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From Black to Red because of One Bucket

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                There are a lot of alternate universes. There are some where we live as we do now. There are others were we have moved forward thousands of years, others where we never left the Middle Ages, some of them we still live in Ancient Grecian worlds in the year 3000. There are a lot of worlds with different circumstances and different meanings and experiences. The only difference is that in this world, the one we pan down on, there are two cultures—two civilizations—that coexist.

                These two cultures are known as the race of Trolls and the race of Humans. The Trolls have a leader and the Humans have a leader, but it’s never the same one despite their close inter-workings. This prevents one race from being more than the other and prevents a revolt from the lesser race.

                It’s not unusual that they may interact in relationships, but at the same time it’s not normal for them to last much longer than a few weeks, days at most. Humans don’t understand Troll quadrants and Trolls don’t understand Human emotions. They understand the basic concept, growing up with them around, but to experience them themselves is ridiculous.

                They can pretend all they like, but fact of the matter is to experience something like love isn’t programmed within the hemospectrum. Even if lusi aren’t animals but instead older Trolls, and even if those Trolls grow up under people of the same blood color or in orphanages, where the proper care is given to them, they don’t understand things like that. And those that do are social pariahs unless they can manage to convince others that they can’t.  

                Dave Strider, age seventeen and some months, walks with his head down, focused on some last-minute studying, mind numb to his friend-and-technical-moirail, Aradia’s, constant grumbling over the same final, when someone bumps into him and his textbook goes flying. He winds up on his ass, book under someone’s locker and papers all over the ground around him. In front of him, the Class Clown-slash-Bully, Karkat Vantas, Troll of "Unknown" Blood Color, is knocked on his ass. He flips to his front, gathering his papers together. He’s grumbling insults at Dave, telling him to look where the fuck he’s going and Dave returns it. Because, you know, most sane people look where they’re going regardless if the other one isn’t. Vantas snaps a few choice words, shoving back in his face how incompetent he is as a living being just as he manages to secure his textbook from under the metal deathtrap.

                Vantas is already walking away when Dave gets to his feet, pissed off and searching for a fight. Aradia lays her hand on his chest, shakes his head by the ears and steps close. She presses their foreheads together, their noses brushing, and her arms slip down to wrap around his neck. She makes quiet shushing noises until he calms down enough to return to his textbook.

                He and Karkat have been schoolyard rivals since they first entered third grade together ten years ago. Originally, they had been friends. Somehow, the two of them had ended up in the same class from Kindergarten to fourth grade. From opposite classes, though, they would fight for the best scores in the grade.

                He and Aradia have been moirail-friends since Freshmen year. She had been the only Troll in his Chem-Phys class (the only one that “qualified” at a human-run establishment). Some of the other humans hadn’t entirely appreciated her presence and had tried to beat her up, not knowing her ability to fight was better than theirs. But at the same time, thirteen against one isn’t exactly fair. He had known her before—not very close, but they did know each other—and he owed her one. Cue thirteen little shits having the fuck beat outta them and insta-moirallegiance when he stopped her from going after two of them.

                Her moirallegiance has been enough for him to forget about Vantas over the years and he pretty much just keeps her from beating peoples’ heads into walls. While she’s usually ok with everything and its creator, she can’t stand humans who think they’re better than her because they’re human.

                But right now he doesn’t need to be thinking about Aradia’s moirallegiance or Vantas’ assholeship, he needs to be focused on his Biology Two final. And it’s not working. Aradia calmly slips her hand into his elbow and tugs him away from an opening door. He mutters a sideways thanks and continues trying to memorize the difference between meiosis and mitosis in the two minutes left before the final.

                Dave doesn’t think he can do anything after his last final other than flop down on Aradia’s reclining platform (bed, not recuperacoon, which is stupid and Dave doesn’t understand why it can’t be called as such) and never move again. Aradia seats herself at her desk and turns on her husktop (laptop, seriously, what’s so hard about Human words?). His phone rings and he slips his hand into his back pocket groaning.

                “Whatever it is, Rose, I’m sure it can wait,” he snaps.

                His step-sister giggles. She’s a year ahead of him in school and has those epic-kind-of-teachers that don’t give out finals. She had three finals overall and has been rubbing it in since they found out. “I was going to ask you how your finals were.”

                “I’m going to hang up and sleep if you don’t give me a reason to talk to you.”

                “I’m over at Kanaya’s-“

                “There’s a shock.”

                “Oh just tell Aradia to log onto Skype. We have something we want to show you.” He huffs and props himself up on his elbows, delivering the message. Aradia hums.

                “But I’m already on Trollian.”

                Rose calls out through the phone, having heard her. “We want to stream a video!” He rolls his eyes. She shrugs, says “ok” and logs on. Within seconds Kanaya’s file (they know each other from when Aradia was still in her orphanage. Lower blood levels have a lot more options for parents and thenceforth often have to wait longer since it’s customary that parents are found, though a parent finding the orphanage isn’t uncommon. It’s a requirement that all Trolls must care for a youngling before they die) is requesting a chat.

                She accepts and within seconds Aradia is gesturing him over. He groans and she shushes him, forcing him to come over. He slumps over, slings an arm around her shoulders and leans down to see. The picture is grainy and goes unfocused, but when it comes back everything is stark and clear.

                Kanaya’s “hive” (seriously, what’s so hard about saying house) is located next to a public park. He can make out across the way where a Troll is standing beside one seated on a bench and there are about ten or twelve 6-year-old Humans and equal-sweep’d Trolls. Dave doesn’t want to do the math to calculate it after being burnt out over finals.

                Dave doesn’t understand what the big deal is. “What’s the big deal it’s just a bunch of- holy shit of a fuckin’ sea-goat-beast is that Makara sitting on that bench?”

                “It would seem so,” Rose drawls, trying on her you-shouldn’t-curse-holier-than-thou voice she uses hypocritically. “And we all know who his moirail is, right?”

                “Whoa.” Aradia seems to agree.

                “Obviously,” Kanaya giggles. Her voice is slightly deeper than Rose’s, but for, technically, being a High Blood, she’s rather down-to-earth and it comes out through her speech. Dave likes hearing her talk about whatever it is that goes through her mind. Also, the fact that she rarely ever uses Troll-lingo is an immediate plus. “It’s our dear, beloved Karkat Vantas.”

                “Shit, is he carin’ for wrigglers? Who, the fuck, is dumb enough to leave him in charge of a bunch of kids?”

                “I dunno,” Aradia mutters. Her voice has gone flat, uncaring, as it usually does when she’s exhausted. Dave massages his fingers into her shoulder. She leans her head against the side of his neck. “But I’m usually ok with just about everything… but I’m not sure if I’m ok with watching this. Isn’t it some sort of… I dunno, an invasion of privacy? That would be like if the dead were to watch me in the ablution-fall. I wouldn’t appreciate that.”

                Oh, yeah, the dead. The thing about Trolls is that they usually have some sort of psychic ability. Not all do, but the portion of the populace is about one-third. Given that the third is typically the one that ends up adopted and not dead, it’s not hard to see why Trolls usually have the powers. Aradia’s just happens to be the ability to hear the voices of the dead.

                “He’s out in public,” Rose defends.

                “But he doesn’t know we’re watching and he and Dave have practically been kismesses since third grade.”

                “We’re not kismessisesmed or however the fuck you pronounce it! The only fuckin’ quadrant I have is the motherfucking monorails.”

                “Moirails.”

                “That’s what I said!”

                “You’re yelling in my auricular sponge clot.”

                “Not sorry.”

                The camera turns around and suddenly he has a fantastic view of Troll Girl Cleavage. The camera wriggles a bit before settling on top of Kanaya’s husktop. Aradia spins her desk chair around and stands up, pushing him back until he falls on the might-as-well-be bed. She kneels over him, caresses his temples with her thumbs and smiles gently. “Twice in one day,” she whispers, “that’s not a good sign, Dave. You might be getting out of control. I don’t want to be a bad moirail.”

                “You’re not,” he snaps. There’s too much anger behind it, but while she doesn’t seem fazed by it, he winces. Behind aviators, it’s hard to tell, but Aradia has always been able to tell that sort of stuff. “I’m just… in a bad mood after that bio final.”

                “Then take a nap,” she urges. “Someone should use this reclining platform correctly.”

                Dave sighs, wraps his arm around her neck and kisses her cheekbone. She blushes dark red (a little darker than his own), and smiles as she takes the glasses from his face, folds them up and put them on the “bedside” table. She tugs the end of the quilt over and tucks him in. “Now sleep before you make me a horrible excuse for a moirail.”

                He sighs, shuts his eyes and settles into the mattress. She slips away and back to the husktop, starting to type to Kanaya and Rose despite still being on the camera. “Rose!” He calls. He hears her hum. “Dad says we need milk and I’m not going to be home anytime soon.”

                “Nor will I!”

                “Text Dirk.”

                “Lazy ass,” she grumbles.

 

                 It’s on the last day of school that Dave can’t stand it anymore (for the record, that’s three days later).

                He’s walking with Aradia and her matesprit-considerate Sollux (he doesn’t know the guy too well himself, but he knows that he’s pretty-ok and is a damn good hacker) toward Aradia’s hive in the Low Blood quarter of town, when they pass by Karkat and Gamzee. Gamzee is, ever the stoner, sitting in front of Karkat with a burning fatty between his fingers. Karkat has his arms crossed, three feet away from him, staring him down. Gamzee’s smile is falling slightly and he takes a loud sigh. He flicks it off, takes another puff and stubs the end of it off on the concrete. Then, he folds open his jacket (ridiculous for May) and drops it in the inside-pocket. He pushes himself to his feet, takes two steps closer to Karkat.

                Gamzee Makara is ridiculously tall. Seven feet and probably more just in his body and then his horns add another foot. Considering he’s a Mutant High Blood, it’s not much of a shock. Purple class has always been known for weird shit; ridiculously tall, ridiculously muscled, ridiculous mood swings. He is programed for the ridiculousness of his juggalo make up and clown-shit that he pulls by just the color of his blood. Then again, Purple blood has only really been around for the last few thousand years. It was an accidental creation when the genetic material of a land dwelling Violet Blood had been mixed with that of a sea dwelling Blue Blood, both of which were mutants of their own rights, and had suddenly created an Purple that was never supposed to exist. Turns out, people like the carnival show and more were created. There are probably only three in existence right now, though, including Gamzee, his lusus and the Troll Porn Star, Hailey Mujyrs. Not that he knows much about her or anything.

                Karkat Vantas, in comparison, is ridiculously short. He only comes up to his chest and with his knubby little horns barely noticeable inside his mop of black hair, it’s amazing that he even manages to reach up and touch his face as he does. He smears a bit of Gamzee’s white makeup, frown still on his face, and when Gamzee protests, Karkat shakes his head and pulls him along.

                “An’ there he goes,” Dave whistles. Karkat stops in his tracks and the two of them turn around to face them. Aradia slaps his shoulder, but he grins and winks. She rolls her eyes and huffs. Sollux chuckles. “The all-too-much-of-a-freak Troll who likes to watch little kids play at parks.”

                Karkat spins around gets in his face about it. They’re eye-to-eye, Karkat’s hand fisted in Dave’s collar and Dave knows that he is going to love pushing this. This is going to be the best damn fight ever.  “The fuck did you just say Strider?”

                “You like to watch little kids—and wrigglers—play at parks.”

                He shakes Dave. Violently. His head reels for a moment. “How the fuck did you find out about them?”

                “I have eyes, Vant-ass. I can clearly see when people are stalkin’ little kids.”

                “You can’t understand worth shit you fucking disgusting horrorcock,” Karkat snaps. He pushes Dave away hard enough to make him after to catch himself before he falls. Aradia reaches out, but he brushes her arm away. He sees Sollux wrap his arm around Aradia’s waist and pull her away.

                “Can’t understand that your hobbies include-“

                Karkat’s first punch almost knocks Dave off his feet. It’s hard, fast, and like a jab to the gut, only it’s in his jaw and he can already feel his teeth loosening. Dave punches back. Karkat shoves his hand under Dave’s ribcage and hell motherfucking, Strider-loving yes. The punches are flying, the kicks are going, the crowd around them is chanting, teeth biting, sweat falling when—

                Dave’s fist freezes mid-air, completely against his will, and there’s a startling pressure around it that makes him cry out in pain. There are more, burning, tearing at the skin around his forearms and his calves. His knees hit the ground, his arms are yanked behind him and he knows all too well the violent burn of psiioniics as they tie him in place. Karkat is in the exact same position and the crowd is scattering. The Psiioniic Force doesn’t seem to care for them.

                Aradia steps up in front of Dave and he’s really starting to regret being beaten and bloodied like this. Especially now that tears are dancing in her eyes and her lips are quivering and-

                “David Strider!” She shouts. He winces. “We’re still on parole for the last time you fucked up! I still want to go to university but you’re making that impossible for me because I’m always chasing after you! I mean- I mean- I mean I know we’re moirails but fuck give me a break! You don’t even listen to me most of the time! And now you’re making me feel like I’m the worst kind of a failure of a moirail!”

                Cue: guilt trip. “No, no, Aradia, stop, you’re a great monorail-“

                She kicks his shoulder. Hard. The red tears scatter off of her face. “This isn’t the time for jokes, Dave!”

                “You’re a great moirail, Aradia, wonderful, perfect.” He fights against the psiioniics, but they burn and tear and hold him in place. He grunts in pain. All he wants to do is stand. He wants to reach around Aradia and hold her in his arms and make her stop crying. He can’t stand the thought of his moirail crying because she’s so pissed off at him. Aradia being pissed off is a thing he can handle; Aradia crying because she’s mad is something he can’t. “C’mon, please believe me. I swear to God and Jesus, regardless if they're Human or Troll, I swear to any and all beings there are, both races, that you are a motherfucking great moirail.”

                “But you don’t listen and then I feel like I’m shirking my duties in not making you but- but you just don’t and Dave, I can’t handle this! I can’t handle being a moirail to someone who doesn’t listen, even when pissed off, and you weren’t even pissed off!”

                “Aradia, Aradia, don’t be saying what I think you’re trying to say, please, please don’t be saying that.” The psiioniics release. He stumbles to his feet, stands close, wraps his arms around her. She sobs and beats closed fists against his chest. He pushes his aviators to the top of his head, grabs her by the jaw and makes her look him in the eye. Angry, red tears are falling from her yellow sclera and he feels like the worst possible thing in the universe right now.

                “Aradia, Aradia calm down, no, stop, no it’s not your fault. Not even Rose can stop me when I get going and we both know that you’re closer to me than her. If you can’t, no one in this world, next or otherwise can. You are the best damn moirail. So stop crying. Stop crying. You’re making me feel horrible and we don’t both deserve to feel horrible. Only I do, so stop crying. You’re better than that, Aradia. Don’t let these chumps see your pretty little red tears. They don’t deserve to be honored so highly. We don’t. I don’t? Fuck, Aradia, just stop crying!”

                She sniffles and rubs at her eyes. She wraps her arms around his neck and cushions her face on his collarbone, under his chin. He rubs his hands up and down her back and Sollux offers half a smile and mouths the word sorry and he gestures to the cop behind him. Dave shakes his head at him and waves it off when he gestures to his phone. Aradia sniffles and pulls back, smiling gently.

                “Feel better now?” He asks. She nods. He chuckles. “How is it that when I’m the one who’s pissed off, I end up being the one to calm you down? Isn’t moirallegiance supposed to be the other way around?” She giggles, but it’s half-hearted and forced. Gently, she reaches up and tugs the glasses back into place.

                “I don’t know,” she mutters. “Then again we’ve never really abided by the code of how we’re supposed to act as moirails, have we? I mean we do, but we bend rules. But I’m serious, Dave. I don’t think that I’ll be able to handle it if you can’t listen to me.”

                “Please don’t break it off,” he begs. He will openly admit to begging, if that’s what she wants. He just doesn’t want this to happen. Even if it completely slurs the name of Strider, he will admit to begging. “Please. I’ll stop it. I’ll stop everything. I’ll ride out this last parole with you and then I’ll stop, deal? I’ll stop cold turkey. Just please don’t end the moirallegiance we have. If that’s what you want. I’ll listen. I’ll listen, I swear, just don’t cut it off. Give me one last chance.”

                “One,” she declares and nods. “But only one. The next fight you get into, we’re through. Deal?”

                “Yes, yes, deal, most certainly, deal, just stay my moirail.”

                “I am, Dave,” she whispers. “I’m still your moirail.”

                The entire area around them is silence except for Gamzee’s inane prattle. Something about miracles bringing the two of them together enough for Dave to realize what he had done to her or something, he isn’t completely listening to them. He just wants to hold Aradia and force her to calm down.

                “You know,” she says at last, “if saying that I was going to cut it off would make you start pronouncing moirail correctly, I would have said that years ago.”

                He throws her off, turns and walks toward the cop. “You’re calm!”

                She laughs, but this time it’s sharp and sweet. The kind of laugh she usually has.

                He immediately recognizes the cop. He’s a Troll on the Psiioniics Force with what appears to be mustard-yellow blood if the color of his irises is anything to go by. Karkat is standing in front of him, too, arms crossed over his chest and looking completely defeated. Gamzee is bouncing on his toes immediately beside Karkat, humming some sort of song. Aradia walks up and stands between him and Karkat.

                “Strider,” his parole officer says. He’s also the cop that arrested him the last time he had gotten in a fight. “You are in clear violation of your parole.”

                He rubs the back of his neck. “We’re stuck with civil duty, aren’t we?”

                “Just,” he sighs heavily and rubs at his eyes. “Look, I can trust you to come into my office on time tomorrow, right?” When he says that, he looks straight at Aradia. She nods. The cop looks between the two of them. “This is the exact reason why Humans don’t fit into Troll quadrants. You two disgrace the entire meaning of moirails. Especially you Strider, dragging her in on your mess.”

                Dave has his arms around Aradia before the others can even sense her leaning into the punch. He yanks her back, out of reach. She fights him, but he holds on tight, gritting his teeth. “You should—probably leave if you want to keep your face intact,” Dave warns. “Because this is the kind of pissed that takes a while to calm.” The cop doesn’t look to want to move, but Sollux comes up beside them, standing between Aradia and Karkat.

                “Look,” he says. “Aradia’s pithed off to the point where a kithmeth wouldn’t even take the hathred out of her. Thtrider needth thome themblance of privathy to calm her. The doethn’t get pithed off often. Remember that. Tho the fact that you just inthulted her palemate hath you on her thhit litht for now. Aradia hath thurvived thix different wriggling competitionth. The will fuck your thit up. Take Vantath and Makara down to the thtation and they’ll make their way to your offithe tomorrow to find out what thivil duty they have to do.”

                The cop’s eyes flicker between them before he concedes and opens the door. He stops Vantas from getting in first, instead opting for Makara and opening the sunroof. His horns poke out of it. Vantas sends a snarl Dave’s way before climbing in.

 

                Back in Aradia’s respiteblock, Dave sits on one of her beanbag chairs while Sollux takes up her bed and Aradia spins around in her desk chair. “I dunno, Dave. You were insinuating that he’s a pedophile.”

                “Of course he’s not, Aradia, the hell do you think of me? Why would I joke about it unless I know for certain that he’s not?”

                “Well he obviouthly took it pretty theriouthly.” Sollux has a weird obsession with not letting his lisp out in front of people. It took Aradia several Human years to get him to admit that he has one because he’s always being picky about what he says and how he says it in public. Human speech therapy managed to get him to overcome it in public, but in private he honestly doesn’t seem to care. “I mean you were fuckin’ bleeding by the end of it. He barely had a scratch!”

