength Sollux had in his wiry arms. He moved the heaviest pieces of furniture along with Gamzee, going in and out of the house without showing any outward signs of exhaustion. As his face became slick with sweat and his dark bangs stringy from the moisture, Eridan could almost swear a glow was radiating from beneath the young man’s skin.

“Are you planning on carrying any of your own shit, or are we going to get stuck with the brunt of this legwork?” he asked as he and Gamzee passed, hauling Eridan’s sofa between them.

“My body’s built for aesthetics, all right? I mean, look at this.” He gestured to himself. “This was not meant to carry fuckin’ couches.”

“Whatever. Rich-ass pansy.”

Beneath the sweat and flippant tone, Eridan swore he saw something playing around the edges of the young man’s lips. Something that looked suspiciously like the beginnings of a smile.

As far as he was concerned, Sollux Captor looked like a man who was ready to live again.

And Eridan would be damned if he wasn’t going to make it happen.

Chapter Text

This was the day Eridan tried to get a job at the coffee shop.

Of course it really wasn’t a matter of earning money. As irritating and obnoxious as Karkat was, he hadn’t been wrong. Nothing, for Eridan, was ever about the money. All he had to do to spend the rest of his existence on the comfort of his parents’ dime was to ask. One phone call, and he could end his adventure, return home, and spend the rest of his life watching the clouds through the window.

The very thought of it made him sick.

Eridan was done with that.

Done with being comfortable.

So perhaps it was for that reason that he packed up his guitar, wrapped a thin purple scarf around his neck, and made his way to the local café.

He had spent the first few days after the initial move-in simply taking walks around town until he’d felt as if he had pinned down the usual haunts. The most obvious had been the mall. It was a large indoor complex near the highway. As such, it had taken a bus ride to get him down to it. Eridan had not been impressed with the establishment or its selection. He decided he would have to rely on the internet if he was going to keep any decent sort of wardrobe while living in this city.

Aside from the mall and its rather garish array of products and people, there were a few other places much nearer to his home that had given Eridan the quaint impression that had drawn him to the town in the first place. There were a few roads that cut through the main district, with large sidewalks bordering each of them. It was an area made for walking. As such, there were many small establishments. Privately owned eateries and shops. But the most stimulating of these, to Eridan, were the cafes.

There were about four cafes just in that one area. All privately owned with the exception of the ever-present Starbucks. After sampling each one, Eridan decided that the one with the hardwood floors that had turned some old doors into tables was his favorite. Not only for the atmosphere, but for the open mic sessions they held every Wednesday night.

Plus, he liked the name.

Apple Core.

Like something eaten down until there was nothing left. Just a few fibrous strands housing a bed of seeds.

For some reason, it made him think of Sollux, sitting on the floor of his room and looking up at him with those mismatched eyes.

It didn’t make sense for Eridan to think of him. He hadn’t seen the man since moving day. But what he had seen—that glimmer of a smile cutting through a face fossilized with grief—had branded itself onto the inside of his chest. If his heart beat a bit too hard, it would brush up against that image of quiet hope.

And his heart often beat a bit too hard.

Eridan had tried to commit to walking to all of the cafes situated in the area of town that seemed specifically designed for foot traffic. However, so much physical activity was not something he was used to. At all. On one particularly hot day, he’d had to take several breaks in the shadows of some of the buildings’ awnings, wiping sweat from his face and breathing raggedly.

Today was not one of those days, however. Carrying the guitar case was a bit of an effort, but luckily the Core (as many of the patrons liked to call it) was one of the closer cafes. And it was a sunny day with a pleasant breeze. And so it was with supreme confidence that Eridan carried himself over the threshold of the establishment, ready to demand a job.

Only to quickly duck into a corner.

He put his guitar case on top of the tiny round table he’d retreated to, flipping it onto its side to provide him with as functional of a barricade as he could create. He peered cautiously over it toward the front of the café where the barista was working.

He sucked in a breath through his teeth.

Just behind the counter was a woman with a pair of glasses, blue lipstick, and a tangled mass of black hair. Even though it was pulled up this time, there was no mistaking her. It had been that horrid bitch he’d met on Karkat’s lawn on his first night in town.

He clutched his guitar case until his knuckles turned white. How had he managed to miss her? He had been to the Core at least twice. It seemed silly that he’d managed to avoid her shift entirely during both those times. How many employees could a small establishment like this cafe possibly have?

He put his head on his guitar case and cursed silently and profusely to himself before sagging back in his chair. He watched through narrowed eyes as the girl went about her business, wiping off mugs and organizing things around the register.

Eridan let his eyes slide to the other patrons in the café. It was a bit emptier than usual. Only two other customers were present. One, a small, tanned boy putting together a cat puzzle, was sitting on the far side of the room. The other was a more put-together looking young woman, with skin the color of her iced mocha. She twirled a strand of her short, black hair on a finger as she pored over a novel.

She was much closer. So Eridan took his table and, making sure to never lift his head far above his guitar barricade, scooted the whole arrangement over to the woman’s table.

She jerked back in surprise as Eridan’s table knocked against hers, nearly sending her drink toppling to the floor.

“Hey,” Eridan said, raising a hand in greeting as he pulled a chair up next to the woman and sat down.

She regarded him stiffly. Her eyes flicked to her drink. “You nearly spilled that.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t, so that’s hardly the fuckin’ issue here.”

She frowned and leaned back a bit, as if trying to get a full picture of him. “I’m sorry, but do I hold any kind of relation with you that wouldn’t warrant me upending your obtrusive table as a reaction to this sort of greeting?”

“If you’re askin’ about whether you know me or not, then the answer is not,” Eridan replied. He then put both hands over his guitar case. “Though I wouldn’t really recommend flippin’ any tables seein’ as how that’s likely to get my instrument damaged and I’m not very fuckin’ pleasant to be around when any a my personal shit comes under attack.”

“I’m reserving the inversion of any tables strictly on account of pure curiosity at this type of greeting.” Her eyes swept over him again. “Is this a typical method you employ when engaging in introductions with strangers?”

“No, not really. I mean, to be honest, I’m kind of using you as a diversion. Like, if my guitar case here is a force field,” he began, patting it for emphasis, “then your role could be thought of as somethin’ akin to a type a ward or whatever. I mean, if any a that shit was real, which it isn’t, but I’m just usin’ it for illustrative purposes.”

She picked up a napkin and slipped it under her drink. “Entertaining the, also purely fictional, thought that describing me in terms of an inanimate object does not strike me as something completely beyond the bounds of acceptable conversational content, what is it you are trying to divert?”

“I’m tryin’ not to let that fuckin’ wench spot me, is what,” Eridan replied, peering over his guitar case for just long enough to point a finger toward the counter. The woman next to him looked up to where he was indicating before quickly dropping her gaze back down.

“Wench seems like a rather antiquated term to be throwing about so casually,” she replied, her tone careful.

“Whatever, she was fuckin’ horrible to me at Kar’s party and now she’s fuckin’ workin’ here when I was just about to go apply for a job. Like that’s ever gonna fuckin’ happen now. I can’t believe this, she is ruinin’ my whole fuckin’ experience here.”

“I don’t pretend to have any insight to your situation, as I think it’s been clearly established that we don’t know each other. But have you considered that you may be blowing this wildly out of proportion?”

“Okay, you don’t have the slightest fuckin’ clue what I’ve had to be dealin’ with here, so your input is appreciated and shit, but I’m really just sittin’ here to avoid her and any dirty glances she might happen to throw my way.”

The woman slipped a bookmark between the pages of the volume lying open before her. “Also consider that I have no reason to remain here and continue to serve as a means for you to avoid confrontation.”

“Wait, you’re leavin’?” Eridan looked to her, mortified as he realized that she had closed her book and was opening up her bag.

She looked back up to him after she had packed her novel away. “I came here to read, not to be subjected to the melodramatic weavings of a complete stranger.”

“All right then, if that’s how you’re gonna be.” He thrust out his hand. “I’m Eridan.”

She blinked at him.

“Well, go on, fuckin’ shake it or something,” Eridan urged.

“I hope you realize that giving me your name does not make me any more inclined to stay here. If anything, it encourages me to hasten my departure.”

“Okay, look, I’m just tryin’ to start a fuckin’ conversation with you. I understand that you were readin’ and shit, but it’s not like I’m demandin’ a whole bushel a your time.”

“Bushels aren’t typically employed as quantifiers of time, so I’m afraid that visual representation falls somewhat short of being any real use to me.” She set her bag back down, however, and folded her hands on the table in front of her. “But I’m Kanaya.”

She gripped his hand in hers, and he was a bit taken aback by the strength she held in her delicate fingers. When she released him, he put his hand quickly under the table, for fear of being seized in her vice-like grip again.

“So, Kan, you were readin’ here, is that right?”

“Yes. A rather dark tale for such a bright summer day, but I find I enjoy the contrast—”

“So do you know that fuckin’ bitch behind the counter or something, is that why you were defendin’ her before?”

Kanaya pressed her dark lips together. “I don’t think ‘defend’ is an accurate description of what I was doing, but yes. I do know her. And her name is Vriska, but the only reason I’m telling you that at all is to give you something other than expletives to refer to her with.”

“See, that’s what I’m talkin’ about though, that sounds like a defensive stance to be takin’ on the subject from where I’m sittin’.” Eridan leaned back in his chair, regarding the woman with a haughty expression.

“If your definition of defensive includes someone who’s simply tired of your churlish vocabulary, then the only way I can hope to make you regard me otherwise is to do some heavy lifting as far as your paradigms are concerned. Which I just don’t have the energy for, I’m sorry.”

“You know, it’s fine if you guys are friends or something, I’ll just stop bringin’ it up. I can spare some tact once in a while on account of other people’s feelings, I’m a pretty decent guy.”

Kanaya put a hand to her forehead. “I’m rapidly beginning to regret the decision to continue this conversation.”

“What? Why? Do you hold some other kind a relationship with her or something, I mean, is that why you’re bein’ so fuckin’ dodgy about the subject?” Eridan pushed himself forward, propping an elbow on the table and resting his chin in his hand.

Kanaya’s skin turned an even darker shade. “That’s a bit brazen of you to suggest, given that the only fact you currently have about our relationship is that I happen to know her name.”

“I’m just askin’ for some clarification, Kan, fuck. I mean, what kind of insightful remarks do you really expect me to make if you’re not gonna bother enlightenin’ me at all?”

“Truthfully? I don’t expect any insight to occur here other than a self-loathing epiphany regarding my own carelessness in adopting conversation partners.” She had dropped her gaze back down to her bag, and was looking as though she was ready to attempt another departure.

“All right, fine, we don’t have to talk about her at all, then. Excuse me for bringin’ it up.” Eridan leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms petulantly. “But if you don’t want to talk about Vris, then can I ask you about someone else?”

She lifted her gaze to him, her smooth brow creased with the slightest of frowns. “Someone else?”

“Yeah. I’m new here, if you haven’t already gathered, and so I really don’t know much about anyone in this place. But I’m currently livin’ in the house across from Gamzee Makara’s place. Do you know that guy?”

A faint smile pulled teasingly at the corner of her lips. “It’s quite safe to assume that anyone within our general age range living in this area has heard of Gamzee Makara.”

“Okay, well, it’s actually not him that I’m askin’ about. It’s one a his housemates.”

Her smile waned. “Which housemate?”

“Sollux.”

The smile all but disappeared. “It might be best if you left that particular area of knowledge unexplored. And I’m not just saying that because I find you generally tactless and unpleasant. Which I do.”

“See, then you must know about him, because you wouldn’t be so fuckin’ touchy about the subject if you didn’t. I mean, does everyone fuckin’ act like they’re walkin’ over meltin’ ice when they talk about him? It’s seriously startin’ to piss me off in a bad way.”

“As opposed to the many amusing ways there are to capture your metaphorical goat?” Kanaya peered at him quizzically, her expression a bit less somber. “Actually, I can see that. But I maintain a bit of delicacy regarding Sollux’s situation because I’m actually not that close to him. I know him largely through the ponderous network of friends and acquaintances that permeates this town.”

“Oh. So you’ve never spoken with him, then?”

“No, I have. But if you’re looking for accurate information regarding his situation, I’d suggest asking one of his housemates.”

“I have asked one of his housemates,” Eridan replied, scuffing his shoe against the wood floor. “And that resulted in me nearly gettin’ my guitar splintered on the concrete.”

A smirk played around her lips. “Somehow, I’m not surprised. You spoke with Karkat, then?”

“Yeah. And so I know about his situation or whatever. I just want to see if I can’t fuckin’ do something about it.”

Kanaya lifted a perfectly groomed eyebrow. “Do something?”

“Yeah, like, fuckin’ help the guy out, or whatever.” He sat up a bit, glaring down at his table. “Just try talkin’ to him like any other person would talk to another person to let him know that he’s a human being and not a fuckin’ egg shell that no one wants to have anything to do with on account a bein’ too afraid of breakin’ off a piece.”

Kanaya was silent for a time before she reached for her drink and took a sip. After she set it back down, she lifted her gaze to Eridan once again. “That’s quite thoughtful of you.”

“Well, that’s me. Havin’ lots a fuckin’ thoughts about other people all the time.”

“But I can’t help but wonder if your vehement empathy derives from some sort of mutual experience.” She lowered her gaze again as she took another drink.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Eridan snapped, shifting his glare from the table to the young woman.

“It means that I highly doubt you would be experiencing these throes of heroics if you yourself hadn’t felt victimized in a similar fashion at some point.” She continued to look down at her drink, but her expression was pleased. As if she had the man sitting beside her pinned quite neatly under her astute observation.

Eridan wanted to smack her coffee into her self-serving face.

“What the fuck do my reasons got anything to do with this? My shit’s not the issue here, it’s Sol that I’m askin’ about. I just want to know a some way that I can get a hold a him that isn’t through phone calls or house visits, seein’ as both a those are clearly not very fuckin’ effective with someone who gets a lot a pleasure from hidin’ out in their room all the time.” Eridan pulled his guitar down off the table in his frustration, kicking it under his chair.

Kanaya regarded him silently for a while as he seethed. She then reached into her bag and extracted a notepad and pen.

She spoke as she wrote. “If I didn’t believe your intentions were anything but pure, I would never do this, because you strike me as a self-serving cur. But since you seem to have some, admittedly equally self-serving, motives couched in a desire to come to terms with your own poorly concealed difficulties, then perhaps it is to your benefit that you’re a self-serving cur.”

Eridan’s frown melted away to be replaced with a rather blank look. “I didn’t get any a that.”

“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I think you may actually be able to make some headway due to your enthusiasm and brash sincerity.” She neatly dotted a few i’s before ripping off the paper and sliding it across the table to Eridan. “Do you know about Minecraft?”

Eridan picked up the piece of paper. “This is a username,” he remarked as he peered at it. “DoubleMobius, are you kidding me?”

“That’s Sollux’s handle. Below it are the names of a few servers he hosts for displaying the modifications he creates. If you want to speak with him, I suggest downloading and installing that game. I’ve heard it’s been his current obsession for a few months now.”

Eridan slipped the piece of paper in his pocket. “So you don’t play?”

“No. I enjoy spending my time on quieter pursuits.” She gently patted her bag with the book inside. “But I do have a few acquaintances who are extremely enthusiastic about gaming.”

“Huh. Well, thanks. I really wasn’t expectin’ this level a help.”

Kanaya regarded him with a rather muted expression. “I wasn’t expecting to give it. But I haven’t thought about Sollux in a while. Perhaps because most of us felt like trying to manage him was similar to trying to redirect a river.”

Eridan frowned, putting a thumb in his mouth and chewing for a moment. He then pulled it away and replied, “But you can redirect a river. If you do enough hackin’ at the ground or whatever.”

“Exactly my point. And I’m beginning to think that none of us ever did enough hacking. So you have my pickaxe in your pocket. I only advise you to take care with how you use it. Because you’re incredibly thoughtless in your swings.”

“Yeah, whatever you say. But I feel like this whole town could use a little bit a thoughtlessness and spur-a-the-moment livin’,” Eridan reached down and thumbed the piece of paper in his pocket through the fabric of his jeans.

“Spur-of-the-moment, hmmmmmmmm?”

Eridan quailed and looked up, seeing Vriska standing over him, her teeth flashing a brilliant white beneath her blue lipstick.

Fuck, he’d taken his defensive guitar case down. How could he have been such an idiot?

“Kind of like your dumb decision to go back to Karkat’s party without handing me all those smokes I guess you keep in your house, right?” She put a hand on the back of his chair and bent close, grinning.

Eridan leaned back, his lip curling indignantly. “I don’t fuckin’ owe you anything, especially not now that I’m in tight with that group. They’d never dare force me to make payments to attend their parties now, especially not payments with some fuckin’ hag that I’ve never heard them mention once.”

Vriska laughed, leaning away from Eridan. “Look at this guy, Maryam. The cool new kid thinks he knows a thing about living in this place.”

Kanaya’s expression was impassive. “Indeed he does.”

“So what brings you here, new guy, if you’re not going to hand over those smokes you owe me?” She leaned back in close to him.

“Well, fuckin’ nothing anymore. You can forget it. Like I’d ever want to work here after seein’ the standards they employ when makin’ staffin’ decisions.” He gave her a significant sweeping gaze, from her ratted hair to her red sneakers.

“Oh, you were thinking of trying to get a job here? Ha! I would laugh a bit more if it were funnier and less pathetic. I guess it was a pretty good thing that I showed up and discouraged your advances. You should be thanking me, really. I just went through all the trouble of showing up today to spare you the pain of rejection.”

“Whatever, Vris, like you know a thing about my credentials. Which are fuckin’ awesome, by the way, and I could so land a job here if I had any sort a desire to be stickin’ myself in the same establishment as some hag like you.”

Vriska sneered and looked ready to reply when Kanaya interrupted. “If I may step in for a moment, I would like to say that, as a patron of aforementioned establishment, I find no satisfaction in watching the wait staff harass their customers.”

Vriska’s nose crinkled. “Whatever, Pompous McFussy-Face. Why don’t you just stop hanging out here all the time if you don’t like the way I do things?”

She gave the back of Eridan’s chair a shove before stalking off. As she passed the other patron in the far corner of the café, she took a moment to shove his puzzle off the table before stomping into the kitchen. The boy stared at the floor, which was now littered with the fragments of the kitten picture he’d been piecing together. Eridan thought he looked as though he were about to cry.

“I suggest going home and putting the information I gave you to use,” Kanaya sighed, touching her fingers to her forehead and closing her eyes. “My patience wears thin enough in dealing with one irrational child, let alone two.”

“Like I’m not so done with this place as it is,” Eridan scoffed, scooping up his guitar. He made his way to the door, putting his hand against the glass to push it open and make his exit. Before he did, however, he looked back over his shoulder at the young woman as she extracted her book from her bag once more.

“Hey Kan, I do just want to say thanks and that I owe you for this.”

She glanced up at him before smiling mildly and opening her book, smoothing down the pages. “It’s hardly worth mentioning.”

Chapter Text

This was the day that Eridan Ampora had his first Minecraft experience.

It came at a decidedly hectic time in the Minecraft community. The forums were abuzz with some of the game’s newest updates. Plenty of players were already experimenting with the tweaks implemented on the uses of water in the game. It meant an entire thread dedicated to everyone’s experience utilizing buckets. How much water could a bucket carry? How often could they be refilled? Did bucket capacity ever vary depending on the situation they were used in? Sollux had been among the myriad of players stacking themselves on blocks and seeing how large of a waterfall they could create on one bucket use alone.

Testing the game in this way was always fun and made for some entertaining anecdotes on the forums, so Sollux never discouraged it. But neither could he ever resist cracking the game open and looking at its guts. It was one thing to admire the way a prize-winning horse cantered on the race track. It was another thing to take it apart and acquire an intrinsic understanding of what made its gait so effective.

And so Sollux had started a new thread discussing the various dynamics and variables involved with the new water update, effectively spoiling the fun for everyone else. Many begrudgingly replied to his post, corroborating his analysis of the system’s innards with their own experiences engaging in hands-on play. Many more simply left him PMs telling him to quit being such a, as one eloquent account proclaimed, “fucking know-it-all jackass.”

Sollux smirked as he used traced the IP address of the anonymous user and unpacked one of his nastier viruses to set in his account like a land mine, triggered for detonation at his next login.

One did not fuck with DoubleMobius.

Though it was never with that title that he exacted his revenge. Accounts fashioned into weapons never lasted him long. After indulging in several pounds of Toppers products, he had engaged the enemy mod for the last time under the alias Sons-of-Leda. All he remembered of the battle was the finale. It had involved both his account and the moderator’s lying in shambles, while Sollux had retreated underneath his desk to fight off the post-pizza-binging shakes.

Since then, the mod had not returned. Sollux, however, had fashioned himself a new username to serve as his deadly polearm of justice: dioscuris-wrath.

But in all the excitement of the recent updates, he hadn’t felt the need to draw his weapon until now. And even then, it was a quick affair. He normally enjoyed playing with his food a bit more until he bit down on their throats. But this time it was a simple in-and-out affair. Place the virus and get back to adventuring.

Because, after all, he had mine carts to deploy.

It had been apart of the newest update, and he had been one of the few to get his hands on it as soon as it had been released. So he fashioned a server under his benevolent and god-like username for anyone who wanted to play with mine carts.

And there were tons of them.

He smirked to himself in satisfaction as his server began to fill. In the mean time, he made his way through the terrain of his newly-generated world, venturing into his first mine as soon as he’d set up a crafting table at a make-shift home base. It didn’t take him long to assemble diamond equipment. It was then that he began laying tracks, testing how they dealt with inclines and corners.

As he went on his first mine cart ride, he let his eyes drift to the chat scrolling by in the corner of his screen. Few people were actually saying much of anything. Instead it was just a mass of notifications as players entered and exited the server, quickly going about their business so that they could craft their own mine carts and railways. He recognized most of the names. Many were elite players that were frequently on the forum he had made his home. But several of them were new.

mejackel joined the game

xoraq left the game

<mejackel> wehres teh fompurt

<niffstral> that doesn’t even make sense

mejackel left the game

mejackel joined the game

mokamonn joined the game

superjustice joined the game

<superjustice> how do you craft the mine carts

<mejackel> aks dm fr link

<superjustice> dm hand over a link

<DoubleMobius> riding carts everyone stop asking me for shit

caligulasAquarium joined the game

<superjustice> somebody give me a link

<caligulasAquarium> how do i work the controls on this thing

<niffstral> minecartlookslikethis.jpg

<superjustice> thats for the rails i need the carts

<niffstral> i gave you the cart >.<

<caligulasAquarium> is doublemobius in this server

<superjustice> no you gave me the chart for rails

<niffstral> that’s the cart

<caligulasAquarium> hey is doublemobius around

<superjustice> i just followed your chart to the letter and made a set of rails

<caligulasAquarium> does anybody know doublemobius

<DoubleMobius> somebody either help CA or mercy kill him

<DoubleMobius> i’m riding carts

<caligulasAquarium> oh hey i just saw doublemobius in the chat

<niffstral> what do you want CA?

<superjustice> somebody give me the link for carts

mokamonn hit the ground too hard

<caligulasAquarium> i need to find doublemobius is he around

<DoubleMobius> riding carts

<niffstral> it’s not that hard to make, it’s literally just a bucket with the corners filled in

<niffstral> minecartslooklikethis2.jpg

mejackel went up in flames

<caligulasAquarium> hey sol this is eridan where can i speak to you in private

<mejackel> newd t maek oevn

<mejackel> neeed fod u guys

<caligulasAquarium> hey sol this is eridan where can i speak to you in private

<DoubleMobius> riding carts

mejackel went up in flames

<mejackel> lol im so flamfmagle

<niffstral> flammable?

<mejackel> ya

<caligulasAquarium> sol

<caligulasAquarium> sol

<caligulasAquarium> sol

<DoubleMobius> somebody kill CA please

<caligulasAquarium> wait what

<caligulasAquarium> holy shit what are you doin get away from me

superjustice killed caligulasAquarium wielding iron sword

<superjustice> stop spamming the chat ca

<caligulasAquarium> youve gotta be fuckin kidding me

<caligulasAquarium> ill put whatever i damn well please in the chat

<caligulasAquarium> sol

<caligulasAquarium> sol

<caligulasAquarium> sol i dont get this game what am i supposed to be doin here

mejackel went up in flames

<mejackel> omgf lol

<mejackel> ths lava is ctazt

Sollux sighed heavily. Sometimes it was hard being the only intelligent Minecraft player on the internet. He himself was trying his luck with lava as well, the key difference being that he had put a bit of basic thought into the endeavor before engaging in it. As he constructed a set of tracks around a relatively small lava pool he’d found in an open cave system, he kept his eye out for mobs.

As he was finishing construction, he noticed some movement on the edge of his screen. He turned the camera toward it and saw that it was another player. The white text above their head read ‘caligulasAquarium.’

Perfect.

<caligulasAquarium> hey doublemobius i finally fuckin found you

<caligulasAquarium> are you always this fuckin obnoxious when youre playin games

<caligulasAquarium> i mean fuck

<DoubleMobius> who gave you this handle?

<caligulasAquarium> i have my sources

mejackel went up in flames

<superjustice> mejackel are you just doing this on purpose now

<mejackel> lol

<caligulasAquarium> is there any way we can talk privately

<DoubleMobius> there’s no reason to talk privately

He watched as Eridan’s sprite moved around and waved its arms. Sollux stared at it with an apathetic disbelief. He’d eat his own socks if Eridan had managed to figure out how to make a crafting table. In fact, judging from the way the sprite just basically meandered back and forth and beat at things without actually harvesting any of it, he decided he’d eat his socks if the pathetic jackass had even managed to scrounge up a single block of wood.

He turned back to his miniature railway and adjusted it a bit. He changed it from being a circuitous path to having it end at a downward incline into the lava pit he had been working around.

<caligulasAquarium> come on theres plenty a reason to talk privately

<caligulasAquarium> im gettin lost in all these voices

<niffstral> does anyone have any redstone?

<caligulasAquarium> see look at that shit

<DoubleMobius> the server isn’t even close to being full

<caligulasAquarium> i need some way to differentiate myself or something

<caligulasAquarium> i could just start doublin my vs like wavves does

<caligulasAquarium> havve you evver heard a that band

<DoubleMobius> jesus fuck

<DoubleMobius> you are not seriously going to do that

<caligulasAquarium> well youre refusin to speak in a privvate area where i can be easily differentiated from the vvoices around me

<DoubleMobius> oh my god

<caligulasAquarium> plus wavves is a good band i wwas just listenin to them

<caligulasAquarium> whoops i doubled a w that time

<caligulasAquarium> vs and ws look pretty similar

<DoubleMobius> no

<DoubleMobius> holy fuck no

<caligulasAquarium> i should just double them both to avvoid confusin myself

<caligulasAquarium> wwhat do you think a that sol hm

<superjustice> ban his ass dm

Sollux put a hand to his head and tried some meditative breathing through his bared teeth. He went to the beginning of his track and slapped down a minecart.

<caligulasAquarium> wwhat are you doin here anywway wwith all this lavva

<DoubleMobius> building a track

<caligulasAquarium> for wwhat

<DoubleMobius> testing minecarts

<caligulasAquarium> oh really and wwhat exactly is the point a that

<DoubleMobius> it’s a new addition to the game

<DoubleMobius> try it out for me

<caligulasAquarium> howw do i do that

<DoubleMobius> get on the cart

Sollux watched as Eridan’s sprite eventually seizured its way over to the mine cart and got inside. Sollux then made his way to the end of the route as Eridan’s cart meandered around through the cave.

<caligulasAquarium> so wwhat is evven the point a these

<caligulasAquarium> wwhats the point a this wwhole game

<caligulasAquarium> do you just make shit

Wait for it…

Sollux watched as Eridan came wheeling back toward him in the mine cart, his little generic sprite looking blankly ahead. And then the cart dropped off down the little ramp and into the lava. He watched in satisfaction as Eridan’s avatar caught fire.

caligulasAquarium went up in flames

Eridan flailed and attempted to make a few leaping jumps toward the safety of the stone bordering the lava pit. Sollux withdrew his sword and went toward the edge of fiery lake, slashing downward as Eridan tried to bob up to safety.

DoubleMobius killed caligulasAquarium weilding diamond sword

<superjustice> nice dm

<caligulasAquarium> wow real fuckin nice sol

<caligulasAquarium> or should i say wwoww real fuckin nice

<niffstral> that’s why he’s killing you. just stop being annoying.

<caligulasAquarium> step off all right you dont know a thing about whats goin on here

<superjustice> dm do you know this asshole irl

<mejackel> someone knnows dm ilr?

<caligulasAquarium> yeah i know sol irl why else would i be tryin to get a hold a him

<DoubleMobius> CA, do you have skype?

<caligulasAquarium> yeah

<DoubleMobius> give me your username

<caligulasAquarium> its the same as what im usin now

Sollux swept his Minecraft window aside and opened Skype. Eridan could make a fool of himself if he wanted, but he would be damned if he was going to let the insolent fuckwit damage the online reputation he had worked so hard to craft and maintain. He angrily pounded out the idiot’s handle and slammed on the mouse to send his contact request. After the window vanished, he stared at his current list of groups and contacts.

It had been a while since he’d logged on to any chat client. These days, he made it a point to keep his endeavors on the computer separate from his real life. So it was odd to see some of the old names and handles sitting there. Like Karkat’s. There had been a time when he and Karkat would chat online almost constantly. But that had been when they’d lived in separate houses, where such a mode of communication would make sense.

He let his mouse drift down the list until it brushed over arachnidsGrip and gallowsCalibrator. A wan smile spread over his lips. He still remembered back when they had all been the best and worst of allies during his WoW days. He knew that they were both still in town and would frequent Gamzee’s parties. Karkat would often say as much, along with dropping hints the size of nuclear warheads trying to suggest that he reconnect with either of them.

And then his eyes wandered too far, and he saw Aradia’s old handle.

His face was blank in the ghostly white light of the monitor as he stared at it. apocalypseArisen. She had always been rather morbidly fascinated with death and end-of-the-world scenarios.

Deep Impact had been one of the first movies they’d watched together. It had been such a shitty film and he had told her as much. But more than the movie itself, he remembered the way their hands had been nearly touching as they’d watched. He remembered being keenly aware of her shoulder next to his. Of her impossibly long and fluffy black hair brushing against his bare arm. All those almost-touches had made the moment when Aradia had clasped his fingers in hers as the comet fragment hit the Atlantic that much more memorable. If he closed his eyes, he could often still feel it. Her slender, calloused hands against his skin. The warm scent of her hair as it brushed his cheek.

If he closed his eyes, it was almost as though none of it had ever happened.

Almost as though she were cradling his head in her warm lap like she would do sometimes.

And telling him how strange he was for letting such a ridiculous nightmare get the best of him.

He pushed himself away from the computer so hard that the back of his chair slammed into his bed. Several of the cans balanced on his headboard clattered to the floor, rolling across empty fast food wrappers before coming to rest on his carpet.

He had always meant to delete her name from his contact list. Always meant to, but never could.

It was the same reason he never acted on any of Karkat’s hints-of-mass-destruction. He didn’t want to reconnect with anyone. The very term reconnect seemed to imply that he had gone somewhere. That unspeakable things had happened. But that he was back now. As if someone had reached in and pushed the reset button on his mind. As if he was now capable of connecting with people again as he had always connected in the past.

But his mind had no reset button. And he would never forget.

Nor did he want to.

No matter how much he desired the comforts and simplicity his old self had once enjoyed, he was not that person anymore. And he had no wish to connect with anyone who wanted that person from him again.

He put his forehead on his desk, letting his skin sink into the cracks and scratches on the wood. He stayed there for a long time, exhaustion beginning to pulse from his very core and into his limbs. For a while he thought he might fall asleep there, when a little blip from his speakers made him look up.

caligulasAquarium: hey sol is this you

Sollux sighed, the annoyance settling back in his chest and wiping away the rancid thoughts festering in his mind. He stretched his fingers over the keyboard and began to type.

twinArmageddons: no, it’s the fucking tooth fairy.

caligulasAquarium: okay well theres no need to be an asshole about it

twinArmageddons: that’s really fucking rich coming from you.

twinArmageddons: and now that i’ve finally given in to your demands of providing some kind of sanctified shithole for you to relay your garbage to me in confidence, you can stop spamming the server’s chat with your bullshit.

twinArmageddons: or you can test your luck.

twinArmageddons: and listen to the sound of your hard drive crashing down around you.

caligulasAquarium: wow okay talk about bein a little fuckin over dramatic

twinArmageddons: YOU are trying to talk to ME about being over dramatic?

twinArmageddons: wow okay, i just laughed my ass off there

twinArmageddons: like, it is in no way attached to my body anymore

twinArmageddons: because that was so fantastically hilarious.

twinArmageddons: i am just launching asses everywhere.

twinArmageddons: what the hell are you bothering me on minecraft for, anyway?

twinArmageddons: like, what is the fucking point of it?

twinArmageddons: are you just trying to give me a reason to demolish your shitty computer? maybe so that you can blame me for it and then con me into doing something else for you in order to serve your own warped ideas of justice?

caligulasAquarium: whats with all the suspicion sol cant a guy just want to play a video game with another guy in a friendly sort a manner

twinArmageddons: yeah, he could, if both guys actually knew what the fuck they were doing.

twinArmageddons: which you obviously don’t.

twinArmageddons: have you even collected any blocks for crafting yet?

caligulasAquarium: uh

caligulasAquarium: well i havent collected anything to be honest i mean the game doesnt give you any sort of idea of what youre supposed to do and shit so ive just been runnin around

twinArmageddons: and the other players harvesting blocks and building shit never clued you in?

twinArmageddons: you know what, i’m not even surprised. i can’t even muster the energy it would take to sort of sit back and let your obscene level of idiocy strike me as the physical impossibility that it is.

caligulasAquarium: well sorry for not bein a fuckin professional right outta the gate

twinArmageddons: okay, but see, the fact that you couldn’t game yourself out of an inventory screen is really not the issue here.

twinArmageddons: the issue is that you obviously know as much about this game as you do about drinking.

twinArmageddons: and don’t even try to defend yourself on that one. GZ told me how many beers you had and nobody with a drinking history gets that pissed up on a few bud lites.

caligulasAquarium: oh so now were makin this about my drinkin habits is that it

twinArmageddons: no, because i was pretty fucking clear that trying to make a debate out of it was completely pointless and definitely not a thing we would be doing, at all.

twinArmageddons: so don’t do it.

twinArmageddons: feel free to try to explain what the hell you’re doing on this server in a game you don’t know jack shit about, though, because i’m sure hearing you bullshit some kind of an excuse is going to serve as loads of fucking laughs on my end.

caligulasAquarium: what the fuck do you want me to say sol

caligulasAquarium: if its an admission a guilt that youre wantin where i basically tell you outright that the only reason i bought this game was so that i could play with you then there you go i just fuckin said it

twinArmageddons: uh… okay…?

twinArmageddons: i mean i could understand that if you actually knew anything about minecraft because i’m pretty much the best there is at this shit. which isn’t actually something i brag about because talking about what hot shit you are on the internet is usually the best signal there is that you’ve failed completely in life. but never mind. because the point here is that you don’t have any clue how good i am so there’s absolutely no reason for you to want to play this with me.

caligulasAquarium: does there have to be a fuckin reason for everything sol i mean fuck cant i just play a fuckin game with you because its a thing i like to do and im really fuckin bored right now

twinArmageddons: you’re doing this just to be a dick, aren’t you?

twinArmageddons: just to get my goat, that’s all this is about.

twinArmageddons: did KK tell you something?

twinArmageddons: who the fuck gave you my handle?

He paused his fingers, backing away from his screen as the Skype voice call notification popped up on his screen. He blinked at it for a few moments before declining the call.

twinArmageddons: what the fuck are you doing? what part of any of that said, “oh god please call me eridan i need your voice in my ears right now”?

caligulasAquarium: i dont know i wasnt really payin any attention to any a your typin i was just thinkin that if were gonna play this game that it would be a lot easier to talk than it would be to type

twinArmageddons: i don’t want to talk to you, dicksauce.

caligulasAquarium: come on sol i just want to play this game okay it looks interestin and i just want to know what it is you get up to in it

twinArmageddons: can’t you just

twinArmageddons: go away or something?

caligulasAquarium: no that is not an option its answer this voice call or i begin spammin your stupid fuckin server chat or whatever

caligulasAquarium: your stupid fuckin servver chat sol

caligulasAquarium: serVVer chat

twinArmageddons: oh my god stop

caligulasAquarium: so wwhat do you say sol is this a thing thats goin to happen or wwhat

twinArmageddons: stop that right now you incontinent, ass-licking shit face.

Another notification for a voice call popped up on Sollux’s screen. Livid, Sollux clicked on it and ripped his microphone from the tangle of cords sitting behind his monitor. He slammed the headset on and wrenched the voice piece down next to his cheek.

“I swear to god this means nothing more than that I’m promising, by way of giving in to your bullshit demands, to destroy you at a later date.”

Eridan’s voice crackled through some white noise at the other end. “Whatever, Sol, as if you fuckin’ could. You with your fuckin’ skinny chicken arms.”

“Says the guy who couldn’t lift his own box of books.”

“Hey, that had to have weighed, like, at least half of what I do. And I mean, I could’ve lifted it just fine without help, but I had you guys over there, so why even bother?”

“Wow. You’re so full of shit that I’m surprised you’re not sucking down prune juice to discharge some of it out of the proper orifice. Since most of it is coming out of your face hole right now, which seems pretty unhealthy to me.”

“I don’t have time for your slander, Sol, are we goin’ to play this game or not?”

“I’d like to say not, but seeing as you’re threatening me with your dumbfuckery if I refuse, hey sure, why not? Let’s get this fucking party started.”

He tapped a few keys to load up a different server. A private one, where Eridan couldn’t do any damage and Sollux wouldn’t have to worry about the demands of the other players. He sent Eridan the server name over Skype.

“Wait, what’s this I’m gettin’ here?” The young man demanded. “Alternia? What’s that?”

“It’s my private server, douchenozzle,” Sollux explained as he brought up one of his other avatars. twinArmageddons. He didn’t use this character often, but he figured the mental damage from seeing familiar usernames had already been done thanks to Skype. In a way, he was thankful to Eridan for being as obnoxiously distracting as he was. He didn’t have to put too much thought into anything anymore, now that he was being assailed by the idiot’s demands.

It was nice to be able to use TA without giving much thought to the baggage for the simple fact that he’d always been rather fond of the design. Just a gray-skinned sprite with two pairs of candy-corn horns and anaglyph glasses, as well as the symbol for his star sign, Gemini, plastered across a black shirt. It was nothing fancy. Sollux didn’t excel at visual art in any sense of the term. But as far as character designs went, it was one he was rather proud of.

And it didn’t slip past Eridan’s notice either.

“Why is it that I can’t get my character to be lookin’ all customized like yours is?” he complained as his own generic avatar ran tentatively around the desert biome they had been spawned in.

“Because you haven’t dicked around with your skin at all,” Sollux explained briskly as he began making his way toward the castle that he’d been in the process of building. He had made sure to make it tall enough to be spotted from most points on the map.

“So if I did that sort of dickin’ around shit, I could make myself a kickass avatar like what you have except better?” Eridan asked.

Sollux rolled his eyes as he made his way across the sand. “Probably not, since you’re pretty shit at gaming, obviously. Like, what would you even want to make?”

“I don’t know. Like a cape or something equally awesome.”

“A cape?” Sollux grimaced. “Are you being serious right now or are you just throwing out the most bullshit thing you can scrape off the top of your shallow brain pool?”

“No, I’m bein’ completely fuckin’ serious, who doesn’t think capes are awesome?”

Eridan’s tone was indignant in his ears. As if Sollux had actually offended him by trying to suggest that capes were bullshit. The reaction didn’t really surprise Sollux as much as the fact that Eridan really wanted a cape for his avatar did. He frowned at his monitor as he made it to the base of his stone castle and began climbing the steps toward the door.

“I don’t know, I guess making a cape is possible. I don’t really concern myself with that shit, though. I’d rather just build stuff and dick around with the game mechanics than do any sort of fancy customization with my avatar. I mean, it all gets covered up with armor anyway.”

“Oh really? Well that’s kind of fuckin’ bullshit. I was really hopin’ for capes, here.”

Sollux was beginning to get curious about the feasibility of capes despite himself. “I don’t know. I’ll look into it.”

“So what’s this place we’re headin’ into just now?” Eridan asked as Sollux opened the door and made his way into the castle.

“Just some place I’ve been building for a while. Trying to make it really extravagant. I’ll show you a bit if you swear not to hit any buttons except for the movement keys. This shit took a long time to work out.”

“Whatever you say, Sol, because it’s not like you’ve told me how to fuckin’ do anything in this game yet besides movin’ around anyway.”

“Shut up for a second, I’m going to show you the sort of shit you can do before I let you go making a complete asshole of yourself by tearing blocks up without putting any forethought into what you’re doing.”

He made his way to a staircase and climbed it up into a room, where there were chests laid out on the ground. He turned around to see Eridan hopping up behind him. Once in the room, the generic avatar wheeled around before turning to face him.

“Okay, I’m not seein’ anything especially impressive here, Sol.”

“I’m not done yet, jackass. Come over here.” He made his way out of the room and down the stairs, turning and taking and identical set of stairs to a lower level into a room of identical size, with all of the chests resting on the ceiling.

“I don’t really expect you to get this, but—”

“Oh wait, this is the same room, isn’t it?” Eridan cut in suddenly as his avatar looked up at one of the chests on the ceiling. “Everything’s in the same spot, just on the ceiling.”

“Uh…yeah, actually. I built this castle in two parts. The lower section is actually a mirror image of the upper section.”

“Kind of like how the whole castle flips in Symphony of the Night?” Eridan asked as his avatar jumped around, as if trying to touch one of the chests.

“…Exactly like Symphony of the Night. That’s where I got the idea.” Sollux tapped absently at his desk as he stared at Eridan’s avatar. “So you play Castlevania, then?”

“Sure, who doesn’t play Castlevania? At least the old ones. Some a that new shit I really don’t know about. I don’t keep myself up to date on a lot a that crap.”

Sollux didn’t respond. Instead he just sort of watched Eridan bounce around like an idiot, trying to reach his chests. He was mildly surprised. He hadn’t expected someone as vain and idiotic as his new douchebag neighbor to have any sort of decent taste in video games. Maybe he hadn’t given the guy as much credit as he perhaps deserved.

And maybe this whole Minecraft thing wouldn’t be as painful of an experience as he’d thought.

“Hey, how about you stop bouncing around like a jackass and let me show you how to not suck at this game?” Sollux snapped into his microphone before turning out of the room and ascending the stairs back onto the main level once again.

“That’s what I’ve been waitin’ for, Sol, you just keep fuckin’ standin’ around like some kind a brain-dead cow or whatever.”

“Sure, we’ll just go with that. Because I am definitely the more brain-dead of the two of us. Definitely.”

“I’m glad we could reach that sort a general consensus, Sol.”

“Yes, obviously. Now shut up and let me teach you how to actually craft shit so that you can do more than just jump around like a teacup poodle hopped up on coke.” 

Chapter Text

This was the day Sollux Captor went to the pool.

For about a week, Sollux took short breaks from the warfare and intrigue of the Minecraft forums to indulge in more Minecraft game play. Because if there was ever one thing he was not getting enough of in his life, it was Minecraft.

But it was a slightly different experience for him now. Before, he had not really enjoyed the game as much as he had simply taken a sort of arrogant pleasure in picking it apart after every update, watching aloofly as he ran servers chock full of gamers without ever really speaking to any of them.

It was a nice structure. It was routine. It gave him some feeling of success, though it was a success that was cracked and brittle if he inspected it at all. But no matter what kind of faults it had, it was still something he had made for himself. Despite everything.

Eridan Ampora, however, had done a very efficient job of stomping all over it in the space of a few hours. And suddenly his usual antics weren’t so usual anymore.

After he’d shown the moron how to craft a few basic utilities, Eridan had quickly delved underground, not bothering to look for any natural cave formations, but instead simply digging wherever he happened to be standing. It had gotten him lost on more than one occasion, and so Sollux had to listen to the idiot shrieking in his ears as he was ambushed by mobs.

While listening to Eridan die had been extremely satisfying at first, the tenacious jackass had quickly enlisted himself as Sollux’s architectural partner, yammering incessantly about how they just had to finish the Symphony of the Night castle. Sollux remembered refusing on more than one occasion, and yet somehow found himself digging up his old design notes anyway. Soon Eridan was running through the mines on quests for diamonds (he refused to collect any of the “common” materials that they needed the most of) with an inventory full of essentials for the castle’s completion. And no matter how many times Sollux snapped at him to put his goddamned shit in a fucking chest, the moron would frolic off to the center of the earth for gems, predictably getting blown into next Tuesday by some rogue Creeper. And so a scenario that used to make Sollux sneer in satisfaction now had him slamming his head onto his keyboard as Eridan managed to lose a day’s worth of materials in some unmarked area.

Despite all the hindrances Eridan provided, working with the ambitious idiot had sparked a fire in Sollux’s belly that he’d long thought to be permanently extinguished. Eridan’s inexorable prodding and the melodramatic proportions to which he would blow just about anything soon had Sollux’s brain racing with the visions of grandeur he’d once entertained for Alternia. He found himself babbling almost as much as Eridan these days, talking into his headset about all the new ideas he wanted to employ for Alternia.

Like his sudden desire to make everything green.

When he fashioned himself some customized cobblestone in the appropriate shades and informed Eridan that they would be replacing each block in the castle with the new material, he thought his henchman was going to faint. But for all Eridan’s shortcomings when it came to game play, he was exceedingly reliable.

When he wasn’t being a stubborn jackass.

“I’m just sayin’ I don’t see the point, is all,” his voice whined into Sollux’s headphones. His avatar was standing before a nice diamond throne room they had built just the other day, regarding it mournfully. “I mean we put all a this together from countless hours a work and love and now you’re just tellin’ me to up and replace it with this shit that you just fuckin’ hacked up outta thin air?”

“It’s for continuity’s sake, okay? I know what I’m doing. And frankly, all that diamond really wouldn’t have taken a whole day of gaming to dig up if you knew what the fuck you were doing. This really isn’t that much work lost, if you figure in some kind of passing competency at this game. Which you obviously don’t have.”

“God, you just don’t appreciate a fuckin’ thing I do for you, do you? You’re just about the most inconsiderate a bastards the universe ever thought to drop on this planet.”

“Okay, I like to think the universe doesn’t really have that kind of agency, otherwise it’d just be like the worst kind of joke, putting the two of us on the same damned space rock.”

“So you’re admittin’ that you’re a cruel and unadulterated sack a shit, is that right?”

Sollux snickered into his headset. “You know, if you moved your pickaxe as much as you moved your mouth, you could’ve been done already.”

A rush of white static alerted Sollux to the young man’s melodramatic sigh as his avatar began whacking away at the diamond blocks they’d placed down yesterday.

“Can you at least give me some sort a explanation as to why this is necessary? I understand that this is some kinda space planet inhabited by extraterrestrials with candy corn protrudin’ from their skulls, but what’s the green got to do with any a that?”

That was the thing about Eridan. He wanted explanations about everything. And Sollux had a sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t just because he was a stubborn piece of shit. Which he was. But he was fairly certain that Eridan was just as intrigued with the world Sollux was developing as Sollux was himself. Perhaps even moreso. Once Sollux had figured out how to make Eridan a skin with a cape, the young man had demanded, with no prior encouragement, to be a gray-skinned, candy-corn horned alien too. And so he was now the purple-clad equivalent to Sollux’s avatar.

From there it had become an unending spiral of Eridan’s persistent interrogations and Sollux’s begrudging explanations about the world he was creating.

“I’m only making this one biome green,” Sollux replied. “It’s going to serve as the moon of this place. Eventually I’d like to see if I can transfer it up so that it’s actually serving as a functional celestial body.”

“Wait, what?” Eridan’s voice was dumbfounded in his ears. “You want to move the whole fuckin’ mass a this area up into the sky? Is that even possible?”

“Sure, making floating shit is pretty easy,” Sollux replied as he looked away from his monitor to drag his notepad toward him from across the desk. He peered at it as Eridan began speaking in his ear again.

“So, you’re definitely goin’ to be transferring this castle up into the sky?”

“Eh… Maybe. Depends on how ambitious I get.”

“Well, if you do decide to move it, isn’t that goin’ to mean we have to rip the whole goddamned thing apart again?”

“Yeah, basically.”

“So why don’t we just fuckin’ put it in the sky now? Why wait for it and end up doin’ the whole thing twice?”

Sollux stared at his design, frowning. Because it was obscenely ambitious was the main reason. But he had tried to use that same excuse when the young man had demanded that they finish the castle in the first place. Saying such things only seemed to spur Eridan on and make him even more adamant about pursuing whatever ludicrous goal Sollux had dreamed up on a whim.

Sollux rubbed his eyes exhaustedly, eventually muttering, “You do realize that building shit in the sky requires a lot of finesse with the controls that you don’t have.”

“Like what?”

“Like if you make a misstep and fall off of any of the scaffolding we use to build the thing, you’re pretty much instantly fucked.”

“Well, at least we’ll both know where all my shit will be if I die. I mean, I’m assumin’ we’re not goin’ to be buildin’ this in some remote cave location where everything will get lost if I find myself entertainin’ an untimely demise.” He could hear Eridan chewing something over his headphones.

“That’s true, I guess,” Sollux admitted before he grimaced. “Are you eating chips?”

He could hear the wrinkle of cellophane and Eridan’s deceptively innocent tone as he replied, “Maybe…”

“Don’t fucking eat over the microphone, that shit’s about as pleasant to listen to as a herd of buffalos engaging in some obscene mating ritual.”

“Come on Sol, we’ve been at this all fuckin’ morning,” Eridan rebuked. “I’m starved a both nourishment and sunlight right now.”

“Those are both things you’ll learn to live without, young padawan,” Sollux sneered as he began breaking up the diamond blocks himself.

“Fuck that. I’m not about to let myself turn into some fuckin’ basement dweller like you. In fact, I’m gonna go ahead and take today to claim my payment for helpin’ you out with your video game shit.” He heard Eridan scrunch the bag of chips closed.

Sollux squinted at the young man’s avatar. “What?”

“You heard me, Sol. You really didn’t think I was just doin’ all a this shit for free, did you?”

Sollux felt a boiling hot fury begin to well up in his chest. “I guess I was starting to delude myself into thinking that maybe you got some sort of perverse entertainment out of this obviously bullshit game. Guess that was pretty stupid of me, ha ha. Let’s all share a laugh at my expense.”

He didn’t even notice that he was beginning to tear up the cobblestone beneath the layer of diamonds.

“Well, it’s not like I’m tryin’ to say that I haven’t been enjoyin’ this game. It’s actually more decent than I thought it would be. But I am sayin’ that you don’t get to order me to tear up all this diamond I worked so hard to mine without any sort a compensation on your end.”

Sollux wanted to put his fist through his monitor in the vain hope that his rage would somehow carry through cyberspace and wallop Eridan in the dick. “What do you want?”

“I want to go out.”

Sollux sighed. “Where do you want to go out, Eridan?” His voice had all of the practiced leading of a kindergarten teacher trying to coax an age out of a handicapped five-year-old.

“Like, to the pool. Did you know there’s a pool right next to the library?”

“No way,” Sollux gasped in mock awe. “Are you shitting me right now? I’ve lived here my whole life and you mean to say that there’s a POOL next to the library? No fucking way. My mind has just been blasted into orbit by your stunning revelation. Wow.”

“Okay, I’m really not appreciatin’ this level a disdain especially considerin’ I just moved here, so this is news to me, all right?” Eridan scoffed into the microphone. “Anyway, I want to go there, and you’re comin’ with me.”

“Not interested.”

“Come on, Sol, I fuckin’ did all this for you and I mean, look at us, we’re fuckin’…candy corn alien brethren or whatever now, so you can’t deny my request.”

“I can actually. And I just did. No. Request fucking denied, jackass.”

“But it’s really nice out and I mean, when was the last time you got out of the house anyway? Come on. You owe me. You fuckin’ owe me, Sol, this is not how Minecraft partners in alien homeland construction treat each other, there’s gotta be some kinda mutual benefit here.”

“You’re benefiting from me deciding not to kick you in your bleached teeth.”

“I don’t bleach my teeth, Sol, they are naturally this fuckin’ sparkly.”

“Just like your hair is naturally that fucking purple? No. I will not be seen in public with your candy ass.”

“Come on, Sol. This is like, a thing I’ve been meanin’ to do for a long time. Kind of like you and your dreams a buildin’ a virtual alien society except this will only take two hours a your time instead a fuckin’ weeks.”

Sollux continued to break apart blocks, not really caring that his diamond pickaxe had broken minutes ago. He just pounded away at the cobblestone with his fists for a while before finally asking, “What’s special about the pool?”

“I’m sorta hydrophobic if you want to know the honest to fuck truth.”

Sollux punched at a few more blocks. “Uh-huh.”

“So like, it’s a thing I was hopin’ I could get over once I came here. Because I’m startin’ over and shit. And this new me isn’t goin’ to be afraid of water because that is fuckin’ pathetic in the worst kind a way.”

“Yeah, it is pretty sad.”

“So I was hopin’ I could maybe go with someone, but seein’ as how I haven’t talked to anyone but you on account a how much gamin’ I’ve been doin’, my options are kinda limited here.”

“Let me get this straight. You want to bring me along for moral support as you face some big phobia you’ve held for the better part of your life?”

“Yeah, I guess that was the idea here.”

Sollux smirked. “You know what? Sure. I’m feeling generous today. We can go to the pool and help you get over some childhood fears. Why not?”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Hey, Sol, do you want to get hotdogs while we’re there?”

Sollux frowned at his screen, pausing in his character’s movements. “…I guess? I’m not really sure what hotdogs have to do with anything, though. Do you also have some kind of irrational fear of processed meats?”

“No, I just thought we could eat hotdogs. I mean, they sell hot dogs there, don’t they? That’s like, a thing you do at a pool, isn’t it? Eat hotdogs?”

“If you want. I’d rather have nachos.”

“No. This is my thing. And you’re gonna eat a fuckin’ hotdog because I said so.”

And so it was that Sollux Captor found himself standing on the edge of the neighborhood pool clutching a hotdog in one hand and a pair of goggles in the other, his red and blue swim trunks hanging loosely from his hips.

“This was the dumbest fucking idea,” he stated blandly as he watched the gaggle of preteens thronging in the chlorinated water.

“Eat your damned hotdog, Sol, I’m tryin’ to mentally prepare myself for this shit and you are throwin’ me off something awful.”

Sollux swiveled around to see Eridan occupying one of the reclining lawn chairs that had been set up underneath a large plastic umbrella. He was sitting on the edge of it, hunched over with his head cradled in his hands. He was wearing a white T-shirt and purple swim trunks with a teal floral pattern. On his feet were in a pair of blue flipflops, one of which smacked noisily against the concrete as he bounced his knee in agitation. His hotdog rested untouched in its carton, drowning quietly in mustard and relish. Sollux rolled his eyes before he turned back to the pool where a few thirteen-year-old boys were attempting to woo a group of girls by engaging in belly-flop contests.

Fucking. Classy.

He took a bite of his own hotdog as he reminded himself, yet again, why he didn’t go out.

“So are you going to do this or are you just going to sit there all afternoon pissing your swimsuit?”

“Shut up, Sol, you’re supposed to be supportin’ me here, not bein’ a fuckin’ obnoxious prick.”

“Okay, I really don’t know what you were expecting from me when you forced me out of my basement and into preteen wonderland over here, but all right. Starting now, I am going to be the most supportive bastard ever and give you all the asspats you need to get your big toe in the pool. Then I can buy you a popsicle and pat you on the head for doing such a good job.”

“Fuckin’ hell, Sol. Fine.” He stood up, wiping his hands nervously on his trunks. “I was ready anyway. I don’t need you showin’ all this condescension in order for me to make progress.”

He shuffled toward the edge of the pool, sitting down on the edge and swinging his legs over the metal step ladder. He slowly scooted forward, letting his feet sink below the water’s surface.

“Oh, that’s actually really warm,” he remarked, his tone lacking its usual melodramatic notes. He swirled his feet around a bit, his expression one of rather pleasant surprise.

“Are you going to take your shirt off?” Sollux asked. “Or do you really plan on just sitting on the edge the whole time?”

“I’m gonna get all the way in, Christ. My skin is just really fuckin’ sensitive and I forgot to bring sun block.” He squinted up at Sollux. “Your skin is even whiter than mine is anyway, so really, if either of us should be wearin’ a shirt here, it should be you. I can’t even look at you, the glare is so bad.”

“I apologize for my obscene whiteness,” Sollux replied scathingly. He sat down on the edge of the pool next to Eridan and slid into the water. “There. I have now covered my alabaster shame with all this liquid. Happy?”

“As a fuckin’ clam,” Eridan rebuked, his eyes fixed on the water as he continued to swirl his feet around.

Sollux stood in the water for a moment, just staring at Eridan before sighing derisively and strapping on his goggles. They were a bit too pink for his tastes, but in his defense they had looked red in the store. But seeing as the only people he had to impress at this pool were adolescents and Eridan, he really felt no shame in the color choice of his goggles.

He dipped his head underwater and slowly let himself sink to the bottom of the pool, blinking his eyes open and looking around at the feet of the other occupants. He look up, a few bubbles escaping through his lips. Eridan’s feet hung listlessly in the water above him. With a sense of malicious impatience, he pushed himself upward and grabbed onto the idiot’s ankles.

Even underwater, Sollux could hear Eridan’s panicked cry as he was yanked into the pool. Sollux had to push himself flat against the bottom to avoid being smacked in the mouth by Eridan’s thrashing limbs. He scuttled along the tile before letting himself bob to the surface.

Above the water, his ears were instantly consumed with Eridan’s shouts, and Sollux was effectively blinded by the froth and spray the moron managed to kick up as he shrieked and flailed.

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuckin’ hell!” he screamed as he tried to thrash in the general direction of the edge of the pool. “I’m dyin’! Sol! You fuck! You killed me! Fuck! Fuckin’ shit oh god fuck!”

Sollux tried to shield himself with one arm as he attempted to grab Eridan with the other. “Holy shit, the water is four feet deep here, you can’t be serious with all this,” he grunted out as he tried to catch one of Eridan’s flailing limbs.

“Uncle! I call uncle! I can’t fuckin’ do this! Help!” Eridan cried out. “I give up! Sol, I give up, help me!”

By this time, Eridan had managed to catch the attention of the lifeguards. Sollux could see them leaning forward in their chairs, scrutinizing the situation with alarmed suspicion. Sollux’s stomach shrank with humiliation as he tried to grab hold of Eridan and pull him toward the edge of the pool.

“You’re not dying you stupid shit, shut up,” he hissed as he ducked a flying foot and managed to snag Eridan’s forearm.

Eridan reacted to the contact immediately. He snatched Sollux’s wrist with his free hand and began to scratch and claw his way up Sollux’s arm like a spooked cat. Sollux’s attempts to grab the man soon turned into attempts to push him off as Eridan crawled out of the water and thrashed his way onto Sollux’s shoulders. In a few short seconds of cursing and stray limbs hitting his face, Sollux found himself standing in the water with Eridan’s feet on his shoulders, the rest of the man’s body curled in frozen panic around his head like some quivering bonnet.

The entire pool was silent. Sollux stood there, his mouth a thin, hard line, water dripping from the tip of his nose as Eridan continued to hug his head like it was he was the last piece of driftwood in a stormy sea. The kids stopped their belly flopping and stared, and the lifeguards gazed down at them with whistles hanging from their open mouths. Sollux blinked some of the water out of his goggles.

“So,” he remarked plainly, as if commenting on the weather. “You’re not dead.”

Eridan shivered on top of Sollux’s head, his teeth chattering.

“Do you feel cured?” Sollux asked. The silence was so thick that every comment felt like a shout.

“I feel like you’re a fuckin’ asshole,” Eridan forced out, his grip refusing to loosen.

“I was providing moral support. Isn’t this what I was enlisted to do?” Sollux asked, his voice scathing.

“That’s not moral support, Sol, that’s fuckin’ attempted murder,” Eridan spat. Sollux could feel the way that Eridan’s frame shuddered violently as he spoke. As if each word was an effort to force out of his panic-stricken body. Against the back of his head was pressed the man’s chest, and through it, Sollux could feel the terrified pounding of his heart.

It made his stomach sink with the lead weight of sudden realization.

Eridan wasn’t just being over dramatic. He was literally terrified.

Sollux’s expression sank with his stomach. His body, previously tensed with angry humiliation, sagged as he stood there in the water. With uncharacteristic gentleness, he put a hand to Eridan’s shoulder, steadying the man as he made his way toward the edge of the pool. Once there, Eridan clambered off Sollux’s head, shivering violently. Sollux crawled out of the water as well, and retrieved the big purple towel that Eridan had brought along with him. He threw it over the man’s shoulders and Eridan wrapped it tightly about himself as Sollux sat down next to him.

They were silent for a long while. Gradually, the pool began to fill with the shrieks and shouts of the kids once more, and the lifeguards went back to looking like they were about to fall asleep in their chairs. As the two of them continued to sit in silence, staring at the water, Sollux eventually spoke.

“Sorry. I didn’t realize how serious this was.”

Eridan didn’t reply. He just continued to shiver, his mouth hidden in his towel.

Sollux sighed, angry at how heavy with guilt his stomach felt. He threw a perturbed glance at the young man next to him.

“Look, I’m trying to apologize here, but if you weren’t so fucking dramatic about everything, then maybe I might take your feelings more seriously once in a while, all right?”

“So you’re sayin’ that because I’m vocal about my feelins that they somehow have less merit than yours?” Eridan said quietly, his voice barbed with acid.

Sollux pressed his lips together and threw his gaze back out over the water. He glared at it as if it was somehow to blame for his inability to reply. The two young men drifted into silence for a long while, and each passing second seem to increase the weight of the air around them.

At last Sollux spat, “Don’t ever ask me to help you with your emotional issues again, then. Since I am obviously the least sympathetic person to exist.”

Eridan didn’t bother to look at him. “Don’t you have shit you’re scared of?”

Sollux’s insides twisted. He stared at the water from beneath his furrowed brow. “I guess. But I make a point of not asking assholes like me to help get over them.”

“I guess i just sorta figured that you might understand,” Eridan said. The edge on his voice had softened into a heavy despondency.

Sollux stared at the pool, the scent of the chlorine beginning to warp in his skull. To transmogrify into the stench of antiseptic and sterilization. To suddenly begin to echo with the sound of urgent voices and the clink of delicate metal utensils. To fill his skull with the sound of a deep, soothing voice that calmly reached into his chest and tore out half his heart.

He clenched his hands into fists at his sides.

“I do understand. And that’s why I’m the wrong person to ask for help. Ever.”

Eridan didn’t reply. He simply stared at the undulating surface of the pool, his body continuing to tremble under his towel.

Sollux sighed before twisting around to put his gaze on something else. Anything else. It fell on the hotdog sitting in the carton next to their chair. He leaned back and grabbed the edge with this thumb and forefinger, dragging it back toward him. He slid it next to Eridan before retracting his hand and looking back to the pool.

“Aren’t you going to eat that?” he asked blandly.

Eridan turned to look down at it. He then slowly picked it up with trembling hands, stuffing it into his mouth and chewing silently. Mustard dripped from the soggy bun like tears.

They didn’t speak again. Not until the sun began to dip in the sky and the lifeguards started to usher everyone towards the exit. Not until they had taken the bus back to their street and stood in the driveway of Karkat’s house. It was then that Eridan turned to Sollux, his eyes red with chlorine and something else.

“See you on Minecraft then?”

Sollux didn’t speak at first. Then he nodded once.

“Yeah.”

Chapter Text

This was the day that Sollux Captor took a break from Minecraft.

After the pool incident, Eridan had been a bit quieter in his constructional endeavors with Sollux on Alternia. He still swore colorfully whenever he was ambushed by a Creeper (which was more often than what Sollux suspected was normal), but otherwise he kept his comments mostly to himself. Even when Sollux decided that, yes, they were indeed going to tear down their castle completely in order to rebuild it on a moon, Eridan’s protests were minimal. The only comment he really made with regard to the whole ordeal was something along the lines of “Yeah, I was pretty sure you were gonna want to do that.”

Rather than bring Sollux the relief and peace that he expected, he found that Eridan’s reticent behavior had snipped his short fuse even shorter.

“God fucking dammit, Eridan, I told you to look at the grid before you start building. I swear, if I see one more row of brick where the windows don’t mach up because you didn’t follow my plans, I am going to do some kind of somersault off the deep end.”

Eridan’s avatar stood beside him on the scaffolding they’d created, holding his diamond pickaxe and surveying his mistake in silence.

“Fine, whatever,” his voice sounded in Sollux’s ears after a long pause. His purple-caped character began to chip away at the blocks he’d just laid so that he could start over.

Sollux sighed so forcefully into his microphone that it came out sounding more like a growl. “No, it’s not fine. This is the fifth fucking time you’ve done this today. You’re wasting more time by helping me than you are saving it. This shit should have been done by now.”

Eridan didn’t reply. He just continued to tear down his work and recollect the blocks. “I said I’ll fuckin’ look at your plans all right?”

“No, you don’t need to just look at them, you anus-licking moron. You need to find a tube of superglue and paste that shit to your eyeballs. I swear to god, your idiocy should be documented in a record book or something.”

“Sure, Sol, whatever you fuckin’ say I guess,” Eridan said flatly over the microphone.

Sollux wasn’t sure why the man’s lack of response was making him feel as if a swarm of angry hornets was buzzing in his skull, but he found his hands shaking and his entire head growing hot with the rage. He watched Eridan break up the last of his blocks before he began laying them down again. That was when Sollux withdrew his sword and delivered a vicious downward slice to Eridan’s avatar.

“What the fuck are you doin’?” Eridan shrieked as his character flashed red with damage.

“Get out of here. I don’t want you or your stupidity anywhere near this area.”

“Fuck you, Sol, I’m like co-owner a this server and I’ll be wherever I want to be,” Eridan snapped, beginning to lay green bricks along the wall again.

Sollux delivered another downward slash.

“Fuck!” Eridan’s avatar recoiled, flashing red again, before a diamond sword appeared in his own blocky hands. “Fuck you, Sol, this isn’t fuckin’ funny.”

“Right, because this is definitely something I’m joking about. I’ve got a bag so full of jokes about how shitty it is to work with your dumb ass that I feel like Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. So get out your stocking, ass hat, because here comes a knee-slapper.”

He sent his sword lashing out at Eridan once again. The purple-clad avatar did its best to flail around in some kind of feeble attempt to defend itself, but Sollux was relentless in his assault. Soon he had Eridan teetering on the edge of the scaffolding, and with a few more hits to the avatar’s legs, Sollux managed to push the asshole off the scaffolding. He adjusted his camera to watch as Eridan fell the equivalent of twenty stories before hitting the turf below and disappearing as he died and was respawned in the little house they’d built about one biome over.

“What the fuck, Sol!” Eridan shouted into Sollux’s ears. Sollux listened to it in heated satisfaction as he turned back to the wall that Eridan had been working on and began to build it up himself.

“I’m gettin’ off then, you fuckin’ jackass,” Eridan raved, and Sollux could hear him slamming things around angrily in the background. “I can tell when I’m not wanted. You can work on your shitty green bullshit castle by yourself.”

Sollux felt as if a hook had caught at the bottom of his stomach and been yanked up, tearing his guts inside out. It left a hot bile of angry regret seeping into his bloodstream. He sighed exasperatedly into the microphone.

“Okay, I don’t actually give a shit if you decide to rage-quit like a three-year-old, but let me just say right now that your moping drama queen schtick is getting really old and I’m pretty tired of dealing with it. Especially if you’re not even going to try and tell me what the fuck’s going on. Because if you’re pissed at me for some reason, fine, but at least have the balls to tell me.”

He pushed his keyboard away from him so hard as he finished that it clattered up against his monitor and flipped onto its face. He then slouched back in his desk chair, glaring at the monitor with his one good eye as only the mild buzz of white noise stood as a reply on Eridan’s end. As they sat there silence, the server’s sun began to set, and night slowly settled over Alternia. Sollux stared up at the moon as it rose.

“Mobs will be out now. Make sure you’re inside,” he announced blandly, flipping his keyboard back over so he could adjust his position.

“I am. I just got back from gettin’ all my shit before it despawned,” Eridan replied.

“That was surprisingly efficient of you,” Sollux remarked, a small smirk playing at the edges of his lips as he turned to the wall and began to place blocks down.

“I’ve been killed enough times now to know how to fuckin’ handle myself. And none a that’s thanks to you, either.”

“It’s all thanks to me. I’ve made you into a strong warrior worthy of being a part of our shitty two-person troll clan,” Sollux said, unable to keep a small snicker from bubbling up out of his mouth.

“Actually, I was thinkin’ about the trolls a little bit and how I guess they’re supposed to be like, hyper-violent or whatever?”

“Yeah?” Sollux said as he continued to slap bricks down.

“Well, what if they were nocturnal or some shit? If they were forced to deal with all the mobs that came out at night just to scrape a decent livin’ off a the land, then that’d get them pretty used to fightin’ to survive.” Eridan’s tone was lighter now, and Sollux could here him tapping keys in the background.

“Hm. I guess. I’ll think about it.”

He put down a few more blocks as they shared another silence. After Sollux finished his second row, he paused in his key-tapping to sit back in his chair. “So are we good? You’re done being a whiny fairy princess and all that shit?”

“I suppose so,” Eridan sighed. His tone was exaggerated enough for Sollux to be sure that he really was feeling better. Sollux might have been shit at social situations, but Eridan was about as easy to read as a thirty foot flashing neon sign. And one of the first things the gangly computer nerd had picked up on was that the more melodramatic Eridan was acting, the better mood he tended to be in.

“Good,” Sollux returned.

“But I am gettin’ pretty sick a this game, Sol, we’ve been at it for nearly eight hours now and your food rule has made it so that I’m fuckin’ starvin’ over here.”

“Fine. You go take a break to stuff your face. I’ll finish up this wall.”

“No, I’m sayin’ that I’m not gonna come back after I leave to eat because I’m tired and my eyes are botherin’ me,” Eridan rebuked.

Sollux watched as a message flashed at the corner of his screen alerting him to the fact that Eridan had just disconnected from the server. He frowned at his monitor.

“Are you serious? I thought we were planning on getting at least the lower level of the castle done today. I can’t believe you’re actually going to wuss out on me like this.”

“Wow, Sol, I don’t think quittin’ after eight hours is really grounds for bein’ qualified as ‘wussin’ out’ but whatever you say, I guess. I really don’t give a shit anymore and I’m tired.”

Sollux felt the needles of anger pricking at the back of his stomach once again, making acid leak over his insides. “God, could you for one second not make a fucking Oscar-worthy drama out of everything and just tell me why it is you’re still so fucking pissy?”

“This has nothing to do with me bein’ pissy, Sol, and more like I’m just really fuckin’ tired so why don’t you just deal with it, okay?”

“Do you want to play something else, is that it? Is this just some kind of passive-aggressive stint to get me to switch games?” Sollux snapped, taking one of the empty energy drink cans sitting on his desk and crushing it in his fist.

“This is a passive aggressive stint to get on real friendly terms with some Chinese takeout and then pass out on my futon,” Eridan replied. His tone had lost most of its edge, making him sound just about as tired as he professed.

But Sollux wouldn’t have any of it. Eridan’s bullshit was making him mad enough to spit.

“What if you got some Chinese takeout and just brought it over here? Would that make you feel less like being a tremendous ass?”

There was a pause on the other end of the connection. At last, Eridan replied, “Are you…invitin’ me over or something? Is that what this is?”

Sollux crushed another can between his hands. “Sure. Why the fuck not? If it gets you to stop being some melodramatic shithead, then I’ll do what I have to.”

“Well, don’t fuckin’ bother if you’re just goin’ to continue bein’ condescendin’ toward me, Sol, I get enough a that over this fuckin’ headset, let alone subjectin’ myself to it in person.”

Sollux pressed his thumbs to his temples so hard he thought he might crack his skull. After a moment of listening to the angry, desperate pounding in his head, he sighed and replied evenly. “Fine. I’ll shut up. Just…go get some food and come over here, all right? We can play Castlevania or something.”

Eridan was silent for a long time, and Sollux hated the way that the lengthened pause made his insides twist. As if he fucking gave a shit if the moron responded in the affirmative or not.

“Okay, but do you want anything, Sol?”

His intestines untwisted themselves just in time to let the hot bile creeping up Sollux’s throat slide back down. He coughed and replied, “Just get me some honey chicken. I’ll get the shit in my room cleaned up while you’re doing that. See you in a couple minutes.”

He hung up and signed out of Skype before Eridan could make a proper reply. He then ripped off his headset and threw it against the back of his desk, staring at it as it came to rest on the pile of cords sitting behind his monitor.

What the hell was he doing?

He slowly swiveled around to observe his room. Or rather, what he could make out of his room beneath the thick layer of garbage coating every surface. Empty pizza boxes and fast food wrappers littered the floor. His trash can was overflowing with used tissues and plastic forks. Every flat surface had its own collection of energy drink cans. And his bed was piled with clean laundry, the dirty counterparts all scattered across the floor or hanging off the back of his chair.

There was no way he could get his room presentable in the time it took Eridan to get Chinese.

Not to mention he hadn’t showered in about three days. He ducked his head under his armpit and sniffed.

He yanked his nose away, his eyes watering.

Okay. Maybe it had been four days.

He got to his feet, his legs watery from disuse. He stumbled his way toward the door and slowly pushed it open, squinting as his eye was assaulted with the bright light of the hallway outside. As he did, he saw Karkat walk into view, a toothbrush in his mouth and a towel draped over his bare shoulders. As he reached for the door handle to his room, he must have caught Sollux’s gaunt face peering out at him, for he paused in his movements and turned his gaze toward his roommate.