                “He’s also a Troll compared to my being Human. It’s harder to break Troll skin than it is to break Human.”

                “This is true,” Aradia says as she pulls her knees up to her shoulders. “But anyway, sorry for snapping at you like that earlier, Dave.”

                “Nah, don’t be. We’re still as cold as the south fuckin’ pole. Ain’t no one gunna melt this glacial ice.”

                “Global warming.”

                “That didn’t happen to be a thing that stopped being a thing, did it?”

                “Nope.”

                Sollux rolls over on his stomach, looking between them. “Tho why were you on parole before?”

                “Dave got in another fight with some idiot Green Blood and I was dragged down with him because we’re moirails. I mean, there’s nothing on my record, only his, but it’s enough of a pride-hurt to count as an equal.”

                “What do you think my lusus will make you do? I mean, it’s not often he recognizes someone enough to let you off and just expect you to go to his office tomorrow.”

                “Cop-dude’s your lusus?” Dave asks. He nods.

                “We’ll probably have to clean up trash or take a few extra classes. That’s what we did the last few times.”

                “Few?”

                “Look, ok, I’m a horrible monorail, whatever,” Dave shrugs. “Keep draggin’ Aradia down around me.”

                “I don’t mind,” Aradia sighs. “It’s just annoying sometimes.”

                Sollux hums, then shrugs. “Far be it from me that I get in the middle of two happily engaged moirailth…. But I don’t think that he’ll have you do thomething like that if thith ithn’t the firtht time.”

                “Then what do you think we’ll do?”

                He shrugs his shoulders. “He jutht doethn’t go eathy if you pith him off theveral timeth.”

 

                Eventually, Sollux has to leave to go back to his hive in the slightly-better-leveled low blood district and Dave goes back to his apartment. Rose and their mom chew him out for getting in trouble with the police again, his twin brother Dirk doesn’t care. He’s safe so long as his dad doesn’t come home that night. He doesn’t, working the late shift at whatever place took him this time.

                Late that night, Dave pulls out his phone and opens his handheld-pesterChum app.

 

                turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering apocalypseArisen [AA]

 

TG: hey ive been thinking
TG: now bare with me here
TG: this is a shitload of fucking cold going to be slapped in your face
TG: its going to be a motherfucking pie in the hands of a clown
TG: and the clown is egbert
TG: but im the one behind the scenes paying him to shove this pie in your face
AA: does this mean that john is typing?
TG: what no fuck that shit
TG: egbert cant be expected to deal with the amount of hard cold seriousness about to be slapped in your face
TG: he cant be trusted to do this correctly
AA: and this seriousness would be?
TG: i dont want to be your palemate anymore
AA: whoa wait what?
AA: this is all so sudden
AA: what did i do wrong?
AA: you got a second chance!
AA: allow me another!
TG: no ara
TG: as cliche and stupid as it sounds...
TG: seriously its not you who fucked up
TG: and so im not going to deal with this anymore
AA: youre quitting dave?
AA: but i still want to be palemates
TG: yeah well
TG: i dont
TG: its not a good idea ara
TG: aradia
TG: so consider my moirail quadrant empty as of tonight

                turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering apocolypseArisen [AA]

AA: dave!
AA: dave god damn it!
AA: dont just leave me like this dave im not okay with this!
AA: seriously the dead are screaming at me!
AA: dave!!!

Chapter Text

                It’s really hard not to immediately apologize to Aradia, but he succeeds in distracting himself in the flow of music for a while. He eventually manages to fall asleep. The next morning, his dad is home. He sits him down at the table and grills him for an entire three hours before Rose comes to his rescue and says that he has to go to the parole officer. His dad nods, says that he’s grounded and demands his phone. Dave passes it over, tells him that his laptop is unlocked and not to break his turntables while he’s gone.

                Then he hurries to make it to Sollux’s lusus’ office. He makes it there all of five minutes early, miraculously. He somehow catches his breath before he goes in. There are two chairs seated, facing the desk, waiting for him to take up. He drops down and kicks his feet onto the arm of the other one immediately. Because he’s a motherfuckin’ Strider and Strider’s don’t care. The only thing that doesn’t care more than Striders don’t care is the honey badger at the foot of a really lame joke.

                “Where’s your moirail?”

                “Who?”

                “The woman you’re in a pale quadrant with.”

                “Megido? Oh we broke up. She wants to go to some college on the other side of the country and I ain’t moving for someone I’m not even fuckin’.”

                “Humans.” It’s worse than an insult to a guy’s mother when it comes out of his mouth. Dave feels compelled to jump up and break his nose. He strangles the urge. “This is the first time you’ve violated your parole, David.”

                “This is true.”

                “You were only a few weeks off.”

                “What can I say? Something about Vant-ass just gets my goat.”

                “I’m going to cut to the chase. You’ll go here”—he passes over a piece of paper—“and you’ll help out the woman that runs the place. Whatever she wants. Regardless of your comfort level. Maybe it’ll teach you some God damn manners.”

                Dave takes it, reads the address and hums. It’s in the Troll half of town—the Low Blood district, but it doesn’t look like it’s anywhere near Aradia’s house. He’s happy for that.

                “You’ll report in at eight o’clock every morning for the next four weeks. If you so much as fist your hand, you’re in juvie. I’m going easy on you here, kid. If I were to do this the way that my boss wants me to, you would have been there last night. This is your last chance. Believe it or not, I don’t want to have to see you in my office anymore.”

                “When do I leave?”

                “As soon as you’re ready to go to that place.”

                “No. I show up at eight AM, when do I leave?”

                “Six PM, if she says you can. Her name is Rachel Wester. She is your new God, of sorts. Whatever she wants, no matter what it is, you give it to her.”

                He makes a show of laughing through his nose and smirking. Captor-Senior jumps up, one hand braced on the desk and the other squeezing his chin so hard Dave could already feel the warm hum of a bruise forming. “This is your last God damn chance, Strider. Don’t fuck this up.”

                Dave arches his eyebrow over the edge of his glasses. Captor releases him and he leaves with a one-fingered wave over his shoulder. But in all seriousness, he hurries to get to the location given to him, keeping his head ducked anytime he sees a Troll just in case it might be one he knows (read: Aradia).

                He ends up at the door of a building called West Ridge Orphanage. He hums, curious, and knocks on the door. A wriggler opens it. She’s probably just under two sweeps, making her right around eight Human years. He can’t tell her blood color in her eyes, but he can assume she’s a low blood if she’s still in the orphanage at this age. Her horns are pointed downwards, but also curl like drill bits. “Hi!” She greets. “You’re a bit young to be adopting though.”

                “I’m not.” He says. “I’m looking for a woman named Rachel Wester.”

                “She’s in the kitchen!” She reaches her hand out to him, smiling. He can almost count every single one of those sharp, pointed fangs in her mouth. “I’ll take you to her!” He hesitantly takes her hand, steps in and shuts the door behind himself. “I’m Trynna! I’m a yellow-blood and, and, and I’m almost two whole sweeps!”

                “Wow you’re getting to be pretty high up there, aren’t you Trynna?”

                Dave will never, ever admit it, but he truly does love kids. This will probably be more of a reward than a punishment.

                The kitchen isn’t particularly small, but it could stand to get a little more room to it. There are several high chairs set up, each with a different baby, a young wriggler and a grub or two. Dave doesn’t have time to introduce himself before Trynna is talking. “Miss Rachel! This guy’s looking for you!”

                “Thank you Trynna,” she hums. “Can you do me a favor and make sure Mister Makara is alright. He’s awfully quiet today.”

                “Ok!” She hurries off, nearly trips on the first step of a staircase but manages to catch herself. Tynna continues up out of Dave’s eyesight.

                “Hi,” Rachel says. Her black hair is stringy and her brown eyes are dull with exhaustion, but overall she’s probably only about thirty-six years old, forty at a very large stretch. For a Human, she seems able enough to pick up slack and the exhaustion looks like it’s more than just a couple of days piled on top. “I’m Rachel Wester. I own and run this orphanage. You must David Strider.”

                He reaches his hand out and she puts the baby food down long enough to take it. “Dave,” he corrects. “I take it Officer Stuart talked to you?”

                “I don’t know how much I like the thought of you working here,” she admits. Suddenly her voice has gone from friendly to blood-freezing-cold. Dave has to actually fight to suppress the shudder. “But I do know that I will not hesitate to beat you if you so much as hurt one of my children, regardless of race. Stuart told me that almost all of your convictions have been for fighting Trolls and as you already know we have both here.”

                “Dude, look I don’t care-“

                “And furthermore, you will work here. This isn’t social hour. You’re not to invite people over and you’re going to listen to me.”

                “That’s the plan-“

                “Finally, no cursing. Back sass all you want, you’re going to do whatever I say you’re going to do, regardless of whether or not you want to. But I don’t want these guys to start cursing just because they learned it from a bad influence like you.”

                “Are you done?”

                “For now.”

                “Ok. First of all? I’ve never been more scared in my life. I want to congratulate you on that. That’s impressive. And for the rest of that stuff? I kind of figured that much. So just calm down and stop attacking me. I know you’re angry and I know you want to protect your kids, but I’m not going to do anything while I’m here.”

                “Nothing?”

                “Absolutely nothing. Besides, that social hour thing? Who am I even going to tell? Like He- Heck I’m going to tell anyone I’m hangin’ here.”

                “Stuart said that you have a moirail to take care of.”

                “What? No. I don’t have one.”

                “And none of your friends-“

                “Dude. Calm down. Take a few deep breaths, really. I don’t have many friends. I can count on one hand how many I do and most of them are out of town for the summer. The ones that are in town? I would be too embarrassed to tell them what I’m stuck doing to even tell them where the orphanage is at.”

                “Good to know.”

                “That…. That came out really fu- freaking wrong.”

                “You’re doing well with the cursing.”

                “I’m going to have to work at it.”

                “Well, anyway. Help me feed these guys. There’s a bottle over there. That goes to Chantel. That’s her. Then the grubs get those jars, only half each, and if you even manage to do that much by the time I’m done feeding the rest of these guys, we’ll see what else we can do.”

                Dave forces himself not to crack a smile and nods, grabbing the bottle. It’s already warm and baby Chantel takes it from him, holding it herself. He chuckles and watches her, makes sure that she holds it correctly and catches it when she decides she’s done and attempts to throw it across the room. Rachel and Chantel giggle. He forces himself not to smile and gives it back. She drinks a little more before throwing it back at him. This happens a third and fourth time.

                “You know, Chantel, it’s not nice to throw these things at people,” he comments. “I mean it really hurts my feelings when you just try to throw it across the room. It’s not a very fun game.”

                Chantel pouts and takes the bottle. Miraculously, she takes it and doesn’t throw it two drinks later. He smiles this time and thanks her. She pulls the bottle away long enough to smile before returning to it. Dave goes to grab the jars for the grubs and spends a few minutes looking for a baby spoon. The grubs aren’t picky about what they eat and get full rather quickly. He only has to use three jars to feed them all. Rachel is done with only three of the babies and wrigglers, leaving about eight.

                “Y’got any more of those jars?” He asks, pointing his head to the one in her hand.

                “I think you should finish with the others before you try and help-“ She stops abruptly, staring at the ones that have already been fed. Her voice is tiny as she begins again. “Oh. Um. Yeah. Over there.” He nods and grabs one, a new spoon and starts on the first wriggler. “Only half the jar, too.”

                He nods and starts feeding.

 

- ) - ( -

 

                The day is actually rather smooth going once Rachel drops the strong-girl-I-hate-you act and starts acting friendly. She doesn’t ask for a do-over and Dave doesn’t think she will. He takes a few of the kids out back to play in the sandbox, some of them swing, but over all they don’t go far and they’re easy to watch. They come inside for lunch. Around three, while he’s still stuck washing the dishes, the front door opens and a few of the kids in the front room cheer. He hears as a low, rumbling voice asks some of them to help him inside and then there’s a scamper for shoes.

                Dave is drying one of the plates they used for lunch when Trynna runs in with a few boxes of frozen pizza in her arms. She puts them in the freezer, then adheres herself to his leg. “Dave, Dave, Dave! My big brother just got home from the store! He’s been at the store all day! Since before you got here even!”

                “That’s nice.”

                “Uhhuh! And he- he even got creamy grubsicles! Creamy grubsicles! Can you believe it!”

                “How exciting.”

                “It’s really exciting how can you not be bouncing off the walls!”

                “You’re currently doing a marvelous job of holding me down to earth. Don’t stop; I don’t want to fly away.”

                She puffs her cheeks out. “Dave! I’m serious! This is beyond cool! Do you know how long it’s been since I had creamy grubsicles? A really long time!”

                “Well then you should probably go run off and thank him. I’m sure he was thinking of you guys when he bought them.” 

                “Oh! Yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah! Bye Dave!” He nods her off and returns to the dishes. A few more kids and wrigglers bring in groceries before scampering out. He ignores them for the most part, letting them do what they need to, until he is rather violently pushed against the kitchen counter. Dave’s hands narrowly manage to catch him on the edges of the sink before his forehead meets the window pane.

                “What the fuck are you doing here Strider?”

                “Vantas? What the fuck are you doing pushing me against a counter?”

                Karkat shakes him violently. “What. The fuck. Are you. Doing. Here.”

                “This is where my parole officer sent me to work. Back off, Vantas, seriously, what the hell is wrong with you?”

                “This is my family,” Vantas growls. “And if you so much as hurt one of them, I will murder you. Fuck the parole officer, fuck your working-here; you will die the minute it happens. Not even Gamzee will be able to stop me.”

                “Dude, whatever, I don’t give a shit, just back the fuck off.”

                “Karkat?” Trynna’s voice says. It’s nervous and quiet, like she isn’t sure about interrupting them. “Miss Wester told me to tell you that Mister Makara is still up in your room.”

                “Thanks,” He grunts and pushes Dave, violently, so that his head really does hit the windowsill. He disappears, leaving the two of them in the kitchen. Trynna takes his hand and pulls him down until he’s kneeling in front of her.

                “That looks like it hurts.” She reaches up and touches the space of his forehead that just had a meeting worthy of kismessitude with the windowsill. “Why did Karkat hurt you?”

                “Me an’ Vantas don’t get along,” he answers.

                “You’re not kismesses are you?”

                “No we are not.”

                “So you two just don’t get along?”

                “Basically.”

                She presses her lips to his forehead. “Better?”

                “It feels all better now. Thank you.”

                “You’re welcome!” Then, she trots off, leaving him alone.

                Rachel makes herself known as soon as the door shuts. “You are the densest man I have ever met.”

                “You could have warned me.”

                “Could… but didn’t.”

                “Whatever.” He returns to the dishes, ignoring the pulse in his forehead.

                Did he say this would be a reward?

                No this punishment is worse than anything he has ever been faced with.

 

- ) - ( -

 

                Rachel kicks him out at exactly six PM. He manages to brush it off and takes a few buses until he gets somewhere close enough to walk home. The “family car” isn’t in the parking space allocated to their specific condo-apartment. He notices the OUT OF ORDER sign in the back of the elevator door and decides to take the stairs up instead of risking the elevator ride, as many of the other residents are doing right now.

                Rose is in the living room, tapping rapidly at the game controller in her hands. Her thumb mashes into the button, trying to revive her character from whatever death it had been exposed to at her hands. She snaps something into her headset, yelling at her co-players and calls one of them a fag in typical twelve-year-old fashion when she isn’t allowed to revive. She throws the controller on the table and leans back, forced to watch her co-player fuck over the people that killed her.

                “Bad game?” He offers.

                She huffs again, rolls her eyes and frowns. “No. It was a really freakin’ good game! That’s the problem! It was a three-way fight, right? Well one of the teams had been nearly wiped out toward the beginning of the round and so it was Kanaya, Vriska, Jade, Jane and myself against them. Well, Vriska, being the bitch she is, took out Jade and Jane before Kanaya and I could get to her, but we did! Then the mother fucking camper from the first team took me out!”

                “Yeah don’t care.”

                She makes a distinct not-impressed face and rolls her eyes. Huffing out her cheeks, she turns to watch as Kanaya trains her scope on the camper and takes him out with only a quick few shots. She tells her to kick some ass and takes the headset off. Turning around in her seat, she raises her eyebrows. “How was community service?”

                He sighs. “Hot.”

                “You don’t look like you sweated all day.”

                “Striders don’t sweat.”

                “Are you ever going to tell mom and Daniel that most of the reasons that you were arrested for are completely legal if you wish to press charges as it was self-defense or self-defense of another.”

                “Is that even a thing?”

                “Yes.”

                “And no. I’m never going to tell them and then twenty years will pass and they will be on their deathbeds, nursing whatever ails them, and even then I won’t tell them. Once they’re burned to ash and thrown out to sea, I will break the urn and tell not even the remnants of that.”

                “Oh just go and take a nap already.”

                “Way ahead of you.”

                She nods her head and pulls the headset back on. He wishes her good luck over his shoulder and walks into his room. His brother is on his bed, feet kicked up and laptop resting in his lap. His blond hair is spilling over Dave’s pillow, getting greasy-as-shit hair product everywhere and his toes are curling and uncurling on his comforter, smearing all of their smelly, stinky glory over the blanket.

                “Why?”

                Dirk grins. “Dad and Ronnie were nagging me to get out of my room.”

                “They’re going to be pissed at you if they find out.”

                “Who’s going to tell? Rose?”

                “You owe me.”

                “What do you want?”

                “The next time I have chores and I’m out of the house because of this stupid community service bullshit, you have to do it.”

                “Yeah sure. What’s the worst it can be? Taking out the trash?”

                “Oh yeah,” he deadpans. “You and Rose get one chore.”

                Dirk rolls his eyes behind his ridiculously-pointed glasses. Dave pulls his off his face and rests them on his bedside table. When Dirk quirks his eyebrow, Dave tugs his shirt off and pulls at his belt. Dirk scoots over on the bed, taking up the back wall. He pushes his pants off, relaxing in just his boxers. He falls on his stomach, hugs his lesser-used, un-gel-ified pillow to his face and hums in content relaxation. Dirk’s fingers find something interesting on his back. He swats him away as best as he can, but Dirk places his laptop on his tailbone and tells him to stay still. Dave sighs but agrees. As soon as the door closes, he throws the pillow Dirk ruined across the room.

                It lands on top of his turndeck. His turndeck, which has a piece of duct tape over the cord, holding the end to the top of the slider, and a large note saying that his father will know the moment he touches it. He chuckles, wondering what the point of the note was, and lets his eyes fall shut.

                Dirk returns. There’s a sharp pain that lasts a split second before he jumps. Dirk swats the back of his head. “Don’t fuckin’ jump, idiot.”

                “What the hell are you doing to me?!”

                “Popping pimples.”

                “And you couldn’t have fucking asked first? That’s disgusting.”

                “No.”

                Dave grumbles and buries his head in his pillow. The needle sinks into another one. He doesn’t want to have to think about how many he has. He refuses to count to three as the needle sinks in and Dirk’s fingers have to press. A towel swipes against skin before the laptop is moved off his back

                “So why the sudden need to clean my back, bro?”

                “You seem stressed. You get more pimples when you are, so I’m cutting my next workload in half by doing it now.”

                “Jake logged off for dinner?”

                “That obvious?”

                “You’ve been unironically obsessed with the guy since second grade. Yes, it’s that obvious.”