“Well look who finally decided to step out into the daylight,” Karkat said around a mouth full of toothpaste. “Or moonlight, I guess, since it’s 9 o’clock at night. What brings you into the world of the living? Crawling out to shove some sandwich meat down your throat before making your way back to the cave of fucking wonders over there?”

Sollux blinked a few more times, still not used to the blinding yellow light of the hallway. “I need to use your room,” he said, his voice no more than an urgent hiss.

“What?” Karkat asked, his thick brows lowering over his eyes as he gave his teeth another few scrubs. “Did one of the mold colonies on your underwear finally gain sentience and claim your room as the motherland of their race of the divinely foul-odored?”

“No.” Sollux said. That was all he could manage to force out. He could feel the bile rising up his throat again.

Karkat shifted his toothbrush over to the opposite side of his mouth and deepened his frown. “Okay, ignoring the likely existence of self-aware mold growing in your boxers for a minute, do you want to clue me in to why exactly you want my room? You look even clammier than usual. Which is a fucking feat, for you.”

Sollux licked his lips. “I sort of just invited somebody over.”

Karkat’s furrowed brow shot up so high that it was in danger of disappearing beneath his hairline. “Like, for sexual services?” the short boy spluttered.

“No, KK, what the fuck kind of desperate shit do you think I am?”

“I don’t know, dude, but you could use a fucking sexual service or two.” He gave his teeth a few more scrubs before continuing. “Who are you having over, then? One of your gamer buddies?”

“Yeah, sort of,” Sollux said, his voice twisted with uneasiness.

“Okay, feel like giving me some clues, here? Or is this like Jeopardy where you’re Alex Trebek and you just sort of stare at me with this smug asshole expression while I sweat over whether or not to hit my fucking buzzer to give some bullshit answer in the form of a question.”

Sollux’s brow knit together slightly. “Uh…”

Karkat slapped his doorknob. “Bzzt! Who is Vriska Serket?”

“What? No. Two-hundred point deduction, jackass.”

“Really? Okay, whatever, shake it off, Karkat, shake it off.” He jogged in place a bit, tipping his head from side to side as if stretching out his neck. He then smacked his doorknob again. “Bzzt! Who is Terezi Pyrope?”

“Another two hundred points. You don’t have enough points to survive this, bro.” A smirk began to play around Sollux’s lips.

“Fuck you, Sollux Trebek, you smug bastard. Is it someone I know?”

“…Yeah.”

“You hesitated. It’s someone I hate, isn’t it?”

“Pretty much.”

“Fucking christ, it’s not Dave, is it? Sollux, I will tear off your testicles and feed them to you if you willingly invited that jackass into our home.”

“What if John was coming with him?” Sollux inquired.

Karkat’s furious expression dissolved into one of surprised hope as quickly as if Sollux had changed the channel on his face. “Wait, really?”

Sollux snickered. “I didn’t invite Dave, but your reaction to your make-believe boyfriend is pretty adorable, KK.”

Karkat turned a shade of red that Sollux never knew existed before wrenching his toothbrush from his mouth and pointing it furiously at his roommate. “You know what? You can go to hell. And no you can’t use my room, you hard-drive-frotting cumstain.” He wrenched open his door, disappearing behind it before slamming it shut again.

Sollux swore under his breath. Whatever. Karkat would get over it in the time it took him to shower, he was sure. He withdrew himself from his room before shuffling down the hallway toward the bathroom. The air inside was still moist from Karkat’s recent shower. Sollux sighed, pulling off his clothes before sliding back the shower curtain.

“Hey best motherfuckin’ friend.”

Sollux jerked back so violently that his foot caught on one of the bathroom rugs and he was sent flying back into the toilet. He managed to grab the towel rack before he was sent crashing over the porcelain bowl, and he hung there, his thin chest heaving as he stared at the man sitting in the tub.

Gamzee was immersed a layer of bubbles so thick that Sollux couldn’t be sure there was any water beneath them. On the edge of the tub sat a large bong and a plate of brownies.

“Jesus dicks, GZ, you scared the piss out of me,” Sollux wheezed.

Gamzee smiled lazily. “Sorry, bro. I was just getting my relax on in this bubble blanket of serenity.” He reached over and grabbed his lighter before ducking over his bong and inhaling deeply after a few clicks. He exhaled, leaning back and closing his eyes as a haze of smoke wafted about his head.

Sollux slowly lowered himself into a sitting position on the toilet. “So, uh…how long are you planning on being in there?”

“I don’t like to think in terms of motherfuckin’ time quantities, man, makes me feel all confined like what you do if you’ve got a pair of really fancy shoes on. I’m just getting my enjoy on of these tiny soap diamonds and discovering what sort of art I can get myself up to with them. Watch this. But don’t get your eyes too close, my brother, because these little guys can sting like all bitchtits nasty.”

Gamzee reached down and cupped his hands, bringing up a quivering mound of bubbles as he lifted them. He then smeared the entire soapy mass onto his chin.

“See, man? Fucking Christmas,” Gamzee said as he looked up at Sollux and pointed to his newly created bubble beard. “I get the feeling now like I’m channeling all this wisdom and holiday joy. Wow, it’s wicked motherfuckin’ shit, like I’m telling you, my brother.”

“Uh-huh. Yes. Just. Yes to all of those things. Can I use the tub now?” Sollux asked, beginning to feel distinctly uncomfortable and cold sitting in front of Gamzee while occupying a status that was very decidedly naked.

“Sure, bro, climb on in,” Gamzee replied, giving Sollux a lazy grin before pulling his knees up to his chest. “I can get all smallish for you and we can share some of this liquid happiness together like a couple of choice motherfuckers, you feel me?”

“Yeah, that would be really choice and stuff, but I kind of need the place to myself. I’m in a hurry.”

Gamzee gave a lazy, honking laugh. “Yeah, I feel you. Gotta get your clean on for to be presentable in case a romantic situation all up and catches you by the ass.” He lifted himself out of the tub. “Want me to leave my brownies in here for you, best friend?”

“Uh…” Sollux squinted. “No thanks. I don’t think those will do very well in the shower. Which involves me turning on the water and letting it run over me in a constant stream. In case you forgot or some shit.”

“I made these to be motherfuckin’ water friendly man. They get to sucking up water like somebody gave two sponges a pair of straws, you know? I can show you as a demonstration of how much they love getting water all up in their chocolatey pores.”

He picked up a brownie and leaned down to drop it in the tub.

“Whoa, shit, okay, yeah, I got it.” Sollux burst out, the words tumbling forth like alphabet soup as he grabbed Gamzee by the shoulders and pulled him back. “I got it GZ, that’s really great and I believe you. But I’m fine without brownies, I got someone getting me Chinese, so please keep your chocolate out of the place where I have to wash myself.”

Gamzee smiled before stuffing the brownie in his own mouth. “All right, I got you, my brother. I got you.” He patted Sollux on the head before he picked up his plate of brownies and made his way out of the bathroom, still naked and covered in bubbles.

Sollux shut the door and pressed his head against the chipped wood. Everything always had to be such a fucking production in this house. Sighing and figuring that he’d wasted enough time already, he approached the shower. After rinsing out the bubbles and setting Gamzee’s bong on the sink, along with his lighter, Sollux stepped inside and pulled the curtain shut.

For how filthy he was, washing himself did not take long. He emerged from the bathroom swathed in steam and a towel, making his way quickly to his room to pull on a fresh pair of clothes from the pile in his bed. He slipped on his sunglasses as well before he made his way back out into the hall. He approached Karkat’s door and knocked on it.

“Hey, KK, you planning on letting me swipe your room yet?” he asked through the wood.

“No. Never. Suck my dick, shitwad.”

Sollux sighed heavily before giving the door a good kick and turning toward Gamzee’s room instead. He peeked into it slowly, afraid of what he’d see.

It was quite tidy, to his surprise. He really couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in Gamzee’s room, but it seemed bigger than he remembered it. Or perhaps it was just because Sollux wasn’t used to seeing a room that wasn’t drowning in its own refuse.

He approached the desk, double checking to make sure Gamzee wasn’t present. Next to the computer was an assortment of drug paraphernalia and pie tins. Sollux quickly swept it all off the top of the desk and shoved it in Gamzee’s closet. He then took the huge pile of dirty laundry stored in the corner of the room and pushed that in the closet too.

He dusted his hands on his pants and stood back to admire his stellar cleaning job. The room was presentable, at any rate. He nodded before he made his way out to the living room. Gamzee was sitting on the sofa, his arms resting on the back while his feet were kicked up on the coffee table. The gangly man offered Sollux a smile.

“Did you get all the dirt off yourself, bro?” he asked. His teeth were stained with chocolate.

“Yes. And I’m also stealing your room for the night.” He tried to be as quick and blunt as possible, hoping to catch the man off guard. Because if Gamzee thought about what a shitty deal it was for even a few seconds and decided to refuse, Sollux knew he couldn’t bring himself to start an argument with the man.

Luckily, Gamzee very rarely refused anything.

He grinned and nodded in a way that looked as though he were bobbing his head to the beat of some unheard music. “Yeah, bro, it’s cool. I was getting the feeling for a motherfuckin’ change in venue myself. It’s like our desires are lining up on a higher plane, man. Miracles, you know? I think that’s a miracle.”

“Yeah. I’m going to be back setting up a console in your room. If anyone gets here, just send him back by me.” Sollux then made his way from the room, hoping Gamzee would refrain from making any further inquiries. He did.

It took Sollux longer than he expected to set things up in his housemate’s room. Mostly because Gamzee had somehow managed to make an unintelligible mess of the wires behind his TV. And so it was that Sollux found himself thoroughly confused when there was still no sign of Eridan even after he’d finished. He poked his head out into the hallway, trying to listen for voices in the living room. It was definitely possible for Gamzee to be holding the idiot up with his idle chatter. Sollux didn’t hear anything but the soft beats of Gamzee’s music, however. He pulled his head back in the room and sat down on the bed, digging out his phone from his pocket.

He found Eridan’s number instantly. He was still the first name on his call history. Sollux let his thumb hover over the name for a few seconds before he tossed the phone onto Gamzee’s desk and flopped back onto the bed.

What did he care if the dumbass decided to bail on him? It wasn’t like he’d put any sort of emotional stock in this arrangement. He’d done it in an attempt to get Eridan to stop being a whiny asshole. Which he realized was a futile endeavor, but…

But?

But nothing.

He was a whiny asshole and it was a futile endeavor.

He had better things to do with his time.

Sollux got to his feet and was just about to retreat to his own room again when he heard the front door open. Eridan clambered through, looking winded and holding two plastic bags laden with takeout boxes.

Now sufficiently impatient and ornery, Sollux decided he didn’t want Gamzee intercepting the idiot. He made his way into the living room as Eridan slipped out of his sandals, setting the bags down and wiping a trembling hand over his forehead.

“What the hell took you so long? It’s fucking ten o’clock, we might as well save that shit for breakfast now. It’s not even worth eating at this point,” Sollux snapped.

“Are you even aware a how far away that fuckin’ place is?” Eridan shot back, sweat beaded on his face. “I thought about stickin’ out my thumb and hitchin’ a ride back here but that part a the neighborhood is full of unsavory sorts.”

Sollux frowned at him. “Which place did you go to?”

“Uh… Hunan’s or something I think it was called,” Eridan replied, shuffling over to the coffee table and setting the takeout bags down. Sollux snatched them up again instantly, not wanting Gamzee to get involved and hold them up for yet another hour.

“That place is only five blocks away. I should know, I go there all the time.”

“Fuck you, Sol, they’re long blocks. And the way back was uphill. I’m not designed for walkin’ on an incline, all right?”

Sollux rolled his eyes. “You’re not designed for walking at all, obviously. Come on, I’ve got the PS1 hooked up in GZ’s room.”

He shuffled off down the hallway, Eridan taking only a brief moment to wave at Gamzee before he followed behind. As Sollux passed Karkat’s door, he heard it creak open slightly. He stood back and motioned for Eridan to go ahead of him into Gamzee’s room. It allowed him enough time to look back and see Karkat scowling at him through a crack in his door before he snapped it shut again. Sollux followed Eridan into the room then, sighing. Karkat was probably going to flip his shit about the ordeal.

“So I’m assumin’ you didn’t actually get any shit in your room cleaned up,” Eridan said, lowering himself down onto Gamzee’s bed.

Sollux shrugged. “Well, if I’d have known you were going to drag your ass for an hour, I might have attempted it.” He opened one of the takeout containers and made a face. “Lo mein?” He snapped it shut again before tossing it to Eridan, whose eyes widened as he fumbled to catch it. He wasn’t so quick to snag the chopsticks, which hit him in the face immediately afterwards.

“Wow thanks, you’re so fuckin’ considerate,” Eridan snapped.

“It’s what I do,” Sollux replied, climbing up onto the bed and sitting against the headboard, his honey chicken and a pair of chopsticks in hand.

As he dug into the container and began shoving chunks of sugar-glazed, processed meat into his mouth, Eridan crawled over next to him, leaning against the headboard as well. Sollux tried to tuck in his arms to avoid bumping against Eridan, but as the moron began to unwrap his chopsticks and start eating as well, he found their elbows knocking on more than one occasion. Sollux shot the young man a look through his shades, a look that Eridan was oblivious to. His movements were lethargic and slow, and it seemed like it was all he could do to keep himself from falling asleep in his noodles. So Sollux sighed angrily and yanked a pillow out from behind himself, erecting it between the two of them as a sort of fluffy barricade.

Eridan flinched in surprise at the sudden movement, and then blinked a few times as he noticed the pillow. “What the fuck is that for?”

“You’re invading my space,” Sollux remarked evenly before shoving more chicken into his mouth. He was hungrier than he’d thought.

“What the fuck, Sol, I wasn’t even touchin’ you,” Eridan rebuked.

“You touched me about five times. I’ve erected the necessary defenses to keep it from happening again.”

“You’re such a fuckin’ jackass, Sol, and if I felt like it, I could draw up a whole fuckin’ laundry list a the deplorable qualities that you possess. And to be honest, I think your behavior merits some kinda punishment. Like my character gettin’ a free kill in on yours the next time we play in Alternia. Then you’ll see how fun it is gettin’ slaughtered by your comrades.”

“It’s troll rules on Alternia. I can kill you whenever I like.”

“Well, I think your rules are fuckin’ stupid, and you’re fuckin’ stupid for makin’ them.”

“I’m stupid, huh? Let me just find some ointment to slap on that hideous third degree burn while you bask in your verbal victory.”

“Can it, Sol, I’m tryin’ to focus on eatin’ here, so I have limited intellectual resources to be wastin’ on speakin’ with you.”

“I’ll say.”

“Shut it.”

So he did. Just so that he could finish eating his honey chicken. And to avoid the smirk that was getting dangerously close to cracking over his lips. As he fished around in the bottom of his carton for the last of the honey chicken, he spoke once more.

“So, are we going to play Castlevania, since that’s one of the only decent games the PS1 supports?”

He turned to Eridan to gauge his response, and shut his mouth in surprise. The man was slumped against the pillow, his carton of noodles only halfway gone, breathing softly in his sleep. Sollux stared at him for what seemed like forever, just trying to process it.

He hadn’t really been planning for this. He shifted the pillow a bit, just trying to see if it would rouse the man and relieve Sollux of the awkward situation that had just been dumped in his lap. To his dismay, however, Eridan seemed well and truly out of it.

He must have been just as tired as he’d professed.

Sighing, Sollux plucked the container of lo mein from Eridan’s hand and the young man sagged against the pillow. Sollux glared at his sleeping form for a long time, just watching him breathe. Eventually, Sollux’s harsh expression began to melt. And finally he took the pillow out from between them and pulled Eridan close, resting the young man’s head against his shoulder.

Chapter Text

This was the day that Sollux Captor found out how shitty of a guitar player Eridan Ampora really was.

He made sure to set his internal alarm clock fairly early by psyching himself up the night before. Over the years, Sollux Captor found that if he went to bed with some mortifying thought replaying in his head, that thought would usually rouse him before any sort of sunlight or obnoxious noise could. And the thought of Eridan waking up curled in Sollux’s arms was as mortifying a thought as any.

And so Sollux found himself snapping awake at about four o’clock in the morning, Eridan’s head resting on his chest and the man’s arms wrapped around his waist. Sollux lifted his hands up and crinkled his nose as if he’d just discovered himself waist-deep in vomit. He reached for his sunglasses haltingly, trying not to move his torso and rouse the young man wrapped around him. After he’d set his shades back in place, he used a thumb and forefinger to gingerly pluck up Eridan’s wrists and remove them from his body. Eridan himself might as well have been in a coma. He never stirred as Sollux slowly slid out from under him and stumbled to his feet. He just curled up into a tighter ball and continued to breathe softly against the covers.

Sollux wiped his hands on his shirt as if he’d been handling infectious materials, his teeth bared slightly in disgust. He felt his fingers brush against a wet splotch on his chest, and he had to stifle a groan of revulsion as he realized that the asswipe had drooled on him in his sleep.

A shower was now definitely in order.

Sollux snuck from the room and backed carefully out of it, moving the door slowly so as not to make it creak. He pulled it shut and carefully released the handle before wheeling around.

“Hey, shitass.”

Sollux jerked back so hard his head slammed against the door. He ran a hand through his hair as he stared down at the short, angry boy standing before him.

“Christ, do you all have some sort of agenda lined up to give me a heart attack or something?” he wheezed, carefully pulling himself away from the door and hoping that the sound of his skull knocking against it hadn’t been enough to rouse the idiot inside.

Karkat shrugged. “Sure. But the question the audience is really wetting their pants to hear answered is why the ass-rotting fuck you invited captain pretty pants over here to spend the night choking down your dick.”

Sollux’s brows lowered. His roommate’s tone was more hostile than it usually was. This wasn’t one of his usual grouchy fits. So his own voice was strained as he replied, balancing on a wire between quelling and defensive. “Nobody choked down anyone’s dick, KK.”

“Right, because you’re about as endowed as a Eurasian shrew and he’s got a mouth to make a basking shark jealous. Yeah, you know what? I really do doubt there was a lot of choking going on while he was orally servicing you.”

Sollux felt a red heat flare up behind his eyes. He straightened a bit, glaring down at Karkat from his full height. “Hey. Why don’t you back off, all right? All the fucking moron did was fall asleep in his Chinese food. I don’t need you jumping on my dick like you’re my crotch’s personal guard dog, okay? I can take care of myself.”

He attempted to push past Karkat to make his way to the bathroom for a much needed shower, but the shorter boy planted himself firmly in Sollux’s path, his dark eyes snapping with fury.

“If you think I give any sort of flying fuck where you decide to stick that sad little pill worm you call a penis, think again. Because I don’t. I’m just wondering when you became such great buddies with lieutenant lightweight back there. Unless he released some kind of nerd-trapping pheromone in his vomit that’s been drawing you to his ass with the force of a thousand buzzing electromagnets ever since.” Karkat’s tone continued to barrel down a cliff of antagonism, his entire body now taught with rage.

Sollux’s own frame was becoming tense as well, an electric fury snapping from his chest and through his limbs. “I don’t know what the hell I did to piss you off, but can you just put a sock in it so that I can take a shower? I don’t have the energy to deal with this.”

“Let me just take a moment to step back and tear out my hair while I scream ‘HOLY SHIT’ because am I so god damned surprised by the statement that just managed to wake up and roll its fat ass off your tongue. Sollux doesn’t have the energy to deal with something? I think my spleen is going to rupture from this massive shock. Call an ambulance, fucker, because this gravy train isn’t stopping now.” Karkat was nearly spitting in rage.

Sollux exhaled derisively through his nostrils. “Whatever, KK. Flip your shit, it’s not like any of this is fucking new.” He put a hand on Karkat’s shoulder and tried to push the guy out of the way.

Karkat knocked Sollux’s hand away. “Why don’t you ever come out of you room?”

Sollux blinked. “What the fuck? I just did.”

“Yeah, for him,” Karkat snarled, swatting his hand furiously toward Gamzee’s bedroom door. “Do you have any idea what that arrogant shitstain even said about you? Do you?”

“I don’t have time for this—”

“He called you a waste of space. That your existence was a fucking offense to his divine, upper-class, gold filigreed cock.”

Sollux closed his mouth. He stared at Karkat acidly through his darkened glasses.

“Yeah,” Karkat spat, breathing as if he’d just run around the block. “Nothing to say to that, shithole? He’s pretty good at pulling the fuzzy alpaca fleece over your eyes, isn’t he?”

Sollux took a deep, calming breath before he exhaled and replied, “He’s a dick, yeah. I don’t like him, KK. But what about any of what he said is wrong?”

It was as if he’d just thrown water on Karkat’s sparking fuse. The boy looked at him, his eyes sputtering with confusion. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“I mean, look at this,” Sollux replied, gesturing to himself. “Look at me. Can you seriously look at any of this and make a truthful statement about how awesome and wonderful my life is right now?”

Karkat seemed to have been completely derailed. The rage vanished from his eyes to be replaced with a lost and confused expression. As if Sollux had just dumped him in the middle of a cold ocean without a scrap of driftwood to cling to. His eyebrows contracted and relaxed as if he wasn’t sure whether to be angry or not. And when he finally spoke again, his voice was cracked and small, “Well, you’ve been getting over shit and…nobody blames you for that…”

“Well, they should start,” Sollux snapped. “Somebody has to start looking at me and telling me exactly what they see. I’m tired of all this fucking bullshit, KK. I’m tired of people just patting me on the head and telling me to just keep crawling around on my belly because I’m ‘getting over shit’ and so no one expects anything out of me.”

Karkat’s lips pulled back in another snarl as he finally got his footing on Sollux’s words. “You act like none of us has ever tried to get you out of this goddamned funk before. How many times have I tried to get your old friends to come over so we could all hang out? How many goddamned times have I fucking knocked on your door and invited you into the world of the living so that we could all share a fucking beer like a couple of normal guys that actually acknowledge each other’s mutual existences? How many times has that never been fucking good enough, you self-righteous, cum-guzzling ass?”

He could hear the waver on Karkat’s voice. Could see the way the boy was beginning to shake, his ears and nose getting red with frustrated rage. He pressed his own thin lips into a sharp line.

“I’m not that guy anymore, KK. I’m fucked up. I’m fucked up and I’m sick of you trying to fix me with beer and memories.”

“Then what the fuck do I use?” Karkat shouted, and Sollux could see the way his eyes glistened. “Write me an instruction manual or something because I don’t know how the fuck I’m supposed to fix this anymore.”

“I don’t want you to fix it,” Sollux said, his voice quiet. “I just want to start living again.”

“And you’re going to do that by pushing the rest of us away and dry-humping your new best asshole friend? After all the shit we’ve been through together, that’s how it’s going to be? We just forget it and start frolicking through a field of flowers with our dicks up the asses of our own personal hipster cumbuddies?”

“He doesn’t expect me to be anyone,” Sollux burst out, balling his fists at his sides. “I don’t have to be this jackass who took comp-sci and drank beer and made fun of kids with incisor problems and their white rapper friends.”

“So none of that stuff matters,” Karkat remarked, his voice suddenly frosted over. “Everything that’s happened before—your personal history in its entirety—none of that means jack shit. That is information that is completely unessential to being friends with brand new game-fapping Sollux. Is that how it is?”

Sollux could feel his bitten nails cutting into his palms. “Just get the fuck out of my way.”

“Yeah, that’ll work. You let me know how your brand new scheme to ignore everything works out. Because I’ve got box seats to this show, asshole, and I can see how it’s going to end even from over the lip of my fancy crystal champagne glass.”

Karkat stormed off down the hall to his room, slamming the door shut behind him. Sollux was equally as ruthless in the bathroom. After barricading himself inside, he tore off all his clothes, ripped back the curtain, and wrenched open the tap. Water hissed over his body, first in an icy rain and then in scalding jets. He exhaled sharply through his clenched teeth, scrubbing at his body until his skin was raw.

Karkat thought he knew everything. Thought he had everyone pegged. Fashioned himself some kind of guru of the emotionally malformed.

He knew nothing. He was a selfish fuck who only wanted a past that didn’t exist anymore.

That would never exist again.

Because some things just didn’t come back after they left.

Some people just didn’t fucking come back.

He tore out of the shower and sucked in the steam, his body pulsing and pink from the heat. He felt his throat constrict on the thickness of the air. Felt his lungs struggle to expand. He knelt down on the carpet and pressed his face to the tile.

Karkat didn’t know anything. Karkat knew jack fucking shit.

It took several minutes of gasping desperately against the floor before the heat finally leaked out of the room from under the door. Sollux lifted his head, his damp hair sticking straight up from where it had been pressed against the ground. He got to his feet and gripped both sides of the sink in his hands, his legs shuddering as he stared at the mirror. He pressed his hand to it and in one motion slicked some of the condensation away. He saw his eyes in the gap he’d cleared. Staring back at him. One black and sharp. The other the color of milk, surrounded by a spider webbing of scars.

He stared at those eyes. Stared at them, shaking and trembling, his throat tight. Daring them to say something. But the steam just recollected on the mirror, and his reflection slowly disappeared.

There was a knock on the door and Sollux jumped. He turned his head slightly as Gamzee’s voice sounded through the wood.

“Hey, man, can a brother get his pee on?”

“Just a second,” Sollux replied, quickly wrapping a towel about his waist. He scrubbed his fingers through his damp hair before grabbing up his dirty garments and making his way out of the bathroom. Gamzee smiled and shuffled past him to the toilet.

Once in his room, Sollux threw the towel over his chair and the dirty laundry over his floor. He then plucked up some fresh clothes from the pile on his bed, sniffing them to make sure they really were honest residents of the ‘clean pile.’ As he finished tugging on a plain black T-shirt and put his sunglasses back in place, he was interrupted by yet another knock.

“Hey, Sol, are you in there?”

Sollux blinked. He opened the door a crack and peered out at Eridan, who was still rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

“What do you want?” Sollux asked scathingly.

“Just wondering if I can shower. I feel like I slept in grease or some equally disgustin’ shit.”

“Knock yourself out,” Sollux replied before snapping the door shut again.

He spent the next hour bent over his keyboard, letting blue-white light of his monitor and the clack of the keyboard slowly drain the anger from his body. Soon his body felt heavy and thick. As if he’d pumped himself full of general anesthetic. His mind quieted as well, until it was pulsing with the predictable throb of Minecraft updates and forum announcements.

But one stray thought refused to be smoothed out by the iron of routine.

As he finished scrolling through his usual forum haunts, he sat back in his broken chair and sighed, letting his mind drift to the stranger taking a shower in his house. He pushed himself into a standing position and shuffled out of his room.

The bathroom door was open. Inside, Eridan stood, squinting into the mirror. He had on a fresh set of clothes that Sollux could only assume had been pulled out of his ass, since he hadn’t seen the guy packing any spare outfits the night before. Eridan didn’t register his presence immediately, being all too consumed in his personal journey to hair perfection. Sollux had to squint at the bottle of gel sitting on the sink, wondering if that had also been pushed from the copious void that was Eridan’s anus. No one in the house used hair products. The little tube was completely foreign in this environment.

“Oh hey, Sol,” Eridan said at last as he finished teasing his hair. “If you’ve got to use the bathroom, I’m gonna have to deny your request and let you know that you’d be able to relieve yourself a lot faster if you kept your bathroom properly stocked so that I didn’t have to make completely un-fucking-necessary trips back to my house.”

He picked up his tube and brandished it. Well, that explained where everything had come from. Sometimes Sollux forgot that Eridan lived just across the street.

And then another thought struck him. “Wait, so you’re saying that you went all the way back to your house because you didn’t have your shit just to come back here and use our hot water to shower?”

Eridan stared at his tube of hair gel for a minute, as if it contained the answer. He then looked back up to Sollux and shrugged. “Yeah, that’s pretty much what happened.”

“You cock-sucking prick. I’m going to start documenting all the resources you waste around here so that you can start making payments on the utilities.”

“Fuck, Sol, I’ve only ever been here once, I really don’t think those kind of extremes are necessary,” Eridan rebuked, pulling his hair gel close to his chest, as if he meant to defend himself with it.

“You’ve been here twice, actually, and both times you were a major inconvenience,” Sollux snapped. And yet, inexplicably, he felt that smirk creeping over his lips again. The one that seemed to crop up with irritating frequency whenever Eridan was around.

Eridan didn’t fail to notice the tiny grin. He glowered at Sollux. “You’re just givin’ me a lot a shit. That’s what this is. Makin’ jabs at me for your own personal amusement, don’t think I don’t know what’s goin’ on here, Sol.”

Sollux was about to respond when Gamzee traipsed past behind him. He turned away from Eridan to watch as the tall man walked toward the door. Eridan poked his head out of the bathroom as well, just in time to see Gamzee give them a lazy wave before exiting the house.

“Where the fuck is he goin’?” Eridan asked, his tone blank with confusion.

“He likes to visit the park sometimes on nice days,” Sollux said dismissively.

“The park, are you serious?” Eridan asked, snapping his gaze to Sollux as if he’d just been told Christmas had been moved to tomorrow.

Sollux leaned back in hesitant bemusement. “Is this another exciting discovery to rival that of the pool next to the library?”

“This is even better, Sol, and I think we should go with him.”

Eridan darted past him to the door, shoving his sandals on and loping across the street. Sollux followed dazedly in his wake, standing just inside the open doorway and watching as Eridan launched himself into his own house before emerging seconds later with his guitar and running down the sidewalk with as much grace as could possibly be possessed by a skinny guy in sandals carrying an instrument with both hands. Sollux watched his lumbering gait as the moron chased after Gamzee, the tail of his thin summer scarf fluttering behind him.

Sollux sighed and stuffed on his own shoes. He had no great desire to go traipsing off to the park and be exposed to natural sunlight, but his desire to stay in the house with Karkat was even less.

It didn’t take him long to catch up with Gamzee and Eridan. Mostly because Gamzee had slowed his pace to a crawl for Eridan, who was huffing along behind him, his face already slicked with sweat and his glasses halfway down his nose.

“Hey my brother. Come to join a motherfucker in his quest to get some green summer miracles in between his toes?” Gamzee said, raising a hand in greeting as Sollux fell into step beside Eridan.

“I’m not so sure that living vegetation will react so well to my basement flesh.” He cast a sidelong glance at Eridan, who was wheezing as he tried to lug his guitar case up the hill. “You look sort of like you’re about to die.”

“No shit, do you want a fuckin’ award for your top-notch sleuthin’ skills, Sol?” Eridan snapped. “I was gonna wait for somebody to offer to carry this for me, but since you’re both uncivilized bastards I guess I’m gonna have to do it the direct way and demand that one a you able-bodied meatsacks help me out.”

“That was such a thoughtful request that I’d feel guilty fulfilling it,” Sollux replied, making sure to inject his tone with an acidic sweetness.

Eridan glowered at him before halting and dropping his guitar to the ground with an unceremonious thud. He exhaled sharply then and pointed at it. “Gam, I order you to carry this fuckin’ piece a shit for me.”

“All right, bro, I can adjust my arms into motherfuckin’ lifting mode to help out a friend.” His perpetual lazy grin never wavered as he doubled back and plucked Eridan’s guitar from the ground in his large hands. He then continued on as if he’d never been interrupted at all.

Eridan wiped his palms against his pants and followed after him, his lips pursed. Sollux regarded him quietly.

“I don’t want to hear a fuckin’ word outta you,” Eridan muttered peevishly.

“I wasn’t going to say anything,” Sollux replied, lifting his hands up in surrender.

“He’s so fuckin’ laid back and okay with everything, it’s disconcertin’. I honestly feel really fuckin’ uncomfortable around him, Sol.” Eridan cast an uneasy glance at Gamzee as he spoke, grabbing the tail of his scarf and using it to dab at his brow.

Sollux stared at Gamzee’s back as the gangly man’s long strides carried him ahead of the two of them. “Well he practices this weird spiritual bullshit, so I guess it makes him okay with just about everything. I don’t think I’ve ever really seen him get upset about stuff, now that I think about it. So I guess that’s kind of weird. I sometimes suspect that all the substance abuse has actually destroyed the portion of his brain that allows him to get pissed off.”

“I don’t know, Sol. I don’t believe in magic or miracles or any a that bullshit, so I maintain a healthy suspicion a people who base their whole lives around that sort a thing. I think he might be hidin’ a stash a bodies somewhere is all I’m sayin’.”

Sollux laughed before he turned a devilish grin to Eridan. “Who knows?”

“Don’t fuck with me, Sol, I am bein’ dead serious about this,” Eridan whined, his eyes glistening with worry.

Sollux shrugged before stuffing his hands in his pockets and continuing on beside Eridan, slightly hunched over as he walked. “So what’s with the guitar and your sudden urge to haul ass to the park?”

“I wouldn’t expect someone like you to know about this but parks in the summer are prime locations for doin’ a bit a playin’ for tips,” Eridan remarked.

Sollux’s face fell. “Are you serious?”

“A course I am, why would I joke about something like that? This is my future we’re talkin’ about Sol, and if I’m to be known around this area as a promisin’ musician, I have to put myself out there.” Eridan adjusted his scarf as they walked, exuding enough confidence to equal the volume of sweat that was pouring down his face.

Sollux could only stare in abject mortification.

He decided not to broach the subject again as they continued on. Instead he turned his talk to Minecraft despite Eridan’s objections that he was still sick to death of the game and that no amount of coaxing from Sollux could get him to play it again any time soon. It led to an argument that carried them the rest of the way to the park, Gamzee loping happily ahead of them, swinging the guitar case in his hand.

The park wasn’t as green as Sollux remembered. Many of the old dirt paths had been paved with quaint red brick, and the old fountain that served as the hub of the area had been completely replaced. Where once a decapitated angel stood, a large marble statue of a fish arched, a silver stream of water pouring from its mouth and into the pool undulating about its tail.

Sollux let his Minecraft discussion fall to the ground as he broke away from Eridan and Gamzee. He approached the fountain and stared up at it through his sunglasses, gazing into the fish’s gaping maw.

“Does it get all up in your dream juices?” Gamzee’s voice sounded behind him suddenly. Sollux looked back to see the man staring up at the fish as well, his hands behind his head.

“It’s creepy as shit,” Sollux remarked, turning back to the fountain as Eridan shuffled up beside him. “What happened to the old one?”

“The feds all got to thinking that it would be some motherfuckin’ wicked business to be tearing out the old shit and getting it switched out with some fresh stone cut right from the motherfuckin’ quarry. Looks all sparkly like a smile. I think our big scaly friend has got some happiness all leaking out of his gills.” He put one foot on the edge of the fountain and stepped up, reaching a long arm out to the fish and patting it on the head. “He likes to get his motherfuckin’ self all rubbed up with some loving. Gets all smiley then. Look at him go.”

The fish continued to stare blankly ahead with its wide, unmoving eyes, water pouring impassively from its stone jaws.

“Sollux, I’m gettin’ the feelin’ like my personal comfort zone is bein’ violated,” Eridan muttered as Gamzee reached out his other hand and began rubbing the fountain’s chin.

Sollux gave Gamzee a stare of hopeless confusion before he shook his head and called out, “Hey GZ, we’re going to take a walk around. Don’t wait up.”

Gamzee gave no indication of having heard him. Instead he pushed himself on top of the fountain and laid down on the fish’s arched back, staring up at the clouds.

As Sollux shook his head and shuffled away, Eridan grabbed his guitar from off the ground where Gamzee had left it and scuttled after him.

“So where’s the spot in this place that gets the most traffic? I need to set up a prime location where my musical endeavors are gonna pull in the biggest audience,” the young man yammered as he lugged his instrument along.

Sollux felt his stomach clench. But it wasn’t as if the idiot knew where the most populated area in the park was. Lying about it was easy enough.

Or it would have been, had the park not been completely transformed in the year since Sollux had been there.

He wandered down one of the paths, walking along it with only a tiny awareness of the babbling moron clomping along beside him. He took in the trees lining the path, and formed a fairly certain hypothesis that they had not been there before, despite being full grown. Unless they had been there, and Sollux had just never paid enough attention.

He paused as the path opened up and he was led out of the shelter of the trees. Several picnic tables stood in the cobbled area, around which were a ring of open grills. One of them was being used by what looked like a family of four.

“This is fuckin’ perfect,” Eridan proclaimed, his eyes alight with excitement. He lugged his guitar over to the nearest open picnic table and set it on the seat, quickly flicking back the latches and lifting the instrument onto his lap.

Sollux groaned, wanting nothing more than to back himself into the bark of one of the trees surrounding the picnic area and disappear completely. Against his better judgment, he approached Eridan and sat beside him at the table as the man began plucking at his guitar, tuning the strings.

“Dare I ask about your taste in music?” Sollux grumbled as Eridan continued to fiddle with his instrument.

“It’s probably nothing like yours, Sol, I mean you haven’t even heard a Wavves for fuck’s sake. But it’s not like I’m lookin’ to duplicate Wavves’ style, so it wouldn’t help you to know about them in this case anyway. Goin’ back to your question, my taste in music is pretty eclectic but I like listenin’ to actual musicians performin’ on instruments and not that computerized bullshit that you’re always goin’ on about.” He finished plucking at his strings and adjusted his guitar in his lap, giving it a practice strum.

Sollux rolled his eyes. “Right, I forgot. I can’t ask you questions about the shit you like because everything has to turn into some competition of taste with you.”

“If it’s taste we’re concernin’ ourselves with, then there’s hardly a competition, Sol, a few a your game preferences notwithstandin’,” Eridan sniffed before flicking his guitar with his fingers again.

“Then you can pick a game next time, since you’re such a great judge of quality,” Sollux grumbled, leaning back against the table and watching uneasily as Eridan continued to pick at his guitar without actually playing it. “So… Do you even know any songs on that thing?”

Eridan gripped his instrument tighter. “Well, it’s like I was sayin’, I’m just tryin’ to explore my musical style right now, Sol, so it’s not goin’ to do me any good to just start copyin’ other musicians right off the bat and warp myself from the outset.”

Sollux stared at Eridan wordlessly for a moment as the young man became suddenly fixated on tuning his guitar again. At last Sollux remarked, “You’ve never played that before in your life, have you?”

Eridan shot him an acid glare. “I know the basics and that’s good enough to start establishin’ myself as a musician.”

“This sort of bullshit coming from you shouldn’t even surprise me. And yet I’m still managing to be completely horrified by the fact that I let you drag me down here so that you could play an instrument you don’t even know how to use.”

“I do know how to use it, it’s like you don’t even fuckin’ listen when I tell you things,” Eridan rebuked. “I’m just gettin’ warmed up here, all right?”

He set his case down by his feet, propping it open before leaning back and beginning to strum on his guitar again. It didn’t even sound like Eridan was producing any recognizable chords. He just put his fingers on the neck of the instrument and ran his thumb over the strings and made some kind of tinny acoustic noise. Sollux soon found his ears burning with residual embarrassment.

“Oh god, this is horrible. This is the worst thing I think I’ve ever been subjected to.”

“Wow, thanks for all your fuckin’ encouragement. Real nice,” Eridan snapped.

“Seriously, pick your case up, nobody’s going to give you tips. Not unless some particularly sadistic mugger comes along and forces his victims to drop money in your case just to provide them with some humiliation before he picks it right back up again and makes his getaway. Except he would probably mug you too before he did. Not even to steal from you, just to protect the public from your auditory assault. That’s how bad this is, Eridan. Your guitar playing would make muggers undertake random acts of kindness.”

“Put a fuckin’ sock in it, Sol, I’m tryin’ to concentrate here,” Eridan retorted as he continued to pluck and strum aimlessly at his guitar.

“No amount of concentration is going to make music out of this auditory trash heap. Sweet christ, this is just so bad. How can you even live with yourself knowing that you’re producing sounds at such brain-melting levels of terrible? There are kids here, Eridan. Innocent human life. They never asked for any of this.”

“I am going to take this thing and shove it up your ass if you don’t shut your fuckin’ face hole,” Eridan hissed, his cheeks pink.

“Yes. Please do. I will accept the role of martyr if it means relieving the world of your ability to produce these sounds. Then I can be like some religious figure and give people a list of rules that they have to live by, and one of them would be to burn all instruments that ever came into your possession again for as long as you lived.”

“I am hedgin’ on committin’ a disgustin’ act a violence right now, so if you have any kind a notion about what’s good for you, then I suggest removin’ your ass from my immediate vicinity,” Eridan snarled, slapping down on his guitar and bringing his thrumming strings screeching to silence.

“Done,” Sollux replied, pushing himself to his feet and making his way out of the picnic area at a brisk walk. He refrained from breaking out into a sprint, but his neck was burning with enough embarrassment that he nearly gave in.

Eridan was literally an affront to humanity and all things good in the world.

And it was one thing to deal with him in a private server. Managing him in places that daylight touched and other gazes were keen was turning into a series of painful and humiliating experiences.

As he made his way back to the park’s central area, the fish fountain crawled back into sight. As it did, he saw Gamzee slide into view as well. The man was no longer reclining on top of the fish’s back, however. Instead he was sitting on the edge of the fountain, a little black bundle squirming in his arms. At his feet squatted a boy with dark skin and a fluffy mohawk.

Sollux wanted to simply edge around them to avoid being forced to make contact with some random bystander that Gamzee had managed to snipe for conversation. But his housemate caught him before Sollux could duck out of the park and back onto the sidewalk. Sollux cursed inwardly as Gamzee smiled and waved.

“Hey, my brother,” the olive-skinned man greeted him as Sollux trudged over. As he drew closer, the little fuzzy black ball in Gamzee’s lap looked up, two pointed ears flicking up and a pair of huge yellow eyes staring at him. Sollux blinked.

“Where did you find a kitten?” he asked flatly.

“Little guy found me,” Gamzee replied, smiling and petting the kitten, who proceeded to promptly bat at Gamzee’s hand and wrap its tiny jaws around the man’s index finger. Gamzee seemed oblivious to the pain, if there was any, and continued to grin lazily even as the kitten began kicking his wrist with its back feet.

“I’m really, sorry,” the boy on the ground said haltingly. “He’s really, um, quite spirited for such a small cat. I’m usually, pretty good at making friends with animals but, he’s kind of hard to handle, most times.”

“The little fucker up and crawled right on top of the fish by me and all started chewing at my hair like it was some extra big yarn ball,” Gamzee explained, trying to pet the kitten again even as it continued to attack his forearm.

“I thought taking him for a walk, out here, would maybe help him with his, excessive energy,” the boy continued in the same hesitant fashion, trying to reach out to relieve Gamzee of the cat that continued to maul him. “He tends to be less violent if I, hold him, so, I can do that, if you want.”

“It’s cool, he’s just getting his motherfuckin’ chill on,” Gamzee replied, nodding slowly as the kitten continued to gnaw on his fingers.

“I really don’t think that, that sort of behavior could be qualified as, uh, ‘chill,’ but maybe you’re right, in a way that, doesn’t make much sense,” the boy admitted, withdrawing his hands and setting them in his lap, watching the kitten with nervous eyes.

“Here,” Sollux said, unceremoniously plucking the cat from Gamzee’s arms and plopping it on the boy’s lap. “This guy tends to forget he’s holding shit, even if it’s squirming around and being generally hard to fucking miss. So you should probably just take him. It’s not like Gamzee gives a fuck. Do you?” He turned to the tall man, who simply waved a hand in front of his face.

“Nah, man, it’s like, I want to be doing the cat whatever kind of motherfuckin’ good I can be offering to it, you know?” he replied.

The boy adjusted the kitten in his arms before looking up at Gamzee, his eyes wide with interest. “Oh do you, like animals too?”

“They’re living creatures with souls about as real as I got floating around in my own self,” Gamzee replied, patting himself on the chest. “If you don’t love that, then what the motherfuck is there to be giving love to?”

“I’m not, quite sure what you mean by that, but, it sounds like you were trying to answer yes, and, maybe also, say that animals are a lot like people, so that’s nice.” The boy offered Gamzee a smile.

Sollux sighed. Listening to the boy speak was a little frustrating. It was as if there was a faulty typewriter in his brain which had keys that would get stuck as it attempted to transcribe all of the kid’s thoughts into words. And Sollux just didn’t have the patience for it now.

“GZ, I’m going to be heading back,” he cut in, rubbing his fingers against a temple.

“All right, my brother,” Gamzee replied before turning his lazy gaze back to the boy. “Want to get your feet shuffling along with us?”

Sollux fought the urge to smack himself in the head.

“I guess that depends, maybe, on where you’re going,” the boy replied, scratching his kitten’s ear.

“Just to my motherfuckin’ living space, bro. Get my chill on with a few chocolatey squares that were birthed straight from the hot womb of my oven.”

“That sounds kind of, uhm, unpleasant, the way you described it, but if Rufio is allowed, I can maybe stop by, for just a while,” the boy responded.

“Yeah, brother, there aren’t no judgments in Gamzee’s motherfuckin’ miracle shop saying that cats aren’t allowed to enjoy a spot all of their own having to hunker down in,” Gamzee said, grinning. He then stood, taking the boy by the shoulder and beginning to lead him out of the park. The kid looked somewhat less that completely all right with everything, but Gamzee was, as always, exceedingly difficult to refuse.

Sollux gave a growling sigh, taking off his sunglasses for a moment to rub his eyes.

“What’s your problem?”

He jerked and squinted through his eyelashes to see Eridan standing beside him, his guitar packed back in its case once more. Sollux shoved his shades back on before saying, “Did your guitar’s screeching death throes kill the other picnickers that fast?”

Eridan’s cheeks turned slightly pink. “This park just isn’t as busy as I would like and I don’t want to be pigeon-holing myself into this small-time type a business, so I figure it would be best if I don’t associate myself with this one area for the time bein’.”

“You make up the most elaborate bullshit to avoid criticism, it is really fucking astounding,” Sollux remarked flatly.

“It’s not bullshit, but that’s besides the fuckin’ point because the point I was tryin’ to make had absolutely nothing to do with me or my musicality and everything to do with why it is you look like you just got hit broadside by a speedin’ sports car.”

Sollux sighed before waving at Gamzee. “He picked up some random guy and I just don’t feel like dealing with it.”

“Picked up?” Eridan asked as he watched Gamzee walking off with his arm wrapped around the kid’s shoulders. “Like, to have sex with?”

“No, to play board games with. God you’re a fucking moron,” Sollux snapped before making his way off down the sidewalk as well.

Eridan glared at Sollux as he carried his guitar along beside him. “Well how the fuck am I supposed to know what Gam gets up to? He’s this super spiritual vegetarian guy so maybe havin’ sex is against his made-up religion or some equally ridiculous bullshit.”

“More like the exact opposite of that,” Sollux remarked, snapping a twig off a tree as they passed beneath it. “He has sex the way he does most things. He decides he wants it and then wanders around until he somehow trips over it. Then he moves on to the next thing.”

“Oh I see, so he’s sort of like a casual bed hopper. I guess that makes sense.”

“If that’s really the term you’re going to commit to, then sure. That’s what he is. I guess I’m just pissed because it means we can’t jack his room again.” He picked the leaves idly from his twig.

“Wait, you lost me,” Eridan panted as he continued to heave his guitar along. “Jack his room…? Am I bein’ invited over again?”

Sollux shrugged, shredding up the leaves from his twig. “If you want. Karkat’s being a pissy jackass, so I’d rather not leave myself alone in that house to serve as an open target for his bitching. Plus you gave me Castlevania blue balls, you narcoleptic shit.”

“I would apologize but I told you at least five fuckin’ times last night that I was tired so you can’t make me feel guilty about fallin’ asleep,” Eridan snapped. His tone then dropped steeply into softer territory. “But playin’ Castlevania wouldn’t be so bad since you got me kinda excited about the fuckin’ thing.”

“And that’s great and everything, but like I said, we can’t use GZ’s room and that’s where I had the fucking thing set up.”

Eridan gave him a puzzled look. “So just set it up in your room.”

Sollux felt his neck get hot and he proceeded to rip his leaves into even tinier pieces. “My room isn’t exactly habitable right now.”

“Yeah, I kinda figured as much. Since the last time I caught a glimpse of it, the place looked like it had been hit by some rogue, room-specific hurricane. Not to mention it reeked like a fuckin’ gym locker.” He ran a hand over his brow as he continued to drag his guitar case along beside him. “Don’t you ever fuckin’ clean that place, Sol?”

Sollux grew even hotter, and he stared hard at the shredded vegetation in his fingers. “Nobody ever goes in there except me, so there’s never a point,” he mumbled.

“Well, I’m goin’ in there now. So how’s that for a fuckin’ point?” Eridan rebuked.

Sollux shrugged, letting the leaf fragments flutter to the ground.

“We’re cleanin’ your room, Sol. Just as soon as we get back. And I’ve revoked your right to refuse so you can fuckin’ try but it’s not goin’ to do you any good.”

Once they were actually knee deep in Sollux’s refuse, however, Eridan was suddenly not so gung-ho.

“Oh my fuckin’ god, how is it even possible for you to consume this much shit? I mean, there’s nothing to you. You’re just bones and a little bit a skin, but I’ve never seen this many Taco Bell wrappers in my life,” Eridan whined as he picked through the pile of garbage beside Sollux’s desk.

Sollux himself was busy gathering up dirty laundry. “This is the culmination of several months’ worth of trash, dumbass. It’s not like I’m making trips to that place once a day.”

“Once a year is one time too many if you ask me, that place’s food is fuckin’ shit,” Eridan scoffed, dropping a wrapper back to the floor.

“Well some of us didn’t grow up on caviar and cocktail weenies, lord douchebag,” Sollux snapped, throwing an armful of used socks in a laundry basket.

“Cocktail weenies are shit too, okay, if you’re gonna make a point a mockin’ cultured eatin’ habits, at least give it some fuckin’ effort,” Eridan replied, peering over Sollux’s desk. He nudged at the mouse and watched the monitor crackle and hum to life.

“Hey,” Sollux snapped, his sunglasses catching the light as he turned his head toward Eridan from over the laundry basket in his arms.

“Calm down, it’s not as if I have any interest in your porn stash or whatever other unmentionable material you got stored on here. I just want to check some a my band websites.” Eridan lowered himself onto Sollux’s chair and brought up the web browser.

“So much for cleaning my room, I guess,” Sollux seethed, throwing dirty underwear into his basket with even more force.

“I’ve been doin’ shit, okay? My constitution is more delicate than yours and I’m fuckin’ tired, all right?” Eridan rebuked, scrolling through web pages with his cheek resting on his palm.

“You’ve picked up maybe five pieces of garbage. Six, tops. You were the one that was basically pissing his pants with excitement over getting my shit cleaned up.”

“Well sorry for bein’ exhausted after walkin’ around all day with a guitar that you never once offered to carry for me,” Eridan replied indignantly. “Besides, this is your shit, so I can quit whenever I want. I got nothing ridin’ on this.”

Sollux threw more underwear into the basket. “I thought you were the whole reason we were doing this. If you weren’t here, I wouldn’t even bother.”

“Well, you should want to bother, Sol, regardless a whether or not second parties are involved. I’m teachin’ you valuable life lessons, here.”

Sollux sighed exasperatedly. “You know what? Fine. Just sit on your ass. I’ll do the rest of this.”

He stormed out of the room to deposit the laundry in the wash. After slamming the washing machine’s lid shut and turning the knob to the most powerful setting available, he stalked back to his room. As he scooped up a trash bag and began tossing empty food wrappers inside, he saw Eridan squirming around in his chair a bit. The young man felt around under the seat, trying to lift the handle to adjust the height, but it wouldn’t budge. Irritated, Eridan ducked his head down to inspect the lever more closely.

“Hey, Sol, there’s something goin’ on with your chair I think,” he proclaimed.

“No shit, jackass. It’s broken. Has been for a while now.”

Eridan frowned up at him. “Why do you keep it around, then?”

Sollux shrugged. “Because it died in service to me. It’s like a crippled old veteran. You don’t throw vets in the trash.”

“Except it’s not a veteran, it’s a chair. And if it can’t do it’s job as a fuckin’ chair then it doesn’t belong in use.” He was yanking harder at the handle, jiggling it around to try and get the seat to adjust.

“It does its job for me,” Sollux snapped, his tone darkening. “Stop fucking with it, Eridan, I’m serious.”

“Well you’re not the fuckin’ issue here, are you? I’m the one sittin’ in it and it’s too low for me, like I’m getting’ neck strain already.” Eridan jimmied the handle again, his teeth bared with exertion.

“Quit messing with it. Hey. Stop touching it. Stop!” Sollux dropped his garbage bag to the ground and lunged forward to knock Eridan’s hand away.

But not before there was a loud snap.

Sollux froze. Eridan stared at the lever in his hand as the chair gave a feeble whine and slowly sank down to its lowest position.

For a few heartbeats there was silence.

Then Sollux shoved Eridan out of the chair so hard that he sent the man crashing against his desk, nearly tipping over his monitor. Eridan grabbed the computer and steadied it, staring back over his shoulder at Sollux in shock.

“What the hell, Sol?” he snapped indignantly.

Sollux didn’t reply. Couldn’t reply. His throat was too tight to push air through. It was an effort just to breathe. He grabbed the lever with trembling fingers and tipped the chair back, trying to fit it back in position. He felt like he was drowning. He shoved the seat up, but it only whined and sank back down. Shaking, he tried to jam the handle back in again.

“Jesus, calm down, it’s just a chair,” Eridan said, though his own voice was shrinking with fear. “I’ll get you another one if you’re gonna go this fuckin’ nuts over it.”

“Shut up.” Sollux’s voice was no more than a ragged whisper. His eyes burned as he tried to shove the seat up again, to no avail. His breaths came shorter. Harder. His whole body felt as if it were coming under attack by electric shocks. He swore, shaking the seat savagely before shoving it against the bed and pressing his fists to his temples.

“Sol…?” Eridan’s voice was barely audible.

“Get out.”

Eridan didn’t move. “What?”

“Get out!” Sollux roared, rising to his feet and taking Eridan by the shirt collar. The other man tried to protest, but Sollux threw him toward the door. Eridan’s foot caught on the garbage bag lying on the ground, making him stumble and fall to his knees. But Sollux heaved him back up again, kicking and shoving him out the door.

“Fuck! Sol, I said I’d get you another one, I’m sorry!” Eridan yelped as he was beaten down the hallway.

“I never want to see your fucking face back here again,” Sollux heaved, his body shaking and taught with rage. “Get out. Get out! Get the fuck out!”

He began pounding on Eridan, delivering vicious jabs to the man’s back as Eridan dashed to the door. He continued to try and force whimpered apologies through his lips, but they were all cut short by Sollux’s blows. He tried to stuff his flipflops back on, but Sollux kicked the door open and threw Eridan bodily out of the house before he could. The man fell to the pavement, his sandals flying from his hands.

“Sol, what—”

Sollux slammed the door in his face.

He went back to his room. He dropped to his knees. He pulled his chair close with shaking hands. He cursed loud enough to bring Karkat out into the hallway.

And then something bitter and hot like acid carved its way down his cheek.

Chapter Text

This was the day that Sollux Captor met Feferi Peixes.

For a week he locked himself back in his room. During that entire time he never once touched Minecraft or glanced at the forums. Instead he whiled away the hours by watching shitty sitcoms from his bed, hoping that the sheer awfulness would be enough to make him smile and maybe, for a moment, forget everything.

Karkat had tried to talk to him. On one occasion he had even left a Crunchwrap Supreme outside Sollux’s door as a peace offering. But that only served to make Sollux angrier. So he let it sit outside his room, instead consigning himself to starving quietly as he listened to music under his desk.

After several days, however, the hunger became too much for him to tolerate, even in his sessile condition. He dragged himself to the door, his head spinning and his legs shuddering as he turned the handle and stepped slowly out into the hallway.

It was only dimly lit outside. He had made sure to time his foray into the kitchen appropriately. According to the clock on the computer, it was 3 AM on a Tuesday. He knew that Karkat had work early on Tuesdays. And as for Gamzee… Gamzee never bothered him. So the time was ideal for him to slip silently into the kitchen to grab some food before retreating back to his room once more. As he crept forward on wobbly limbs, it seemed as though he had calculated correctly. The house was silent, except for the snores emanating from Gamzee’s room.

The light over the sink allowed Sollux just enough illumination for him to make his way to the fridge. He opened it and squinted in the harsh light, peering at the disorderly assortment of food stuffed on each shelf.

He knew he had to eat. But now that he was faced with a refrigerator full of nourishment, none of it seemed appetizing to him. He pulled out a packet of bacon and peered at it. It did look good, but cooking it would make too much noise.

He shut the fridge and set about raiding the pantry instead. He finally pulled a jar of peanut butter from its depths before fishing a spoon from the drawer. He then turned to shuffle back to his room, his eyes drooping with fatigue.

“Raiding the kitchen at 3 in the morning? That’s never happened before.”

Sollux nearly dropped his peanut butter. He glowered at the boy standing behind him who had his arms crossed over his work shirt.

“What do you want?” Sollux asked, opening his jar and sticking his spoon inside.

“Oh, I don’t know. I just thought it’d be fun to get up at two in the goddamned morning. You know. Just to stimulate the lobes in my brain designated specifically for masochistic enjoyment. Nothing like waking up before the sun rises to get you in the mood for having a fantastic as fuck day at the call center.”

“So did you just get up to bitch at me, or what?” Sollux asked, staring at his peanut butter as he stuffed a spoonful into his mouth.

Karkat deflated, and his tone dropped. “No. I came to apologize. I’m still right about all of this shit. But maybe you were right about Eridan being a good thing for you.”

Sollux pulled the clean spoon from his mouth and swallowed. “Doesn’t matter anymore. I’m done with him.”

“Okay, you can say that shit, but let’s be objective here for a second. You went outside. Twice. And as far as I know, he didn’t hold a fucking gun to your head to get it to happen. Unless he did, in which case I retract my argument and we can go over to his house right now and string him up by his intestines. But…” Karkat trailed off, dropping his hands. “Do you see where I’m going with this?”

Sollux didn’t respond. He simply shoved more peanut butter into his mouth.

“God. Look, will you just fucking tell me what the problem is? I’m trying to be all contrite here and am basically rolling onto my back and exposing the soft underbelly of my pride. But you’re not giving me a whole hell of a fucking lot to go off of here.”

“He broke my chair,” Sollux said flatly.

Karkat winced. “Yeah, but like, was it an accident or—”

“It wasn’t high enough for him. So he fucking broke it.”

“And what were you doing the whole time, just dancing around—”

“I told him not to and he broke it. He fucking broke it, KK, all right? So that’s gone to shit now too.”

Karkat was silent for a moment before he replied, “Did you at least throw it away?”

Sollux pointed to the window. “Take a look for yourself if you want.”

Karkat stared at him skeptically for a while longer, as if this was just some ruse to distract him for long enough to let Sollux beat a retreat back to his room. But Sollux never moved. So Karkat made his way to the window by the front door and peered outside.

“You’re really getting rid of it then?” he asked as he made his way back to the kitchen.

Sollux nodded. “It was just taking up space in my room.”

“So…” Karkat shifted his feet uneasily, dropping his eyes to the floor. “Are you down to one thing, then?”

Sollux stuffed another spoonful of peanut butter into his mouth and nodded again.

“The necklace…?” Karkat guessed.

Sollux’s knuckles began to turn white as he gripped his spoon harder. “She never wore that.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

They lapsed into uneasy silence. At last Sollux shoved his spoon deep into the peanut butter’s soft surface before beginning to make his way around Karkat and out of the kitchen.

The shorter boy caught him by the shoulder. “Hey.”

Sollux yanked his shoulder away but turned to face Karkat. The shorter boy sighed and crossed his arms again.

“Remember from a few seconds ago when I said that I was right about all this shit? Now do you remember even further back when I flipped out at you and said that I knew how all of this was going to go down? Well, that’s what I was right about. I was right about being right.”

“Congratulations. Do you want a gold star or something?” Sollux asked scathingly.

“Just hear me out for a second, okay?” Karkat barked before reverting back to his more careful and pensive tone. “You can say all this shit like you don’t want to go back to the way things were before the accident. And I can understand that. I get it. You’re a different guy because shit happened and that’s cool. It’s cool that you want to acknowledge your shit. But there’s kind of a problem with that. Because you still wear those shades, Sollux.”

Sollux frowned. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Karkat shrugged. “I don’t know. You tell me. Is your functioning eye super sensitive to light?”

Sollux glared at Karkat for a while before dropping his gaze to the floor.

Karkat scoffed. “You say you want to be this guy who’s come out of all of this shit and that you’re tired of people treating you as if none of it happened. But you’re the one hiding everything behind a pair of cheap retail-brand sunglasses. You push away the people who know about all your bullshit in favor of a guy who doesn’t know jack shit about any of it. Then you blow up when he wrecks something of hers like he was supposed to know. Fucking Christ, Sollux. If you want to be this guy that you say you are, you can’t keep hiding stuff and pretending it didn’t happen. Then maybe the rest of us would get a fucking clue too.”

Sollux didn’t respond. He continued to stare at his peanut butter.

“And it’s not like I’m trying to defend the guy or anything. I still think he’s an irritating asshole. But if he’s been able to do shit the rest of us haven’t, then you know what? Good for him. I can stop being a jealous dick for long enough to appreciate the fact that he’s helping you do all this ‘living’ bullshit that I haven’t been able to wring out of you in over a year. But god dammit, Sollux. The guy at least deserves a fucking explanation for why you chased him out of the house over a broken chair.”

Sollux stabbed his spoon in his peanut butter but refused to speak.

At last Karkat sighed and lifted his hands in defeat. “Well, that’s all I’ve got. Now I’m going to drag my sorry ass back in front of my computer and drown myself in Sandler’s ridiculous, yet thoughtful attempts to make Drew Barrymore fall for him on a daily basis after her brain does its nightly reset. Then I’m going to go punch my card at Hell Inc. and listen to people whine about their fucking subscriptions for eight hours. You know. Just to give you a little snapshot of the giggle-fucking good times I’ve got lined up for myself today.”

Karkat retreated from the kitchen before Sollux could form a proper reply. Not as though Sollux had really planned on forming a proper reply at all. He dropped into one of the chairs at the dining room table, staring into his peanut butter. Instead of inciting the ravenous rage it had sparked in his stomach moments before, the sight of the jar now made his gut roll and groan, like some cold rock had lodged itself in his insides.

He capped the peanut butter and replaced it in the pantry, tossing his spoon in the sink before grabbing a kitchen chair and dragging it back to his room.

The first thing he did once he was sitting back in front of his computer was to check the Minecraft forums. They had blown up to a predictably unmanageable level. Since the release of the official Alpha version of the game, a few new elements had been added. But the thing everyone seemed to be pissing themselves over was a special release that had been given out to only a select few users (of which, Sollux discovered, he had been one). He figured that one of the more exciting features of this update was the incorporation of snow into the Minecraftian universe, since he found about fifty different PMs sitting in his inbox asking about how awesome he thought the snow was.

Now sufficiently intrigued, he downloaded the update and opened one of his experimental servers to dick around with it. As he did, however, he found himself less concerned with the snow itself and more concerned with its possible implementations on Alternia.

He pushed himself away from his desk, staring dejectedly at his monitor as the white block that was the sun arched its way over his server’s sky. As tenacious and intrusive as Eridan was, the man had not once attempted to contact him during the past week. Sollux picked up his phone to double check the situation, scrolling through his texts. The last one he’d received from Eridan was nearly two weeks old and read: hey get online and see this house i made outta cacti.

Sollux scrolled up a bit. Before he’d chased Eridan out of the house, he’d gotten used to receiving at least one text a day from the moron. Maybe not only gotten used to it. He couldn’t deny that there was some part of him that was fond of it.

Sollux set the phone down on his desk, guilt burning at his insides. He stared at his monitor again, wondering if Eridan had perhaps left him any messages on Skype. But once he’d opened the program, he found no pending notifications waiting for him.

His stomach roiling, he went back to playing Minecraft. But he only managed to hack up a few blocks before his phone was in his hand again. Fingers shaking, he punched out a quick message.

hey jackass. so what do you think about snow on alternia?

He reread it. And then he deleted the expletive, because he didn’t think sounding hostile right now would be the best option.

hey. so what do you think about snow on alternia?

His eyes flicked over it again. Then his stomach clenched so tightly with guilt-ridden anxiety that he had to set his phone down before he could send the message. After playing a few more minutes of Minecraft, he eventually jabbed the ‘send’ button before he could give it any more thought.

The rest of the day was an exercise in waiting. Though he spent all his time playing Minecraft and browsing Youtube, it was all empty activity. He got nothing of merit done. Because all of it was just distraction. Just a way to while away the hours so that he could deaden the nervous cramps in his stomach as he waited for his phone to vibrate in response.

It never did.

He lay in bed that night, holding up his phone, staring at the message he’d sent. He wondered if there had been an error. If it might be best to try sending the text again. Yet the tightness in his chest assured him that there was no mistake. His message had reached Eridan’s phone. It was just that the man was choosing not to reply.

The next morning found him huddled over the kitchen table, his phone at his elbow and his face buried in his arms.

He heard the scrape of metal against linoleum as Karkat pulled out a chair and sat beside him. Sollux lifted his head just enough to see the boy sitting in his work shirt and pouring himself a bowl of Lucky Charms.

“What’s up with you?” Karkat asked as he began shoveling cereal into his mouth. “I don’t usually see your leering face before noon.”

“I think I really fucked up, KK,” Sollux muttered, setting his head back down.

“No shit, douchelord,” Karkat remarked, spraying the table with flecks of milk and spit.

“I sent him a text yesterday and he still hasn’t responded.” Sollux’s voice was muffled by the table.

“As heart-felt and eloquent as I’m sure your text message was, have you ever considered the fact that he lives right across the fucking street?” Karkat asked before draining his cereal bowl of milk.

Sollux wrapped his arms tighter about his head. “I can’t go over there.”

“No? Well then, enjoy a great day filled with guilt and self-loathing, general ass-nugget. I gotta go.”

Karkat stood, dumping his cereal bowl in the sink with a clatter before bolting out the door. Sollux sighed as he heard the car start and roar off down the road. He lifted his head and looked at his phone. It was nearly eight o’clock. Karkat was definitely going to be late. He then checked his inbox once again for messages. And once again it had nothing to display.

He put his head back down on the table, flicking the edge of his phone. As he watched it spin, someone else entered his field of vision. He clapped a hand over his phone, looking up to see who had entered the kitchen.

Instead of Gamzee, like he’d been expecting, he found himself staring at the boy from the park. His black cat was clutched tightly to his chest as he shuffled into the kitchen, his mohawk tousled from sleep. He gave Sollux a small grin and a wave before he opened the fridge.

The sight of the boy in Sollux’s already anxious and volatile condition set a blaze of anger burning in his gut. Sollux dragged his phone close, glaring up at the kid through his one good eye.

“He must really like your ass if he’s let you stick around this much,” he remarked flatly.

The boy looked up from the refrigerator. He cast his gaze around before looking back to Sollux. “Are you, talking to me?”

“I don’t see anyone else in here,” Sollux snapped.

“Oh, I suppose, that’s true,” the boy said haltingly, shrinking behind the door a bit. “I just didn’t, really, understand how that statement could, uh, pertain to me.”

“Because Gamzee usually drops people after he porks them. He has no concept of a committed relationship,” Sollux remarked acidly.

“Oh, uh, I guess, that’s…nice to know. For future reference. So I should probably, thank you, or something. But we haven’t, actually, done anything involving pigs or, meat at all,” the boy’s gaze slid back to the refrigerator, and he began rifling through it again.

“It’s a euphemism for sex, dumbass.”

“Oh, I know, I was just, trying to play along with your metaphors, I guess, even though pigs and meat don’t really have, um, much to do with intercourse.” He was focusing quite hard on a jar of pickles.

Sollux’s hot anger was chilled slightly by the sudden shock. “You’re saying you haven’t done anything with him?”

“Oh no, we’ve done lots of things,” the boy suddenly gave a very genuine smile. “Like, play card games and, pet Rufio.” He scratched his kitten’s ears and the cat returned his affection by grabbing his hand in its paws and gnawing on the boy’s knuckles.

Sollux wanted to upend his table and smash his phone against a wall.

How was it that Gamzee Makara was establishing a solid relationship with some kitten-toting, park-dwelling stranger when he couldn’t even get Eridan to text him back?

He grabbed his phone and stormed out of the room, his insides more knotted than ever. He slammed the door shut behind him, sitting back down in front of his computer. He went through his inbox on the forums, deleting everything before he curled up under his covers.

He spent what felt like days there. Just lying on his side with his knees pulled up to his chest, staring at the slatted blinds. He watched as the sunlight changed from its morning gold into a whiter hue. He held his phone up to see that it was about half past nine. He sighed before sitting up and swinging his feet over the side of the bed. He stared at his toes for a minute. And then he stood, setting his phone on his desk before making his way to the shower.

One clean pair of clothes later, Sollux stood in front of Eridan’s door. His sunglasses were clutched tightly in his hands. It had taken every bit of willpower he possessed not to put them on before leaving the house. But not taking them with him at all was simply out of the question. Taking a few steadying breaths, he raised a finger and jabbed at the doorbell.

He was still contemplating whether or not he wanted to quickly slip his sunglasses on at the last minute when the door opened. He felt his stomach lurch, his throat clenching on the explanation he’d rehearsed in his head.

But standing inside the door wasn’t Eridan. It was a young woman. She was tall and tan, with voluminous dark curls that fell nearly to her waist. She blinked at him through a pair of pink glasses.

“Oh. I wasn’t expecting anyone to come visiting. Are you one of Eridan’s friends?”

Sollux was so shocked that the words fell from his mouth before he could catch them. “No. I’m just a co-worker.”

What the fuck was he saying?

“Oh really?” The girl frowned and pressed a finger to her chin. “Huh. Eridan never told me anything about a job.” She craned her neck to scan the street from over Sollux’s shoulder. “Well, it doesn’t look like you brought a car. Do you live nearby?”

“No, um. Yes. Just across the street.” No. No, why was he telling her this? Who was she? Eridan’s squeeze? He wanted to run. He wanted to run and shut himself inside his room and never come out again.

The girl just smiled at him. “You don’t have to be nervous! Eridan’s told me a lot about the guys across the street. Would you be…Sollux?” She gave him a grin that was much too mischievous for Sollux’s liking.

“No. I’m Karkat,” he answered instantly.

Stop. No. Why the fuck was he doing this?

“Oh, I see. So you’re the really grouchy, protective one.” She nodded, as if checking off a mental list. “And you also work with him?” She pursed her lips and widened her eyes. “Oh no. He wasn’t supposed to go in today, was he?”

Sollux felt as though he was being strangled by some invisible noose. “I…no. I mean. I was just stopping by to see if he could take my shift tomorrow.” Oh god, why the fuck was he saying this? He wanted to curl into a ball and tell the girl to leave him alone because he was such an unforgivable jackass.

“I was afraid of this,” she sighed, putting two fingers to her brow and shaking her head. “I’m Feferi, by the way.” She stuck out her hand and seized his fingers in a handshake before he could even react. “Do you want to come in for a second?”

“Sure.” Sollux felt the words tumble from his mouth before he could stop them. The girl pulled on his hand and yanked him into the house, shutting the door behind him.

Inside everything was tidy. Sollux watched as Feferi approached the tiny dining table, which was cluttered with a various assortment of toiletries. She swept them aside as she pulled out a chair for Sollux. “Sorry about the mess. I was just back collecting some hair essentials for Eridan. He gets kind of dramatic if he doesn’t have all his products.”

Sollux felt something in his gut twist as he forced himself stiffly down into the seat. “Wait, you were getting him hair stuff? Is he not around?”

“That’s what I guess he neglected to tell you,” Feferi replied apologetically as she sat down across from Sollux. “That guy. He can be so difficult sometimes. And especially with something as important as his job! I can’t believe he didn’t say anything. I really hope you’ll forgive him. And maybe let him stay on. Where is he working anyway? I don’t think I ever asked you.”

“Uh, he’s just, um, down at a call center,” Sollux mumbled quickly before adding, “But what’s going on? What didn’t he tell us?”

“Eridan down at a call center?” the girl exclaimed, slamming a hand to her forehead. “Holy carp! I can’t believe he hasn’t been cut loose yet!” She giggled a bit.

“Are you being evasive or some shit?” Sollux snarled suddenly, his temper flaring before he could reign it in.

She pulled her hand away from her head, the laughter gone from her face. “Maybe a little. He’s going to throw a fit when he finds out I told you. But he should’ve been more responsible! So it’s his fault, really.” She took a breath, fiddling with one of the many bracelets on her wrist. “He’s actually at the hospital right now.”

Sollux felt as if the bottom had dropped out of his stomach.

No.

Not again.

He couldn’t even formulate a reply. He simply opened and closed his mouth, like a hooked fish gasping for breath. Feferi seemed keenly aware of his distress and reached across the table to put her hands over his.

“Don’t worry! He’s fine. He just has…a condition. He’s had heart troubles all his life. Right before he left on this little escapade of his, he had a surgery to get his shunts adjusted. I guess everyone thought that if he did that right before the big move, then he wouldn’t have to worry about it again for a while. But I guess he was having complications. He called me about a week ago saying that it was getting really bad and that he was having a lot of pain in his chest. He’s usually pretty whiny, so it’s hard to always judge if the problem is serious or not. But once he called his parents to set up an appointment with one of the heart specialists nearby, I knew it was probably pretty bad. His mom and dad love him to death, but they’re overseas on a business trip, so they asked me if I couldn’t take a few days off from grad school to come down and help Eridan out. Eridan and I have known each other for years, if I didn’t say so earlier. Anyway, that’s why I’m here!”

She ended her spiel with a smile, but the sunny expression quickly vanished as she continued to gaze at Sollux. She gave his hands a squeeze. “Are you okay?”

Sollux’s whole body was trembling. A heart condition? What? Surgery? For a second he wanted to go outside and make sure he’d come to the right house. Wanted to ask this woman if they were talking about the same Eridan. None of this made sense. He felt dizzy and sick. He felt his phone in his pocket, resting against his thigh like some lead weight. Cold and silent.

He wanted to put his head down and scream.