                “I didn’t even know him in second grade!”

                “Hyperbole, Dirk. Take some motherfucking classes, will you?”

                “Just because I failed English doesn’t mean I don’t know what a hyperbole is, jack ass.”

                “Do mom and dad know yet?”

                “Of course not. And why do you call Ronnie ‘mom’?”

                “Because she’s our step-mother.”

                “What about mom?”

                “We haven’t talked in years. She doesn’t want anything to do with me. Ronnie is good about being there when I need a woman to talk to and Aradia… and Megido isn’t there.”

                “Did something happen between you and Aradia?”

                “No. Yes.” He huffs and buries his head under his hands. The needle misses and goes into his shoulder. He barely even hisses as Dirk curses at him for moving. “We’re not moirails anymore. It’s not a big deal.”

                “Holy shit you’re not?! What the fuck is going through your head? This is a big fucking deal. When the hell did this happen?”

                “Last night.”

                “And you didn’t fucking think, for one God damn second, this wasn’t something you should have mentioned to us? Or at least to me?”

                “I haven’t seen you since it happened. It’s not a big deal. I’m the one that broke it off.”

                “Why the fuck would you think that’s a good idea?!”

                “You can’t tell anyone.”

                “What?”

                “You can’t tell anyone anything that I’m about to spill. You’re sworn to the silences of they who were carried simultaneously.”

                “Fine, I’ll swear to the silence of the twinhood, just what the fuck is wrong with your mind?”

                “Since Aradia is my moirail, any offense I make is one that she makes, too. It goes on her record. She has plans. Aspirations. Goals. And I’m that stupid idiot that has the motherfucking god-complex or something where I just can’t sit back and watch someone else get beat up on. She won’t step in because she knows what I’m doing is right, but like hell any cops are going to listen to us when we’re obviously a cross-species quadrant and you know how against that every fucking body is.”

                “So you’re hurting yourself for your own good.”

                “Are you really that surprised?”

                The needle makes a sharp jab into his neck. His entire body tenses up, freezing him in place. He feels Dirk’s fingers press into the bleeding hole to stop the red leak, but the aftershocks of pain are still there.

                “You fuck ass there is not a pimple on my neck.”

                “Obviously. Stop this fucking self-righteous streak or whatever the fuck this is, damn it. You have all that shit too. You could just stop saving all of those idiots, stay moirails and not beat yourself up for something like this.”

                “I wouldn’t have this problem if society would just sit back and listen to whatever happened with open ears and actually analyze stuff regardless instead of jumping to conclusions and pretending like circumstances don’t exist.”

                “You make it sound like we live in a wonderful country with freedom and happiness.”

                “Ha. Lookin’ for the pot of gold at the end of a nonexistent rainbow.”

                “Dave, just promise me one thing.”

                “What?”

                “When this all blows over, you’ll talk to her.”

                “I can’t promise that…. but I’ll try.”

                “Close enough…. So you and mom really haven’t talked?”

                “Nope.”

                “Why not? She calls just enough.”

                “We just haven’t talked.”

                “Well you should. She just got a promotion. Working as a Lead Animator. Got a whole new movie coming out soon, too! Working with Miyazaki’s son, even. I mean, there’s a bit of animosity because, well, you know.”

                “She never did like Miyazaki. Crazy ol’ coot.”

                “But they’re still getting on. It’s going to be out in two or three years.”

                “What’s it going to be called? I want to make a note not to go see it.”

                “She hasn’t told me yet.” He slaps the back of Dave’s head. “She’s your mother. You should support her.”

                “I’m sorry but my mom works as a lab tech and dabbles in cosmetics a little bit. Nothing specifically.”

                “No, that’s Rose and Roxy’s mom, not yours.”

                Dave rolls his eyes. “Does it really matter? For all that it does, Aradia’s lusus is my mom. A mother is whomever you recognize as a mother. Dad could be my mom if that’s how I saw him.”

                “Dave stop being philosophical. It doesn’t suit you.”

                “Yeah, well, I’d like to sleep but there’s this annoying prick hovering over me and sticking a needle into my skin for shits and giggles.”

                The needle finds another particularly sensitive spot on his neck. Dave resolves to shut the fuck up.

                “Wake me for dinner.”

                “Yeah. I’m pretty much done anyway.”

 

- ) - ( -

 

                Rose has Ronnie’s hair and eyes; blonde and purple respectively. They sit with refined elegance even while eating greasy take-out and too-salty French fries. Shoulders back, chin up, slim eyes, sly smile, they watch as the three Strider men pig out, getting grease and ketchup over their faces. It’s not much of a mystery why Roxy—Rose’s older sister by only a handful of years—feels like the black sheep of the family. Dave and Dirk had both inherited blond hair from Daniel and their mother, though Dave (miraculously) got Daniel’s eyes and Dirk (mysteriously) got a mixture of red and brown—enough to create orange eyes that appear copper-red when direct light hits them. Roxy, however, was unlucky enough to inherit her father’s brown hair and her grandmother’s green-flecked pink eyes. The only brunette in the family, she stands out like a sore thumb in a gardener’s competition.

                However, Roxy moved out to “go to college” shortly before their parents got married and therefore Dave hasn’t spent much time with her, even if Dirk has. All he knows is that she parties and drinks too much. Rose actually openly disapproves of it, so it must be pretty damn bad. Then again, after Rose’s father died, Ronnie turned to the bottle too. She tries to tell the romantic story of how Daniel “saved her from herself”, but it doesn’t fool him. Maybe it fools Rose and Dirk, but he’s the one that’s up until one in the morning studying. He’s the one that’s awake long enough to hear her clanking around the kitchen and guzzling as much as she can when no one can tell.

                He has made a promise to himself to not tell Rose. She likes to make believe that her mother really is clean, with or without Daniel’s help. Dave can’t bring himself to pull her free from the fake reality.

 

                After the first few ravenous bites calm down, Daniel looks toward him. “So, how was cleaning duty?”

                He finds it hilarious that everyone automatically assumes that he had to clean up a highway side. He still doesn’t correct them. “Hot.”

                “Anything important happen that I should know of?”

                “Vant-ass got the same punishment.”

                “Who?”

                “The kid I got in a fight with this time.”

                “Is that a good idea?”

                He shrugs his shoulders. “He keeps to himself, I’ll keep to myself. Not that fuckin’ hard.”

                “If you two could keep to yourselves, you wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.”

                “It worked out for the most part today.”

                “Most part?”

                “Got nailed in the forehead by a can a’ soda someone threw out the window and Karkat laughed his ass off. Nearly punched his lights out right there.”

                “Your parole officer called. He explained how if you’re to get into another fight, you’re off to juvie. I don’t want to have to say that some shit son of mine went to juvie and that’s why he isn’t attending his senior year. You stay clean and you’ll get your shit back, am I understood?”

                “Yes.”

                “What’s that?”

                “Yes sir, I understand.”

                “Good. How’s Aradia?” It's still weird hearing the Troll's name out of his father's lips. He's a huge anti-Troll fanatic, so he and Dirk had been forced to cover their tracks after Daniel had, unfortunately, overheard them talking about her. In what was probably the dumbest idea in history, they had told him that she was his girlfriend and have forced the issue of her meeting his parents as far back as possible as often as possible.

                “Don’t know, don’t care.”

                “Excuse me?”

                “They broke up,” Dirk explains. “Aradia got sick and tired of his horseshit, so they went separate ways.”

                “Well, I can’t say that I don’t agree with her.”

                Dave manages a small, fake laugh and takes another bite of his burger. Daniel leaves him with a long look, waiting for the punchline. When he doesn’t deliver, Daniel doesn’t push it and instead turns to ask Rose a few questions on how her day was. When she brushes it off, he asks Dirk if he finally left his room. Dave has to shove the last bite of his burger into his mouth to keep from laughing.

Chapter Text

                The alarm clock rings an hour before he has to be at the orphanage. He clears it and narrowly avoids running into Ronnie in the middle of the hallway. She’s holding her head and making quiet noises: hungover. She straightens up the moment that she realizes that he’s in front of her and smiles like she isn’t in pain. “How did you sleep, Dave?”

                “Fine,” he slurs, whispering. She nods back, hiding her wince beautifully. He detours long enough to get her a few pills and shoves a bottle of water her way. She stares at him, flapping her lips like she doesn’t understand how in the world he could tell. He doesn’t ask questions, doesn’t berate her; he just leaves her to stick her head in the freezer as he goes to shower off.

                He eats, still half-soaked and wearing nothing but his jeans and boxers. Ronnie gives him a bad look and asks when he expects to dress properly. He shrugs and makes a clever remark about trying to impress Roxy enough to get into bed with her. If he ever touches either of her daughters, she warns, she will have his nuts. If he ever wants a woman that is a drunk or a woman too intent on passive-aggressive games to notice someone hitting on her three inches away, he’ll know where to look. She mock-punches the back of his head before hip-checking him. He smirks and washes his bowl.

                “You know,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t quite understand how it is you’re not an upstanding citizen. Then again, I only ever see you when you’re really quiet and tired.”

                Speaking of tired, he yawns into the back of his hand. “Maybe that’s because no one here pisses me off enough to warrant a battle.”

                “Now, now, don’t you start making yourself out to be high and mighty, Davey. I happen to know that you slept with a nightlight until you were nine.”

                “I shared a bedroom with Dirk until I was twelve. The nightlight, for the record, was not mine.”

                She lays her hand on his shoulder. “It’s ok, Dave. You can tell me that you were afraid of the dark as a kid. It’s a normal fear, really. It’s good that you outgrew it so early. Most have it well into their teens. I won’t tell anyone.”

                And she leaves, like the filthy psychologist she pretends she’s not.

                He stares after her, thinking of the nightlight Dirk keeps in his bedside table, shaped like a skull and cross-guns. It probably hasn’t been used in years, but sometimes it’s good to keep a talisman close at hand.

                “This is the last time I am going to take the rap for him.”

                He pulls his shirt on before going to brush his teeth. On the side of the sink not reserved for Rose’s morning-makeup routine that absolutely translates to “sitting on the counter and opening her jaw large enough to give a guy a blowjob” sit two pairs of sunglasses. There are Dave’s… and Dirk’s.

                He remembers when they first started wearing them. For years, they had worn the same clothes and had the same hairstyle, not because they’re twins but because that was how it happened. Dave would wake up and think “I want to wear my Aerosmith shirt”, only to turn around and see that Dirk was wearing the same one minutes before they had to leave. It got to the point of fisticuffs on long afternoons and bets to see who would lose first. (They never really could figure out who lost those bets.) One day, their dad had come home from a long day at court and threw a pair of sunglasses at each of them. One had black rims, the other had white. But even that was too close, so they went out together and bought glasses they thought were the best.

                And, of course, fitting in with Dave’s irony theme, they bought their favorite glasses and swapped. They have yet to switch back.

                He slips his on out of habit and scrubs at his teeth until his mouth tastes like green mint and purple mouthwash. Stealing “Dirk’s” skateboard to take to the orphanage harms no one, not even the board, which is in severe need of oiling after a couple years under the work table. No, not really, it works fine, but he knows that the other boy will probably take the car he shares with Rose if he is going somewhere today and therefore it’s not really much of a big deal.

                Vantas is watching a few kids in the front yard, including Trynna. She runs straight up to him when he’s still half way down the street, nearly tripping over herself to get him to pick her up. He concedes defeat only when he hears Vantas call her name. Trynna giggles hearing her “big brother” call out for her and calls back that she’s on the way.

                “Ok, Trynna, do you want to stay out here or are you going to come inside with me to tell Miss Wester that I’m here?”

                “If I stay out here, can I play with your four-wheel-board?”

                “I don’t know if that’s a good idea…. You can get hurt pretty easily.”

                “But Karkat will be watching me! He’s always watching us when we play outside.”

                “Do you have a helmet?”

                She pouts. “But you’re not wearing one.”

                “I’ve been riding since I was younger than you are.”

                “…yeah I have a skull-catcher with horn holes.”

                “Go upstairs and get it. Then you can play with my skateboard.”

                She nods and runs off as he puts her down. Vantas nods his head in his direction as he follows her inside. He returns it with a short nod of his own. Miss Wester is washing dishes from breakfast when he finds her in the kitchen.

                “You want any help?” Never need, no, because she doesn’t need help. She’s a strong, able woman, he thinks, and caring for the orphanage by herself is a huge chore in and of itself. She doesn’t need any help, from anyone, but he doesn’t mind offering it up anyway.

                She jumps and hits her knee on the cabinet. “David! You’re early.”

                He checks the clock on the microwave. He’s only early by about fifteen minutes, maybe a little less; he doesn’t see what’s so shocking about it. He shrugs his shoulders anyway. “Am I supposed to be sorry?”

                “No, no, it’s fine. I just wasn’t expecting you to be so… ready to work if you came in early. If anything, I was expecting you to be late.”

                “What can I say? You inspire me to do my best, Miss Wester.”

                “Call me Miss Wester to my face again and we’ll see how much inspiring you get.”

                He nods his head. “Do you have a name you would rather I call you?”

                “Rachel. Or Miss Rachel, I don’t really mind either way. Just keep Wester and your curse words out of my face and ears.”

                “Am I supposed to be cursing you?”

                The look she sticks on him is the largest put-off he has ever had to endure. She shakes her head and returns to working her way through the dishes.

                “Anyway, do you want my help?”

                “No, I’m fine.”

                “You sure?”

                “Yeah. Why don’t you go help Karkat watch the kids out front? Now that most of them have finished getting ready for the morning, more of them will want to go outside. Usually, Makara is here to help him, but for whatever reason he’s not.”

                “Hey, can I ask a question about him?”

                “Makara? Sure, of course you can, but I don’t know much about him myself. He usually spends time with Karkat and leaves before dinner.”

                “What’s his relationship with Vantas?”

                “I would think that you know.”

                “Well, there are a ton of rumors around school, but fact-of-the-matter is, neither of them has clarified. Some people say they’re red-rom, other’s say they’re pale for each other. A couple say that they’re auspisistizing with a senior.”

                “You really do not have the ability to pronounce Troll words, do you?”

                He shrugs one shoulder, grinning. “I can pronounce them correctly. It’s just that I don’t feel like being one-hundred percent serious at this particular moment in time.”

                “Well, as for your question, as far as I know, they’re only moirails. Makara doesn’t talk about himself much, but I think that Karkat would never stop talking about whomever he is in a relationship with if he were to be in one. That’s how he was with the last one he was in.”

                “What happened to that?”

                “They decided to break it off due to extracurricular activities getting in the way of the time they could spend together. There towards the end, though, things were starting to get a little rough.”

                “Rough?”

                “Karkat is notorious for his angry façade and inability to lower his voice when he gets on a subject. It’s no surprise to me if he begins a red-rom, only to end it in black. But, then again, here we are, Humans in a Troll world. Who are we to judge? For all we know, that could very well be the way quadrants work.”

                He shrugs back. “You make a good point. Anyway, I guess I’m going to go sit out front with Vantas?” He arches his brows, trying to get her to tell him to do something else, but she merely nods and shoos him away.

                Vantas is sitting on the edge of a dying flowerbed, watching Trynna as she tries to figure out the perfect mesh of kick and balance to make the skateboard move as flawlessly as it had when he was on it. He sits beside him with enough space between them to support three nuclear bombs and six decimated cities.

                “So, Rach stuck you out here with me?”

                “Figured I might as well catch Trynna before she breaks anything on my board.”

                “She wouldn’t let you help her, would she?”

                “I mean it would be completely my fault if she fell off and broke her leg. It’s not every day someone gets to learn how to ride a skateboard.”

                “She’s stubborn like that. Like most of the people I know. Sollux for one, Aradia for another.”

                “You know them?”

                “Sollux an’ I have been best bro’s since we had a falling out, Strider.” He makes a vague hand motion between the two of them.

                “And Megido?”

                “We’re in some of the same classes. Study groups that end up falling apart, that sort of thing.”

                “Oh, that one for that math class we don’t have together?”

                “Yeah. It’s no secret you two are pale as fuck for each other, why are you calling her by her surname?”

                “We’re not moirails, Vant-ass.”

                “Holy shit since when?”

                “Day we got in our fight.”

                “Are you a fucking idiot?”

                “Yep.” It must be the way he pops the P that shuts Karkat up. Dave can’t think of anything else that honestly would. It leaves them with enough space of time to watch as Trynna falls off the skateboard, onto her palms. He calls to her, asking if she’s ok, but by the time his voice reaches her, she has already stood up and pulled the skateboard back to herself.

                He feels the awkward unsure touch of a hand on his shoulder before Karkat clears his throat and looks away. “Look. Whatever the fuck you’re going through, I don’t give two shits over it. I mean, if you’re dumb enough to let her split it off with her, then you’re dumb enough to go through that alone, got it?”

                “Yeah. She broke it off with me.”

                “Why’d you do it?”

                “Megido…. She’s going places. And I’m not. This is my town, my city. I’m stuck here for the rest of my life, working dead-beat jobs and struggling to make a living. When I finally hit it big and score an actual career, I’m going to lie on my back and complain to a therapist about how ‘mummy was never there’ for me and how ‘father was a man who loved no one but his bottle of gin’. Neither of these statements is true; don’t read into that.”

                “You really care about her.”

                “You don’t want to hear me complain, Vantas; why are we still talking about this?”

                Karkat leans forward and presses his fingertips together between his knees. His eyes never once leave the wrigglers or the children running about. “You know, fifty years ago, Humans and wrigglers wouldn’t be allowed to coincide like this. It’s weird to think that and then remember the people I grew up with.”

                “What changed?”

                “You really don’t pay attention during History, do you?”

                “It’s not my fault I’m not in advanced, jerk. Regular people like me have barely finished the moment where we supposedly overtook your puny planet and brought it to prosperity with our advanced civilization and our ability to melt metals previously unused on this planet.”

                “That’s sophomore work, dude. We just graduated Junior year.”

                “I fucking hate the fact that all History classes are divided. It’s bullshit. Look, I get it, Humans settled the Troll planet in Human History classes and Trolls settled the Human planet in Troll History. Fact of the matter is, we don’t know who settled here first and we don’t know who brought what technology or even if we brought it or if it evolved with us. For all we know, we were completely reborn after Alternia and Earth went through their mutual end-of-the-worlds. Just because we have the inane obsession to prove to ourselves that we have larger dicks then the rest of the animal world either physically or mentally does not mean we have the right to burn history books and pretend like something never happened. Because it did. It fucking did and we don’t need to either, A, dwell on it or, B, obsess over it. We just need to acknowledge it and move on.”

                “So basically you failed sophomore history because you were talking with Aradia and decided to get smart on the final test.”

                “Dad wasn’t so happy about it. Had to pay for the Night School myself.”

                “Doesn’t that cost like almost two hundred bucks?”

                “Two-twenty five for half a credit, two-forty for a full.”

                “Shit, that school is expensive.”

                “Try working for two-twenty an hour, four hours a day, only three days a week.”

                “Why those limitations? And isn’t minimum wage seven-fifty-five?”

                “Yes it is. And like hell my father would let me work anywhere else, so he stuck me as a secretary in a law firm. Thought it would ‘straighten me out’ or something I guess.”

                “Wait, let me think. Two-twenty by four is, what, eight-eighty? So, about twenty-five dollars a week, right?”

                “Twenty-six-forty.”

                “I’m going to say twenty-five. It’s easier for mental math. That’s, what, just under nine weeks?”

                “Without taxes. In the end it took me three weeks more than summer vacation allotted. I ended up owing my dad a-hundred thirty.”

                “How?”

                “Can you honestly see me working as a secretary and not giving someone shit?”

                “Where’d you get that money from?”

                “I run a few websites from home. Nothing too extraordinary. Mostly just black text on white background.”

                “I would go crazy. I don’t even have to see it, just fix that shit.”

                “I don’t really know how. Don’t care how. One’s got my music shit; the other’s got my comic book. Nothing else is needed.”

                “Fix. That. Shit.”

                He flips the troll off as he pushes his glasses back. Karkat chuckles, but his eyes linger on where two children are showing a wriggler how to play hop-scotch.

                “In all honesty, I can’t imagine my life without Gamzee.”

                “It’s not that hard. Dad grounded me, I don’t have any electronics. She doesn’t know where I am. So long as I’m careful about keeping her out of my house, ain’t nothing gonna go wrong.”

                “It would be an empty life. But then again, you’re Human. You don’t have quadrants in the same way that Trolls do.”

                “If I gush right now, can we pretend like nothing happened immediately afterward and go back to being borderline blackrom?”

                “We are not fucking blackrom! Why the fuck does every God damned, shit-for-brains, moronic idiot deserving of the Bubonic Plague to the motherfucking face automatically assume we are?!”

                “Did you listen to a word I just said?”

                “Yeah, I suppose we can go back to being borderline.”

                “But borderline and nothing more.”

                “Obviously.”

                “Because we’re not interested in each other.”

                “And kissing you would fucking suck. I mean, you gotta be shit for kissing.”

                “Hatefucking you would be horrible. You probably can’t do shit in bed.”

                “You’re not even worth the reclining bench, idiot. It’d be wall or nothing.”

                “Ain’t gunna fill any fuckin’ buckets.” His hand snaps out and slaps him in the chest. “Damn it, Vantas, look what you made me do. Miss Rachel’s got it on me that I’m not supposed to curse.”

                “Dude she stone-cold does not give a fuck. As long as you’re not in the same room with her, curse all you want.”

                He shrugs his shoulders. “Anyway, we gonna go back to that if I tell you this shit or do I just leave it out to the pasture. Leading this cow back to town is pretty difficult, Vant-ass, I don’t know if you should hear the way it moos.”

                “That was weak, even for you.”

                “I woke up not even two hours ago, y’gotta give me time to come up with the good shit.”

                “Anyway, yeah. What’s going on in that head of yours?”

                “You swear-“

                “I’m going to punch you if you don’t spill. Now.”

                “This isn’t borderline black-rom if you give me the option.”

                “Strider.”

                He snorts and grabs one of the worse-off flowers out of the bed. He starts at the base of the stem, peeling away the dead outer layer in a smooth curlicue with the edge of his nail. He gets dirt and awkward flower-innards under his nail, but he’ll live. “In all honesty, it’s hard. I mean, it’s one thing to wake up and be grounded, y’know? No phone or anything, big deal, she’s still got my back. But waking up and remembering that she’s gone and off to better things is hard. It’s like… I don’t know. It’s like my better half is gone. Like the part of me that makes me me is half way across the city and I can’t go after it because I know that if I do, I’m just going to ruin everything I suffered so much for to make better. Y’ever hear the term ‘soul mate’? Because that’s what I thought Ara was like for a long time. Even now. Just thinking that I’ll never be able to see her in the same way again leaves this… this gnawing ache inside of me. It’s to the point where, sometimes, I really want to fuckin’ cry… and then I remember that I’m the one that broke it off and not her. That I’m the one that ruined this relationship and I can’t go back to her, begging on my knees for forgiveness.”

                “You realize that if you feel this way, then she feels the exact same way, too, right?”

                “Yeah, well, she’s a Troll.”

                “Obviously.”

                “What I mean is that Trolls don’t get attached as quickly or as easily as Humans do. They see allies in people while Humans see friends or something more. So while, yeah, she probably had some semblance of feelings toward me, being that we were together for almost four years now, it probably wasn’t the same way I feel for her.”

                “Soul mates go two ways, Strider. It doesn’t really go one way and stop at the other.”

                “I like to think that she doesn’t care for me the same way. Because I’m totally in love with her in the most platonic of ways.”

                “Does it hurt any less?”

                “…no. No it doesn’t. But she’s made for multiple quadrant partners; she’ll get over it eventually. It’s not like Humans were made for quadrants in the first place. This is just the shit I deserve for letting it get this far.”

                “…you’re lucky.”

                “Huh?”

                “Here’s a statistic for you: moirail is actually the least likely quadrant to have filled in your lifetime. Even between hundreds of different flushed and ashen quadrants, not one of them quite fits you the same way that a moirail does. That’s because usually, if you have a moirail you supposedly meet them before you enter the Trials, maybe even before you pupate. But because of the way the Trials are formed… we end up killing each other.

                “There’s a theory that that’s what causes so many of the freak horrorterrors Trolls experience in their sleep. There’s a correlation between people with moirails having less terrors, even without sopor. Even if the amount isn’t reduced by a great deal, with the amount we get regularly any amount of reprieve is appreciated.

                “I mean, obviously there are parts of this theory that don’t make sense, like how Humans and Trolls can be moirails if this is true and then there are others who contest that cross-species just doesn’t work, but judging by what you said, you had it bad for her. You still have it bad for her, if you ask me. You still have it horribly, horribly bad and it’s right up there next to whatever black vortex a sado-masochistic-double-reach-around-idiot like you calls a heart.

                “So, yeah, anyway, back on topic. If a Troll is lucky enough to find a moirail by the time they turn two-hundred and fifty sweeps, then they’re lucky. Think about it, Strider. You found yours and you’re not even eight sweeps yet and you’ve met, found and thrown away the person that’s supposed to be there with you for the rest of your life. Ever wonder why your moirail is included in the charges that cops throw at you? Because when they’re motherfuckin’ High Bloods who can be excused from not stopping their moirail from getting in a fight, they get so fuckin’ butthurt over it.”

                “Yeah, that’s true. If Aradia got into shit with the police, I would be sitting next to her in a jailcell, laughing my ass off and asking when the next round was going to start.”

                “No, that’s a best friend. Moirails… Well, let’s just say they bury the body while you keep a look out for the coppers.”

                “Except the body is your own and you take turns switching off.”

                “And they even go so far as to hand you your sickle.”

                “Or your blade.”

                “Or your clubs.”

                “Or your whip.”

                “Or the rag to wipe your hands off after you punch them to death.”

                “Or the shovel after you realize you have a dead body on your hands.”

                “So you gonna stop calling her Megido?”

                “N’ah. It’s… still pretty raw. Maybe another time.”

                “This is way too buddy-feely for me.”

                “Your mother was a hamster.”

                “Your father smelled of elderberries.”

                “What was that?”

                “What was what?”

                “I thought I heard a reference to one of the best movies of all time.”

                “Nope, just me threatening to punch you in the face.”

                “I think the awkward air of the conversation itself has permeated us so much so that we can’t get back to normality.”

                “Well…. I could always legitimately punch you.”

                “I would let you, except I can’t go to juvie.”

                “That bad?”

                “Hanging on by my pinky.”

                “Now I see why you broke it off.”

                “Yeah, and?”

                “And you’re a fucking idiot.”

                “I already agreed to that. Are we really at that point in our relationship where we do nothing but reiterate things that were established at the beginning of the conversation?”

                “Man, fuck, for one second I think ‘why the hell did I ever stop being friends with this motherfucker’ when suddenly you say something like that and get all butthurt over absolute bullshit and I remember why I don’t deal with idiots like you.”

                “Yeah, well, idiots like me designed everything you see.”

                “Back at you, dick-sucker.”

                He’s ready with a comeback on the tip of his tongue when Trynna runs up. She has his skateboard up under one arm and a giddy expression on her face. “Can we go to the park you took us to last time, Karkat?”

                “I… Why don’t you go ask Rachel? I don’t see why not.”

                She grins wonderfully and releases the buckles under her horns, as well as the one under her chin. She pulls the yellow helmet off and runs inside, searching for their caretaker. Karkat gently picks it up and sighs.  “I’m supposed to be training them.”

                “What?”

                “The next Trial is coming up soon. Despite the fact that I, technically, don’t have my own lusus yet, there aren’t any others my age to fight, so I am automatically disqualified. These wrigglers though…. They have to go through their first Trial to qualify for adoption. And after that they have to go through even more. Once every two sweeps. And Trynna’s unlucky enough to have to go through her second one barely even a sweep after her first.”

                “This is how society works. Why are you so butthurt over it?”

                “I’m not.”

                “Liar.”

                “Shut the fuck up. I have to bury the bodies after they’re gone.”

                “It’s a dog eat dog world.”

                “You’re not helping.”

                “I’m waiting to be told to shut up.”

                “Shut the fuck up, Strider.”

                “You gonna make me?”

                “What’s more appealing? Ham and cheese or peanut butter and jelly?”

                “How about blood, sweat and tears?”

                “I can make that happen.”

                “I was thinking with lips.”

                “What happened to borderline?”

                “What? I can’t give you shit like that without crossing a line? I recall doing that before.”

                “Really? Because I recall you calling me a fucking pedo.”

                “Hey, what I insinuate and what I call you are two very different things. I’m only responsible for the latter, not what you think I’m saying with the former.”

                “It was fucking over the line.”

                “And I had my ass handed to me for it, thank you very much. Are we done here?”

                “Dude, shit, that was your ass? Fuck, you really would be a horrible blackrom.”

                “Wait until this stint with the cops is over and I’ll fucking show you a real fight.”

                “Bring it.”

                “It’s a date.”

                “Don’t call it that.”

                “Should I swear denim or press my pants?”

                “Either way you’ll be in the hospital.”

                “You know what I think, Vantas?”

                “I don’t want to be privy to whatever goes on in that unfortunate little head of yours.”

                “I think you’re secretly really happy to be having a real conversation with someone you were best friends with until third grade.”

                “Why do you think that?”

                “Because for some inexplicable reason I want to beat your teeth in for the same reason.”

                The door bursts open and Trynna rips out of it in an excited peal of laughter. She almost plummets into Karkat’s lap in her excite, knocking against his knees in the process. It’s hard to distinguish what she says, but judging by the look in her face Rachel said it would be alright for them to take a couple of kids to the park. Karkat tells her to wait out here while he goes to get some things inside. She nods and struggles to pull her helmet back on and secure the straps under her helmet correctly.

                On the walk to the park near Kanaya’s house, Dave takes Trynna’s hands and shows her what it’s supposed to feel like to be skateboarding. Meanwhile, Karkat juggles watching an eight-large group.

 

- ) - ( -

 

                Dave opens the door to his apartment and steps in long enough to take half a breath before Dirk shoves him out of the apartment again. He passes him a folded up note before shutting and locking the door. He doesn’t have to assume what’s going on or what he’s supposed to do. He doesn’t even look at the note. With the way that Dirk locked the door, it just means that one of their parents are going to be home soon and he needs to get whatever groceries are on the list before then.

                He takes the stairs down and heads toward the store as fast as he can on a skateboard with limited foot traffic.

                In all seriousness, there are a lot of people at the supermarket at this time of day. People who just got off of work and are picking up dinner before going home. People who are running errands at the wrong time of the day. Teenage kids who put chores off too long and are forced to suffer through the long lines in exchange for a couple of hours of online play on stupid games. Husbands and fiancés stuck on a craving run for their pregnant women. There are screaming children all around and the cashiers are sliding their items through the check out as quickly as they can.

                Dave opens the list and sighs in relief when he realizes that the list is relatively short: milk, bread, eggs, tampons, cereal, coffee, Elmer’s Glue—specifically, the liquid kind. With a little bit of juggling, he’ll be able to carry it all by hand back home. (He doesn’t want to know why Dirk needs glue if school is out. He doesn’t think it’ll be a good idea to do ask.)

                It doesn’t take a genius to find these things in about twelve minutes. Maybe in three, but Dave completes the task in twelve and is at the front of the 15 Items or Less line six minutes after that, too. The woman scanning smiles seeing the tampons. “Girlfriend?” She offers.

                “Sister,” he explains with a shrug.

                “You are a strong man.”

                “Not really, I’m just afraid she’ll kill me if I don’t buy them for her.”

                “Fourteen?”

                “Sixteen.”

                “Yeah, it’s all the same anyway.”

                He snorts and pays, thanking her for making it fit, the best as she could, in one bag when she spots the skateboard under his arm. The ride home is running rather well when he stops to press the crosswalk button.

 

                Dave walks into his house just as the milk is starting to warm, hunkered down and hiding his face. The skateboard is placed beside the front door and the groceries are dropped on the island in front of his father unceremoniously. He shoves Dirk out of the way and tells him to use their dad’s bathroom before shutting the door behind himself.

                His nose is bleeding, though most of it has dried off and matted the moustache he’s been trying to grow for about two hours now. His lip has been bitten through and his nose looks like it’s barely hanging on the edge of the precipice named “Not Broken”. One eye is swollen, though it’s still open and hasn’t turned black yet.

                He’s afraid to take his shirt off and see the damage done to his ribs. He can barely lift his arms far enough to do it and it ends with him in whimpered hisses and choked dry-sobs. His fingers twitch with the urge to grip the sink and never let go. There’s a knock at the door before it opens. His dad is standing in the doorway, looking concerned and cornered simultaneously.

                “Dave, what’s going on? What happened to your chest-?!”

                “I got the shit kicked outta me. Get the fuck out.”

                “Did you break your rib?!”

                “It’s bruised, not broken. Are you going to let me fuckin’ wash up?”

                “Dave, it looks bad.”

                “I’m fine!” The door slams shut in Daniel’s face, locking almost immediately after it shuts. Dave turns the shower on and cranks the shower radio up loud enough to cover up the sounds of him getting sick and flushing the toilet.

                He steps into the shower, holding his side and leans his shoulder against the wall. He doesn’t even bother making the vow to lie to himself as he sinks down and pulls his knees to his shoulders. He can feel the hot tears mix in with the shower water; the feel of defeat in an unrighteous battle swirling around the drain. He can practically hear Aradia standing in front of him, berating him for not protecting himself better. He can feel her, the warmth of her presence and the gold of her entire being in the room.

                Except she’s not there and he’s imagining everything. The dark, abysmal hole where she had once been rips open and sucks in billions of tiny knives like the black hole it is. He leans his head forward and hides the not-so-dry sob in the skin of his elbow.

                Blood swirls around the drain as he ignores his father beating at the door. He hears Rose and Dirk calmly pull him away and reassure him that this is entirely normal for him to do. He hears muffled protests, cut off by the others, but overall he doesn’t hear too much as they walk away.

                He just wishes Aradia was in the next room over, ready to bitch slap him with what he should have done better in the fight before tucking him in for a nice, long nap. And when he woke up, there would be a bottle of pain killers and no questions asked.

                Except now he’s crawling out of the bathroom with the start of a headache from the shower radio and a blood-speckled shirt. He sneaks off to his bedroom before anyone spots him and chucks the shirt. He grabs at one of his many ACE bandages to wrap his chest and a nice, big, baggy black shirt. His dad is sitting in the kitchen and Ronnie is starting to make what looks like homemade beef-and-broccoli stirfry.

                “Are you sure you’re fine?” Daniel asks the moment he sees him. “Your bruise looked deep.”

                “Yeah, no, no, really I’m fine. It looks worse than it is.” No it doesn’t. He’s vaguely positive something might be broken. “Sorry for snapping at you like that. I was just… frustrated. That I lost.”

                “How bad off are the others?”

                “What?”

                “How badly did you injure the people you were fighting with?”

                “I don’t follow.”

                “You got in a fight, David. If you look like this, how bad did they get off?”

                “You make it sound like I fought back.”

                “I expect that you did. How long until Officer Captor is knocking at the door, waiting to take you to juvie?”

                “Yeah, no. I didn’t fight back. I was a bit preoccupied.”

                “With what?”

                “Not breaking your eggs, spilling the milk on the concrete, you know that sort of thing. Trying to get back to the condo in one piece. Not going to juvie.”

                “So you let yourself get beat up?”

                “I didn’t let it. There was just no legitimate reason to beat the shit out of a bunch of punks when I had a gallon of milk ready to spoil.”

                “Well at any rate, I'm proud of you, Dave, for keeping your head clear during the fight. Dinner will be ready in ten minutes,” Ronnie says. She passes over a cup of water and three pain killers. They’re downed and drowned quicker than he can tell what brand they are. He goes off to find Rose and Dirk in the living room. Rose is tapping half-heartedly at a video game controller while Dirk shoots the ever-loving living shit out of her dead body on the screen. Why? Because why the fuck not. Other than the fact that, well, three seconds after Dave realizes it the rest of the opposing team is on the ground from a tripwire bomb.

                He sits down gingerly, not event trying to hide the grimace or the whine. “Damage report?” Rose asks

                “Couple of bruises and a bloody nose.”

                Dirk chuckles. “And the damage report that we don’t tell dad and Ronnie?”

                “I think I might have a broken rib oh my fuck I have to go to work tomorrow too my God motherfuck kill me now Rose send all of your horrorterrors after me please.”

                “Is that all one sentence or just a spewed nonsense of words that happen to sound like one?”

                “Choke on your own dick, Dirk, I’m serious here. This hurts.”

                “Why’d they beat the shit outta you anyway?”

                “Because I don’t want to go to juvie and because they were just butthurt that I beat them up a few months back.”

                “The jerks that were terrorizing that froshie?”

                “Mmhmm.”

                “You going to go get that rib checked out tomorrow bro?”

                “If it doesn’t stop hurting.”

                “C’mere, Dave. Let me braid your hair.”

                He considers fighting Rose’s suggestion, but at last he gives up and lets Dirk switch the TV back to actual television. He flicks through the Troll channels before deciding on a Human cartoon. To be completely honest, the three of them can’t stand Human television, but Ronnie and Daniel won’t allow themselves to believe that their children are multicultural. It took Dirk three weeks to break the Parent Lock code.

                Rose threads her fingers in his hair and presses against his forehead. He leans his head back on her knees and sighs as her ice-cold appendages massage his skin. He holds his stomach with his arms and legs, but she gently caresses his forehead and cools the bruise on his temple. “Thanks for buying me tampons, Dave.”

                “Yeah-huh. Anytime, sis, just don’t make it look like you’re pregnant.”

                “Pregnant?”

                “You bleed for like six weeks after you give birth, Rose.”

                “How in the world do you know that?”

                “Mom never really did know how to shut up.”

                Dirk pillows his jaw on his hand. “You know, I could have gone my entire life without knowing that.”

                “The more you know, bro. That IQ of yours is starting to get up to the nineties, you should join the rest of us in normalcy, you ‘tard.”

                “I am going to murder you in your sleep one day.”

                “With what? Your nightlight?”

 

- ) – ( -

 

                “Are you alright?” Rachel asks. “You’ve been a little slow all day today and Trynna was saying that you’re in pain earlier.”

                “I’m fine, really. I guess I just slept a little funny.”

                “How’d you split your lip?”

                “Even on the slight chance that I knew the answer to that question, I probably still wouldn’t tell you.”

                “Fair enough.”

                “Not to seem mean or anything.”

                “No, no, I understand.”

                “Anyway, do you mind if I cut out a little early? I want to drop by the Urgent Care before my parents get home to make sure it’s just nothing.”

                “Go right ahead, David. Also, do us all a favor and don’t come in early tomorrow.”

                “I feel insulted. Should I feel insulted?”

                “That depends. Is it Tuesday?”