“Hey…” Feferi said, rubbing the top of his hand comfortingly. “I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t mean to shock you with any of this. I guess I’ve just gotten in the habit of making light of the situation. Eridan doesn’t like it when people talk about his health issues, so I’ve always sort of treated it like he was going on mini vacations whenever he took trips to the hospital. I’d sort of call him up and say, ‘Hey, crabface, how’s the food in Tahiti?’ and he’d say, ‘it’s fuckin’ SHIT!’ like he usually does…”

She trailed off again as she continued to stare at Sollux’s face, which was the color of sour milk. “He’s not in any life-threatening danger. It’s always been like this for us. He just has to haul his grumpy ass down to the hospital more than most people do. But he always makes it out okay. It’s just like a routine now, you know?”

Sollux couldn’t move. Couldn’t think. His nose was full of the smell of antiseptic. His skull reverberating with the sounds of drills and urgent voices and metal clinks. His heart felt like it had frozen in his chest. He tried to breathe. Tried to blink. But all he could do was watch. Watch as his vision exploded with glass and broken metal. Watch as half his world went dark. As his hands were dipped in red.

Feferi’s voice cut the filmstrip, sending Sollux’s brain spinning in place.

“Um…if you want, I can drive you to the hospital. Maybe it would be better if you talked to him about it?”

Sollux jerked his hands away from her. He got up without a word and left the house. He went back across the street, back through his door. He passed the kitchen. The bathroom. And he returned to the confines of his room.

He dropped onto the bed and put his face in his hands.

Why was he such an idiot?

Why was he such a fucking idiot?

He gripped his hair in his fists, shaking.

He couldn’t go there. He couldn’t. Not after everything. Not after her.

A strangled cry erupted from his mouth. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair.

He was scared.

Eridan was in the hospital and he was scared.

He fell into his bed and pulled the covers over his head. He shook and trembled and felt bile crawl up his throat. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t.

But he had to.

“Don’t you have shit you’re scared of?” Eridan had asked from behind a big purple towel.

“Yeah I do,” he forced out into the sheets, his voice cracked. “Yeah I do, you great big lying jackass.”

It took a while. A few hours of cursing and fidgeting and rolling about. But finally he sat up, his eyes red. He grabbed his phone, scrolling down to the name of the only person with a car who was free at noon on a Wednesday.

“Hey, Kanaya? This is Sollux. I need you to do something for me.”

Chapter Text

This was the day Sollux Captor broke his vow to never set foot in a hospital again.

Kanaya put her car in park and turned to look at Sollux. The man was huddled up against the window in the passenger’s seat, his sunglasses covering his eyes. She waited half a heartbeat before putting her hand to Sollux’s shoulder. The man flinched so violently at her touch that she withdrew, curling her fingers back around the steering wheel.

“I don’t mean to upset this new fondness you seem to have developed for my car door, but we’ve arrived at the hospital.”

Sollux curled up tighter, his eyes wide behind his shades. Through the darkened plastic he could see the expansive parking lot and the glaring alabaster surface of the towering white building. His hands were balled into fists and his arms were wrapped around his chest, all to avoid the violent tremors Sollux could feel crawling under his skin. His stomach felt as though it had wound itself around his esophagus. Every breath was halting and painful and carried the distant threat of bile behind it.

Beside him, Kanaya was sitting quietly. Though they hadn’t spoken in nearly a year, she had changed little from the woman Sollux remembered her as. She was still articulate and calm, with a penchant for offering aid to more people drowning in troubled waters than she at times had room for in her personal lifeboat.

And when to be silent. She still knew that.

They sat together in the parking lot, the hot July sun beating down on Kanaya’s dark green car. They remained there, the interior of the vehicle warming until Kanaya started the car once again. Sollux jerked up so suddenly that his glasses flew from his face, whipping around to face the woman.

“No, don’t—!” he started before he cut off.

Kanaya was staring back at him, the whites of her eyes outlined around her dark irises. Her hand was outstretched toward the temperature control knobs.

“I’m only turning on the air conditioning,” she stated in her smooth, dark voice. She did as she said then, and the hum of the car’s fan cut the thick silence hanging over them.

Sollux collapsed back into his seat, drawing his legs up to his chest. “I’m sorry,” he muttered into his knees.

“If you’re attempting to apologize for inconveniencing me, let me restate that I had no prior engagements to see to today, and this can in no way even approach the definition of ‘inconvenience’ until our activities extend into tomorrow at ten when I have to make an appearance at the library for the sake of my salary.” She adjusted the temperature dial on her car before leaning back in her seat and folding her hands on her lap.

Sollux hugged his legs tighter. “How are things at the library?”

“If you can imagine the sort of cricket-filled silence that usually follows a less-than-exemplary jest, but only remove the crickets because they’ve all packed up and left ages ago, that’s how a typical day at work usually paints itself.”

Sollux blinked. “So it’s shit?”

Kanaya smiled, her teeth a bright white contrast to her dark lips. “I actually find it quite enjoyable. I get a level of reading done there that borders on the genuinely obscene.”

“That’s great for you, I guess,” Sollux mumbled, trying to focus on the way his tongue rolled the words around in his mouth rather than the jackhammer thudding against the inside of his ribcage. His knuckles turned white as he clutched at his pants, and he swallowed the excess of hot saliva pooling under his tongue.

Kanaya sat back in her chair before reaching over and digging in her bag. She withdrew a book and looked it over, gently separating the pages before folding it open. “I’ve been rereading Anne Rice’s works lately. Would you like me to do some narration of chapter ten for you, Sollux?”

Sollux couldn’t unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth in time to refuse. Soon he was drowning in the intrigues of Lestat, and the inside of the car suddenly seemed to be filling with mist and moonlight. Finally he thrust out his hand and covered the book, making Kanaya pause mid-sentence.

“I’m feeling pretty ready now,” he choked out.

She smirked, gently closing her book. “I’ll make a mental annotation of the fact that you require twelve pages of torment before you can work up the motivation to do something undesirable.”

She shut off the car and stepped out of the vehicle while Sollux sagged in his seat. He looked up as Kanaya appeared outside his window and opened the passenger side door. He slid his feet out one at a time before he stood, clutching his sunglasses tightly in his hand. She then locked up her car before taking him by the arm and beginning the trek across the parking lot.

It was like a vast expanse of blacktopped desert. Heat rose from the asphalt in waves, creating a nauseating shimmer over everything in Sollux’s view. His head spun as he approached the building, its towering white façade seeming to arch over him like some lengthening shadow. His heart had lodged itself in his throat, pounding at the back of his tongue. As he forced his legs forward, voices flooded his head. Rapid and urgent and wet with tears. Voices pleading. Begging. Others harsh. Business-like. He exhaled slowly, trying to focus on the sound of his shoes against the asphalt.

But once they actually entered the hospital and the clean, white smell of sickness and death crashed around him like a wave, Sollux felt his nose and mouth flood with panic. He clung to Kanaya as his vision blurred, hopping in and out of memories like a skipping disc.

“Your heart rate is normal.”

They had insisted on going through all the procedures and protocol first.

“You’ve suffered severe trauma to your right eye.”

They refused to tell him even when he begged and pleaded. Even when he could feel tears and blood leaking through the bandages around his head. Not until they were finished.

“It’s highly likely that your vision in the affected area won’t return.”

And then they laid him back in his bed and gave him some water before the doctor arrived. Sollux remembered the man’s mouth so clearly. His thick lips and the stubble surrounding them as they formed the words.

“I’m sorry. But your friend is gone.”

Friend.

Friend, he said.

As if he knew.

As if he had a fucking clue.

Sollux gasped, trying to breathe through the rope of memories tightening around his neck. He clung to Kanaya, his fingers digging into her arm.

“I’m gonna puke,” he forced out.

She only barely managed to locate a men’s bathroom and usher him inside before his stomach clenched in an attempt to purge him of grief and the smells of the hospital. He clung to the edges of a sink as he vomited, coughing and gasping and choking. His throat and nose burned and tears streamed from his eyes.

At last it was over. He righted himself, wiping his watery eyes and staring at his reflection in the mirror. His pallid countenance gazed back at him through puffy eyes and a running nose. He shuddered and ducked his head under the faucet, letting cold water shock him back into his senses. After rinsing out his mouth and shaking the water from his hair, he made his way back into the lobby where Kanaya sat waiting for him.

She took him by the arm once more. “Are you all right?”

“No,” he snapped darkly, his limbs still shaking. “Eridan is going to fucking pay for making me come here. He’s going to fucking pay.”

Somehow it settled his stomach, focusing all his energy on getting up to Eridan’s room and hating him for every step it took him to get there. After Kanaya stopped briefly at the front desk to retrieve Eridan’s room number, Sollux marched to the elevator, Kanaya still clinging to his arm. Though she was now acting as more of a restraint than a support.

He burst from the elevator at nearly full tilt, Kanaya planting her feet firmly behind him with his wrist gripped in her hands. It slowed him, but it didn’t cool his heart. It thrashed in his throat like some fish doused in boiling oil, sending jolts of heat spitting up into his mouth and down to his stomach. It drove him on even faster, his feet slapping the ground while he walked as fast as his legs could carry him.

When he finally burst into Eridan’s room, it was with enough force and wild energy that one would have expected a wild bull to be waiting for him on the other side of the door. Instead, a quiet and dimly lit hospital room greeted him. Only one bed was present, and Feferi sat at the foot of it. Sitting up against the headboard was Eridan, scraping impassively at the bottom of a fruit cup. Both of them turned to face the heaving and sweaty man with dumbfounded expressions. At the same time they let a name tumble from their mouths.

“Karkat?”

“Sol?”

They both looked at each other. Eridan’s lip curled with vexation.

“What the fuck are you goin’ on about, Fef, how could that be Kar, I mean, Kar is this short, ornery guy, do you even listen to me when I’m givin’ you all these detailed descriptions?”

“He said his name was Karkat!” Feferi retorted, flicking a hand in Sollux’s direction. “Besides, how am I supposed to keep track of all of your friends when I’ve never met them? It takes so much effort and it’s not like I have a pen and paper handy whenever you gripe at me about them.”

Eridan opened his mouth to make some sort of angry response when Sollux cut him off.

“Can we please stop arguing about this trivial bullshit?” he snapped, slicing his arm through the air. He then pointed at Eridan. “You. I have a bone to pick with you. Actually it’s more like a whole fucking skeleton. I have a whole skeleton to pick with you, you shit-sucking assball, and I will pick it slowly and also in private. So everyone else can just get out.”

Eridan’s mouth closed and a shadow appeared over his face. Feferi looked to him, her eyes questioning, but he only gave a tiny nod. She then smiled and hopped from the bed. She took Kanaya by the arm and the two of them exited out into the hallway, shutting the door behind them.

“So, what are you doin’ here?” Eridan asked, trying to keep his voice nonchalant. But the wavering note beneath it didn’t escape Sollux’s notice. It made the fear- and grief-fueled fire in his stomach flare, and he balled his hands into fists at his sides.

“How about you answer that yourself?” he asked, his voice strained. “Huh? Or you just didn’t think it was important enough to let me know about your fucking life-threatening heart condition?

The last words burst out of him like gunpowder. He wanted to turn around and punch something. To upend a trash can or kick at the perfect white walls. But as he stood there, facing Eridan, he felt a stone settle in his stomach. The fire behind his eyes died down and at last he truly saw what lay before him. A skinny young man with a hospital gown hanging from his drooping shoulders, his legs barely visible beneath the sheets. A heart monitor and an IV drip at his side, a tray of unfinished food over his lap. His hair was disheveled, the purple dye looking faded and the face beneath it pallid as well. Sollux felt the stone in his gut turn to ice, slowly freezing the blood in his veins. His fists loosened and his arms began to shake.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he whispered.

“Because a the way you’re lookin’ at me now,” Eridan replied, his voice filled with muted anger. “That’s why I fuckin’ moved here to begin with. I never wanted anyone lookin’ at me like that again. Like they couldn’t see anything in me except death.”

Sollux took a halting step forward, his limbs beginning to tremble even harder. “You just disappeared. I even tried to text you. Look.” He fumbled in his pocket, digging out his phone with shaking fingers. He went to his message. The one he’d been reading and rereading ever since he’d sent it. He held it to Eridan’s face. “See? They have snow in Minecraft now and I wanted to ask you about what you thought of using it on Alternia…”

He couldn’t continue. He felt his throat closing on his words and a shameful heat prickling behind his eyes. He took a shuddering breath before he forced out, “I didn’t know what to do.”

Eridan stared at the cold peas and carrots sitting on the lunch tray before him. “Alternia’s mostly desert, Sol, I don’t really think snow would fit in unless you wanted to make some special area for—”

“I don’t give a fuck about the snow,” Sollux burst out, his vision beginning to blur with tears. “When Feferi told me where you were, I thought… For a second I thought…”

He had to stop again. He tried to stuff his phone back in his pocket, but he dropped it, and it clattered to the floor. He stooped to pick it up. But he didn’t get back to his feet. He held it in both hands and stared at it as his voice came gushing over his lips like blood.

“Aradia and I dated for three years. She loved Indiana Jones and Deep Impact. She wanted to be a paleontologist when she got done with school. She liked pottery. It was her dream to visit Greece someday. She wore skirts a lot even though they got stained because she was always digging around in some patch of dirt. She liked dark and cold things but her smile was so warm. She was the greatest fucking thing that ever happened to me. That ever happened to this shitty space rock we call Earth. And I took her away. I took her away on the night that I was going to ask her to stay with me forever.”

The face of his phone was now splattered with tears. His whole body shook. From the bed he could hear Eridan shifting around. His voice floated over to him, tentative and soft.

“Sol…”

“That chair you broke belonged to her. She had it since she was in high school but she gave it to me because she wanted me to stop slouching when I sat at the computer. But that plan went to shit because she broke it when she was trying to adjust it. So it was stuck at the perfect height for me to slouch as much as I liked. It was one of the last things of hers that I had. Because I was too much of a fucking coward to face her family after what I did. I just let them come into the apartment and take everything.”

He looked up, trying to blink the tears away. “I fucked up. My whole life is a fuckup, Eridan. But I’m not going to shit around trying to keep it from you anymore. So don’t you fucking dare try to keep stuff from me. Don’t you fucking dare.”

Eridan looked away, and his blue eyes lost some of their usual luster. He was quiet for a long time, the faint beep of his heart rate monitor serving as the only sound to crack the thick silence of the room around them.

At last he spoke, his voice muted and small. “I just wanted to be normal. I wanted to be a guy that went to parties and played music and could just fuckin’ take a walk around a park without gettin’ winded…”

He paused, his fingers clenching on the sheets. And then he continued. “I wanted to be someone who could take care a himself instead a just bein’ one big inconvenience to everyone I met. I wanted to be a guy that had friends and not just a group a people that would occasionally feed me a big shit-steamin’ plate a pity. I wanted to pretend I could be this guy. But pretendin’ makes nothing but a lot a fake bullshit. And this perfect fuckin’ guy that I dreamed up was the fakest bullshit yet. Because tryin’ to be him did nothing for me except land me back here. In this fuckin’ place with its condescendin’ doctors and its wires and needles and fuckin’ food.”

He lashed out at his dinner tray as the last words erupted from his mouth, flipping it over and sending peas and carrots raining over his sheets. As the tray crashed to the floor and rattled to a rest, Eridan stared at his legs, his eyes full of tears and fury.

“I was born with only half a heart. And that’s how I’ve gotta live. This fuckin’ half-existence where schoolwork is done from a hospital bed and teachers and classmates barely know my name because I spend so much time plastered to a bunch a pillows. Where I can’t lift shit by myself or take long walks or swim or spend too much time in the sun. Where I can’t drink and get shitfaced and laugh about it later because I’m on all these fuckin’ blood thinners. Where all I can do is stare at a wall and dream a what it must be fuckin’ like to be born as a whole goddamned person instead a this fuckin’ sick, half-thing.”

He was shaking by the end, and the tears brimming in his eyes had spilled over to dapple his bed sheets. Sollux stared at him from the floor, his own tear-flecked phone still clutched in his hands. He swallowed the painful knot in his throat.

“So all of that… All the whining that I gave you so much shit for… And how tired you said you were all the time… That was all because…”

“I don’t want to hear about how you would’ve done things differently if you’d have known,” Eridan snarled, running a hand beneath his dripping nose. “I don’t want people doin’ things differently because they know. I don’t fuckin’ want that.”

Sollux felt anger flare in his gut. “You nearly killed yourself by pulling the shit you pulled. I nearly killed you! So don’t start shitting yourself this huge assloaf of a pity party because things aren’t they way you want them to be. Because your dead girlfriend ripped out half your heart or you were never born with both parts to begin with. You can’t run around acting like the other half is there and that you’re just fine. Look at us, you fucking asslord. Look at where pissing around in our respective fantasy-lands got us. I’m sitting on the floor of a place I swore I’d never go again, and you’re hooked up to a fucking IV drip without any of your precious hair gel in grabbing distance.”

“Actually I got some hair gel right here, I just never—”

“Shut up, I’m trying to make a profound statement.”

They both smiled then. Small quivering smiles that broke through their tearful masks. Sollux got to his feet then and sat hesitantly on the edge of Eridan’s bed. He quickly ran the back of his hand over his moist cheeks and jerked his chin toward the other.

“So can I see it?” he asked, his voice still hoarse.

“See what?” Eridan asked, running an arm underneath his glasses to dab at his eyes.

“The…damage zone, I guess,” Sollux replied, the words tumbling awkwardly from his mouth.

Eridan blinked at him in confusion for a minute, his eyes still puffy and red. But they widened with realization as Sollux’s request became clear. “Oh. Sure, I guess. Like you said, there’s really no point in pretendin’ it’s not there.”

He lifted his gown. Beneath, his chest was heavily bandaged. Sollux winced. If some part of him had been hoping everything had all been some elaborate prank, that part died when he saw the gauze. He reached out a hand tentatively, his fingers shaking. He looked to Eridan, who was still holding up his hospital gown.

“Can I?” Sollux asked tentatively.

“There’s really not much to touch because it’s all covered in about eight different layers a medical tape, but whatever, you can do what you want. Just don’t push on it, it still hurts like you don’t even want to fuckin’ know.”

Sollux eased his hand forward and gently splayed his fingers over Eridan’s chest. He felt it rise and fall beneath his palm, the warmth of Eridan’s body radiating even through all the bandages. After a time, he took his hand away.

“This is pretty heavy shit,” he said at last, unable to form a more profound statement.

“Yeah,” Eridan replied, dropping his gown back down.

“So how long are you going to be in this place?”

Eridan shrugged. “I don’t know. They’re scared I’m gonna do something stupid again, so I’ve been ordered to stay here for as long as they deem it necessary until I get their certified fuckin’ say-so tellin’ me that I can go home. And even then, I’m sure I’ll be consigned to fuckin’ bed rest for who knows how long.”

Sollux was silent for a moment as he watched Eridan fume. At last he shrugged a shoulder and replied, “Well, can you at least operate your laptop from bed?”

Eridan glanced up at him, the fire in his eyes cooling. “Yeah, I guess. Why, are you goin’ to be commissionin’ me for construction work on Alternia even in my delicate physical condition?”

“On Alternia, the only vacation you ever get to take is the one six feet underground,” Sollux replied, a smirk forming on his lips.

“Wow, that is a lot a fuckin’ bullshit, Sol, I can’t even believe you,” Eridan replied, but he couldn’t keep the laughter from his voice.

Their talk ceased then, a tear-watered silence sprouting up in its place and blooming into an exhausted warmth. When Feferi and Kanaya finally decided to re-enter the room to inform the two that visiting hours were drawing to a close, they found Sollux curled on the bed beside Eridan. Each were breathing the soft notes of sleep.

Chapter Text

This was the day that Eridan Ampora called Feferi Peixes for the thirty-eighth time since he’d arrived in the hospital.

Each outgoing call was stacked neatly on top of the other in his phone’s notification box. All thirty-seven of them. And despite the fact that he was scheduled to meet with Feferi in about twenty minutes anyway, he felt that this was too dire a situation. It couldn’t wait.

Eridan had been having a lot of dire situations lately.

Feferi liked to call it a lot of things. Overreacting was her favorite. But Eridan really didn’t know how the hell she expected him to behave, given the circumstances. It wasn’t as if he had orchestrated the circumstances to line up in the most catastrophic way possible. His whole life was basically a book on the multitude of ways the universe lined things up in the most catastrophic way possible. And he reacted as any rational being would.

By panicking wholesale.

“Fef, I’m havin’ a fuckin’ problem here,” he said, lifting his elbows as his nurse wheeled his breakfast tray in front of him.

Her voice on the other end of the line was weary. “You’re always having a problem, Eridan. You have been having problems ever since you came out of the womb!”

“Okay, but this is different and it concerns you directly, so I won’t have you dodgin’ questions.”

“Do we really have to go through this now?” she sighed, and he could plainly see the way she was likely rubbing at one eye behind her pink glasses. “You are coming home today! Why don’t you try and think about how nice that will be instead of getting yourself worked up over a bunch of nothing.”

“Except it’s not nothing, Fef, and the fact that you are tryin’ to divert my attention from this shit-heapin’ pile a nothing is proof enough that there is actually something there and that it’s probably really fuckin’ huge too, like wow, that is the biggest pile a nothing I have ever seen.” He began stabbing his scrambled eggs over and over with his plastic fork. He imagined that was what the nothing looked like. A big disgusting pile of hospital-grade scrambled eggs.

It made his stomach churn.

“Well, if it’s any consolation to you, he’s planning on being here when you get back. And then maybe everything will make sense to you, and you can stop accusing me of things that aren’t true.” He could hear fevered movements in the background. Some clanking and the occasional hiss of the tap.

“Are you cookin’ for someone over there?”

“Ugh, Eridan, that is not the point!”

“See, you’re doin’ it again! You’re doin’ it! What you did just there was what you’ve been doin’ this whole time! Stop tryin’ to sneak around me, Fef, I am way too observant for that shit to work. I could be a fuckin’ top-notch sleuth who was hired out for his expert sleuthin’ abilities to locate and disarm fuckin’ atomic bombs or some shit if my talents weren’t better suited to more artistic pursuits like they are.” By this point he had reduced his scrambled eggs to soup.

“You would be the shittiest detective ever, mister! If you had to find an atomic bomb and disarm it, you would cut the wrong wire. But it wouldn’t matter at all because the real atomic bomb would be about a million miles away! That is how far off you are. You’re cutting the wrong wire on the wrong bomb. So nothing happens at all and you just look stupid with your stupid fish eyes and your big wire cutter.”

“Well, if I am not even messin’ with the right bomb then you should have no problem tellin’ me who you’re cookin’ breakfast for,” Eridan rebuked. “And don’t try to tell me you’re not cookin’ breakfast because I hear turkey sausage and turkey sausage has a very distinct sound. I don’t want to hear you arguin’ with me on this point.”

“I am cooking breakfast for myself!” she replied furiously, and Eridan could hear a sharp crack as she whacked her tongs against something.

“You don’t cook breakfast for yourself, Fef, come on, who fuckin’ does that?”

“I do that, Eridan! Which I guess might surprise someone like you, who only has cereal and pita chips stuffed in his pantry. I am getting tired of Mini Wheats!”

“You want to talk about bein’ tired a shit?” Eridan burst out. “How about I’m tired a you lyin’ to me! How about I’m tired a you constantly buttin’ into my life and wrappin’ your she-beast tentacles around anything good I ever manage to create for myself.”

“She-beast?” Feferi’s voice rose an octave in Eridan’s ear, quavering with rage. “I’ve had to drive over here from school every day to check up on you. And when I’m not around, I’m getting texts and voicemails in the middle of class because you are having some new emotional dilemma. I am really tired of putting up with all of your whining, Eridan. We are not all out to make your life hard. In fact, you are doing a pretty good job of making it the big dramatic production that it is right now. She-beast? I’ll show you she-beast, Eridan Ampora, when I come down to the hospital and choke you with your own bed sheets instead of taking you home!”

There was a click and then silence. Eridan slammed his phone down on his tray, glaring at it through his thick-rimmed glasses. Feferi thought she was so clever, covering up her dirty dealings by trying to twist things around and make it all look like his fault. But Eridan was no idiot. He knew how this shit worked.

After Sollux had gone home that day, he had asked Feferi to collect his laptop from his house, among a few other things. Most of which consisted of hair products and face wash. He had been a complete mess when Sollux had shown up. He could only imagine with a sense of muted horror how his hair must have looked when the gangly man had burst through the door. He was rather shocked that Sollux hadn’t turned right around and waltzed back out. His level of surprise had continued to escalate when the man decided to sleep next to him as well, despite the fact that Eridan hadn’t bathed properly in a while.

He then remembered that Sollux spent most of his time barricaded in his room, marinating in his own bodily fluids.

Still, Eridan couldn’t use Sollux’s doubtlessly low standards as an excuse to let himself grow lax. And so it was that he started doing his very best to at least freshen up each morning in anticipation of another surprise visit. Though it did him a world of good to get himself up and ready as opposed to just lying listlessly on his back throughout the morning, he was never visited by Sollux again.

He asked him about it frequently enough, however.

“So are you ever gonna drop by again or is this pretty much the only way we’re goin’ to be interactin’ for the next few weeks?”

Eridan placed a pink block down and had his avatar pull back a few steps so he could observe his work so far. He was getting quite good at navigating scaffolding since the completion of their first celestial body on Alternia.

Sollux’s avatar had raised its blocky gray arms in indifference. “I told you that hospitals fuck me up. I only went that first time to make sure you weren’t dead or something.”

Eridan watched Sollux hop up to the precipice of their latest creation. A floating hunk of pink hanging in the Alternian night sky. He began to lay down another layer of fuchsia cobblestone.

“Well, what if I was dyin’, would you decide to grace me with your presence then?” Eridan’s voice was sour over his headset as he picked at his bed sheets. The only light in the room was that of a fluorescent bulb above him and the blue-white glow of his computer screen.

He could hear Sollux’s perturbed sigh before the man responded, “It’s not like it’s personal or anything, ED. Can’t we just fucking hang out on Minecraft and build large pink moons?”

“Yeah, I’ve been meanin’ to ask you about the pink thing for a while now—wait a second. Did you just call me ED?”

“What? Oh, yeah. I guess so.” His tone was indifferent as his character continued to slap down pink bricks, hopping his way up the spherical framework they had put into place.

“Isn’t that what you do with, like, your really good friends? Your inner circle? They all get fuckin’ letter nicknames or however you do it. Does that mean I’m inner circle quality now, Sol?”

“It means you call me Sol, so I am giving you an equally demeaning substitute for your real name. It also means you are now legally bound to serve me on Alternia forever. You are my bitch. Go place a crystal here, bitch boy.”

“Fuck off, Sol, I am placin’ crystals nowhere until I get a confession outta you regardin’ your tender feelin’s toward my person.”

“Okay wow. No.” Sollux’s avatar slapped the crystal down himself.

Eridan tapped at his keys a bit, making his own character shuffle around on the blushed lunar surface. He watched Sollux work for a while more before he spoke into his microphone again.

“Speakin’ a confessions, actually, do you remember how we said we weren’t gonna hide anything from each other anymore?”

“Yeah?” Sollux’s character continued methodically along the scaffolding, laying pink bricks and placing down a crystal after every tenth one.

“Okay, well, I just thought I’d let you know something that is sorta pertinent regardin’ my personal information that may or may not be of interest to you, like I really have no idea.”

“Spit it out, dumbass.”

“It’s about me likin’ guys. Or like, at least havin’ a very strict preference toward them at any rate.”

He pressed his lips together as silence ensued between them, nearly forgetting to breathe.

At last, Sollux replied. “Meh. I sort of figured.”

“What?”

“I live in a house with two guys that are currently lusting after other penis-toting members of society. It’s not like a couple of dudes touching dicks is a completely foreign concept to me. Plus I thought it was kind of weird that Feferi was your childhood friend and yet there’s no history there at all.”

“Wait why, did she say something to you?” Eridan could feel his hackles raising.

“Not really. You can just tell, I guess. You guys talk about each other like brother and sister. Not like two people who have ever really been interested. You can say so if I’m wrong. Maybe I am, I don’t really know or care.”

His tone was flat and indifferent. Eridan really didn’t know what he’d been expecting. With a sigh he turned back to the lunar wall and began slapping the special pink-flamed torches Sollux had created along its side.

“Fef and I tried datin’ once but it was kinda awkward and uncomfortable for both parties so it stopped nearly the second that it started. Nothing really happened so it’s not much of a story to be perfectly fuckin’ honest.”

He could practically see Sollux’s apathetic shoulder-shrug as the man replied. “Eh. Shit happens. I made out with KK once when I was in high school. We pretty much had the same kind of reaction afterwards.”

Eridan felt as if Sollux’s deadpan words had leapt physically from his headset and slapped his glasses off his face. Stunned, he blinked stupidly at his monitor as Sollux’s avatar bounced away from him.

“Wait, you and Kar made out once?”

“Yeah. And it was awkward and uncomfortable for both parties. To quote you directly.”

“Because you don’t like guys, right?”

“Eh.”

“‘Eh?’ What kind of a response is that? What does that even mean, Sol?”

“It means ‘eh.’ It means I don’t really give a shit.”

“So you don’t like guys?”

“What is this, the sexual preference confessionals? Why the fuck do you care, dirt-shoving minion?”

“I don’t okay, wow, let’s take a step back to deflate your rapidly swellin’ ego here Sol. And for your information, I have been shovin’ more magical pink torches lately than dirt, so I think my title deserves at least a bit of an upgrade.”

“Torch-shover.”

“Yeah, torch-shover. Commander a shovin’ torches. Up your ass.”

“I should promote you to commander of really shitty comebacks is what I should do.”

“You mean really awesome verbal rebuttals. That is what I do, Sol. I rebut you verbally and in an awesome way.”

“Yeah, sure. Why don’t you rebut that torch two blocks to the left like it fucking says to do on your color map, dick prince.”

After that the topic was effectively dropped. At least between the two of them.

“Fef, I am havin’ some issues here.”

Her tone was hushed and urgent as she replied. “Eridan, I’m in the middle of class. I told my professor that I had to excuse myself due to a medical emergency. So this better be important.”

“It is important, Fef, why would I bother you for anything less than the most important a shit?”

“What is it then?”

“I think Sol might like guys.”

“Eridan, are you serious? I am learning about surgical procedures right now!”

“Right, and isn’t this an upgrade in topics?”

She sighed exasperatedly. “Call me later, okay? Now is not a good time.”

So he did.

“So you’re saying he made out with Karkat?” Once in the comfort of her own apartment two hours later, Feferi’s tone was much more interested and conversational. He could hear the tiny smirk on her voice as she spoke with him.

“Yeah, and he said it was pretty awkward, which I can understand because Kar’s a decent guy and all but he’s kinda not really someone whose throat I’d want to be stickin’ my tongue down. He’s just got this stocky little build and he always wears these grubby T-shirts and I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to put my face anywhere near his is all I’m tryin’ to say here.”

“So Sollux is more your type, then?” Feferi’s tone was mischievous.

“Wow, Fef, that is completely not the fuckin’ issue here. Like, where do you even get off comin’ up with shit like that? When did I ever say anything to give that sorta indication?”

“Why else are we talking about Sollux’s sexual preferences? You like him Eridan! And don’t try to be all coy about it, either! I know there is a reason you spend so much time talking about him. Because there have been occasions where you’ve called me to complain about what he eats, and I don’t really think it’s normal to care that much about the eating habits of someone you don’t have a small crush on.”

“Okay, well, I am not tryin’ to say anything here, like I am not tryin’ to indicate that I really give a shit about whether or not this happens, I am just statin’ here, for the record, that I might not mind it so much if he maybe wanted to put his hands in vaguely inappropriate locations on my body. I am just sayin’. Like. Strictly speakin’ he is not so bad to look at even though he wears really disgustin’ shit for more than a few days at a time. And this is all just completely objective what I’m impartin’ to you, Fef, just like, straight facts that have no bearin’ on what I do or do not want to become a reality okay because I really do not give a shit if he decides that datin’ me would be a thing that he’d want to happen. Because his last girlfriend died and he has issues there and I understand and respect that because I am a respectable individual, Fef. I care about these things.”

“Sometimes I think you care too much, Eridan.”

Eridan paused in the game of solitaire he’d been idly poking at from his hospital bed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, you have a habit of letting your imagination run away with you whenever you see the possibility of something happening.”

“I am bein’ perfectly practical here, Fef. You wanted to know how I felt about the issue and so I told you. I’m not sayin’ I want anything to happen in particular, just that I maybe might not mind it so much if it did, all right?”

“Well, all right. I trust you, Eridan. But I do think you’re being pretty unfair to Karkat. I think he is very cute!” Her tone shifted from mildly serious back to its usual effervescent state.

Eridan frowned as he found the ace of diamonds and double clicked on it. “Wait, how would you even know about that? Have you been goin’ over there?”

“Well, they do live right next door to you. And I’ve had to stop at your house nearly every day since you got in the hospital to pick up this or that for you. So I thought I would introduce myself! And meet everyone properly so that I wouldn’t have another embarrassing mix-up like I did the other day with Sollux!”

Eridan felt a cold stone settle in the pit of his stomach. His bones felt as if they’d suddenly been replaced with chilled water. “I don’t want you hangin’ out over there, Fef.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t. Gamzee’s fuckin’ crazy.”

“I don’t think that’s very fair, Eridan. Gamzee is sweet!”

“No. He fuckin’ kills people and buries them under the foundations a the house. Trust me on this, Fef. Your safety is bein’ compromised over there.”

“You’re being ridiculous.”

“Just don’t go over there, okay?”

“Fine. I don’t have the energy to argue with you anymore anyway. Did you win at solitaire yet?”

“No. I never fuckin’ win at solitaire. Fuckin’ ace a hearts is always buried at the bottom a the deepest pile. Fuckin’ piece a shit fuckin’ game.”

The next day brought a welcome change of pace from the endless hours of Minecraft and card suits and Megaman ROMs. After spending the first half of the day shuffling around in the bathroom, dragging his IV with him as he ran his fingers through his hair and scrubbed at his pallid face, he was then told by his nurse that he had visitors. Not expecting the plural form of the word, Eridan pulled himself back in bed and began adjusting his sheets around him, letting his mind tumble down an array of hypotheticals like he’d released twenty disks on the same plinko board. As such, no matter how hard he attempted to keep his ideas on only the most rational possibilities (Feferi and some spare friend from school, coming to give him the deodorant he’d asked for the other day) he couldn’t stop a few stray thoughts from ricocheting off into possibilities of Sollux. The man was afraid of hospitals after all. Multiple visitors likely meant he had taken someone with him for emotional support. Just to get him up the stairs. Because the two of them would be fine together once Sollux had made it through the initial journey up to Eridan’s room. He found himself hoping that Sollux had chosen Kanaya as his companion in emotional support rather than anyone else. Kanaya knew when to step out of a room.

That particular plinko disc of possibility was shattered soundly as the door finally opened to reveal Gamzee and the short, timid boy from the park. Eridan buried his disappointment in observation, looking the two young men over as they made their way into his room. He couldn’t help but notice how naked the boy looked without his kitten in his arms. He still held his hands in front of him, twisting his fingers anxiously. It was as if he had no idea what to do with his upper limbs if they weren’t wrapped around something black and fuzzy.

“Hey motherfucker,” Gamzee said, raising one hand in greeting. The other held up a covered pie tin that had a few brightly colored bows plastered to its surface. Gamzee took the liberty of removing Eridan’s untouched breakfast from the rolling tray that it was perched on, replacing it with his baked creation. “Happy getting well day, my brother.”

Eridan stared at the bow-covered tin, unsure of what to say. “So this is a day dedicated to my feelin’ better?”

“Yeah, man. And it doesn’t hardly get to stopping itself there. Tavros, show our good bro Eridan what other sorts a miracles we brought for him on this mirthful day of healing.”

Tavros nodded and scurried back to the doorway, returning seconds later with a balloon in his hand. It was a huge, baby blue affair decorated with a smiling sun and an assortment of pastel letters arranged into the message of “Get well soon!” As Tavros held it out to Eridan, he lost his grip on the pink string, and the balloon went floating up toward the ceiling. The boy let out a cry of dismay, but Gamzee caught the string easily, handing the balloon to Eridan.

“See what it says, motherfucker?” he asked, pushing the huge buoyant sphere down towards Eridan’s face. “Get well soon. Those are our wishes all up and given to you in balloon format so that you can see how motherfuckin’ bright and cheery they are. They are so bright that they had to draw a motherfuckin’ sun on this balloon. And it won’t even get to be keeping its spherical self contained by the ground either, man, it all up and wants to send our message to the next level. So hold on tight, my brother.”

Eridan batted the balloon out of his face, his lip curled a bit. “Thanks.”

“And I also used my artistic skills to be creating you a card,” Gamzee pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket and smiled as he handed it to Eridan. “Because my good bro Sollux says you like that artistic shit, and so I got my fingers to tickling all up in my creative juices and that’s what they motherfuckin’ pushed out.”

Eridan smoothed the folded paper over his knee and found himself looking at a crayon drawing of two smiling stick figures holding a pink heart between them. Over their heads was a rainbow.

“That’s very nice, Gam,” was all Eridan could manage.

“That’s you and me,” the man explained with his easy drawl, pointing to the two figures. “I’m the tall one, see that? My legs are longer than yours so it’s all representative of our respective heights and stuff. And we’re sharing a metaphorical heart because we’re best motherfuckin’ friends. And I just added the rainbow because I liked it. Makes it all colorful for your eyes to be sort of looking at and appreciating of how much they can take in.”

“Yeah, I see that,” Eridan replied, nodding stiffly, his smile glued awkwardly to his face.

Gamzee then stood back, folding his arms across his chest and nodding in immense satisfaction. He looked to Tavros and gestured toward Eridan. “You gotta show him yours too, bro.”

Tavros looked rather mortified as he produced his own card. Eridan could barely see it because the boy’s hand was shaking so bad as he held it in front of him. At last, frustrated, Eridan snatched it from the boy’s fingers and shook it out, squinting down at it.

“I, really don’t know you, so, I was, not really sure of what to draw,” Tavros tried to explain as Eridan’s frown deepened. “But, Gamzee just said to, uh, follow my heart, or something, so my heart told me to, uh, draw you with a guitar. Because I thought I remembered seeing you carry that once. Also you are, um, a Pokemon master, because that is a really good thing that, people do when they’re not sick, so, I thought maybe it might, encourage you. To be not sick, I mean.”

Eridan stared down at the picture. It had more form than Gamzee’s image, and he could tell Tavros was at least sort of decent at drawing. He could see himself holding a guitar triumphantly over his head and surrounded by several Pokemon, some of which he recognized and others that he did not. He opened the card and found “Get well soon!” scrawled across the inside. He closed it again.

“Thanks, uh, Tav? Is that your name? Sorry, but it’s like you were sayin’, we don’t really know each other.”

“Yes, my name is Tavros, and, um, it is really great to meet you, properly, and also I hope you feel better soon.” He looked rather relieved that his card-giving was over, and now retreated a few steps from the bed, continuing to worry at his fingers distractedly.

“And now for the motherfuckin’ centerpiece,” Gamzee said, lifting the bow-covered lid off the pie tin. Eridan blinked as the pie was revealed to him. Its crust was perfectly golden, and cut into it was a bespectacled frowny face with a tuft of hair cut out just above the eyes. The filling was purple and glistened tantalizingly from beneath the exposed segments.

Eridan hesitated. “Is that supposed to be…”

“It’s you, motherfucker,” Gamzee said proudly. “I even got your little purple hair dye thing because I thought that was important.” He pointed to it. It caused Eridan to touch his own tuft of dyed hair, wondering why Gamzee had given him such a gloomy expression. Surely he didn’t come across as that grouchy. “At first I was wanting to be up and using blueberries for the filling because I don’t know any motherfucker that doesn’t like a blueberry. But our good sis Feferi said they bum you out. So this is a blackberry pie, and it is designed to only be delivering happiness and healing miracles to your mouth from betwixt its two layers of flakey golden delight.”

Eridan paused in his observation of the pie to look up at Gamzee. “Fef said that?”

“Yeah, bro. She said that blueberries got your stomach all sort of angry and shit, like when two bros who usually get along start fighting over the Oreos that they up and bought together the day before.”

Eridan waved a hand to get the guy’s tangential ramblings to cease before they lost sight of the more critical bits of the conversation. “But wait, Fef said that to you?”

“Yeah, motherfucker.”

“So she was over there?”

Gamzee nodded, smiling. “Yeah, bro, just yesterday she was having a talk with our good buddy Sollux about something all confidential-like. Our bro Sollux has been getting his self up to lots of top secret classified goings-on lately, so he doesn’t get to showing up much around the house anymore.”

Eridan felt his stomach twist inside him. “So wait. Sol’s been leavin’ the house?”

“Yeah, mostly every day now, so it’s just Tavros and I, all up and sort of stimulating the architectural synapses in our brains.” He put a finger to his temple lightly, nodding.

“We are, building a cat castle, for Rufio,” Tavros explains, offering Eridan a smile.

It was a smile that the man did not return.

“I thought I told you not to go over there anymore,” he spat into his phone after Gamzee and Tavros had been seen safely from his room.

“I don’t understand what you’re getting so grumpy about,” Feferi responded, her car’s radio playing softly in the background. “I was only there for a few seconds. All I did was tell Gamzee that blueberries gave you really bad gas.”

“Yeah, thanks a whole fuckin’ lot for that, by the way.”

“Well, it’s true, Eridan! And I wanted you to be able to enjoy your pie. Wasn’t it cute? Gamzee told me what he was going to draw on it. He’s really talented, isn’t he?” He could hear her flick on her blinker as she spoke.

“Yeah, he’s amazin’ and a bunch a other shit,” Eridan replied dismissively, flicking his wrist out of habit. “But let’s be realistic here, Fef, because you and I both know that you weren’t goin’ over there to give Gamzee my fuckin’ dietary information. Something’s goin’ on between you and Sol and I want to know what it is.”

“What?” He heard the sound of the car accelerating beneath the woman as she spoke.

“Yeah, you heard me,” Eridan replied, crossing his arms over his hospital gown, feeling the gauze pressing into his chest.

“I don’t know what kind of ideas you’re cooking up in your head, Eridan, but they are all the wrong ones.”

“Fuckin’ enlighten me then. What were you talkin’ to Sol about? Because I know you two were talkin’.”

She didn’t reply for a while. At last she finally sighed and said, “Look, it’s nothing, okay? He just had some questions for me, so I paid him a little visit. It was nothing serious.”

“What kinda questions though, like what the hell sorta shit do you guys have to discuss?”

“I am pulling into the driveway now, Eridan, and I have Jade over to study, so I have to go, all right? Byyyye!” Her voice was full of exuberance before the line disconnected.

Furious, he sent her an angry text telling her, once again, to keep her grubby paws out of his business. Once finished, he slammed his phone onto the table next to his bed and reached down to dig out his laptop. As soon as it hummed to life and he’d gotten his headset in place, he booted up Skype to see twinArmageddons online, as he usually was in the evenings.

Eridan was just about to initiate a voice call when Sollux beat him to it. The notification pinged loudly on his screen until he accepted, and the man’s voice crackled to life in his ears.

“Hey. Feeling up to Minecraft?”

“No. Fuck you.”

“What’s wrong now, princess?”

“Gam and Tav came to visit me today.”

“Wow, that does sound pretty terrible. Let me run you a bubble bath so you can recover from all the pie and cards and other horrible shit you probably had to endure.”

“You can drop the sarcasm, Sol, that’s obviously not what I’m upset about here.”

“Where were you detecting sarcasm in any of what I said? I was being completely un-sarcastic.”

Eridan wanted to tell him to stop dicking around. But, knowing that it would only elicit more smart-ass commentary, he decided to cut to the heart of the matter instead. “Where the fuck are you goin’ durin’ the day?”

“What?”

“Gam said that you’ve been slippin’ out durin’ the day. And I know pretty damn well that you don’t just fuckin’ leave your room for no good reason because all you ever have an interest in doin’ is playin’ some video game or other, so I don’t want to hear any bullshit excuse about how you suddenly became an outdoorsman because we both know that that’s a load a fuckin’ crock.” As he spoke, he could feel his throat tightening with anger and something else. The room had grown dark around him once again, and once again he found himself in the company of naught but the fluorescent light above him and the glow of his computer screen.

“I wasn’t aware that I had to check in with you before I left to go places, mom.” Sollux’s voice was edged with genuine anger.

It only served to make Eridan even more furious. “I just don’t know why you feel like you gotta cover it up. Weren’t we done keepin’ shit from each other?”

“This is different,” Sollux muttered, and Eridan could hear him tapping on his keyboard in the background. “You’re obviously in no state to be playing friendly games of Minecraft with me, so why don’t you just drink a juice box and go to bed?”

Eridan made some reply containing some expletive, but it didn’t matter. Sollux had disconnected their call and signed out of Skype before Eridan could so much as finish uttering a syllable.

He did end up drinking a juice box. He also spent most of that night with his covers pulled over his head, breathing in the sterile scent of them, feeling their scrubby limpness against his grimy skin. He found himself thinking of a different night. One spent on a much softer bed. Where there had been no unbearable itching in the middle of his chest. Where he had rested his head against the pillow between them, but was still able to feel the warmth through the fabric. His warmth. He remembered the way the room smelled. Like grease and fortune cookies and soap. He recalled wondering whether Sollux had showered recently. Recalled thinking about what kind of shower gel he used, if he used any at all. Sollux struck him as more of a bar soap type of guy.

He dabbed at his eyes with his hospital gown, his face flushed with anger. He nudged his empty juice box out of the tent of misery he’d created for himself with his bed sheets, listening to it as it clattered to the floor with a hollow sound. And then the only noise was that of the heart rate monitor. Constantly reminding him why he was bound to this flimsy bed with its thin sheets. Why he couldn’t go home and recreate that time with the Chinese and the comforter and the warm glow of the yellow light. Why he couldn’t feel that warmth through a pillow or smell the scent of bar soap and fortune cookies.

He curled up into a ball, scratching at his chest. It ached almost constantly. He was sick of it. Sick of it hurting. Sick of having to mind it. Sick of having to be careful around it with water. He just wanted to sink to the bottom of a tub and stare up at the ceiling through the water, watching the image undulate against his eyes. He wanted to be properly clean. He wanted to stand and use his legs and run around. He felt as if his flesh was dying on his bones. Simply withering away.

He was so sick of it. So sick of all of it.

He awoke the next morning to a sour knot in his throat, his eyes dry and itchy. He tried his best to scrub the feeling away in the sink. He even used his best face wash. But it did nothing. It all eventually washed down the drain, and he was back in bed, left to do nothing but stare idly at his computer screen until the sun had made its daily march across the sky.

So he called Feferi for the thirty-seventh time.

“I can’t talk right now, Eridan.”

“Sure you can, it’s fuckin’ Saturday and I know you don’t have class.”

“I’m busy, okay? I’m picking you up tomorrow, though, so we can talk then! We’ll have a really nice long talk and I can paint your toenails or something.”

“No, Fef, that is fuckin’ tacky.”

“I’m just kidding! I thought you’d be happier today. It’s your last day at the hospital! Aren’t you excited?”

He shifted his legs beneath his sheets. They looked so foreign to him. As if they were someone else’s legs, but they just happened to be sprouting from his torso. He was almost surprised when he wiggled his toes and the feet in front of him responded accordingly.

“I’m not really sure what there is to be gettin’ excited about. I’ll still be on bed rest for a month after this. So it’ll just be the same shit every day only worse because now I’ll be closer to it.”

“Closer to what?”

“All a you guys. Havin’ fun and hangin’ out and doin’ whatever secret shit you’ve been doin’.”

“Wow, you are really crabby today. See? All signs are pointing to us having a nice talk tomorrow. And not a moment before!”

Eridan was about to reply when he suddenly heard a voice in the background. “Wow, is ED still bitching?”

He stiffened. “What was that?”

“What was what?” Feferi replied.

“Sol’s there. Sol’s there with you, isn’t he, I just fuckin’ heard him.”

“What?”

“Where are you guys?”

“We are nowhere, Eridan.”

“What the fuck are you doin’ together? Where are Kar and Gam? Are you over at their house again?”

“No! I am at your house, stupid.”

“You’re at my house? Alone with Sol?” He could feel the hot rage building behind his eyes.

“Eridan, this is exactly the opposite of what you are thinking. And I know what you are thinking!”

“What am I thinkin’ Fef, hm? Answer me that one.” Despite his best efforts to keep his voice even, he felt it crumbling beneath him.

“Eridan, I will call you tomorrow, all right? Maybe then you can start being more rational.”

The connection died and Eridan dropped his phone onto his lap. He stared at it for a long time, swearing and pleading under his breath. Willing the conversation to rewind itself into inexistence. But it never did. Instead, it simply replayed in his mind. With worsening imagery each time.

Soon he was curled on his bed, begging his nurses for more pain meds. His chest was bothering him. He needed more pain meds.

So it was that he found himself staring dazedly into his computer screen that night, waiting for Sollux to come on. When he finally did, he squinted hard at the screen to find the button to initiate a voice call. He found that if he closed one eye, he could focus better. So it was with one eye that he prompted the man on the other end to start a chat with him.

“What’s up,” came his voice over the speaker. Eridan threw his gaze about dimly for his headset, but decided it wasn’t worth it. Instead he simply hitched the laptop up on his knees and bent his face as close to the screen as he could.

“I had a juice box like you said, Sol, and I got to thinkin’.”

“…Uh-huh.” Sollux’s voice sounded suspicious.

“Are you sleepin’ with Fef?”

“Wow. Sounds like someone needs another juice box.”

“Don’t play dumb with me you fuckin’…cock sucker.” The words seemed sleepy on his tongue. As if he couldn’t quite get them to wake up properly and push themselves out of his mouth.

“How am I playing dumb?”

“Because you’re sayin’ shit like you can’t see it. And I know how it goes,” Eridan said, continuing to squint at his screen with one eye. “I know how it goes. It’s always the same way with her. Why the fuck do you think I moved away?”

“Well, I thought you said it was because you wanted to be someplace where people wouldn’t treat you like you were sick.”

“And also her. Fuckin’ her with her fuckin’ giggly stupid ass and takin’ everything away from me that I ever got goin’ good. I could never get away from her.”

“I don’t know, ED. She’s been taking pretty good care of you. And from what I see, you kind of call her constantly. If someone is on the losing end of this relationship, it sure as fuck isn’t you.”

Eridan poked Sollux’s display picture on his screen, watching the colors warp and bulge around his fingertip. “You shut up. You don’t know fuckin’ anything.”

“Whatever you say, ED.”

“Stop callin’ me that. I hate it.”

“Yeah, well, I hate ‘Sol’ but that doesn’t seem to stop you, does it?”

He didn’t remember the rest of the conversation very well. The most he could recall the next morning was that Sollux had assured him that he would see him tomorrow, and that the man had told him once again to drink another juice box. He must have listened, for he saw a second empty container of Juicy Juice lying next to the one he’d pushed to the floor the night before.

After washing his face and staring angrily into the mirror for a good while, he initiated call number thirty-eight.

The whole affair had him not wanting to return home at all. Instead he found himself considering other options. Possibly another city. Possibly staying with his parents for a while to discuss shipping out of the country entirely. To some uncharted island nation, where he could become king and live in a lavish golden castle, adorned with silks and jewels, basking in the unfaltering worship of his people.

It would have been a nice daydream, had his chest not interrupted him with its infernal itching about two seconds in.

When Feferi came to pick him up, they didn’t have much to say. He remained tight-lipped as she gathered up his things for him, checking and double-checking that all his hair gel was arranged neatly in his bag so as not to spill on his laptop. She then helped him dress, though he spent most of the process trying to shake her off and telling her that he could do it himself.

The car ride home was a similar affair. Her sugary pop songs played softly on the radio, and their bright lyrics and rhythms provided the only sound beside that of the car’s purring engine. Eridan glared out the window as she drove, hugging his bag as he watched the buildings pass. When he saw Toppers, he knew they were close, and that soon he would be back in his house. Back in his bed. Condemned to watching the life he’d cultivated over the last month begin to pass him by outside his window.

Feferi shut off the car as they arrived in his driveway. She then pulled Eridan’s wheelchair out of the back seat, setting it up beside the passenger side door of the car.

“I don’t fuckin’ need that Fef, it’s like twenty fuckin’ steps up to the house,” he snapped as he pushed open the car door.

“Fine!” she said, folding it back up irritably. “You can walk up the steps by yourself then!”

It was a hideous lie, however. She was at his arm the instant he reached the few steps that led up to Eridan’s porch, letting him lean on her as he made his way to the door. They said nothing to each other about it, but he did glower at the doorknob as he reached out for it and shoved the door unceremoniously open…

…right into Sollux’s face.

“Fuck!” the man yelped, stumbling back and holding his nose.

Eridan’s eyes widened in shock. “Jesus Sol! What the fuck were you doin’ there?”

“Waiting for you to come home, jackass. Oh my god, I think you fucking broke it. Fuck. Shiiiit.”

He dashed to the kitchen sink, bending over it and carefully taking his hands away from his face. Eridan saw globs of red drip from the man’s nostrils as Feferi walked him inside.

“Oh fuck, Sol, I’m so…sorry…” He paused as he looked around the house, noticing that something was definitely not the way he’d left it.

The floors were covered with plastic and the windows had all been taped. He blinked as he listened to the running tap and the sound of Sollux spitting into the sink. The smell of paint permeated the air of the house, and the once hideously yellow walls of his dwelling were now a warm chestnut. He stared, his gaze eventually falling to Feferi, who was smiling beside him.

“If you weren’t in a frail physical condition right now, I would push you onto the ground and kick you,” she said brightly, still holding his elbow.

“Wait, so you guys were…”

“Painting your dumb fucking house,” Sollux gasped from the tap, blood still running from between his fingers.

“Wait but…how…”

“You told me you purposely picked an ugly house because you wanted to have fun sprucing it up! I told that to Sollux the first time I went over there to introduce myself. Ever since then he’s been hell bent on doing some of the sprucing for you, I guess. He still needed my help with colors though.” Feferi smiled at the man.

Eridan felt his throat tightening. “But…but why?”

Feferi shrugged. She looked to Sollux, but the man still seemed to be quite preoccupied with flushing his bloody nose out in the sink.

“Why don’t I take you to your room, Eridan? You shouldn’t really be standing right now anyway.” She led him off to the right and down the hall.

When she pushed into his room, he saw that it too had been painted. A cream with accent walls of a muted purple. It matched the brown carpet surprisingly well. His bed had been covered with a brand new set of purple bedding and a velvety comforter. As she helped him get nestled beneath them, he realized that a large TV had been set up just across from him on the wall, at the perfect angle for him to view anything from bed.

His chest suddenly hurt in a way that had nothing to do with his incision. “Wow. I’m suddenly feelin’ like a huge asshole.”

“That’s because you are a huge asshole,” Feferi replied, pinching his nose. He pushed her away, and she put her hands on her hips then, grinning at him. “Sollux says he wants to try out some video game with you or something. So I’m going to leave you two alone for now. Be good, okay?”

All he could manage was a muted “’kay” before Feferi backed out of the room and shut the door behind her. He found himself staring blankly at his freshly painted walls. At his new TV. Running his hands idly over the plush surface of his purple comforter. It smelled so new, he realized. Not limp and sterile like the sheets of the hospital. And the light in his room was a warm yellow that mingled with the summer sunlight filtering in through the window.

He felt dizzy. Like his chest was filling with helium and he would float away at any moment.

He scrubbed at his eyes from under his glasses.

“So what do you think?”

Eridan pulled his hand away to see Sollux entering the room, shutting the door behind him. His face was already beginning to bruise, but the bleeding looked to have stopped. He made his way over to Eridan, motioning for the man to scoot over so he could crawl under the covers next to him.

“I’m really sorry about that Sol, I feel like such a fuckin’ asshole,” Eridan stammered as he made space for Sollux.

“Yeah, well, you are an asshole. But not for wrecking my face.” He turned to Eridan as he settled himself beside the young man. He looked over at him with his one good eye. “You’re a real fucking jerk to FF. I just hope you realize that.”

Eridan clutched at his comforter, running his thumbs over the velvety surface. “I was just scared okay I thought she was comin’ in and takin’ over my life all right? Like, I get how she comes across. She’s fuckin’ charmin’ and nice and all the things that I’m not and so it’s only natural for people to want to hang out with her instead a me if given the choice. And you never came back to see me or anything like that so I was just sorta figurin’ that I was losin’ the only person I ever got really close with in this place.”

Sollux dabbed at his nose, checking to see if he’d maybe started to bleed again. He hadn’t. “Yeah. I get that I came across as kind of an uncaring douche because of the whole fear of hospitals thing. Which I felt like shit about. So that’s why I wanted to do this, I guess, to sort of make it up to you.” He gestured dismissively at the walls. “Even though I’m fucking shit at painting, as I came to find out.”

Eridan glanced at the walls again, blinking. “I don’t know, Sol, they look pretty nice to me.”

“Eh. Thanks, I guess. I feel like I do better with Minecraft palette swaps than I do with real life ones.”

“Are you tryin’ to say that you performed a palette swap on my walls?”

“Yeah. They are the same walls with different colors. Palette swap.”

“Sometimes I really gotta wonder whether you realize how fuckin’ nerdy you sound to the average listener. Like, that is an almost irredeemable use of a video game analogy. That is enough to have your ‘normal’ card not only revoked, but shredded up and put through an incinerator. Seriously, you are a real fuckin’ hopeless case, Sol.”

“Shut up.”

Eridan turned to him, leering. “Who’s the commander a shitty comebacks n—”

Sollux’s face was inches from his own.

There was enough time for his mind to freeze. For the bed to drop out from beneath him and send him spiraling weightlessly through that single moment in time.

And then their lips met.

Chapter Text

This was the day Sollux Captor decided to take it back.

He wasn’t sure how long the kiss lasted. Realistically, it was likely no more than a few seconds. But with Eridan’s lips pressed to his own, he suddenly became keenly aware of everything. The sudden sharpness of his senses seemed to stretch the moment out. Letting him register the warm breath washing over his cheek from Eridan’s nose. The way his lips were soft, but chapped. Dry. Dimly, he was aware that it was the reason he had put his own tongue forward. Just to moisten them. It had caused Eridan’s lips to part. And suddenly the cool taste of mint was in his mouth. He felt a tentative tongue against his own. Teeth bumping awkwardly against his lips. Eridan’s weight as he began to lean forward.

Seconds. A mere fragment of a moment that was stretched out into an array of sharply colored sensations. Like a beam of light passing through a prism.

It was enough. And soon he was pulling away. Not only that, but putting his hands against Eridan’s shoulders. Pushing. And time came snapping back. The wide spectrum of his senses condensed once again into a single beam of white light.

But he couldn’t shake the cold feeling in his gut.

He looked away from Eridan, raising the back of his hand to his mouth, holding it there. Trying to ignore the chill on his lips from where Eridan’s tongue had been. Attempting to focus on settling the bundle of cold snakes writhing in his stomach as the man beside him shifted. Turned toward him.

No. No. He looked away, keeping his knuckles pressed to his lips. He couldn’t speak yet. Not yet. He felt sick.

But if there was one thing Eridan was bad at doing, it was shutting up.

“Sol, that was…” He could hear the tremor of nerves in Eridan’s voice. Or was it excitement? Sollux’s insides grew colder still as the man continued. “Well, I guess I don’t really know what to think, I mean it kinda came outta left field and I wasn’t really prepared for it and shit but…”

He trailed off as Sollux continued to remain silent. Continued to refuse to look at him.

“Sol…?”

Sollux swallowed hard. “Sorry, I just… That was stupid.”

“Well, it was unexpected, yeah. Definitely. But I mean, if you’re havin’ a dilemma about whether or not it was welcome, I mean, it was. Not to say that I was expectin’ it in the sense that it was something that I thought was bound to happen. Like I really had no sorta expectations regardin’ the subject a your lips touchin’ mine but now that it’s come up, sure, I mean, that’s something I can maybe work with, you know, maybe I wouldn’t mind it so much if you wanted to try a second run.”

He was babbling, stopping for even fewer breaths than usual. It made the knot of snakes in Sollux’s stomach flip, and he felt a wave of accompanying nausea swell over him. He swallowed hard, pushing himself out of the bed.

“Wait, where are you goin’?” Eridan’s voice was strained. Bordering on panic.

“Just to get a game or something. We should try out your new TV. I don’t know how the color settings are.”

He made his way to the opposite side of the room, rummaging in the dresser beneath the wall-mounted television. He dug out Castlevania and shoved the disc into the Playstation he’d brought from his house. It was already hooked up to the TV in anticipation of playing games with Eridan.

That fact alone was enough to make him want to put his head in his hands and sink to the floor.

But he didn’t. Instead he snapped the Playstation’s lid shut and jabbed on all the power buttons. The console and TV flared to life, and Sollux unwound the cord from around the controller and brought it back to the bed with him. He climbed in beside Eridan before dumping the controller onto the young man’s lap. Eridan looked as though he were about to speak, but Sollux quickly cut him off.

“There you go. New game. Remember, you need to beat the prologue in under a minute if you want the best end-game stats.”

Eridan stared at the controller for a moment as the game booted up and prompted the player to input a name. He then moved his cursor about in silence before eventually entering “DUALSCAR” and hitting start.

“Wow, really?” Sollux sneered. “Not Alucard? You can’t just leave well enough alone can you?”

His voice sounded strange to his own ears. Almost too animated. As if he were forcing things. It made him want to put his knuckles to his mouth again and curl up on his side. Eridan made no reply as the opening cinematic played, zooming in on the blocky, texture-less castle.

“Get ready, douchelord. Under a minute.”

As the game began and Eridan started running across the screen, Sollux tried to focus all his attention on the pixels, his muscles quivering with tension. Perhaps it was for that reason that he reacted so strongly when Eridan bounded up a set of stairs to retrieve the cross.

“Are you kidding me, you don’t have time for that shit!” he burst out so loudly that he cringed once he’d finished.

He felt Eridan flinch beside him as well. “Jesus, Sol. I’m doin’ it this way because killin’ that guy in under a minute is almost impossible since they make you listen to that shitty cutscene.”

Said shitty cutscene was already underway. Sollux watched as Dracula’s sprite threw his tiny pixelated wine glass to the floor and proclaimed, “What is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets!”

And then the battle commenced. Eridan broke the candelabra beside the throne to reveal a jar of holy water. He picked it up, the cross tumbling from his inventory and to the floor as it was replaced.

“See, why the fuck did you even waste time getting that piece of shit if you’re just going to use hydrostorm?” Sollux snapped as Eridan put the holy water to effect, Dracula losing massive amounts of health as he did.

“Because fuck you,” Eridan snapped angrily as Dracula changed forms. “Like, are we just gonna pretend this never happened or what?”

“You’re taking damage, moron. You can’t take damage if you want the best end-game—”

“Sol, I don’t give a FUCK about my end-game stats!” Eridan burst out as Dracula dissolved in a cloud of fire and the screen went black. He threw down his controller as a wall of text began to scroll up the screen, turning to Sollux, his face flushed with fury. “Like, what the fuck was that? What the hell am I supposed to be thinkin’ right now? I mean, I was startin’ to maybe sorta entertain thoughts of a positive nature about the whole predicament, but now I’m just sittin’ here wonderin’ what the fuck it all even meant. Seriously, what’s goin’ on?”

Sollux looked away. He was silent for a long while, the snakes beginning to writhe angrily inside him once again. He got up from the bed and approached the television, grabbing the remote to go to the menu to adjust the display.

“Sol,” Eridan began.

“Your contrast is off,” Sollux cut in. “It’s driving me nuts.”

“It’s a fuckin’ Playstation game from the nineties. I don’t give a shit about whether or not the pixels are at their optimal viewin’ capacity.”

Sollux ignored him. He continued to mess with the sliders, dialing them up and down and back again, his fingers shaking as he pressed the buttons.

“Would you just fuckin’ talk to me?” Eridan burst out.

“What do you want me to say?” Sollux snapped, whirling around so fast that the remote nearly flew from his hand. “I don’t fucking know, okay? I don’t know!”

“Then why did you do it?” Eridan was livid from his place on the bed. His knuckles were white as he gripped the blankets, and he looked about ready to launch himself to his feet. “Clue me in here, Sol, because I am havin’ a hell of a time tryin’ to penetrate your thick skull with my fuckin’ super telepathy powers. Which I don’t actually have, by the way, you stupid fuck.”

Sollux dropped the remote onto the dresser beneath the television, putting his hands to his face. He rubbed his eyes with his fingers.

“It was stupid,” he repeated.

“Why was it stupid, though?” The angry edge on Eridan’s voice was beginning to sharpen into panic once again. “I mean, was it something I did? Because if this is about my performance in any way, let me just take this moment to remind you that I had no warnin’ whatsoever, so I’m pretty sure if we tried again and I was decently prepared, then we could both have a more satisfyin’ experience—”

“No,” Sollux said, taking one hand away from his face to hold out in front of him. “It has nothing to do with that, okay?”

“Then what?” Eridan’s voice grew more frantic still.

“I just…I just spent all of this time flipping out, okay?” He tore his other hand away from his face, his vision blurry as he stared at Eridan. “About you. About all the shit I did. Like the pool. God, the fucking pool. And how you wouldn’t take your shirt off. And I realized it didn’t have dick-sucking shit to do with the sun or your skin or whatever else sort of bullshit excuse you made up. It was…” He paused for breath, putting a hand momentarily to his mouth and swallowing before he continued. “It was your fucking scar. And I realized it and I remembered how much of a jackass I was to you that day—”

Eridan’s expression was stony as he cut in. “I thought we were done talkin’ about this shit. I told you that I don’t want to hear about how you would’ve changed things. And I don’t want you doin’ shit different just because you know.”

“And that’s why it was stupid, all right?” Sollux burst out, running an agitated hand through his hair. “All of this. The painting and the video games and the TV and the purple bed sheets. This isn’t… That’s not what I do. I don’t do shit like this, okay? Same with…” He waved his hand between them and gestured vaguely to his mouth. It was making his stomach clench too tightly to even mention again.

Eridan looked so small in the bed, swathed to the elbows in his huge plush comforter, his pale face standing out against the pillows piled behind his back. And Sollux felt something sick and hot prod nauseatingly at the base of his esophagus. He looked away.

“So you’re sayin’…” Eridan’s voice was quiet, “that all a this is likely just your way a respondin’ to the health shit that’s been goin’ on with me?”

Sollux wanted to leave. He wanted to simply drop the conversation where it was and walk out of the room. And then maybe go back across the street, shut himself in his room, and curl up on his bed. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, letting the vision come and go. Then he swallowed and looked back up to Eridan.

“I’ve already lost one person that means everything to me. The thought of it happening again…with anyone…it’s been really fucking with me.”

“Right.” The young man’s voice was hollow. “So that was a pity kiss then.”

Sollux said nothing.

Eridan picked up his controller and began playing again, the scrolling prologue having finished long before. He made his way through the first area of the castle, his face expressionless as he jabbed at wargs and zombies. Sollux listened to the sound of dying enemies behind him as he stood motionless in his spot, staring at the floor. At last he shifted his weight and let his gaze flick up briefly toward Eridan.

“I think I’m going to go home for the night.”

“Yeah,” Eridan replied. “Maybe you should go do that, Sol.”

Sollux turned slowly to face the door, touching his fingers to the handle as the sounds of the game continued on behind him. He heard the cutscene with Death begin to unfold. He glanced briefly back at Eridan, watching as the young man stared blankly into the television screen. There, the cloaked, skull-bearing figure held its scythe ominously above its head.

“We will meet again,” it proclaimed.

Sollux shut the door behind him with a soft snap. He then leaned against the wall in the hallway for a moment, rubbing his eyes. Sighing, he fished in his pocket for his sunglasses. He’d taken them off for today. In anticipation of seeing Eridan. As if it would mean something. Change something.

He curled his fingers shut around them, hearing them creak under the strain of his grip. He grit his teeth, staring at his fist, watching his knuckles turn white.

And then he slipped the sunglasses back on and pushed his way out of the house.

After trudging back across the street, he yanked the door to his place open, his gaze downcast. It was for that reason that he didn’t see Tavros come barreling toward him. He only saw the tiny ball of fluff that darted between his legs. He blinked, lifting a foot as it dashed outside.

He was then knocked into the doorframe as Tavros came scrambling under his legs after it.

“Rufio, no!” the boy cried with more volume than Sollux had ever heard from him. He twisted around to watch as Tavros darted after the little kitten, which bolted straight for one of the trees beside the road, scrambling up the trunk in about the same amount of time it took Tavros to take two bounds across the yard. Rufio hung there for a moment then, halfway up the tree and still within arm’s reach, staring back at Tavros as the boy ran toward him. Just as he reached out to take the kitten, Rufio decided to skitter the rest of the way up the tree and into the branches, where he looked down at Tavros with his huge yellow eyes.

Sollux blinked from his position contorted against the doorway. He slowly put his leg down and sighed. It could just never be normal over at his house. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he shuffled across the grass, coming to a halt beside Tavros, who was trying to lift himself into the branches to retrieve his kitten. He dropped down, wincing and peering at some splinters in his palms before he noticed Sollux’s presence. He quickly put his hands down, staring up at the man with a stricken expression.

“I’m, sorry for pushing you out of the way, like that,” he uttered in his usual halting voice, balling his hands into fists. “It’s just that, um, Rufio has learned to associate the sound of the door opening with, a chance to escape. So he’s been getting out, a lot, sort of.” He looked up at the cat with dismay as it continued to stare down at him from the branches, its tail swinging.

Sollux peered up at Rufio. “I think he just likes giving you a hard time.”

“Well, I wish that he maybe didn’t, have that particular interest,” Tavros replied, looking at his palms briefly again before curling his fingers back up. “I get worried that maybe, I’ll lose him someday and, won’t be able to get him back.”

“The cat castle will probably keep him more interested in staying indoors,” Sollux said, shrugging. “Weren’t you and GZ working on that?”

“Yes, but, it is a lot harder than, I think, either of us were expecting. So it might be a while before it gets done. And also, Gamzee has, sort of been, um, wanting to do other things besides playing card games, and, petting Rufio.”

He ducked his head down, starting to pick at the slivers in his hands. Sollux could see the boy’s cheeks getting pink, and suddenly realized that this was no longer a conversation he wanted to have. So he swung his arms a bit, and took a flying leap into the tree. He caught the third or fourth branch up, right where Rufio was perched. Not expecting such an advanced attack, the kitten arched its back and fluffed its tail in surprise. It gave Sollux enough time to take one hand from the branch, using it to scoop up the cat before he dropped back down to the ground in a shower of twigs and leaves. Tavros looked up at him with wide eyes as Sollux straightened. Rufio had already wrapped himself around Sollux’s wrist and was digging his tiny fangs into the man’s flesh, so it was with some difficulty that the kitten was transferred from Sollux back to Tavros. Once in his owner’s arms, however, the cat immediately began clawing and biting at Tavros’ fingers instead.

The boy seemed oblivious to the mini mauling he was receiving, however, and thanked Sollux profusely, smiling. Sollux waved a hand as he made his way back toward the house, passing Gamzee as the tall man was striding across the lawn toward the boy.

Sollux paused as he reached the doorway once more, looking back at the two of them. He was out of earshot, but the happy expression on Tavros’ face as he spoke to Gamzee, and the way that the taller man put one large hand on top of the boy’s head spoke loud enough. It made his chest tighten. Behind them he could see Eridan’s house, standing quietly in the setting sun’s golden light.

He shut the door behind him, sighing as he kicked off his shoes. It was then that he heard a piteous groan come from somewhere in the kitchen. Blinking, his eye still not adjusted to the shift in light from behind his already dark lenses, Sollux made his way carefully through the living room and ducked his head into the kitchen.

There at the table, lying next to three open containers of boneless wings and covered in barbeque sauce as if he’d just been slain by them, was Karkat.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Sollux asked as he went to the fridge to grab a container of juice.

“I went to Toppers,” Karkat groaned.

Sollux uncapped the jug of cranberry juice before approaching Karkat. He lifted one of the containers’ lids with one finger to see the logo before he took a drink. “Looks that way.”

“I went to Toppers because I knew John was working today,” the boy elaborated. “But I didn’t want to not order anything and look like a jackass. So I didn’t eat anything all day until I got home from work. And then I went.”

“Sounds pretty bad,” Sollux remarked, taking another swig.

“I was going to ask him for his number. So I just stood there after he gave me my three fucking boxes of wings. I just stood there and looked at him. Like a fucking moron. Oh my god.” He reached over his shoulders and gripped the back of his shirt, pulling it over his head so that his face was buried inside, his lower back exposed.

Sollux stared at him. “So I take it it didn’t go well.”

“I said, ‘I want your ranch sauce,’” came Karkat’s muffled reply.

“What?”

“When he asked, ‘Do you need anything else?’ I just stared at him and said, ‘I want your ranch sauce.’”

“Uh…”

“Ranch sauce, Sollux!” Karkat lifted his head off the table, his barbecue-covered face peering at him through the neck hole of his sweatshirt.

“…Yes.”

“I can never go back there,” Karkat’s voice was a heartsick lament as he laid himself back on the table.

Sollux looked at Karkat for a few moments before swirling his juice around in the bottom of the jug, peering at it closely.

“Please tell me your day went worse than mine. I need to feed upon the misery of others in order to have any will to continue existing after the monumental fucking travesty that is my life right now.” His voice was muffled by both his shirt and the table.

Sollux lowered the juice, sighing. “Well, it didn’t go like I was planning, I guess. Not that I had really planned out much.”

His interest piqued, Karkat lifted his head from the table, peering at Sollux through the neck hole of his shirt once more. “Dude, what the fuck happened to your face? Did he hate the colors of his room that much?”

Sollux touched his nose absently. He’d almost completely forgotten about it. “No, this was… It doesn’t matter. He just opened the door in my face. It was my fault.”

Karkat frowned, sitting up straight and pulling his head back through his shirt, regarding Sollux from under his mass of tousled brown hair. “Okay, what’s going on here ? I swear to christ that guy is rubbing off on you. It’s like you do nothing anymore but mope and worry.”

Sollux let a sad smirk tug at his lips, pressing the bottom of the juice jug to his forehead. “I just don’t know what to think anymore.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know? I thought we’d discussed this.” He laid his hands parallel to one another on the table. “You stop having fucking fits in your room about your sick boyfriend and instead go do something productive to win his heart. Then you await his return, upon which he would be eternally grateful and allow you to take into your sweaty fist the goddamned key to his chastity belt or whatever. Which would unlock with a holy glow and the chorus of a thousand angels before revealing unto you his virgin ass. Come on, Sollux. It was a nicely laid out, step-by-step plan that had absolutely zero ways of failing if not followed by a complete and utter moron. Which you apparently are.”

Sollux went to the refrigerator and tossed the juice back inside before pulling out a chair and slouching over the table across from Karkat. “I know I said some shit before. About feelings and a bunch of other garbage. And I know I might have given you the indication that I was maybe interested in something with Eridan.”

“No. To quote you directly I think it was something more like, ‘Oh God, KK, help I am tho attracted to hith thtupid ath and I need your infinite romantic withdom to help me capture hith heart becauthe I’m a complete fucking moron and all I do ith cry in my room all day over Minecraft. Waah, waah, why ithn’t he online, KK, what if he’th dead? What if he died before I ever got a chanthe to fuck him on a table?’”

Sollux glared at Karkat. “I think you’re confusing me with yourself, doucheprick.”

“Whatever.” Karkat shoved a box of wings away from him, scowling at it. “The point is, you gave more than a fucking indication of interest. You outright told me that you weren’t going to dick around with this anymore. You said that you were going to get off your ass and give him the great holy fucking sacramental confession of love or whatever the fuck. Which I guess entails dedicating an altar and a sacrifice to his name or something? Who knows. Love is handled in grotesque and strange ways on your planet of origin.”

“How about you stop being a jackass about this for two fucking seconds?” Sollux burst out suddenly. “I know what I said. And I thought that’s what I wanted. Because having him in the hospital like that just messed me up to the point where I thought I was going to fucking lose it. So spending the whole day painting and fantasizing about some shitty romantic foray was a way better alternative to staring at that fucking Minecraft server for hours and just…”

He balled his hands into fists, staring hard at the table.

“He was fucked up, KK. You should’ve heard him. I had to hang up on him over Skype a few times because I couldn’t take listening to him on all those pain meds. Even now, he just looks so sick…”

“Hey. Hey,” Karkat barked, snapping his fingers in front of Sollux’s face. “You’re doing it again. I am officially losing you to the spiraling vortex of angst that is the topic of Eridan’s hospitalization. Let’s not fucking go there, okay?”

Sollux bared his teeth, knocking Karkat’s hand away. “This is what I mean. That’s all I can fucking think about. And it makes me act like this huge fucking jackass. I kissed him, KK. I fucking kissed him and he leaned into me and it was terrible.”

Karkat blinked, his barbecue-smeared countenance blank with shock. “Wait, you kissed him? And he liked it?”

“I think so.” Sollux put his head in his hands.

“I’m failing to actually grasp the shitty part of this situation. Did he then shit velociraptors or something?”

“No,” Sollux sighed. “I just realized that I’m fucking with the emotions of a real person. Not just some idea.”

“I’m still wandering the fucking labyrinth that you have suddenly made out of this conversation. Help me out here, because my metaphorical forehead is getting bruised from running head first into all these fucking emotional walls.”

“I think those things I wanted were just born out of some kind of fear or relief or desire to make it up to him or whatever. But when he kissed me back like that, it just…it was like the real thing, okay? And I don’t…” He let his hands drop. “I don’t think I was prepared for that.”

Karkat regarded him with an incredulous expression. “Uh-huh… So what exactly were you prepared for, then?”

Sollux stared at his open hands on the table. He didn’t reply.

“Here’s the thing with you, Sollux. You’re scared of a lot of shit. But what scares you more? The possibility that you’re not ready for this and that it won’t work? Or the small chance that you are and that it will?”

Sollux tightened his fists. “I just don’t think I’m in the right place for this right now. I thought I was. But I’m not.”

“Right. Oh, okay, I’m glad you got that all figured out. In fact, let’s throw a fucking party. Let’s get a goddamned rumpus bonanza going on in here to celebrate the fact that you have it all fucking figured out.” Karkat’s tone darkened so suddenly that it caused Sollux to wrench his gaze away from his hands and look up at the boy glowering across the table at him.

“What the fuck is your problem?”

“My problem?” Karkat stood suddenly. “My problem? Not really anything except the fact that you keep creating all these goddamned imaginary barriers between you and captain asslord over there while I can’t get the guy I actually like to so much as look twice at me. God, you’re a fucking piece of shit, Sollux. Go masturbate into a cup and cry over how you’ll never find love again, for all I care. But I am done trying to help you. Fucking done.”

He gathered his half-eaten boxes of wings in his arms before stomping to his room and slamming the door shut behind him.

Sollux dropped his gaze back to his hands.

Karkat was pissed. Whatever. He had a right to be upset over an unrequited crush. But it didn’t mean he knew anything. He hadn’t seen Eridan’s face. Surely Eridan could sense that Sollux’s feelings weren’t really genuine.

Because how could they be?

He hadn’t done things like that in ages. He hadn’t left his room or gone out of his way to talk to people he didn’t know. He hadn’t curled on his bed with worry, clutching his phone to his chest. He hadn’t felt things so sharply. He hadn’t laughed or hurt or cried.

Not since…

But that was unrealistic. He wasn’t that person anymore. He could never hope to be that person again. He was different now. Hardened by the realities of life and loss.

What he felt now simply didn’t fit.

And so it couldn’t be real.

It couldn’t.

Chapter Text

This was the day Eridan Ampora left his house.

After Sollux left his room, however, Eridan continued to play Castlevania. He never paused. Never spared a beat. His glasses reflected the light of the screen as he stared, unblinking, tapping at the controller. Sending Alucard jumping onto platforms and hacking at monsters. He went through each passageway, shattering every candelabra and lamp that he could find, watching as the MP-restoring hearts fluttered down as his reward.

He wished it was so easy to collect hearts in reality.

Eridan blinked as a spray of blood erupted from his character. He gave his thumb a few quick jerks and dispatched the Axe Knight assailing him. He then continued on. He couldn’t think. Thinking would get him killed. He just had to immerse himself in the game. Let it come up around him like a glass bubble and block out all the noise in his head. The ache in his chest.

His throat was tight.

He had procured the Soul of Bat and was making his way out of the castle library when the door opened. He didn’t see it at first. It was the soft poff of a pizza box hitting his covers and the subsequent shock it sent to the mattress beneath him that made him blink and look. Feferi was smiling at him, both hands clutching a Toppers pizza box.

“I got you guys a treat!” she exclaimed.

Eridan stared at it for a moment. He then turned back to his game, hitting the D-pad to send Alucard darting forward once more. “You shouldn’t have bothered yourself with gettin’ a large.”

Feferi’s smile dissolved into a frown. She released the pizza boxes, tugging on the bangles at her wrists as she cast her gaze about the room. She backed slowly toward the door and leaned out of it, staring down the hall.

“He’s not here, Fef.”

“Why not?” she asked, pulling her face back into the room. “He didn’t go out to get you two something to eat, did he? I knew I shouldn’t have tried to bother with a surprise.” She put a hand to her forehead in dismay.

“No, he didn’t go out gettin’ anything, are you stupid?” Eridan’s voice erupted suddenly and violently from his mouth, tearing at his throat as it went. He immediately snapped his lips shut, trying to blink back the heat stinging at his eyes.

Feferi looked taken aback for a moment before her expression seemed to deflate. She pulled the pizza off the bed and set it on the dresser. By the time she came back to climb up on the bed next to Eridan, the man was already running a sleeve over his eyes, his controller abandoned in his lap.

“Fuck that guy,” he said, his voice cracked and watery. “What does he even want from me?”

“What’s going on?” She rubbed his back, ducking down to look up at his face. The expression she met him with, however, was petulant. “I thought you guys were getting along! How do you manage to start fighting in the time it takes me to get a nice Californian pizza from the place down the street?”

“I don’t know, why don’t you go across the street and ask him? Ask him what his fuckin’ deal is because I don’t have a fuckin’ clue at this point anymore, all right?” He sucked in a breath as he pulled his arms from his eyes, letting the tears drip freely. “I’m so tired a this shit, Fef. I’m tired a bein’ all lost and confused and constantly in the dark about what that guy’s thinkin’ or feelin’ and I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t.”

Even her slightly vexed tone was washed away at this point, and Feferi could only stare at Eridan with bald concern. “I think you seriously need to let me know what’s going on here, Eridan.”

He ran a sleeve under his dripping nose, trying not to think about how pathetic he must have looked, buried in a purple comforter with snot and tears running down his face. The thought only served to make his mood worsen, and the tears surged forth anew.

“He kissed me, okay?”

Feferi pulled away from Eridan a bit, her bangles clinking. She lifted one side of her mouth in confusion. “That’s why you’re upset?”

“God, it’s obviously more complicated than that, can you just let me finish? I’m tryin’ not to make a mess a this new comforter that was so generously fuckin’ donated to my sad and hopeless cause. Seriously, someone should just go ahead and slap my face on one a those fuckin’ commercials askin’ for donations while Sarah McLaughlin sings in the background.”

“Okay, I can see that this is going to be one of those times that we need a whole tissue box, so just sit tight,” Feferi gave Eridan’s knee a pat before leaving the room for an instant, returning with the box of Puffs that Eridan had bought for himself during the first week of his stay. She set it on his lap and he drew from it with muted gratitude, blowing his nose and wiping up some of the tears.

“So do you want to tell me why it’s more complicated than being kissed by a guy you obviously like?” Feferi asked. Her tone was still light, but it was more delicate now. Careful.

“He did it outta nowhere, all right? Like, I was just sittin’ here, sorta jokin’ with him about how he has shittier comebacks than I do, even though that’s not really a joke because he’s not as great at slingin’ insults as he thinks he is, and then all of a sudden his face is right up on top a mine and we’re kissin’ and…”

He trailed off as the memory flared behind his eyes, sending feathers exploding inside him, light and soft against the walls of his stomach, tickling him with possibility. But then those light touches of hope had turned to pain. They did so once again, and he suddenly felt as if a beast made of daggers were trying to tear its way out of his gut. He grimaced against the pain. The pain of how good those thoughts had felt inside him, for just the barest of moments.

It was a struggle to continue. “I thought it was gonna mean something, Fef. I thought that maybe all the hangin’ out we did and mutual sorta enjoyment of each other’s company was possibly culminatin’ into like a fully blown relationship and I thought about it and I thought about all the stupidest fuckin’ shit for like two seconds, like ‘Wow, I’ll really have to put a second shelf into the shower for his shit because I’m never sharin’ shower shelf space’ or ‘I wonder if he likes Indian food maybe I could take him to an Indian place someday.’”

He paused to rip another tissue from the box and scrub at his leaking eyes. “And I was doin’ all a that because I’m the most pathetic piece a shit ever and that’s all I’ve ever done for my whole fuckin’ waste of a life. Just sit and daydream and hope things will be better than they are but they never will be. They never will be, Fef, because the universe just wants to shit on me forever until it finally decides to put me outta my fuckin’ misery.”

He threw his glasses aside and buried his face in his tissue, feeling it moisten in his hands as tears continued to drip from his eyes. He felt the pressure of Feferi’s palm as she rubbed small circles over his back.

“Hey. Come on, Eridan, we’ve talked about this stuff plenty of times before. I wish you could just get it through your big stubborn head that the universe doesn’t just have this huge agenda drawn up specifically to torment you. I know you think you’re a pretty big deal sometimes, but I honestly believe the universe has better things to worry about.”

Eridan took the tissue away from his face and mopped at his cheeks a bit before crumpling it up and grabbing a new sheet. “That’s real easy for you to say when you’re off gettin’ your fuckin’ doctorate at some rich private school where you have fifty guys a day beggin’ you for your number. Yeah, I’m sure you can fuckin’ empathize with my situation.”

“Your situation and mine are practically the same thing!” Feferi rebuked. “I’ve been caught up in this since I was eight years old. It’s not fun for any of us, Eridan. Everyone worries about you. I’m sure Sollux is just worried too.”

“And that’s just fuckin’ it!” Eridan snapped, whipping his tissue away. “That’s all anyone ever does for me. They just worry. They don’t talk or hang out or laugh at stupid shit or love. They just worry. It’s just a lot a fuckin’ worry and pity and I don’t mean fuckin’ shit to them outside a some obligation to take care a me that they’ve cooked up outta guilt.”

“Eridan—”

“I don’t want to hear you arguin’ this point with me,” Eridan snapped, throwing off her comforting arm. “Because you’re just like everyone else. Just fuckin’ look at you. I’m horrible to you. Everyone sees it. Fuck, even I do. Why in the fuckin’ name a hell do you stick around here helpin’ me?”

Feferi looked shocked. She blinked at Eridan, her lips parted. But no words passed through them.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Eridan muttered, turning away from her.

She pressed her lips together until her mouth was nothing but a tight black line. Her limbs shook. It was with restrained politeness that she finally asked, “Do you want me to get angry, Eridan? Is that what you’re telling me?”

“I’m tellin’ you to stop givin’ me your charity because I don’t fuckin’ want it.”

She climbed out of the bed. She slowly turned around and stared at him through her pink-rimmed glasses, her fists balled at her sides. Her voice was quiet as she spoke.

“Well, good. Then I will just give you something else.” She walked over to the dresser and opened the pizza box.

She then promptly turned and threw a slice at his face.

Eridan’s head jerked from the impact. His face stung as he sat in utter shock, blinking ranch sauce and cheese out of his eyes.

“I’ve known you for fifteen years, Eridan!” Feferi shouted. “For fifteen years I had to watch as they cut you open and ran tests and talked about whether you’d ever make it to middle school. Fifteen years I watched you prove them wrong every time. I sat in the back of class with you in fourth grade and traded gel pens and made butt jokes. I was there when those jerks in middle school laughed when you tried out for track. I baked cookies with you at my mom’s house every Monday after high school classes so we could talk about Dirk’s stupid boycrush on Jake. Fifteen years I watched you be a huge pompous creep and a mopey blowhole and a whole lot of other things. Fifteen years!”

Her voice caught in her throat and suddenly there were tears dripping down her cheeks. With renewed rage she threw a finger toward him. “So I am not just going to let you sit there and tell me that none of it meant anything. I listen to you whine about a lot of shit, but I will not let you tell me that I don’t care. Not when I’ve stayed up at night while you’ve been in the hospital, wondering whether it was the last time I’d ever get to see you. Wondering what my life would even be like without you in it. I care, Eridan. I care in a way that your dumb selfish brain couldn’t even begin to process!”

She ripped her glasses off and ran a knuckle under her eyes before putting them back on. She sniffed as she glared down at Eridan.

“That’s why I’m going to tell you right now that you need to stop this. Stop acting like some kind of victim all the time. If you don’t want people to pity you, then do something about it!”

“I tried to do something about it!” Eridan snarled, wiping ranch from his brow before it trickled down into his eyes. “And all that happened is that my body gave out on me like it always does. I can’t do anything about it. Don’t you think if I could change or ignore my own bein’ sick that I would do that?”

“You don’t listen! You never listen!” Feferi stomped a foot. “I’m saying to stop acting like everyone always has it in for you! Because we don’t! More people care about you than you think, Eridan, you’re just always ready to assume the worst.”

“I can’t help that that’s the way I think when this is the hand I’ve been dealt my whole life,” Eridan snapped. “I assume the worst because the worst is what always happens to me.”

“You’re so stupid! You are so stupid, Eridan Ampora. And you are going to miss out on someone that really cares about you because you refuse to believe that he does.”

“He doesn’t, though! He fuckin’ said it himself, all right, I’m not makin’ this shit up for my own personal enjoyment.” He whipped another crumpled tissue aside.

“Fine! You know what? Maybe you’re right. Maybe your life is just as horrible as you say it is and it will never get better. And it’s all everyone else’s fault and even the universe’s fault but it never has anything to do with you! That sounds absolutely one hundred percent accurate, doesn’t it?”

She stomped out of the room and slammed the door behind her.

Eridan sagged back against his pillows, fuming.

And then the door opened again.

Feferi marched over and slapped a warm, moist cloth down on Eridan’s comforter. “Here, clean yourself up. I’m sorry that I threw a piece of pizza at your face, but sometimes I just don’t know how else to deal with you.”

Eridan stared sourly down at the cloth before plucking it up and using it to wipe off his face. He then began scrubbing the ranch out of his comforter. Feferi grabbed a paper plate and put the remnants of the projectile pizza onto it before dumping it in the garbage. She then took the pizza box over to Eridan and set it next to him as the man finished wiping cheese off his sheets.

“You should at least try to eat some of this. Because I might have snuck a piece when I was on my way back here, and it’s really pretty good,” she said.

Eridan replaced his glasses. “Yeah, well, the stuff that hit my face didn’t taste too bad, actually, and I guess it’ll be nice to have something that isn’t hospital food.”

Feferi gave him a small smile. “I’m going to head home now. I would stay longer, but I thought Sollux was going to be here, so I made other plans.”

“No, it’s fine. Whatever. You’ve put up with me enough for one day and we both fuckin’ know it.”

They were silent for a moment as Eridan lifted a slice of pizza out of the box and began to chew it. He stared at it as he swallowed. “Yeah, it’s not the best fuckin’ thing I’ve ever put in my mouth but I guess it’ll do.”

He sighed, putting the rest of the slice back down in the box.

“Fef, I’m thinkin’ you’re probably right about all of this.”

Feferi looked as though Eridan had just slapped her. “What?”

“I mean, I’m not sayin’ you’re right about Sol, because you’re not. But I don’t blame you for misreadin’ the situation or whatever because I wasn’t really too detailed in my description a what he said. But you are right about the other shit. All I’ve been doin’ since I got that operation is mopin’ and gettin’ angry and bein’ generally pretty useless, which is exactly the kinda thing that I moved here to try to stop doin’.”

Feferi sighed, closing her eyes. “Well, I guess it’s good I’ve made you change your outlook like that. Even if it wasn’t exactly what I was getting at.”

“The point is, I came here to do stuff. And I’m not gonna let hang-ups like this or the fact that Sol’s a fuckin’ bastard keep me from my callin’.”

Feferi put her face in her hands. “Well, I am glad the passion has been rekindled inside of you, Eridan.”

“A course it has, like any a that bullshit could really keep me down,” he finished with a note of bravado before deflating and looking to Feferi.

“Are you gonna come over tomorrow?”

“Why not ask one of the guys next door?”

Eridan crossed his arms over his chest. “Fuck all those guys. The only thing that bein’ in their company does for me is get me workin’ up a good rage. Or like, a fuckin’ panic, in the case a Gamzee. Because he’s fuckin’ unsettling.”

Feferi rolled her eyes. “Maybe I’ll come over. We’ll see. But Eridan, I really do think you should talk to Sollux, okay?”

“My response to that is the same as your response to me. ‘We’ll see.’ And I’m also gonna add that it’s pretty fuckin’ unlikely because the only thing he ever does is sit on the computer, and I have absolutely zero intentions a wastin’ time playin’ video games right now. I need to start bucklin’ down and actually gettin’ to work on honin’ my musical skills.”

And that was what he did. For the most part.

When he wasn’t taking breaks playing video games.

In the following weeks he fell into a sort of routine. He was still consigned to bed rest, so aside from getting up to use the bathroom, he found himself in his room for the better part of each day. He had laid his guitar case right next to his bed so that, upon waking up, he could immediately reach over and begin tuning it. He would then set it aside and watch videos on his laptop about guitar playing until around noon, which was when he would finally venture out into the kitchen for a bowl of cereal. Once finished with that, he would try to fix himself up in the bathroom before returning to his bed, where he would play about an hour of Pokemon. Tavros’ damned card had gotten him thinking about the game again after years without touching it, and so he’d downloaded a ROM of Blue version.

But fighting trainers could only stay so exciting. He began to spend his afternoons surfing the web for a different sort of MMO he could play. He had tried going in some of the public Minecraft servers, but found that without the intricate world and potential for large projects that he’d developed with Sollux, the game felt strangely empty and meaningless. So he decided that he was just probably over Minecraft, and downloaded World of Warcraft instead.

Except that people were fucking jerks in World of Warcraft and so basically fuck that game. What the fuck was DPS anyway? He could fucking hit things with his staff as a mage, there were no laws against melee being a thing that could happen in video games.

By the time evening rolled around, he would usually be visited by Feferi with dinner or he would actually pick up his guitar again and lean back against his pillows for about an hour to practice scales and chords. But no matter what he did, he just couldn’t seem to get his fingers to listen to him. And so it would be with angry frustration that he would curl up in bed and scroll through the text messages on his phone.

hey.

i’m working on some of the troll hives in alternia if you want to come see.

i’m putting your hive next to a creeper spawner. eheheh.

all right don’t answer, whatever.

ff told me you were still alive so thank her for me I guess.

i’m on skype every night if you want to talk. which i guess you don’t. so i’ll leave you alone.

He hadn’t received any more messages after that. He had been rather surprised that he’d gotten any to begin with. He thought back to the beginning of their relationship when he had been the one dicking around by himself in Minecraft, making stupid shit and texting Sollux about it. Knowing that the jackass would never text back, but just liking the idea that he had sent the guy a stupid message that would set his phone off, and maybe even having the smallest hope that Sollux would take his phone out of his pocket and read it.

He rolled over in his bed, staring at the messages. He wondered if Sollux had ever stared at his messages like this?

He threw his phone aside. No. He was done thinking about all this bullshit. He had bigger fish to fry. But he supposed he could at least do Sollux the common courtesy of letting him know as much.

He pulled on his headset and pulled his laptop close. Ever since he’d arrived back home, he had been constantly signed in to Skype. He just never took his status off Invisible. He did so now, however, as he spied the green dot indicating that a one twinArmageddons was currently online. He sent him a request for a voice call, and it was accepted.

“Hey, Sol.” He tried to keep his voice easy and casual.

“Wow. To what do I owe this privilege?” Sollux’s voice sounded more hoarse than usual. Eridan paid it no mind.

“Not to anything special, I thought I’d just let you know how things have been goin’ on my end and how they’re likely to be goin’ for all a the foreseeable future.”

Sollux was silent for a moment. When he responded, his voice was dry. “Oh really?”

“Yeah. I would’ve contacted you earlier but I’ve been really busy lately. I guess all the troubles I’ve been goin’ through have really sparked my muse, so I’ve kinda had my hands full with my music.”

“Uh-huh.”

Eridan could feel his stomach shrinking inside him. This was not exactly how he’d imagined the conversation to go. When he spoke again, his tone was decidedly less flippant. “Yeah. So I’m just lettin’ you know that I probably won’t be available at all to talk or play trivial bullshit video games with you since I’ve got better things to be doin’.”

Again there was a pause. When Sollux’s voice came again through Eridan’s headset, it was dim and quiet. “Yeah, well, I guess I’m sorry for wasting all your time.”

It was like some creature had reached through his chest and raked at his heart. But he kept his mouth shut. He couldn’t take it back now even if he wanted to. Not that he did. Because everything he’d said had been completely one hundred percent true.

“Well, I don’t want to keep you from all the important music shit you have to do. So I’m probably just going to go to bed or something.”

Eridan swallowed before he replied to make sure that his voice was in no danger of breaking. “Yeah, that would probably be a good idea. But I’m pretty thankful for you makin’ yourself available to me like this so I could let you know what the scoop was.”

“Sure.”

“All right, well, have yourself a good night, Sol.”

He heard a sound. A soft inhalation. As if the man meant to reply. But then the call ended, and Eridan found himself staring at Sollux’s screen name as the green dot next to it disappeared. He stared at it for a long time. Wondering whether Sollux might not suddenly appear online again.

A wondering that drifted uncomfortably close to hope.

He slept poorly. Even after taking a needless second shower just to envelope himself in warmth and cuddling down deep under his plush purple comforter, he still felt cold. And a persistent pain throbbed under his ribs, as if someone had lodged a knife there. He rolled onto his other side. Onto his back. His stomach. Anything to try and alleviate the pressure. Despite his best efforts, however, sleep refused to take him. Instead it left him alone with his thoughts. His memories.

Odd that he would have so many after only a month.

By the time morning arrived, he’d had it. Had it with staying in the house. Had it with staring at the computer all day. Had it with the constant ache in his gut. He threw off the covers, took yet another shower, and pulled on a pair of khaki shorts and a fitted white T-shirt. He shaved and styled his hair before throwing on a scarf and packing up his guitar.

He was done with bed rest.

He needed to get out.

Eridan was about half way to the park when he realized he had made a very poor life choice. He huffed under the hot August sun, his scarf barely managing to stay wound around his neck as he lugged his guitar up an enormous hill. He’d forgotten about this bastard hill. He didn’t know how it was possible, but he had.

He set his guitar down, his heart thrumming in his chest. He put a hand to his sternum. He’d since been able to take off the gauze dressings covering the incision, but he was getting worried that his heart would come bursting out of his chest through the old wound at any moment. He could only imagine what a sight that would have been. Just him standing there like a moron and watching his heart flop around on the ground like a fish.

He put a hand to his head. Fuck, he was hot.

He made himself smile with that.

He was so clever sometimes.

It gave him the lift he needed to finish the trek. And soon he was sitting back in the area of the park with the picnic tables. He hoisted himself on top of one, setting his guitar case beside him as he ran a shaking hand over his sweaty brow. He must have looked a mess. He tried not to think about it as he pulled his guitar onto his lap.

He expected it to be easier. He expected the ache in his chest to suddenly surge into his fingertips, letting his emotions guide him as he tickled the strings. He expected sharp and fierce and overwhelming relief as he was drowned in the sounds of his own music, raw and bleeding and beautiful.

But all he managed were a few awkward fingerings and a couple sloppy chords.

He slammed his guitar back in its case. His entire body felt like it was being crushed. He ran another hand over his brow.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

He jerked his hand away, his gaze darting over toward the source of the voice.

Sollux approached him from across the picnic area. He looked more put-together than Eridan had ever seen him. His hair was shorter than usual. He must have gone to the barber since their last meeting. It still stuck up in that awkward way on the sides of his head, though. It was stupid-looking enough to be endearing, and Eridan hated himself the instant he let the thought cross his mind. The rest of the man’s wiry frame was clothed in an Aperture Science T-shirt and a pair of faded jeans. His brows were knit together fiercely over his black sunglasses as he stared down at the man on the picnic table before him.

“I could ask you the same question, Sol,” Eridan tried to snap back, but it came out as more of a stammering warble than anything else.

“I’m looking for Rufio. He got out of the house again.” Sollux’s words were clipped as he spoke. His brow lowered further. “You’re supposed to be on bed rest, you stupid fuck. What are you doing out here?”

“How do you even know about my bed rest, Sol?” Eridan did his best to sound indignant. “You know, I would really fuckin’ appreciate it if you could stop tryin’ to squeeze Fef for information regardin’ my person, it’s really fuckin’ rude and also kinda creepy.”

“She volunteers that information to me. I guess to stop you from pulling idiotic bullshit like this. What the fuck were you thinking, ED?” His voice was quivering with anger. “You had to walk up that fucking hill with a guitar case to get here, are you out of your mind? Do you want to land yourself back in the fucking hospital?”

Eridan felt his cheeks begin to burn with anger as he slammed his guitar case shut. “Whatever, Sol, I don’t have to check in with you. Like you give a shit about what I get up to these days anyway.”

Sollux’s jaw set, his face livid. “Don’t even start that shit with me. Don’t even start. I sat online waiting for you every day. I texted you for five nights straight.”

“Yeah, well, I’m just actin’ based on what came outta your mouth verbatim. Which was that you’ve just been guilted into havin’ feelin’s for me. Which I guess is the fuckin’ truth, since the second I told you that I didn’t want any a your fuckin’ pity, it was also the last time you bothered to show your face around me.” He felt his chest tightening.

Sollux looked as if he’d received a blow to the gut. He looked away, the face behind his dark shades suddenly pale. “I figured you wouldn’t want me around.”

“Well, I did, okay?” Eridan burst out. He hefted up his guitar and began walking, trying to shove past Sollux.

“Hey. Hey! Knock it off you fucking moronic piece of shit.” Sollux caught him by the shoulder and yanked the instrument from his hands. Eridan refused to look at him, focusing instead on trying not to let the dam in his chest burst.

“I’m sorry,” Sollux said.

Eridan looked up at him, his throat tight. He licked his lips. “Sorry for what? Not visitin’ me or just leadin’ me on with your fabricated emotions a romantic interest?”

Sollux’s face was nearly inscrutable from behind his dark sunglasses. “Both, I guess.”

Eridan yanked his shoulder away from the man. “Yeah, well, apology fuckin’ accepted. Now we can both move on with our lives and pretend like none a this ever happened. Because if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s pretendin’ up a lot a fake bullshit to make things seem slightly less like the piles a steamin’ refuse that they are.”

He tried to grab his guitar from Sollux, but the man held it out of his reach.

“Stop,” he snapped. “Look, why don’t you just shut your fucking trap for two seconds, okay? I’m not saying… None of what I just said means that I don’t want to see you or that I don’t still worry about you pulling moronic stunts like this. But you made it pretty fucking clear to me yesterday that you had better things to do than waste time on me. Which I get. I can’t really get pissed off about that. But I’m just letting you know that I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being such a fucking wreck. I’m sorry for getting you all confused and shit. Okay? I’m sorry…”

His voice trailed off, and he looked away. Eridan stood with his arms crossed tightly over his chest, hoping it would keep his aching heart from bursting out of him.

When Sollux spoke again, his voice was small. “You don’t have to talk to me again if you don’t want to. But can I at least help you carry this home?”

Eridan turned away, the knife still stuck in his gut giving a painful twist. “Do whatever you want.”

So he did. They walked silently together, side by side. Eridan found himself wondering, as they made their way back down the hill, his shoes scuffing against the sidewalk, whether this would be the last time he’d ever walk with Sollux anywhere.

He wanted to stop. Wanted to dig his heels in and take it all back. Wanted to tell Sollux that none of it had ever felt like wasted time at all.

But he’d spent his whole life wanting things he could never have. And so it was easy to keep his mouth shut. To keep his feet moving forward.

By the time they made it back to their street, Eridan was ready to turn to Sollux to bid his farewells and disappear forever back into the gloom of his own house. But when he glanced up at the man walking beside him, he noticed Sollux was frowning over his shades again. Blinking, Eridan turned his gaze back ahead of him.

Gamzee was sitting crouched in the driveway of the house, his hands on Tavros’ shoulders. His face was bent close to the boy’s, but he must have heard Eridan and Sollux approaching, for he suddenly lifted his head and turned to face them.

Next to him, Tavros was sitting on the ground, his fingers loosely clutching a tiny red collar. His face was streaked with tears.

Eridan felt a chill sweep through him.

Sollux’s expression was pale. “What’s going on?”

Tavros’ fingers curled tighter around the collar at the sound of the question. As if by reflex. His voice was broken with choked sobs and tears and he replied, “W-we went…the road, and…”

Gamzee stared up at them. And for the first time since Eridan had met him, he saw sadness in the man’s eyes. As if he were lost. As if, in that moment, Gamzee too understood nothing about the world.

“He’s dead, bro. Our pal Rufio’s dead.”

Chapter Text

This was the day they held Rufio’s funeral.

After getting Eridan home, Sollux retreated immediately back to his room. Every other area of the house felt infected to him. It was deathly quiet. Even when Karkat came home with another three boxes of boneless wings from Toppers, he hunched low over the table as he ate, the usual loud smacking of his lips completely silenced. Even Tavros only sat on the sofa, still clutching the tiny red collar, his shoulders shaking at intervals. But he never spoke. Not even to Gamzee as the man went to his room, and brought out the unfinished cat castle.

It was a towering wooden structure that was almost half as high as Gamzee and resembled a boxy jungle gym. Some sections had already been covered with carpet. That was the first thing to go. Gamzee ripped it off the wood, completely silent, and then began methodically prying nails from each board.

It was the only sound in the house. The creak of nails. The sound of metal against wood. The slap of boards as they were stacked together. And then shuffling. The clatter of used nails being spread on the glass of the coffee table. And the pounding of a hammer.

Sollux put on the biggest set of noise-canceling headphones he had. He then downloaded as much new electronica and dubstep as he could find, and let it pound in his ears until his teeth rattled in his skull. He stared at his computer screen as the beats hammered through him, scrolling through the Minecraft forums without really looking at anything.

Sometimes, as he gazed into that blue light with the sound of shuffling boards and darting feet punctuating the toxic silence just outside his headset, he would feel the room shift around him. As if he had been transported to a completely different place without his knowledge. A place where the walls had been brown instead of white. Where a suitcase full of stained skirts sat just outside the locked door. A place where he had stared at the same blue-white screen. Listened to the same music. Where the cramp of grief in his gut had clawed its way up into his chest, digging its icy claws into his heart. Making sweat drip down his temples. Making his lips form small, silent prayers as the footsteps shuffled around the house. As bags were zipped and unzipped. As boxes were packed. Making him grip his mouse and plead silently, his tongue dry and stale, as a knock sounded at the door.

He jerked suddenly, his mouse tumbling from his hand and clattering over the edge of the desk, where it hung, dangling by its cord and spinning lethargically. He watched it, his eyes wide.

And then it came again. Just at the edge of his music. The distant rap of knuckles against wood.

He pulled off his headphones and let them hang around his neck. He leaned back in the kitchen chair he still used for his desk, staring at his door. When he opened his mouth to speak, his voice was gravelly.

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me. Open up.”

Karkat. Sollux pulled off his headset and ran a hand through his hair to calm himself down as he stood and made his way to the door. He cracked it just enough to see Karkat’s angry brown eyes peering through at him.

“Funeral’s tomorrow. I’m just letting you know because apparently it requires a sort of formal fucking invite. I would’ve asked him if he wanted me to draw it up on some nice stationary or something, but, you know…” The fervor in his voice seemed to die and he deflated, as if someone had squeezed the anger right out of him. “He’s pretty worked up about the whole situation, so I figured it would be better to just keep my mouth shut for a change and spend my nuggets of refined wit on places actually dealing in that currency. Like your dumb ass.”

Sollux listened to him without really taking any of it in. He took a step away from the door. “I’m not going.”

Karkat gripped a clump of his hair in his fist, his face twisted in a grimace. “Please do not fucking tell me this is going to be an issue again. It was just the cat. You didn’t even like it. You literally have zero emotional stock placed into this relationship company whose prices just took a flaming nosedive into the x-axis.”

Sollux could feel his limbs begin to shake. “I can’t.”

Karkat released his hair. “Well then you can be the one to go tell Gamzee, shitlord.” He slammed Sollux’s door shut for him and Sollux could hear his angry footsteps as the boy made his way back down the hall.

Sollux put his forehead against the door, staring down at the carpet.

The confrontation with Gamzee came when he finally made his way out of his room at close to 2 am, his bladder nearly bursting. After relieving himself as silently as he could, he opened the door and crept back out into the hall.

“Hey best motherfuckin’ friend.”

The twin pinpricks reflecting the dim light from the kitchen were all that alerted Sollux to Gamzee’s presence in the living room. As his good eye adjusted in the darkness, he saw that Gamzee was sitting on the floor beside a raised wooden platform. It had two levels, one only about a foot off the ground, the other, directly behind it, about three. The lanky man gripped a hammer loosely in his fist, and Sollux could see the way the corners of his lips were turned down with exhaustion and grief.

It looked so wrong on Gamzee. As if someone had turned his face upside down.

“You getting your motherfuckin’ empty on?” he asked. His voice sounded tired.

“If you mean did I just piss, then yeah,” Sollux said. His voice sounded harsh and loud in the thick black quiet of the house around them.

“Sometimes we all gotta do that. Just fuckin’ let the universe suck all the juice up that was in your veins and filling up in your belly and just let it drain you dry til there’s nothing left. And then it’s just you and a couple pieces of wood and a question. But that’s okay, because it’s just a thing that happens so you can all make space for what other sorts of miracles the universe has to be offering.”

Sollux could feel his stomach shrinking. He nodded, but stepped back, attempting to make a quiet retreat. Gamzee’s deadened gaze sharpened as Sollux moved, and his next question was a bit louder.

“You coming to the motherfuckin’ celebration tomorrow?”

Sollux froze. He felt as if his insides had been replaced with ice. “I don’t know…”

“You don’t have to get yourself up and to be going if it bums a brother out,” Gamzee continued, his voice drifting away from Sollux once again. “Rufio was a good bro to all of us and taught us a lot of things even if we weren’t all up to be getting our motherfuckin’ understand on of what things he had to say since he was a cat. So I can get how a motherfucker could let it drag him down what kind of surprise it was to have the earth all motherfuckin’ snatching back up on our little bro’s soul. But the universe only knows how to up and deal its business in surprises, and souls don’t know nothing but how to float upwards. So letting all that stuff in your chest that up and gets to be feeling like soda bubbles sink earthwards is just the opposite thing of what’s natural.”

He fell silent. Together they faced each other in the darkness, Sollux gazing down at Gamzee as the man looked at the hammer in his lap. He then lifted his shaggy head and gave a raspy little chuckle.

“I know it’s hard for a brother to be getting his understand on of what all up and makes its way outwards of my mouth, but I’m just saying that we should make it happy. Ain’t no reason to be motherfuckin’ dragging our feet when all that happened was that the earth got back a little piece of its own light. We gotta be affixing tiny motherfuckin’ wings to the heels of our shoes and get up to be steppin’ around like we can barely keep ourselves on the ground. So all I’m trying to do is extend to you an invitation to this mirthful fuckin’ celebration.”

He smiled at Sollux then, and for the first time that day, a bead of warmth seemed to bloom in the chill of the house. Gamzee’s eyes were lidded as usual, and the easy way his lips pulled back was just so familiar that Sollux couldn’t help but give a small grin in return.

“See? That’s the motherfuckin’ way of it, bro. We could all use a wicked motherfuckin’ set of incisors like yours to be helping to lift our little bro’s soul skywards.” He smiled wider.

Sollux’s expression flickered. He looked away.

“Our good bro Eridan should get his attend on too. I ain’t never seen that motherfucker get up to much smiling, but I know he’d probably let his lips all curve up like a watermelon rind if he ever got to be seeing what sort of celebration I’ve got put together for us.”

Sollux felt as if Gamzee had twisted a knife in his gut. He turned back to the man, feeling his neck and ears get hot with anger. Or shame. He couldn’t tell which.

“Eridan’s on bed rest. He’s not supposed to be up.”

Gamzee looked crestfallen. “All right, I feel you. Well, maybe I’ll go over and tell him to all be sending some positive energy our way.”

Sollux shifted his weight uneasily. “I should go to bed.”

“Yeah, we should all get to painting some wicked motherfuckin’ dreams, I think.” He stood then, setting his hammer gently on the coffee table. “I’ll see you in the morning, best bro.” He smiled and ambled past Sollux and into the bathroom. Sollux stayed where he was for a moment, focusing on trying to push his writhing intestines back into place. He swallowed, the distant hiss of water coming from the bathroom as the shower was turned on.

He retreated back to his room before the sound could disappear.

The next morning was as hot and sunny as every previous day in August had been. Sollux peered up at the sky through the slats in his blinds, trying to find any stray wisps of white against the vast blue canvas. He didn’t.

The house was filled with the buttery smell of baking. As he made his way out of his room, a pair of fresh clothes slung over his forearm, the scents intensified to the point that his stomach clenched and uttered a desperate cry. He put his free hand against it, wincing. As he paused, he saw Karkat making his way out of his room. His phone was clutched tightly in his hand, a toothbrush sticking from his foamy mouth.

Sollux blinked. Normally the boy would notice his presence at the end of the hall, but Karkat seemed completely absorbed. He wandered into the bathroom without lifting his eyes from his phone’s screen, proceeding to spit noisily over the sink.

Sighing, Sollux made his way out into the kitchen, still holding his clothes in one arm. The sound of batter sizzling softly on a griddle greeted his ears, and he saw Gamzee standing over the stove, wrapped in an apron and smiling brightly. He turned to look as Sollux entered, spinning his spatula around his fingers.

“I got one order of pancakes coming your motherfuckin’ way my brother,” he said, giving Sollux a wink. Sollux felt a bit like retreating back out of the kitchen, but the glorious smells of butter and chocolate held him in place. He let his eyes drift to the kitchen table where Tavros was hunched over his own set of pancakes, eating quietly. He must have felt Sollux’s gaze, because the boy suddenly looked up at him.

Sollux tore his eyes away before he had a chance to register the expression on Tavros’ face.

It was about then that he found a plate being shoved into his hands. He stared down at the steaming pancake. It was chocolate, and two pats of butter sat melting swiftly beside each other like eyes, a dollop of whipped cream with a strawberry perched on top serving as a nose. Two triangular segments of pancake had been placed on the edge of the main circle to represent ears.

There was no doubt what the pictographic pancake was meant to represent.

Sollux suddenly found his appetite dissolving in his guts. He looked up to Gamzee in muted horror as the man gave him a pat on the head.

“Gotta eat it before the eyes get all runny looking,” he informed Sollux before turning back to the stove. “And I got plenty more waiting to get themselves off this hot griddle, so go get your motherfuckin’ chow on, my friend.”

Sollux sank into a chair, looking in abject horror at the cat pancake staring up at him. He knew Gamzee was rather oblivious to notions of what most would consider normal realms of rational thought, but this went beyond mere silliness. He could almost feel himself turning green as the cat’s yellow butter eyes began to run down its face.

“Aren’t they, great?”

Sollux started, tearing his eyes away from the steaming abomination before him and letting his gaze finally settle on Tavros. The boy was looking back at him, the corners of his lips sporting tiny globs of whipped cream. They were also turned up in a grin. Half his pancake had already been devoured, an ear and an eye still gazing forlornly up from a pool of syrup. Tavros pointed to Sollux’s plate.

“The nose was my idea. Not, giving it a nose, necessarily, but just using a strawberry, for a nose, I mean.” He retracted his arm then, gazing at Sollux with a smile as if awaiting a reply.

What the fuck did he want him to say?

They had just pancaked Tavros’ dead cat.

What the fuck was wrong with them?

“Maybe you can up and give one to our good bro Eridan,” Gamzee said. “I’m sure he’d be glad to get his motherfuckin’ enjoy on of these wicked fuckin’ creations of jubilee.” He twirled his spatula again before slapping another steaming pancake down on a plate and beginning to give it two butter eyes.

Sollux felt like he was going to puke. He stood up from the table so fast that his chair nearly toppled over behind him, grabbing the plate from under Gamzee’s hands.

“Ah, wait, man,” Gamzee replied with dismay. “I ain’t even got his little nose on there. And that’s the best motherfuckin’ part.”

“Jesus FUCK,” Sollux shouted, gripping his hair tightly in one hand. He felt as if there were a wire wrapped around his stomach, and that each second standing in that kitchen with those two crazy bastards and their meal of dead pancake cats, the wire wound tighter, cutting into him, sending electric panic bleeding into his veins.

The only reaction Gamzee had to Sollux’s outburst, however, was to beam and squirt a mound of whipped cream onto the center of the pancake in Sollux’s hand. He then perched a strawberry half delicately on top.

“There. I don’t know how that couldn’t make any motherfucker smile.” He gazed fondly at his handiwork before giving Sollux an affectionate pat on the shoulder. “All right little bro, you go and deliver this steaming plate of memorial goodness to our best motherfuckin’ neighbor friend and just watch his face all light up with the colors of happiness.”

Sollux was pretty sure Eridan’s face was going to turn colors, but they wouldn’t be anything close to what he would ever define as happy. Without another word, he flung his clothes on the kitchen counter and sped out of the house, the plate clutched tightly in his hand.

It felt so good to be outside and away from all the suffocating air of his own residence that for a moment he forgot that he had a pancake with butter eyes in his hands. He sucked in a breath, trying to shade it fruitlessly from the hot summer sun with his hand before darting across the street and racing up to Eridan’s porch.

He stood at the front door, his stomach suddenly tight. He probably should have eaten before coming. But the thought of consuming one of the cat pancakes sent his insides spinning into acrobatic pirouettes of revulsion. He shook the thought away, trying not to let the smell of the food in his hand waft into his nostrils. He raised his finger to jab at the doorbell when he frowned at his own unending stupidity. The stupid fucker was on bed rest.

So he twisted the handle of the door instead and pushed his way inside. The house seemed eerily warm and quiet. Sunlight filtered through the shades, most of which had been drawn, casting the entirety of the dwelling into the muted golden hues of sunset. He took a few steps inside, glancing about. He then heard a shuffling from the bathroom and suddenly the door opened in a cloud of steam.

Eridan stepped out, his hair damp and plastered to his forehead, his skin still slicked with water. He was clutching a towel to his chest, but that was the full extent of anything resembling an article of clothing within ten feet of the man’s pale, slender body.

Their eyes met.

Their reactions were instant.

Eridan yanked his towel down, wrapping it briskly about his waist as he cursed with wild abandon. Sollux was deaf to all of it though. His ears burning, he lifted the plate in front of him like a shield, crying out the only thing that made sense to him at the time.

“Dick pancake!”

Eridan paused mid-expletive, his eyes perfectly round discs in his head. The chocolate pancake slowly slid from the plate and thudded to the floor.

Eridan looked down. Then he looked back up.

“You just got a pancake all over my carpet.”

Sollux continued to hold out the plate. He looked down as well.

“Yeah.”

Eridan looked down at it. “Why did you have a pancake, Sol?”

“Brought it here for you.”

“Oh… Well, that was needlessly thoughtful a you.”

“GZ made it.”

“Yeah, I was sorta figurin’. But you came to deliver it or something?”

“Yeah.”

“And now it’s on my floor.”

“That’s where it is.”

“…Right. Well, I’m just gonna go put some clothes on then.”

“Uh-huh.”

Eridan began to back down the hallway. Sollux continued to hold his plate out in front of him as if the man were clutching a grenade launcher as opposed to a towel. Eridan reached behind himself to open the door of his room before stepping inside and shutting it behind him with a soft snap.

Sollux could only stand frozen in place, his ears feeling as if they had both been stuck in a microwave. He stared at the door, his face screwed up with nauseous mortification. He then let his eyes drift back down to the pancake.

The cat face peered back up at him like some kind of grotesque Picasso portrait. He felt his lips twist with disgust. And then his legs were carrying him toward the kitchen. He grabbed a rag that was by the sink and ran it under warm water for a minute before returning to the pancake. He picked up the pieces and set them back on the plate before trying to scrub the butter and whipped cream from the carpet. He found his mind drifting precariously close to the juncture of Eridan’s thighs as he worked. And each time it did he would scrub even harder, trying in vain to erase the thought from his memory. Why hadn’t he just rung the fucking doorbell?

He leaned back and stared at the wet spots he had left on the floor. Hopefully it would be good enough. He stood and threw the towel into the sink, coming back to collect the plate with the pancake bits so he could dispose of them properly. As he squatted down to retrieve it, the door to Eridan’s room opened once again. Sollux froze, his gaze locked on the plate of pancake clutched in his hand as Eridan approached.

“You didn’t have to do that,” he remarked.

Sollux looked up at him. Eridan stood before him in a tight purple t-shirt and jeans that hugged his slender legs. His hair was slicked back away from his face as per the norm, restoring the air of douchebaggery that seemed to hover around him as thickly as the cologne Sollux could smell coming off him in waves.

Sollux gripped the plate tighter. Those fucking pants though. His ears were still like mini furnaces attached to the sides of his head, and the way the faded denim clung to the pair of hips he’d seen exposed not moments before did nothing to help. He had to wonder if Eridan was purposefully trying to make things more awkward with his choice of dress. It sent more blood rushing to his head and Sollux found himself fighting off a humiliated rage over the whole concept of skinny jeans and whichever bastard had thought it had been a good idea. He picked up the plate and stood. “I thought it was the least I could do.”

“No, I mean, you literally did not have to do that because it looks like you just used water and now that’s gonna leave a huge fuckin’ grease stain in my carpet, the likes a which I will never be able to remove.”

That set the old irritation blazing heartily in Sollux’s gut once again, thoughts of wet naked skin all but burned away. He glared at the young man, who had placed a hand on his hip.

“I don’t get why you’re getting yourself all gussied up to begin with,” he snapped. “Aren’t you supposed to be on bed rest?”

Eridan’s disdainful expression flickered. He let the hand on his hip fall and he shrugged. “I just like fixin’ myself up, is all. Takes some a the dullness out a the day and keeps me from feelin’ like complete shit. So you can stop actin’ all defensive like you gotta stop me from skippin’ out a the house again because I got no plans on doin’ that.” He then lowered his brows and regarded Sollux closely. “But why the fuck did you come over here to give me pancakes, seems like an uncharacteristically laborious task a you to undertake.”

Sollux heard the bite plain on his words and was about to make an equally scathing reply when he thought of his house again. His house and the suffocating black air within it that coated his lungs with every breath. He sagged as he set the plate on Eridan’s kitchen counter, staring at the butter smears that had once been yellow eyes.

“I guess I just wanted to get out of there for a while.”

Eridan’s brows slid back up on his face, and his expression seemed to soften. “Is it because a the cat?”

Sollux grimaced at the pancake, shoving it away. “Gamzee’s putting together some fucking funeral service or whatever. He’s just drawing the whole process out when I wish he’d let it fucking drop. The cat’s fucking dead. Building altars and making stupid cat pancakes isn’t going to help.”

Eridan’s expression was muted. He stared at one of the many rings adorning his fingers, rubbing the purple gem on the top of the largest one. “So are you just not gonna make an appearance or what?”

Sollux ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. “No, I have to go. It’s fucking GZ, okay? You can’t say no to that guy. It’s impossible.”

“All right. Well then, I’m comin’ too.”

Sollux took his hand out of his hair, turning his incredulous gaze to Eridan. “What?”

Eridan shrugged. His movements were nonchalant, but his face had turned the color of sour milk. “I’ve just never been to one before, I guess. I’m sorta fixin’ to see what all the fuss is about.”

Sollux’s jaw set. “You’re supposed to be in bed.”

“Your house is about forty steps away from mine,” Eridan rebuked. “So unless Gam’s plannin’ on holdin’ the thing in a different state or is gonna have all attendees participate in a round a fuckin’ jumpin’ jacks then I think I should be able to manage.”

“I’m not going to let you jeopardize your health,” Sollux snapped.

“Then put me in a fuckin’ wheelbarrow and roll me over there if that’s what’ll soothe your achin’ conscience,” Eridan seethed, his blue eyes livid in his pale face. “But I’m goin’ to that cat’s fuckin’ funeral, you seepin’ sack a fleshpus.”

Sollux’s jaw sagged for a moment in shock at the level of heat in Eridan’s voice.

And then his own tone rose to match it.

“You want to know what all the fuss is about?” he snarled. “I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you exactly what you’ll be missing out on. It’s going to be the four of us standing around this shitty wooden box and watching Tavros cry and doing a whole ten-ton shitload of nothing until we’ve decided that the cat is finally dead enough to drag our sorry asses back inside. That’s all funerals are. A bunch of assholes standing around and crying in front of each other and getting worked up over something they can’t do a damn fucking thing about anymore.”

Once he finished he was heaving. As if the force of expelling the words had sapped him of every ounce of oxygen. He felt sweat beading in his fisted palms as he glared at Eridan. The man’s eyebrows had risen in shock at Sollux’s sudden outburst, but as the lanky man stood trembling and sweating before him, his face settled into a look of sour disdain.

“All right. So that’s what it is. You’re still goin’. And so am I.”

Sollux exhaled sharply through his nose, forcing his hands to relax. He straightened and grabbed the plate of ruined pancakes. “You know what? Fine. I’m done giving two shits about you, you stubborn, pompous cock.”

He shook the contents of his plate out savagely over Eridan’s garbage can before stalking through the front door. He didn’t bother to close it behind him. He could hear Eridan scuffling around to slide on a pair of flipflops. The slap of the sandals against the concrete then followed him down the driveway and across the road. He never once bothered to look back.

Eridan Ampora was a stupid fuck.

He was a stupid fuck who was going to get himself killed.

Sollux was practically beside himself by the time they returned to his house. He stormed through the front door and went straight for the kitchen, slamming the dirtied plate down on the counter beside the sink. Gamzee was up to his elbows in soap suds, and blinked curiously at Sollux. He then lifted his eyes a bit, and an easy smile spread over his face.

“Hey best motherfuckin’ neighbor,” he greeted, waving a soapy hand before taking Sollux’s dish to wash. Tavros was drying plates beside him, and he gave a little wave as well. Sollux wheeled around to find Eridan standing in the kitchen’s entrance, his sandals still on and one lock of hair curled over his forehead. Apparently he hadn’t gelled it as meticulously as usual. The fact that he even noticed this only proved to piss Sollux off further. He turned to Gamzee again.

“I’ll be in my room until you’re ready to start this sorry dead cat clusterfuck.”

And with that he was off, stalking down the hallway and barricading himself in his room. As he stood facing the door, he could hear Eridan’s muffled voice and Gamzee’s amiable reply. It just made him want to grab the shitty kitchen chair at his desk and slam it against a wall.

He hated that fucking chair.

Sollux read through about half the new topics on the Minecraft forum and was just about to dig into his PMs when a knock came at the door. He sighed heavily and stood, opening it to find Karkat standing on the other side, his phone clutched loosely in his hand. He used his other hand to jerk a thumb over his shoulder, his expression sour as usual.

“Gamzee says he’s just about got the whole fucking soiree set up, so I’ve been recruited to rally the troops.” He then turned without another word and made his way back down the hallway and around the corner, his phone back under his nose and his fingers tapping at the buttons.

Sollux gave his computer a final glance and briefly considered going back to finish up looking through his PMs. But he never did. Instead he found himself shuffling down the hall and out the door.

It was later in the afternoon, and the sun was already beginning to make their shadows slant across the grass. Sollux made his way to the backyard. Besides the old rusted burning barrel that Sollux had never quite determined the exact legality of, there sat the wooden altar that Gamzee had made from the cat castle. It had been set up behind a freshly dug hole, the dirt-coated shovel balanced across Gamzee’s shoulders. The tall man watched as Tavros squatted down beside him and placed a tiny box into the pit.

Sollux felt his bones shudder inside him. He approached silently to join Eridan and Karkat, who were both gathered around the hole as well. Eridan was holding a plate of brownies and looking like the color of warmed mayonnaise. Beside him, Karkat stood with two sticks of incense in one hand and the small ceramic dishes for holding them in the other. His phone had been so hastily stuffed in his pocket that he had tucked his sweatshirt in along with it.

After Tavros stood back from the tiny hole, wiping his hands on his pants, Sollux could finally get a full view of the altar. The top level had been decorated with dandelions. On its face had been drawn the visage of a cat not dissimilar to the one Sollux had found staring up at him during breakfast. Below that, the lower level of the altar was empty. Gamzee came forward to collect first the incense from Karkat, placing one dish on each end of the lower level and setting an incense stick burning in both. He then placed Eridan’s plate of brownies between them before standing and striding around to the opposite side of the pit so that they could all stand comfortably around it.

“All right, I just want to thank you motherfuckers for making yourselves present at this celebration. I’m pretty sure everyone’s up and got his understand on of why we’re here, but just in case you don’t, I’ll tell you that it’s because a good bro up and got it inside himself to be going back to the place he came from. And we’re gonna all feel a pretty big hole where he was once sitting in our lives but that’s no reason not to see him off like it’s proper to be doing. So if anyone has any parting words for our little buddy Rufio then maybe you could get your mouthparts mobile and send your voice in a sort of upwards direction so that he might be getting his little kittens ears on to listen.”

Sollux stood with his hands in his pockets, swallowing hard. All he could do besides stare straight down into the pit with its tiny wooden box was look into the eyes of the men standing around him. All of which were downcast and somber. He tried to keep his mouth in a firm line as his stomach attempted to turn itself inside out. The dizzying pungency of the incense did nothing to help.

After what seemed like ages, Tavros cleared his throat and looked up. His chin trembled as he spoke.

“I just, hope Rufio doesn’t, hate me, maybe, for letting him get out like I did. I just want him, to know that, he was a really great friend to me and that, also, most of my scars have healed, so, I didn’t mind that he, was so energetic, with his claws, like he was. Also, that I was, planning on telling all the other cats I might get, about him. That way they can know how great he was and also about how he was, my very first pet.”

He looked to Gamzee, as if unsure of whether this served as an adequate eulogy for his friend. Gamzee gave him an approving nod, however, and Tavros seemed to deflate with relief, a tiny smile tugging at his lips.

“Okay. Now it’s my turn. Rufio, you were a real choice bro and we shared lots of moments together even if we weren’t all up and to be agreeing upon which sorts a things made tasty snacks. So I hope you like the compromise I all up and baked for you which has chocolate and cat food sitting hand in crumby hand all sharing and harmonizing with each other in one tasty square. I don’t know how any motherfucker could say no to that.”

He smiled and looked to Karkat. The boy rolled his eyes before folding his arms. “Rufio. You were a big pain in the ass and you bit me a lot and I could never go to the bathroom if you were sitting by the door because you would always try and ambush me like I couldn’t fucking see you. I’d always operated under the assumption that cats were good at stalking their prey, but if you ever caught one mouse I will literally bend down and eat one of those cat food brownies that Gamzee made.” He sighed as he finished, dropping his arms. “But as irritating and unnecessarily violent as you were, it sucks a fat steaming pile of goat dung that you’re gone. And I hope you find some kind of solace in whatever sort of thing comes after this ‘living’ shit.”

Sollux felt his insides twist. He was next. But his tongue felt glued to the roof of his mouth. All he could do was stare down at that tiny box and breathe in the thick scent of incense and feel the sweltering afternoon sun against the back of his neck. But all eyes were on him. And so, with a wrench of his intestines that made it feel as though something had definitely ruptured, he pried his jaws apart and spoke.

“I’m sorry you’re dead, Rufio. Shit sucks.”

That was all he could manage. He then looked to Eridan before anyone could object to his shitty speech. The man started, as if his turn had snuck up on him. Sollux could see his adam’s apple bob as he swallowed, shaking his hands out and wiping them against his horrid tight pants. He grew an even more sour color as he spoke.

“Okay. Rufio. So. It was really unexpected. Your whole dyin’ thing. Like, you were a pretty normal cat and you did pretty normal cat things even if you were kinda violent like Kar was sayin’. But that was just an unfortunate part a your personality so we’ll overlook it for the sake a this bein’ a thing about you in which mostly nice things are said for your benefit. Even though you can’t really hear them.” He laughed suddenly. A short, sharp burst of sound that carried no mirth. He put a fist to his mouth and swallowed again before continuing. “So you just died before you got to experience a lot more cat things and maybe just get better at doin’ cat things in general, I mean who’s really in a position to gauge your potential when you never had enough time to really find out what it was for yourself. So I’m just sayin’ that I think you could’ve done a lot of things and that maybe you would’ve done them if you’d have known how short your time was. But I guess it’s too late for that now, so you can just get on with bein’ dead and I won’t trouble you about doin’ livin’-type activities anymore.”

He fell silent then, twisting the rings on his fingers and staring back down at the ground. Gamzee looked them all over and beamed before he held up his shovel. “All right, that sounds like we put a motherfuckin’ cap on this wicked shindig. So long little Rufio bro.”

It didn’t take long to cover the hole and pack it with dirt. But by that time the sun had sunk low in the sky, painting the lawn olive and the back of the house gold. It was then that Gamzee finally propped the shovel up on his shoulder and waved them all back into the house, smiling serenely.

“Come on. Shit’s not over yet. We gotta send our brother off right.”

Sollux felt like falling face first into the grass and never getting up. When would this burning train wreck stop skidding uselessly along the tracks and finally take a long fall off a bridge and into a deep ravine? He stumped along beside Karkat as he followed Gamzee back into the house.

Sending Rufio off right, however, seemed to entail eating lots of spaghetti from the nearby Italian restaurant.

The entire house was filled with the warm scent of garlic bread mingled with tomato sauce. It sent a sharp reminder to Sollux’s stomach that he hadn’t eaten once that day, and the organ responded by giving an appropriately angry growl. Sollux winced, quickening his pace as they all made their way into the kitchen. The table was covered in stacked tins of steaming food and styrofoam boxes of salad. Gamzee passed them all out before opening the refrigerator and withdrawing several bottles of beer. They clinked together merrily as he set them down on the table.

Karkat snatched one up and stared at it. “Sweet fucking breath of a breastfed infant, Gamzee. Is this fucking Corona?”

“Yeah, man,” Gamzee smiled and nodded as he passed out a tin to each of them. Sollux held his like it was a bar of gold, feeling the delicious heat seeping into his cold fingers. His brief moment of adoration cost him a spot at the table as Karkat sat down immediately to tear the lid off his spaghetti and dive into it. He looked uneasily at the remaining two chairs. Tavros was already pulling one out to sit down, but as he met Sollux’s eyes, he pushed it back in again.

“Oh, uh, do you want, to sit here?” he asked, clutching a box of garlic bread.

Sollux sighed. “It’s fine. I’ll just sit at the coffee table or something.” He grabbed a beer and a fork before heading to the living room and sitting on the couch. He was already hunched over his tin of spaghetti and thoroughly caked in marinara sauce by the time Eridan appeared beside him.

“Do you care if I sit here too? I figure Gam and Tav are kinda like a unit now and I didn’t want to be responsible for upsettin’ whatever kinda fucked up symbiosis they’ve got goin’ on between the two a them.”

Sollux never even looked up. He simply slid over and allowed space for Eridan to sit down. He felt the couch shift beneath him as the man settled into place at his side. After a moment of silence that was punctuated only by the occasional scrape of Sollux’s fork against the bottom of his tin, the lanky man looked up.

Eridan was huddled over his own spaghetti, twirling it around on his fork. He looked as though he had hardly touched any of it.

Sollux frowned. “Not organic enough for you?”

Eridan glanced at him before looking back to his spaghetti. “No, it’s fine. I guess I’ve just got a lot a weighin’ on my mind.”

“Oh yeah?” Sollux began shoveling more food into his mouth. After swallowing, he looked to Eridan again. “Was it what you were expecting?”

“Sorta. I mean, I’ve seen funerals on movies and shit before. This was a little different but the basic sentiment was still there.”

“Uh-huh.” Sollux could feel the topic turning the chewed spaghetti in his gut to lead. He tried to eat faster, wanting to finish his food before his appetite vanished completely.

“I don’t want that.”

The remark was unexpected. For that reason, Sollux found himself looking up from his meal and at the man sitting beside him. Eridan had put down his fork, both hands clasped tightly in his lap, his body hunched low over his knees. His eyes were wide and his face was so white it seemed to possess its own glow.

“I don’t want that,” he repeated. “All that bullshit where everyone just says a bunch a nice shit outta some kinda fucked up respect for someone that can’t even listen to them anymore. I don’t want that. I don’t want people spoutin’ a bunch a fake bullshit over my corpse.”

Sollux stared back at his noodles. The tomato sauce suddenly looked incorrigibly and sickeningly red. He pushed the half-finished tin away before sitting back against the couch with his beer.

“Yeah.”

Eridan continued to tremble beside him, his hands clasped together. At last Sollux held out his beer and set it gently on Eridan’s shoulder. The man flinched from the sudden cold, but then he looked to the bottle curiously before letting his gaze flicker to Sollux. Sollux gave a little nod, holding it under Eridan’s nose instead.

“You’re not on your blood thinners anymore, right?” he asked.

Eridan shook his head.

Sollux gave the bottle a wiggle.

Eridan took it hesitantly, his rings clinking against the glass. He then put it to his lips and tossed his head back, nearly draining half the bottle in one swallow. He grimaced as he pulled it from his mouth, handing it back to Sollux.

“I’ll never get used to that shit,” he gasped.

“No, not if you drink it like that,” Sollux replied before taking another swig himself. He then handed it back to Eridan, watching the man as he threw his head back again, his eyes squeezed shut against the bitter flavor.

“You shouldn’t think about it so much.”

Eridan cracked one eye open at him as he swallowed. “What?”

Sollux took the beer bottle back and stared at the label. “Dying.”

Eridan wiped a hand over his mouth. “I don’t. To be honest, I think I’ve been tryin’ to ignore it for way too long.”

Sollux drained the rest of the bottle. “It’s not like ignoring it or not is going to change the ultimate outcome.”

“I know. And that’s exactly the fuckin’ point. That bullshit doesn’t give a piss-rottin’ fuck what you do. It doesn’t stop for anybody. Not even a fuckin’ cat that barely got started livin’.”

Sollux set the bottle down on the table with a loud thunk. “I think you should just shut up and eat your spaghetti.”

Eridan stared at Sollux for a moment. But the man never returned his gaze. And so he finally took up his fork and lifted a bundle of noodles to his mouth.

Chapter Text

This was the day Sollux Captor attempted to eat chicken nuggets.

He distinctly remembered cutting Eridan off after two beers that night after the funeral. He hadn’t wanted to push anything and disrupt Eridan’s already rather rocky road to recovery.

But two beers seemed to be all the man really needed.

Soon they were all gathered in the living room, occupying the couch and a beanbag chair that Gamzee had dragged out of the closet in his room. The entire house now smelled of garlic and tomatoes and the heady fragrance of some of Gamzee’s nicer weed. The kind that could set Sollux’s head to spinning with barely two hits. He leaned back against the couch as he stared with lidded eyes at the bong in the middle of the coffee table. In one hand was his fourth beer while his other arm was wrapped around Eridan.

His head was pleasantly fuzzy, so perhaps it was for that reason that he didn’t mind how the man had curled against him, his head resting on his chest. If Sollux turned his face just right, he could smell a note of vanilla mingled in the cocktail of scents curling through the air around him. He found his mind tracing foggy footsteps toward a notion packed tightly away in the corner of his skull reserved exclusively for stupid thoughts, continuing to pick up one in particular.

Put your face in his hair.

And then his mind would set the thought down and stumble its way back into normalcy and Sollux would take another swig of beer. But then that hint of vanilla would float back into his nostrils and his brain would go sashaying back into the stupid corner.

Put your face in his hair.

Luckily, Karkat, who was sitting next to Eridan on the couch, decided it was time for everyone else to shut up.

“I have an important fucking announcement to make,” he bellowed, slamming his beer on the coffee table. “So ready your cochleas for the massive load of information I am about to drop directly into your ears.”

He was drunk. Karkat always got exponentially louder with each beer, and he was practically red in the face now, his voice making Sollux’s fuzzy head thrum. It was a warm, tickly feeling, however, and Sollux couldn’t help but react with a smile as Karkat leaned back against the couch and folded his arms across his chest.

“I just want you all to know that yesterday, after years of beating at the monumental fucking rock of obtuseness that is John Egbert’s skull, I have come to possess the seven digit number that holds the key to unlocking his pants.”

He held up his phone.

Gamzee gave out one of his huge, honking laughs from where he sat sharing the beanbag chair with Tavros, clapping his hands together. “That is some wicked motherfuckin’ business you got yourself up to there, bro.”

“Yes, it was very fucking business like. I moistened the pen nib with my supple tongue and signed the fuck off on exclusive rights to John’s dick, okay?”

Sollux, still grinning from the sheer volume of Karkat’s voice, felt movement against his chest as Eridan stirred. The man turned to look at Karkat. Sollux couldn’t see his face, but his voice sounded heavy and slurred.

“What the fuck Kar, you can’t lock up fuckin’ pants that doesn’t make any sense.”

Karkat’s face turned an even darker shade of red, though whether it was from anger or embarrassment, Sollux couldn’t say.

“It makes perfect sense, shitass. The area of his crotchular region was off limits to me before. And now it is rapidly opening up. Like a fucking day lily under the first finger of dawn’s gentle caress. I am that finger, Eridan. And John is the fucking flower. And fuck you because this makes perfect sense and I don’t want to hear a goddamned word out of your mouth again because I’m drunk and happy and you are ruining both of those things.”

He turned away from Eridan in a huff and continued. “Anyway, we’re going out to see some shitty-ass movie called Dinner for whatever the fuck, I don’t even care. The point is that it’s a fucking date, and I am soon going to be locked into this tighter than a fat guy in the booth of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Then you can all witness for yourselves the romantic mastery with which I was fucking born to woo. I will maybe even lower one of my godly thumbs down to wipe the drool from your chins as you all stare in awe at the serendipitous bond I will proceed to forge from the lump of coal that is Egbert’s asinine being.”

“Can I eat up at one of those motherfuckin’ buffets? Sounds like a wicked bitchtits time,” Gamzee laughed. Tavros was smiling next to him. The boy had been toast after just one hit from his boyfriend’s bong.

Sollux found himself staring at the glass pipe again. He hadn’t had any of Gamzee’s weed in ages. His mind tottered after that vein of thought, following it down a rope of speculation in which Sollux found himself wondering how many hits he could still handle. He found his ruminations cut short, however, by a tug on his shirt.

“Hey, Sol?”

Sollux blinked and looked down. Eridan had lifted his head just enough to meet the other man’s gaze, and his eyes glittered oddly in the warm light of the room. “Would you consider takin’ me home?”

Sollux felt something squeeze in his chest and he sat up a bit, trying to blink some of the haze from his eyes. “Are you not feeling so hot?”

“I’m just fuckin’ fallin’ asleep on you is all and you’re kinda bony and uncomfortable, no offense.” He patted Sollux’s hip.

Sollux suddenly felt very warm for no reason. He chose to blame the beer. “All right, let’s go. KK, I’m gonna take Eridan home.”

“All right, but you’re going to miss the best part of my epic saga documenting the courting rituals I undertook in order to secure a date with Egbert. It’s going to be good, Sollux. You’re going to want to take notes.”

“Sure,” Sollux replied, getting to his feet and helping Eridan up as well. The man swayed dangerously, and Sollux grabbed him and pulled him close. It was with one of Eridan’s arms around his shoulder that he walked with the man out of the house and back across the street.

Night had fallen sometime between the drinking and eating, and dew was already starting to cling to the grass. By the time Sollux had staggered up to Eridan’s porch, both of them having more than a bit of trouble finding the step up to it with their feet, the cuffs of his jeans were soaked. He scuffed them irritably against the rug as he entered the house, Eridan wandering out of his grasp and into the bathroom. Sollux lifted a leg and picked a few blades of grass from the bottom of his pants, nearly toppling over in the process. He then raised his head and blinked blearily in the direction of Eridan’s bathroom. He walked down the hallway toward it, sliding his fingers against the wall as he went.

“Hey,” he said, leaning his head into the tiny room. “You okay in there?”

Eridan had his face pressed into a damp washcloth. He pulled it away, sniffing and nodding. Sollux frowned. “Is something wrong?”

He shook his head. “If you mean like in a physical sense then I can say that I sorta feel like maybe the floor’s slidin’ out underneath me and that my chest is really warm.” He dropped the washcloth into the sink and stared at it for a while, blinking slowly.

Sollux felt his stomach twist and he put a hand on Eridan’s upper arm, squeezing harder than he needed to, trying to urge the man into a more sober frame of mind. “Is it serious? Something to do with your heart at all? Should I call FF or something?”

“No, it’s nothing to do with that.” He looked sad. He patted Sollux’s hand and the man uncurled his fingers from Eridan’s arm, watching as the man teetered out of the bathroom and to his bedroom. Sollux followed him, watching Eridan crawl into bed without so much as removing his flipflops. Sighing, Sollux climbed up next to him as Eridan dropped face first into his pillows.

“Idiot…” Sollux muttered as he yanked the sandals unceremoniously from Eridan’s feet and tossed them to the floor. He was just about to stand when he felt a hand at his wrist. He looked down and saw Eridan peering up at him with one eye, the other still buried in the purple fluff of his pillow.

“Are you gonna leave?” he asked.

“That’s the plan. I’m sort of drunk right now, and I don’t need to be passing out on other people’s furniture like a jackass. So I’m just gonna go back and probably hack some shitter’s account on the Minecraft forums because I haven’t done that in ages and this bastard fucking deserves it.”

The corner of Eridan’s mouth that Sollux could see quirked up in a smile. “Sol is the hammer a fuckin’ justice on the black vortex a cyberspace that is the internet.”

“Yes,” Sollux replied with the distant air of an archaic storyteller. “And I must take up arms against the hordes of jackasses all shrieking various oaths to their own correctness. Because only one person can be right on the internet and it is me. I am that person.”

Eridan pulled his face out of his pillow and curled on his side, pressing up next to Sollux until his face was beside the man’s hip and his knees were pressed up to Sollux’s calves. He curled his fingers around the hem of Sollux’s stained black T-shirt and smiled again.

“You’re a fuckin’ idiot is what you are,” he mumbled, still smiling even though his eyes were closed.

Sollux felt his brain seem to slosh in his skull like it had suddenly been dumped in bathwater. He swayed a bit, staring down at the curled figure beside him. Watching the way the thin shoulders rose and fell as Eridan breathed. He slowly, carefully, ducked down again. And there was that vanilla scent, hidden just beneath the layers of cologne. It must have been his shampoo. It must have been.

Put your face in his hair.

He bent closer, his heart suddenly feeling very large in his chest. Larger than it should have been. Large enough to fill up his esophagus and beat at the back of his tongue. He slowly raised one hand and placed it on Eridan’s head, just above his ear. He let his thumb brush over the brown hair. It was stiff with gel, but the little tuft at his temple was soft like down. He ran his thumb over it again, and Eridan let out a tiny shuddering sigh, his fingers tightening around Sollux’s shirt.

It was so easy to block out the protesting voices in his head. He knew what they were saying. Registered what it was. But the hazy warmth enveloping his entire body and the bead of light blooming in his stomach served as a barrier. And he found himself bending down. Closer, until that vanilla scent had filled up his entire skull and underneath his palm he could feel Eridan trembling.