                “Don’t give me AP College pop quizzes, Rachel; it’s the middle of summer break. I shouldn’t be forced to think of unimportant stuff like that.”

                “School has been out for not even three days. And if that’s unimportant, what is important?”

                “I stopped keeping track of days three weeks ago. And the important part is, oh, I don’t know, making sure the kids don’t get hurt? Just a suggestion.”

                She arches a brow. “And the wrigglers?”

                He sighs, exasperated. “I really just do not see the difference. I also don’t understand why in the world we have two different words for the same thing, let alone that they’re living, breathing beings.”

                He leaves while she’s still speechless.

 

                Dave collapses on the couch beside Rose and rests his head in her lap. She repositions her arm over his neck and hammers at the button.

                “Seriously what is with you and that video game?”

                “I really don’t know. It’s just so addicting when you can take out all of your frustrations on SpiderBitches constantly rubbing it in your face that they are really fuckin’ lucky. I’m just as lucky as she is!”

                “Stop stealing all the luck.”

                “Did you go to the Urgent Care?”

                “Yeah.”

                “What’s the verdict?”

                “A dent in my bank account and my insurance company raising their price just a little.”

                “I meant with your body.”

                “Broken rib and another cracked.”

                “Medication?”

                “Knocked me off my ass and right into your lap.”

                “Go to bed, huge-is dorkus.”

                “I would, but I’m already lying here so peacefully, getting choked by the love that is your elbow on my Adam’s Apple.”

                She lifts her arm and pushes him into a seated position. Standing up is an awkward experience filled with attempting to not fall straight forward instead of standing straight up. She offers to help him to bed, but he waves her off.

                “So why did those idiots beat you up again?”

                “They saw me working with some kids earlier and wanted to know what it was about. When I didn’t tell them, they got made…. Mad. Mad, they got mad.”

                He climbs into bed beside the wall and hugs his pillow.

                He dreams of Aradia with her arm outstretched to him, asking him to end the world with her. The only problem with that is the fact that Aradia is made of metal and is a blue-blooded robot. He holds his moirail under one arm and his matesprit under the other. The end isn’t painful at all.

Chapter Text

                The first week of working at the orphanage goes quicker than Dave thought it would when he first found out about Vantas. Despite his stubbornness keeping him from taking the pain meds when he wakes up, getting through the day high off the drugs from the night before becomes a regular thing. Trynna doesn’t ask to be picked up almost immediately, being the smart kid she is. He notices that she hasn’t told Rachel yet, though, and considers thanking her for it before putting it out of his mind. It wouldn’t be a good idea to teach a kid her age to keep information from her elders.

                Getting home is a chore though. Some days he stays later than he’s supposed to, either just chatting with Rachel until the sky gets dark or playing with whichever kid decides they want to play. Most of the medication doesn’t last half way through the day, so he’s seeing doubles by the time he does leave and is hesitant to stand on his skateboard. He hugs the elevator wall like it’s his best friend and considers kissing Dirk and/or Rose when they meet him at the door with his pills and a glass of water.

                He’s never been good at taking pills, though. It’s not that they make him edgy or that they get stuck in the back of his throat. They just put him to sleep, regardless of what kind they are. One day he falls asleep drooling on Dirk’s chest; another he falls asleep against Rose’s shoulder as she makes rounds through the shooting game on a car. When he wakes up, she complains that he screwed up her kill-score, which stands at fifty-two. Most of the time, he falls asleep staring after the ghostly apparition of Aradia beside his bed or at the turntables, which still has the note from his father on it.

                He’s woken from a particularly dreamless nap when Rose lays her hand on his shoulder and rubs at it. He blinks his eyes open, barely able to do even that, and rolls his head to the side as she hands him the phone. “It’s for you,” she says, but she sounds irritated as she does. He figures that the phone interrupted her game. “Mom and Daniel aren’t home yet, but make it quick just in case.”

                He slurs a “thank”s to her and sits up, putting the house phone to his ear. “What?” It comes out sounding more like “wut” and he has to rub at one eye as he tries to wake up. “Hello?”

                “Yoooooo,” a drunken voice greets back. It sounds more like a Barbie-doll-blonde from a movie than it does an actual human being and he has to wipe his hand over his face. “Yooo, whoa, that wall came up fasht. Auhm, soyuh, this is Davey, righ….t?”

                His forehead creases as he grabs his glasses off of the bedside table. “Roxy? Where are you? Why are you calling me?”

                “Well, Dirk say’d he was at Jayke’s y-y’know? Buh… But I need shomeun to ‘elp me walk ‘ome. Or drive me. D’y’u have a cahre yit?”

                “I don’t even have my license. Where are you? How far from your apartment are you?”

                “Weyll… Hmm…. My aparthamintsh are... aren’t that far… Jusht dun’wanna leave the pahrtay wif’out an escort.”

                “And you can’t just ask one of the people at the party to help out?”

                “No!”

                He sighs and stands up, pulling his shoes on. “Where are you right now? What road?”

                “Auhm… the shign says… ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Elliot’? Yeah, yeah, Rainbow an’ Elliot. You’ll know which houshe!”

                “I’ll be there in twenty. Can you wait that long?”

                “I gotta piss. Be here shoon.”

                “Use the bathroom there!”

                “I will.”

                “I’ll be there as soon as I can. You’ll have to wait. I don’t have my phone.”

                “What’d Daniel do dis time?”

                “I’ll tell you when I get there.”

                “Kay!”

 

                He would like to say that getting there and back is without its problems, but it’s really not. Getting to Rainbow and Elliot is easy enough and even though he nearly runs into some kids playing jacks on the sidewalk, it’s mostly without hassle. He has no problem finding what house Roxy is at, judging by the thudding bass and the strobe lights.

                Shouldering his way in is a painful experience, but it’s simple enough to find Roxy with her head in the toilet upstairs. There’s a woman beside her with short black hair and glasses, holding Roxy’s dyed-blonde hair out of range. His “sister” is groaning, but whatever overtook her stomach seems to have passed already.

                It’s hard to hear the woman over the sound of the music, but Dave manages to watch her lips just enough to do it. “You’re here to take her home, right?” When he nods, she smiles. “She wouldn’t let anyone at the party do it. She’s been paranoid lately. If you could ask her why, that would help a lot. Oh! I’m Jane. This is my dad’s house, though the party wasn’t supposed to get this out of hand.”

                He nods and thanks her for taking care of her. Jane waves it off because “she’s my friend” before going off to entertain the rest of the crowd. Dave sits on the porcelain side of the bathtub and helps Roxy up when she’s well enough to stand.

                Getting out of the house is significantly easier than getting in. With one arm under Roxy’s and the other supporting his side and the skateboard, he helps Roxy limp the half-mile home. Almost there, Roxy doesn’t warn him at all and gets sick all over his front. Clenching his jaw, he gets her up the stairs to the apartment she shares with a few other kids. Roxy unlocks the door and pushes him toward the bathroom with the promise of one of her ex-boyfriend’s shirts as reward.

                He washes off without thinking too much about it and pulls the ACDC shirt on over his head. Roxy throws his ruined shirt in the sink and runs water over it, screwing her nose up. “Y’u sh’u’d git home, Dave. Daniel shoundsh mad if y’u don’t have a phone.”

                “You going to be fine here alone?”

                She shrugs her shoulders and he takes a seat on the couch. She sits beside him, albeit closer to the bathroom, and they watch television until one of her roommates gets home. He leaves his shirt and sister in her care, instead scooting away on his skateboard.

                The others are in the middle of eating dinner when he gets home. Rose looks to have shut down and is entertaining Daniel and Ronnie in passive-aggressive conversation. Ronnie is startled to see him walk in, but Daniel looks blasé—as if disappointed, but worse.

                “You missed dinner,” he says.

                “Not hungry,” Dave mutters. He’s not at all surprised when he finds that he’s not. Everything just has a vague, numbed-pain to it and he’s amazed that he could even keep balance long enough to get home. He doesn’t even point out that they’re halfway through; he just wants to sleep.

                “Where were you?”

                He considers telling the truth, but that would lead to a lot of questions and him getting in trouble once they find out that he was on the phone. Instead, he just shrugs and rolls his head around until his neck pops. “Lost track of time while I was out.”

                “You shouldn’t be out for a walk anyway, David. But who am I to stop you? You’ll do it anyway.” He sounds exasperated but at the same time resigned. Dave shrugs both the tone and the cold stab of pain in his heart off, instead going straight to his bedroom. He shucks his pants and shoes before slipping into his bed.

                He’s drifting in and out of consciousness when he hears the door open. Rose’s voice makes itself known, something along the lines of thanking him for taking care of Roxy, whatever he did, and that she’ll call tomorrow morning to make sure she gets his shirt back. He mumbles into the pillow unintelligently.

               

                The next morning, he has eaten breakfast and taken a shower by the time that Ronnie knocks on his bedroom door. She hands him the house phone and, sternly despite the hangover, says that the only reason he’s being allowed to speak on it is because the person on the other side claims to be the woman he’s working for.

                “Rachel?”

                “Hello, Dave. I wasn’t sure whether or not you would be awake right now.”

                “’Course I am. Gotta get up and ready to get over there in time.”

                “I was certain that driving that distance only costs you ten minutes. Surely you sleep in?”

                “Can’t drive and there’s no way my parents would take me,” he yawns, quickly apologizing afterward. “What’s up?”

                “I just wanted to say that you shouldn’t come in today. It won’t count for or against your time record and, because of this, I’d rather not have you here. It would mean I would have to pay you and I can’t exactly afford to do that with this orphanage under my wing.”

                “No, I understand. But are you sure you don’t want the help? Free labor. Community service or whatever it’s supposed to be.”

                “You would just be standing around the house like a moron for the majority of the day. We’ve had plans for a while now, mostly concerning getting these tykes out. Besides, Trynna said that your aura has been severely injured lately and you’re in desperate need of healing. Whatever it is that happened must take a lot out of you. Take the day to work on healing.”

                “My ‘aura’?” It hits him last-minute and he falls back on the bed. “Don’t tell me she’s one of the ones with abilities.”

                “Of course she is. She isn’t good at expressing it, but she does what she can to talk about it. So take the day and sleep, relax, get some healing done. I don’t want to see you in here until Monday.”

                It doesn’t even occur to Dave that it is Saturday until she said that. He nods, dumbly, and makes a quite noise of agreement. She dismisses him with a few more words and he hangs the phone up. Almost immediately, he goes to the medicine cabinet, ignoring where Ronnie is sitting on the table and holding an icepack to her head.

                “What was that all about?” She asks.

                “She doesn’t want me to show up ‘till Monday.” He shrugs one shoulder as he attempts to open the child-proof cap. Without the strength in his side to do it, though, he has to hand it to Ronnie to ask her to open it.

                “This is really heavy stuff, Dave. Why are you taking it?”

                “It’s nothing; I’m fine.” She arches her brow as he downs one and puts the bottle back in the cabinet. “Feel better before Rose wakes up; I’m going back to bed.”

 

                Dave emerges from his bedroom around one in the afternoon. Rose and Dirk are in the middle of a game, but Jake is on Skype with his picture blasted across the screen on top of the coffee table, between the two of them. Dave eats a quick lunch before picking up the list Ronnie left before work. For once, the only chore he has to do is to wash the dishes. He gets that done immediately, cleaning out Dirk’s and Rose’s rooms for good measure.

                Rose starts when she hears the dish washer turn on. Evidently, Dirk is the dead one this time around and she flips back to the screen before he can even greet her in favour of killing some bitches. “I thought that you were cleaning the highway.”

                “The person who watches Vantas and me called and told me not to come in until Monday.” She nods, killing off the last of the other team. Rose puts the controller down when the score screen jumps up.

                “Are you going to go out today?”

                “Grounded, remember?” He laughs at the look she gives but otherwise ignores it. “I’m going to spend most of my day in bed. Why do you ask?”

                “I was going to give you my phone to keep in contact with us in case mom—or Daniel—come home early.”

                “Thanks but no thanks.” He holds his hand to his side, scrunching his nose up. “I’d rather sleep than even potentially get in trouble. Plus, my side really fucking hurts.”

                “Do you need to take your pills?”

                He shakes his head. “I already took some. Wake me in an hour so that I can take another pill, though, ok?” She nods, wishing that he sleeps well and he slumps off to bed.

                He vaguely remembers Rose waking him, drowning the next pill and rolling over. His father is the next to pull him from the festering tendrils of his subconscious. He opens his eyes to the sight of exhausted eyes and a gentle smile. Daniel’s silvered hair catches in the sunset light drifting in lazily from between the blinds. Dave smiles tiredly. “Sup, dad?”

                “How are you feeling?”

                He shrugs one shoulder, carefully rolling onto his side. Daniel jerks protectively, almost lunging forward to stop him. When he realizes that Dave is fine—ginger about lying on his side but fine—he relaxes, if only somewhat. “Tired, mostly. The drugs knocked me out, so I’ve been asleep almost all day.” He yawns into his hand, fingers curled gently. “Sorry I didn’t unload the dish washer.”

                “Dirk was doing it when I got home.” Dave nods, muttering about thanking him later.

                “How was work?”

                “Long, mostly. How’d you sleep?”

                “Fine.”

                “The Urgent Care called me today.”

                “What’d they say?”

                “That they read your X-Ray incorrectly and the rib that they thought was cracked is actually broken as well. Nothing else you need to do to care for it, but you still need to take it easy.”

                Dave nods, completely calm as he concludes: “I take it I’m grounded, then.”

                “You’re already grounded. I just wish you had told me the truth, Dave.”

                “I did.”

                “You told me it was a bruise.”

                “That was before I went in.”

                “You also told me you were fine.”

                “I am. No surgery, nothing more than some pills and a little pressure from a bandage, really. No big deal.”

                He sighs, exasperated. “David.”

                “I’m fine.”

                “You had two of your ribs broken by some punks and you won’t even tell me why.”

                “It’s not important as to why they did it.”

                “Dave, they wouldn’t have beaten the shit out of you for no reason. Who just targets some teenage kid with groceries and doesn’t even take the groceries at the end?”

                “Dad.” He reaches up and puts his hand on his father’s shoulder, looking him in the eye as best as he can. “I’m fine, really. I didn’t lie to you; it just never came up that I broke them. Besides, I put it on my insurance, not yours.” He looks as if he is going to protest, but Dave uses his hand on his shoulder as leverage to sit up.

                Daniel puts his arms around him, careful of his ribs in favor of pulling Dave’s head down to rest it on his collarbone. Dave’s arms fit around him the same way they fit around him when he was six years old and could hide behind his legs. “I’m just glad that you’re alive, Dave. Broken ribs have led to punctured lungs and kill almost too often. I’ve tried enough of these cases in automobile accidents to know how it goes so, so wrong.”

                “And I wasn’t in a car crash,” he chuckles. The droning heartbeat in his ear sets him close enough to fall back asleep at the drop of a hat. “The moment—the moment—that I start having troubles breathing, I’ll either tell you or I’ll go to the Emergency Room. Whichever is closer.”

                “Thank you, Dave.” He feels one of his father’s hands hold his head against Daniel’s chest, pinning him to the sound of his heartbeat. He doesn’t even realize that he has started dozing until he feels his father move him around and lay him back down on the bed. He feels the sheet be pulled up over his shoulder as he rolls into his pillow and the cool touch of his father’s hand to the back of his neck.

                “Talk to me tomorrow morning, Dave,” he says. “I’ll give you your phone back. You at least deserve to be able to text your friends if you’re going to be forced to suffer through two broken ribs.”

                He nods, not really paying attention, and listens to the door shut.

 

                He wakes to the smell of cooked meat and taco seasoning. His stomach growls, neither out of spite or appreciation, merely reminding him that the last time he had eaten was (according to the clock on his bedside table) about seven hours ago. Ronnie must have gotten home very late if they were eating at this time.

                He rolls out of bed, holding onto his side as he limps into the kitchen. Daniel looks up from where he’s gathering together the plates for dinner on the table, asks him how he slept and frowns when Dave’s only answer is to open the medicine cabinet and pull out his medicine. He struggles to open it and asks Daniel to open it for him as he gets a cup of water. Sitting on the counter, he drowns it and waits for them to take control.

                Dirk walks into the kitchen, laughing at something one of the women in the other room said. “Hey bro,” he greets. Dave reaches up over his shoulder and grabs the ibuprophen, passing both that and the other half of his glass over to him. Dirk takes three of them before tossing back the pill bottle. Daniel chuckles at them, smiling fondly, and Dave cards his hand through Dirk’s hair.

                “Your head must hurt pretty badly,” Dave chuckles. “I mean, you didn’t even put up a fight.”

                “Says the guy with the broken ribs.”

                He shrugs his shoulder and leans back against the cabinet. “How’d your game go with Rose?”

                “We’re fourth in the tourney right now.”

                “’Grats.”

                “Dinner is ready,” Daniel chuckles. “Get your drinks ready while I go tell the girls.”

                Dirk passes Dave his cup back, grabbing another beside Dave’s head. “Ew, gross, I don’t want your germs, Dirk. Just take this cup; I’ll have a new one.”

                Dirk snorts. “My germs are your germs, y’nerd.”

                “That’s like saying we’re twins, y’derp. Don’t go flaunting that around like it’s some sort of fact; you can’t prove anything like that.”

                Dirk just rolls his eyes and pulls him off the counter, pushing him toward the table with a single hand between his shoulders. Dave pulls Rose’s chair out for her when she walks in and Dirk passes her a glass of orange soda. Dave takes a seat beside her as Daniel pulls Ronnie’s chair out and kisses her cheek.

                They don’t talk much about the kids, mostly centered on how Ronnie was stuck dealing with customer services at her cosmetics job and how horrible that was. Daniel talks about how he had to spend six hours trying to find a file and the corresponding passage in the law book. He skips the lecture usually aimed at Dave that night in favor of the start that Roxy gives when she walks in through the door unannounced.

                She goes straight to Dave and leans over the back of his shoulder, pressing a kiss to his cheek. “Thanks for walking me home last night, Dave. I washed your shirt last night and Becca and I are on our way home from class, so I figured I’d stop by and give it to you.”

                “Oh, ah, yeah, sure,” he nods, entirely too certain that the fire on his cheek is from Ronnie’s glare. “How come you were so forceful on not leaving without someone you knew?”

                “I’ve just been paranoid lately. ‘Cus’ I’m drinkin’ less. You can thank Janey for that, though. And thanks for staying with me until Becca got home. I probably would have gone crazy if not for that.”

                “Yeah, just, give a call, I don’t mind. It’s not like I have much of anything else to do.”

                She laughs and nods. “Anyway, Becca’s downstairs. It’s nice to see you again, Rose, mom. Daniel. Dirk, shoot me a message later, ‘kay? We gotta talk about Janey.” He nods and, before anyone else can get another word in, she’s out of the house and probably in the elevator.

                “You were ‘out’, David?” He flinches at the sound of his full name in the tone of his father’s voice. He adverts his eyes, looking anywhere but him. “Are you going to start explaining?”

                He opens his mouth twice before sighing and nodding. It’s useless at this point to lie about it anyway, not when his father is a lawyer and is concerned enough as it is about his side. It wouldn’t take much to make him realize that he knew the exact reason why he had his shit handed to him on a silver platter, though Daniel must already suspect it. “I was asleep when Rose woke me up. Don’t give me that look; I’m not going to lie.”

                She huffs and, straight-shouldered, takes another bite of her taco.