And then he kissed Eridan’s temple. And he could taste the salty warmth of the man’s skin and the way his downy hair clung to Sollux’s lips as he pulled away and in that moment there was no lie. No guilt. No fear. There was just warmth and an ache in his chest and the smell of vanilla and cologne.

As he lifted his head, Eridan turned to look at him. His eyes were glittering, but whether it was a cause of the alcohol or the embarrassment, Sollux didn’t know. What he did know—what he was keenly aware of—was Eridan as the man lifted his arm and wrapped it around Sollux’s waist.

“You don’t have to leave if you don’t want.” His voice was no more than a hoarse whisper.

Sollux felt his entire body ache with a desperate longing. One that had been unlocked by warmth and vanilla and Corona and now reared inside him like some eldritch creature, spitting fire into the marrow of every bone. And though the distant protests grew louder, he shifted down on the bed, lying next to Eridan and putting a hand on the small of the man’s back, drawing him in close. Eridan responded in kind, shifting one leg between Sollux’s and wrapping his arms around the man’s waist before burying his face in Sollux’s chest. Sollux grit his teeth, hoping that the impeding leg would not press too high, his head pulsing sluggishly with the liquid warmth of booze and the scent of Eridan’s shampoo.

It was too much. He broke and complied with the idiot thought in his head.

He put his face in Eridan’s hair.

And it was coarse from the gel but it smelled so good. As he held Eridan tighter to his body, the man made a muffled remark into his chest.

“You reek a something awful Sol, did you even shower today?”

Sollux glowered down at the brown hair beneath his lips. “I was distracted, okay?”

“You’re fuckin’ gross is what you are.”

Sollux yanked on Eridan’s ear and the man yelped before burying his face back in Sollux’s chest, shaking with silent laughter that he must have thought he was doing a very good job of keeping discreet. Sollux’s lips curved up again and he closed his eyes, settling his lips back in Eridan’s hair, drinking in that scent, feeling the warmth of him wrapped up around his entire body…

And then it was morning. The sunlight blazed through his eyelids, which felt crusted and dry. He pried them apart, jerking up as his good eye took in the foreign purple and cream walls, his tongue thick and sticky in his mouth. He scraped it over his teeth, swallowing and blinking as he looked around, trying to form a solid recollection of what had happened last night.

He looked down to see Eridan still curled on his side next to him, one arm still draped over his waist. The summer sun pouring in through the slats in Eridan’s blinds had heated the room to an unbearable temperature, leaving Sollux with his T-shirt clinging to his sweaty back. He ran a hand over his face, which was a grimy, oily mess, before pulling himself from the bed and making his way to Eridan’s bathroom.

He had been in it a few times before when he’d come over to paint, but never while Eridan had been living in the house. And yet things were just as tidy as they had been before the man had come home, aside from the washcloth he had left in the sink the night before. Sollux squeezed it out and bunched it next to the tap before ducking his head down and sticking it under the faucet. He exhaled sharply at the cold water, but soon his eye was working properly again and his head had shaken off the last of the night’s haze.

He stood, looking at his dripping face in the mirror.

And there, with no barrier of warmth or alcohol or vanilla shampoo to shield him, the voices came rushing back. Like an approaching avalanche he could hear their distant echo as they came barreling toward him. He backed away from the mirror, trying to focus on finding a towel. As he pressed his face into one, the voices caught up with him, and he was overcome. Shrieks of panic. Of denial. A needling in his gut telling him that this wasn’t real. Wasn’t right. And suddenly all he wanted to do was fall to his knees on the tile and wish that none of it had ever happened.

“Are you okay in there?”

He took his face out of the towel. Eridan’s voice. He quickly scrubbed his hair dry before opening the bathroom door. Eridan gazed up at him, his blue eyes wide. “You don’t have a hangover or something do you?”

“I wish.” He found the words tumbling out before he could stop them.

Eridan’s response was not the indignant fury he expected. Instead, he merely looked confused. “You wish?”

Sollux sucked in a breath and held it for a moment, running a hand over his face before he finally exhaled. “We were both kind of drunk last night.”

Eridan raised one eyebrow. “Were we?”

“I said kind of. Obviously not smashed, but my head didn’t cook this nice headache up out of nowhere.” He adjusted Eridan’s towel on the towel rack. Being in such a tidy space made him feel slightly self-conscious about the state in which he left everything.

Eridan put his eyebrow back down. “Uh-huh. Well, whatever Sol. You stickin’ around for breakfast? I got, like, about twelve different kinds a cereal. All real good stuff too, with fiber and shit, like you look like the type a guy who doesn’t get a lot of fiber.”

He turned and began striding off toward the kitchen. Sollux was just about to ask what a guy that didn’t get a lot of fiber actually looked like when he swallowed the question back, following in silence instead. He stood in the entrance of the kitchen as Eridan pulled open his pantry and leaned back to survey its contents. After a moment he dug inside and pulled out a yellow box. He shook it in front of Sollux.

“What do you think? Cheerios.”

Sollux frowned. He watched as Eridan’s hand snaked up the side of the box and his finger slowly crept over to the red heart-shaped bowl that the cereal was contained in on the front image.

“Clinically proven to reduce your cholesterol, Sol. Like, in fuckin’ labs and shit.” A small smile cracked over his face. He then patted his chest. “It is in a heart-shaped bowl and everything, look at this. Don’t let anyone ever tell you I never look after myself, I got the fuckin’ heart healthiest cereal money can buy. Fuckin’ Cheerios. Clinically proven.”

He set the box down on the counter and grabbed two bowls from an overhead cabinet before setting those down as well. Sollux shifted his weight from foot to foot as he listened to the clatter of cereal being poured. He approached and quickly tugged the second bowl out of Eridan’s reach before the man could put any cereal inside it. Eridan looked up at Sollux, clutching the box and looking rather tired.

“You’re not stayin’ for Cheerios?”

Sollux stared at the empty bowl he’d hooked his index finger around. “I don’t think I should.”

Eridan sighed, closing the box and stuffing it back in his pantry. He then made his way to the fridge and pulled out a gallon of milk. He looked up at Sollux after he finished pouring some onto his cereal. “So are you gonna go?”

Sollux swallowed the hard lump that had risen in his throat enough to force out a “Yeah,” before he unhooked his finger from the empty bowl and approached the door, putting one hand against it as he stuffed on his shoes.

Just as he was about to leave, Eridan spoke up. “Are you thinkin’ about maybe hoppin’ on Minecraft later?”

Sollux turned back to him, his eyebrows lifted in surprise. He searched the man’s face for some hint of sarcasm or malice, but couldn’t find any to speak of. He looked away, rubbing the side of his face as if it might help him stimulate his now thoroughly aching brain.

“Uh, sure, I guess,” he said at last. When wasn’t he up for Minecraft?

Eridan nodded. “All right. Well, tell Tav I said hi or whatever. I’m just gonna be keepin’ mostly to myself today. Maybe break out the guitar or something if I get bored a playin’ fuckin’ Pokemon. But I’ll probably be dickin’ around in Alternia later tonight.”

He grabbed a spoon and then carried his cereal to the table where he sat and began to eat. Sollux stared at him for a moment before he felt something seem to ease up inside him. As if a huge anvil had been lifted from his chest. He gave a little smile and nodded. “Yeah, well, I never moved your hive, shitbrain. So you get to deal with Creepers cuddling up to you at night.”

“Get outta here,” Eridan snapped, flinging a Cheerio at him.

Sollux ducked it and smirked before backing out the door. “Have sweet Minecraft dreams little troll Eridan,” he said before he shut it. He may or may not have heard another Cheerio hitting the wood.

After that it was as if none of it had ever happened.

As if Eridan had never been in the hospital. As if Sollux had never kissed him. As if they had never gone nearly two weeks without speaking. As if they had never cuddled together in a tipsy stupor.

Eridan came on Minecraft every night and together they began to make an assortment of hives to cover the landscape. During one of the several conversations they would hold on trollian culture while engaging in more menial building activities, they somehow got it in their heads to give the trolls a caste system based on blood color. Not even Sollux could be sure later where or who the notion had come from, but he knew that it was because of Eridan’s demands that the highest caste had what he called “tyrian purple.” Which had launched them both into an argument over colors after Sollux called it “pink” in passing once he’d been linked to the particular hue’s Wikipedia page.

It was a stark contrast to the nights he had spent staring at the computer and waiting for the Minecraft board to update, scrolling through Reddit with no real fervor or purpose.

It made him yearn for the sun to set each day, and for their game to recommence.

“So I’m officially through with bed rest tomorrow,” Eridan announced as they started up their session one day.

“Nice. Gonna go rock the park with your sweet acoustic beats?” He snickered into his headset as they worked on the large red space ark that was to be the main vehicle of the High Empress herself.

“I’m gettin’ a lot better at this shit, Sol, like you would be surprised. I’ve put a lot a time and effort into improvin’ and I’d say I’m just about at a level where I could be considered really fuckin’ impressive, okay?” His purple-cloaked troll hopped over to the other side of the scaffolding they’d put in place to create the wings of the ship. “But for your information, no, I’ve got plans on holdin’ off for a little while before I make my official musical debut.”

Sollux smirked. “All right, so there are those plans. What about the plans for tomorrow?”

“The plans are that Fef is gonna come and check on me and then I got some shit to do by myself downtown. I got other plans, but they are strictly confidential and not for your delicate ears, Sol.”

“Delicate ears my ass,” Sollux retorted as he tapped his keyboard, swiftly putting a few windows in the side of the candy red ship. “Does that mean I’m not allowed to come along?”

“Absolutely fuckin’ not is what it means, yeah. You probably wouldn’t want to anyway, I was just gonna go pay a visit to the Core and also get some new clothes because I was lookin’ in my drawers the other day and basically lamentin’ the fuckin’ textile drought that is my wardrobe right now.”

“Wow, yeah, sounds pretty shitty. But with the appropriate amount of meditating under the shower and walking over some of GZ’s burning incense sticks, I’m pretty sure I will be able to steel myself for the trial of going clothes shopping with you.” He tried to keep the biting smirk in his voice, but he found his stomach clenching as he spoke. They hadn’t been out alone together for any length of time since their disastrous outing at the pool. And things were much different now.

Weren’t they?

“You don’t have to bother yourself with comin’, I’ll be fine. I’ve been feelin’ better than I have in ages if you want to know the truth, and I’m thinkin’ that this latest surgery might have actually done its fuckin’ job for a change.” His voice was light. Flippant.

Sollux felt his heart squeeze. “So I’m not on the invite list, is that it?”

“No, sorry. No angry basement dwellin’ types allowed on my first day in the sun since my brutal incarceration inside my own home. Would ruin the fuckin’ mood.”

Sollux felt as if something heavy had settled over his head, pushing him into the floor. It wasn’t as though he could have really expected a different response. All they did was play Minecraft together, after all. He nudged his character around, slapping some blocks in place.

“Technically it’s going to be at least your third day in the sun,” he said at last, before he forgot to reply entirely. “Because you made an awful fucking habit of cheating while doing your time.”

“Whatever, Sol, I was just gently bendin’ the rules so as to not go fuckin’ nuts cooped up in this hellhole. I am just really lookin’ forward to drinkin’ a nice cup a tea and chillin’ out in the café for a while tomorrow.”

Sollux could hear the wistful air in his voice and swore the bastard hopped even higher than usual as he sent his character to the top of the ark. It made the weight on his shoulders increase. “Sounds great.”

“It will be.”

Sollux tapped at his keyboard for a few more seconds before pinching the bridge of his nose. “We should probably call it a night, then. Don’t want to keep you up too late when you have all these awesome activities planned for tomorrow.”

“That is a real fuckin’ decent thing a you to do, Sol, and not remotely troll-like at all, you are a fuckin’ disgrace to this made up bullshit species we’ve got goin’ on here. But thanks, I owe you for steppin’ in for me like this and puttin’ yourself at risk a bein’ culled.”

“Oh, I never said I was going to risk my neck for you, ED. First sign of the culling drones and I will spill every last bean I’ve got inside me about your lax construction efforts.” Sollux couldn’t help but grin.

“Fuckin’ asshole.”

“Good night, jackass.”

He pushed himself away from his desk then, rubbing at his eyes.

He needed food.

He picked his way across his laundry-littered floor before emerging from his darkened room and into the hallway outside. It wasn’t exceedingly late yet, so he could still hear music coming from Gamzee’s room and the sound of Will Smith’s voice echoing from Karkat’s. He trudged down the hall, preparing to yank some chicken nuggets out of the freezer to stick in the microwave.

That plan immediately went to shit, however, as he came into the kitchen and found Tavros at the table with a plate smeared with ketchup and a face full of crumbs, an empty bag sitting next to the sink.

“No goddammit motherfucking shit,” Sollux burst out as he tore the bag from the counter, staring down at the logo and the image of the deliciously golden-brown chicken nuggets beneath.

Tavros looked mortified.

“I’m, sorry, I didn’t know they were, yours, or really anyone’s, I just came out here because I was, hungry and Gamzee fell asleep trying to listen to me, um, teach him how to play DnD.” He looked around himself, as if there might be a spare chicken nugget he had dropped somewhere for Sollux to eat.

Sollux sighed and set the empty bag back down. “Don’t sweat it, it’s not that big of a deal. Sorry for flipping out like that.”

“Oh, it’s no problem, really,” Tavros smiled. He then got up from his place at the table, picking up his plate. As he reached out to set it beside the sink, Sollux noticed a red band dangling from his wrist.

He felt something snag in his stomach.

“Is that,” he began as Tavros withdrew his arm and looked up, “Rufio’s collar? Are you wearing his collar?”

“Oh, you mean this?” He held up his arm and stared at the red strap around his wrist. Complete with a buckle and a name plate. His expression all at once grew both fond and sad. “Yeah, that’s what, this is.”

Sollux felt like he was staring down at those fucking cat pancakes all over again. His stomach lurched and he was suddenly not so hungry anymore.

“Isn’t that kind of fucked up? Wearing your dead cat’s collar as a bracelet?”

Tavros looked genuinely confused. He peered at his wrist again, frowning as if trying to puzzle out an honest answer. At last he returned his gaze to Sollux. “I’m not exactly, sure, which parts about it are, um, unacceptable. I washed it, so, there aren’t any substances on it that might be bad, so to speak.”

“I guess I’m glad you washed it, but still… That’s…sort of morbid, isn’t it?” Sollux tried to avoid looking at it.

Tavros’ forehead scrunched in further bemusement. “I’m not sure what’s so, morbid, about it.”

“Because it’s your dead cat’s collar and you’re fucking wearing it,” Sollux seethed, gesturing toward it violently. “I’m not so sure what else there is to say on the subject. I mean, doesn’t it bother you?”

Tavros flinched at Sollux’s sudden outburst, but recovered quickly enough. “No, it doesn’t, actually. It helps me to, remember, and think of him whenever I want to, and also sometimes when I need to but, maybe don’t really realize it.”

Sollux stared at the boy, who looked back at him with such an open and honest expression that Sollux couldn’t help be feel like he was shrinking into the tile beneath his feet. His voice was much smaller as he asked, “But…he was wearing that when he died. That doesn’t…depress you?”

“Oh, well, yes, it does, sometimes,” he lifted his wrist and gave it a somber gaze. “But I guess, maybe, I want to remember the sad things and the happy things, also, rather than just, forgetting all of it.” He twisted the collar around on his wrist so he could see the name plate. “Rufio was, really great, for me. He was my pet and, also my friend, but I also don’t think I would be who I am right now, or in the situation that I currently find myself, without him. He’s the reason I met Gamzee, after all. So that’s why I, like to keep him close, this way.”

He dropped his wrist and smiled at Sollux. But his grin flickered as he took in the other’s expression.

Sollux was standing in the middle of the kitchen, trembling, his eyes hot and glistening. He stuck out his hand, trying to keep his voice even as he whispered, “Can I see it?”

“Oh, uh, sure.” Tavros put his wrist in the man’s bony hand. Sollux ran his thumb over the name plate, tracing the letter’s of Rufio’s name. He flipped it over. On the back, however, instead of contact information, was a message written in tiny font.

This guy is going to teach you how to fly. Go for it Peter!!!!!!!!

He swallowed and looked up at Tavros. “This…really means a lot to you, doesn’t it?”

Tavros nodded. “Yeah, it does.”

Sollux withdrew his hand, shaking. He put a hand to his useless right eye, feeling the darkness surround it but being unable to see it. Yet he could still feel the tear leak from it and slide down his cheek.

“I’ve been such a fucking idiot,” he whispered.

Tavros looked worried to the point of trepidation. “I don’t, really know, what you’re referring to, but, I wouldn’t, necessarily, put it like that.”

“No.” Sollux took a step back, swiping up the tear that had fallen as he pulled his hand away from his face. “No, that is exactly how I would put it. Fuck. Fucking dammit.”

He ran both hands through his hair and turned, cursing all the way out of the kitchen and back to his room.

Chapter Text

This was the day Eridan Ampora booked his first gig at the Core.

He could barely swallow his Cheerios after Sollux left that morning. His chest felt so full he thought his rib cage might crack against the pressure. Trying to focus on eating his cereal did nothing to help either. Every time he dipped his spoon into the milk and watched the little brown rings converge around it, he found his vision flying inexplicably back to the night before.

Everything had been so cloudy. Like a golden haze—all amber liquids and worn fabric and the salty sour smell of sweat. But in that summer fog of beer and longing, there had been a hand. A pair of lips. A sweet dream pierced by the fragile needle of touch. And in that moment the dream had spilled forth from its confines in the imaginary and come surging out into reality. A reality where no matter how much alcohol and heat blurred the edges, there was an anchor lodged in Eridan’s chest, its edges sure and sharp and hard as cut crystal.

He was in love with Sollux Captor.

Stupidly, irreconcilably, and hopelessly in love.

He eventually gave up on the Cheerios, pushing them away before digging his phone out of his pocket and tapping on Feferi’s name from his list of recent calls. As he pressed the device to his ear, he could feel his heart thrumming in his chest. He put a hand to it, feeling it ache and surge and flutter.

It was a broken thing. But it could feel no less keenly. He found himself overcome with the urge to laugh at that, his eyes stinging with senseless joy.

“You’re lucky it’s a Saturday, mister,” came Feferi’s voice as the dial tone finally ceased. “I am going to start having to set up hours like a real call service if this keeps up. I do have a life outside of yours, you know.”

He couldn’t even respond to any of it. Partly because he knew she would never make good on her threats and partly due to the fact that his throat was too tight to form a coherent sentence. All he could do was swallow and drown in the hot throbbing of his heart.

“Or maybe I could start charging you! Five bucks a minute for my services. What do you think about that, hmm?” Her voice was as light as ever, and he could hear the tinkle of a spoon against the ceramic edges of a coffee mug.

“Fef, I think I’m dyin’,” he finally choked out.

Her voice did a sharp about-face toward worry. “Is everything all right, Eridan? Do you need me to call someone?”

“I love him,” he gurgled, putting his head down on the table. “I just love him so much and I think I might die from it, Fef, this is the worst fuckin’ feeling.”

He could hear her expel a relieved breath before she responded. “Oh my god, Eridan, you really scared me for a second there. I thought this was something serious!”

“It is fuckin’ serious, what do you think I’m playin’ at?” Eridan snapped, jerking up from the table with an indignant scowl.

“Oh, well, of course it is. How silly of me to ever suggest otherwise! I have your cardiologist on speed dial. Do you want me to call him up and alert him to the really horrible love attack you’re currently having?”

Eridan slammed a hand down on the table, making his spoon rattle. “Goddammit, why can’t you ever take a single thing that happens to me seriously? I am sittin’ here in the throes a some really serious fuckin’ emotions and all you can say about it is that you got my fuckin’ cardiologist on speed dial like it’s all some huge joke to you. You are honestly the worst person to contact in a serious crisis a feelings and I can’t believe I even called you about this, what a fuckin’ idiot I am.”

She giggled. “Calm your dumb gills down, Eridan, I was only joking!”

“Okay, well, you can stop with that, because this is not an area for japes of any kind to be makin’ an appearance. This is the most dire situation you could possibly imagine, okay, and it’s gotta be fuckin’ treated as such.”

“All right.” Feferi’s voice was suddenly comically serious. “What’s the first order of business, Captain?”

“Just ask me about what happened last night. Just fuckin’ ask me.”

“What happened last night, sir?”

“Oh my god, I can’t even tell you.”

If it was possible to hear an eye roll over the phone, Eridan would have sworn he had. “You are so ridiculous sometimes. I guess I will just leave you to hoard that little piece of information all to yourself then.”

“All right, just hold on, I gotta get myself under control here. Do some fuckin’…deep breathin’ or whatever. Jesus…”

“In through the nose, out through the mouth,” Feferi instructed, laughter nipping at the edges of her voice.

“Okay, I’m doin’ it. I’m breathin’. All right, I’m ready. I am now sufficiently prepared to drop this fuckin’ bombshell of a revelation onto your unsuspecting cranial cortex, are you even ready for this?”

“Aye aye, captain, fire away!”

“Okay. So we got drunk last night—”

“Oh my god, did you two do it?”

“Jesus fuckin’ christ, Fef, can you at least let a guy finish? No we did not do it. But he did, like, get all snuggly with me and spend the night in my bed. I wouldn’t even fuckin’ believe it except for the fact that he just left my house and that I can still distinctly remember him leanin’ down and kissin’ me and pettin’ my hair.”

Feferi laughed. “That sounds super cute, Eridan. You two seem like you make very good drunk cuddle buddies.”

“That’s the thing, we weren’t even that drunk. He tried to pass it off like it was nothing, but I’m seriously startin’ to doubt it when he says he doesn’t have feelings for me, like the cover is comin’ off a this ruse and revealin’ the heapin’ pile a horse manure that it is.”

“Hmm… That’s funny. I’m remembering a conversation where I told you this exact thing, and you passed it off as me being naïve and silly.” Her voice was needling.

Eridan sighed. “All right, well, you were being naïve and silly, okay? Things were a lot more complicated after that kiss and Sol goin’ off on me like that. But after Rufio’s funeral and shit, it was like…something happened, I don’t know, I can’t explain it.”

“That’s right, you told me about that…” Feferi’s glib tone dipped a bit. “How is Tavros doing? Is he handling it okay?”

“Yeah, like weirdly okay. I think he and Gam probably handled it the best outta any of us to be perfectly fuckin’ honest.”

“Out of any of you…?”

Eridan shifted in his seat, flicking the bottom of his spoon and watching it spin around on the table. “Yeah… I guess I probably could’ve handled it a bit better than I did.”

“What makes you say that?”

Another spoon flick. “It just got me all scared. Like, thinkin’ about dyin’, I guess. In a serious way, and not just those little flashes a terror I get whenever my heart starts actin’ up if I try to take walks or have those awful fuckin’ fallin’ dreams. Like, I guess I just was standin’ there watchin’ them bury that cat and I just kept seein’ myself in that box, you know? And it scared the shit outta me.”

Feferi’s voice became somber. “Well, that’s only natural, I think. Death is a scary thing. Not bad, really, it’s just like being afraid of the dark or the deep part of a lake where you can’t see the bottom. It’s this mysterious thing that nobody really knows a whole lot about and so we all feel a little scared about what might be lurking down there. But I wouldn’t really worry about it so much, Eridan.”

“I can’t help myself, Fef, half the time I feel like I’m treadin’ water over that dark spot in the lake. I mean, that’s the reason I decided to do the music thing instead a goin’ through more school like you did and gettin’ a doctorate in bio or whatever. I mean, science is great and shit, but every time I have to pack myself off to the hospital or feel my heart goin’ nuts inside a me, I get worried that I just don’t have the fuckin’ time for it. Like I gotta only do the stuff I really love doin’ because who knows when the next time at the hospital is gonna be the last?”

“Eridan…” Feferi’s voice was halting. “I wish you wouldn’t talk about stuff like this. The doctors said that your prognosis was really good. And you followed all your post-op instructions pretty well this time. Sort of. You’re doing better than you were after your last surgery, okay? And you’re all done growing now, so that should be the last one you’ll ever have! So there’s really no need for all this doom-saying, all right?”

“God, you’re just like him,” Eridan muttered, rubbing his eyes under his glasses. “I’m not doom-sayin’, Fef. I’m just tryin’ to be realistic, here. Nobody expected Tav’s cat to die. Nobody expects any a that shit. So I guess that’s why I just…really want to do something. I don’t want to sit on my ass and waste time anymore. Sol and I have been pissin’ around this weird thing between us for over a month now, and I’m just finally ready to actually get up and go for it. It’s not right to waste the time we have when some kid’s fuckin’ kitten was shafted out of it. That’s all I’m tryin’ to get at here. It’s an insult to all the time that Rufio never had that Sol and I are content to sit here in emotional limbo like this forever. I fuckin’ love him, Fef, and regardless a his feelings or how he might react to it, I’m gonna go for it. And I’m gonna do it in the biggest possible way like I’m slated to die tomorrow. Because for all we know, that might just be the fuckin’ case. And if it is, I’ll at least die knowin’ that I gave it the best fuckin’ shot that I could.”

Feferi was silent for a long time. When she finally responded, her bubbly tone was punctuated by a wavering note. “That’s really great, Eridan. I’m glad you’re feeling ready to do this.”

“I’ve never been more ready for anything in my life,” he replied, feeling the ache in his chest sharpen. “I just wish I knew what the fuck to do.”

She laughed. “Really? I figured you would do what any musician in love does.”

“What’s that?”

“Write him a song, stupid!”

Eridan felt as though he’d swallowed a live fish. It flopped in his stomach as he forced out, “I don’t know about that. Sure, I’ve been puttin’ a lot a practice in lately with the bed rest bein’ a thing, but I still don’t know if I’m at the skill level where writin’ an honest to god song is like, a distinct possibility.”

“Come on, Eridan! What happened to all the enthusiasm? You’ve gotten me all excited! You can’t just pull up on the reigns after giving a speech like that.”

Eridan put his head down on the table. “I just was not expectin’ to do something that required that much preppin’ time, Fef, I was more thinkin’ along the lines a showin’ up at his door with a taco pizza and all the love in my heart and just sorta hopin’ he goes for it.”

“That is the lamest setup for a romantic confession ever!” Feferi rebuked. “You have the guitar and the music in your heart, don’t you? It’s time to put them to use and stop being a useless baby!”

“Wow, Fef, way to make this sound even cheesier than it already is. I will be fuckin’ shocked if Sol doesn’t just toss up his lunch over that god-awful pair a mismatched sneakers he has on account a how fuckin’ pathetic I’ll be.”

“I don’t think it will be pathetic at all, Eridan. Besides, you’ve been saying you’re going to get a music gig for ages now, but I haven’t seen you do anything about it. If you want to live like you’re going to die tomorrow, you have to start doing it! Come on! I am super excited about this now. Put your money where your mouth is, mister. It’s time to pick up that guitar and get your musical courtship going, epic style!”

After that, there was absolutely no arguing with her. In a way, Eridan was grateful. In the days following, his clumsy encounters with the guitar were punctuated by her phone calls. It was odd, having Feferi call him instead of the other way around. But it gave him the lift in spirits that he needed to avoid throwing his instrument against the wall and signing off of all things musical for the rest of his inept existence.

It was a week before he had anything that could be considered a real composition. As he sang the lyrics over the phone to Feferi, she sat on the other end of the line with bated breath, and he could hear the electric excitement snapping in her every syllable as he finished.

“That sounds really great, Eridan! You’re voice is actually pretty nice. I’m surprised I never noticed it before.”

“Thanks,” Eridan muttered, folding up the crinkled notebook paper he’d scribbled the song on. “But it’s not the singin’ I’m worried about. It’s the singin’ and also hopin’ my fingers cooperate at the same time that’s got me in fuckin’ knots about the whole thing.”

“Stop worrying so much. That’s just going to make you mess everything up. I’ve talked to Sollux in private about you, so I can say with extreme confidence that even if it’s awful, he’ll probably love it.”

“Wow, thanks for that stunnin’ vote a confidence, I really appreciate it,” Eridan replied flatly.

“Come on! What are you so crabby about? He’s going to love it no matter what you do, Eridan, so I don’t know why you’re getting so worried.”

“Because, Fef, I’d rather he loved it because I’m a dashin’ and accomplished musician. Not to mention the fact that I was talkin’ myself up to him about my guitar playin’ today and basically just settin’ the stage for my fantastic fuckin’ failure here.”

Feferi’s voice perked with intrigue. “Oh, did you talk to Sollux today?”

“Yeah. Told him about my plans for tomorrow, what with gettin’ off a bed rest and everything.”

“You didn’t actually tell him what you’re going to be doing, right?”

Eridan rolled his eyes. “Come on, Fef, what sorta moron do you think I am? A course I didn’t. I told him I was goin’ shoppin’ for clothes or some shit. Which I actually kinda wish was the truth since my wardrobe’s been lookin’ pretty dismal lately.”

“You can do that later. For now you have to focus on getting that gig booked.”

Eridan flopped back on his bed. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Eridan!” Feferi sighed exasperatedly. “What is it now? I was thinking you were going to be a lot more excited about this than you are currently being.”

Eridan rolled onto his side and put an arm over his face. “I dunno, Sol just sounded really down when I got done speakin’ with him and it’s got me wonderin’ if he’s even gonna want to come to this stupid thing once I go through all the trouble a settin’ it up. Feels like I’m clawin’ at the walls a futility here.”

“You are not doing anything with futile walls, Eridan. I swear, you two just feed off each other’s bad moods. You’re both just big passive-aggressive idiots is what I think! So buck up and stop moping. He’s going to come to your thing. You just have to set it up first.”

“I suppose,” Eridan said, sighing a bit more loudly than he really needed to.

Feferi responded with an even larger sigh before she giggled. “Just get some sleep, grouch-face. You’ve got some planning to do tomorrow!”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fuckin’ workin’ on it, okay?”

The next day found him wearing some of his nicest clothes. He’d slipped on tight, dark purple pants that clung to his legs all the way down, where he had stuffed his feet into a pair of teal high tops. A blue and teal striped T-shirt covered his top half, his wrists laden with beaded bracelets and his neck covered by a purple argyle scarf. He wanted to make a decent impression with whoever it was he was going to have to talk to in order to set up a gig.

As he walked into the Core, the jingle bells in the door jangling behind him, he saw that whoever it was happened to be the bitch with the blue lipstick.

He proceeded to shrink into a corner table to curse his very existence.

“I haven’t seen you in a while.”

Eridan lifted his head to see Kanaya staring over at him from her place at the table beside his. It was an almost exact replication of the first time he’d met her. She was wearing a maroon blouse and black skirt, not a strand of her short, dark hair out of place as she delicately turned a page of the book she was reading. She offered him a small smile.

His own lips quirked up as well, and he grabbed the edges of his table. “Will there be any threats to invert my table if I slide on over by you, Kan?”

“I am feeling in a particularly generous and non-threatening mood this morning.” She folded up her book and picked up her drink, scooting over to make room for Eridan. He pulled his table over to hers, a more graceful maneuver than he had performed during his first encounter with the woman. As he dragged his chair over as well and sat back down, he found her looking him over carefully.

“So what seems to be the problem?” she asked at last.

“What’s got you harborin’ the idea that I’ve got a problem?” Eridan retorted indignantly, smoothing his scarf over his chest.

“People with a normal amount of baggage usually at least buy themselves a drink before retreating to the edges of the café to drown their sorrows.” She closed her eyes as the corners of her mouth pulled up even further. “This is even ignoring the fact that you seem to enjoy seeking problems out from every cranny they could possibly think to lurk in.”

Eridan found his expression souring. He had forgotten how much of an irreprehensible, snobby know-it-all Kanaya was.

“For your information, I do not go lookin’ for problems, okay, they fuckin’ search me out like heat seekin’ missiles to blast my life apart into an even finer ash and rubble than it already is. Like, I don’t ask for fuckin’ any a this.” His lip curled at her as he spoke, leaning back in his chair.

She opened her eyes, and he found them glittering with mirth. “I’m sorry. I know your life is quite difficult. I don’t mean to imply otherwise.”

He squinted at her for a long time, but her impassive expression and shining eyes never changed. So he threw a leg up on the chair across from him and sighed, casting a glance over to the woman working behind the counter.

“And now she’s here and just makin’ things about ten times more unpleasant than they have any right to be. I’m freakin’ out about shit enough as it is.”

“‘Freaking out about shit?’ What shit, may I ask?” Her smile dissolved to be replaced with a curious expression.

“Like, I’m tryin’ to book myself a time where I can have a performance a some sort on my guitar. A course it’s important for me to sorta establish myself musically in this area, but it’s got a deeper purpose than that, not like I’m ever gonna let you be privy to that information.”

She sighed, her eyes raising toward the ceiling. “Based on the numerous text messages I’ve been receiving from Karkat alerting me to the trading of poorly aimed romantic blows between you and Sollux, I am going to go out on a limb and guess that this is likely something to do with that.”

Eridan made a face of repulsed shock. “Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me, Kar texts you?”

“A lot of people text me,” she replied.

Eridan bristled. “What are you, the fuckin’ village gossip hub or something?”

Her lids lowered and she regarded Eridan through narrowed eyes. “It’s not exactly a life position I was aiming to secure.” She lifted her drink to her lips and took a sip. “I’m always happy to help people when I can, but sometimes the invitation gets pulled a bit further than I ever want or mean it to.”

He regarded her with a vague sneer before shrugging and slouching further down in his seat. “Well, whatever. I suppose if you’re already in the know regardin’ my situation with Sol, I can tell you about my predicament as it’s standin’ now. I need to be able to book a gig here so that I can invite Sol and sing him this song I wrote for him.”

Kanaya stared at him for a few moments. She then put her fingers to her lips.

Eridan lurched upright, his teeth bared. “Are you—you’re laughin’ at me!”

“Not at all.”

“You fuckin’ are! Why does everyone think this is like high class entertainment or something, these are serious emotions I’m dealin’ with and the fate a my relationship with that jackass depends on my ability to charm him with music. Also, this was not my idea, all right, so you can just shut up and stop lookin’ at me with that awful smirk a yours.”

Kanaya pulled her hand away, her expression folded neatly back into place. “No, I think it’s a wonderful idea. I just don’t see what the problem is. If you want to schedule a romantic solicitation cleverly disguised as a musical performance, Vriska is right there. She can help you.”

Eridan grimaced. “I don’t want her help, okay? She’s a horrid fuckin’ hag and isn’t gonna be willin’ to do me any favors not even if it’s for a good cause like this is.”

Kanaya lifted an eyebrow. “Well, she certainly won’t be in a very auspicious mood if you choose to address her like that.”

“Whatever, as if it fuckin’ matters what term of address I choose to use, she’s gonna be fuckin’ awful and shitty just the same.” He folded his arms over his chest, pursing his lips bitterly.

Kanaya lifted her eyes again before sighing and standing, gathering her book bag and slinging it over her shoulder. Eridan lifted his head and uncrossed his arms, gazing up at her with an imploring look.

“Wait, are you seriously just gonna leave me here like this?”

“No,” she replied. “I’m going to take you over there and hold your hand through this interaction so you don’t make an embarrassment of yourself.”

Eridan pushed away from the table and stood, his expression considerably lighter. “Wow, you have no idea how fuckin’ relieved that makes me. Because I wasn’t gonna say anything, but you seem to have a fuckin’ way with her, like her first instinct isn’t to chew your face off or whatever else she does with her hapless victims.”

Kanaya broke out a full eye roll this time, adjusting the bag at her hip before making her way to the counter. It was currently vacant, the door to the kitchen propped open with a broom. Eridan fiddled with his scarf beside Kanaya, trying to squint inside. That was when Vriska backed out of the room carrying a platter with several plates of sandwiches piled on top. She looked more frazzled than usual, her coarse black hair falling from its ponytail and her blue mascara smudged. She curled a lip at the two of them as she passed before taking the tray to a group of four gathered at a table. Once she returned to the counter, she held her bangs away from her face as she punched something into the computer and rang up a slip, which she then stabbed on a spike near the register.

“Busy today?” Kanaya asked.

“You could say that,” Vriska replied, the tray she’d used to carry the plates still dangling from one hand. She scratched her head, sighing and causing even more hair to slip from the confines of the rubber band holding it back. She then let her eyes fall to Eridan.

She smirked. “I was starting to think I’d never see your smiling face back here. What gives, Eridan? Don’t tell me you’re still getting your pants in a knot about those smokes I asked you for at Karkat’s lame party.”

“That is hardly the fuckin’ case here,” Eridan snapped. “In fact, I am now completely comfortable with lettin’ you know that I can’t smoke at all because I have health issues. So you’ll never be seein’ those cigarettes from me ever.”

“Like I really ever gave a shit about you giving me cigarettes in the first place. I could tell you weren’t a smoker, what kind of an idiot do you think I am?” Vriska said before sticking a pen in her mouth and rifling through a drawer full of papers beneath the till. “And I’ve heard all about your sob story, too. Seems like you’re pretty hot news around here, Eridan.” She gave him a leer around the pen clenched between her teeth.

Eridan wrinkled his nose. “The way you say that makes it seem like a really undesirable thing.”

“No way. This is what you wanted, isn’t it? To be the hotshot new guy? The guy who everyone was talking about? Especially all this stuff with Sollux lately, wow. Talk about a lot of dramatic horsecrap.” She laughed, slamming the drawer shut and taking the pen from her teeth.

“Oh my fuckin’ god, how does everybody know about this?” Eridan cried, throwing an accusatory glance at Kanaya. The woman only blinked.

“Not everybody, god. Only the people like me who are savvy enough to have the right connections in the right places. Even if the only thing I get out of it is a bunch of junk about two guys and all their lame, idiotic feelings.”

“Why can’t anyone ever just take my emotions seriously, this is really startin’ to piss me off now.”

Kanaya stepped between them with raised hands, cutting Eridan short. Vriska herself shrugged and looked down to her pad of paper, beginning to scribble something on it. Kanaya put two fingers to her temple before turning to face the woman.

“I’m sure you have work to be getting back to, Vriska, so we’ll keep this brief. Eridan is looking to schedule a performance here.” She looked back to the man. “About how long do you think you’ll need?”

Eridan opened his mouth to reply when Vriska cut in. “It doesn’t matter how long he thinks he’ll need. Because I can’t book him. I don’t own this place, even though I probably do more work around here than the idiot who does.”

Kanaya frowned. “That can’t be right. I’ve seen you book musicians before. And not even professionals. Dave has come in here to do his rhythmic monologues a few times while John played the bongos behind him.”

“Shruuug,” Vriska replied, performing the word as she said it. “New rules I guess. I didn’t make them up. If I did they’d be a lot less dull.” She snapped down her pen before pulling the broom from the doorway of the kitchen and beginning to sweep up behind the counter.

“Great. That’s just fuckin’ great,” Eridan moaned.

Kanaya’s perfectly groomed brows pulled together. “Are you sure there isn’t something you could do?”

“Why do you care, anyway?” Vriska snapped, slamming her broom against a garbage can and knocking it away so she could sweep beneath it. “Who cares if a couple of cowards can’t get together because they need all these lame trappings to get things off the ground? Talk about a really shitty excuse for a band night. I’d be a complete joke for booking something like that.”

Eridan tried again. “Come on, Vris, please—”

She rounded on him. “Shut up. God, you are so annoying! All of you are. Your entire little brigade of idiots where all you guys ever do is sit around and play your little games and toke up and get drunk and are basically useless in every way. I have real plans to run. And I’m sick of running them for the sake of a bunch of morons who never appreciate all the lengths I go to in order to make them worth something.”

She tossed her broom away, ripping the rubber band out of her hair and redoing her ponytail, her teeth bared behind her blue painted lips. Kanaya frowned.

“Vriska, I think this has stopped being about Eridan.”

“Who cares who it’s about! They’re all the same. Useless losers who can’t plan anything and just run around like headless chickens, not giving a fuck about the rest of us who are actually trying to do things and go places. I tried to help someone before, and do you want to know how many returns I got out of it?”

She shot a glare at Kanaya. The woman held her gaze for a moment before looking away.

“Zero!” Vriska snarled. “None of the returns! None of them! I’m not going to keep shelling out all these awesome favors when all it does is make more people ignore and hate me. It’s just a big waste of my time. And I have a lot of other things I could be spending that time on. Worthwhile things.”

She tossed her broom aside and grabbed up her notepad before going to check on the table of four. Eridan glanced at Kanaya, who was staring after Vriska with a forlorn expression.

“So this isn’t goin’ very well,” he muttered.

“She’ll come around. She just needs to be able to see some kind of personal gain.”

“Wow, that’s a fine display of avarice if I’ve ever seen one,” Eridan scoffed, glowering back over at Vriska as he crossed his arms. “Seriously, as if any a this involves her in any way.”

Kanaya sighed, her expression sad. “If you’ve had to cut as many losses as she has, you wouldn’t think that way.”

Eridan frowned, about to ask the woman to explain when Vriska returned, empty cups and plates stacked in her arms. She tossed them in the kitchen before she stuck her head back out.

“Are you guys planning on ordering something, or what?” she asked.

“We’re not done talking,” Kanaya said delicately. “I still think a negotiation can be reached here. You need this as much as Eridan does.”

“Ugh. You just have to stick your fingers in everything, don’t you?” Vriska snarled before ducking back into the kitchen. Eridan heard the hum of the dish washer starting up before she reappeared, flicking water from her hands. “I guess I’ll humor you, since I know you well enough by now to realize you won’t get lost until I do. So what’s the deal?”

“He invites everyone. Not just Sollux. Everyone in that house.”

Eridan felt as if every drop of blood had suddenly drained from his body.

Vriska crossed her arms over her chest. “You must think I’m pretty pathetic if I’m still hung up over that old news.”

“I don’t think you’re pathetic, Vriska, but I do think you would benefit by being forced into a situation in which an interaction would occur. Think of it as giving yourself the chance to catch up.”

Vriska’s incredulous expression melted from her face. Soon she was simply standing there, her arms still crossed, looking a little lost. At last she shrugged.

“Fine. I wouldn’t mind catching up. Even though I know nothing’s changed and he’s probably as pathetic as ever without me around to get him to shape up.”

A small smile tugged at one side of Kanaya’s mouth. “So you’ll book Eridan a time, then?”

Vriska sighed heavily. “I guess. God, you’re persistent.” She rummaged around in a drawer before yanking out a notebook. “I’ve got an opening for next week Friday. Take it or leave it.” Her eyes flicked up toward Eridan.

The man pulled at his scarf, suddenly feeling very hot. “Uh, yeah, that should be fine I guess, if you’ve got no other times…”

“Nope. None at all.” She scratched something down before turning the notebook around and sliding it across the counter toward Eridan. “I’ll handle everything, like I always do, but you have to give me your contact information so I can tell you about all the great things I’m getting set up for you that you hardly deserve.”

“I’m not givin’ you my number, Vris, are you fuckin’ serious?”

She sneered. “What do you think I’m going to use it for? I have better things to do than text whiny little boys like you. But I need to make you sound halfway legitimate if my boss is going to let you take up a slot on the music schedule.”

Kanaya frowned. “This won’t jeopardize your employment, I hope.”

Vriska shook her head, a few strands of hair falling out of her ponytail again. “I practically run this place, his ass would be out on the streets if I didn’t pick up all the slack he leaves lying around. I’ll never get fired, I’m too good at running everything over here. All of the things.”

She looked over Eridan’s phone number as he finished writing. She then snatched the notebook back and shoved it in the drawer under the till. “All right, that seals the deal. You loiterers can get off the premises now.”

Kanaya gave Vriska a small smile. “Thank you.”

“Whatever. I’m not doing it for either of you. Or for him. So don’t get any ideas.” She picked up a pair of mugs and stalked back to the kitchen.

Eridan felt Kanaya grip his arm, pulling him away from the counter and toward the door.

“Hey! Fuck, let go, I can walk by myself, all right?”

He slapped her away and she withdrew her hand, sighing. As he dusted off his arm and they made their way out onto the sidewalk, he paused, the door of the café swinging shut behind him.

“Mind tellin’ me what all that was about?”

Kanaya looked back at him. Her expression was exhausted. “Yes. I do mind.”

“Come on, Kan, I’m a part a this now, so I deserve to be in the loop here. What’s goin’ on with Vris, why do I have to invite the entire household to come witness me sing a love song to Sol? This is like the worst sorta exploitation ever, and I’m bein’ fuckin’ serious about that.”

“I mind because you have a very bad habit of allowing your own feelings to obfuscate the emotions and situations of others,” Kanaya snapped. “This is a very delicate situation and the last thing I need is for you to go mucking about in it with your raving ignorance.”

“So fuckin’ enlighten me then. Help me not be ignorant, that’s all I’m askin’ a you,” Eridan pleaded. “Come on, Kan, I deserve to know. It’s my fuckin’ thing that’s gettin’ all shit on because Vris is a selfish fuckin’ bitch with some serious issues to work on—”

“This is what I’m talking about. Your ability to see things beyond your own personal world of self-interest is atrocious.”

“Then help me, Kan,” Eridan burst out. “Help me fuckin’ see. That’s all I’m askin’ for here. Just a little simple clarification. Like, does she have a history with someone in that house, I heard her mentionin’ a ‘he’ or some shit.”

Kanaya put a hand to her forehead, glaring at the sidewalk for a while. At last she looked back to Eridan. “Yes. She has a history with Tavros.”

Eridan blinked. “Like what kinda history are we talkin’ about?”

“To put it in the simplest terms: the romantic kind.”

“Oh. Oh, fuck, really?” Eridan pulled at his scarf again. “Listen, are you sure it’s really a good idea to be invitin’ Tav to my thing if he and Vris have a history a that nature? Because I don’t know if you’re aware a this or not, but he and Gam are like, a definite thing.”

“I know they are. And so does she,” Kanaya replied evenly.

“And you still want me to invite both a them? Gam and Tav? To a thing that Vris is gonna be at?” Eridan spluttered.

“Yes.”

Eridan clenched his hands into fists. “Okay, well, sure, that’s just fuckin’ great. I just want to take the time to let you know that if anyone starts instigatin’ any catfights durin’ my performance, I swear on every speck a space dust in the universe that I will hunt you down and murder you, Kan, that is a fuckin’ promise.”

Kanaya lifted a hand to massage her forehead. “The situation is obviously more complicated than a simple competitive romantic relation with three intersecting sides. And I am not setting it up simply to ruin your experience. Please stop twisting my actions as if they are performed with your personal displeasure in mind. You got the booking, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but now it’s all fuckin’ complicated.”

“I think you’ll find that life is often complicated, Eridan.”

Eridan opened his mouth to make an angry retort when he felt his phone go off in his pocket. Blinking, he looked down as it vibrated in his pants. Tugging it from his pocket, he looked at the number, expecting it to be Feferi.

But it wasn’t.

His mouth dry, he accepted the call and pressed the phone to his ear. “Sol?”

There was silence on the other end for a time before a hoarse voice replied, “Yeah.”

He swallowed hard, trying to keep his tone casual. “It’s not usual a you to call me in person. Like, I don’t think you’ve done it once. Ever. So who fuckin’ bribed you, that’s what I want to know.”

There was another pause.

“…Are you busy?” the man finally asked.

“Uh. Well, yeah, I mean sorta. I’m at the Core just now. Hangin’ out with Kan. Tradin’ intellectual blows over music and literature and a bunch of other pedantic bullshit that you would have no personal interest in whatsoever.” Out of the corner of his eye he could see Kanaya raise her other hand to her head, kneading both temples.

“Oh. Yeah. It’s your first day out and stuff. Sorry, this was stupid of me. I’m just going to go.”

“Wait, no,” Eridan yelped. He then swallowed hard, trying to reign his composure back in as he was met with a stunned silence. “Seriously, Sol, why did you call? Is everything okay?”

“…I just really need to see you.”

“Like, right now, is this an emergency?”

There was a pause. And then a laugh. “God. I can’t believe I almost said what I was almost going to say.”

Eridan frowned, cupping his hand over his other ear and turning away from the street. “You’re losin’ me here, Sol. What’s going on?”

“I just really need you to come over before I can change my mind again.”

Eridan felt himself gripping the phone so tight he thought it might crack under his fingers. “All right, Sol. I’ll be over right away. Just hold on, all right?”

He hung up the phone and turned to Kanaya. “Would you mind terribly givin’ me a ride, Kan? I’m in a hurry.”

Chapter Text

This was the day that Eridan Ampora broke Aradia Megido’s necklace.

He sat rigid in his seat the entire way back. Dimly he could recall Kanaya asking if he would object to the radio. He never answered. Beyond that, however, it was as if Sollux’s phone call had pushed all the day’s memories from his skull. Gone was any lingering curiosity over Tavros and Vriska. And all the knots in his stomach from the looming performance had been unbound and retied into a new nest of tangles that tightened the closer they came to their destination.

He leaned against the window of the car, pressing his lips to his knuckles, trying to focus on the houses flicking past and the sweet vibrato of a pair of strings on the radio. But the electric haze filling up his brain allowed room for nothing else. His eyes were already blinded by images of Sollux, alone at his computer. His ears were drowned with the sounds of his voice. That hoarse lisp telling him, pleading him, to come.

His heart slammed against his sternum like a caged animal. As if the car wasn’t moving fast enough. As if it longed for nothing more than to break free from the confines of Eridan’s chest and race to that rundown house all on its own.

Ten minutes had passed by the time they arrived. But to Eridan, it was as though he had been dragged through fifty lifetimes of forked paths and agony. He stumbled from the car, barely stopping to steady himself as he rushed up to the door. He heard the car silence behind him, but didn’t stop to look as he sprinted into the house.

His momentum carried him through the living room and halfway down the hallway before he was able to stop. He put his hands on his knees, panting and dizzy. As he raised a wrist to wipe his forehead, he turned to the side and found himself staring into the bathroom. Gamzee was smiling back at him from his place sitting on the toilet, pants bunched around his ankles. He raised a hand in greeting.

“Hey best motherfuckin’ neighbor.”

Eridan’s face twisted with mortified revulsion. Gamzee simply returned the expression with his unwavering grin.

Slowly, like he was staring down a hungry lion instead of a guy on a toilet, Eridan took the handle and pulled the bathroom door shut.

“Sorry about that. GZ likes to shit with the door open. Says it makes him feel more ‘at peace with the wicked energies.’ Whatever the fuck that means.”

Sollux was standing at the end of the hallway, one of his hands braced against the wall. His tone was even, but his face was chalk white and stretched taught like canvas over a wooden frame. Eridan straightened, his heart pounding against his chest with renewed force.

“I came as soon as I could,” he spluttered.

“You didn’t have to run. It’s not like my water broke and I was going into emotional labor or something.”

Eridan’s lip curled and he could feel two splotches of heat collecting high on his cheekbones. “Well, it sounded like you were fuckin’ crowning on the phone. And I’m not about to let you make a placental mess a feelings without at least givin’ you a hand to hold.”

Sollux’s nose wrinkled. “Wow, you somehow managed to make that analogy even more awful than it already was. Thanks for that.”

“Fuck you, Sol, I was not the one initiatin’ pregnancy metaphors, all right. I was only tryin’ to follow the fuckin’ train a dialogue that you set up.”

“Just a word of advice: most of my dialogue trains are just these shitty little engines set up on tracks that end over a giant ravine of ‘this is fucking idiotic.’ So unless you want all your cargo to go up in flames of stupidity, I’d avoid trying to follow up on any of the shit I say.” His tight lips managed to quirk up at the edges, and Eridan could feel the ache in his chest easing slightly.

“Well a course I already knew that, Sol, I am just attemptin’ to speak your patented nonsense language for the purposes a easin’ communication here. One of us has got to make some concessions in order for any dialogue to progress here, and luckily I happen to be a decent enough individual to volunteer and sacrifice some a my better wit on account a you bein’ a hopeless fuckin’ idiot.”

Sollux’s entire face split into a huge smile. The kind of smile that seemed too big for his face, and Eridan feared for a fraction of a second that the man’s skin might actually split at the unexpected strain. But then he found himself smiling too. An inexplicable grin that hurt his cheeks and made his eyes prickle.

“You are such an idiot,” Sollux said, a kind of effervescence lifting his voice that sounded suspiciously like the beginnings of laughter. He took Eridan by the wrist, pulling him gently. “Come on.”

Eridan obeyed, taking a few halting steps forward. Sollux stepped away as he did, leading him down the hallway and to his room.

The place was unrecognizable. Eridan blinked stupidly at the blue carpet and the red bedspread, both completely cleared of any stray laundry. The shelves were devoid of old energy drink cans, and the overflowing garbage can beside the bed was now empty. As soon as the initial shock wore off and he was able to breathe properly again, he noticed that the usual odor of stale air had been replaced with the scent of Febreeze.

“Did we step into a wormhole somewhere and get whisked off to some alternate universe or something because this is not your room, Sol,” Eridan forced out at last, turning his gaze to the man still clutching his wrist.

“I guess I just wanted to do something useful with my nerves instead of sitting around like a fucking sack of shit and obliterating the computers of stupid fucks on the other side of the country.” He mussed his hair a bit, the back of his neck and tips of his ears reddening. “God, this is probably one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done.”

“I wouldn’t say that at all, I mean, the place looks fuckin’ incredible. I was personally startin’ to think you were incapable a foldin’ a single article a clothin’, but I’m seein’ now that my fears were misplaced.”

Sollux covered his eyes with his free hand, giving a snort of laughter. He then pulled Eridan toward his dresser before yanking one of the drawers open. Inside were crumpled knots of T-shirts and spare socks. Eridan blinked.

“Okay, so I guess my fears were actually in exactly the right spot,” he remarked at last.

“Pretty much,” Sollux replied before pushing the drawer shut. He didn’t move after that.

Eridan could feel his pulse quicken under the man’s thumb and swallowed hard, wondering if Sollux could feel it. He glanced around anxiously before turning back to the man.

“So…did you just really need to show me your clean room or something? Because I’ll be the first to concede that it’s on mind-bogglin’ levels of unnatural, but it’s still not really what I would call, like, a first-class emergency.”

Sollux shook his head. “No, that’s… Look, just sit down for a second.”

He pulled Eridan toward the bed and pressed on his shoulders, forcing him onto the mattress with a little bounce. As Eridan steadied himself, Sollux pulled away and opened a drawer in his desk. He plucked something out of it, closing a fist around it before Eridan could get a good look. Sollux then shuffled back to the bed, sitting next to Eridan. He hunched over his knees, staring at the ground as he held whatever it was loosely between his legs.

“Sol…?”

Sollux ran another hand through his hair before casting a quick glance at Eridan. He then looked back to the floor. “I agree with you.”

Eridan frowned. “What exactly is it you’re agreein’ with?”

“What you said about funerals.”

Eridan’s chest tightened, and he turned his gaze to the ground as well. He already wasn’t too fond of where this was going. “Are you referrin’ to my opinion that there’s not really a whole lot a point to them?”

“Sort of.” He turned the thing over in his hands, staring right through it. “I never went to Aradia’s funeral,” he said at last.

Eridan’s mouth was suddenly very dry. He tried to reply, but his tongue stuck fast to the roof of his mouth.

Sollux glanced up at him before looking back down. “It got me to thinking about some shit, I guess. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’ve just spent the last year and a half of my life being afraid of everything. I wouldn’t touch anything that reminded me of her and the accident. I stopped going to school. I let myself get kicked out of my apartment. I avoided Skype. Even the people who I used to hang out with. I think I sort of eventually fooled myself into thinking that I had gotten over it, and that I just didn’t touch those old things anymore because I was a different guy. But…when I was at that funeral…there was nothing different about that. Like I hadn’t changed at all. I was just this scared jackass who wanted run away and hide under the covers like it would protect me from the memories.”

He opened his hands, revealing a tiny box resting in his palms. Eridan stared at it, still not daring to speak. After a few beats, Sollux continued.

“But…I don’t want to be protected from those memories. They were some of the best times I ever had.” He paused to scrub the back of his hand over his eyes. “I didn’t know anything about love before I met Aradia. But when I was with her, everything felt so right. I never wanted that to end. That’s why, that night, I was going to take her out to dinner at her favorite place and propose.”

He opened the box. Inside was a necklace with a gold chain and a bee-shaped pendant cut from red jasper. Eridan frowned, glancing up to Sollux in confusion.

“Not a ring?” he asked.

Sollux shook his head, a sad smile playing around his lips. “She was always digging around in the dirt. She’d never keep a ring on.” He lifted the necklace from the box, the tiny stone pendant swinging as he did, its polished surface catching the sunbeams from the windows and throwing specks of light across Sollux’s walls. “I had a thing for honey when I was with her. Her dad had these little swizzle sticks with honey candy on top that you were supposed to stick in tea to sweeten it or some shit. But tea is disgusting. I just liked to eat them plain. The first one she ever gave me was a bee-shaped one, so that became a thing between us. Honey and bees and stuff.”

He prodded the little pendant, watching it twirl before he looked up at Eridan. “And she liked stones. Not precious gems or crystals or anything like that. Just stones that she’d dig up from the ground, all covered with dirt and shit. And she’d go on about how beautiful they were. I never really got it, but I think that was a lot of the reason she ever went for me to begin with. She didn’t really give a shit how dirty or rough something was. Or someone. She’d love them anyway.”

His voice wavered dangerously and he brushed another hand furiously over his eyes. Eridan continued to listen, his throat tight.

“She never got to wear it. I crashed the car before I got to the restaurant. But it still feels like it was a part of us. Like this was everything we ever were. I think that’s why I held onto it. But even then, I just…shoved it in my fucking drawer.”

He exhaled, his breath shuddering as he ran another hand over his eyes. “I’m done shoving those memories in drawers. I’m done trying to forget what being happy was like. Or what it was like to love someone so much that I thought I might die from it.”

He snapped the box shut and tossed it. It tumbled through the air in a graceful arc before landing with a soft pap in Sollux’s trash can. Then the man was ducking down, inspecting Eridan’s feet.

“Good, you don’t have those stupid fucking flipflops on for a change,” he said, setting the necklace on the ground.

Eridan lifted his feet a bit, giving Sollux an incredulous stare. “Wait, what are you doin’?”

Sollux sniffed, running a thumb under his nose before gesturing toward the necklace. “I want you to step on it.”

Eridan felt as if he’d been dealt a fierce blow to the ribs. He stared at Sollux with widened eyes. “What?”

“Break it,” he ordered, leaning down to adjust the pendant. He then took Eridan’s right foot and laid it over the top of the little stone bee. “Just stomp on it really hard right here.”

“Sol, are you serious? You just got done tellin’ me how much this fuckin’ thing means to you and how you’re done puttin’ it in drawers and all a this shit and now you want me to wreck it?”

“Yes,” Sollux replied.

Eridan’s lips parted in speechless shock. He twisted his gaze back down to stare at his foot. He could feel the little pendant under the sole of his shoe. He grimaced, his heart hammering so loudly he was sure it was audible to even Sollux’s ears. Eridan threw another gaze back to him, his eyes pleading.

Sollux’s expression was blank. “Do it.”

Eridan grimaced. Then he lifted his foot and slammed it back down again.

The flicker of anguish that passed over Sollux’s face did not escape Eridan’s notice. It was as if he had just stomped on the man’s heart instead of a red stone. But as Eridan lifted his foot, he saw that the bee was still intact, gleaming brightly from its spot on the floor.

Sollux shook his head. “Again.”

“What?”

“Do it again.”

Eridan felt his stomach clench, but he set his jaw and slammed his foot down a second time. But another wince from Sollux and a lift of the leg revealed the little bee pendant to be whole and unblemished.

“Keep doing it. I don’t want you to stop until it’s wrecked.”

He stomped on it again, to no avail.

“Jesus christ, you are so pathetic.”

Eridan was turning pink with fury by this point. “Shut up, I’m doin’ my fuckin’ best here.”

Stomp.

“Oh my god.”

Stomp.

“Jesus, this is just so bad.”

Stomp.

Stomp.

Stomp.

Soon, every pound of Eridan’s foot had Sollux smirking until he’d broken into a full fit of laughter. Eridan had turned a magnificent shade of scarlet by that point, both fists balled as he got to his feet and began slamming his shoe onto the tiny bee pendant with as much force as he could muster.

He barely heard the tiny snap beneath his soles.

Sollux’s laughter died instantly, and he pushed Eridan away before he could deliver another stomp in his blind fervor. Panting, he stared down as Sollux crouched beside the necklace and picked it up. A stone wing and abdomen tumbled away, winking on the carpet like two tiny drops of blood. Sollux didn’t give them a second look as he palmed the necklace and returned to his place on the bed.

Eridan sat down as well, the heat draining from his face as he watched Sollux stare at the cracked and broken pendant in his hand. He then curled his fingers over it and pressed his knuckles to his lips.

They stayed like that for a long time. Eridan never looked at Sollux. For some reason it felt wrong. As if he were intruding on something extremely private. But Sollux never asked him to leave. He never said anything.

Not until what could have been hours later when he at last cleared his throat and spoke. “Can you help me with this?”

Eridan turned to him and saw that Sollux’s hands were behind his neck, gripping both ends of the necklace. The broken red bee glittered just below the hollow of his throat. Eridan nodded, pulling gently on one of Sollux’s shoulders to get him to turn around. Sollux complied, scooting closer to Eridan and putting his back to him. He didn’t release the ends of the necklace until Eridan had them both firmly in his grasp. Only then did Sollux let his hands drop into his lap.

“So are you ever gonna explain that to me or am I just goin’ to be left hangin’ out in limbo like this forever?” Eridan said as he fiddled with the clasp.

Sollux’s head dipped a bit. “Whatever Aradia and I were, it’s gone now. Broken. I want to look at this necklace and remember all the good things we had. But I don’t want to torture myself with all the what-ifs anymore.” He shook his head as Eridan smoothed the clasped necklace over the back of Sollux’s neck and withdrew his trembling fingers. “I want to be happy for what it was, and the time we did have. Because I’m so tired of being afraid, ED.”

He twisted around to face Eridan, his eyes glittering with tears.

“I’m tired of being afraid of you.”

Eridan recoiled in shock. He had never seen Sollux’s expression so raw. As if the impassive white mask had shattered along with the pendant, leaving a bleeding and open wound in its place. Eridan felt as if his heart had caught fire in his chest. He tried to speak, but found his throat snagging on the flames licking up his throat.

At last, drawn so tight with anxiety that he thought he might snap, he stammered, “I don’t know why you would ever be afraid a me, I can’t even break a fuckin’—”

And then fingers were sliding up his shoulders. His neck. Tangling in his hair. And he found himself being pulled closer. His heart gave a terrified leap and he opened his mouth to yelp or cry or anything but then his lips were pressed against Sollux’s.

And he was lost. Gone in that moment. In the feeling of the man’s fingertips at his temples. The overwhelming scent of bar soap and the strange taste of mint and peanut butter. The way Sollux’s nose brushed his cheek. His tongue slipping into Eridan’s mouth and then back out again.

Eridan had never felt more whole than he had in that moment. As if that fleeting connection was the final puzzle piece that he never knew he’d been missing.

And then Sollux was pulling away. And with him went Eridan’s breath. Unable to speak, he could only stare, gazing into those mismatched eyes with a curious pleading.

Sollux’s face was flushed, his lashes still damp with tears. He blinked hard, his adam’s apple bobbing in his throat as he swallowed.

“I love you, Eridan. I don’t want to be scared of loving you.”

His voice rolled and dipped and wavered like it was caught in a windstorm. But Eridan sheltered it with his lips as he pressed himself into Sollux again, fisting his hands in the front of the man’s shirt and pulling him close. And he felt the tiny sound Sollux made in response. Felt vibrations of broken and helpless relief against the back of his throat. And he was pulling Sollux closer. Closer. As if he could draw him into his body. Into the very core of his being.

Sollux’s hands slipped from Eridan’s hair and moved to his back, gripping Eridan with the desperate ferocity of one clinging to the last lifeboat at sea. His fingers dug into Eridan’s skin through the fabric of his shirt, his legs moving onto the bed to give himself the leverage necessary to pull the other even closer.

And then Eridan was on his back against the pillows. And Sollux was on him, the warmth of his tongue filling him up, making his heart ache and fly in his chest. And in that moment he thought he might die. That his heart couldn’t possibly be so full. That he wasn’t designed to bear a happiness this potent and beautiful. And he wanted to laugh and cry at the absurdity of it all. He wanted to sob and splutter and drown in Sollux’s kisses and warmth.

And he wouldn’t have minded, then, if those had been his last moments on earth.

Sollux’s mouth only ever left him briefly. Soon the argyle scarf was gone, and Sollux’s lips would press to the nape of Eridan’s neck. But they’d always come back. Back to Eridan’s mouth. Back to let their tongues meet in warm reassurance. And then they would part again. For moments. And Sollux’s thin lips would explore further, crossing Eridan’s throat and dipping to his collar bone. Eridan made tiny pining noises the longer Sollux’s lips would leave him, and the man would return to him, covering his mouth with his own.

It was so utterly intoxicating that Eridan didn’t notice at first that Sollux’s fingers had gripped the hem of his shirt. That they had begun to slide upward over his sides, taking the cloth with them. He didn’t notice until he felt the cold air hitting his chest, and suddenly he jerked away from Sollux’s lips, his heart freezing inside him.

He was exposed. He stared up with wide eyes as he saw Sollux’s gaze slip slowly and inexorably down. Down over what Eridan had seen so many times that the image of it was branded permanently to the back of his mind. The long purple scar over his sternum, raised and ugly against his pale chest. He shrank away as he could feel Sollux’s eyes burning over it like a pair of hot irons. He turned his head to the side, biting the inside of his cheek as he felt the joyful ache in his chest grow cold.

It was time for the fairy tale to end.

He should have expected it.

Should have…

And then Sollux’s lips brushed his chest.

He jerked in surprise, lifting his head and hunching his shoulders inward as if to defend himself. But Sollux did not relent. His lips lifted and pressed back down over and over again until he had traced the entire length of Eridan’s scar with kisses, and Eridan was whimpering his name, tears glazing his vision.

Sollux met Eridan’s gaze then, and Eridan had to blink furiously in order to see him, letting hot liquid spill over his cheeks. Sollux’s expression was still cracked and bleeding, but a smile had pulled itself over his thin lips. And then Eridan was smiling with him, laughing even, pulling him close and hugging him to his body.

And then it was as if every ounce of energy had been sapped from them. Sollux laid his head on Eridan’s bare chest, his ear pressed over Eridan’s heart. One hand absently traced the curve of his ribs, and Eridan was content to let the fingers wander, smiling distantly up at the ceiling.

“You know, this was the last fuckin’ thing I was expecting,” he said after he finally managed to recover his voice.

He felt a wash of warm breath on his chest as Sollux let out a small laugh. “Same here, sort of. I thought you’d be pissed off at me. I’d be pissed off at me.”

“Well, I made an honest attempt to be at one point,” Eridan admitted, running his fingers through Sollux’s stupidly soft, cow-licked hair. “But it’s sorta like I just didn’t have any room for the kinda boilin’ rage I’m used to after I fell ass-backwards in love.”

Another puff of warm breath and a low chuckle. “Jesus we are pathetic.”

“Well, one of us more than the other, but yeah, there is really no way to defend the opposite side a that argument.”

Sollux lifted his head. “I hope you’re talking about yourself, asshole.”

Eridan smirked. “Come on, I think it’s pretty clear who the more refined and well-mannered a the pair of us is.”

“Wow, holy shit. Shut up.”

He claimed Eridan’s voice with a kiss. And Eridan had no real desire to take it back. Instead he simply let himself dissolve in Sollux’s arms once again. Time was lost to him then, and the sun set without his notice.

Chapter Text

This was the day Sollux Captor took everyone to Denny's.

They never left each other’s arms that night.

Instead, time faltered in its perpetual forward march, stumbling over two men tangled in a knot of red sheets. Sollux couldn’t remember if he dozed. If what he experienced was simply an image painted by sleep or some untapped reality. But he remembered the way the moments seemed to expand and collapse. Like the gills of some underwater creature. Like the seconds themselves had been given breath and life and a will to move as they would.

He remembered some things. It was impossible to make any sequential sense of it. But he remembered Eridan’s arms around his chest. Remembered feeling them even when he couldn’t see them. And looking at them when he could. Counting the beads in the bracelet on that thin wrist. Reaching out and brushing his thumb over the knobby knuckles of that hand. He recalled doing it more than once. More than several times.

But he had no way of knowing if it had been real.

No way to distinguish each event as its own in the pocket of time undulating around him.

It made him reach out on several occasions. Like waking from a nightmare, he would jerk and put his hand on the thin chest beside him. To make sure Eridan was still there. Still real.

He always was.

At one point he had laughed under Sollux’s touch. Another he’d been asleep, his hair mussed from the pillows. Sollux remembered reaching out then, to tuck a strand back in place. Because he had no way of knowing that the man beneath him was more than a fragment of his delusions until Eridan’s forehead had scrunched under Sollux’s fingers and a soft sleepy murmur bubbled from his throat. Only then did Sollux lay his head back down on that warm chest and drift back down into blindness.

All he could do was listen. Let his body fill with the erratic flutter of Eridan’s heart.

It was like holding a butterfly in his hands. Feeling the tips of the wings brushing against his palms.

It scared him.

Scared him to the point of nearly releasing the butterfly in a spasm of panic.

But then he could see again. And those blue eyes were looking up at him. And the desk lamp was on. And the shadows that it cast over Eridan’s face were black and thick and smooth. And suddenly everything felt sharply and wonderfully real.

“You’re kind of a fuckin’ basket case when you doze off like this, you know?” Eridan remarked, and Sollux watched one of the shadows on Eridan’s cheeks deepen as he quirked the corner of his mouth in a smile. “Which part a my body should I be expectin’ you to grope indiscreetly this time?”

Sollux swiped his fingers over each eye, using his other hand to push himself up and sniff, looking around. The room swam into some kind of focus, and he felt the beginnings of a headache stirring at the back of his skull. He groaned and flopped back onto Eridan’s chest, which earned him a grunt of vexed surprise.

“Hey! Watch it. I got a delicate constitution and I don’t like the way your fuckin’ elbows look when you bend them, all right, they’re like a pair a carvin’ knives, it is fuckin’ disconcertin’ and makes me fear for the state a my safety.”

Sollux lifted his head and smirked before grinding his elbow into Eridan’s gut. He got a shove to the shoulders as his reward, and he snickered as he rolled off of Eridan, who glowered at him with as much melodramatic venom as he could muster.

“You know, you are really fuckin’ obnoxious and that sincerely could have killed me like I am not fuckin’—”

He had a difficult time continuing after Sollux’s lips covered his mouth.

Sollux found it fantastically strange that it was something he could do now. That after the pain and fear had built inside him to a fevered pitch of bright agony, it had all shattered in one violent, windswept moment. Exploded in a million different colored shards and left him empty and shivering and like he’d just woken up to one of the nastiest hangovers of his life. So it was odd, in the aftermath, that kissing him was so easy.

Eridan’s stiff indignation melted away under the warmth of their joined lips, his eyelashes brushing against Sollux’s cheek as his lids fluttered shut. Sollux felt some of the confused exhaustion drain away from him as his mouth was filled with Eridan’s heat. Whatever he was supposed to feel now, there was no question in his mind about the unequivocal rightness of that moment.

Eridan’s eyes fluttered open as Sollux pulled away, his dazed expression quickly tightening into a peevish glower.

“That’s not gonna work every time, Sol, I just want to lay that out right now where we both can—”

Another kiss.

“Seriously, Sol, I am not so cheaply fuckin’ assuaged all r—”

Kiss.

Sollux smirked as he left Eridan pink and fuming beneath him. He then rolled onto his side beside Eridan, propping his head on his hand as he stared down at him, wiping his own lips with a thumb.

“It’s just really fantastic how effective a method that is for getting you to shut up,” Sollux said. “Sort of wish I would’ve wised up and employed it way before now.”

Red smudges appeared in the pink flush concentrated high on Eridan’s cheekbones. He crossed his arms over his chest.

“Well, I see you’re feelin’ back to your old self,” he snapped irritably.

Sollux sighed, letting his head drop from his hand and shifting onto his back. “Not really. I feel kind of drunk. And sick. My stomach is killing me.”

“Mine too, but that’s on account a not havin’ eaten anything all day except for like half a bowl a Mini Wheats in the mornin’ that I couldn’t even finish due to like a fuckin’ cyst growin’ in my stomach or whatever.”

Sollux turned his head, shifting his shoulder a bit so he could get Eridan into his field of view. His profile was lit sharply against the dark of the room, his lips pulled down in discomfort.

“Are you being serious?” Sollux asked, the snide tone melting from his voice.

Eridan’s eyes flicked to him and he laughed softly through his nose. “All right, well, I don’t know about a cyst per se, but like, I wouldn’t discount the possibility of an ulcer or something equally horrible because I have been really fuckin’ stressed lately, no thanks to you. But I don’t know, maybe it’s healed now because I could seriously go for some fuckin’ sustenance of any kind.”

Sollux rolled his eyes. “You don’t have a fucking ulcer.”

“Like you’re in any position to make a diagnosis regardin’ the ulcified state a my insides all right? I am nearin’ a level a hunger that negates any and all other pain, like, I am fuckin’ dyin’ here.” He put a hand gingerly on his stomach before casting Sollux a sour look. “Not that I would expect you to understand since you apparently had your fill a peanut butter sandwiches before callin’ me up to confess or whatever.”

Sollux blinked. “Peanut butter sandwiches…?”

Eridan’s petulant glare faltered, and the color began rising in his cheeks again. He suddenly became very interested in scratching at an old stain on the red comforter beneath him. “You, uh…taste like peanut butter. And toothpaste.”

Sollux could feel his ears getting red. “Was it bad?”

Eridan’s eyes flew back up to meet him. “What? No, it. Wow, fuck. No it was fine I just… It made me kinda hungry to be honest.”

“That’s pretty gross, actually.”

“You were the one fuckin’ mackin’ on me with peanut butter mouth while I was dyin’ a hunger okay?” Eridan snapped.

Sollux smirked and rolled onto his side again so that he could get a better look at Eridan. The man turned to face him, the fury melting from his face as he gazed back at Sollux with a curious expression.

“I just ate a spoonful of peanut butter before you got here,” he explained. Thinking back on it just made his stomach clench with a residual anxiety.

Eridan wrinkled his nose. “Right outta the jar?”

Sollux shrugged a shoulder. “It’s the only thing I can eat when I’m nervous enough to shit small mammals. But yeah, it’s not really cutting it anymore. I could go for some food. Preferably anything the size of a compact car and made up of at least eighty percent meat and grease.”

Eridan propped himself up on his side as well to face Sollux. “I am not eatin’ anything outta your fridge, though. Let me just make that perfectly clear straight outta the fuckin’ gate.”

Sollux nodded. “I second that notion. There is some really suspicious looking milk shoved back on the third shelf that I’m starting to think has become sentient and is staging a fucking coups on all the other foodstuffs in the fridge. It is a fucking war zone of fungal imperialism and I do not want to get in the middle of it.” He rubbed his face, flopping onto his back. “What time is it anyway?”

Eridan dug his phone out of his pocket. “Like, three thirty in the morning.”

“Shit. Not even Toppers is open anymore,” Sollux groaned. He had dared to preemptively fantasize about baconstix for a few seconds. “And I am not going to Taco Bell, that shit sounds about as appetizing as the fucking alien milk right now.”

“Sol,” Eridan said, and suddenly Sollux was staring straight up at his face, his eyes light with a barely-contained excitement. “Let’s go to Denny’s.”

Sollux pushed him away and sat up, frowning at him. “What?”

“Come on,” Eridan urged, propping himself on his elbows. “Fuckin’ breakfast at all hours a the day? You can’t say that doesn’t sound fuckin’ amazin’ to you right now. And I know there’s one in town, it’s right next to the mall, I’ve fuckin’ seen it.”

“Okay, but the mall isn’t within walking distance. And the only one of us who has a car is KK.”

Eridan shrugged, pushing himself into a sitting position against the pillows. “So take his keys. Like he’s got anywhere to fuckin’ go at this hour a the morning.”

Sollux sighed, running his fingers through his hair. “I don’t know. KK’s really possessive of his car. I can’t actually remember ever driving it. Except for that one time that he got his shit trashed over at Dave’s and I had to take him home.”

“Come on, Sol. It can’t hurt to fuckin’ ask him. This is for the greater good a both our stomachs. No one with a heart could ever refuse, trust me on this. We are goin’ to Denny’s.” He put a hand on Sollux’s shoulder and gazed at him with such serious resolution that Sollux couldn’t help but snort with inelegant laughter.

“My stomach isn’t allowing me to think straight enough to form a decent rebuttal to that steaming pile of horse shit. So just sit here for a second while I go work my persuasive magic.”

He put his hand on Eridan’s forehead and shoved him back against the pillows. The following indignant curse was cut off by a brief meeting of their lips, and then Sollux left the idiot gaping on his bed, smirking as he shut the bedroom door behind him.

He felt like air. Ravenously hungry air.

It was the best sensation he had felt in a long while. He almost broke out into a skip before he realized how utterly and unforgivably idiotic that would be. And so it was with a sort of shaky self-restraint that he knocked on Karkat’s door.

There was no response. Not that he really expected one at three in the morning. He twisted the handle and poked his head inside the room.

“Hey, KK?” he hissed. “I need to talk to you about hijacking your vehicle for the sake of bacon.”

There was no response. He blinked, trying to get his good eye to adjust to the darkness of the room. Slowly the dim outline of Karkat’s room swam into view before him. The dresser and the tiny TV set up on top of it. The desk littered with fast food wrappers. And the bed with its wrinkled but otherwise unoccupied sheets.

He withdrew his head from the room. Where the fuck would Karkat be at three in the morning?

As he turned his head to look down the hall, light filtering under the bathroom door gave him his answer. He crept toward it and put his ear against the wood. Inside he could hear nothing. So he knocked sharply and waited.

No response.

So Sollux pushed the door open.

For some reason the first thing he saw was a glass of mouthwash on the sink. It wouldn’t have been such a strange sight in and of itself if there hadn’t been a phone suspended in the middle of it.

Sollux stared. And then he turned to face the tub.

Karkat was lying inside, fully clothed in some of his nicest garments. A pair of khaki slacks and a red button down shirt.

He was also neck deep in water.

Sollux looked to the cup on the sink, and then back to Karkat. The boy in the bath looked as though he had been cut from porcelain. He just stared at the wall opposite him, never even blinking.

Sollux approached the sink and peered at the glass perched there. He then returned his gaze to Karkat.

“KK, your phone is in a cup of mouthwash.”

Karkat never moved. Finally his lips parted and he replied, “Nice deduction, Sherlock.”

“Yeah. Do you feel like sharing?”

“Oh, you know,” Karkat replied, his voice wobbling. “I’ve been having problems with the reception lately and I thought a little ethanol would be just the fucking thing to clear that up.”

Sollux plucked the phone from the minty solution, shaking it off over the sink. As he did, he was struck with sudden realization.

“Oh shit, today was your movie date with John, wasn’t it. Er, yesterday. Whatever.” He set the phone on the ledge of the sink and poured the Listerine down the drain.

“Yeah. Not like it was a huge fucking deal or anything. I’d hate to distract you from any important dick touching you had scheduled with the prince of tight pants. How did that go anyway?”

His eyes flicked up to Sollux. They were puffy and red. It made Sollux’s insides squirm in discomfort and he flung his gaze aside, staring instead at the toilet as he replied.

“Oh, it went okay. I think we might be a thing now, maybe.”

Karkat’s expression crumpled and he looked back at the wall. “Oh. Well, that’s really fucking great for you guys. I’m so happy for you I could just fucking shove a branding iron down my throat and shit seared flesh and joy.”

“Yeah, uh,” Sollux wiped his fingers absently over the bottom of the sink, forcing some extra droplets of mouthwash down into the drain. “You seem kind of not so hot right now KK. Did the movie date not go well or something?”

“No, it went fucking fantastic. Like if you imagined a kitten with a bow sitting on a rainbow made of glittering sugar and shooting forth from a white hole of concentrated joy, that would still not be enough to accurately portray the sheer fucking perfection that was my night. This is just how I deal with happiness, Sollux. I fill up the tub and try to expel some of the saccharine mirth via osmosis. If you drank this bathwater you would swell up with sunbeams and giggles so fast that you would fucking lyse on the spot.”

Sollux crouched down by the tub as Karkat continued to scowl at the wall. He tipped his head to try and establish eye contact.

“Hey. Do you want to cut the fucking soliloquies and just tell me what’s going on here?”

Karkat slid further down into the water, his lip wobbling. “I’m just a fucking idiot and there’s no hope for me. Just cut off my head and put it in cryostasis so you can donate it to some museum as a monument to human stupidity.”

“Jesus christ, KK, it couldn’t have been that bad. It was just a movie.”

“Yeah, well, I wish he would’ve fucking told me that,” Karkat wailed, putting his hands over his eyes. “I wish he would’ve told me that it wasn’t a date and that it never fucking would be. And that he was bringing Strider and a bunch of his other gigglechums. Then I wouldn’t have shown up in front of all of them with a fucking dress shirt and bouquet of flowers, looking like the biggest jackass to ever get shit out the universe’s rotting asshole.”

He slid down into the water until his head was submerged, but Sollux yanked him right back up again.

“Jesus dicks, KK, come on. That’s not…feasibly the worst thing that could’ve happened.”

“Yes it is,” Karkat moaned, spitting water from his mouth. “Yes it fucking is, just let me die in this fucking tub like the hopeless, gullible fucking idiot that I am. I can never show my face outside again, I have officially hit rock bottom and fucking blown right through it to the fiery core of the earth. There’s nothing left but to resign myself to death and hope I’m incinerated quickly.”

“Oh my fucking Christ,” Sollux breathed, releasing on of Karkat’s arms to run a wet hand through his hair. Karkat seized the opportunity by sagging back into the bathwater. Sollux yanked him up again. “Would you stop? You’re not going to die from this.”

“I’m pretty sure Egbert wishes I would. I have never seen anyone look so mortified at the sight of flowers in my life. His prayers of ‘No god, please no, not this jackass’ were so strong that they actually radiated from his skull. I think everyone within ten miles suddenly thought they were Charles Xavier or some shit.”

“Nobody thought they were Charles Xavier, KK. Come on, let’s get you out of the tub before you get hypotonic.”

He tried to lift Karkat from the water, but was jerked to a halt as the boy’s fingers hooked onto the faucet.

“No, I refuse to leave this tub until I have dissolved and all trace of my shitty memory has been erased from the universe,” he wailed.

“Fucking Christ,” Sollux panted.

He was going to need help with this.

He released Karkat and let him slide back into the water, groaning until his mouth was submerged and the sound had morphed into the wet slop of blowing bubbles. Sollux then strode from the bathroom and marched down the hall, yanking Gamzee’s door open.

As the dim light from the hallway was thrown over the dark room, Sollux could make out a tangle of limbs, two of which were covered in tattoos. A shaggy head lifted and turned toward Sollux. Gamzee grinned at him, though how he could see who had roused him through the mop of dark hair covering his eyes, Sollux would never know.

“Is it all up and time for the sun to be poking its head up over the horizon already?” he asked. He was naked except for a pair of tent-like boxers, and he slung his hairy legs over the side of the bed as he swept the hair from face.

“No. Not even close. It’s actually time to get KK’s stupid ass out of the tub. Let’s go.”

Gamzee laughed, rubbing his eyes as he got to his feet. “Okay, best bro.”

Sollux got behind him and pushed him from the room. This served to elicit more hoarse laughter from Gamzee, but eventually got them both stumbling back into the bathroom. Once inside, Gamzee peered at Karkat’s submerged figure and raised his hand in greeting.

“Are you up and getting your clean on, bro?” He asked in hushed tones. As if he didn’t want to disturb him.

“If by clean you mean trying to wash my existence from the earth’s memory, then yeah. I am up and getting that on really fucking hard right now.” Karkat spluttered through a mouth half full of water.

Gamzee laughed and slapped his knee as if he were swatting at a bug trapped in molasses. “I feel you bro. Sometimes you just gotta get a good scrub going and everything will feel all right.”

“Stop encouraging him,” Sollux snapped, dragging the lanky man closer to the tub. “I need you to get him out of the tub. He’s being difficult.”

“All right, if you say so,” Gamzee complied, reaching down and taking Karkat under the arms.

Taking him out of a tub full of water was like trying to force an angry cat into one. He scrabbled at any surface he could cling too, curses cascading from his mouth in an unbroken stream. Soon the entire room was sprayed with water, and Sollux received a smart blow to the gut as he tried to unfasten Karkat’s fingers from the shower curtain to prevent him from ripping the whole thing down.

At last, drenched and panting, they managed to wrestle him to the floor. Gamzee straddled his waist, smiling distantly as Karkat writhed and cursed beneath him.

“GZ, can you attempt to get him out of that wet shit? I would, but I think I might start puking blood in a bit here,” Sollux said as he clutched the seat of the toilet with one hand and his stomach with the other.

“Sure thing, best friend,” Gamzee replied before reaching down to unbutton Karkat’s shirt. His hands were slapped away instantly.

“Don’t touch me. I am trying to die of shame and you are ruining it, you brownie-baking assclown,” Karkat snarled.

“I could up and get some chocolate treats all baking and sending their mirthful aromas your way if it would get to making your spirits start floating on in an upwards direction, my brother,” Gamzee said, letting his hands drop to undo Karkat’s buttons again. He got another slap to the wrists as a reply.

“I’m getting to think that maybe our good bro Karkat wants to be keeping his clothes all in their clothed state,” Gamzee said, looking up at Sollux as his hands were knocked away again.

“Oh my Christ,” Sollux seethed, releasing the toilet to rub at his eyes.

“What the fuck is goin’ on in here?”

Sollux tore his hands away to see Eridan standing in the doorway, looking dumbfounded by the sight that lay before him.

Karkat snarled, flinging an accusing finger in his direction. “You get away from me! I don’t want to see your face within fifty kilometers of my person. Your happiness is an affront to my perfect fucking misery, you raging douchebag!”

Eridan blinked and looked to Sollux. “So, does this mean we aren’t goin’ to Denny’s?”

Sollux was about to reply when Gamzee cut in. “Oh shit. Are you motherfuckers all taking a wicked journey to the land of eternal pancakes and sunshine?”

Sollux pressed the heel of his palm to his good eye. “Well, we were. Until Karkat had a complete fucking mental breakdown in the bathtub.”

Eridan lowered one eyebrow, his eyes still wide with flabbergasted bemusement as he surveyed the sopping boy underneath Gamzee’s half naked figure. “Yeah. What the fuck is wrong with him again?”

“It’s none of your business,” Karkat snarled.

“His make-believe boyfriend doesn’t love him back,” Sollux replied, and his bland statement was met with an indignant, howling curse.

Eridan blinked. “Well, can’t we just take him with us?”

It was Sollux’s turn to offer a blank stare. “What, to Denny’s? Like, a public restaurant? Where there are other people with functioning eyes? Who could view this fucking disaster?”

“Come on, Sol, it’s a fuckin’ twenty-four/seven restaurant. I’m sure the servers have seen worse things than a guy havin’ a romantic aneurysm.” Eridan leaned against the doorway to stare at Karkat with almost impressed disbelief.

“And we can tell our bro Tavros too, he’s still getting some wicked motherfuckin’ shuteye but I know that he would get to be all leaping right into his running shoes to come with us on our journey to the motherfuckin’ breakfast Mecca,” Gamzee said as he continued to lower his hands and have them knocked away by Karkat.

Sollux sighed through his fingers. “You know what? Fine. Let’s just. All go to fucking Denny’s. As if shit isn’t weird enough already. Besides, I have a feeling like this is the kind of emotional wound that can only be patched up with bacon.”

“Sollux I will fucking cut out your insides and make them into party favors if you take me to that fucking restaurant,” Karkat spat.

“Sorry, KK, you’ve been out-voted. Guess I’ll just have to deal with intestine confetti and spleen poppers and whatever the hell else you decide to make out of me,” Sollux replied, getting to his feet. He then crossed the bathroom and leaned toward Eridan. “But we seriously can’t take him anywhere like this, he’s fucking soaked and he refuses to let GZ change him.”

Eridan frowned, sticking his thumb in his mouth and chewing on the cuticle for a moment. Then his eyes lit up and he slapped a hand on Sollux’s shoulder. “I’m a fuckin’ genius. You go wake up Tav and get the car ready. I’ll be in charge a makin’ Kar restaurant-worthy.”

Sollux grimaced. “I suddenly feel extremely uncomfortable with this.”

“Just fuckin’ trust me, all right, you’ll wanna kiss me after this is done.”

That made something in Sollux’s chest snag painfully, and he was unable to reply as Eridan tore down the hallway and stumbled over the rug before hopping out of the house. Sollux watched the door slam before pulling his head back into the bathroom and trying to steady his breathing for a moment.

As he did, he found himself surveying Gamzee, who continued to smile unfalteringly as his hands were knocked away by Karkat. It was reminiscent of some kind of looping gif, and it served to make Sollux’s head pound with the sheer idiocy of it all.

“Hey, stop trying to undress KK for a second. Just keep babysitting him until ED gets back with whatever the hell he has in mind. Some genius plan that’s probably fucking awful,” Sollux remarked.

Gamzee raised a hand and nodded. “I gotcha brother, I won’t let our good buddy be all and escaping from under my watchful behind.”

“Awesome,” Sollux replied, pinching the bridge of his nose before trudging into the hall and back to Gamzee’s room. When he entered, he saw Tavros sitting up, his chest bare and his mohawk tousled. He was rubbing his eyes when Sollux came in, but he quickly tore his hands away from his face once he noticed he had company.

“Oh, um,” he began.

“I guess the executive decision has been made that we’re all going to Denny’s,” Sollux remarked. “And your boyfriend wanted to make sure you weren’t left out of the pancake parade.”

Tavros’ brows pulled together for a flicker of an instant before he replied. “That’s really, great, because pancakes are quite nice, but, why are we going, before the sun is up? That is, I understand that Denny’s is open, and so, it’s not that we can’t go, I just wonder, why, maybe.”

Sollux shrugged. “I haven’t eaten all day and Karkat is kind of having an emotional crisis.”

“Oh, is, he all right?” Tavros asked, pushing the covers off his legs and beginning to rifle through the sheets.

“Yeah, he’s just…” Sollux sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. “Upset. Because he can’t get the guy he’s had a crush on for two years now to show a modicum of interest.”

Tavros’ expression took on a kind of uncertain despondency. “That sounds, like something that is, really upsetting.”

Sollux nudged away a pair of Gamzee’s pants with his toe. “Yeah, well.” He’ll bounce out of it after a disgusting bacon binge, I think. He’s got the happy endings of a thousand rom-coms to bolster his hopes. Because you know. The guy always gets the girl in the end. Or…the other guy, in this case.”

“Do you think, they’ll really get together after all of the, breakdowns, of the emotional kind, that have happened?” Tavros looked at Sollux curiously after he’d fished his socks from the sheets and pulled them over his feet.

Sollux shrugged. “KK has fucking awful taste in movies. And I always kind of thought happy endings were bullshit. But…who knows? Maybe.”

Tavros smiled, pulling on his shirt. “I think that, happy endings, are a really great thing to believe in, even if they don’t happen, all the time.”

Sollux returned the smile, and the way his lips curved up made exhaustion break over him with unexpected force. He gestured toward the door. “Yeah, well. Whenever you’re ready, I guess.”

“I hope, right now, is an acceptable time, for my readiness, that is,” Tavros replied, tugging on a pair of pants before sliding off the bed.

“It’s perfect. Let’s get out of here.”

The two of them walked back down the hallway, and Sollux stopped at the bathroom door to peer inside and see how the situation was developing.

It was developing with predictable horrendousness.

“No Gam, are you fuckin’ stupid, you’re wastin’ time here, just point it at his clothes like I fuckin’ instructed you to do.”

“Ahaha, shit’s all like motherfuckin’ breathing on me like it’s all alive and wants to be blessing my face with the best kind of warm miracle kisses.”

They were sitting on the floor of the bathroom, Eridan circling the scene furiously in his tight purple pants like some perturbed stork. He had plugged in a cord by the sink, at the end of which was a purple hair drier. Sollux couldn’t even bring himself to be surprised. Gamzee was holding the device in his hands, laughing as it blew a stream of hot air over his face, making his hair fly back. As Eridan yanked it from his hands and turned it around so that it could blow on a cursing Karkat instead, Gamzee turned to face the two hovering in the doorway, his hair still wild.

“Hey best friends. We are all up and getting our employ on of this motherfuckin’ bitch tittied technique of all blowing heat up and everywhere to get our good bro Karkat all motherfuckin’ dried off.”

“Gamzee, maybe you should, aim that, at his clothes,” Tavros suggested, pointing. Gamzee turned back to Karkat, who was covering his face from the hot stream of air and howling. Gamzee smiled and pointed it at the boy’s chest instead.

“See, I got this all fuckin’ covered, he’ll be presentable in no time,” Eridan proclaimed, straightening and folding his arms triumphantly over his chest.

Sollux sighed. “We’ll be in the car.”

Karkat was possessive of his vehicle, but predictable about where he left his keys. Sollux swiped them from the kitchen table and strode outside, Tavros following along behind him. As he climbed into the driver’s seat, he heard the back door open behind. Soon they were both seated in the car, and Sollux heard the click of a seatbelt behind him. He tapped the steering wheel for a moment before stuffing the key in the ignition just so he could turn on the radio. He tapped the buttons with stations programmed to them, but was unsurprised to find that most were linked to stations full of pop music disgusting enough to give him cavities. He sighed, jamming his thumb against the scan button and letting the car page through the radio on its own. He flopped back against his seat, staring at the house and the dim light filtering through the front windows. He could hear Tavros shifting around behind him, making soft noises every time a particularly peppy song filled the car for a few moments.

“I talked to VK,” Sollux said at last, drumming his thumbs against the steering wheel.

“Uh, what?”

“Vriska. Sorry. I didn’t mean to pry or anything, but eight of anything was sort of her motif, and we used to play games together all the time. Well, I used to play games, and she used to cheat the fuck out of them. And that was always her thing. ‘Looks like you have to try harder Sollux,’ with eight exclamation points.” He ran his thumb over the cruise control buttons. “So it was hard not to notice it on Rufio’s name plate.”

“Oh. I see.”

A heavy silence descended over both of them, and Sollux tapped his foot against the brake pad.

“Anyway, long story short, I don’t blame you for any of that shit and neither does she. Well, she kind of does, but that’s just her way of showing she cares, I guess. But I can’t really say anything because I’m in pretty much the same situation. So I just wanted to say that I’ve been there, and I get it.”

“That’s, nice of you to say so,” Tavros replied.

Sollux lifted his eyes to the rearview mirror and could see the boy staring down at his knees, clutching the seatbelt strap at his chest.

“But I think she has a point. I mean, just in my case. You can do whatever the hell you want, since the place is technically Gamzee’s and you’re both fused into this fucking boyfriend conglomerate now. But I’m tired of just being taken care of all the time.” He dropped his head onto the steering wheel, the car giving a feeble honk beneath him. “I need to get out of here. Get a job, get my own place. Stop doing all this fucking leeching and start getting on with things.”

“I don’t think you, necessarily do the things that, a leech does, but, I think it’s nice that you’re so, confident, and, brave maybe, to be thinking of doing all that.” Sollux heard him squeeze the seatbelt tighter. “I wish that, I was brave too and, not the kind of person who is always a disappointment.”

Sollux felt his cheek sink into the grooves of the plastic. “I’m not brave. Just…ready, I guess. Really fucking ready.”

The smile came unbidden, and so did the sudden tightness at the back of his throat. But he figured those were just things he was going to have to get used to now, whenever a certain purple-haired idiot invaded his thoughts.

He jerked his head upright as a knock sounded on the window. He saw Eridan leaning down and waving at him through the glass, though the greeting looked more perturbed than amicable. Sollux rolled down the window, hoping the cool night air would be enough to wipe away some of the heat on his ears.

“Hey, you want to fuckin’ give Gam a hand? I would, but I appreciate bein’ alive and I think it’s definitely something I would stop bein’ if I got within ten feet a that fuckin’ rage mammal back there.”

He jerked a thumb over his shoulder and Sollux leaned out the window to see Gamzee dragging Karkat by the arms down the driveway. Or rather, attempting to. The boy had wrapped his legs around the garbage can beside the garage and was now pulling the rumbling plastic tub after him as Gamzee continued to tug at his arms.

“You fucking shitstains will never take me alive.” Karkat roared. “I will dedicate the rest of my life to building a time machine to go back and wipe out your ancestors so that none of you jackasses can even have a chance to fucking mar this world with your hideous taint. Fuck!”

Sollux rolled his eyes and got out of the car. “Can you at least get the trunk open or something so we have a place to put him once we get him over here?”

Eridan nodded and Sollux stalked toward Karkat, wrenching the garbage can from between his legs. “You act like we’re taking you to get flayed or something, Jesus. It’s just bacon.”

“I don’t want pancakes, Sollux, I want to die, or alternatively, get drunk and then die. Where are the pancakes in either of those options, Sollux? Can you find them? This will be like fucking connect-the-dots for assholes, except instead of getting a picture of a dinosaur at the end, it’s just a message that says ‘Fuck you, the pancakes are nowhere.’”

Sollux ignored him, instead grabbing his shoes and lifting him off the ground. Karkat gave a wail of defeat as he was carried to the car, where Eridan stood beside the open trunk.

Sollux looked at him with mortified disbelief. “I was fucking joking, I’m not putting him in the trunk.”

Eridan looked flabbergasted. “What, I thought you were bein’ serious. Besides, that seems like a pretty appropriate place for him, given his current state a questionable sanity. Because I can tell you right now that I am not sharin’ a fuckin’ seat with this guy.”

Sollux gave a growl of frustration. “Then don’t. Go get shotgun, you raving, unhelpful asslord.”

Eridan grinned and slammed the trunk shut before opening the back door. Sollux and Gamzee both shoved the lamenting Karkat inside with Tavros, who stammered in helpless confusion as a pair of shoes were pushed unceremoniously onto his lap. Gamzee got in the back as well, laying Karkat’s head on his lap and patting the groaning boy’s hair as Eridan and Sollux claimed the front seats.

“Okay, are all body parts in the car?” Sollux asked as Eridan buckled up next to him. “Can we fucking go now?”

“Let’s get this motherfuckin’ adventure off like a wicked clowncar all getting its drive on down at the circus,” Gamzee drawled from the back.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Sollux replied, twisting the key and shifting the car into reverse.

The employees at Denny’s were as jaded as Eridan had predicted. They didn’t even blink as Sollux and Gamzee each took an arm and walked Karkat to a table because the boy refused to stand upright at all. Their server just gave them a dazed look as they sat, and it was with bland professionalism that she passed around menus and took drink orders before leaving them to their own jumbled devices.

Sollux stared at Karkat, who had laid his head down on the table over his menu.

“Are you at least going to give it a look?” Sollux asked.

“Not unless two of my possible options for creating my own Grand Slam are vodka and arsenic.”

“Come on KK, just,” he grabbed a fistful of Karkat’s hair and lifted his head, “read,” he flipped open the menu beneath and, “it,” dropped the boy’s head back down.

Karkat groaned into a picture of an omelet.

“Well, this is a fuckin’ sight,” Eridan commented, staring at Karkat from over his own menu before leaning over to look at Sollux’s. “What are you gettin’?”

“I don’t know. A plate full of bacon. Maybe a side of eggs.”

Eridan squinted at his menu before looking back at his own. “That’s not even written on here as a viable option, Sol.”

“But that’s what I’m ordering. You’re paying for me, right?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Then I’m sure they’ll find a way to make my wish come true.”

Eridan slumped back in his chair, putting a hand on his head as he frowned at his menu. “Maybe I’ll do like a breakfast burrito. Gam, what are you gettin’?”

“One of these delicious bowls of breakfast happiness,” He flipped his menu around and pointed to a picture of oatmeal.

“Gross,” Eridan replied, his lip curling. “But that’s right, I keep forgettin’ that you have self-imposed dietary restrictions, so whatever, you can enjoy your slop if that’s what makes you truly happy, it’s no business a mine.”

Gamzee grinned and turned his menu back around as Tavros told him with a small smile that he would be getting some oatmeal too. Eridan continued to fret over his own selection as Sollux became quite certain that Karkat had begun drooling on his menu.

When their server returned, Eridan had a small existential crisis before finally settling on an omelet. Gamzee and Tavros got their oatmeal, and Sollux’s wish of bacon came true. Karkat got a stack of pancakes, eggs, and bacon at Sollux’s request. They were the only ones in the restaurant, so it didn’t take long before their food was brought to them in steaming heaps of happiness piled high on white plates.

Sollux attacked his bacon immediately, and had cleared half his plate before Eridan had gotten two bites out of his omelet. Karkat, for all his moping, had his bacon and eggs gone in about the same amount of time, his face covered with yolk as he started in on his pancakes, slurping noisily out of his glass of Sprite.

“I’m actually really glad all a you guys could come to this weird midnight restaurant dive because I have a group invitation a sorts to be extendin’ to you,” Eridan announced as they ate, setting his fork carefully beside his plate.

“Invitation to what?” Karkat growled as he ripped off a chunk of pancake with his teeth.

“I’m holdin’ a concert a sorts this comin’ Friday and you’re all obligated to come, you can’t back out, don’t even bother tryin’.” He took a sip of water.

“That sounds, really great,” Tavros said, offering Eridan an uncertain smile over his oatmeal.

“Yes it does, and that’s why you’re all gonna be attendin’.”

“What time?” Karkat snarled. “Some of us have work and responsibilities to look after, you spoiled ignoramus.”

“Uh,” Eridan rubbed his chin. “I’m not actually sure, let me get back to you on that. But does that mean you’ll come?”

“If it’s not during the day, then yeah, why the fuck not?” Karkat muttered as he stabbed another hunk of pancake and stuffed it in his mouth. “Not like I have better things to be doing with my sad sack of a life than attending shitty amateur concerts.”

“Wow, that’s fuckin’ great, thanks Kar,” Eridan replied with genuine glee. He then looked to Sollux. “You’ll be comin’ too, right?”

Sollux stared at him, a slice of bacon sticking out from between his lips. He slurped it up like a noodle. “Guess so.”

“Wow, this is fuckin’ fantastic, like, this really means a lot to me guys, thanks for bein’ so understandin’ and you won’t be disappointed, I can fuckin’ promise you that.”

He went on about all the new chords and techniques he’d learned, and Sollux’s mind was drawn inexplicably to World of Warcraft and what it would be like if there was some kind of useless bard class. Because that was definitely what Eridan would be. Endearing, but ultimately superfluous shit in battle. He had just started wondering what kind of damage a guitar could get as a melee weapon when Gamzee and Tavros stood up to take a bathroom break, Eridan following them on account of needing to “freshen up.” Sollux gave him a wave, staring after him for a while to wonder if he could possibly get back into that stupid game if he had Eridan raiding at his side.

“Hey.”

Sollux met Karkat’s yolky gaze as the other glowered back at him. He swallowed a piece of bacon. “Yeah?”

“I just want you to know that meant what I said before about being happy for you guys. And to express my unending gratitude, I will even permit you to kiss each other in my presence and I will only get moderately bitter and spiteful about it. Feel free to lick my fucking shoes or whatever to show your appreciation.” He sat back in his chair and crossed his arms.

Sollux smirked. “Yeah, I’ll get right on that once I’m done eating. Glad to see you’ve managed to crawl out of the pits of depression, though.”

Karkat gave a derisive grunt through his nostrils. “More like covered them with a shitty paper-mâché barrier for the sake of sounding sincere for a few seconds. Because I mean it. You should kiss him. As soon as possible. And get to other business too. Put your dick in uncharted territory. And do it before he realizes what a mopey piece of shit you are and heads for the flowery hills.”

“Wow. Thanks for that stunning vote of confidence, KK. I feel so touched.”

“Well, I’m just saying that you guys make no sense as a couple. You and Aradia had that ‘perfect girl sees through the guy’s sweaty exterior to the heart within’ thing going on, but you and Eridan… You two are just assholes together. It’s like the sort of concept a screenwriter wanting to claim unemployment would propose to the network directors. It’s a fucking train wreck waiting to happen.”

He grabbed his Sprite and sucked from it furiously before slamming it back down.

“But maybe an asshole is what you need.” He twirled his straw between his thumb and forefinger before glancing up at Sollux. “Is he the reason you suddenly decided to wear the necklace?”

Sollux shook his head. “No. He’s not the only reason. But he is one of them.”

Karkat nodded, watching the ice bob in his drink. “That’s partly why I brought her up just now. I figure she’s become an open topic of discussion again.”

“Yeah. That’s the idea, anyway.”

“So this is like the real shit?”

“Shit’s pretty real.”

Karkat shoved his plate away and hunched over the table. “Yeah. That’s what I thought. I guess that’s why I wanted to drop the depression shit for a couple seconds and say that I’m really fucking happy for you, Sollux, and I mean that.”

Sollux let a tiny smile spread over his lips.

“Thanks, KK.”

Chapter Text

This was the day of Eridan Ampora’s concert at the Core.

The week leading up to it was simultaneously the best and worst experience of his life.

He couldn’t remember a time he had been happier than when he was with Sollux those first few days after the excursion to Denny’s. He spent all his time at his neighbors’ house, and became just as much a fixture there as the pizza crust still perched on one of the blades of the living room fan (which he learned quite quickly was not to be disturbed for fear of upsetting the “wicked motherfuckin’ energies”). He would wake up in Sollux’s arms, shuffle groggily to the bathroom, grunt when Karkat shouted at him to get his hair shit off the sink, shower and get himself otherwise presentable, and then grab a pancake off the inexhaustible stack beside the stove. He would then converse with the household’s illustrious chef for a time before Sollux and Tavros eventually made their way out into the kitchen as well.

Getting to that level of blissful monotony, however, had been a trying experience.

Eridan quickly learned that Sollux was physically unable to operate on several standard levels of human functionality. One of which included his sleeping habits. He would wake up at obscenely early hours, but that did not make him a morning person in any sense of the word. Sollux Captor refused to do anything before noon that did not involve staring at his computer screen and moving his fingers just enough to click and scroll and scroll and click and sometimes, if he was feeling particularly adventurous, tap the enter key. For the first few days, Eridan had dealt with the situation by twisting himself into an inextricable knot of limbs and sheets on the bed, staring restlessly up at the ceiling after none of his at least twenty attempts at conversation yielded any results. When he tried dealing with the situation by crawling from the bed and kissing Sollux’s neck from behind, it only earned him a grumble and swat.

So, completely livid, Eridan had marched to the bathroom to get showered and dressed, after which he had planned on bursting back into the bedroom and announcing with an appropriate flourish that he was going to go back home. But when he found Sollux reclined on the bed with his laptop open, patting the pillow next to him, Eridan had no will or desire to do anything but comply. They spent the next few hours until lunch scrolling Reddit together and arguing about Skrillex’s legitimacy as a musician.

After that, they developed a silent understanding of how mornings worked. Sollux would wake up first, and was not to be touched until Eridan had roused and gotten himself showered and ready.

The issue of Sollux’s hygiene did not undergo such a smooth transition.

It didn’t take Eridan long to figure out that if Sollux was not physically forced into the shower, he had little hope of ever getting himself clean on any given day. And so it became a daily test of Eridan’s physical and mental endurance as he would pull Sollux away from the computer and shove him down the hall. In one week he’d already employed several methods of making sure that showers were a thing that happened once Sollux was inside the bathroom. One day he had shoved a chair under the doorknob, only to forget that the door opened inwards. He’d toppled over the chair as it went crashing onto the bathroom tile, Sollux vaulting over him like some Olympic runner and sprinting back to his room. The next time, Eridan had entered the bathroom with Sollux, stripping him of all his clothes. The gangly man tried to distract him with a sudden onslaught of affection, kissing him and tugging at his pants as he backed toward the door, but Eridan was far too intelligent for such an obvious tactic. Far too intelligent, but not so unwilling. They ended up in the shower together that time, Eridan mostly clothed and Sollux doing more kissing and fondling than actual cleaning.

After that, Sollux was more compliant with regard to daily showers, though he still needed a reminder and a sharp tug at the back of his chair. This came at both Eridan’s relief and chagrin. Not having to wrestle with Sollux to avoid inhaling his pungent body juices was always a positive, but it left him with one less opportunity to strip Sollux of his clothing.

Not that he didn’t have enough opportunities already.

That night after they’d returned from Denny’s and Sollux had ascertained that Karkat had not made another foray into the bathtub, they’d retreated to the bedroom. And despite the stifling heat of the summer night and their clothing, they had wasted no time crawling back onto the bed. They were nearly of a height, but Sollux’s advantage of a few inches made him the perfect size to curl around Eridan’s body. His knees lined up perfectly with Eridan’s, their legs fitting together like fragments of a broken pot. His wiry arms were surprisingly strong around Eridan’s chest as he clung to him, this time with more purpose than he had during his groggy cuddles from earlier.

It made Eridan grip at those bony wrists and press himself back against Sollux’s chest, relishing in the almost painfully uncomfortable heat. And the arms responded by wrapping around him tighter, and then a pair of warm lips were pressed flush against the back of his neck. And tingles showered down his spine and into his limbs and pooled in his fingers and toes and radiated from every pore. And Eridan gripped Sollux now with a kind of desperation. One where the consequences of letting go meant falling back into a foggy abyss from which there was no climbing out. He turned his head, breaking those lips away from his neck, twisting so he could see the owner of the body he was clinging to. Who was clinging to him. To confirm that it wasn’t just some delusion born from the summer heat.

He met those mismatched eyes for only a moment before Sollux was on him. Their lips joined, and Eridan clung to him, shifting himself around, pressing into him, moving with a violent fervor. Sollux’s thigh pressed between Eridan’s legs, and all the uncomfortable heat gathered there flared into a full, red flame. His fingers clawed at Sollux’s back with a desperate need as that thigh continued to press into him, to rub and roll against his crotch, fanning the fire deep in his stomach. He bent his knees, squeezing them against Sollux’s sides, his hands dipping and rising and tangling in the folds of Sollux’s shirt, hooking and snagging on the belt loops of his jeans. And Sollux responded in kind, pressing his tongue further into Eridan’s mouth, filling him up, rolling their hips together until Eridan was no longer sure where his body ended and Sollux’s began.

Then his shirt was gone, his glasses knocked askew, and he was breathing and gasping and biting into the silence of the room as Sollux bent over him and traced a line of kisses down his chest. His stomach. Eridan hadn’t known what to do with his hands besides tangle them in Sollux’s hair and feel the outline of each strand between his fingers. And he was acutely aware of the fire in his groin. How heart-poundingly free he’d felt once his tight pants had been shucked away. And he had tried to think. Tried to make his hands work to unbutton Sollux’s jeans and plunge his hand beneath the waistband of his boxers. But then there was a hand against him. Fingers slipping under his briefs and pulling him out. And not just any fingers, but his fingers. And then he could feel warm breath ghosting over his length, and then a pair of lips brushing over the head and he was gone. Lost in a spiral of pulsating white light and wrenching tremors and he gasped and groaned and cursed as Sollux jerked away in surprise.

And then he came down. Like a fluttering ash descending from an explosion, the heat frothing inside him cooled. And then returned with a mounting horror. He lifted his head and looked to Sollux, who was sitting up, his shirt wrinkled and his pants undone, wiping sticky white fluid from his face.

“Jesus christ,” he said.

Eridan put an arm over his burning face, wanting to roll off the bed and underneath it, where he could chew through the floorboards and claw himself a tunnel exactly twenty miles underground where he would proceed to die in shame. But since his limbs felt like liquefied jelly, all he could do was reply with a tremulous, “I’m so fuckin’ sorry.”

Sollux snagged a few tissues from the box on his desk. As he moved, Eridan could see that he was still painfully hard, and it only served to make everything that much worse. Once Sollux returned to the bed, he handed a tissue to Eridan, who took it and crumpled it in his fist until his knuckles were white.

“So have you never…” Sollux began with all the grace of a dancing horse as he scrubbed at his chin with his own tissue.

“I would think that’s painfully fuckin’ obvious at this point,” Eridan snapped, trying to inject his voice with as much venom as possible to burn away the tremors of shame.

“Jesus christ,” Sollux whispered, gazing down at Eridan once more.

“Yeah, I get it, you’re fuckin’ impressed with my ability to dissolve into a pathetic steamin’ pile a virginity who could break records with his finishin’ times. I’d put fuckin’ track athletes to shame.” His voice wobbled dangerously as he spoke, and he couldn’t remove the arm from his face. If he had to look at Sollux and his obvious state of dissatisfaction one more time, he knew it would mean a humiliation so potent that death would be instantaneous.

“Hey.” Sollux’s voice was soft. Reassuring. And Eridan felt his arm being forced down until he was looking up at Sollux through a film of hot liquid embarrassment. He blinked stiffly, and a smile beneath a pair of mismatched eyes swam into view above him before he was locked in another kiss. It was warm and wet and full, and when Sollux’s lips left his, they took some of the hot shame with them.

“I really don’t give a shit, okay? I mean, yeah, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t impressive—”

“Oh my fuckin’ god, Sol.”

Sollux bent down and silenced him with another kiss, and Eridan could feel the smile on his lips as he did. It remained as he pulled away, just a tiny little grin that somehow made the situation seem less monumentally catastrophic than it was.

“It just means we’ll have to work at it. What is it all the assholes like to say once you inevitably fuck something up the first time? Practice makes perfect, or some shit?”

He snickered and kissed Eridan again before throwing another tissue at him. And Eridan finally cracked a smile and sat up enough to wipe himself off before Sollux flopped against the pillows next to him, tugging his laptop between them and booting up Minecraft. He then proceeded to punish Eridan for giving him one of the nastiest cases of blue balls ever by ordering the man to trek across the street to procure his laptop so they could work on Alternia together. Eridan bemoaned the injustice of it all for as long as he was physically able until Sollux finally kicked him off the bed. They spent the rest of the morning building an underground cave system where the young trolls would spawn and undergo a barrage of the nastiest booby traps the two of them could think up, Sollux berating Eridan for the overpriced atrocity that was his MacBook all the while.

After that mishap, they practiced at every time and place available. The bedroom, the shower, and one instance in the garage that they denied up and down after Karkat had pulled in from work one day to find a pair of socks crumpled by the back door. They got to the point where Eridan could last for several minutes against Sollux’s pliant tongue, and was even able to reciprocate with enough skill to make the other man buck and groan and swear into the back of his hand.

But as the week wore on, so marched the onslaught of anxiety until not even the tantalizing kisses Sollux would place at the nape of Eridan’s neck were enough of a deterrent. By Friday, he was a milky white mess, sitting in his room and clutching his guitar, dreading the sunset and the hour of reckoning that came along with it.

He could blame numerous factors for his sudden nose-dive in confidence, but of course the biggest one was the coffee house hag.

She had phoned him on Wednesday after a particularly heated exchange of blowjobs during which Sollux’s finger had found its way beneath Eridan and up inside him, and the explosion of heat and light and spasms and cursing that followed was so intense that they both nearly missed the acoustic ring tone of Eridan’s phone.

Sollux had what he called a “hate sense” for the music, however, and so he plucked up Eridan’s pants from the floor beside the bed and fished the device out of the pocket. He frowned at the number for a moment before tossing it to Eridan.

“You should probably take this.”

“I should probably fuckin’ die, more like,” Eridan replied, jerking up as the phone hit his bare stomach. He then flopped back against the pillows as his cell continued to ring. He put a hand on his forehead. “I’m never gonna be able to move again. That’s fuckin’ it for me. Game over, I cashed in all my fuckin’ lives on that one.”

“Jesus, if you’re using nerdy references on my behalf, please don’t. You’re giving my people a bad name.” He leaned over Eridan and placed the phone on his heaving chest. “Come on. Answer.”

“Fine, christ.” Eridan snatched the phone up and accepted the call before pressing it to his ear. “Eridan speakin’. Who do I have the pleasure a conversin’ with?”

“Wow, you’re even lamer on the phone than you are in real life. I’m impressed.”

He recognized the voice instantly. “Vris. What the fuck are you doin’ contactin’ me at my personal number?”

“Because that’s the number you gave to me. Don’t tell me you have a separate business line, Eridan,” her voice was edged with mocking laughter, and Eridan turned a healthy shade of pink that had nothing to do with his recent orgasm.

“What do you want, and make it quick because I got other important shit to be gettin’ on with all right?” he snapped.

“Yeah, yeah, says the guy with no job who’s making his big musical debut at a local coffee shop,” Vriska replied. “Sorry that I forgot for a second how big of a deal you are. But you should be thanking me, really. I went ahead and expanded your audience out of the goodness of my own heart. So now you have twice as many people to impress with your awesome music.”

Eridan felt his stomach shrink. “Wait, what are you goin’ on about?”

“Wow, sorry, I didn’t realize I had to spell it out for you. I’m saying that I got a bunch of other people to come to your stupid thing. You have to make good on your promise to bring Gamzee’s clown posse first, though. Otherwise they won’t bother showing up.”

“Wait, who else did you invite?” Eridan demanded, turning away from Sollux and pressing the phone even harder to his ear.

Vriska laughed. “Like you’d even know them, new guy. But I’ll give you a clue and say that they’re a pretty big deal as far as the local music scene goes. At least one of them is. And I have yet to hear a single thank you come out of your mouth for giving you all these sweet hookups. After all the trouble I went through too.”

Her voice was dripping with laughter, and it turned Eridan an even angrier shade of pink. “I’m not botherin’ to thank you because you’re a fuckin’ witch and I don’t like the sounds a this one bit. I know you only agreed to this because a some bullshit between you and Tav, okay, so don’t act like you’re doin’ me any fuckin’ favors here.”

“Hey.” Her tone darkened suddenly. “I am doing you a favor, all right? And I didn’t even have to go the extra mile to get people who actually matter to come to your crappy concert. But I did. So you can put a fucking boot in it about Tavros, okay? Like I even give a shit about that whiny pansy baby. Whoever told you otherwise is a lying idiot.”

“Oh, so I suppose if I just neglected to bring him along, you’d be all sorts a fine with that,” Eridan snarled.

“I said bring everyone in Gamzee’s house, and he’s a part of that package now, isn’t he? This has nothing to do with him or me, those were just the terms of our agreement. Or are you backing out on that Eridan Ampora? Hmmmmmmmm?” Her voice was flippant, but there was an underlying anger that Eridan was quick to sniff out.

“I’m not backin’ outta anything. I’m just sayin’ to keep your fuckin’ bullshit outta my business all right? And quit actin’ like you’re doin’ this all for my benefit because I know you’re not and I’m pretty sure this is just all some elaborate ruse to make me look like a fuckin’ idiot.”

“God, your level of self-importance is really ridiculous. I’d be impressed if it weren’t so annoying. Just make sure everyone comes, and I’ll have a great big audience waiting to listen to you. And just remember that I can cross your name out of this book whenever I feel like it. So don’t try any funny shit.”

She hung up and Eridan proceeded to toss his phone back into the rumpled pile of clothes on the floor. As he flopped back against the pillows, he found Sollux staring hard at him through his one good eye.

“What was that about?” he asked.

Eridan sighed, scooting himself closer to Sollux’s warm body and closing his eyes. “Just Vris attemptin’ to ruin my life as usual.”

Sollux frowned. “Eridan, I was sitting right here for that entire conversation. And you kind of sounded like an insufferable asshole for at least one hundred percent of it.”

Eridan’s eyes snapped open and he scowled. “She’s tryin’ to turn my concert into a complete disaster because a some vindictive rage centered around her romantic history with Tav. I’m not an idiot, I know what’s goin’ on here, I’ve seen this kinda shit before. It’s just really pathetic that she feels the need to draw me into her web a revenge like she’s doin’. It’s probably because she’s fuckin’ jealous that I’ve only been here for about two months and already I’ve made more social and romantic headway than she ever will.”

Sollux’s gaze darkened as his eyebrows lowered. “First of all, I am not some fucking conquest that you get to count towards your own personal cache of asshole points.”

Eridan pushed himself up on his elbows, his scowl vanishing from his face. “Wait, that’s not what I—”

“And second of all, VK is an old friend of mine. And I know she can be hard to deal with sometimes, but she’s not trying to fuck up your shitty concert, okay?”

Eridan gave him a wounded look. “My concert’s not shitty, all right, and there’s no way you can know that she isn’t doin’ something petty and backhanded here because for starters you have no idea what she even called me about.”

Sollux rolled his eyes. “Okay Eridan,” he replied, as if rehearsing a set of lines. “What did she call you about?”

“She was goin’ on about havin’ hooked me a whole crowd a new people to come watch me play at the Core.”

“Wow,” Sollux remarked flatly. “Sounds awful.”

“You don’t get it, Sol, this is like her way a puttin’ a ton a fuckin’ pressure on me, like it’s blackmail in a sense because now if things with Tav don’t go the way she wants them, she can fuckin’ turn all her friends against me and send my concert crashin’ into the dirt with a flick of her vile wrist.” Eridan was growing taut with fury as he continued to glower at Sollux.

“Or maybe she’s just trying to make this concert a success so that she doesn’t lose her fucking job for booking you,” Sollux snapped.

“You don’t get it, Sol, she’s got ulterior motives and she’s draggin’ me into the thick a them to serve as the whippin’ boy once things don’t go how she wants.”

“She doesn’t give two shits about you, Eridan,” Sollux snarled. “Not everything in the fucking world is about you, okay?”

Eridan rolled off the bed then, trying to control the furious tremors in his limbs as he snatched his clothes from the ground and began yanking them back on. Sollux collapsed back into the pillows, throwing an arm over his face and sighing loudly. As Eridan threw his scarf over his neck and grabbed his laptop, Sollux finally looked up.

“Where are you going?” he asked, more out of an obligation to posit the question than genuine curiosity.

“Home,” Eridan snapped, yanking his phone charger from the wall. “I’ve wasted all a this time over here with you and haven’t done a fuckin’ lick a practicin’ in almost a week. And I’m gonna need every ounce a skill I can scrape together to help make this fuckin’ production a success because god knows I’m not gettin’ support from anywhere else.”

Sollux heaved himself upright, reaching down to grab his boxers and tug them on. “Come on, ED, don’t be like this.”

“Be like what, Sol?” Eridan swung around, clutching his laptop to his chest, the cord swinging at his knees. “Worried about the veritable fuckin’ pile a people I’m gonna make a fool a myself in front of after Vris has her way with me? Or be fuckin’ furious that the one person I thought would vouch for me is sidin’ with the enemy?”

“There is no enemy, you stupid fucking tool,” Sollux snapped, pulling on his pants. “She’s just a fucking person. And a person you happen to know exactly jack shit about.”

“Well I guess I’m findin’ out that that statement pertains to a lot a fuckin’ people in my life, doesn’t it?” Eridan rebuked, tearing open Sollux’s door before slamming it shut and stomping down the hallway. He nearly bowled over Karkat on his way past the kitchen, but didn’t stop to heed the angry curses that came pelting after him. He just stormed to the door, stuffed on his flip-flops, and marched out of the house.

Once he was back in his own room, he tossed his laptop onto the bed and kicked the door closed. He managed to do at least a full minute of furious pacing before he dragged his guitar out from under the bed and slammed it down on the mattress. He flipped the latches and threw the case open before staring at the instrument inside.

Then he resumed his furious pacing.

At last he burst out of his room and into the kitchen, digging a hot pocket out of the freezer before throwing it in the microwave. As he waited for it to heat up, he pulled his phone from his pocket and jabbed at Feferi’s name in his contact list. As he held the phone to his ear, he listened to the dial tone until there was a click.

“Hi! This is Feferi!”

“Fef I—”

“I can’t come to the phone right now, but leave a message and I’ll get back to you when I can.”

Eridan pulled the phone away and glared at it for a moment before putting it back to his ear. “Whatever you’re doin’, Fef, you should stop doin’ it right fuckin’ now and answer your phone because I am havin’ an emotional crisis that needs seein’ to in a very immediate manner.”

He ended the call then, throwing the phone on the counter, and then having to interrupt the subsequent pouting with a violent lunge as the device nearly went spinning off the edge and onto the tile below. As he caught it and set it back down more carefully, he heard a knock at the door. He stalked toward it before pulling it open a crack and peering outside. Sollux was standing on the porch in his stained jeans and old green t-shirt with its faded black skull. His arms were wrapped around his laptop, the cord clenched between his teeth.

“What do you want?” Eridan asked, his eyes narrowed.

Sollux sighed, his voice garbled as he spoke around the cord in his mouth. “Can you jusht let me in?”

Eridan pursed his lips but retreated a few steps, just enough to allow Sollux to enter. Once inside, Sollux pushed his foot back against the door to shut it before kicking off his shoes.

“Can I put thish in your room?” he asked, lifting the computer in his arms for emphasis.

Eridan shrugged. “Just don’t mess anything up.”

Sollux rolled his eyes before shuffling off down the hall. In the mean time, Eridan snatched his Hot Pocket from the microwave and slapped it on a plate before making his way to the room as well.

He found Sollux carefully tucking his computer on the dresser beneath the TV. He turned to look at Eridan as the man climbed onto the bed, kicking his guitar case closed before attacking his Hot Pocket. But it was far too hasty an action to handle the molten insides of the Pocket, and he ended up spitting it gracelessly back onto the plate before slamming the whole thing on his bedside table. Sollux snickered softly as he crawled up onto the bed as well.

“And what’s so fuckin’ funny?” Eridan snapped as he dabbed the tip of his tongue against the back of his hand.

“You’re just an idiot,” Sollux replied, leaning back against the pillows. He then exhaled, the smirk melting from his lips. “Look, I didn’t mean to make it sound like I was siding with VK, even though the fact that you’re even thinking in terms of sides is fucking moronic. I’m just saying she’s been through a lot of shit and that you should cut her some slack, okay?”

Eridan glared at him. “See, people like you and Kan keep sayin’ shit like that, but no one ever fuckin’ tells me anything, so what am I even supposed to make a the whole situation?”

“I’ll tell you,” Sollux replied. “You leave it the fuck alone. Not that hard. I don’t know why you feel like you have to stick your nose in other people’s business constantly.”

Eridan stared at his knees. “Yeah, well, you can say that, but stickin’ my noses in places it shouldn’t be is what got me to you.”

He felt Sollux’s hand slide around his shoulders before Eridan was drawn into a tight hug. He put his face in the faded green shirt then, breathing in the wonderful sent of musty old laundry and bar soap. Sollux’s voice was quiet as he replied.

“Yeah, I know. I guess…I just feel like it’s not my place to be telling you every detail of her life. Just…trust me, okay ED? She’s not out to get you or anything. She always has hotter irons in the fire than that.”

Eridan fisted his hand in Sollux’s shirt, nuzzling into his chest. “Yeah, I know. I’m just really fuckin’ nervous about this is all, and she’s not helpin’ by callin’ up and tellin’ me just how much bigger of a fuckin’ deal the whole thing is becomin’. I mean…the only person who really matters as far as attendance is concerned is you.”

He felt Sollux’s fingers brush through his hair. “Me?”

“Well yeah,” Eridan replied, lifting his head. “You’re the only reason I’m holdin’ the fuckin’ thing to begin with. I mean, initially it was supposed to be this elaborate fuckin’ mode a courtship or whatever to explain my feelings to you, but now that we’ve sorta aired things out on our own, that purpose has been pretty effectively voided. But honestly, it’s still a really important thing to me, because this is like my first real test as a musician, and not to mention that I still feel really strongly about the subject matter a the songs because it’s not like any a my feelings toward you have changed. In fact they’ve become even more disgustingly ravenous in just the past week than they ever were before. So I guess it just all adds up into this feeling of wantin’ to do a really good job of it.”

“I…didn’t know about any of that,” Eridan felt Sollux’s grip on his hair tighten slightly before a pair of thin lips descended on his head. “Now I feel like a complete asshole for being so apathetic about this whole concert thing.”

Eridan laughed into Sollux’s chest. “To be honest, your general lack a shits given has made it easier to restrain myself from freakin’ out as much as I would otherwise be doin’. Not to mention that I know you don’t like my music anyway, so I’ve chalked up your lack of interest to something that I just gotta deal with in people who have awful artistic taste.”

Sollux gave him a shove, but Eridan just turned and kissed him before leaning over to his bedside table to pick up his Now-Lukewarm Pocket and begin chewing on it. Sollux rested his head on Eridan’s shoulder, staring at the guitar still sitting on the bed.

“Can I hear you play?”

Eridan swallowed. “What, right now?”

“Sure. You have to practice anyway right? Besides, I want to hear just how good you got while leaving me hanging for about a week in front of my computer while consumed with Minecraft malnourishment.”

Eridan set the rest of his Hot Pocket back on the plate. “To be honest, I got more accomplished in terms a watchin’ Youtube videos than anything in the way a real practice. And I don’t want to ruin the concert for you by playin’ songs from that lineup.”

Sollux frowned. “How many songs?”

Eridan looked pale. “Like, uh, three.”

“At least it’ll be over quick, then.”

“Yeah.”

They stared together at the instrument for a long time before Eridan finally lurched forward and opened the case, heaving the guitar onto his lap.

“I guess I could at least play you a couple chords and scales and shit just to sorta warm up and find my rhythm.”

Sollux snorted and Eridan threw him a glare before running a thumb over the strings.

That was when the music started playing in Eridan’s house. It didn’t stop until Friday evening, five minutes before they had to leave.

“Come on, ED, you’re going to be fine,” Sollux sighed as he tugged the guitar from his boyfriend’s trembling fingers.

“Except I’m not,” he replied. He looked like bleached linen under his freshly combed hair. Every strand had been tucked even more meticulously into place than usual, and Eridan had donned the nicest outfit he could rustle up from inside his dresser to complement it. A blazer over an untucked pink collared shirt, a grey scarf looped loosely around his neck, and a pair of faded gray jeans clinging close to his legs as usual. He twisted one of his rings as he darted back into the bathroom yet again to make sure nothing had wrinkled or fallen out of place in the ten seconds since he’d last checked.

“I look like a fuckin’ mess,” He wailed into the sink as Sollux tugged at his shoulders.

“You look fantastic and you’ve practiced enough to give me ear cancer.” Sollux barked. “You’re going to be fine.”

Of course he had never been allowed in the house while any real practicing was going on, so Eridan could take little comfort from his words. He simply slouched against Sollux as the man marched him from the bathroom, one hand on Eridan’s shoulder and the other clutching his guitar case. Once outside, the gutter of an engine and wheezing honk of a horn alerted Eridan that the others were already there. Though the Core was within walking distance, Karkat had flatly refused to, in his words, “stand as the acting ringleader of the asshole circus.” Whatever that meant.

“He looks like he’s going to hurl,” Karkat remarked as he got out of the driver’s seat to open the back door so that Sollux could proceed to shove a lamenting Eridan and his guitar case inside. “If he pukes, you are fucking cleaning it. I am washing my hands of you assholes right now, and I hope that statement goes on the universe’s invisible record or something because I cleaned this guy’s stomach slime up once and it is never happening again.”

Eridan slumped against the window after the car door was slammed shut, clutching his guitar case and feeling like he was about to cry vomit or puke tears or maybe both at once. He was vaguely aware of the fact that Tavros and Gamzee were occupying the back seat with him, and that the former had asked him a stammering question. But all of it was drowned out in the distant roar of the engine and the frantic slamming of his heart against his sternum. He put a hand to his chest, his throat clogged with bile and panic, and suddenly images of collapsing on stage began to flicker through his mind. He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his head to his guitar case.

He could do this. This was his dream. And Sollux was with him. He’d practiced.

But not enough.

Never enough.

He ground his teeth, hissing silent orders at his heart to slow down so that he could, for just a fraction of a moment, catch up and pull his head down from the dizzying heights of panic which it had reached.

But his heart had never been very good at listening.

By the time they arrived at the coffee shop, Eridan felt as if he’d just gotten finished completing a triathlon. His legs were so weak and wobbly that Sollux had to lift him from his seat and help him stand, Gamzee clutching the guitar beside them and smiling vaguely up at the summer stars.

“God, you look like shit,” Sollux admitted at last as he walked Eridan up to the door of the café. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay doing this?”

“Well I’m gonna have to be,” Eridan replied, though his voice sounded like air blowing through cracked parchment. “I got no choice left now but to fuckin’ go through with it.” He coughed into the sleeve of his blazer, and Sollux gave his shoulders a squeeze.

“I can get you a drink or something,” he offered.

Eridan shook his head. “No, I’ll fuckin’ chuck back anything I try to put in me at this point. But thanks anyway.”

The bells on the door jangled as they entered. Eridan blinked through the dim lighting of the shop, noticing that one corner in particular had been lit to blinding brightness, a stool sitting by itself in the center of it and surrounded by a sea of other tables, all mostly filled.

He wanted to drop to his knees and be sick on the spot. But Sollux held him close.

“Heeeeeeeey, Eridan.” He looked up from his dyspeptic delirium to see Vriska standing before him and giving a wave. Her ratted black hair was pulled back and she had on her blue lipstick and eye make up as usual, but she was dressed differently. Instead of khakis and a polo, she had on a black graphic tee and a pair of jeans with red sneakers. Her smile was as eerily bright and biting as ever.

“You were almost late to your own gig. Pretty much everyone is already here.” She gestured towards the filled tables.

“Oh god…”

Karkat’s voice was so tiny and wavering that for a second Eridan thought that it must have been Tavros that had spoken. But as he looked over his shoulder, he could see Karkat eyeing one table as if it were occupied by fleshy nightmares. As Eridan turned to get a look at it himself, however, all he saw was three people. A red haired girl with a huge smile and a pair of pointed sunglasses, and an expressionless blond youth with aviators that covered most of his face. The last person Eridan recognized from Toppers as none other than John Egbert. The boy noticed the group of them standing at the door, and gave them all a buck-toothed grin as he waved.

“This is not a coffee shop,” Karkat whispered. “I have stepped through a portal and into the deepest pits of torment. This transcends fucking reality.”

Vriska’s smile never left her painted lips. “Oh yeah, that’s right. Didn’t some kind of embarrassing thing at a movie theatre happen between the two of you? Wow, I completely forgot about that until now. Tough break, Karkat.”

“Why am I not surprised you’re privy to this information?” Karkat snarled. “You probably got it from your sister in soul-shredding torment, didn’t you?”

Vriska’s smile vanished and she gave a shrug. “She’s been really boring lately, so we haven’t really talked much. I have no idea what’s got her going on this sudden lame stint. Don’t really care either.”

“Is there anyone you do talk to anymore?” Eridan snarled over the cramps in his gut. “Seems like the only person who ever wants anything to do with you is Kan, seein’ as you had to fuckin’ con me into bringin’ Tav here to talk to you.”

Sollux gave him a warning look as Vriska turned towards him. When their eyes met, Eridan was surprised by how blue they were. Like someone had run electricity through her irises. And suddenly she looked dangerous, and he wished he could snatch his words from the air and stuff them back in his mouth.

“How about you just do what you signed up for and keep the rest of your stupid commentary to yourself?” she said, her mouth stretched wide in an unnatural smile.

“Wait, is, something going on?” Tavros asked, his voice barely audible. He looked nearly as white as Eridan in the dimness, but his eyes were locked on Vriska. “Did you really, do something, dishonest, in setting up Eridan’s concert, so that you could, maybe, talk to me?”

Vriska rolled her eyes. “The only rules I bent were the ones barring me from booking this joker in the first place. I was just doing a favor, like I always do. Helping out weak, untalented people get a bit further in life so they’re not such god-awful embarrassments to the rest of the world. But you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you Tavros?”

Tavros looked at the floor. “I…I’m sorry.”

“God, are you going to cry? Please don’t tell me you’re going to cry, I might actually vomit,” Vriska snapped. But despite her words, she couldn’t keep her own voice from cracking on the last syllable, and she clamped her blue lips shut.

“Maybe we should all of us just kick back and listen to some wicked motherfuckin’ jams,” Gamzee broke in, effectively sitting on the brick wall of tension between them, giving a lazy grin all the while.

“Like you could wrap your stupid pot-baked brain around any of this,” Vriska snapped, rounding on him. “Keep your clown nose out of places it doesn’t belong.”

Gamzee’s smile diminished. “I don’t got to be knowing more than what I have it in me to know. I just up and let the understanding all fall where it will. The universe has a sort of way of making things all up and work out like they will. That’s where miracles come from, you know.”

“No, I don’t know, because I have to work to make my own luck. It doesn’t just fall onto my lap like it does with yours. By the way, how are mommy and daddy doing paying for all the extra roommates you’ve had to put up in order to keep you away from them? Good?”

Gamzee’s smile all but vanished. “I just don’t like to be all bearing witness to anyone having a sort of ill-mannered disagreement. Gets me to be feeling sort of heavy in my chest like I can’t lift up my feet.”

“See, I knew this was a terrible fuckin’ idea,” Eridan’s voice boiled over the rest of them, the frantic pounding of his heart and twisting of his guts spurring him on as he lanced a glare at Vriska. “You can’t keep your fuckin’ trap shut long enough for me to even get my guitar out. You guys are gonna be fightin’ durin’ my fuckin’ performance and makin’ a huge embarrassment a me, I just knew this was how things were goin’ to play out.”

“I’m not the one who was accusing people of backhanded cons from the get-go,” Vriska snapped. “I never wanted to talk about any of this, you ego-jacked idiot. You’re right about someone having a big mouth here, but it sure isn’t me.”

She stormed off behind the counter, and a few people drifted over to place their orders. Fuming, Eridan slumped back against Sollux.

“That was really stupid,” Sollux said, his voice low.

“Well, it needed to be fuckin’ said. And it got her off our cases, didn’t it?” Eridan rebuked.

“Yeah, but you’re already on edge. Just let Vriska do her thing, and you do yours, okay?"

Sollux’s voice was firm and soft, but instead of soothing Eridan, it made something inside him snag and rip until white hot anger boiled out. He hated the patronizing tone woven into the words. He pushed himself away from Sollux and turned back to him, livid.

“I’ll leave her alone as long as she continues keepin’ to herself,” Eridan snapped. “But I’m not makin’ any promises if I see her tryin’ to step on any fuckin’ toes while I’m performin’, all right? I am not in the correct fuckin’ state a mind to be dealin’ with this shit right now.”

“I’ll say,” Sollux muttered.

Eridan breathed derisively through his nostrils before reaching down to yank his guitar from Gamzee’s hand.

But the man wouldn’t let go.

Eridan bared his teeth. “Come on, Gam, stop fuckin’ around. I need this.”

“I just don’t want to be relinquishing any motherfuckin’ items to you until I get a good word that you’re going to get your settle down on.”

Eridan sneered and looked up to give a scathing reply, but when he met Gamzee’s gaze, the words died on his lips. He couldn’t be sure if it was a trick of the dim light or his own panicked imagination, but the eyes beneath that ragged mop of hair looked completely black.

“I just don’t want to be seeing any more motherfuckin’ fighting is all,” he said. His voice was soft. “Gets me all in a bad place where I don’t much like spending time at, you know?”

Eridan gave his guitar another yank, which he couldn’t be sure was purposeful or simply the result of an anxious spasm. Gamzee released the instrument then, and Eridan gripped it with both hands to prevent it from crashing to the floor. When he looked back up, Gamzee was peering at him with a forlorn expression, but his eyes were their normal shade of green.

Eridan cast his gaze back to the floor. “Yeah, well, I don’t want to see it either,” he muttered before heaving his guitar up and starting to pick his way toward the lit corner of the room. Before he could get very far, however, a hand pulled at his shoulder. He turned, and saw Sollux looking back at him.

“You’re going to do great, okay?”

Eridan’s mouth twisted. “I wish I could believe that.”

Sollux leaned forward and kissed him. Not a simple peck on the lips, but a full kiss, the kind that made Eridan’s head feel warm and fuzzy and light. When their lips parted, Sollux ran a thumb over Eridan’s cheek. “Then I’ll believe it for you from the sidelines until I’ve got you convinced.” He gave him a tiny smirk. “Just…don’t think too much, okay?”

“Whatever that means,” Eridan retorted, but a smile fluttered over his lips. “Thanks, Sol.”

The rest he had to do on his own. Sollux retreated to a side wall as Eridan lugged his guitar forward and ducked into the light. It was warm there, and the feeling of a room full of eyes all burning into him at once was instantaneous. He swallowed, trying not to look outside his globe of light as he set his case on the ground, flicking up the latches and lifting it open. He hefted the sleek wooden instrument from the purple velvet within, glad for the chill of the wood against his sweaty palms.

He forced himself to his feet then, clambering onto the stool and adjusting the guitar in his lap. As he sat there, flipping the pick between his fingers and plucking it against a few strings to tune them, he began regretting not taking Sollux up on his offer for a drink. His tongue felt like sandpaper against the back of his throat. He scraped it against his teeth and swallowed hard in an effort to moisten his mouth, but to no avail. He needed water. But to get up now when he was already in position would be tacky and unprofessional. It was only three songs anyway. He coughed into his sleeve before adjusting his guitar again and finally raising his head to face the audience.

The Core was small, and the people seated at the tables and looking up at him probably only numbered in the thirties. But to Eridan it may as well have been a boundless ocean of squinting eyes and gaping mouths, all obscured by the glare of the hot light beating down above him. They were like nightmares. Waiting outside the edges of daylight, poised to strike.

He gripped his guitar. Stupid. The only things that lay outside his pocket of light were people. People who had come to hear music. And he was going to give it to them.

He exhaled.

“Good evenin’ everyone. My name is—”

“The mic!” somebody called out from the back of the room. Eridan’s voice stumbled to a halt and he blinked. Someone in the front row motioned to his left, and Eridan turned to see a microphone stand sitting beside him.

“Oh right. One second here…”

He pulled the device closer, bending it down so fast he nearly hit himself in the face. He could hear a snort of laughter from somewhere, and the sweat pooling under his arms began to drip down his sides. He adjusted the microphone until it was comfortably close to his mouth before he brought his hands back to his guitar.

“Okay as I was sayin’—” He had to pause and wince at just how loud his voice was before continuing. “As I was sayin’, my name is Eridan Ampora, and this is goin’ to be my musical debut a sorts. So I’m really glad you all could make it here, even though it’s gonna be a pretty short performance.”

The silence that followed his echoing voice made him feel like he was going to drown. He took a breath before strumming his guitar, beginning the simple chord progression for his first song. He hadn’t wanted to do anything too complex for any of his pieces, but despite the relative simplicity of each composition, his fingers felt stiff, and he felt the cogs of his brain locking up as they tried to frantically pull lyrics and fingerings from the crevices of his mind. He swallowed hard. God, he needed water.

“Okay, this first one is just a simple sorta summer piece that’s got deeper connotations about life and stuff if you care to think about it for a while.”

He closed his eyes then, trying to remember Sollux’s words. Don’t think too much. He let his fingers ease over the simple introduction before getting into the heart of the song, a progression of basic chords that provided the backdrop for his lyrics. As he sang, his eyes closed. He felt the movements coming easier, the words melting on his tongue, and he could’ve sworn he for a moment that he was spinning silver thread from the air. As he took the song to the bridge, he opened his eyes, his heart dancing hectically in his chest.

The audience continued to gape back. At the table of three near the front, he could see the blond guy with the aviators sitting next to John. His hands were folded in front of his mouth. Beside him he could see the shoulders of the red-headed girl shaking in silent laughter. Eridan swallowed and closed his eyes again. They were just John’s asshole friends, anyway. Karkat had been right about them, and if it had been up to Eridan, they would’ve never been let through the door.

His hand stumbled on a chord and he quickly pushed the thoughts from his mind. He couldn’t think too much. He just had to breathe. Breathe and sing.

He ended the song with a light strum, his voice wavering off into silence. And the quiet pressed down on him like liquid lead. No explosion of applause followed. Just a few sniffs and the distant garbling of chatter. He heard a few popping claps, but nothing more. He opened his eyes as the bells on the coffee shop door jangled, just in time to see five people file outside.

He gripped his guitar in his shaking hands, trying to pick Sollux out in the darkness. He never found him. Instead he saw the aviators kid again. This time Eridan could clearly pick out the smirk behind his hands as the girl beside him leaned over and cackled in his ear. The shades obscured his eyes, but his face was fixed in Eridan’s direction, and he never let his neck so much as twitch. They could have been talking about anything. But Eridan knew they weren’t. Beside the blond asshole sat John. His previously cheerful expression had sagged, and he looked bored enough to melt out of his chair.

Frantically, Eridan’s eyes darted toward the other faces, trying to snag any smiles or glittering gazes of rapture. He found none. Even when he located Karkat, he found the boy peering back at him through the spaces between his fingers, the rest of his face obscured by his hands.

He stared at his microphone instead, his mouth suddenly full of hot saliva. He swallowed it before clearing his throat.

“Okay this…this next one is pretty special to me and, it’s…a song I wrote for the guy I love.”

He originally had planned on saving this piece for last, but at the rate things were going now… Eridan took a deep breath and began strumming his guitar again, trying to let his fingers drift easily over the strings as he sang.

“I saw a boy with tired eyes

I said

Come with me and we can try

Try to search for a new life

Try to find a thing that’s worth livin’ for.

And he said

If it’s all the same to you

I think I’m done livin’ for two

I think there’s not much left for me here.

But

If you want, then come with me

To a place where we can be

Whole again and with no one else

With no one else…”

He moved into a short instrumental, his fingers fluttering against a more complex succession of notes. He breathed, and, for a moment, let his eyes flick up, trying to find Sollux.

Instead he found people gazing into their coffees and glancing at their watches. Some were leaning over and passing whispers to their neighbors. And then there was the shades guy. Still staring at Eridan through his inscrutable lenses, that smirk still plainly visible behind his folded hands.

And Eridan felt the heat flare up in his guts. His fingers stumbled over the next few notes, but it went without his notice. Because this was all her fault. Her fault for inviting these people when he hadn’t wanted them. Her fault for setting this up just to make him look like an idiot. And she was getting her wish. He felt as if he was being physically crushed as the bells on the door jangled and three more people left.

He struggled to pick out Sollux in the crowd as he continued, his voice wavering.

“If you want then come with me

To a place where we can be

Whole again and…”

He stumbled on his words, the guitar screeching in his hands. Like a hooked fish he gulped for air, slick with his own sweat. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go at all. They were supposed to love it. And Sollux…where was he? He swept the crowd frantically, searching, until his eyes snagged on Tavros.

He wasn’t watching. His head was turned and he was talking to the person beside him, who was wearing a black graphic tee and blue lipstick.

Vriska.

Eridan stood up so fast he knocked aside the microphone with his elbow, causing a hollow scream of sound to echo through the shop. And then there was silence.

“I told you to stay outta my business, Vris,” he snapped.

A confused murmur passed through the spectators. They twisted in their seats as Vriska tore her eyes from Tavros and turned to Eridan, her expression taut.

“I’m not in your business,” she replied. Her eyes flicked to the people staring at her before she locked her gaze back on Eridan. “Which actually consists of making music right now, in case you managed to forget.”

“Well, that’s what I would be doin’ if you hadn’t hand fuckin’ selected this audience to oppose everything I fuckin’ do. And after I’ve been nothing but cooperative with you and your unreasonable demands.”

Several people snorted into their coffee mugs. Vriska, on the other hand, made no move to conceal her laughter. “Are you joking me? If people are leaving it’s because you’re music is garbage, not because I ‘selected’ them to hate you.”

Eridan gripped the neck of his guitar until his knuckles turned white. “I’m just tryin’ to do the best I can here, and I’m not gettin’ any sorta concession from anybody.”

“Well, then do better,” Vriska snapped.

“Eridan, sit down.”

Eridan barely heard the hiss off to his right. But he recognized the voice. Sollux.

He ignored him.

“You know, Vris, people keep tellin’ me how fuckin’ shit your life is, but I’m inclined to think that you’re the one who’s to blame for that.” He clenched his fists and snarled. “Especially when you’re takin’ advantage of an innocent bystander like myself just for a piece of Tav’s ass.”