                “Dirk was out and, well, Roxy and Rose still don’t really get on, y’know? So I took the call. She was at a party but wanted someone to either give her a ride or walk her home. I tried to get her to have one of the people at the party do it, but she refused. I got there and I helped her get home but when I asked her if she would be fine to be there alone, she tried to get me to leave but it was pretty obvious that she wouldn’t feel alright if I did. So I just sat with her and waited for one of her roommates to get home. When she did, I left. Then I got home. You know the rest.”

                “Why didn’t you just tell us that, yesterday?”

                “I was exhausted. I had just practically carried someone home with my ribs as they are; I didn’t really have much energy to do anything other than sleep. And… I didn’t want to get in trouble for being on the phone. I am still grounded.”

                Daniel sighs, shakes his head, and mutters. He can’t hear it completely, just something about having to talk and after dinner. He nods his head anyway and finishes his taco half-heartedly. Dirk and Rose clear the table and he remembers to thank Dirk for emptying the washer just as he goes to wash the dishes and put them in. Dirk says something about not wanting to wake him and going to go plan the next strategy with Rose. Ronnie catches the awkward air of the room and leaves without an excuse.

                Dave backs himself up into a corner and crosses his arms defensively. Daniel arches his brow and he drops them, puts them back, drops them again and, with a sigh that took way too much effort to create, crosses them again, leaning on his left leg. “Why, again, didn’t you tell us why you were gone?”

                He adverts his eyes just in time for Daniel to take the glasses off his face. Daniel leans back against the island, waiting for his answer. Dave knows that part of the reason why he moved so far back is to prove to himself whether or not his hesitance is a show or not. He didn’t need to question whether or not the idea of disappointing his father was unsettling.

                He dry swallows to build the courage up to answer. “I had helped her home, so my side was aching. Having trouble breathing—not because my lungs are injured, but just the stress of exercise, y’know?” He teases his lip with his teeth briefly, trying to read something on Daniel’s face. Nothing comes, though, and his eyes find the grout between the tiles at his feet to be the most interesting thing in the world. “And… I didn’t want to get in trouble for being on the phone. I’m still grounded, after all. I thought that… you would get mad if I started the story with ‘well, I was on the phone today and…’, which I probably would have….”

                Daniel’s face finally shows some little bit of emotion. It’s careful consideration and the tilt of his head in either direction to go along with his thoughts—enough to either be really, really good on Dave’s part or really, really bad. A flip of a troll caegar could very well determine the outcome here.

                He’s lucky, though, because Daniel walks forward and places his hand on the top of his head. The other goes around his shoulder, pulling him in close. “You’re not in trouble, Dave,” he mutters. “I’m sorry I told you that you missed dinner.”

                He shakes his head. “I was seriously not hungry by that point.”

                “Nonsense. The only reason you said that was too keep a fight from happening.”

                “No, Roxy got sick on me while I was carrying her home. That’s why she had my shirt.”

                A pause, then: “fair enough.” Daniel chuckles, rubbing one hand down the back of Dave’s head. “Are you going to go clean up the highway tomorrow?”

                “Nah, Rachel wants me to hang around here until Monday. I’ll probably sleep all day again.” He nods. “Why?”

                “Well, if you manage to catch me before I leave for the office, go ahead and remind me to give you your phone back. It’ll give you a day to ignore the constant buzzing as you get caught up. Go to bed, Dave. You look sick.”

                He chuckles and rolls his eyes, taking his glasses back. He leaves them next to the sink in the bathroom, going instead to pass out in his bed. He doesn’t dream much that night, but what he does is horrible and tear-inducing. Almost all of them are dreams of memories with Aradia.

               

                The next morning, Dave wakes to take his pills around the same time Daniel is drinking coffee and reading the paper. They talk for a little bit before the pills start making him feel giddy and he leaves to go back to sleep. Daniel stops him in the doorway and asks if he’s forgetting to tell him something. Dave shakes his head and points out that there’s nothing on his mind that he needs to tell him.

                Dirk wakes him two hours later by throwing Dave’s phone on the bed beside his head, flicking his thumb in the process. “That piece of shit has been ringing nonstop,” he snaps. “It’s disturbing our kill combo out here.”

                “Could have just fucking turned it off,” Dave grumbles and lifts it to his face. He puts the passcode in (Aradia’s Wriggling Day—what a horrible idea that had been) and silences it. While he’s at it, he does a quick once-through to find that almost all of the messages are from Aradia with one or two pictures from John of the lake he and his sister went to for their summer vacation. He rolls over to sleep without a second thought.

                When at last he does wake up, he flicks through all of Aradia’s messages. Heartache after heartache bundles tears in the corners of his eyes and he has to physically put the phone down across the room to not answer any of the texts or return any of the calls. The hardest part comes when she calls him and the phone is right there—right there in his hand. He can’t even trust himself to not answer it long enough to finish going through the messages.

                Dirk finds him with his ears between his knees and stifling a sob half an hour later when the insistent vibrating finally pisses him off enough to investigate. It takes all of one glance at his miserable existence to tell Dave to “shut the fuck up” and to answer Aradia’s newest call.

                “Look,” he says gruffly. Dave glances up, just to make sure it’s Aradia he’s talking to. It is. “He’s grounded. He won’t be answering the phone any time soon. You should just stop calling. No amount of missed calls will make my father give Dave back his cell.” He hangs up without waiting for a reply. When there’s no call back a minute and a half later, Dave sobs again, silencing himself by putting his mouth against his leg.

                Dirk puts his hand on the crown of Dave’s head and mutters a heartfelt apology. To prove it, he takes Dave’s phone with him, leaving him alone in his bedroom. Dave wants to call Aradia, to apologize, to beg for her back, for anything, because life is hard enough with her, he isn’t sure how much longer he can last without his other half. Everything is an empty, vacant hole waiting to be filled but it won’t be because he can’t take her back. He can’t.

                He won’t.

                He sobs.

Chapter Text

                When Monday finally comes around, Dave isn’t entire sure he’s ready to leave. Still, he makes himself ready, nearly on top of the skateboard half way through the living room. Ronnie yells at him to wait until he gets to the ground floor.

                The weight of his phone in his pocket after so long is foreign and almost absurd. According to the call log, Aradia only called back once after Dirk told her that he’s grounded. It happened this morning at three AM and the message lasted not even half a second. There was absolutely no noise to it, just the vacant air of someone turning a phone away from their ear and ending a call.

                Rachel, who has now acquired a bandage on her forehead and another on her cheek, greets him when he walks into the orphanage’s kitchen. She has already begun lunch, even though breakfast could hardly have finished, judging by the dishes on the counter. They talk briefly, ask each other how their weekends were, how they’re doing, et cetera. He waves his weekend off and she says it was a “learning experience”, tapping at the bandage on her cheek. Dave nods, pretending to understand, and turns to do the dishes.

                Once he gets a rhythm going, it doesn’t take long to finish and put them away. She shoos him out the back door.

                Karkat is standing with two scythes, one to each hand, watching over the wrigglers currently performing some sort of training move Dave sort-of recognizes. He isn’t surprised to see Trynna using two pairs of nun-chunks. (He isn’t sure why this isn’t startling.) The move, as far as he can tell, is defensive, based more on trying to keep a limb after already being hit slightly.

                “Beldan,” he calls. One of the boy wrigglers—a first-timer to the Trials if this is Trynna’s second time—jumps and spins around to see him. His face has lost the majority of the brown blood that had been building under his skin, going almost deathly pale. Dave manages not to chuckle as he nods his head toward the arm supporting the brunt of the sword’s weight. “Lift your elbow. Not that much. There, now try it again.”

                He walks around the rather large group of trainees to where Karkat is standing, examining each of them. Karkat's face, normally angry or focused on watching the wrigglers, is completely devoid of all emotion, commanding his “students” how to do another defensive move. One of them snorts and a handful of others sigh, but those that aren’t on their first time around fix their weapons and start doing it.

                “Preparing for the Trials,” Karkat explains. Dave nods, his eyes scanning over the idiots who aren’t giving it their all. “Any idea on how to get them to listen?”

                “Got a sword, a piece of paper and a black or blue pen?”

                Karkat’s brow pinches in the center. “Not even going to ask why you need the last two. But a sword? I know we have some sized for the wrigglers, it’s a pretty common weapon, but I don’t know if we would have one your size. If that’s what you’re looking for. Rachel might keep one or two in the weapons vault. Go ahead and ask her. She’ll get you the paper and pen while she’s at it.”

                “I’ll be right back.”

                Karkat just nods, watching him make an arc around the kids before going inside.

                Rachel looks up from where she’s cutting something on a board as he closes the door. “I didn’t expect you to be back so soon. Especially not because fighting seems to be all that you do, according to Stuart.”

                He shrugs. “Actually, do you have a piece of paper, a blue or black pen and a sword about the right size for someone my height?”

                Her lips pinch to one side and her eyes grow distant. Her brown eyes flicker back and forth, individually sorting the contents in the vault of her mind. Her lips open slowly as Surprise nudges her nose into a short eskimo kiss, flickering its eyelashes in a butterfly kiss along her cheeks. She does a couple of little hops on one foot. “Maybe? Let me go check.” She turns around, hopping in place as she reaches over the top of the fridge. The first piece of paper she grabs is really dusty, so she leaves it on the counter and grabs a second one. She points to a drawer next to his hip as she disappears around the corner.

                About five pens later, he finds a working blue pen and a working black pen. Scribbling out the main address, he carefully picks through the parts of a legal contract. Consideration, intent, deal…. The agreement is completely within legal ramifications, but the last thing part about him having to be legal age is kind of an elbow in the mix.

                He scribbles that part in under Karkat’s signature, adds his own signature into a part with his name classifying him as a willing participant, et cetera. He goes out to find the Troll before Rachel comes back, blue pen still in hand while the black ink dries on the paper. Karkat gives him a dubious look after reading it.

                “You sound like a lawyer. It’s not like this will hold up in court.”

                “It’s a legally binding contract, once Rachel signs saying that she is willing to allow the fight. Also, do you have a camera phone?”

                “Upstairs, why?”

                “Can I use it?”

                “You’re not going to sign me up for some bullshit phone-porn, are you?”

                “I’m going to use it to text my father, ass.”

                “Yeah go ahead. Gamzee’ll be up there to show you where I keep it while it’s charging.”

                “He’s here?”

                “‘Course he is. He’s been here every day that you have been. He doesn’t trust you being here without him. Also, he’s fighting with his lusus again so I’m letting him hide out for a bit. Turn around so I can sign this.”

                Dave does, letting him press the paper to his back and scribble his name out on the sheet. Dave takes that and the pen when he’s done.

                “So, why the contract?”

                Dave waves it off. “You don’t need to worry about it. I gotta go write something for Makara to sign, too. That is, if he really is your moirail?”

                “Of course he fucking is! What kind of a question is that?”

                “Gotta make sure for legal reasons; don’t ask me! Wasn’t an attack or anything, just clarification.”

                Karkat looks just a little bit angry, but lets him go back inside anyway. Dave grabs a second sheet off the top of the fridge, writing out the sections for Rachel, Gamzee and his “father” to sign. In the meantime, Rachel returns with a single katana in her hand.

                She’s weighing it like someone foreign to the weapon would. Her lips are pursed and her eyes look distantly calculating, as if she isn’t even sure if it's a sword. He takes it from her when she holds it out, unsheathing it just enough to see the blade. Dull, as far as he can tell, for practice and not actual use. It wouldn’t take long to fix that, but as this is going to be the only fight for him to use it in and he’s not even aiming to kill let alone hurt; he’ll be fine. Or, he should be…. “Do you know if Karkat’s scythes are sharpened?”

                “I don’t think they would need to be,” she shrugs, placing her hands on the bottom of her ribcage. “But, knowing him, he would probably keep them sharpened just in case. Do you think you’ll be fine with a sword like that? Karkat’s the oldest any of my charges have ever been, so I haven’t needed to keep that sharpened, too.”

                He’s not all that used to using a katana. He had used a longsword during the years of practice his parents had subjected both himself and Dirk to. Mostly it was so that she could get good videos of actual sword fights to use as references in her drawing, but he thinks that he’ll be able to survive it. He read once that sword fighting was like riding a bike—when your life is in danger, you never quite forget how to do it. He may not have picked a sword up for a few years, but he could still wield anything of similar girth against Aradia’s whip.

                He supposes he’ll survive. Hopefully. Even if he dies, the world won’t be missing a very valuable person anyway.

                “Where’s Karkat’s bedroom?”

                “I don’t know if he wants you to know.”

                “Gotta find Gamzee to have him sign this contract. You too. Go ahead and read it.”

                She nods. “He’s on the second story, the right hand side of the hall. Fourth door. If you find a bathroom, you’ve gone too far.”

                “Thanks.” She nods again, this time in a shooing motion, and he hurries up the staircase. He does end up going too far, but the door next to it is apparently Karkat’s since Makara is curled up on top of a bed. He looks up from whatever book he’s reading and pinches his brows (what hasn’t been shaved off, at least) together at the sudden intrusion.

                “Ain’t you s’posed to be not here?” His voice is slow, almost sultry, but he mostly sounds distracted, not high and definitely not angry. It’s the kind of tone that his dad uses when he’s uncertain of something, debating either side of a situation.

                “Two things,” Dave replies. Gamzee’s brow arches this time. The only reason he can tell is because the grey part of the paint on his face (or the part that isn’t painted? He isn’t sure.) raises along with the rest of it. “I need you to sign something downstairs and give me Vantas’ phone.”

                He stands up. He doesn’t do it in the normal legs-over-the-bedside way, either. He leans forward until his forehead is nearly on the bed, placing the book on the middle of it as if it were something to be revered, then rolls away, as if scared to displace it in any way. Gamzee goes and unhooks the flip phone (fuck, how old are those? Eight years now?) from the charger on the other side of the room, slipping it into his pocket while Dave is obviously watching.

                He pushes Dave out of the way before shutting the door carefully. The thought of him not wanting to disturb the book crosses Dave’s mind but he brushes it off because not even an avid Christian thinks of the Bible that way. At least, he doesn’t think so. Religion has never been one of the most important things in his life, even if his mother technically makes him Jewish and he had a Bar Mitzvah.

                Gamzee’s grip around his wrist is tight enough to turn his hand white as he yanks him away from Karkat’s room. Rachel looks up from cooking and smiles at Gamzee as he releases Dave’s arm. She greets him, but Gamzee ignores her in favor of glaring at Dave. He only gives up when Dave hands him the papers for him to read.

                “Palebro OK’d paper with switch of pen?” He asks. His voice sounds gravelly, angry, and the sound is more than enough to send shivers up Dave’s spine. There’s something inside him, something primal and instinctual, that’s tell him to run. Something telling him that being around Gamzee when he’s mad—being around a High Blood—is a horrible, bad idea. He can’t even dry swallow the fear. All he can do is nod.

                “My gazeglobes be all over this. Palebro-fightin’ ain’t without me.”

                Dave nods again and watches as he hesitantly picks up the blue pen. He bounces it on the top of the table, thinking it over, as if it’s one of the worst decisions he will ever make. Dave feels the color drain from his face as Gamzee glares at him over his shoulder. Cold eyes, even colder glare, and it feels like his heart stutters out of fear. At last, Makara drags the pen along in the form of a signature.

                “Goin’ t’go get my speak on with Karkat. If he don’t agree, his phone not yours. You answer to me. Got it?”

                He nods his head, suddenly very, very glad that he had no need to empty his bladder earlier. If he had, it would be all over his legs right now. Gamzee opens the door to the backyard, letting it tap shut behind him. Dave’s next breath is physically audible as he bends over the table.

                “He’s only a little scary before you get to know him,” Rachel giggles.

                He doesn’t want to get to know him.

                Gamzee watches over Dave as he takes pictures of the three separate pages, doing it six or seven times just to ensure that he gets them to be legible in the pictures. He goes through and carefully attaches them, in order, before sending them to his father with a quick “-Dave” signature. He goes through and texts them to himself, listening to the buzzing in his pocket. He takes a quick glance down at his pocket before nodding to himself.

                The answer is anything but instantaneous.

                “If you got your phone in your pocket,” Gamzee starts, confused, “then why do you need Karkat’s phone to do this?”

                “Third party representation,” he answers. “It proves that we did it willingly by sending it to my dad under a number not already in his phonebook. He doesn’t need to know that it’s one of the participants. Doesn’t matter anyway; it won’t go to trial as is written in the contract, but he won’t send me the signature-of-the-day to let me go through with it unless I take all the ‘necessary precautions’, as he likes to say.” Also, he had forgotten that he had his phone today. That part will never be mentioned to anyone with ears.

                “Shit bro, it’s like you got both hands in the middle of a slimey law pie. Like, how do you keep a thinkpan cool as yours when works the only thing it does? Work, work an’ work ‘til the gears turn lava an’ melt right out of your auricular sponges, bro.”

                What?

                “Ah… Thanks?”

                He really isn’t sure what in the world he just said.

                Nevertheless, he receives a text on Karkat’s phone at the same time that his own vibrates. Flipping open Karkat’s phone, he finds it to be his father’s signature. He sends it to his own phone, time and date stamped, before carefully copying onto the paper. He adds a time and date stamp behind the signature, too, being sure to underline the “electronically sends” part in his father’s paragraph.

                He checks for Rachel’s signature, just to make sure that she agreed to Karkat being legally bound to the contract, how she understands the permissions that have been restricted from her due to her signing it and her Rights as caregiver as one of the participants. He nods to himself, seeing it, and piles the two papers on top of each other with Karkat’s phone used as a paperweight and his phone added on top, just so that it doesn’t break in the fight. (He notices that it has an alert for four texts and wonders what the unaccounted one is for and who it’s from.)

                Gamzee takes a seat beside the wrigglers against the back wall of the house as the three of them walk out. Rachel wrings her hands in a towel as Dave tosses the sword back and forth between his hands. Unsheathed, the majority of the blade is a lot sharper than near the hilt. He doesn’t think it’s enough to possibly slice bone, but it would be enough to dig into muscle and disable an arm, be it that he need to.

                “Everything figured out for that stupid contract?” Karkat taunts.

                He spins the sword around in one hand, smirking. “May be stupid to you, Karkat, but it saves my ass if I need it to.”

                Karkat shrugs, his eyes flickering to the twirling metal in his hand. “Can you actually fight with that thing or am I just waiting for nothing?”

                “Well, it’s a bit shorter than I’m used to.”

                Dave waits for him to look to his blade again, just one last time, before pulling out of the twirl with a fine arc at his chin. Aimed to graze, not to hurt; a fight that ended that quickly would be worse than boring. Karkat catches his blade between his scythes.

                He’s quick to take to fighting, too. The scythe with the majority of his sword to it stays, but the reinforcement leaves, taking a thick swing to Dave’s head. He dodges—bending at the knee and taking his sword with him through the opening of the scythe holding it. Karkat jumps over his blade.

                It’s metal on metal, sweat, sweat, the ache of his ribs growing enough to force him to switch arms. Blood in his mouth, on his tongue, thick and sweet, coppery iron filling every scent around him. Karkat doesn’t look to be any better, but he doesn’t get a good look at the color of his blood as he spits it out. By the color of his eyes, he doesn’t have to guess at whether or not he’s a mutant, even if he’s on the opposite side of the spectrum than Gamzee.

                And fuck all if he can’t fight. It’s a disgusting tango, the kind of pain and misfortune, grace and elegance in battle, swipes and fury written all over the other’s face as rebound shots become clear. The art of opening and closing one’s defenses in time with step-step-swipe, step-step-swipe; pant-pant-sweat, pant-pant-sweat.