Vriska’s eyes were so lit with rage in the darkness, her frame so tight with electric tremors of fury, that Eridan thought she was going to vault herself over a table and hit him.

But she didn’t.

Because Gamzee hit him first.

Eridan heard the crash of a coffee mug and the scrape and clatter of tossed chairs before an explosion of pain in his face rocked him back against his stool. His heel caught on one of the rungs and he toppled over it, crashing to the ground and bringing the stool with him. He could taste warm iron in his mouth as a shadow loomed over him, and suddenly he was looking up into a pair of eyes. And this time there was no trick. No uncertainty. They were crystal clear and black. So black he almost missed the tiny green rings around them. So black he thought for a moment he was going to disappear inside of them.

“You shut your motherfucking mouth.”

His breath smelled like brownies. Eridan felt a laugh bubble up inside him, and the panic made it burst, ripping from his throat in a clenching spasm of sound. He felt Gamzee’s huge hand fist in the front of his shirt and the man was dragging him up, slamming him against the wall, and as Eridan felt his feet leave the ground he was, for the first time, painfully, frightfully aware of just how big the man was. Gamzee’s teeth were bared, and there was no smile on his face. No serenity. No miracles. He slammed Eridan against the wall so hard his skull cracked against it and his glasses slipped down his nose.

“You SHUT your MOTHERFUCKING MOUTH.”

The coffee house was in an uproar. Chairs scraped and slid and tables knocked against the ground. People were backing against the walls, others yelling, some fighting to break through to bear witness to the fight.

“Gamzee! Stop!”

Karkat’s hands came out of nowhere, wrapping around his friend’s waist, trying to pull him back. But he was so comically small next to Gamzee. Like some child trying to tear down a tree with his hands. And his usual surly expression had been wiped completely clean. And Eridan realized that Karkat was scared.

No. Terrified.

Eridan’s heart hammered and stumbled and leapt and writhed in his chest. Some caged beast that was about to thrash itself to death against the bars of his ribcage. He swallowed, staring down at Gamzee as Gamzee stared up at him. And slowly, slowly, the rage vanished. He uncurled his fingers from the front of Eridan’s shirt, and Eridan stumbled back to the ground, nearly staggering over until a pair of wiry arms caught him.

Sollux held Eridan close as Gamzee shook Karkat off and stalked toward the door, throwing chairs aside as he went. The crowd by the entrance parted before him as if it had been perforated, and with an oddly cheery jangle of bells, Gamzee was gone.

The coffee shop seemed to have been holding its breath. But the murmur of chatter rolled back in like the tide once Gamzee had left. People began rushing to right tables even as Vriska shouted at them to stay back, grabbing a broom to sweep up the broken mugs.

“Look at me.”

Eridan felt a hand on his jaw, turning his head. And then he was staring up at Sollux as that one dark eye roved over his face.

“You’re a fucking mess.”

All Eridan could taste was blood. On his lips, sliding down his throat, blossoming fresh and warm in his mouth. He put his head on Sollux’s shoulder and trembled.

“I wanna go home,” he whispered.

Sollux put a hand to his head, hugging him close. Sheltering him. Hiding him as they slipped wordlessly from the coffee house and into the night.

Chapter Text

This was the night that Sollux Captor carried Eridan Ampora home.

Once the swing of a door and jangling bells released them from the din of the coffee shop, the night air broke over them like a cool wave. It washed away all light and sound until there was only the soft chirp of crickets and the hazy orange glow of the street lights.

Sollux continued to hold Eridan against him as they trudged along the sidewalk, their shoes scuffing on the cement. Every once in a while a car would pass on the road beside them, breaking the silence with a flash of headlights and growl of an engine. Then it would be gone, the smell of exhaust giving way to the dense scent of dewy grass. And Sollux would wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to wait for Karkat to take his car. Then some nip in the wind or the weight of Eridan in his arms would tell him no, and he would continue on.

They went at a shuffling pace, and only made about a block’s worth of headway before Eridan gripped the front of Sollux’s shirt and planted his wingtips on the ground.

“What is it?” Sollux asked, ducking his head a bit to try and establish eye contact.

“I just don’t feel so good,” Eridan said. His voice was no more than a wavering whisper.

Sollux gripped him tighter, his mouth suddenly growing dry. “Do you want to stop for a second?”

Eridan nodded. “But not out here.”

Sollux looked around. He could see Eridan’s point. They were still within sight of the Core, and he figured it wouldn’t be long before the coffee shop closed and turned all its solicitors out onto the sidewalk with them. He cast his gaze ahead of them to see the old roller rink. He pulled Eridan close.

“There’s a place behind that building that we can sit. It’s not that far. Are you going to be able to handle it?”

Eridan fisted both hands in Sollux’s shirt and gave a small nod. Sollux couldn’t see his face, but the splotches of blood dappling the front of his pink shirt waxed bright crimson under the street lights as they hobbled their way behind the big brick building. There were two rusted dumpsters sitting against a wall, and Sollux picked his way over the cracked asphalt until they were standing between them. He eased Eridan down onto the ground before sitting beside him. Over their heads a single white light cast a pale glow, a lone moth pinging against it.

Eridan’s face was obscured in shadows as he stared down, hugging his knees to his chest. Sollux pushed himself off the wall a bit, trying to peer at him.

“Are you okay?”

Eridan shook his head.

Sollux ran his fingers through his hair before dropping his hand. He then edged it around Eridan’s waist. Sollux drew him in close, ducking down to gaze at his face.

“Can you talk to me at least? Should I call someone? Do you need to see a doctor? Just tell me what’s going on so I can do something instead of sitting on my hands like an asshole.” He tried to keep his voice even, but he felt it beginning to crumble as he pushed out the last syllables. He closed his mouth.

In the dimness, he could see Eridan’s eyebrows knit together. “I don’t… I don’t fuckin’ know. I don’t know if the cramp in my chest has to do with my heart or the fact that I just fuckin’ shattered all credibility as a musician before a room full a my peers.” He hugged his knees closer, and ducked his bloodied face into them. “That was probably the only chance I’m ever gonna get and I fuckin’ blew it.”

Sollux shifted his gaze toward the ground, watching an ant clamber over a chunk of asphalt as the sound of sniffling came from beside him. He squeezed the back of Eridan’s neck. The gesture was half one of comfort and half of castigation.

“I told you to just let Vriska do whatever she was going to do. If you would’ve kept your stupid ass out of it—”

“That’s not even the point. They hated my shit before I ever opened my mouth. It was fuckin’ horrible, and every fuckin’ fingering I could possibly fuck up is exactly the number a fingerings that were fucked upwards, and fuckin’…fuckin’ Gam what the fuck was even wrong with him, Sol, what was fuckin’ wrong with him?”

His words dissolved into squelches of sound, punctuated by heaving gasps. Sollux put his other arm around him and drew him close. Eridan’s hand leapt to his shirt, fisting in the faded gray fabric. He choked and wheezed, shaking hard enough that Sollux thought his own teeth might start rattling.

“I was so fuckin’ scared,” he whispered. Sollux could feel the thick frames of his glasses digging into his chest. His insides shriveled. He ran a hand through the perfect sculpture of Eridan’s hair, stroking it into disarray.

“So was I,” he whispered.

“I told you he was crazy,” Eridan choked. “I told you he was fuckin’ crazy and nobody believed me.”

“He’s not crazy,” Sollux replied. His tone was less certain than he’d meant it to sound.

“Then how do you explain that?” Eridan burst out, pushing away from Sollux and looking up at him. The light filtering down above them cast a milky gleam on his pallid face, the blood under his nose brightening to a glistening scarlet.

“I…don’t know,” he replied. He drew Eridan back into his chest, more to avoid meeting his terrified eyes than with the purpose of providing comfort. Sollux drew in a shuddering breath. “I’ve never seen Gamzee act that way before.”

“I thought I was gonna die.”

Sollux buried his head in Eridan’s shoulder and didn’t say anything. Because the last thing he wanted to do was encourage the melodramatic and paranoid line of thinking that Eridan seemed determined to constantly maintain. But for a moment, standing in that coffee shop, just out of reach as Eridan had been slammed up against that wall, the same fear had struck his own heart cold.

They clung to each other until dew began to settle on their clothes, and the sounds of laughter as the bars emptied out had come and gone. At last Sollux pulled his face out of Eridan’s shoulder, settling his chin on the top of his thoroughly disheveled hair instead. He sighed into it before pulling away.

“We should get you home.”

Eridan shook his head. “I don’t even know if I can make it, Sol, I feel like fuckin’ shit.”

“Okay, are you sure I shouldn’t be calling someone right now? Because if this is actually serious, I don’t want to be passing it off like it’s nothing. I know I give you a ton of shit for being dramatic, but if this actually needs seeing to—”

He cut off as Eridan shook his head again. “Can this for once not be about you freakin’ out over my health? I’m fuckin’ tired and scared and pissed off and humiliated and I just don’t want to fuckin’ move and all a that has absolutely nothing to do with the state a my chest cavity, all right?”

He drew away from Sollux and pulled off his glasses, dabbing at his eyes with the sleeve of his blazer as he muttered, “You fuckin’ jackass,” under his breath.

Sollux stared down at his hands. They both looked so pale in the lonely white light. Like ghosts.

Perhaps he had let his fear run away with him.

He got to his feet then, dusting off his pants and extending a hand to Eridan. He was met with a baleful blue gaze.

“Don’t give me that bullshit,” Sollux replied, though his tone was not unkind. “Come on. Get up. You don’t want to move, you don’t have to. But we’re going home because I am starting to freeze my ass off out here. Not all of us are wearing fucking Gucci, okay?”

“This is not Gucci, Sol, like you would even know what that was just by lookin’. You’d never fool anyone with your casual designer name droppin’.” He ran a hand under his nose and slid his glasses back into place.

“I’m not trying to fool people, asshole, my use of a specific brand was purely for ironic purposes because I could give less of an actual shit about what designer decided to slap their one-thousand dollar name on your clothes.”

“And maybe I fuckin’ knew that and made my reply with equal amounts a irony because I know you don’t give a flippin’ fuck about fashion so ha, fuckin’ deal with it, Sol, I win this round of verbal repartee.”

He slapped his hand into Sollux’s and Sollux heaved him off the ground. It was only once they were at eye level again that they could both see the smiles tugging at each other’s lips.

Sollux turned around before Eridan could feel too pleased with himself. “Here. Hop on.”

“What?”

“Get on my back. I’ll carry you.”

There was silence. Sollux looked over his shoulder and Eridan jumped.

“What, you’re bein’ serious?” he asked, his voice cracked and small.

“No, I am just standing here like a jackass for my own amusement. Yes, I’m being serious, now get on before I change my mind.”

He bent his knees and braced an arm against one of the dumpsters as Eridan heaved himself onto his back. Sollux then hooked his hands behind Eridan’s knees as a pair of arms looped around his neck. Once they’d made the appropriate adjustments to avoid both loss of balance and accidental strangulation, Sollux traipsed out of the abandoned parking lot and back onto the sidewalk.

Eridan was an oddly comfortable weight against him. Even though Sollux’s wiry, unpracticed muscles began to strain within minutes under Eridan’s slender figure, he found the burning in his arms and back to be almost calming. It stood as a warm contrast to the coolness of the black night air around them, and the scuff of his sneakers kept time as he went.

They never spoke. But they never needed to. Eridan’s chest was warm against his back, and through pressed pink cotton and faded gray fabric came the faint patter of his heart. It beat so close against Sollux’s skin that for a time he thought the rhythm was coming from inside his own chest. The breath caught in his lungs. His muscles quivered. And he ground to a halt in the middle of the sidewalk, staring into the fog. Filling up with Eridan’s pulse. His rhythm. And no words were needed. Eridan shifted his head. Put his lips against the back of Sollux’s neck. But they didn’t speak.

And then he was plodding off again, swallowing despite the dryness of his mouth. His limbs were shaken, but the fatigue had withered from them, and he made the last leg of the trek home with a quick ease that he wouldn’t have guessed he had in him. As he made his way up the driveway of Eridan’s house, he felt the breath on his neck get hotter.

“Are we back already?” Eridan’s voice was thick.

“If by ‘already’ you mean ‘Gee, thanks for carrying my sorry ass for seven blocks,’ then yeah. We are,” Sollux said as he climbed up to the porch.

Eridan’s lips pressed against his neck, and his next words were so muffled as to be nearly inaudible. “Well, yeah, I figured my gratitude sorta went without sayin’ at this point since I’ve racked up enough moral debt for the bank a karma to start repossessin’ my fuckin’ life.”

Sollux gave a small smile as he jammed Eridan’s key into the front door before pushing it open. “As one of the many people filing claims against you, I demand first access to your MacBook.”

“Why, I thought you hated that thing,” Eridan remarked as Sollux groped along the wall for a switch. When he flicked it on, the house flooded with yellow light.

“I do,” Sollux replied as he made his way down the hall toward the bathroom. “I want it so I can make sure it gets doused with kerosene and burned properly.”

“Wow, you’re a fuckin’ asshole,” Eridan replied before grunting as Sollux rolled him off his back and laid him against the shower. He groaned, tipping his head back against the plastic door.

“Yeah, looks like the shittiness of your current appearance hasn’t changed much in seven blocks,” Sollux sighed as he straightened up to survey him. His left cheek and bridge of his nose were already beginning to darken with a purple bruise and his lips and chin were smeared with blood. Sollux moved to the sink, grabbing one of the washcloths crumpled by the tap and wetting it with warm water.

“I don’t even want to look at myself, I can already tell that I’m goin’ to be permanently disfigured, I may as well just accept it and try to live as best I can behind closed doors so that I don’t assail innocent eyes with my deformit—Ouch! Jesus!”

Eridan yanked his head away as Sollux tried to dab at his nose. He cupped his hands around it and gave his assailant a wounded look.

“Be careful with that,” he snapped through his fingers.

Sollux rolled his eyes. “I barely touched you.”

“Yeah, well, it’s fuckin’ tender, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find that it was broken. Obviously I can’t rely on you to set it properly, so I’m just goin’ to have to deal with a crooked nose throwin’ off the delicate harmony a my features for the rest a my life.”

Sollux feinted around Eridan’s hands to give his bloodied nose a sharp squeeze. Eridan helped and jerked against the shower door before knocking Sollux’s hands away.

“Fuck!” he screeched. “What the fuck, why would you even do that?”

“Because you deserve it,” Sollux snapped. “I know Gamzee flipping his shit like that was unsettling, but stop acting like you’re some blameless bystander in all of this.”

“Well I was,” Eridan replied petulantly. He might have continued, but Sollux threw the washcloth in his face.

“You are fucking incredible. Do you even know what you interrupted because you were so hell-bent on being a selfish asswipe?”

Eridan ripped the wet cloth from his face and threw it aside. “No, Sol, I don’t, because no matter how many fuckin’ times I ask about Vris or Tav or any a that bullshit, I get the same answer a how it’s none a my fuckin’ business. And I guess it still isn’t despite the fact that I took a fist to the face over all of it. I am just fine sittin’ in the dark for all eternity, I guess, considerin’ I obviously handle myself so flippin’ admirably here.” He ripped his glasses off his face and rubbed at his eyes. “And just for the record, I don’t think wantin’ to perform something I wrote for the guy I love necessarily qualifies as selfish, but what the fuck do I know, since I seem to be the authority on misinterpretin’ shit.”

He folded his arms and threw his gaze to the ground, fuming. Sollux sighed, sitting back on his heels and putting a hand to his face. After a time, he got to his feet and wet a fresh washcloth before crouching beside Eridan once again. He reached forward to dab the blood away, but his hand was shouldered aside. Sollux withdrew, sighing as he surveyed Eridan, who refused to look at him. At last he balanced the cloth on his knee and put an up-turned palm on Eridan’s lap.

“Look, I would’ve told you by now, but like I said before, I don’t think it’s my place to say. I just wish you could be okay with not knowing and still treat Vriska like a human being with feelings.”

Eridan regarded the hand on his thigh resentfully. “Yeah, well, I guess I’m sorry I’m a nosy, ignorant speck a dick slime that is nothing but a permanent inconvenience to you.”

Sollux lifted the offered hand and tugged gently on Eridan’s shirt. “That’s not what I meant. This isn’t your fault either, fuck, I know better than anyone how much of a bitch VK can be. I just mean…that I don’t know anymore. Maybe this is my fault for handling shit really badly. I don’t know.” He withdrew his arm before plucking up the washcloth and scooting between Eridan and the corner of the room he was so intent on staring at. He was met with no resistance as he reached out and put his hand on Eridan’s jaw, tipping his head up towards the light. Their gazes met then, and though those blue eyes beheld him bitterly, Sollux proceeded to lift his cloth and press it gently to Eridan’s bloodied lips.

“Vriska’s always had it pretty shitty. She grew up in the leaking asshole of the town, and her house was the fucking bedpan. Her mom was a bad addict. With drugs, I mean. And I don’t know which kind they were, but it doesn’t matter because the story’s the same regardless.”

He rotated the cloth in his hands and dabbed under Eridan’s nose. “Vriska’s been working to keep her mom’s habit fed all her life. Against her will when she was younger. Five or six maybe. That was when her mom would force her to do some really shady shit. I never got the details. Probably because I never wanted or really needed to. But that’s probably why she started looking for work on her own once she was old enough. Beat anything her mom forced her to do.”

He fell silent then, and Eridan didn’t reply. He simply continued to stare as the cloth passed under his chin. After a time, Sollux continued. “Anyway, long story short, she’s been on her feet and through at least an armful of jobs already, most of it being to help keep a person alive who doesn’t give two fucks about her. So when she ran into Tavros, I guess he sort of pissed her off, but in a way that made her want to help him.”

“Why?” Eridan’s voice was small as it passed over his damp lips.

Sollux paused for a moment, blinking at him, before continuing on, “I guess he’s had some trouble too. He lived with his grandmother or something until she died. Then he was just sort of…existing. Not working or anything. Just living in his house even after they’d shut off the electricity and shit and also sometimes going to the Core to play with cat puzzles I guess? VK seemed really irritated about the cat puzzles when she told me about this. Again, just another instance of her getting pissed off at weird shit, because she does that. Anyway, she eventually got the story out of him, and I didn’t ask how because I frankly do not want to know, and then she pretty much handled him the way she handles everyone. Told him to grow a spine and start working to make his life better.”

He paused to get to his feet and rinse out the cloth in the sink. Eridan never said a word, even as Sollux crouched back down and began wiping gently at his nose. “That’s when she gave him Rufio. Her reasoning was that if he had something to look after, then he would have more incentive to actually get up and do something about his situation. But it turns out he ran into Gamzee about two days later. So he’s just been living over there ever since, and never contacted Vriska once in the interim. Understandably, seeing as she was about as pleased to hear about what happened as a tickled wasp. But I guess Kanaya had a few words with her, since that woman acts as her standing counselor or something, and convinced VK that it would be a good idea to just sort of…set up a meeting with Tavros. Just to get in contact with him again and ask how he was.”

Eridan was silent as the cloth passed over his lips. As Sollux withdrew, however, he finally spoke. “So that meetin’ she set up…”

“Was your concert, yeah.” Sollux ran a thumb under Eridan’s darkening left eye. “The fact that I’m giving you all these details now is about as useful as appending an extra closing tag to an html script, though. So honestly the real fuck-up here is me. I should’ve said something earlier. And maybe, you know, given you more support, since that’s a thing people in relationships do.”

He withdrew his hand and stared at the bloodied cloth in his palm before curling his fingers around it. His voice was cracked and soft as he whispered, “I’m sorry.”

Eridan said nothing at first, but by the time his voice finally found its way onto the air, it didn’t sound any sturdier than Sollux’s. “Well, I was sort of an asshole on account a bein’ a nervous wreck, so I know that didn’t act as any kind a help to anyone either.”

Sollux gave the bloodied fabric in his fist a rueful smile. “Yeah. But I’ve basically been about as good at handling people and their personal information as a monkey gaming with amputated thumbs. So I figured, with my astounding interpersonal talent, that withholding all this shit was the optimal course of action. And then you got punched in the face.”

Eridan licked a droplet of blood from the corner of his mouth before casting his gaze down at his palms. “Well, if it’s any consolation, I’m pretty sure I hold an equally shitty affinity for dealin’ with people. And to be honest, even though all this information is helpful for the purposes of enlightenment, I probably wouldn’t have bothered listenin’ to you before. I let Vris get under my skin because she made me feel like just about the most inadequate piece a trash to ever get kicked under her disapprovin’ nose. The end result was me not even wantin’ to hear her side a things to start with. So maybe it is good that you told me this now that I’ve been walloped into some serious fuckin’ humility on the issue.” He flexed his fingers before reaching up to feel at his face. “Also, I don’t think my nose is actually broken, so I’m feelin’ like my hope in the world has been restored a little.”

Sollux pulled Eridan’s hands away from his face and stared at the bruises underneath. He brushed his lips against the one just beneath Eridan’s eye before pulling away. His lips were stretched in a thin smile. “I told you it wasn’t broken, you stupid jackass.”

“Okay, well, I’m sorry, but I have to be mindful a the fuckin’ gift I was bestowed in bein’ born with this face.” His tone was indignant, but he managed to turn his tattered lips up into a smile.

Sollux kissed them. “You’re an idiot. Also, I’m pretty much finished here, so I am all for the idea of moving off the bathroom floor and into a more comfortable location.”

“Bed?”

Sollux nodded. He offered Eridan his hand and it was taken immediately. Once they were both on their feet, Sollux supported Eridan down the hall and into the bedroom, where they both flopped immediately onto the purple comforter.

“Fuck, I never took off my shoes,” Eridan mumbled into the plush fabric. Sollux grunted beside him and made no move to act until a foot landed in his lap. He picked his head up and frowned at it before shifting his eyes to Eridan.

“Are you serious?”

The corner of Eridan’s mouth peeked up from the soft purple covers, and the one eye that was visible was closed in feigned sleep. Sollux sighed and sat up before tugging off the wingtips perched on his thighs and tossing them to the floor. He then kicked off his own shoes before falling back against the mattress.

“So I’m assumin’ you don’t have any insight about Gam to give me?” Eridan’s voice came after a time.

Sollux’s eyebrows knit together as he stared up at the ceiling. “Not really. I mean, as long as I’ve known GZ he’s always just been…the way he usually is. I assumed from there that there really wasn’t much else to learn.”

He felt the mattress shift beneath him and turned his head to find Eridan lying on his side, his head propped on his hand. “And how long is it that you’ve known him?”

“Since college. I met him through KK since I guess they were childhood friends or something? I never really asked. Why the sudden interest?”

“Because I am pretty certain that he’s got a homicide record and I’m goin’ to sleuth the truth outta this before someone winds up dead.”

Sollux snorted. “You’re insane.”

“It’s him that’s insane, Sol, and I am bein’ dead serious about this, our lives are at fuckin’ risk here.”

“You just don’t want to get punched in the face again.”

“Well, can you blame me?” Eridan was indignant, but the expression melted as his mouth was covered by Sollux’s lips.

Sollux grinned as he pulled away. “I don’t know, ED. You look pretty rugged like this.”

Eridan frowned and sat up to peer at the full length mirror across the room. He tilted his head to examine himself. “I don’t know, Sol, I don’t think I pull off rugged very well.”

Sollux wrapped an arm around his waist and pulled him back down to the mattress. “You also think that peanut butter sandwiches with pickles isn’t a viable breakfast option, so it just shows what the fuck you know.”

“Yeah, which is that I have a refined palate that cannot even begin to comprehend some a your atrocious fuckin’ meal choices,” Eridan replied, smiling as his head fell back beside Sollux’s shoulder.

“All right then, Mr. Gourmet, what does your refined palate say about this?” He leaned over and caught Eridan’s lips with his own, filling the mouth beneath him with his tongue. He felt Eridan rise to the touch, his chest filling with a sharp intake of air that he released in a soft groan. And then they parted, and Sollux grinned as Eridan’s eyes fluttered open, his cheeks already beginning to warm to a bright pink.

“My refined palate says that it requires another sample before it can come to any sort a reliable conclusion,” he remarked.

Sollux gave a soft chuckle before leaning back down and kissing him again. Eridan caught his shoulders that time, pulling him in before he could take his lips away. Sollux smiled into the kiss until he felt Eridan’s tongue running behind his teeth, and something in his stomach flipped. He exhaled deeply through his nose, his fingers catching at Eridan’s hips, pushing them into the mattress as Sollux crawled on top of him.

They moved against one another, fingers playing at the hems of shirts and legs entwining. Sollux smoothed Eridan’s hair back from his face with one hand, sucking gently on a bloodied lower lip as he did. He could smell Eridan’s breath as it washed over his face in a wistful rush, and he was reminded inexplicably of saltwater taffy. He filled the sweet mouth with his own once more, his fingers sliding down Eridan’s sides and under his shirt. The skin beneath was smooth. Soft. Pleasantly pink in a way his own flesh was not. It made his fingertips tingle, heat pooling deep in his core. He released Eridan’s lips and slid down his chest, lifting his shirt just enough to expose a thin line of skin at his stomach. The gray jeans fit perfectly over his slender waist, the denim sitting low enough to expose a tantalizing groove just inside the raised bone of his hip. Sollux bent down and ran his tongue along it, his heart pulsing so loudly in his ears that he barely heard the groan he elicited from the man above him. But he did feel the way ten fingers tightened in his hair. He ran a line of kisses along the top of Eridan’s pants, listening to the rustling of feet shifting against the comforter and soft gasps just above his head. He smiled into Eridan’s hips before dipping lower, brushing his lips against the front of the gray jeans, letting them drift over the bulge forming beneath the denim. The shuddering sigh he earned was enough to make his stomach flip again, and the heat building there finally burst, leaking into his veins and settling in the tips of his fingers and toes. He groaned, catching the hem of Eridan’s shirt in his teeth and pulling the fabric up until the thin, scarred chest was exposed beneath him. He dipped to kiss it.

“Sol… Fuck, take them off…”

A wavering command interrupted him as he let his tongue drift over a rib, and he sat up, straddling Eridan’s waist. Beneath him, Eridan was flushed, his blazer rumpled under his back and the pink shirt bunched around his armpits. Sollux was supremely pleased to see how red he’d turned already, and ran his thumb over a stray lock of hair that had fallen loose over Eridan’s brow.

“I need the pants off,” the order came again.

Sollux offered him an expression that might have passed for confusion if not for the smile creeping up his lips. He hooked his fingers in the waistband of Eridan’s jeans. “Awful forward of you.”

He didn’t think it was possible for Eridan to turn any redder. He was wrong. “They’re tight enough as it is without you gettin’ me all worked up,” he rebuked.

Sollux smiled and bent down to kiss the pouting pair of lips. “Better get you disrobed then.”

“Don’t be an ass about it,” Eridan replied before Sollux shifted down onto his thighs. Once Eridan had sat up, Sollux slid the blazer from his shoulders and unwound his scarf, kissing the pink skin of his neck as it was gradually exposed. Eridan clung to Sollux’s waist, only releasing it for a breath of a moment as his shirt was removed. Then their lips joined again and they rocked together on the bed, letting their hips slide against one another. Sollux nearly lost himself in the sweet heat of that moment before his mouth was suddenly cold and empty, and he could feel Eridan’s breath against his neck.

“Sol…”

His voice was still tightly wound, but carried a note of seriousness that made Sollux put his chin against Eridan’s shoulder, holding him close. “Yeah?”

“I just want to say, all fuckin’ around aside, that I’m really glad you were there tonight. Just…really fuckin’ glad.”

Sollux felt some of the wild heat in his veins give way to something more calm. Something warm spreading from the center of his chest. He closed his eyes and put his lips against Eridan’s neck. “So am I.”

“And like, more than just helpin’ me out afterwards,” Eridan continued, pulling away so that their eyes could meet. “I’m glad you even agreed to come with me to begin with. That you even want to spend time with me at all.”

He trailed off then, his resolute gaze crumbling under the warm heat pulsing between them. He dropped his gaze. “I guess all I’m tryin’ to say here is that I love you.”

“Then that’s all you need to say,” Sollux murmured and he caught Eridan’s lips again. When he pulled away and blinked open his eyes, his vision was hot and blurred. “And that’s all I’m going to be able to get out right now too. I love you. God, I fucking love you.”

He pressed back into those trembling lips so hard that Eridan made a tiny shocked noise before his mouth was completely covered. Sollux kissed him back down into the mattress, their bodies moving together, legs entwining, covers rumpling beneath them. Sollux’s hands caught at Eridan’s jeans and after a bit of fumbling, undid them, pulling them down off his thighs. As he did, Eridan’s hands clung to the bottom of his shirt, and as Sollux moved down to completely remove the gray jeans, his shirt slid easily off his own body. Eridan’s fingers were already fumbling at his own frayed blue jeans as Sollux slid back up for another kiss. His hands ran along the smooth skin of Eridan’s thighs which had spread apart underneath him. As Sollux was finally freed of his own pants, kicking them down off his legs, he ground into Eridan, his fingers hooking in the waistband of his black briefs. It earned him a sharp gasp, and Eridan’s knees jerked up, pressing into Sollux’s thighs as they rolled together again, kissing and fumbling at each other’s hips until they’d shed the last of their clothing.

Then they were completely unbound. The heat swam between them as if it had no sense for the separation of their bodies. And indeed, Sollux could feel none. He rocked between Eridan’s thighs, sweat and breath and warmth the only things between them. And when they kissed it was like the room around them dissolved, and there was only skin and the feeling of Eridan’s hips against his own. He caught every noise that slipped from Eridan’s lips in his mouth, swallowing them down into his stomach, letting them vibrate there until he could feel Eridan in every inch of his body.

And then he was gripping Eridan’s thighs, pressing against his entrance, quivering from every follicle, and Eridan was gasping, voice strained with heat and desperation, telling him to go to the drawer, the one on the left under the TV. Sollux nearly drowned him in a kiss before he finally clambered off the bed and staggered to the drawer. Only through pure luck did he manage to get his blurred vision to focus long enough to locate the blue tube amongst all the spare bottles of cologne. He grabbed it before stumbling back to the bed and practically falling on top of Eridan, smiling into another kiss as he ground into him again. Then he uncapped the lube and drizzled some over his fingers.

The groans Eridan made while Sollux traced slick circles around his entrance were nothing compared to the sharp, keening cry that came once a single digit slipped inside. Sollux shifted an arm just under Eridan’s shoulders, holding him close as the man bucked against him. He had expected Eridan to be tight, but the way he clenched and moved around his finger was beyond Sollux’s imaginings. He reached between them then, rubbing their lengths together as he worked, slipping a second finger inside to join the first. Eridan groaned against his chest, only pausing the sound to draw in a few shuddering gasps.

“Sol, please…” he whispered. And Sollux pulled away. Pulled away to look at the flushed face beneath him, and the glittering blue eyes. Then he kissed him, slipping his fingers out and giving himself a few long, slow strokes with his greased hand before positioning himself against Eridan’s entrance. He nudged inside, just until his very tip was engulfed, and he felt Eridan tense beneath him. Sollux held the groan in his chest to lean down and kiss the nape of Eridan’s neck, sucking another bruise into his soft skin. Eridan shuddered with his whole body, tipping his head back into the comforter and giving a wrenching moan. But as Sollux inched deeper, the moan jerked into a pained gasp. He quickly kissed Eridan’s neck again, taking the other’s length in his oiled hand and rubbing tight circles over the tip with his thumb.

It eased Eridan back into a more relaxed state, and he spread his legs a bit wider, toes curling in the sheets. Sollux let his eyes shut then, allowing himself to relish in the tight heat of Eridan’s body. He could feel his frame trembling underneath him, sense every shiver and gasp and beat of his heart. He wanted to be completely engulfed by that heat. By Eridan. By them. He kissed Eridan’s neck and let himself slip in further.

He was met with a strangled gasp. Sollux’s eyes flew open and he pulled away from Eridan’s neck to survey him. His eyes were squeezed shut and his teeth bared, both hands gripping the comforter at his sides until his knuckles turned white. Sollux felt his insides shrink, and he held his hips still, smoothing Eridan’s hair away from his face.

“Are you okay?” his voice sounded oddly hoarse to his own ears.

Eridan pried one eye open before squeezing it back shut. He nodded.

Sollux felt his heart pounding painfully in his chest. He leaned down to kiss Eridan’s forehead before whispering, “Are you sure?”

Another nod.

Sollux sucked his lower lip between his teeth before pressing his hips forward again. The further, he went, however, the tighter Eridan seemed to become. He let out a breath, trying to pull himself out a bit to relieve some of the pressure. Eridan gave a strangled gasp beneath him, and Sollux put his lips to his temple.

“Should I stop?” he asked softly.

“No, please…” Eridan whispered. His voice trembled nearly as much as his body.

Sollux put his head down against Eridan’s shoulder and tried to push forward again. And again, Eridan tensed up beneath him, biting down painful gasps until Sollux pulled back. They attempted it three more times before Eridan pushed Sollux’s hips away with trembling hands and moved as if to roll out from beneath him. But Sollux caught him before he could, settling his shoulders back onto the mattress.

Eridan’s face was taught with pain and frustration, his eyes glistening. He stared off to the side as he mumbled, “It’s obviously not workin’. Just forget it.”

“It’s fine,” Sollux whispered, running a thumb over Eridan’s bruised cheek. “We’ll just try something else.”

Eridan’s eyes glistened. “Just once I want to do one fuckin’ thing right for you—”

Sollux covered his mouth with his lips before Eridan’s straining composure could completely crumble. When he pulled away he pressed his cheek to the side of Eridan’s face. Sollux’s voice was firm as he spoke.

“Stop.”

There was no reply. He hadn’t wanted one. Instead, he pulled away and brushed their lips together again before straightening and picking up the bottle of lubricant. After applying a fresh coating to his fingers, he reached down between them and took Eridan’s length in his hand. Eridan’s pained expression melted against his palm, and soon he was pushing his hips up, moving into every stroke. Sollux bent to kiss his chest before sliding forward onto Eridan’s stomach. It earned him a confused gaze before those blue eyes rolled back as Sollux eased Eridan inside of him.

It had been a while since Sollux had let anything enter him. It was more painful than he remembered, but the ache was quickly forgotten as he felt Eridan fill him up. Deeply. Completely. Felt him press against every inch of him. He let out a breath, his eyes shut against the rush of sensation. And then he felt two hands on his hips. And he rocked, pressing his lips together as Eridan moved inside him. Nudging into places long forgotten. Sending hot chills coursing from the pit of his stomach and shooting down his limbs like electric fire. He doubled over, panting heavily through his nose as he gripped the comforter. And he could hear Eridan breathing above him. Feel the motion of his chest as it fluttered frantically beneath him. And then the thin hips under Sollux’s legs moved, and he could feel Eridan going deeper, pressing into him, hitting somewhere at his very core. And his entire body buckled under a wave of snapping white sparks, and it wrenched his lips apart and sent a cry tearing from his throat. And Eridan trembled beneath him.

“Oh fuck, Sol…” he whispered, his voice faint.

Sollux scrambled for his bearings, his brain still addled by the surge of deep heat. “There. Right there. Just like that.”

Eridan nodded before gripping Sollux’s hips and thrusting up again. Sollux was prepared this time, but being able to brace against the white waves did nothing to keep him from floundering beneath them. Another groan was ripped from his throat and he put his head down on Eridan’s chest, his eyes squeezed shut. But Eridan did not relent. The sounds Sollux made seemed to spur him on, and soon his hips were rocking rhythmically beneath him, filling him up, pulsing deep in his body like a second heartbeat. And the waves rocking through him grew stronger, louder, his mind tumbling in the static surf until he thought he might drown.

“Sol, I’m… Oh god…” Eridan was bucking against him harder, his movements becoming more frantic. Erratic.

Sollux gripped his shoulders. “Stay inside. Don’t leave. Please don’t leave.”

Eridan clawed at his hips, tipping his head back and giving a broken cry. And suddenly Sollux was full and hot and spiraling down, falling against Eridan’s shoulder as everything tightened inside of him and then burst into lancing shards.

And then there was only panting and shivers. And kisses. Desperate and clumsy at first, but then long and languid and slow, the taste of each other easing them down from the brink. It wasn’t until they parted for the last time, eyes lidded with contentment, that Sollux pulled himself off of Eridan and rolled onto his back beside him.

“Fuck…” he whispered.

“Yeah,” came Eridan’s breathless reply. Sollux felt fingers entwine with his own, and he smiled at the ceiling.

“ED…?”

“Hn?”

“That song that you wrote for us. You never finished it.”

“Oh yeah. I guess not.”

“It was beautiful.”

There was no reply. Sollux let his head drop to the side, staring at the man beside him. The guy with the purple-streaked hair and bejeweled fingers that he’d hated so much the first time he’d seen them. The man who he’d dragged across the lawn because he’d been drunk off his ass. Whose pocket he’d stuck his number into, in the event of a most severe emergincical case.

He squeezed Eridan’s hand tighter, his heart in his throat.

“Will you sing me the rest?”

Eridan turned to him. His eyes looked unsure. Ashamed.

Sollux drew his hand closer. “Please.”

Eridan swallowed. And then his lips parted. And his voice was quiet and cracked. But he sang.

“I saw a boy with tired eyes

I said

Come with me and we can try

Try to search for a new life

Try to find a thing that’s worth livin’ for.

And he said

If it’s all the same to you

I think I’m done livin’ for two

I think there’s not much left for me here.

But

If you want, then come with me

To a place where we can be

Whole again and with no one else

With no one else…

Because

We are two hearts here.

Broken and unclean.

But if you take them

And lay them side by side

The jagged edges just might align.

They just might align.

And this boy he took my hand

And he said,

I think I might understand

Understand what I’ve been missin’ here

And he

Took his heart and pressed it close.

And in my chest a feelin’ rose.

He filled a hole I never knew I had.

So I said

If you want please come with me

Come with me where we can be

Whole again and with no one else.

We need no one else.

Because

We are two hearts here.

Broken and unclean.

But if you take them

And lay them side by side

The jagged edges just might align.

They just might align."

Chapter Text

This was the day Eridan Ampora went back to the Core.

Morning came before he wanted it to. And so he pretended it wasn’t there. He shut his eyes against the sun and dozed, only to be roused by its rays some indeterminate amount of time later. And he’d be in a different position then. But always with varying degrees of himself tucked in Sollux’s arms. Sometimes it would be his entire chest. Others it would be just an arm or a wrist. Once only a forefinger was wrapped in the warmth of Sollux’s palm. They didn’t stay like that for more than half a moment before Eridan rolled toward Sollux and seized him in an embrace. They exchanged a sleepy kiss or two or three before Eridan laid his head back down on the pillows and dropped off once more.

The next time he was roused, it was not by the sun or even the heat of the August air as it gave way to midday. Instead it was a fluttering warmth against his chest. Then a chill. He blinked, trying to focus his bleary vision. By the time he was able to make out the pillow-fluffed black hair and sleepy smirk, Sollux had already kissed his way down to Eridan’s stomach.

Then he ducked lower, and Eridan was suddenly very much awake. His fingers curled in the sheets as he felt those warm, wet lips ghost over him. They rocked together, and in one, two, three languid strokes of Sollux’s tongue, Eridan was gone, his toes curling and fingers tangling in the soft locks between his thighs.

Once he had groaned himself into tingling silence, he hauled Sollux back up to his chest. Eridan could feel the grin against his skin as a sleep-gruff voice murmured into his sternum.

“That was easy.”

“Shut your fuckin’ mouth.”

Sollux’s response to that was to clamp his lips over Eridan’s. It earned him an indignant splutter, but he never broke the kiss. He just chuckled through his nose and slid his palms up Eridan’s sides and soon they were making a tiny chorus of groans. Eridan had just gotten started returning Sollux’s morning favor with a few lazy strokes of his hand when the doorbell rang.

“Ah, fuckin’ shit,” he gasped as he broke away from a particularly dizzying kiss.

Sollux’s response was to shut his eyes and lean forward to let their lips meet again. Eridan pushed him away.

“The doorbell is ringin’,” he remarked.

“So ignore it.”

“I can’t fuckin’ ignore it, Sol, this is a matter a fuckin’ propriety.”

Sollux tried for another kiss, but he was met with a mouthful of pillow as Eridan rolled out from beneath him and staggered off the bed. Sollux lifted his head back up and glowered as Eridan began hopping into his underwear and a pair of jeans.

“I hate you so much right now,” he remarked with a groggy lisp.

Eridan yanked on a shirt before planting a kiss on the top of Sollux’s fuming head. “It’s not like I’m gonna invite them in for fuckin’ pancakes. I’m just goin’ to open the door and calmly tell whoever it is to fuck off until about the next lunar cycle.”

Sollux’s frown curled into a grin. “I thought this was a matter of propriety.”

“Given what they interrupted, I’d call it a matter a fuckin’ charity at this point.” His voice brimmed with impish laughter.

Sollux stretched and settled himself back down on the pillows. “All right. I hate you significantly less now.”

Eridan’s eyes drifted over his skin, drinking in the way the slats in the blinds made gold bars of light that bent over every angle on Sollux’s wiry body. He dipped down and kissed the sharp bone of his hip. His reward was a soft sigh, and it made Eridan grin against Sollux’s sun-warmed skin.

“Does that mean you’ll let me finish our little cuddlin’ session when I get back?” he asked, looking up.

Sollux regarded him with a lidded smile that reminded Eridan of a cream-fed cat. “Maybe.”

Eridan grinned and gave Sollux’s hip another kiss before the doorbell chimed again. He sighed, straightening and ducking toward his mirror to give his hair a brief smoothing. He quickly decided it had been a mistake to look at his reflection at all. The bruise on his cheek and nose had now darkened from red to an ugly purple. He tried to smile and tell himself that at least it was his favorite color, but that vein of optimism was about as effective as attempting to make his swollen grin symmetrical. He sighed so heavily he swore he lost a piece of his soul.

The doorbell rang again.

“Are you going to answer that or just admire yourself until they decide to leave?”

“There is nothing about this face which warrants admirin’ right now, Sol,” Eridan groaned, trying to push his hair into something that at least resembled groomed.

“Jesus Christ, Eridan, just go and fulfill your fucking decorum or whatever the hell answering the door is going to do for you, because I swear to god I am starting to feel that damned ringing in the roots of my teeth.”

“Fine, fuckin’ relax,” Eridan snapped. He gave his hair another brief smoothing before he dashed out of the room and opened the front door.

And immediately slammed it shut again.

Or he would have, if a huge grass-stained foot hadn’t gotten between it.

“Mornin’ best motherfuckin’ friend.”

Gamzee stuck his head around the door, giving Eridan a lazy smile, one hand raised in greeting as usual. As he pushed his way inside, Eridan somehow managed to register the pie tin clutched in his other hand while simultaneously scrambling backwards into the kitchen. He opened the drawers and refrigerator door as a sort of barricade before reaching into the sink and grabbing a soapy spoon.

“Stay back!” he cried. “I am fuckin’ armed!”

“You sure motherfuckin’ are, my friend, I ain’t got myself to be seeing two more functional limbs in all my time as I’ve been alive on this earth.” He smiled, stopping just outside the kitchen where Eridan was backed up against the stove, wielding his dripping spoon.

“What do you want?” Eridan demanded, brandishing his weapon. “If it’s a fight, you better think twice because I am a force to be fuckin’ reckoned with when I am on my guard. And that is what I am right now. I am on my guard. Like, fuckin’ standin’ on it, right on top of it, and I will fuckin’ mess you up if you get any closer.”

Gamzee smiled and slid one of the drawers shut. Eridan yelled and flung his spoon at his attacker’s face. It clattered to the floor and Gamzee shuffled forward, nudging the refrigerator door closed with his foot. Eridan grabbed another spoon from the sink. He mentally cursed himself for his habit of never cooking anything that required sharper cutlery.

“Now, now, there ain’t any motherfuckin’ need to be getting violent,” Gamzee said, stopping before Eridan and gazing down from his towering height. He then plucked up the spoon shivering under his nose and set it down on the counter.

Eridan quailed, defenseless. “What do you even want from me? Was last night not enough for you? Have you come to finish the job, is that it?”

“I don’t got any jobs to be finishing up with,” Gamzee replied. “I just came to bring you this here baked delight. It’s all smiling like it’s happy to see you because it’s friends just like the two of us motherfuckers are.”

Eridan could do nothing except yield to the pie tin as it was pushed into his hands. He stared down at it, looking at the smiley face that Gamzee had cut into the top layer of crust. He made a faint choking noise.

“I even made it up to be purple just how you get all to be enjoying of having your things colored. And I was careful not to put in the blueberries. I remembered that those don’t get to be all agreeing with your insides sometimes. Not like the two of us. We’re a couple of choice bros who are up to our motherfuckin’ eyeballs in agreement and camaraderie.”

Gamzee’s smile was so serene that Eridan almost didn’t notice the huge hand as it fell on his shoulder. Almost. He stared at it as the fingers clenched, and he winced, expecting a vice-like grip. But instead it was only a reassuring squeeze. Eridan blinked his eyes open and turned them back to Gamzee’s face. That lidded grin was still affixed there, under the unruly mop of dark hair.

“So are we just not gonna discuss anything that happened last night?” Eridan’s voice was smaller than he’d meant it to sound.

He received another squeeze to his shoulder. “Ain’t nothing as happened last night that needs discussing. It’s all like how it would be if you had a blackboard in your brain like the kind they got in schools and the teacher all tells the motherfuckin’ kid to go clean that shit off. And so he does, and all the math that was got to be occupying that slate is wiped right up on one of them dirty sponges. So I made you this motherfuckin’ pie, bro.”

Eridan’s gaze fell to the pastry in his hands. “Somehow that doesn’t make a whole lot of logical sense, but right now I’m pretty chiefly concerned with not gettin’ punched in the face again, so I’ll just agree with you.”

“See?” Gamzee’s grin widened. “I told you we were up to our motherfuckin’ brainstems in friendship. And if you eat that pie, you’ll feel it fill all up in your veins like motherfuckin’ sunlight and magic. Then you can get that motherfuckin’ student to be all wiping up at your brain slate too.”

It was about then that Eridan realized that the pie was definitely poisoned.

He stared, his eyes so wide he thought they might fall out of his head as Gamzee backed away, pulling his hand from Eridan’s shoulder.

“I got to get myself back to my own place of residence, but you get your enjoy on of that, all right my brother?”

Eridan made a sort of gurgling sound in response. That seemed to be all Gamzee needed, and he gave Eridan a huge smile before raising his hand in farewell and backing out the door.

Eridan stared at the pie in his hands as if snakes had suddenly burst through the crust. Holding it at arm’s length, he rushed back to the bedroom, kicking the door open so violently it bounced off the wall.

Sollux was sitting on the bed, still casually naked with his computer perched on his lap. His earbuds were in, the music in them pulsing so loud that Eridan could hear it from half a room away. Still holding the pan, he leaned over the bed and yanked one out. Sollux hissed and glared.

“Fuck! What was that for?”

“For bein’ an irreconcilable piece a shit, mostly,” Eridan snarled. “I was almost assaulted in the kitchen, thanks for noticin’.”

Sollux blinked. “Wait, are you being serious? Who was at the door?”

“Gam was!” Eridan cried. He was pleased to see the way Sollux blanched, and it spurred him to continue. “He cornered me, all six-foot-fuckin’-monstrosity of him, and started spewin’ shit about a blackboard or whatever and then he gave me this.”

He produced the pie with a flourish. Sollux stared, the color rapidly returning to his cheeks.

“Uh-huh. So basically all is forgiven,” he remarked blandly.

“Or it isn’t,” Eridan snapped. “This is fuckin’ poisoned, all right, he’s still got it out for me, Sol, I can fuckin’ tell.”

Sollux rolled his eyes. “Right.”

“Or it’s drugged or something. The way he started goin’ on about how it was gonna fill me up with friendship and magic just sounded really fuckin’ off. And we already know he’s got at least a few screws loose, okay, you even agreed with me that there was something really weird about the way he just attacked me last night.”

Sollux sighed, snapping his laptop shut. “Am I really going to have to hold your fucking hand through every interaction with living beings that you manage to dredge up? I mean, did you even stop to consider the fact that this is likely just some weird apologetic gesture before you catapulted yourself headlong into paranoia?”

“If this is you tryin’ to tell me that I am shit at readin’ people and so my fear here is completely baseless, then let me just remind you a the discussion we had last night. That was where you also admitted to bein’ fuckin’ garbage at interpersonal shit. So that means your readin’ a the situation is just as likely as mine, okay, and there is something wrong with this pie, I can fuckin’ smell it.”

Sollux slapped his hands to his face and dragged them down. “Oh my god. Are you being serious? Is this actually sincere fear? Can you honestly look at this smiling pie and think, ‘This is definitely going to kill me.’”

Eridan pursed his lips. “The smile makes me that much more certain.”

“Jesus,” Sollux groaned.

“I’m serious!” Eridan cried, brandishing the pie under Sollux’s nose. “Look at how fuckin’ eerie that is, starin’ up at whoever decides to eat it. It’s like it fuckin’ knows something, Sol, and I’m determined to figure out what it is.”

“Oh my god, I am done listening to this. Give me that.”

“What, no, wait, what are you doin’?”

He tried to yank the tin away, but Sollux had already reached into it and scooped out a fistful of pie. Eridan watched in horror as the crumbly purple mess disappeared into Sollux’s mouth. Then his mortified gaze dropped to the smiling pastry, which was now missing an eye.

“Sollux, what the fuck? You just ate it!”

“Yes. That’s a thing you do with pies,” he responded, licking his fingers clean. “Wow, I actually forgot how good GZ’s baking is.”

He reached forward and Eridan gave a veritable shriek of indignation as he held the pie above his head. “Stop fuckin’ touchin’ that, at least get a fuckin’ fork or something, you’re makin’ a mess outta my sheets.”

Sollux gave him a purple grin. “Glad to see you’re so concerned about my life, considering I just ate that deadly poisoned pie.”

“I am not fuckin’ kidding you right now, if you touch this pie again—Sol, goddammit!”

He yanked the pie up further, but his disadvantage of a few inches was all Sollux needed to reach forward and take another generous scoop from the middle of the dessert. Eridan cursed colorfully as he was treated to another crumb-caked smile.

“Oh god, here it comes,” Sollux said, clutching his chest as he continued to chew. “I think I feel the poison kicking in.”

Eridan gave him a glower. “Stop fuckin’ around, Sol.”

“I am being completely serious about how much this dastardly pie is killing me. I would never make a dramatic scene about something so severe, ED. That is one thing we have in common, actually.”

Eridan tried to kick him away so he could roll off the bed in a huff, but Sollux grabbed his wrist, pulling him in close. “You’d leave me now when I’m caught in death’s snare?”

Eridan lurched back as Sollux leaned up to kiss him. “Sto—stop you’re gettin’ blackberries everywhere, do you have any idea how much that shit stains? I am wearin’ a pink shirt you thick fuck.”

“So cruel, pushing me away while I try to utter my last words,” Sollux said weakly from beneath Eridan’s hand. “My breath is failing, ED. I think this might be it for me. I am definitely dying. Only the kiss of life could possibly save me now.”

“Stop bein’ an idiot,” Eridan snarled, struggling to shove the grasping hands off his arm. His efforts ceased abruptly as Sollux collapsed onto the pillows beside him. That was when Eridan lunged forward to yank him back up.

“Get your purple face off a my sheets,” he yelped, trying to hold Sollux’s sagging frame upright.

“Tell KK…not…to touch…my video games…” Sollux wheezed before closing his eyes and falling back against the comforter. Eridan let him drop, glaring at the sprawled, naked figure beneath him. Heaving a sigh, he bent down and planted a light peck on the purple, faintly smiling lips beneath him.

The mismatched eyes fluttered open instantly, and Eridan felt a pair of arms loop around his neck, pulling him in close. “I’ve been resuscitated. It’s a miracle.”

“More like a big pain in the ass,” Eridan began, but was prevented from expanding his insult by a pair of sweet, blackberry lips over his own. He let slip a smile as he sank deep into the kiss.

And quite suddenly he stopped giving a single damn about the cleanliness of his bedding.

After his clothes had all been scattered back on the floor and Sollux lay trembling and gasping beneath him, Eridan slid his watery legs over the side of the bed, hoping as much as doubting that they’d support him.. Fingers caught at his wrist.

“In a hurry to be somewhere?” If Sollux’s voice was spent, it was nothing compared to his hazy, distant expression and the haphazard way his limbs were sprawled over the sheets.

Eridan offered him an apologetic smile. “Sorta. I wanted to stop back at the Core sometime today before it closed.”

Sollux’s gaze followed him as he pushed himself unsteadily to his feet and staggered to the dresser. “Why do you want to go back there?”

“Gotta get my guitar,” Eridan replied, yanking open a drawer and pulling out some clothes. “If there’s anything left of it, that is. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone wanted to use it for kindling after the performance I put on last night.”

Sollux pushed himself up onto his elbows, the hazy contentment in his face disappearing under a sharp seriousness. “Do you want me to come with you?”

Eridan shook his head. “No. This is my shit to sort out. You can just go hang out over by Kar in the mean time. I’m sure he’s probably still flippin’ out over havin’ been in the same room with John for more than a few consecutive seconds.”

“Or maybe I can just stay here and scope out your porn stash,” Sollux replied, lifting the purple MacBook off the bedside table and opening it. Eridan rolled his eyes before turning back to the dresser to pick out a pair of briefs. As he moved to another drawer to dig out a decent cologne, Sollux’s voice floated over to him again.

“I guess should get a hold of KK though. He’s probably worried about you.” His tone was soft. Almost despondent.

Eridan glanced back at him. “Really?”

“Yeah,” Sollux replied, his eyes still fixed to the MacBook’s screen. “He suffers from this rare disease called ‘giving a fuck.’ I’ve been trying to work him out of it for several years to no effect. I’m starting to fear it’s terminal.”

Eridan gave a small smile, looking down to the clothes in his hands. “Well, if it’s really me he’s worried about, you can just tell him that I’m fine if Gam is. Which I guess is the case, regardless a the fact that we haven’t done any real discussin’ a the issue.”

“You probably never will.”

“Yeah. I’m slowly figurin’ that out.”

They sank into a silence punctuated only by the tapping of keys and the clink of bottles. At last Sollux spoke again.

“You leave yourself logged in to our Minecraft server?”

Eridan blinked, turning back around with his selected cologne dangling between his fingers. “Oh. Yeah, I do.”

Sollux frowned. “Why?”

A shrug. “Why not?”

“You’re way too trusting. Your computer doesn’t even require a password to log in to.”

“It’s not really a matter a trust,” Eridan replied. “Or distrust either, for that matter. Never really had an opportunity to do either a those things for most a my life.”

Sollux tore his eyes away from the screen at last, and the realization in the mismatched gaze stung Eridan enough to make him retreat towards the door.

“I’m gonna just go shower, then,” he said, grabbing the handle behind him and stepping out into the hall. “You should visit Kar.”

He shut the bedroom door before Sollux could make a reply. Assuming that he would have made one at all. The corners of Eridan’s lips gave a rueful tug upwards before he shuffled to the bathroom.

Once he emerged, freshly scrubbed and clothed, he was both relieved and chagrined to see that Sollux had heeded his command. The bed was vacant and the tangle of faded clothing had vanished from the brown carpet. Eridan sighed, resting his head against the doorframe before finally pushing himself off and exiting the house.

He didn’t lock the door behind him.

The walk to the Core was about as much of a struggle as it always was. It was reassuring. Business as usual, really. He almost smiled under the familiar palpitations and dripping sweat. It would have been something to truly worry about only if it had gotten worse. Because he had good days and bad days. Sometimes even great days.

But not better days. Never better days.

The air conditioning of the Core tasted sweet on his tongue as he finally stepped inside the coffee shop. He eased himself into a chair at his usual table by the door. Unlike the other times he had come, however, the table beside him was devoid of a book and an iced mocha and an immaculately groomed woman presiding over both. It made the store feel empty and quiet. Even though it was usually both those things anyway.

Thunk.

Eridan jerked out of his thoughts as a guitar case was slammed on the table in front of him. His gaze snapped up to the woman standing over it, and he was unsurprised to find blue mascara-rimmed eyes staring back at him.

“There you go. Got what you came for. Now you can get the hell back out.”

Eridan glanced again to the instrument sitting on the table before him. He put his hands on it and drew it close. It was a few more moments still before he was able to utter a feeble, “Thanks.”

Vriska shrugged, crossing her arms. “It’s not like I’m doing you a favor. I just couldn’t stand to see this piece of junk cluttering the place up.”

“Yeah,” Eridan replied before casting his gaze around. “Lookin’ kinda slow today.”

Vriska shifted her weight back on a heel to survey the empty shop. “Cafés where fights break out don’t really pull in the biggest crowd.”

Eridan looked back to his guitar. He ran his hands over it, rings scraping over the surface. “Look, Vris, I’m really sorry—”

“Sollux told you, didn’t he?”

Eridan glanced up, but her gaze was ice through her glasses. He licked his lips. “Yeah, he did.”

“Then there’s nothing for us to talk about.” She turned and strode back to the counter at the far end of the room.

After a few beats, Eridan picked up his case and followed her.

“Actually there is something,” he panted as he heaved the instrument on top of the counter. She grimaced at it, but made no move to shove it back. Instead she began collecting mugs from behind the counter and wiping them off. He watched her for a moment before deciding she had no intention of acknowledging him. So he plowed ahead.

“I’d like to get a job here.”

That stopped her. She looked up from her mug, her eyes wide with surprise before they narrowed. “We’re not busy enough to be taking on newbies right now. No thanks to you and your fabulous marketing ploy from last night.”

Eridan waved his hand as if to brush her words aside. “No, I don’t need to be paid or anything like that. I’m askin’ for you to host me here just to sorta train me up. Like an intern or something.”

Vriska wrinkled her nose. “Don’t be stupid. Nobody interns at a coffee house.”

“Well, I do. Or I’d like to at least. I guess you’re the final say in if I actually do or not.” He paused, but Vriska’s disgusted expression hadn’t changed. So he carried on. “I’ve never worked anywhere before, so I won’t lie and say I’ll be a great fuckin’ help to you or whatever. To be perfectly frank, I’ll probably fuck more shit up than I’ll do right. And I’ll need to take about twice as many breaks as is usual for an employee workin’ at an establishment like this, given my…condition or whatever you want to call it. But I feel like I owe this place for at least givin’ me a chance, you know? Even if I did royally fuck that chance up.”

Vriska’s face finally melted into cold disdain. She crossed her arms and leaned back, peering at Eridan through narrowed eyes. “What can a lame useless slob like you even do?”

Eridan shrugged. “I don’t know. I figured you’d be the best one to take a whack at teachin’ me though.”

Her flat lips cracked up in a smile. “Obviously if we’re talking about the best candidate for anything, we are talking about me.” She let her folded arms drop, looking Eridan up and down like a sculptor eyeing a block of clay. “You are pretty useless, but luckily for you, I happen to be the authority on making useless people awesome. And I can start doing that any time you’re ready. If you still have the guts for it that is.”

She leaned over the counter and sneered at him over his guitar case. He gave her his best leer in return.

“I got guts spillin’ outta my ears, Vris. Come on, who do you think you’re dealin’ with here?”

She laughed, giving the instrument a slap before pushing herself off of the counter. “It’s a good thing you’ve got some to spare, Eridan, because you’re going to get disemboweled by this place. It’s not kiddie games we’re talking about here. This is mixing five different drinks at seven o’clock in the morning and ducking the angry slobber of a whole line of pre-caffeinated zombies. Think you can stomach getting your pretty rings dirty?”

“I’ve got a whole slew of extra rings,” Eridan replied. “I can afford to get a few stained with espresso and saliva.”

She smirked. “Be here by six-thirty on Monday. And don’t be late. I won’t waste my time on someone who can’t even get that much right.”

“Expect me at six of the fuckin’ clock then,” Eridan retorted.

Another biting laugh. “Maybe I will.”

She gave his guitar case a rap and he sneered, dragging it off the counter and turning to make his way out of the shop.

As he reached the door, he heard her voice call out to him. “Hey Eridan.”

He turned back.

“You’re all right.”

He gave a wave. “Wait until Monday to decide that one, Vris.”

She tossed a crumpled napkin over the counter at him and it landed in the middle of the room. The jingling bells mingled with the notes of their joined laughter as Eridan exited, the sound only fading once the glass door had swung shut.

Chapter Text

This was the day that Sollux Captor went on a shopping trip.

But it was not just any shopping trip. This excursion had been months in the making. The impetus came after dragging himself across the street to Karkat’s while Eridan went to retrieve his guitar from the Core. The minute Sollux got through the door he was sat at the table and interrogated about the previous night like he’d been seen committing a murder. After his confession, he was impressed by how affronted Karkat managed to look over receiving information that he’d demanded to have.

“I can’t believe you. After all the shit that happened last night, you decided that the best way to handle it was to whisk the fucking nexus of disaster off to a bed to nail him?”

“Well, I wouldn’t really say that the person doing the nailing was me,” Sollux replied thoughtfully.

“Stop!” Karkat yelled, throwing his hands in front of him as if Sollux had just unleashed a swarm of bees from his mouth instead of a few words. “I don’t need the sordid details, you shameless fuck. What about my current demeanor suggests that I want to know the specifics of whatever sort of debauchery the two of you got up to last night? I’ll answer it for you: none. None of my demeanor suggests that. It’s like my demeanor is a butler, only instead of taking your mantle of shame and hanging it neatly beside the door, he takes the coat rack and breaks it over your fucking head.”

“So you admit that your demeanor is still in undeniable obligation to me?” Sollux sat back in his chair, grinning.

Karkat gnashed at the air for a few seconds before retorting, “No, fuck you, what part of a metaphorical head-bashing gives you any indication that I want to remain in this fucking indentured servitude you call a friendship? No. No, I will not take any more of your sex coats, Sollux Captor, consider this my formal fucking resignation.”

Sollux rolled his eyes. “Okay, but do I at least get some kind of severance package or whatever?”

“Okay, I realize that your lengthy sabbatical from the working world has probably made you ignorant to this fact, but you are the one that gives me the severance, not the other way around, dipshit.”

“What about a last request then? Like, an informal favor between chums?”

“Fuck you and fuck your chumhood. I’ve doused that bridge in kerosene and lit the match. I am watching it burn up like the fucking Hindenburg.”

Sollux ran his fingers through his hair, his face a grinning contrast to Karkat’s frown. “Can we just back up for a second to take mutual note of the fact that our friendship bridge is in flames over me getting laid?”

Karkat glowered from beneath his mop of dark hair. “That’s an excellent reason to burn our friendship bridge, which, may I remind you, wasn’t exactly the height of fucking construction in the first place. Not when it was originally made out of balsa wood by a couple of retarded middle schoolers who thought that Nerf warfare was the fucking apex of human experience.”

“You’re just bitter because I won most of those plastic gun battles,” Sollux snickered. “Anyway, since we’re going the route of reminiscence, I was actually wondering a few things about GZ.” His face was still bright, but his smile was no longer the easy curve that it had been a few moments before.

Karkat pointed an accusatory finger at him. “Fuck you, that is an illegal topic change.”

“Fuck your topic changes, I make the rules here.” His lips quirked up briefly but his voice was firm.

Karkat stood with his finger leveled for a few more seconds before sighing and yanking out a chair. He then plopped into it, leaning over the kitchen table and staring at his hands. “Fine, whatever. What do you want to know?”

Sollux pulled himself out of his reclined position in order to hunch over the table along with Karkat. “Well, first I guess… Is he okay?”

“Sure. He brought you a pie, didn’t he? Isn’t the state of Gamzee’s happiness directly correlated to the number of pies he bakes on any given day? Didn’t we figure out a formula for that or some shit?”

Sollux snorted. “I’m pretty sure it was based on a ten point scale where one pie was equivalent to two points of happiness and brownies were worth one.”

“Yeah, and you spent a good hour making the case that each pie should get 3.14 points because you’re a huge fucking nerd.”

“Yes, well, the empirical methods of mood measurement have clearly determined in a really objective way that pies are definitely worth two points of GZ’s happiness. You sure out-scienced me on that one, KK.”

Karkat lifted his eyes from his hands and glared. “Flattery will get you nowhere, fucknuts. Do you have any further inquiries or can I start hacking up the charred remains of our friendship bridge with my chump-buster ax?”

“I haven’t even gotten started,” Sollux replied, his voice sharpening. “Like has he ever done that before? Freak out like that? I know you two were friends in grade school, so maybe you know something about it.”

This time he didn’t receive an immediate retort. Karkat played with his fingers for a bit, at last grabbing the salt and beginning to spin it on the table. Sollux watched the tiny white grains fall out of the silver top.

“Sure.”

Sollux blinked. “What, you mean that you know something? Or that he’s done that before?”

“I was really only trying to answer the first question. But I guess ‘sure’ effectively addresses both.” Karkat’s voice was distant. He pressed a thumb to a mound of salt grains.

Sollux watched for a moment before he finally replied. “So you weren’t really surprised by what he did?”

Karkat lifted his shoulders before putting his chin on the table. “I don’t know. Yes and no. It is Gamzee, so it’s surprising in some respects. But not in others.”

Sollux frowned, ducking down to meet Karkat’s eyes. “What do you mean?”

“Things used to be shitty for him. I forget that a lot. But I think he forgets too sometimes, you know? These days I feel like I remember more of his past than he does. And I think he wants it that way. So that’s why it’s surprising when shit comes up that brings the memories crashing back in. I think it’s surprising for him too. Almost like he’s sitting on some hippy beach and managing to forget about the tide every time it goes out. But that’s the thing about tides. They always come back in. And they fuck up everyone’s adorable little sandcastles when they do.”

Sollux leaned back in his chair. There was something about Karkat—the way his mouth was buried in his arms, the fact that he refused to look up or lift his head from the table—that made Sollux feel as if he shouldn’t get too close.

But he did speak. “Is it something you can talk about?”

Karkat shook his head, brown eyes fluttering shut. “No. Like I said, if Gamzee wants to forget about it, then I’m not going to go around spreading things. I’ll just sit on the beach with my little seismometer, trying to predict when the next fucking tsunami is going to roll up the coast.”

Sollux shifted in his seat, hooking his thumbs under the table. “And you don’t want help with that?”

“No. I feel like one stupid asshole poring over a couple squiggly lines and misreading the fuck out of them is all Gamzee needs. Thanks for the offer, though.”

Sollux nodded, staring down at his knees. “Yeah.”

“Anyway,” Karkat said, banging the table, “I need to get dressed for work.”

Sollux blinked. “But it’s Saturday. I thought the call center was closed on Saturdays.”

“Stupidity doesn’t take days off,” Karkat replied, pushing himself to his feet. “And I have to be there to answer ignorance’s call and shed the rays of divine enlightenment down upon all my drooling disciples.”

Sollux grimaced. “Sounds like a blast.”

The response he received was not the one he’d expected. Karkat gave a tiny smile and a shrug before saying, “No. But sometimes yelling at someone else for being an idiotic shitstain is better than sitting alone and saying those things to yourself.”

He was quiet for a moment, and Sollux held the silence on his tongue as well, watching him. At last, Karkat gave a chuckle and flicked the pepper over so it was lying beside the salt. “So yeah. I’m going to shower and put on a shirt that doesn’t have a picture of joystick on it. I’m sure some psychoanalytic asshole will find it remotely phallic.”

“To be honest, you really don’t have to be a psychoanalytic asshole to find that phallic.”

“Why don’t you go suck a phallus, shithead,” Karkat replied, flipping Sollux off as he retreated from the kitchen.

Sollux stood, leering as he followed Karkat out into the hall. “Maybe I will.”

“Yeah, you’d like that.”

“I have a rather nice phallus waiting at home for the loving embrace of my mou—”

“Sollux, get the fuck out of this house.”

So he did. He retreated back across the street to Eridan’s with the full intent of making good on all the talk of phallus sucking. At least he did until Eridan caught him at the door, dragging him inside to chatter endlessly about his new position with Vriska at the Core.

And Sollux had been happy. At first.

But then Monday came. And he found himself lying alone on the purple comforter, up to his eyeballs in hex codes (he wasn’t going to give pink leaves to the Alternian trees by blinking at them), waiting for the sun to dip. And once it had, the front door opened and the house was suddenly submerged under a deluge of complaints. Apparently Vriska’s elevated status had sunk back down to “horrid bitch” territory and Eridan was never going back there again because how can you be expected to remember twenty different syrup combinations after just one day, Sol?

After sharing a comforting tin of Chinese and putting in a movie that they hardly even blinked at due to more pressing preoccupations, Eridan seemed miraculously cured. So much so that he woke up the next morning and went back for more punishment.

And Sollux was left alone again. This time he was up to his eyeballs in PMs from people on the message boards telling him that he’d been slacking egregiously on covering the most recent Minecraft patch updates.

He sent a few succinct replies telling his correspondents to go suck a giant bowl of dicks.

It was after about two weeks of bouncing back and forth between crushing solitude and asphyxiating demands for solace that he finally snapped and thought that maybe Karkat had a point.

That was when Sollux Captor got a job.

In retrospect he might have taken Karkat’s words a bit too literally during the first week of his application process. Either that or he was just feeling particularly masochistic after one of Eridan’s more taxing dinnertime drama spiels. Whatever the reason, he somehow dropped an application off at a local tech store offering himself up like some martyr of computer science to work the customer service desk.

And of course that was the job he got.

After two days of dealing with specimens of the most technologically brain dead that the human race had to offer, he wasn’t sure if he didn’t prefer dealing with Eridan’s drama and the press of idiots flooding his inbox on the forums. He said as much to Karkat, who simply regarded him with a cocked eyebrow and the affirmation that it was his peerless rancor for the dregs of humanity that would keep him coming back day after day.

And, day after day, he was right.

In a way it had a certain appeal. Nights became almost like a friendly romp through the depths of human stupidity as he and Eridan compared work days, each trying to trump the other in terms of idiots dealt with. The arguments usually fizzled out with no decided victor as they turned their attention instead to Minecraft or Team Fortress 2 (which Eridan was hilariously bad at). World of Warcraft was another frequent diversion, one that Eridan had only agreed to take up again on the condition that they reap bloody vengeance on all those who had provided him insult during his first excursion through the game. It was a provision that Sollux was more than happy to oblige on account of one of his favorite activities being to deal out mass carnage to shitty players.

Other nightly activities involved bickering over music, bickering over the remote, bickering over the bathroom, bickering over whose turn it was to get groceries, and various other things. The arguments usually ended in the bedroom or the shower or even the kitchen table, with one party eventually conceding defeat simply due to sheer post-coital exhaustion.

This person was usually Sollux.

It was on one nightly run to Walgreens to pick up a bottle of mouthwash (“Because my teeth need the extra whitenin’ from all the coffee drinkin’ I’ve been doin’ lately, it’s becomin’ a serious fuckin’ problem”) that Sollux decided that he was in sore need of a vehicle. His resolution was more firmly cemented by the fact that the night sky decided to dump about eight gallons of chilly rainwater over him on his way back home.

And so the job provided him with the income to take out a loan on a shitty used car that Vriska managed to find after fishing through her bottomless barrel of connections. This particular contact happened to be a perspiring monster of a man who worked as a mechanic in town. Sollux had been dubious about the dealing, but Vriska’s unabashed guarantee of the giant’s honor had convinced him to take the offered Corolla. He didn’t regret it. Despite a dented door and a few spots of rust, the little blue car ran like a dream. The seller (who he learned went by the name of Equius) explained later that he had made various upgrades to the car for his own recreation. It was a fact that Sollux came to intensely appreciate, not only because he had received no up-charge for the additional service, but because, according to several websites, his car’s lifespan had been increased by at least five years as a result.

Though the vehicle was another step towards the inevitable shopping excursion, it was not the final one. Those came with the obtainment of further disposable income (since Eridan continued to refuse to let him chip in for rent) and the approach of the winter holidays.

Sollux couldn’t remember the last time he’d done anything remotely festive. At least that’s what he told himself to avoid thinking about the times that he had. Times like the one two years before when Aradia had bought him a pair of reindeer antlers and a matching light-up Rudolf sweater to go with them. Times when everything had seemed ridiculously perfect. Instead he focused on the more palpable memories of the year before, when expectations and budgets were low, and Christmas Eve had consisted of a shared plate of Gamzee’s gingerbread and too much eggnog. That was his life now.

Or at least, his life as he would’ve tried to live it had Eridan not come along and shaken everything into some snow globe slurry.

The realization that they were probably not going to have another eggnog Christmas came right about when Thanksgiving rolled around and everything suddenly became A Very Big Deal. Just as soon as Eridan had booked a flight home to have turkey dinner with his family was about the time he began assailing Sollux with pleas to come along. Apparently he thought it was high time his parents met the boy he’d been dating for four whole months.

Sollux’s response to all this was to blink and stare.

He hadn’t given his own family so much as a phone call since he’d moved out to attend college. And as for the families of others…

He still remembered the way her father had looked standing in the hall of the hospital. Like a tattered scrap of parchment. Wavering under the doctor’s breath.

So the answer was no. Such a firm and resolute no that Eridan didn’t bother asking twice. But somehow Sollux knew that the issue of Christmas wouldn’t be so easily settled. And so he spent the week of Eridan’s absence skimming through the pages of Amazon and wishing he had enough money to buy Gucci or whatever the hell else Eridan liked to adorn his body with.

Matters were only made worse by the slow transformation of the house into some kind of holiday abomination. With each little window cling and strand of lights that Eridan bought, the closer Sollux could feel his demise looming.

It was when he got them matching stockings that Sollux knew he was doomed.

“I even had them embroider our names on the front, look.”

He showed Sollux his purchase proudly, a few more bags of clothing lying next to the door behind him. Vriska had a nasty habit of taking him out to the mall on their off days, and Eridan had the equally nasty habit of overspending every time he went.

Sollux stared at the stockings helplessly from his place at the kitchen table, laptop open in front of him.

“They’re…” Nice, he meant to say. Just say they’re nice and ignore it. Don’t talk about it. Don’t even start the conversation, if he started the conversation he was finished.

“…not even red and green,” he remarked lamely.

“Well a course not. That would look atrocious with the earth tones I’ve got goin’ on in the livin’ room here.” He moved to one of the walls in front of the couch and eyed it with his thumb extended.

“And yellow and purple look any better?”

“Well, no, to be honest they look a lot worse.” Eridan dropped his arm and turned back to Sollux. “But I thought I’d forego the aesthetic value for the sake a sentiment. These are the blood colors of our trollian avatars, after all. So I thought I could maybe hook you into a more festive spirit by appealin’ to the side a you that’s an unforgivable computer enthusiast.”

“Eridan.”

“What in layman’s terms is known as ‘a huge fuckin’ nerd.’”

It was at that point that Sollux had to cry uncle. Because there were a lot of ways he could have responded to the fact that Eridan had gotten them Alternian-themed stockings. But the only appropriate one, in his mind, was to close the distance between them and kiss him into the couch.

Of course such a reaction was also an admission of defeat. And so it was with an almost giddy resignation that Sollux let Eridan dress him up in a snowflake sweater and purchase two round trip tickets to Orange County to spend Christmas with his family.

It was about then that the issue of a gift became not only a question of suitability, but of time as well. Ordering something online was no longer a viable option, not with his current income.

Which was bad on a cosmic level.

Because Sollux did all his shopping online.

“I don’t even know how to work a fucking strip mall anymore,” he wheezed into his cell phone from the break room at work. One of his co-workers, a blond girl who always wore a necklace with a pink cat face on it, gave him a knowing grin as she popped open a can of soup and dumped it into a plastic bowl. Sollux narrowed his eyes at her and turned towards the wall.

The voice on the other end laughed. “You probably won’t find anything up to par with his super high standards at a strip mall anyway.”

“Come on FF, you’re not helping me at all,” Sollux hissed into the phone. “This phone call was supposed to be about you giving me advice, not you taking morbid delight in my current situation.”

“I’m not trying to be pessimistic or anything,” she replied, her voice edged with laughter. “Because if you’re pessimistic, that’s saying you’re not too sure about what the future outcome might be. And in this case I’m completely sure! There’s positively no hope of getting him a decent gift at a strip mall in your city, none at all.”

Sollux wanted to throw his phone as her laugh sounded in his ear. “Will you take this seriously?” he seethed.

“You two are really starting to sound like each other.”

Sollux put a hand to his face. “Yes, we are rubbing off on each other and I’ve adopted all his most horrific qualities, KK is always sure to point that out at least twice a day so I don’t forget. Because you know me. And my forgetfulness problems. That I don’t have.”

“So are you really coming down to California next week?”

“Yes, don’t fucking remind me, I’m flipping enough shit as it is.” Sollux pulled his feet up onto the seat, hugging his knees to his chest. “Just give me a couple things. Preferably things that will suck slightly less than me trying to get him a fucking scarf or some other article of clothing.”

“He does like articles of clothing,” Feferi responded thoughtfully.

“Okay, that’s great and all, but doing successful clothes shopping for him would require me to hold at least a PHD in fashion, okay? I didn’t even graduate from fashion high school, I dropped out like the miser of fucks that I am.”

She laughed. “But that’s the whole point! The point is doing the best you can to get the people you love something special. The present he got you on it’s own probably wouldn’t be that great, especially not to you, but since it’s from him and he put his heart into it, I think you’re going to love it.”

Sollux switched the phone to his other ear and crouched down further. “Wait, you know what he got me?”

A giggle.

“FF, I swear to god.” Sollux looked over his shoulder to see the cat necklace girl grinning at him from over the brim of her soup bowl. He glowered and turned back around, lowering his voice. “Give me a hint or something. Please, I need to at least be able to do a value comparison here.”

“It wouldn’t be fair to do that when Eridan is practically made of his parents’ money!” Feferi rebuked.

“Come on, I just want to get him something he likes,” Sollux begged into the phone. “Just give me a category. Something broad and vague, I don’t even care. I’m desperate.”

“You’re going to have to stay desperate, mister,” Feferi said, her voice needling. “My lips are sealed.”

“God dammit, you’re about as helpful as a quadriplegic butler. This is going to be horrible. And it’s also going to be your fault. I hope you feel really shitty.”

“Well, I’ve already got all my Christmas shopping done, so I am actually feeling pretty great.”

Sollux glared at his shoes. “Okay, my procrastination and I have a beautiful and loving relationship, so you can just shut the hell up with all your responsibility.”

“Well, you and your procrastination can have fun shopping at the strip mall then!” Feferi replied, her voice a laughing taunt.

Sollux hung up, turning around and slamming his phone down onto the table.

“Is this Christma-shopping I’m hearing about?”

He looked up. God damn, that fucking girl was still there. Whatever her name was. Sollux didn’t bother talking to a lot of his coworkers. He slouched back in his chair.

“Maybe.”

“For your best guy friend?” Her smile was lopsided and her eyes lidded. As if she were engaging in some kind of sordid conversation. She handled her bowl like a glass of red wine.

Sollux stared at it as she swirled the soup around sloppily. “Uh. I really don’t know how it’s any of your business.”

“Well you’ll wanna make it my business. You’ll wanna be slappin’ that business in my hands like a couple hot potatoes because I got the goods.”

“The…what? What goods? How did this even become a topic of conversation that we both agreed to engage in?”

“Because these are the goods,” she said, her lips curving up into a sly smile as she dragged her bag up onto the table and reached an arm inside. “The couple’s Christma-copia of romantic lootery. Like, I’ve got it. The answer to all your holiday frettings. Right inside this bag.”

Sollux narrowed his eyes at her. “Okay, are you going to give me this sweet loot or just sit there and be coy for the next six hours until I’m pining for it like some lascivious asshole begging for the paddle.”

“All depends. On how many paddles your lascivious asshole is willing to take.” She gave him a seductive wink.

He stared. “Was that…a serious attempt at a romantic pass?”

“All my attempts are serious, like that even needs going over. But this isn’t about that. It’s about the goods. The goods that you want. And they are right here.” She rummaged around in her bag before pulling out a magazine and slapping it down on the table. “Let your eyes eat that shit up.”

Sollux pulled it toward him and stared down at the ad it had been opened to. White print on a black background stared back.

“Whaddya say, Captor?” she asked. “A diamond is forever.”

He pushed it away as if he’d been burned. “Jesus christ, I’m not proposing to the guy.”

“Ain’t gotta be no proposal,” she replied, sliding the magazine back toward him. “It’s all about the blings. Who doesn’t like the blings? Nobody, that’s who.”

Sollux grimaced, but he bent over the glossy paper anyway, peering at the images of jewels and gleaming metals all arranged into striking array over the page. He pulled the ad closer, his grimace dissolving into a more serious frown.

“Well, he does like that shit. Sparkly shit. Because he’s basically spoiled royalty. His title is the Archduke of Asshole.”

“Well obviously any duke of arches deserves the archiest jewels. Something so archy that the ends meet and it becomes a circle.” She held up her thumb and forefinger in an O shape to demonstrate, peering at Sollux through the center. “Like. A ring. A nice fancy ring with a diamond in it, who could possibly refuse?”

“Well, I know he couldn’t, that’s for sure. But I don’t exactly have pools of money that I dive into every day after getting home from working at this asshole factory.” Sollux sank back into his chair, crossing his arms and glowering at the ad still laid open before him.

“Well it don’t gotta be no diamond,” she replied, snatching the magazine up and thumbing through it. “Just something sparkly. What does your archduke care if its not some transparent glittery thing?”

Sollux’s frown relaxed slightly. “He doesn’t. He likes colored things anyway. Purple. He likes purple.”

“Then get him the best purple rock you can dig up. Here, I even gots myself a store name because I am fucking prepared like that.” She whipped out a pen and paper from her bag and scrawled something across it. She then shoved it towards Sollux. “There you go. No need to thank me. I already know I got the most awesome perceptivity that ever was. Call me a fucking clairvoyant if you want because it’s true right now. Look at this shit. You are all set up and ready to Christma-shop your way to paradise.”

Sollux leaned over the scrap of paper and grimaced. “I am looking at it, and apparently your hand is some undiscovered eight-legged wildebeast judging from the tracks it left all over this note. Seriously, did you even try to make this legible?”

She drew it back and squinted at it, holding it up to the light. She shrugged. “It’s plain as day to me. I don’t know what’s got your undies all up in a twist.”

She slapped it back down on the table.

Sollux sighed. “Okay, well, I’ll dig out my spare Rosetta stone to untangle this mass of pink hieroglyphics.”

She winked at him. “It’ll probably have all the secrets of the universe.”

“Probably,” Sollux agreed, folding it up and slipping it in the pocket of his pants. “Anyway, I should get back on the floor to deal with whatever new asshole decided to overheat his damned computer. But thanks for all your help, uh…”

“Roxy.” Another exaggerated wink.

“Yeah. That. Also you might want to get your eye checked out, it seems to have a really bad twitch or some shit.”

“Ain’t no twitch, Sollux. This is my charm. Can’t turn off the charm. Can’t even turn it down. It stays ratcheted all the way up to ‘Whoa Momma’ constantly and there’s not a thing you can do about it. Besides maybe try your damnedest to resist.” Another wink.

Sollux rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’ll do my best.”

Through some work of miracles, which may or may not have involved an actual Rosetta stone, Sollux managed to decode the name of the jewelry store that Roxy had written down. It ended up being one of the outlets in the downtown mall. Upon discovering this fact he promptly texted Feferi to suck his giant mall-bound schlong.

Which was followed immediately by an apology and a profession that no, he did not really want Feferi to suck his giant mall-bound schlong and that she was pretty great and to please forget that he ever sent that.

Actually going to the mall ended up playing out only half as smoothly as the schlong texts.

Mostly because when it came to even the barest whiff of a possibility for a shopping trip, Eridan became a fucking bloodhound.

So it was that Sollux got caught halfway out the door with his keys in his hand before he was assaulted by his man-puppy, who proceeded to leap on him and berate him for trying to sneak off to the land of material splendor on his own. Then Eridan bounded to the car and buckled himself in the passenger’s seat, tail wagging so hard that Sollux expected the vehicle to start rocking on its wheels.

It turned the mall trip from a twenty minute outing into an all day affair.

At the end of which Sollux found himself standing in front of a dressing room mirror, decked in a pair of tight black pants, a yellow V-neck, a gray argyle scarf, and a black hoodie that was so tight around his arms he suspected Eridan had smuggled it from the girl’s section. He blinked forlornly through a pair of oval shades that Eridan had shoved over his eyes.

“Well?” he asked, standing beside Sollux with a rainbow of scarves draped over his arm.

“I look like a bumblebee.”

Eridan was shocked. “Is that really all you can say? Nothing about how all a this is doin’ a spectacular job a displayin’ some a your finer assets?”

Sollux looked at himself again and reconsidered. “I look like a bumblebee whose balls are being forced back up into his pelvic cavity.”

Eridan gave an exasperated sigh, tossing the scarves onto the dressing room bench. “Well this is your fault anyway, you know, givin’ me all a those color restrictions at the beginning. That really limited my fuckin’ options.”

“I told you that it’s not within the realms of possibility to arrange a condition in which I will wear any shade of pink.”

“That wasn’t even pink, Sol, that was fuckin’ salmon.”

Any shade. Named after fish insides or otherwise.”

Another sigh filled the small space as Eridan rummaged around in the heap of T-shirts he’d amassed next to the scarves. He pulled out a purple V-neck.

“No.”

Eridan shoved it into his hands anyway. “You will fuckin’ put that on, Sol, this dressin’ stall is where the arm a this country’s democracy ends. Think of these three square feet as my own personal nation a clothing authoritarianism. Your free will in the matter a dressin’ yourself does not exist here, and Eridanopia is a lot fuckin’ better for it.”

“Then I’m staging a coup d’état on your shitty authoritarianism,” Sollux proclaimed, forcing the shirt away.

“Bullshit,” Eridan snapped, shoving the article back. “A lone renegade like yourself couldn’t possibly have the artillery necessary for stagin’ such an act against my well-armed militia.”

“Oh, but I do,” Sollux rebuked, giving the shirt a yank. It pulled Eridan along with it, sending him toppling against Sollux’s chest. Then their lips met, and Eridan turned to jelly in his arms, powerless to resist as he was pushed up against the dressing room wall.

“Fuck…” he groaned as his shirt was pushed up to his armpits. He gave a few tiny whines as Sollux’s lips descended over his stomach and brushed just above the top of his pants.

“What do you have to say about my artillery now?” Sollux murmured into the front of Eridan’s jeans.

“That I made a huge oversight in vestin’ you with the powers a my nation’s seductive clothin’.” His voice was not much more than a strangled gasp, which earned him a grin before Sollux unzipped Eridan’s pants and ducked down.

The next ten minutes were spent with Eridan’s face screwed up and the back of his hand pressed to his lips to keep the louder moans in check. When Sollux had licked him clean and pulled away, Eridan collapsed onto the dressing room bench, his face flushed and his limbs splayed about him in exhaustion.

“Mr. Captor has emerged victorious and will now stick a little flag in the ground to claim his newly attained sovereignty.”

“F…fuck you…” Eridan panted, shivering.

Sollux smirked. “As his first order of business he shall free all those confined by the oppressive dress code of the former nation of Eridanopia.” He began unwinding his scarf, tossing it over Eridan’s head before moving to extract himself from the skin-tight hoodie.

Eridan gave a groan, plucking the argyle fabric from his face. “Dammit, Sol, why do you have to be so fuckin’ obstinate?”

“Because wearing these clothes feels like someone’s trying to compress the third dimension out of me,” Sollux replied. “And also because we’ve already been at this for three hours and haven’t even touched my shopping yet.”

“Well, you gotta understand my position here,” Eridan replied, zipping his pants back up. “It’s not an everyday occurrence that I manage to get you out into a place where puttin’ clothes on you is a viable possibility. This might be the only chance I have in my entire life to get you a decent lookin’ ensemble.”

“All my ensembles are decent looking,” Sollux snapped. “But fine. If you want to keep this bumblebee outfit then whatever.”

“I’d actually like it better if you’d try on the purple.” Eridan plucked up the V-neck and held it out to him.

Sollux glared.

Eridan smiled.

With a huff, Sollux snatched up the purple shirt and yanked it over his head. “There. Happy?”

“Not even close. Put that hoodie back on for a minute. And the gray scarf too.”

“Of course giving in to one demand spawns two more,” Sollux grumbled, but he did as he was directed. He stood in front of Eridan when he’d finished, arms crossed and lips drawn into a diagonal slash of displeasure.

“You look amazin’,” Eridan sighed. “Okay, we’re gettin’ all a this. Then we can go and do whatever it is you came here for. Even though it’d be nice to get you a few more shirts and maybe an extra scarf so you could mix and match a bit with those pants.”

Sollux may as well have shot lasers out of his eyes.

Eridan held up his hands. “But a course I know where to draw the line with someone a your delicate shoppin’ disposition. Just gimme the clothes you got on and I’ll pay for them while you get yourself back into…that.” He waved a hand at the faded, rumpled pile of Sollux’s original outfit.

Sollux stripped himself and flung the clothing at Eridan before tugging on his old clothes and stepping out of the dressing room. He strode briskly from the store as Eridan veered aside to approach the front counter and begin chatting animatedly with one of the cashiers. Sollux had seen enough bags with this shop’s logo on them to know that Eridan was a frequent customer.

As he ambled back out into the central walkway of the mall, he approached one of the lighted signs displaying a map of the complex. He studied it silently, locating the jewelry store and trying to devise a plan for keeping Eridan away while he went to go peruse its goods.

“Heeeeeeeey, Sollux. You look a little lost to me.”

He turned around to see Vriska standing at his shoulder and grinning.

Sollux could have sworn in that moment that the mall ceiling opened up, and cherubs bathed in holy light descended from the heavens, strumming harps and singing a gentle chorus of exaltation. He grabbed Vriska by the shoulders.

“Thank fucking christ for your existence right now, VK.”

Her grin dissolved. “That greeting was way too happy. I’m starting to think that coming over here to give you a hard time was a crummy idea.”

“No, it was the best idea,” Sollux replied. He turned her around, pointing her in the direction of the store he’d just exited from. “You see there? Standing by the cash register?”

“Ha, figures. You wouldn’t be caught dead shopping unless your little mall-rat boyfriend dragged you here.” She threw him a smirk over her shoulder, mascara-framed eyes flashing.

“Yeah, well, you are both mall vermin. That’s why I need you to distract him. Get him a fucking pretzel or something. Anything to keep him the fuck away from me while I go pick him up a Christmas present.”

“Ooooooooh, a covert operation,” she replied, her blue lips stretching wider. “Now you’re speaking my language. Don’t worry. I’ll keep your prince of purple occupied while you struggle hilariously in the clutches of the jewelry shop.”

He squinted at her. “I never said…”

“Oh please Sollux, as if it isn’t obvious that’s where you’re going.” She gave his cheek a pinch. “Just leave the rest of this up to the pros, okay?”

He rubbed his face as she ambled into the store, sidling up to Eridan and grabbing him around the neck. They exchanged disgustingly exuberant greetings as Sollux stalked away.

The experience at the jewelry store was a mess that involved Sollux sweating over gem type, band material, and ring size for no less than forty minutes. At last he just had to make his best guess while demanding at least twenty times for a verification that yes, he could bring it back and get it resized if it wasn’t correct.

After handing over half his paycheck, he left the store with a velvet box shoved in his pocket. He put his hand over the bulge, swallowing hard as he thought of the gleaming ring nestled inside.

If Eridan’s reaction was anything less than perfect, he decided that the blame would fall solely on Roxy and that he would be thoroughly justified in slapping her about the head with her own magazine.

Dragging Eridan away from Vriska turned out to be an even more involved affair than the jewelry store. By the time Sollux finally got them back to the mall’s entrance, he’d been stuffed into three more outfits. And so it was, arms laden with bags and a chattering boyfriend, that Sollux lumbered out into the parking lot.

That was when the talk ceased.

Sollux’s breath steamed in the cold night air as he let his eyes drift upwards. In the hazy orange glow of the street lights, thick white flakes were illuminated. He watched as they tumbled down, settling on his old winter coat like a dusting of sugar.

Eridan stared up at the sky beside him, his mouth slightly open as the snow drifted down. “Wow…”

That was the only word that passed between them for a good minute. Then Sollux pulled Eridan close, rubbing his arm. “You haven’t seen snow before?”

Eridan shook his head. “Not in person. I sort of expected it to be colder.” He stretched out his hands. Sollux watched as flakes settled on his palms, dissolving instantly into little wet droplets. Like tiny kisses.

“Let’s go,” he said at last, pulling Eridan through the parking lot towards their little blue Toyota.

By the time they got home, the snow was already ankle deep. It made the trek up to the porch even more treacherous than it would have been already what with the addition of an armful of shopping bags factored in. As Sollux dumped the spoils of their mall trip onto the couch and wiped some of the snow from his face, he looked back over his shoulder to see that the front door was still open. He leaned outside to see Eridan standing in the middle of the driveway, illuminated in the yellow light pouring from the house, white flakes drifting around him in a powdery halo.

Instead of calling him back inside, Sollux gave a little smile and crunched through the freshly fallen flakes to join him, slipping a hand around his waist.

Eridan blinked, tearing his gaze away from the clouded black sky above him. “Sorry,” he said, giving a tiny smile. “This is just…really fuckin’ beautiful.”

Sollux nodded, pulling him close. “Yeah…”

“Sol?”

“Mm?”

“Think we can stay like this forever?”

Sollux put his lips in Eridan’s crystal-dusted hair. “Snow always melts.”

“But it’s not melted right now.”

“So we can stay like this. For now.”

Eridan tucked himself into Sollux’s chest then, nuzzling his chill-nipped cheek into the faded blue coat. Sollux wrapped his arms around him and they stood that way. Immobile, the only movement coming from the falling flakes around them and the steam of their breath. And for a moment, it almost seemed as if time had stopped. That they had taken the wildly spinning filmstrip of life and frozen it on that single frame.

If perfection felt like anything, it felt like that. Like the kisses of snowflakes. The warm breath of light at his back. Like the weight of Eridan against his chest and the smooth scent of vanilla filling his nose.

Then he sent the filmstrip whirring forward again, and he planted a kiss against Eridan’s moist brown hair.

“Have you ever made a snow angel?”

Eridan looked up at him, his face lit by the honeyed glow of the house. He shook his head.

Sollux led him onto a patch of unblemished snow in the front yard. He then pulled Eridan down beside him and they laid themselves back on the chilly blanket, moving their arms and legs in wide arcs at Sollux’s instruction. When they pulled themselves up they took a few steps back to admire the sloppy impressions they’d made in the snow. But Sollux’s eyes eventually fell on Eridan. On the soft rose color that the cold had nipped into his cheeks and the tip of his nose. On the snow melting his hair into damp, wild curls. The flakes caught in his eyelashes.

And it became clear to him that there was really only one snow angel present under the dusted sky of that night.

It was about then that the cold became too much, and Eridan’s laughs became interspersed with the clack of chattering teeth. Sollux hugged him close and led him inside. Once the warm embrace of the house spread over them, he stripped his shivering lover and wrapped him up in the blanket draped over the back of the couch. He left him sniffling on the sofa as he went to heat up a cup of cocoa. When he returned, Eridan demanded that Sollux also rid himself of his wet clothing before he was allowed to sit down beside him.

They fell asleep that way. Chilled skin and shared blankets and a mug of hot chocolate nestled between them.

Chapter Text

This was the day that Eridan Ampora died.

Sollux woke to the hiss of the shower. His eyes fluttered open and he caught sight of the living room window across from him, which looked like it had been painted over with pitch. As he blinked the sleepy haze away, however, he registered the tiny white flakes drifting down on the other side of the glass.

Why was it so cold and early? He groaned, pulling the blanket over his head and turning toward the back of the couch, blocking out the nonexistent light.

He could only be irritable for so long though. Today marked the last day at work for the both of them until after the holidays. And though he wasn’t bouncing on his toes to use the time to perpetuate awkwardness in California, he did have the prospect of two weeks’ worth of sleeping in to look forward to.

Unfortunately it was still one day off, and so it was not yet a luxury he had access to. Technically speaking, he really had no business being awake so early, but Eridan was never exactly careful about keeping quiet as he went about his morning routine. Just thinking about all the times he’d crawled around on the bed to dig clothes out of the sheets or turned on music while doing his hair was enough to make vexation spread through Sollux’s chest.

But it was an odd vexation. One that made him feel warm. He pulled the blankets closer, burying his face in them and letting himself get dizzy on the smell of vanilla. He grinned so stupidly that he was glad to be half smothered in bedding.

After getting that bout of fuzziness out of his system, he stretched and sat up, shivering as the blankets fell off him, leaving him exposed to the waist. Gathering one of the blankets about his shoulders, he shuffled to the bedroom and rummaged in the dark for some clothes. Once he grabbed what felt like a T-shirt and sweatpants, he pulled them on, letting his makeshift mantle crumple to the floor. He then shuffled back out to the kitchen and turned on the light.

The next few minutes were spent being blind and cursing photons for their very existence.

Once that was over, he began rummaging through the cupboards, pulling out mixing bowls and a large frying pan.

It wasn’t often that Sollux lent his culinary skills to the household. Mostly because on the one hand they could hardly be called skills and on the other he often preferred filling his time whipping up codes rather than meals.

Still, sometimes an overwhelming sentimentality gripped him by the heartstrings. And he still couldn’t shake the image of Eridan smiling down at his sloppy snow angel, cheeks rosy and lashes damp with snowflakes.

He had to pause in pouring out a few cups of flour just to rub at his chest and get absurdly warm despite the fact that he was standing in the middle of a frostbitten kitchen.

The hiss of water in the bathroom eventually stopped and there was a click as the door opened. Sollux looked up as he heard the damp pat of feet against linoleum. He found Eridan standing at his shoulder in nothing but a towel, peering down into his mixing bowl.

“Pancakes?” he asked, glancing up. His blue eyes looked hesitant.

“Hopefully,” Sollux replied.

They both took a moment of silence to reflect on the last batch of “hopefully” pancakes that Sollux had made. Each of them turned a bit green.

“Well, that’s fuckin’ ambitious a you,” Eridan responded before reaching over Sollux’s shoulder to open the cereal cabinet.

Sollux knocked his arm away. “Don’t be a jackass. At least try them first.”

“You burned the fuck out a the last ones. I need real sustenance if I’m gonna get through a full day a servin’ coffee to an endless line of assholes.”

“Just finish getting ready,” Sollux snapped. He was trying to be a boyfriend and dammit, Eridan was going to let him.

“Fine,” came the bleak reply before Eridan slumped out of the kitchen and back down the hall toward the bedroom.

Sollux returned to studying the recipe with the air of a linguist deciphering some dead tongue. The result ended in a decision that the answer was definitely to start with flour and holy fuck it came out fast so okay maybe he would compensate for that minor spill with just a half a cup more instead of a whole one and shit shit shit fucking flour everywhere what the fuck was he supposed to put in now, milk?

He carried on in this fashion until the kitchen looked like more of a frosted winter wonderland than the yard outside. When Eridan returned it was to a sweating Sollux stirring feverishly at his mixing bowl. Sollux tried to ward him off with his dripping spatula, but Eridan ducked under his arm and grabbed the bowl toward him.

He let out a groan of dismay.

Sollux snatched the bowl back possessively, as if Eridan had insulted his firstborn child. “Shut up,” he snapped.

“Sol that looks like glue, not batter, what the fuck did you even put in there, cement?”

“It’s fine,” Sollux retorted, pulling the bowl closer and shielding it from Eridan’s eyes with his arms. “It’s supposed to look like this.”

“Well, okay if you say so,” Eridan sighed. “But could you hurry it up, I need a ride in like, half an hour. And not that kinda ride either, this is my work and it needs to be taken seriously.”

Sollux rolled his eyes but couldn’t completely hide the tiny smirk pulling up at the corners of his lips. He returned to mixing the goop in his bowl while Eridan wandered off to the living room window, peering outside.

“It snowed a lot,” he said softly.

“Oh yeah?”

He nodded before pulling his eyes away from the window to look over his shoulder at Sollux. “I’m gonna go dig your car out. Do we have a shovel?”

Sollux slowed in his stirring, turning his gaze toward Eridan. “No… KK does but…”

He bit the inside of his cheek, surveying Eridan. His thin frame. The way his hair had been sculpted perfectly into place, save for the tiny lock that always curled over his forehead. The paleness of his skin and the way it offset the brown sweater he’d pulled over his dress shirt. He felt his insides twist.

“I’ll just head over there and steal it from his garage for a couple seconds. He won’t even notice.” His lips quirked up in an impish grin.

Sollux released his cheek from between his teeth, nodding slowly. “Just…bundle up, okay? Put on those earmuffs I got for you.”

Eridan sighed. “They’re gonna mess up the masterpiece I made a my hair this mornin’ but whatever your majesty, I’ll do as instructed.”

“And your mittens,” Sollux added at his retreating back. He stood motionless over his bowl for a few seconds after Eridan had gone. Then he returned to stirring his mixture.

He had just clomped the frying pan down onto the range, turning up the dial on a burner when he heard the front door open and close. Sollux drifted from the kitchen and toward the living room window, watching through the drifting flakes as Eridan shuffled over to Karkat’s house. He was dressed in a pea coat and scarf, earmuffs fastened over his head. Sollux made a mental note to get him something warmer than his current jacket. The midwest sure as hell wasn’t California.

He wandered back to the stove, but he didn’t begin frying pancakes until he heard the reassuring scrape of a shovel against the concrete outside. He gave a little smile before pouring some batter into the pan and making something that could not even be considered the second cousin twice removed of a circle.

He watched the batter begin bubbling up and became concerned when it started taking on the consistency of cracked granite. He tried to slide his spatula underneath to flip it over in case it was burning. And that’s when he realized that he hadn’t greased the pan. And Eridan’s pans weren’t exactly the height of teflon technology. He swore and lifted it off the burner, trying to scrape the pancake off the bottom before it went up in flames. He was mostly successful, but it made a complete mess of his first attempt.

Whatever. It had been a trial run anyway. Grabbing a stick of butter from the fridge, he quickly greased up the bottom of the pan and tried again.

The result was a stack of steaming, albeit rubbery, golden brown pancakes. Sollux admired them proudly as he turned off the burner and dumped the frying pan in the sink.

It was only when he’d finished setting the table that he realized that the rhythmic scrape of metal against concrete had stopped. He wondered if Eridan was already done. Either way, he was going to come inside and partake of the veritable breakfast feast that Sollux had orchestrated for him. Wiping his hands on a towel and smiling, Sollux went to the door and pulled it open.

Snow blew in, stinging his eyes. He raised an arm, blinking the icy crystals away. When he lowered it, he saw his blue Toyota, most of the snow scraped away from around its wheels. And at the end of the driveway Eridan lay sprawled in the snow, the shovel beside him.

Sollux stepped out onto the porch, smiling. “Are you…”

making snow angels, he’d meant to say. But the words stuck in his throat. Because Eridan’s arms and legs were bent at all the wrong angles. Like he had fallen. Like…

He dashed down the driveway so fast he kicked up a slurry of snow behind him, the flakes tumbling in the air and being pulled back by the wind. He fell to his knees beside Eridan and rolled him over.

He was pale. Translucent. And his lips, his perfect rosy lips—he’d kissed them just last night—they were a strange blue. A foreign color.

Not right. It wasn’t right, only Eridan’s eyes were blue. So blue. He would open them. In just a few seconds. Any second. Sollux shook him, his throat tight. He shook him and tried to call out to him open your eyes but the words wouldn’t come and he was frozen and he could feel the ice like it was inside him now and spreading out to all his limbs and no no no no no.

Some part of his brain registered that something had to be done. So he fumbled, his fingers stiff and awkward like they weren’t connected to his body and he couldn’t even feel the plastic in his hand as he pulled his phone from his pocket. He meant to dial 911, but those were not the numbers he pressed. Instead he tapped out something else. The only number he could remember. Like it was automatic. And he pressed the phone to his ear and god he wasn’t breathing he wasn’t breathing no no please god no.

Karkat’s voice in his ear. Saying something. But Sollux couldn’t hear it. All he could hear was the thrumming roar of his own heartbeat and the howl of the icy wind and he hunched over and opened his mouth and prayed that he could speak.

The words came like blood. Tumbling out, one on top of the other, a chain of hooks that tore at his throat, a two worded plea “help me help me help me help me.”

And then his phone was in the snow and he was pulling Eridan close and no no oh god open your eyes, and the wind howled and then Karkat was there. He was there and he was talking and his voice was broken like shattered ice and then he was speaking into Sollux’s phone, yelling, screaming, and everything was Karkat’s yells and the wind and his face huddled over Eridan’s and there was no soft breath coming from between those lips, those cold blue lips why were they that color no no that’s not the color they were.

He didn’t realize the ambulance had come until Eridan was tugged from his hands. And he grabbed for him, and said the only thing he could say help me help me but maybe they couldn’t hear him because they just took Eridan and Sollux tried to crawl after him and hold his hand he just wanted to hold his hand but they held him. Strangers. Strangers in coats. They kept him away as they hauled Eridan into the warmth of the ambulance and held a clear mask to his mouth and nose and “cardiac arrest” they said and Sollux saw them take out those shiny metal pads and they were opening up the pea coat and he had to get him a warmer jacket he had to get him something warmer. He struggled against the person holding him and everything was cold and ice and why was Eridan moving like that why no please his heart is fragile he only has half a heart, just like him, just like him, please please please please.

Karkat was beside him. Trying to say something. But he couldn’t hear it because suddenly his ears were filled with the sounds of a voice. Rattling off a time. 7:22. Eridan was going to be late for work, he’d kill him if he were late for work what would he say to Vriska.

He must have said it out loud. Because then Karkat was answering. He was crying and Sollux stared at those tears like they were something alien and no no no, don’t, that wasn’t right. And then his voice. Broken and almost whipped away by the wind, but they reached Sollux’s ears.

“He’s gone.”

Something in him broke. He flailed his limbs, ripped them away from the men holding him, stumbled forward toward the ambulance and then tripped on a drift. And he knelt there, his hands frozen, and something fell from his eyes and melted a circle in the snow.

No he wasn’t. No he wasn’t. He balled his frozen fingers into fists and dashed back up to the house. Half running, half crawling, pushing past the forest of hands reaching out to grab him, stumbling through the door, legs not stopping until he’d crashed into the sofa and the blankets were still there still there they smelled like vanilla they smelled like vanilla and how could he be gone if the blankets still smelled like vanilla please god no no no. He buried his face in them because that was real, not this. Vanilla was real and pancakes and hot chocolate and pink lips and embroidered stockings and soft brown hair with a violet streak and this wasn’t it wasn’t real this wasn’t real.

He felt a hand on his shoulders. A cheek against his neck. Eridan.

But Karkat’s voice came. And he whispered and held Sollux. Hugged him about the middle.

“I’m so fucking sorry.”

And then Sollux dissolved. Broke and spilled blood and bile and everything that he was out through his eyes. Clutched to the blanket until it was wet and the pancakes on the table grew cold.

Chapter Text

This was the day that Sollux Captor met Eridan Ampora on Alternia.

He tried to move back in with Karkat. For a few days before that he stayed in Eridan’s house. Curled on the couch with all the doors and windows locked. The blinds pulled. But it became too difficult. Too difficult to do something as simple as using the toilet without seeing the carefully arranged line of hair products on the sink. And so he locked the bathroom door, shut himself out, gathered up his computer along with five pairs of socks, and made his way across the street.

Karkat stared at him like he was some kind of apparition. Hesitantly, he let his eyes lower, taking in the hollow figure before him.

“You…aren’t wearing any shoes,” he said at last. His voice was cracked and brittle. Like papyrus.

Snow sank through the silent, inky air around them.

“I brought socks,” Sollux whispered at last. His words were so fragile that a stray flake nearly knocked them away. He clutched his laptop closer to his chest, staring down at his hands. Ghost white and curled around the edges of the plastic.

If his feet were cold standing there, bare and melting imprints in the snow, he couldn’t tell.

Karkat stood back. “You should get in before your more important extremities turn black and I’m forced to hack them off.”

Sollux’s expression didn’t even twitch. He trudged inside, dragging snow with him onto the welcome mat. He didn’t stop to glance around or relish the warmth of the house. He simply shuffled forward down the hall.

“Oh, Sollux, wait a minute.” He heard Karkat’s voice behind him, urgent, but he didn’t pause. He walked past the bathroom and hung a left, making his way to his old door. He pushed it open.

That was where the familiarity ceased.

The bed was gone. In its place were a few boxes and some spare cords. Some of his old neglected clothing had been taken out of the drawers and shoved along the walls. He stared at it. Stared at the space that used to be his.

“Shit, I’m sorry, just… Hang on, I’ll get Gamzee to help me move the bed back. Tavros was using it for a while after you left and—wait, where the fuck are you going?”

Sollux never even flinched. He wheeled around and strode back down the hall, socks falling from the pile in his arms. Karkat dashed up to him, walking alongside him as he returned to the front door.

“Hey, come on, I can put the shit back. Sollux. Sollux, goddammit, fucking stop—”

He reached out to grab Sollux’s elbow as they stepped back onto the welcome mat.

The response was like a spark hitting gunpowder.

Sollux wrenched his arm away so fast that Karkat was sent stumbling against the wall and the laptop fell to the carpet with a shuddering slam. Sollux stood frozen in place, his hand uplifted and cords still dangling from his arms. His mismatched eyes locked on Karkat’s, but they did not see. They were only different shades of the same emptiness.

Karkat shrank away, sliding back along the wall and drawing his arms to his chest. Sollux stared at him, unblinking. Only breathing.

Then he picked up his laptop and exited the house.

When he returned to Eridan’s, he dropped the computer back to the carpet and approached the couch. He picked up the blanket and held it to his face. Wrapped himself in it. Sank into the cushions and tried to pretend.

The first few times the pain in his chest had been too great to produce any convincing illusion. All he could do was immerse himself in vanilla and fling silent pleas into the darkness. Beseeching the empty air for relief.

The air responded to his supplication by filling his insides with cold, cramping hollowness. And it buoyed his mind up. Allowed him to fill it with warmth. The sound of a hissing shower. The dreamy weight of a damp palm against his cheek. Of soft lips. Of all the planes and curves of the body he’d mapped out pressed flush against his own.

Then he would awaken, and his mouth would taste of bitterness and salt. And all he could do was shiver against the pain and bury his damp cheeks in vanilla before the oppressive quiet of the house would relent. Grant him relief.

Until the hollowness in his stomach began to poison him.

That’s when the soft lips grew cold. When they abandoned kisses for accusations. When the hiss of the shower morphed into the shriek of sirens, and sinking into his mind meant falling into a blackness like oil.

Until he woke up in a snow bank with the blanket underneath him, screaming words that didn’t make sense, his extremities like dead things tied to his torso. And he would’ve fought the pair of arms that heaved him up into the car if he’d had any strength left. Instead he could only let his limbs dangle from the back seat, staring up at the face above him and trying to explain.

He had to save him. He had to save him because he was still out in the snow. And it was cold. It was so cold. Please go back. Please.

He tasted the salt of tears that were not his own. The warmth of fingers in his hair that were stubby and rough and small. The heat of a voice against his snow-bitten cheek, telling him over and over again how sorry he was. How fucking sorry.

Sollux didn’t go back to the house after that.

Instead he was carried by a pair of long, tattooed arms to a bed with familiar red sheets. Right across from a familiar desk with a familiar laptop. And the emptiness was squeezed from his body as warm, rich things were placed in his mouth.

Soon the fevered lightness disappeared. And as the weight of reason returned, he found himself remembering things. Like his affinity for codes. And peanut butter. But with each recollection that was added to the folds of his mind, he found the warm apparitions visiting him less and less. Until the ghostly hands vanished from his cheeks. Until the lips no longer kissed him. Until the only thing left was the stale scent of vanilla on his blanket, fading more and more each day.

He rolled himself lifelessly into patterns. Into waking up and eating food and going to the bathroom and lying in bed. Soon he found the strength to pull his computer close, and he incorporated videos into his daily rituals. But it was nothing more than watching colors dance across the screen, each hue reflected on his glassed eyes. He heard the voices, nothing more than garbled sounds and laugh tracks. It was just something to do. Something to while away the hours before sleep would take him again.

The only novel experience that would ever punctuate his days would be the occasional knock on his door. He would never move when it happened. He didn’t have to. Karkat would always let himself in, whether Sollux tried to lock the door or not.

The first time it had been about Eridan’s funeral.

“…say they’re going to be taking him back to California or whatever since I guess they want him to be buried on the family plot. And you still have those tickets. So you could go.”

Sollux stared at his computer screen, his head resting against his arm as he lay curled on his side beneath a knot of bed sheets. He never blinked. Karkat turned the phone in his hands around, picking at the buttons as he sat beside Sollux in silence for a moment.

Then he tried again.

“They say they want to meet you. His parents. I don’t usually say this about a lot of people but they genuinely didn’t sound like assholes. I think you should go. Maybe the warm weather would be good for you, I don’t know.”

Sollux gazed unblinkingly at his monitor.

Karkat’s voice began to crumble. “Please Sollux. Please don’t do this again. Please at least…fucking talk to someone. It doesn’t have to be his parents, fuck, I know that shit’s awkward. But…Feferi’s going too. She’s at least tolerable, right? You can hang out with her or something. Anything. Okay?”

Sollux’s lips parted. His voice sounded like petrified bark scraping against cement.

“Eridan didn’t want a funeral.”

Karkat blinked, trying to pull his composure back together under the shock of receiving a response. “What?”

Sollux’s eyes flicked up to him briefly before returning to the computer. “He said he didn’t want one. That he didn’t want people standing over a hole and talking at it like he could hear.”

Karkat stared before letting his gaze flicker aside. “Okay, well, let’s just assume for a second that I believe you and that this isn’t some steaming pile of horseshit you just creamed out your ass. Because even then, most people don’t go to these things to carry on conversations with the casket. They go to say goodbye. To deal with their grief instead of locking themselves up in a room with it and letting it starve them until some jackass shoves food in their mouth.”

Sollux pulled the covers tighter around him. “I’m not going.”

“Okay, I will literally get down on my knees and—”

No.”

Karkat’s lips snapped shut. Something in Sollux’s eyes had sparked, and there was a flame there. But it was not alive like flames were. It was red. Like blood.

“…All right,” Karkat replied at last. He had cast his gaze aside, hands trembling as they gripped the phone tighter. “I’m sorry. I…don’t mean to be an asshole about this, Sollux. I really don’t.”

Sollux was like some marble thing with a molten core. He lay there, his eyes continuing to burn. A restrained explosion.

Karkat began smoothing the sheets beside him. “So if you’re not going to California for Christmas do you maybe want to chill with Gamzee and Tavros and me? It’s probably just going to be shitty eggnog and gingerbread again, but—”

“Get out.”

Karkat ground his words to a halt, blinking down. “What?”

Sollux’s marble face had begun to crack. His lips had pulled back, revealing gritted teeth. And the fire in his eyes had begun to moisten. Glazing them with a violent shimmer.

“Leave me alone,” he hissed, pulling the blanket up to his face. “Just leave me the fuck alone.”

Karkat gazed at him before he squeezed his eyes shut and pulled himself from the bed. Sollux never saw him go. All he could make out was the flickering white light of his monitor against the blurred red edge of the covers beneath his nose. Then there was the soft snap of a closing door. And he could afford to bleed out some of the hot, swollen pain through his eyes. Wetting his stained comforter until the wound in his chest congealed, and he lay on his side, his eyes drying back to glass and the lights of a new video dancing over them.

He wouldn’t have even noticed the arrival of Christmas had he not nearly tripped over a box on his way out to use the bathroom one day. He stared at the package and the brightly colored wrapping paper that had been tacked on with copious amounts of duct tape. On top of it sat a plate of gingerbread men, all with smiles and big circle noses done up in green and red icing.

Sollux gazed at them for a while before nudging the box against the wall with his foot and shuffling to the bathroom.

He thought about taking a shower. He stood over the toilet as he finished, flushing it and watching the water swirl. Maybe he would take a shower. He didn’t know why he never took showers anymore. It would feel good.

His pants were already undone, so he shucked them off first. As he peeled off his shirt, however, he felt something light and cold hitting his chest. Like a raindrop. His fingers drifted up his front until they touched the tiny red bee resting just below his throat. Cold. Rough where it had been broken. He curled his fingers around it, shaking.

“…I want to be happy for what it was, and the time we did have.”

He felt his knees buckle as the image bloomed before him. A drop of blood in water, it reached out, tendrils lacing over his vision until everything had been painted in memory. And he was sitting on his bed, staring into confused blue eyes. And on the floor two red fragments of stone winked like tears.

He tried to plead with the vision. Beg for it to stop. To spare him. And yet he was crushed to the bathroom floor with it. Helpless and shaking on the tile as it continued its descent, unfurling over him like some leaden shroud.

“I’m so tired of being afraid, ED.”

“Please,” he found himself coughing into the tile. His voice was thick with salt. It burned. He gripped the rug at the foot of the toilet, shaking his head helplessly against the horrible weight of it. “Please no. Please please please.”

The vision was deaf. It pinned him. Held his eyes open and forced him to look. To watch as his own hands reached forward. As they tangled in that thick brown hair. As he was given a look of frozen shock in return. Wide blue eyes. Furrowed brow. And then he tasted the poison of feeling being poured down his throat. And it spread through his chest like fire until he could recall every movement of the air. The weight of the tiny pendant dangling from his neck like an anchor. So heavy. And yet he moved forward. Leaned into those lips, still parted in shock, and pressed his mouth against them. And a fire so sweet flooded through his veins that Sollux thought he might be sick with it now, his face pressed to the floor, immobilized by memory.

He clawed at the grooves in the tile, trying to drag himself away by the fingernails. But the vision continued. Like hot iron weights settling over his back, it held him down. Seared through flesh and bone until it was inside of him, eating at his heart. Exposing him until the sweet warmth of the memory stung and burned like acid as he watched himself pull away. As he watched those blue eyes flutter open and peer at him in confusion. As his lips formed the words.

“I love you Eridan. I don’t want to be scared of loving you.”

He choked, coughing up what he was sure was his own heart. He shook his head, face wet with something hot and blinding that to him could be nothing else but blood.

He would die from this. He would die if he couldn’t get away.

He clawed at the side of the tub, heaving himself up over the edge. He toppled to the shower floor in a tangle of limbs and agony, choking and gasping and pleading. Pleading for it to stop. But it didn’t. Even as he scrabbled at the knob and sent scalding water screaming over his body, he felt the walls press in around him. Darkening with memories. Recollections of sweet laughter and wet touches. Of kisses exchanged and kept, soft fingertips. A smile as drenched clothes were stripped and cast aside.

Such soft sweet things that had once lighted delicately on his mind now cut him. Butterflies with razor wings.

And he was bleeding to death.

He stumbled from the shower, ripping the curtain down in his desperation, water spraying the floor. But he never stopped. If he stopped they would catch up to him. All smiles and kisses and laughter. Chasing him down the hall, nipping at his ankles, cutting into him until he fell onto the bed.

And there, like some gaping beast, the jaws of vanilla were spread to snatch him.

He cried out, a strangled desperate sob like a creature beaten, and he tore the blanket from his bed. The blanket that smelled so sweet. That filled his nose with memories. Memories that stung and stabbed and choked. He staggered out into the hall with it, eyes blurred, throat raw, and stumbled to the laundry room. There he threw open the lid of the washing machine and stuffed the blanket inside. Unable to think. Unable to breathe. Blind with tears and pain, he reached for the bottles lined on the dryer. They all toppled to the ground under the violent shaking of his hand, and Sollux crouched down, choking, to scoop the bleach from the floor.

“Jesus fucking shit what the fuck are you doing?”

Words. Words. He didn’t care. He had to get rid of it. Get rid of the pain. The softness. Everything. Or he would die. He would die. He unscrewed the lid on the bleach even as arms wrapped around his waist and tried to pull him away.

“Let go of me!” he screamed, hooking his fingers onto the edge of the washing machine. “Let go!”

They struggled for a minute. Bitten nails clawing at arms, fingers and elbows digging into ribs, feet scrabbling at the linoleum. But Sollux managed to give a strangled cry and heave himself forward, just enough to upend the bleach over the opening in the wash.

That was when the arms at his waist released him. And he sagged against the cold metal of the machine, mouth open in a silent, salty plea. And through the hot acid of his tears he watched as the blanket was drowned in bleach. As the red began to bleed out of it. Until it was snow. Cold and silent.

Clean.

He fell to his knees, putting his head against the washing machine and letting the tears drip silently from his eyes. He stared at the floor, his throbbing heart beginning to cool in his chest.

It was done.

After that there was peace. A hollow kind of painlessness as Karkat helped him back to his room. Dressed him. And then led him out to the living room. He sat on the couch, staring ahead. He never moved as Gamzee and Tavros joined them, circled around the coffee table laden with sweets and hot chocolate. Never blinked as they traded gifts and forced a kitten sweater over Karkat’s head. Or as they placed a present in Sollux’s lap that Gamzee eventually volunteered to rip open for him. Sollux couldn’t even remember what it was.

Colors and words. None of it meant anything to him. He was clean now. He would stay that way.

After only crumbs dusted the plates and all the cocoa had gone cold, he was eventually pulled from his spot on the couch and led back to his room. And in the darkness, after he’d been tucked back under his red comforter, he felt the brush of skin against his forehead, and the heat of breath on his ear.

“Merry Christmas, buddy.”

He stared, unblinking. Even as the shadow left him, closing the door and letting darkness swallow the room once more. He never moved. Never closed his eyes.

He was clean.

And so it was with little movement or recognition that he responded to Karkat’s next visit.

“Feferi’s here to get Eridan’s stuff out of his house.”

Sollux stared at his computer screen. One finger was extended past the covering of the comforter, pressed against the down arrow. The Minecraft forum scrolled past on his laptop’s monitor, the words barely touching his eyes.

Karkat tried again.

“I’m going too. She really wants you to come. Just…help her sort through his shit. You know…”

A soft tap as Sollux hit his track pad, sending his browser to the next page of the forums. He felt a shift in the blankets as Karkat fisted his hands in them.

“Fucking dammit, Sollux.” His breath was the hot whisper of tears hitting cloth. “What the hell was it all even for? Are you just going to bleach him out of your life too? Is that all any of this fucking meant to you?”

Another click. Another shift of the browser’s window. Another page of text.

Then the bed creaked. The door clicked shut. And he was alone.

He moved through the forum more slowly then. Letting himself settle into the words. Allowing meaning to bloom dry in his brain.

Someone was asking about palette swaps.

He knew about palette swaps.

He opened the server without thinking. Though perhaps one part of his brain had desired it. Some dark corner fogged with a horrible longing. But the feeling didn’t come to the fore until the world spread before him. Purple skies and blue trees. Fuchsia leaves. Two moons, green and pink. An emerald castle in the sky.

Their world.

He moved his avatar forward. Tentatively. Like some lost traveler treading on dreams. He crunched softly through the grass, the trees creeping past him. In the distance, the windows of hives glowed. A small city, governed by the gleaming red outline of the imperial ship.

He turned away from it. Away from the warmth of the town and toward the sea. Where an island peeked up on the horizon, a broken ship beached on its narrow shore. The windows glistened with warm light, tinted to the color of sunset as it passed through the purple glass.

Eridan had been so fond of teal and purple that he demanded his own dwelling be constructed out of diamond and amethyst.

Sollux let himself sink into the water. And he kicked up, bobbing through it, fighting the water’s drowning embrace. And as he floundered, urging himself forward through the vast blue expanse, he felt a warning tug at the back of his brain. A desperate supplication to turn back. To stay on the shore where it was safe.

But he kept kicking forward. Even as his avatar dipped beneath the surface, the screen flashing red with damage, he struggled on. Against the broken cries ringing through his head, he tapped at his keys. He fixed his sights on the beached ship in the distance.

He had to see if he was there.

To make sure it hadn’t all been a dream.

He clambered onto the shore, footsteps crunching on the dirt. The door clunked and squeaked as it opened, and torchlight flooded Sollux’s monitor, glossing his eyes. He stepped inside Eridan’s hive.

It was quiet inside. The main room was lined with chests, a furnace occupying the corner. Sollux moved through it silently. Like a ghost. He approached the walls. Walked beside every one. Let his cursor hover over each wooden crate. Over the crafting table by the window.

Then he reached a second door.

Chest tight and fingers fumbling, he pushed it open.

Inside was a bed. And against the far wall, a fireplace roared in the diamond hearth. In front of it stood an avatar with gray skin and candy-corn horns. Swathed in the purple cape Sollux had made for him.

Sollux approached the figure cautiously, his heart beginning to beat hard enough for him to feel. He moved around so he could see the avatar’s face. Its blocky pixel eyes and impassive mouth. It didn’t move.

Sollux licked his lips. He had sat up in bed, his fingers trembling over his keys as he stared. Eridan was still logged in. Still occupying their world. A ghost basking in the light of a fire. Hushed. Content.

He shook. Pulled his laptop onto his knees and bent close. Even as his heart gave a recalcitrant throb, he couldn’t look away. Couldn’t stop the desperate tapping of his fingers against the keyboard or the words he input with the push of an enter key. A message in a bottle, cast out to the undulating quiet of their digital sea.

are you still here?

The avatar was motionless. Firelight played off it in flickering golden waves.

i miss you.

He tore the words out from the black scab of his chest. And blood followed. Coursing through his body. Gathering behind his eyes and sending hot tears dripping down his cheeks. He drew in a shuddering breath and ripped at the scab again. In defiance. In desperation.

i miss you so much.

And then the avatar flinched. Shifted. Turned toward him, yellow eyes staring into his monitor.

i know you do. so come over here. stop letting it kill you.

He sat frozen. His throat filled with bile and salt and the throb of his heart. He tried to swallow. Tried to breathe.

For a moment he dared to hope.

And then his brain began to turn. Like cogs breaking free of the bonds of rust, realization shattered the quiet dream of their world.

Eridan never signed out. Never password protected anything. And people were in his house. Touching his things. Invading what had been solely theirs.

He stared at the screen, skull filling with a boiling pitch that put out his vision.

Karkat.

He shoved his laptop away, letting it thud to the ground. Ripped the sheets off his body, springing to his feet and tearing through the house. Opening doors so fast they nearly splintered. Kicking up snow with his bare feet as he raced across the road and up Eridan’s driveway. Burst into the house with the bang of wood against wall, his feet pounding over carpet as he raced down the hall, skidding into Eridan’s room, heaving like an animal.

Karkat twisted around from his spot in front of the purple Macbook, shifting his gaze from the screen where Sollux’s blocky avatar stood. But that was all he had time for before the real thing kicked the computer away and tackled him to the floor.

“You fuck!” Sollux roared, fisting his hands in the front of Karkat’s shirt and slamming his head against the floor. “You miserable fucking shit, that was his! That was his, you stay the fuck off it YOU STAY THE FUCK OFF IT! DON’T TOUCH IT, DON’T YOU FUCKING TOUCH IT!”

He heard another voice from over his shoulder. A pleading screech. But he was deaf. Deaf and blind and filled with the hot roar of rage. His fingers tightened into fists, and he was flailing, punching madly and blindly at the face beneath him. Hammering down even as arms were jerked up in feeble defense. Screaming things he couldn’t understand until his knuckles were slicked with blood. Until the body beneath him sat up, bearing the rain of fists, reaching a pair of arms around his shoulders until Sollux’s fingers loosened. Until he was clinging to the front of Karkat’s shirt, his face a mask of tears and pain as he wailed with cutting anguish.

“I can’t do it anymore,” he sobbed brokenly into Karkat’s chest. “I can’t fucking do it anymore.”

“Yes you can.” The voice came from above him, clogged with blood. The arms around Sollux tightened. “Yes you fucking can. Because I need you to, dammit. I fucking need you to.”

He was deaf to it. Senseless to the desperate embrace holding him up. All Sollux could do was bleed out from the hole in his chest. So he clutched at it. Scrabbled and tore at the front of his shirt as if he could rip the pain from his body.

“There’s nothing left,” he heaved. “He took it. He took it all away.” Tears dripped from his eyes as he clawed at his sternum, his entire body wracked with grief and pain. “I gave him the rest of it. It was all I had. And there’s just nothing fucking left.”

“Shut up. Just shut the fuck up and fucking listen.”

Hands clamped on his shoulders and tore him away, jerking him out to arm’s length. Sollux sagged in the grip, tears rolling down his cheeks and into his open mouth. Karkat shook him, and Sollux lifted his blurred gaze to the battered face in front of him. And though one eye was swollen nearly shut, it did nothing to dampen Karkat’s black glare.

“You fucking listen to me, Sollux. He didn’t take anything okay? He fucking gave himself to you. And now he’s gone and you are all that’s fucking left of him. And yeah it hurts. I know it hurts. It hurts to be the only thing holding him in a world where he doesn’t exist anymore. But god dammit…”

His face crumpled and he had to blink and give Sollux another shake to keep the moisture from slipping past his own lashes. “It’s like you don’t want him. Like you’re fucking content to just let his memory rot you from the inside. After all the shit you guys went through together. After you laid your irritating asses all over our house and were fucking slopping all over each other like a pair of slugs in heat. And then I came home from work that one day and found his fucking argyle sock on the back doorstep and you both got it into your thick skulls that I must have rolled out of the womb that morning or something because you seemed convinced that I would buy your bullshit story that you didn’t make out and touch dicks together in the garage. And as fucking gross as all that is, I didn’t say nearly as much shit as I could have about your coy lovers’ glances because goddammit you were happy.”

He dragged a sleeve across his bruised eyes, tears mixing with the blood smeared under his nose. And Sollux looked on, swallowing and shaking and helpless.

“He was all alone,” he whispered, a halting, ugly sound. “All alone. And cold. And I wasn’t there for him.”

“You were though. Every god damned day, Sollux. I saw you get up at the ass crack of dawn to drive him down to the coffee shop so he could collect ammunition for his complaint cannon to blow a couple of holes in your resolve once he got back. Then you’d let yourself get suckered into running errands for him, the consequences of which usually culminated in an hour long IM-ing volley where we both agreed that Eridan was a jackass but that you were going to keep letting him do it anyway. Because you guys were fucking awful together. Awful and perfect and he loved the shit out of you.”

Sollux shook his head, trying to push Karkat away. “Shut up. Shut the fuck up.”

“No, Sollux. I won’t. I’m done shutting the fuck up. I’ve been shutting the fuck up about you for the past two fucking years and I won’t do it anymore. Because now I’m scared shitless that if I don’t say anything, I’m going to lose you.”

He glanced up helplessly. And through the relentless pounding in Sollux’s skull, he could hear the shifting of fabric, the shuffle of feet against the carpet. Then he remembered the yell from earlier. Someone else had been in the room with them. Those were his thoughts as that someone crouched down beside him, clothed in a brown skirt and white sweater. Feferi.

He stared at her. Tried to mouth the words. Tried to apologize. But she shook her head, putting a finger to his lips. Her eyes were red, but her cheeks were dry. And resting in her hands was a thin square wrapped in blue gleaming blue paper with a red bow. She uncurled Sollux’s shaking fingers and placed it in his palms.

“I wasn’t sure you were going to come,” she said. Her voice was no more than the dust of its usual silver. She lifted her eyes from the box up to his face, and she gave him a little smile. “I’m really happy you did though. He wanted to give this to you so much that it didn’t feel right keeping it all wrapped up next to my dresser.”

Sollux let his eyes fall over the square in his hands. He knew what it was before he even opened it. Perhaps it was why he found no reason to hesitate. No reason to wait for Karkat to extend his hands and tear the wrapping for him. Trembling, he inserted a finger carefully under a flap of paper, slitting the tape holding it in place.

He could feel Eridan’s thumbprints there. Feel the care put into each crease in the paper. He had always been so meticulous, taking joy in life from the tiny details. And so it was that Sollux took care to savor that moment. Even as it cut at his heart and made him bleed, he unwrapped the gift slowly, keeping his mouth clamped shut.

He slipped the CD case out of its blue paper, turning it over. The cover was a picture Eridan had taken once of their hands clutched together. Sollux remembered it as one of the days Eridan had been seized by a particularly violent artistic urge, and had been going around snapping pictures of all the most trite bullshit he could find. Sollux had told him as much after he’d taken a photo of their entwined fingers. The remark had resulted in the reward of having the camera turned on him. That was the image Sollux found as he opened the CD case. A blurred photo of himself, smirking even as he raised a defiant middle finger to the lens. He laughed, a tear shivering on the ends of his eyelashes plopping onto the disc inside. He dabbed it away gently with the bottom of his T-shirt before he popped the CD from its place inside the case. Without a word, Karkat and Feferi parted from his sides, allowing him to reach for the purple Macbook that he’d kicked away not moments before. He righted it gently, slipping the CD into the disc drive. It whirred for a moment before iTunes popped up over the Minecraft screen.

‘Hey Sol. So I got you a compilation of all my greatest hits for Christmas. And before you go pissin’ yourself with excitement over the prospect a gettin’ to listen to my stunnin’ voice singin’ in your most favorite genre a music, let me just tell you that I actually invested at least two months a proper practice into these songs. So they’re not gonna be the travesty they were at the Core. Fef even hooked me up with a recording studio in her town here, didn’t you Fef?’

From the distance he could hear a door open and a distant voice yelling out, ‘Merry Christmas, Sollux!’

‘Okay thanks for that stunnin’ cameo, Fef. Anyway, so all a those times I said I was goin’ to the mall with Vris I was actually hangin’ out with her and Dave, who’s not actually as big an asshole as Kar says he is. He’s still an asshole though. But he’s an asshole that’s been teachin’ me his musical sorcery, so I can put up with it if it means producin’ you a gift that might not result in the disintegration of your sensitive eardrums. He’s gonna mix my songs with some of his ‘sick beats,’ which is I guess the technical term for the electronica garbage that you listen too. But that way I figured it’d have a little bit a both of us in it. I have no fuckin’ clue if it’s gonna sound good, but I had no fuckin’ clue the two of us were goin’ to go together as well as we did either. So I guess I have a lot more faith in puttin’ stupid things together than I used to.’

‘Aww, Eridan, you’re waxing poetic!’

‘Get outta here, Fef! I told you not to fuckin’ listen to this part, I can’t be sincere and romantic here with you sneerin’ through the glass at me. No, take the headphones off, I’m not sayin’ another fuckin’ word until I see them sittin’ on the soundboard there. God, fuck… Okay. Where was I…? Fuck it, I don’t know. I was at the place where I always seem to be these days, which is like this fuckin’ fantasy land that I would’ve called bullshit on ages ago if I didn’t keep wakin’ up to it every day. I know I give you a lot a shit, Sol, and that’s fun, I’m not gonna lie, but sometimes I guess I just want to be fuckin’ serious for a minute and tell you how much I love you and how happy you make me. I know this is probably not the gift you were expectin’, but to be honest, you weren’t the gift I was expectin’ either. And I guess that’s why I’ve sorta made my peace with things and all the bullshit I’ve had to go through. Because yeah, life fuckin’ sucks sometimes and you gotta deal with shit when you’re least prepared for it. And for a long time that seemed to be all my life was. Until I found out that good shit comes up when you’re least expectin’ it too. And I swear that if you’re the only good thing that happens to me ever again, that’ll still make the whole goddamned thing worth it. You made it all worth it for me, Sol. Merry Christmas. Enjoy this fuckin’ masterpiece a music and…know that I made it with you in mind. I love you.’

The track switched then. A calm bass began to beat in the background as the sounds of guitar were meshed seamlessly with ethereal chords of electric harmony. And then Eridan’s voice came. Singing the words of his song. The song he’d sung as they had lain naked on the bed, flushed and full, fingers entwined, staring up at the ceiling and letting the words permeate the air about them. Sollux felt the memory fill him up. And though the tears came unbidden, for the first time, it didn’t sting.

They listened to the whole CD together. It was only four tracks. Fifteen minutes. But it was fifteen minutes spent in peace. In the embrace of a comfort and warmth he never thought would touch him again.

Then it was over. Eridan’s voice faded, and the last notes shivered into silence. The disc whirred to a halt inside the computer. Sollux blinked, the room coming back into focus around him. He expected the illusion to end there. For the warm hand cupping his wounded heart to leave him. But it never did. He put a hand to his chest, and looked down.

There was no blood. No gaping wound. He was whole.

Another hand covered his own and he looked up. Feferi was gazing at him, smiling through her tears.

“I knew Eridan since he was this goofy kid with a book about dragons in his backpack and a pair of glasses that were way too big for his face. We always did some pretty fun things together. We baked and went shopping and talked. We had lots of good times.” She squeezed Sollux’s hand, tears slipping down her cheeks. “But I never saw him smile the way he did when he talked about you. He was so happy, Sollux. That’s how I know that if he was thinking anything out there in the snow, it was about how lucky he was. Because some people go their whole lives without knowing what happiness is. And I know he found it. He lived a whole lifetime of happiness in the four months he had with you.”

Sollux shuddered. His face crumpled with the weight of it. The awful, crippling bereavement. And though it was unlike any pain he’d ever felt before, he knew this time he wasn’t dying. He put his head down, shoulders shaking, but felt hands cupping his face. Lifting him back up. He blinked away the tears, and saw Karkat’s eyes peering into his.

“Eridan wasn’t the only one, okay? I saw that fucking grin on your face every second of every minute you were with that guy. I don’t want you to forget that. I don’t want you to forget that happiness like that isn’t just some bedtime story parents tell their kids to help them sleep at night. And I wish I could be him, Sollux. I wish I could do whatever he did to make you see that it really is worth it to put up with this bullshit world sometimes.”

He put his forehead against Sollux’s, his eyes squeezed shut and tears dripping out of them. “But I don’t know how. I don’t know how to be what you need. So you have to do it yourself. If he meant enough to keep his memory close despite how much it fucking hurts, then you have to do it yourself. Because it’s become painfully fucking obvious that I can’t. That none of us can except you.”

Sollux closed his eyes. The tears were natural now. A stream that he no longer tried to stave off. That no longer burned. It was as much a part of him now as his heart. He put his hands over Karkat’s and knelt there with him before he got shakily to his feet. Neither Karkat or Feferi moved. They simply watched as Sollux turned and peered at the room. He approached the bed cautiously, putting his palm against the comforter as if it were made of mist. He ran his hand over the velvety purple fabric, letting his eyes flutter shut.

After he traced the length of the bed, he went to the dresser next. He eased open a drawer and weaved his fingers through the bottles of cologne. He picked one up and held it to the light. He uncapped it then and squirted some onto the back of his hand. He closed his eyes and inhaled. Drinking him in. Letting himself become so full with his memory that it hurt.

He set the bottle aside and opened another drawer. He found a scarf almost instantly. The blue argyle one Eridan had worn the day he’d broken Aradia’s necklace. The day Sollux had chosen to live with the memories, as heavy and cracked as they were. He smiled through his tears, winding the fabric around his neck.

He would need a bit of help for this.

“Sollux…?” Karkat got to his feet as Sollux ducked into the closet and began rummaging around. At last he emerged, clutching a small box in his hands and wearing a pair of shoes. One his own black tennis shoe, the other a teal hightop. He laughed.

“I know it looks stupid,” he whispered.

Karkat shook his head, his unbeaten eye wide. Sollux shrugged a shoulder before he wandered out of the room, hearing Feferi and Karkat’s footsteps padding quietly after him. Once he reached the kitchen, Sollux opened the tiny box in his hand. Inside, nestled between two swells of velvet, gleamed a silver ring with a glittering purple stone. He lifted it from its soft bed, covering it with kisses and tears.

“I tried to forget once. And I’m not going to do it again. Not to you.”

He closed his eyes. Behind him, Karkat and Feferi stood, motionless and silent. Watching as Sollux crouched down and set the ring on the floor.

“I love you,” he whispered as he stood.

He covered the gem with the teal hightop and stepped down.

Chapter Text

Sollux lifted a hand in greeting as the white car pulled up to the driveway, the warm spring sun glinting off the polished paint job. He approached the vehicle as it eased itself to a halt by the curb, shifting the duffle bag over his shoulder before rapping on the passenger side window. The glass rolled down with an electric hum and Feferi smiled at him from the driver’s seat.

“Get your skinny butt in here then!” she said. “Everything’s unlocked. You can toss your bag wherever you want to.”

Sollux gave her an uncertain smile. “Thanks. For everything. Driving me and agreeing to go with me in the first place.”

She laughed as he opened the door and threw his luggage in the back seat. “Well, I obviously couldn’t say no! I had nightmares thinking about how a little guy from suburbia would manage to travel around California. Besides, I haven’t seen my own parents in a while. And they’ve been begging me to come home now that the school year’s finished.”

Sollux sank into the passenger’s seat and slammed the door behind him. “Well, no matter what your reasons are, I appreciate it.”

“So somber today,” Feferi giggled as she pushed the car into drive and sped off down the road. “It’s almost like you didn’t take a week off of work to go combing sunny Pacific beaches.”

“I’m not going there to comb beaches,” Sollux sighed, peering at himself in the mirror and straightening his tie.

“You’re going there to talk to Eridan’s parents,” Feferi recited, her brows lowered in a frown even though her lips remained curved upwards. “Yes yes. And it’s all very serious and not fun at all. Except I’m telling you that the minute they’ve found out you’ve never been to California is the minute they are taking you to the beach. I guarantee it.”

Sollux rolled his eyes, but was unable to keep a tiny grin from the corner of his mouth. “Yeah, I’m sure that’ll be a fucking laugh a minute and not awkward at all. ‘Hey, so yeah, I banged your dead kid. How’s the beach sound?’”

“They’ll think it’ll sound great,” Feferi replied. “So I guess this is my way of warning you that they’re a little…enthusiastic. Like, they might offer you a plate of cookies and the papers for your adoption as soon as you walk through the door.”

Sollux blinked, turning his head to stare at Feferi. “They don’t even know me. I could enjoy feasting on the limbs of infants for all they’re aware.”

“They know their son had better taste than that,” Feferi replied, giving Sollux a wink. He sighed at that, slumping back in his chair and putting his hands to his face.

“This was a horrible idea,” he groaned, voice muffled by his palms.

“It was a fantastic idea,” she replied before putting the vehicle into park. “Now get your stuff. We’re here.”

Sollux sighed, heaving his bag from the back seat. Feferi hadn’t packed nearly as lightly, so Sollux found himself laden with two extra bags as they made their way into the terminal. He waddled up to the bag check huffing and sweating, glad to finally be able to dump the extra baggage onto the scale. He gave silent thanks as a fee that he did not have to pay for popped up, Feferi happily handing over her credit card in his stead.

“Sollux, do you want to grab—”

“A fucking baggage cart? Why yes, I fucking would, princess.”

He stalked off to retrieve one of the wheeled devices, piling Feferi’s surprisingly excessive carry-on luggage onto it before stomping irritably over to the security check.

And then he stopped so fast that the bags went toppling right back to the floor.

Standing in a huge group was…everyone. Karkat was shouting at Gamzee to stay away from the innocent people already standing in line. He didn’t seem particularly interested in heeding any of Karkat’s angry curses or even the uneasy looks of some of the airport security, who were eyeing the plate of brownies in his hand with some suspicion. Beside him, munching on one of the brownies, was Tavros. He waved a chocolaty hand at Sollux and Feferi, causing Vriska, who had been standing beside him, to look up and give a satisfied smirk. Beside her stood Dave, who had John at his side as always. Terezi was a few feet away, her grin as huge as ever underneath her red sunglasses as she spoke to Kanaya and Roxy. One by one they all followed suit with Tavros, halting their conversations to look up and regard Sollux with smiles and waves and the nodding of heads.

Sollux turned his gaze haltingly to Feferi, who was grinning beside him. “Did you…set me up?”

“Nope!” she said, piling her luggage back on the cart. “This was all Karcrab’s idea. He said he wanted to see you off properly. Because this was a big deal. And I guess it sort of snowballed from there! Most of these guys invited themselves, as far as I understand it.”

She wheeled the cart forward, not offering any further explanation. Sollux stood dumbstruck as she strode off into the line to wait for the baggage check, the rest of them still standing with smiles and gazes all fixed upon him. He took a step back, unsure if this was really the kind of pressure he’d signed up for.

But Karkat saw his hesitation and bounded away from the group, grabbing his hand. “No way. Not after I had to listen to four of these ass-bananas tossing around dick jokes in my car. You are getting your ass over there and saying goodbye.”

Sollux blinked. “Wait, which four ass-bananas would’ve thrown around dick jokes?”

“I’ll leave that up to your capable imagination,” Karkat replied, tugging on his arm. Sollux followed behind and was soon assaulted on all sides with back-pats and shoulder punches, a brownie from Gamzee and a farewell flirt from Roxy. After a minute of being overwhelmed, he felt something warm bloom inside him and light up his face. Like he was a child come home.

“Hey,” Vriska said after Dave had given Sollux a brief nod. “Tell his folks that he made a mean cappuccino. And that…we really miss him down there.”

Sollux paused to look up at her, but she didn’t return his gaze. Instead she looked down at her shoes, one hand rubbing her upper arm. At last she lifted her eyes and gave a wicked grin, punching Sollux on the shoulder. “And don’t look so fucking gloomy, or they’ll kick you out of their damned golden state.”

She turned away toward Kanaya then, but not before Sollux saw her reach up to wipe at her eyes.

“Ain’t no motherfuckin’ reason to be getting any of our glooms on,” Gamzee said as he reached over Tavros to pat Sollux on the head. “Our best bro Eridan didn’t leave us nothing but laughs and sunlight to be getting along with, and there’s just no way any of that stuff can be getting itself all transformed into tears. And Solbro’s got the biggest motherfuckin’ piece of our brother. That’s why he’s gotta take a walk in the sky and dip his feet all up in the clouds and give a little of it back. Ain’t right to be keeping it all up inside like it gets to be doing sometimes.”

“No, I guess not,” Sollux replied.

“You’re, going to do great,” Tavros said, peeking out from under Gamzee’s arm. “Even if it might not mean much, seeing as it’s, coming from me.”

“Means plenty,” Sollux answered before he was swept up in an embrace, first by Roxy, then Terezi. There were cheers and John whooped and clapped his hands from the back of the group, and Sollux was so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of joy coursing through all the bodies around him that he was glad when he felt a hand on his wrist, leading him away.

“Okay, back off, let the guy breathe,” Karkat snapped, shooing away the others before leading Sollux to the security check’s entryway. He turned then, facing Sollux and glaring up at him.

“I didn’t ask all those douchebags to come—”

“I know. FF told me.”

Karkat let his frown drop, his shoulders sagging. A small smile tugged at his lips. “You still got them both with you?”

Sollux blinked, lifting a hand to the necklace at his throat. On his third finger something else gleamed. A silver band with a cracked purple gem caught fire in the light. “Yeah.”

“That’s a lot of weight to carry around, you know.”

Sollux gave a small smile, letting his mismatched eyes dip. “I know.”

Karkat surveyed him for a moment, and Sollux sensed the end of their conversation. But just as he was about to pull away, Karkat seized him about the middle, burying his face in Sollux’s chest. And as soft as his voice was, it somehow cut through the tumult of the airport around them, a whispered melody find its way into his ears.

“We are all hearts here

Broken and unclean

But if you take them

And lay them side by side

The jagged edges just might align.

They just might align.”

Karkat pulled back, wiping his nose on his sleeve. Sollux stared down at him, his heart throbbing in his chest.

“You listen to it every morning,” Karkat explained, sniffing as he stared at the ground. “And your room is right next to mine. Hard not to get that shit stuck in your head.”

Sollux let out a laugh that sounded more like a whisper, and he drew Karkat back into his arms, holding him tight.

“Thanks, KK.”

Karkat held him there for a moment before pushing himself away again. “All right, get out of here. Just…don’t get too fond of their bullshit perfect weather, okay? Promise you’ll get your ass back here once you’re done.”

“I will,” Sollux replied, stepping away from Karkat, watching as he fell into place against a backdrop of smiling, hollering friends. “This is where I belong.”