                Karkat is the single most glorious opponent he has ever fought and he isn’t at all ashamed as his sword is stolen, as he lands on his back and as the sword sinks into the ground between his arm and his chest. He catches his breath, ignoring the aching burn in his lungs as he goes still.

                The wrigglers collectively hold their breath, gasps held between them as if they couldn’t believe that Karkat had just killed him—as if they couldn’t believe that Karkat had killed anyone at all before this.

                Karkat’s panting and tinted sweat has soaked the collar of his shirt, a red flush brought to his cheeks from exertion. And there’s a grin on his face, a tiny little relieved grin as his eyes flicker over Dave’s. All at once, Dave opens his mouth. “That’s in the middle of the day where you can actually see everything. As far as I’m aware, the Trials are held in pitch black, right? Or have they changed that?”

                “It’s so dark you can’t see your nose in front of your face,” Karkat replies. He sticks his hand out and Dave stares at it, dubiously, for a few seconds before taking it. Karkat lifts him to his feet, jerking the sword out of the ground along with him. He addresses the wrigglers with an exaggerated roll of his eyes and a half-grunt-half-sigh motion. “Go shower. We’ll try not to get you idiots killed off tomorrow.” They all nod, still half uncertain on how Dave’s demise wasn’t real. “And don’t take too long, any of you! There are thirty of you guys that need to shower and five showers . Four to each bathroom! That doesn’t mean that you automatically get to take a really long time if you’re the last, either! Get in, get out. All of you.”

                They’re inside and running before Dave can hear the period in Karkat’s last sentence. Gamzee comes forward and does a preliminary check on Karkat’s body, mainly to make sure all limbs work and there aren’t too many holes in his body. When at last he approves, he pats Karkat’s shoulder, glares at Dave and goes back inside. Rachel is inside already.

                He follows Karkat to the door, exhausted and with a dull ache in his side.

                It’s really not his fault that he doesn’t see Karkat pushing him against the wall coming, or the rough crush of lips together. It’s not his fault at all, but he feels himself growl as his fingers dig into the back of Karkat’s head. Sharp teeth pull away, grazing along Dave’s jaw, digging into part of his collarbone. Dave gasps, a short intake of breath through his nose. He feels Karkat’s nails dig into the back of his neck, scratching in long, complete lines. Dave pushes him away, taking him back only to shove his tongue into his mouth. Sharp teeth nip at the tip and Dave pulls Karkat’s bottom lip between his teeth.

                Then they’re pushing each other away, both red in the face and eyes blown wide. Karkat blinks, startled by the sudden appearance of one of his hands over Dave’s shoulder on the wall and Dave leans his head back. He can feel the prickly burn of the trail Karkat left behind on his neck, no doubt already reddening.

                “This is so beyond borderline I don’t even know how to describe it,” Dave groans. Everything burns and aches, especially his ribs, but fuck if that wasn’t distracting enough to take his mind off of it temporarily. Fuck if it was Karkat who was distracting him. Just fuck him. Wait.

                Karkat looks torn, as if he’s doing something he know he shouldn’t be. It doesn’t seem to bother him, though, because he steps forward, presses their chests and legs together, catching him in place with the clever use of his arm folded along the wall. Troll lips catch his in a, this time much gentler, kiss. Dave’s hands linger on Karkat’s waist, fingers twitching as he truly wonders whether or not he should be pushing him away or pulling him impossibly closer.

                He really doesn’t know.

                Karkat pulls away, grinning like a madman, and goes inside.

                Dave has to wipe his hands over his face so that he doesn’t grin quite as widely as Karkat and goes in after him. Rachel is handing him a plastic cup and a few small red pills. He drowns them, washes the cup out and mutters about using it for lunch before disappearing upstairs.

                “Do you want any pain medication, Dave?”

                “Can’t,” he shakes his head. “They would interfere with the meds I’m already on.” Her brow pinches together and it occurs to him how bad that sounded rather belatedly. “Oh, um, no, just, pain meds. For my side. I thought you knew, since Trynna told you about my aura or whatever it was that you said she sees?”

                She nods, albeit much slower than he wishes. “I just don’t know of any medication that would be interfered with by something as weak as ibuprophen.”

                “Well, not ‘interfere’ as much as, well, overload my system I guess? I’m on some really strong pain medication for it, so…. I don’t know. I guess I just don’t want to risk it.”

                “You sure?”

                “Yeah. I mean, with a fight as good as that, it’ll take more than a few hours for the pain and soreness to set in. More than enough for me to get home and take the next dose anyway.”

                “As long as you’re sure. If you change your mind, just ask me.”

                He nods and gathers his phone up. There are five notifications on, six by the time he slips it into his pocket, but he doubts that any of them are actually important enough to look at right at this very moment. He also folds the contract in fourths, slipping it into his back pocket. Rachel sheathes the sword Karkat left on the table and instructs him to set the table while she puts it away.

                He’s half way through putting the plates out when she gets back and starts helping. She tells him to set an extra plate for himself and he tries to turn it down, so she just sighs and places one for him. He feels guilty for it immediately—an extra mouth she doesn’t need to feed but insists on doing it anyway.

                Lunch is quick and filled with more laughter than he expected. Karkat, who is seated beside him, cracks a few dirty jokes that have the older kids blushing and laughing, Rachel in tears and the younger kids laughing at their laughter. Gamzee makes a few bad cracks, three practical jokes occur where one kid ends up with Jell-o in his or her nose and Dave is in stitches by the end.

                Karkat presses him into the counter after everyone has cleared out of the room and bites at his lips, pushing more of his teeth onto him than his tongue. Dave is a mess by the end, smirking under Karkat’s holier-than-thou chuckle. “Just wait, Vantas,” Dave says. “You’ll end up a mess by the end of the week.”

                Karkat rolls his eyes and goes into the front room just in time for Dave to start working on dishes. It’s almost farce-worthy how Rachel walks in immediately after Karkat leaves and stands at the other side of the sink to help wash and dry by hand. It would be easier to use a dishwasher, but with the amount of people under the roof Dave isn’t surprised. It would equate to at least six loads a day.

                They are finishing up when Trynna walks into the kitchen. Her brow is pinched and she’s biting at her lip in confusion. “Dave?”

                “Yeah, Trynna?”

                “Um… There’s someone here to see you….”

                He freezes in his spot, brow furrowed as he stares at Trynna. The Troll shrugs her shoulders and bites the tip of her thumb before shrugging again. Rachel turns to face him, almost accusatory, but Dave honestly doesn’t know who it could be.

                Trynna shrugs a third time as he grabs a towel off the counter to dry his hands off with. He mutters about not knowing who it could be, which is about enough to convince Rachel that he doesn’t know because she’s humming and confused, right alongside him.

                He freezes in the doorway.

                Her hair is a little stringy and it hangs limp around her as she turns to face him. The smile is distant and her maroon eyes are stuck between accusatory and hurt beyond hurt. Dave’s breathing hitches in his chest and his jaw locks.

                Her voice is far from the one she usually uses. Angry and hurt reverberate through every syllable—every letter—and the hollow go-with-the-flow nature sounds to have long since left. “Dave.”

                It doesn’t take a genius to know why she’s here or how she got here. He just knows that Sollux had something to do with it. “Kitchen. Now.” He hopes it sounds angry, because he just feels so utterly fucking lost. Here’s the one source of all this heartache, all this need to get away from himself because he started it all, and he can’t even push her away like he needs to.

                Rachel looks up from where she’s started to console Trynna as he walks in. She starts to ask what’s going on when Aradia follows him inside. Trynna takes two looks between them before she runs straight up to Dave and wraps her arms around his thighs, placing her head against his stomach.

                He wrestles his fingers under her wrists, pulling her away. “I’m sorry, but you need to leave, Trynna.”

                “I want to stay! You’re really weird because she’s here and I can help!”

                “No, Trynna. You can’t.”

                “Yes I can!”

                “You need to leave.”

                “I’m going to go tell Karkat!”

                “Then go tell him.”

                “Fine! I will!” She huffs and runs. Dave goes to the nearest corner, turning around to glare at Aradia. She crosses her arms under her chest, arches her brow, purses her lips and waits. Rachel looks between the two of them, confused.

                It doesn’t even take two minutes for Karkat to push the door open and freeze between the jam and Trynna. Karkat talks over his shoulder, “You need to leave, Trynna.”

                “But you told me that you would see why I couldn’t be here for the conversation!”

                “Fuck off you little shit. This is a conversation for grownups.”

                “Grownups don’t curse all the time like that, Karkat!” She runs up the stairs and a door slams somewhere in the house. Karkat closes the door behind him, locks the others out and arcs around Aradia to stand next to Rachel.

                “So who did you have to pay off to find out where I’ve been?”

                Aradia snorts at Dave, rolling her eyes. “It’s not that hard when my matesprit’s lusus is our—well, your—parole officer.”

                “Who, by the way, is sworn to secrecy, which means that however you came by the knowledge of where I’ve been spending my time is illegal and fully liable to be tried in court.”

                “We’ve done a lot worse than that between the two of us.”

                “Megido, this is a bad idea. What the fuck do you think you’re doing here?”

                “Getting answers.” The word is almost snarled. Dave’s world spins and he grabs onto the counter with one hand. Aradia doesn’t seem to notice. “You broke up with me and then you stopped talking to me. For a week—a week! You didn’t even have the balls to break up with me in person! You did it over text and without my consent! That’s not how a break up works! It has to be mutual!”

                “Don’t bullshit me, Megido. If that were true, then we both know Her Imperial would still be with the leader of those knights, whatever the fuck they’re called. Their breakup was completely one-sided on the Imperial’s fault and to this day he complains about it. It’s been three fucking sweeps. I don’t appreciate the half-assed attempt.”

                “It was worth the try.”

                “No it wasn’t.”

                She rolls her eyes again. “Look, I just want to know why it is that you decided it would be a good idea to break off our moiraillegiance”—the door wriggles in the jam briefly, but it stops as soon as it starts—“and not give me a good answer.”

                “I did, though. I told you that I’m not going to put up with this shit anymore and I’m not.”

                “That doesn’t answer anything! It just tells me that you’re hiding from me and there’s no reason for you to! We’ve been together for an absurdly long time for a cross-species couple, so why the hell can’t you just fucking tell me!”

                “Because you don’t need to know!”

                “Bullshit!”

                Dave winces as the decibel leaves the room quiet. He can almost hear the sound of their breathing as Gamzee opens the back door, coming to stand beside Karkat. “I’m going to tell you this one time, Megido, and then you are going to walk out that door and leave this orphanage alone. I am not your moirail. I will not tell you why I changed my mind. You can leave now.”

                “You never were good at bossing me around.”

                “You never could break my resolve.”

                They both have to concede.

                “You should just fucking tell me, Dave. I don’t care if we go to juvie; I don’t care if we end up with criminal records worse than they are now; I don’t care. I don’t care! I don’t! So why can’t you understand that I don’t care why so long as I know why. Look me in the eye and tell me what you won’t with a shield as stupid as those things on your face!”

                He pulls them off willingly. His entire jaw aches from clenching it so hard and she seems to notice at last. Her brow pinches together, eyes squinting, and her arms cross a little more. He speaks every word as if it’s a new sentence, words coming out slowly as if she is an idiot. “I’m not going to pull up with the bullshit being your palemate entails.”

                She breaks into a large smile. “That’s it? Dave you motherfucking, narcissistic bastard, let me hug you.”

                “What?” What the hell has gotten into her? She was pissed not even three seconds ago and now she’s walking forward—in arm’s reach—trying to get her arms around him as if someone had replaced the broken glass of her emotions with a new window. Dave reaches out and stops her by putting his hands on her shoulders. “You need to go.”

                She laughs and shakes her head. Worming her way closer isn’t hard at all, not when she puts her hands on the inside of his elbows and pushes. She doesn’t hug him though. She pulls her fist back and swings, hard and fast, nearly breaking the bone. He smells copper and tastes it on the back of his tongue. He wipes at his bloody nose.

                “You bitch.”

                She laughs. “You deserve that you dick.”

                “What the hell has gotten into you? You’re fucking crazy!”

                 “I don’t need to be protected, David Strider. I don’t want to be. I’m a Big Troll now; I can cull my own prey myself and everything. I don’t need someone the likes of you breaking up with me because you don’t want me to be stuck going to juvie when you inevitably fuck up. Yeah, I know this is our last straw. This is our last chance to get through this parole because if we fuck up one more time then we’re out of this town and into some detention center. But you know what? I don’t fucking need some idiot breaking my entire being with a handful of words. So you know what, you dick, you can fucking suck my bulge. I’m not going to put up with it.”

                “Finally you understand!”

                “No, you misunderstand me, David. I’m saying that I know you still want to be my palemate, despite all of the fronts you give off.”

                “Bullshit.”

                “You’re hiding from me, Dave.”

                “I’ve hidden nothing. I’ve been at home and I’ve been here. Nowhere else.”

                “You’ve stuck yourself in a corner. You only do that when you’ve lost control of a situation and are fighting for it back. When you’re desperate enough to resort to word games instead of fighting. When you’re hiding from whoever is attacking you. You’re hiding from me and it’s pretty damn obvious why. You want to push me away, get me to leave, because you don’t trust yourself enough not to get back together with me if you have one conversation with me. You want to get through this stint and get off of parole and then you want to come crawling back to me and forge some semblance of a relationship but what you don’t want is to become friends now, when we’re still on parole, because that would mean that I’ll take the rap when you fuck us over. You can’t stand that thought, so you’d rather break up with me and make me safe than trust yourself.”

                “You bitch.” She grins. “Get out of my face, you cock-sucking whore.”

                “That is the most beautiful thing you could have ever said to me.”

                “The fuck is wrong with you?”

                “You know why? Because it means you still want to be with me. You can’t think of a logical argument because I’m right. And you’re pissed that I’m right. You want to be with me and you can’t stop wanting to be with me. Which means it’s not a legitimate break up, just a lawful one, which means that I can fucking say that I’m still your moirail.” She sobs.

                Dave has no idea why she’s suddenly begun to sob, but it makes his head spin as she bends down enough to hide her face. She rubs at her eyes, still sobbing. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m still a good moirail. I’m a good moirail.” She sobs particularly harder than normal. Dave isn’t sure if he should hold her or kick her out. He just doesn’t know anymore.

                She decides for him, though, and puts her arms around him. Shooting pain rips through him in the same amount of time it takes to shove her halfway across the room. She stumbles into a chair, tears scattered and confused. Dave is nearly bent double with his arm around his ribs.

                It doesn’t take a genius to put together when it is your moirail is in severe pain.

                “Who’s ass am I kicking, Dave?”

                He shakes his head. “No one’s.”

                “You liar! You’ve got to have at least two broken ribs if you’re in this much pain from just being touched.”

                He laughs breathlessly. “That is the single scariest thing you’ve said since you walked through that door, Ara.”

                “No seriously, Dave. Who beat the shit out of you? Why aren’t you in juvie yet? Why did they do it?”

                “Just some idiots that we beat up a few months ago.”

                “That doesn’t narrow it down.”

                “It wasn’t supposed to.”

                “Why did they do it?”

                “Not important.”

                “Liar.”

                “Not here, Aradia.”

                He doesn’t even have to look up—even if he does—to know her lips are pursed. “It’s something to do with the orphanage, isn’t it?”

                “No.”

                “Liar.”

                “Aradia.”

                “I’m sorry, I’m just,” she sighs heavily and scrubs at her eyes. “I’m just really, really happy and really, really mad all at the same time. I can’t help it. I just found out that you broke up with me because you’re a self-sacrificing idiot and you’ve also somehow managed to break bones in the meantime. I…” She shakes her head and walks back across the room. This time, her arms go around his neck and she tucks her head into his collarbone. “I don’t really know how to react.”

                There’s a quiet little sniffle as he puts his arms around her and tucks her under his chin.

                “I don’t have a choice, do I?” He laughs quietly. “I’m going to be forced back into being your palemate, aren’t I? No turning it down?”

                “You wouldn’t even if you could.”

                He’s silent for much longer than need be, closing his eyes to revel in the feel of his other half around him. “I’ve missed you so much, Ara.”

                “Same,” she mutters. “I’ve missed you, too. So, so much. Also your dad is a dick and needs to stop grounding you after every indiscretion because I nearly went crazy trying to call you when you didn’t even have your phone.”

                “My bad?” She laughs and he pulls away long enough to check the blood flow on his nose. She pulls away at last, only a little after checking his nose, clears her throat and looks around the room. Dave had forgotten that the other three were there, too.

                “So anyway, yeah, my name’s Aradia Megido and if you hadn’t gathered, I’m Dave’s moirail. I guess?” She turns to him for reassurance. It’s a desperate sort of motion. He just pulls his shades back on, nodding. “I’m sorry I had to pull you into this. I’m also really sorry I barged into this place. If you don’t mind, can I help out for the rest of the day?”

                Rachel shrugs. “Well, you’re already here. Dave shouldn’t be here for much longer, either. Just a few hours. Karkat also seems to know you…. Can you change diapers?”

                “Better than Dave can.”

                “No need to rub that in, Ara.”

                Rachel chuckles. “Go ahead and stay, but I would really appreciate it if you don’t come in every single day after that. This is supposed to be Dave’s punishment, not a reward and not a time for him to hang with friends.”

                Aradia laughs. “A punishment? Then what’s he doing here?”

                “I’m not entirely sure how to reply to that.”

                Dave glares at Aradia. “Neither am I.”

                Aradia shrugs. Rachel puts her to finishing the last ten-or-so dishes and urges Dave to go wash the blood off his face. There’s a shuffle and a few muttered words in the kitchen after he leaves. Trynna glares watery daggers at him as he smiles, then runs upstairs and hides in a bedroom. Gamzee walks up the stairs after her.

                The door to the hallway opens while he’s nose-deep in water, trying to fleck the blood off his upper lip. He glances up to see Karkat. He isn’t surprised after the kissing that took place after their fight and after lunch. This time, though, Karkat’s hands grab under Dave’s shirt and yank up. Dave winds up with the shirt stuck over the back of his shoulders, trapped in place by the fact that Karkat somehow got Dave’s head through the neck.

                He lets Karkat take the edge of the wrap and yanks at it, only stopping when Dave’s hand catches his wrist. Taking in a few hazy breaths, Dave instructs him to go slower. The bruise has gotten worse since that morning, no doubt because of their fight: a dark ménage of blacks, purples and yellow-greens now mottles his skin. Karkat stares, amazed. Almost breathlessly, he mutters, “if you fought like that injured like this, how do you fight when you’re not injured?”

                “Pretty damn well, thanks.”

                Karkat leans down. Dave thinks he’s going to rub his hand over the area, going in for a closer look, but instead all he does is press a chaste kiss to his side and look at him through his eyelashes. “I want to fight you at your best.”

                He isn’t sure what took his breath away: the kiss or the sultry look Karkat is giving him. It might have even been Karkat’s declaration, but whatever it is, it’s enough for him to yank the Troll to his feet and to pin him against the wall. Dave attacks his neck, nipping and kissing. He’s vaguely aware of the fact that he smells like Axe and sweat.

                Karkat spins him around, pins him to the wall and puts his hand over Dave’s neck, pushing just enough to take his breath away as he bites Dave’s chest. It’s hard and sweet and leaves him aching to gasp. Chuckling, Karkat pulls away, fixes the wrap over Dave’s side and leaves Dave to figure out how to fix his shirt.

               

                He and Aradia leave half an hour early if only because Rachel is pissed that he didn’t tell her about two broken ribs. Aradia sticks to his side, doing whatever she can to keep close to him. Wrapping her arm around his, holding his hand, playing with his fingers, hanging off of him at every conceivable second. “You got off lucky, Strider-boy.”

                “Don’t I know it.”

                She laughs as he pulls his phone out, receiving the text reply from Dirk saying that, no, they don’t need anything. He puts the skateboard down and has Aradia step on, dragging her behind him. “So what’s the orphanage have to do with you getting the shit beat out of you?”

                “If I tell you this, you have to swear you won’t go after the guys that did it to me.”

                “You wouldn’t let me if I tried.”

                He grins at her. She grins back. “I was walking home after going to the store when they attacked me. I still had a bunch of groceries in my hands that I didn’t want to break or anything, so that gave me the excuse. I just didn’t want to fight them when, one, if I did I would be in juvie and, two, there really wasn’t a reason to fight them.

                “Earlier in the day, Karkat and I had taken a bunch of wrigglers and kids to the park near Kanaya’s. The park that we spied him at over the webcam, remember?” She nods. “Evidently, they had seen me there with them. They wanted to know, I wouldn’t tell them, one thing led to another and now I have two broken ribs.”

                She puffs her cheeks out. “I wish I was there. They wouldn’t have survived unscathed.”

                “And I would be taking it up the ass in juvie while you sell yourself to stay protected.”

                “You have really weird notions of juvie. I thought that was jail.”

                “I don’t even know the difference at this point. It might as well be the same.”

                Aradia snorts and does a quick Ollie. Taking Dave by the wrist, she pulls him inside of the apartment building, stopping short of the center of the room. Stepping off the board, she asks, “elevator or stairs?”

                He tugs her into the elevator and hits the button for the ninth floor. She hums along with the music, placing her head against his shoulder. He leads her into the condo, ignoring Rose and Dirk’s mid-fight cursing and the spit of orders taking over the world. They take that game so seriously sometimes, he really can’t understand it.

                He has Aradia open the pill bottle, swallowing them without any water. Aradia scrunches her nose up and tugs him down the hall, into his bedroom.

                They lay on his bed after throwing their shirts away. Tucked under the blanket, he puts his arm over her side and she curls into his chest. “What would you say if I started blackromming with Karkat?”

                She snorts. “You mean you’re not already?”

                He laughs, taking the answer as an “I would be fine with it” and leaves it at that. She kisses his collarbone silently.

                “The dead were really loud.”

                “What?”

                “The entire time we were apart, the dead were really loud. Constantly yelling. I had a migraine from the time I woke to the time I went to sleep, if I even slept at all. And then I got within a block of the orphanage and they started to get quieter. I knew I was doing the right thing. But now they’re silent.” A quiet, almost inaudible sob leaves her throat. “Everything is so quiet.”

                He kisses the top of her head. “I’m sorry.”

                “It’s ok now.” She sighs, wiping her eyes against his shoulder. He rubs his hand over her back, awkwardly catching the strap to her bra once or twice. “But your dad is going to be pissed when he finds out I’m here.”

                “Fire escape is outside my window and I’ve finally gotten the child locks off.”

                She yawns. “Ok.”

                Dave can’t help but agree.

Chapter Text

                Dirk wakes them up around dinner time. He looks startled, wide-eyed, and pushes Aradia to the window almost violently. He looks between the two of them, near-seething. “You two are so fucking lucky dad sent me in here or you would be in so much trouble. Dave, we’re fucking talking after dinner. Downstairs. On the fire escape. Where dad can’t hear me kill you.” He shoos Aradia away. She crosses the room, kisses Dave’s cheek and adds something about calling him later. Then, she pushes the screen on his window out, carefully replacing it before disappearing down the steps.

                Dirk’s grip on his upper arm is painful as he yanks him out of bed. Sticking him with one hard, long glare, he hisses, “You are fucking lucky that I got mom’s views and not dad’s, otherwise you would be dead.”

                “Why are you so angry?”

                “You couldn’t have fuckin’ warned us that she was here?”

                “She greeted you two and you said hi back when we got here. How much more ‘warning’ do you need?”

                Dirk rolls his eyes. “Dad’s been checking up on you almost every hour on the hour from the time he gets home to the time he wakes you for dinner. Imagine what would have happened if he hadn’t worked late? What would have happened if Ronnie got as worried about you as he is? Fucking think Dave; they would be pissed to know that you two were moirails—“

                “Are.”

                “—congrats on the sex, bro.” He rolls his eyes. “But seriously, just fucking think something through before you decide it’s a good idea. You could have—should have—gone to Aradia’s to take a fucking nap and said that you had to work late. You wouldn’t have risked so fucking much. Imagine what would have happened. They don’t even know Rose is with Kanaya and she’s thinking about proposing to the woman!”

                Dave falters for a minute. When at last he answers, he digs his fingers under Dirk’s hand and pulls him off of his arm. “Thanks for worrying, Dirk.” He smiles gently and Dirk relaxes. “And thanks for having my back on this.”

                “Whatever. Dinner’s ready.”

                He nods, following him out of the room without putting a shirt on, instead opting to just wear the bandage around his torso. Ronnie looks disapproving at the fact that he has to wear one more than the fact that he isn’t wearing a shirt, but the other two don’t even seem to notice. They eat something that Dave is sure is supposed to be lasagna, but didn’t come out to be that.

                Dirk and Rose talk about how they’re tied for second in the tournament they’re in. Ronnie mentions hating working with human beings more than a few times in her newest story with customer services. Daniel leaves most of his day to wondering—though Dave knows that it was probably just research for a case he’s working on. He asks if Dave still has the contract, which leads to Dave’s awkward shifting to get it out of his back pocket. He folds it open as Dirk takes seconds and Dave gets up to pour himself more water.

                Daniel hums, his eyes slowly roving over it. He eats over it, nodding at some points and chuckling at others. When at last he puts it down, he folds it back into quarters and puts it under his plate to keep it clean. “It’s legally binding enough to get you out of trouble, but there are a lot of loopholes in it.”

                “It’s got the basics, right? Then I don’t care after that.”

                “So what brought this about? Why would you be teaching wrigglers how to fight when you’re cleaning up the side of a highway?”

                “Vantas needed help getting them to pay attention and his place is on the way to ours so it’s not even half an hour. We drew up the contract when we were still working and went on from there. Plus, it’s an opportunity to beat the shit out of him so why not?”

                “This is the only time I will vouch for you, though. Fighting is illegal, if not for a noble cause like you have here.”

                He nods his head and they finish dinner in silence. Rose does the dishes and Dirk yanks Dave toward his bedroom. Daniel looks up at the aggressive movement, brow furrowed. “What are you doing?”

                “Dirk is going to murder me in my sleep.”

                “Ok, have fun.”

                Dave closes his bedroom door, grabbing a button up shirt off the floor while he’s at it. He leaves it undone as Dirk pushes the screen out of the window, climbing out onto the fire escape. They leave the window open for when they have to get back in, descending the stairs almost fast enough to rattle the metal against the brick. Dave stretches his legs out in the alleyway, takes a few looks down the street and determines that the coast is empty enough to be able to talk.

                Dirk shoves him against the wall. He's surprised when his side doesn't ache from it. “What the hell is wrong with you, Dave?! Do you have any idea how much trouble you would be in if dad knew she was here? He was fucking ecstatic after we told him you two broke up! Ecstatic! Fucking best week of his life!”

                “Look, ok, dude, I wasn’t thinking, I get it.”

                “That’s exactly your problem! You don’t think! You never think about yourself! You’re the fucking knight in white armor to anyone in trouble but when it comes to yourself you are about as dull as a carrot!”

                “What am I supposed to do, Dirk? Today was the emotional rollercoaster from Hell and I just wanted to fucking curl up in a ball with Aradia and never wake up! You expect me to stop and think about something as asinine as getting in trouble? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I do that so fucking often that it’s not even worth worrying about anymore!”

                “Dad would go on a rant! Rose would protect you and so would I and when he asked why the fuck we were helping you, Rose would point out that she has a matesprit and I would point out that they’re so fucking senile that they can’t see right from wrong! We would all get our asses handed to us, most of all Rose. Can you imagine what he would say? What he would do? He would be pissed!”

                Dave falters for words. When at last Dirk’s words breach him enough, he sighs and lowers his head. Dirk’s elbows relax ever-so-slightly, moving his body close enough to let Dave put his forehead on his shoulder. “Sorry. I just…. I’ll be more careful. Lock my door and shit. Say I fell asleep changing or something, I dunno.”

                “Just, make sure we know that you have Aradia or one of the others over. Like, pause our game for whatever reason to make sure that we look at her.”

                He nods his head and sighs when Dirk puts his hand on the back of it. His finger knocks against the soft spot behind his ears and makes his eyesight go funny for a second before he realizes what happened. “So, emotional rollercoaster?”

                “It’s not as bad as I made it sound.”

                “What happened?”

                “After I fought with Vantas…. I think we’re blackromming now.”

                “Shit.”

                “And then Aradia came and forced me back into our moiraillegance.”

                “I didn’t think that that would last long anyway.”

                “Shut the fuck up.”

                “So are you and Vantas a thing officially or just hatesnogging?”

                “Hatesnogging, but being a thing isn’t entirely… unpleasant a thought.”

                “Well, whatever it is, be careful, ok? It’s dangerous enough for you to have Aradia over and she understands what’s going on. Vantas has no idea what’s going on with your home life and if you suddenly push him into this, you know even better than I do that he’ll flip his shit. Keep Rose and me warned, ‘kay? And use the fire-escape. A lot.”

                He nods his head. Dirk sighs and pushes him back against the wall. Dave rights himself and Dirk offers half of a smirk. “So, I’ve never actually seen Vantas with my own eyes. He hot?”

                “Most people would be concerned that over the fact that Karkat is male—a male Troll at that—and you just fucking care whether or not he’s hot.”

                “If he’s not hot then I will be severely disappointed in you and all that you stand for as a Strider. I get that we gotta give a lot of us to keep everyone happy, but hate-dating someone who isn’t even attractive is really too far under you, man.”

                “If his mouth wasn’t nearly as fucking loud as it is, he would be springing boners left and right.”

                “Gotta get me a pic sometime. Wanna see him.”

                “You are the single weirdest person I could have as a brother.”

                “You love it.”

                “I’m so fucking lucky you have no idea.”

                Dirk cuffs his cheek gently and leads the way back to the escape. Dave struggles to get the screen back on from inside and by a feet no short of a miracle gets it to click in place long enough to shut the window.

                He and Dirk fight over the sink as they brush their teeth, hip-checking each other and pushing with their shoulders. Dirk is considerably easier on him than normal in lieu of his ribs, which Dave steps on his foot for as they struggle to figure out who will go through the door first. Dave manages to squeeze out first with a completely and utterly mature tongue stuck out at him. It is more than necessary and Dirk flips him off for it.

                Sleeping that night is a lot easier than Dave would like to admit when his pillow still smells of Aradia’s shampoo.

 

                The next day leads to three moments of stolen hatesnogging, two of which end up where Karkat’s the one lost in the moment and the last has them tied for lucidity. One of them ends with two marks appearing on Dave’s collarbone and another has Dave’s hands under Karkat’s shirt just to scratch long marks up his back.

                Gamzee doesn’t appear to have noticed. Rachel is in the same state of ignorant bliss when he leaves to go to Aradia’s house.

                Hanging with Aradia used to entail sleeping on her Human bed or playing stupid word games. This time, when he carefully knocks on the door, Aradia calls that it’s open. She sounds tired, or at the very least distracted, and when the door is open enough he sees that she’s on her laptop talking with someone on PesterChum.

                She smiles at him and he smiles back as he puts his arms around her shoulders. He recognizes the 2-quirk more than the username or the yellow coloring. She sends a couple BRB notices to Sollux before standing up and hugging him back. He holds her as if she’s going to die if he doesn’t and she makes a small little whimpered moan as she holds him back. It’s not nearly as tight as his and not nearly as desperate, but it’s more than enough. The world is right and he is perfectly happy with himself.

                Aradia unplugs her “husktop” (because Human words are oh so motherfucking hard) and pushes him back until he sits on the bed. She makes him spread his legs and sits in his lap, leaning back against him as she pulls up whatever episode of Doctor Who she left off at. He puts his arms around her and humors her for four episodes until her lusus gets home and he realizes how late it is. Aradia seems to have forgotten, too, though, and feels immediately apologetic.

                Her lusus gives him a ride home and he nearly runs up all nine flights of stairs. He trips coming inside and lands on his side in an explosion of pain.

                “You ok, bro?”

                He grunts, curls into the fetal position and decides that any form of movement—including speech—is a big never-going-to-fucking-happen. There’s an explosion on the television and then hands on his shoulders helping him stand up and pushing him to the couch. Dirk has pills and a glass of water ready for him to drown himself in. Ronnie comes out of the back room, looking confused.

                He must have just barely made it because his dad walks into the living room at the same exact time, only he enters from the hallway out the front door. Dave can’t possibly describe how lucky he got today in a matter of words.

                “What happened?”

                “He tripped,” Rose explains as she starts to put away the controllers to the game system. She does it in such a way to imply that it was on the cord and not his own dumb tomfoolery, which he is insanely grateful for. “He also landed on his side. He already took medication, Daniel. We just have to wait for it to kick in.”

                “You three should be a lot more careful.”

                They nod simultaneously.

 

- ) - ( -

 

                Aradia agrees not to help out regularly. There are some days, though, where he and Rachel are overwhelmed by how much needs to get done on top of Karkat’s urgent need to teach the wrigglers how to fight. They start taking it seriously after his fight with Dave and a three hour rant about how they won’t be able to see their opponent, so they better fucking know how to fight. It’s on days like this where Dave just sends a “Y” or an “H” or really any letter of the alphabet to Aradia in a text. She’s there within ten minutes and immediately reports in to Rachel to find out what she needs to do.

                The second Friday after Aradia “forces” him back into the moiraillegance, they finish their work about an hour after Rachel usually shoves Dave off. Aradia and Dave hang around to talk with Karkat, being that Gamzee has finally begun to somewhat trust Dave. They’re cracking jokes about nothing in particular and it feels pretty damn good after all these years of hostility, especially when there are moments where Karkat just leans over and bites at his neck. When it’s done at just the right moment, it freezes Dave mid-breath—mid-word—and Aradia giggles as Dave cranes his head, every time, to give him more room. Dave tries to reciprocate at one point. Karkat ends up rolling them to the ground and claiming a patch of skin on his waist, just under the wrap.

                Aradia is in hysterics by the time Dave manages to get up and he has a brand new hickey to marvel at for a few days. Karkat is smirking lazily, daring him to just say something—anything—about the bright red patch. Dave returns it, gripping the back of his head with sharp nails and pulling him close. “You fucking bastard.”

                The hatesnog is still one of the best kisses he’s ever had. Karkat seems to like to try and beat himself out every time, even when Dave pulls away to kiss at his jaw. After a lot of rolling that leaves Aradia nearly crying from laughter, there are two raps on the door.

                Karkat calls that it’s open and Rachel puts her head in just enough to talk to them. “Can I get the three of you to go to the store? Karkat can drop you two off on your way back, if that’s fine with you.” They nod and Rachel takes an extra moment to let her eyes graze over them. “You two aren’t killing each other, are you?”

                Dave and Karkat meet eyes before answering, together, “Not yet.”

                “Ok, well, keep the sheets clean when you do, ok?”

                Aradia is in stitches on the floor by the time Dave wrestles Karkat off and pecks his lips teasingly. Karkat chuckles, following them downstairs after Dave lifts Aradia to her feet and pushes her out the door. Karkat grabs the keys to the minivan, money and the list off of the table. Dave glances at it over his shoulder. The only liquid is “orange juice”, which Karkat mutters about having the concentrate on sale for. Everything else is either a pantry item or something non-frozen that also won’t spoil if left out for a bit. Dave marvels that he knows all of that from one glance of the list as he climbs into the second row of seats. Karkat takes driver and Aradia climbs into passenger’s side.

                The drive to the store isn’t really “quiet” as much as they sing along to the radio more than they have an actual conversation. Aradia grabs a cart at the store and they go through the produce section first. Dave is debating over whether or not Karkat should get the concentrate juice or three gallon jugs—in the end, what it would take for the same amount isn’t even a penny more or less—when his phone rings.

                “Sorry,” Dave says, staring at the Caller ID. “She never calls me, this must be important.”

                Karkat nods, takes three gallons of the ready-made juice and Dave grins as he wins the argument. “Roxy? What’s up?”

                There’s a crash in the background that makes him stop, mid-step, and he furrows his brow. “Did something just break? Are you drunk? Don’t fucking tell me that you drunk-dialed me.”

                The answer is hardly a whisper. “No.” There’s something to her voice, some sort of hesitance, and she whimpers when something else breaks. “Haven’t had anything today.”

                “Roxy what the fuck is going on? Who’s there? Where are you?”

                “Home.... Dave…” A crash blurs whatever she says, censoring it from his ears. “Please.”

                “Roxy what’s going on? I can barely hear you. What’s wrong?"

                “Just… come here—I—help—too many—sorry—annoying—please.”

                “I’m about ten minutes away, can you last that long? Where are you hiding right now? Where are you?”

                “In my closet….” She whimpers and her voice drops so low he almost can’t hear it. He has to cover his other ear in order to block out the sound of the music and Aradia’s worried questions. “I’m scared, Dave. I- I don’t know what to do. My gun’s on the other side of the house. I can’t get to it. Becca doesn’t like me having it—room.”

                “Where’s Becca now?”

                “W- with me.”

                “And the others? The rest of your roommates?”

                “Class—boyfriend—parents? Dave, help—don’t know who else to ask.”

                “I’ll be there in ten minutes, Roxy. Stay as silent as you can. Stay hidden, ok? I’ll be there soon.”

                “Please get here quickly.”

                He hangs up on her, already halfway into a sprint before he even has his phone in his pocket. Aradia catches his arm, holding him in place. “What’s wrong, Dave?”

                “Someone’s breaking into Roxy’s apartment.”

                “Who’s Roxy?”

                “My sister. I gotta go.”

                “I’ll go with you.”

                Karkat nods, puts the juice back in the fridge and grabs his wallet out of the cart before turning and following. With the use of his car, the three of them make it to Roxy’s apartment in less than two minutes. Dave is out of the car before it’s even stopped. He’s halfway up the stairwell by the time Aradia and Karkat catch up. He stops them, puts a finger to his lips to shush them and turns his head just enough to show that he’s listening. Something glass-like breaks and Aradia starts as Dave is up the stairs again.

                The door to Roxy’s apartment is ajar, barely hanging on. The wood is splintered where they kicked the door in and glass is mottled all over the floor. There’s one guy in the living room, going through wires behind the television and there are what appear to be four more in the kitchen. He can see lights in the back of the house and movement. Too many for three people, but if he can get to Roxy and get her gun, too….

                “Aim to knock out, not kill.” She nods her head and Dave throws the door open. The guy in the living room jumps, tangled in wires as he spins around. He calls a name out. Someone in the kitchen tries to stop him, but a well-aimed punch to the neck puts him down long enough for Dave to get into the back of the house.

                There are two people in Roxy’s bedroom and each goes down easily. The closet is empty of women and he moves to the next room. It’s not until he’s gotten to the third that he finds them. Roxy nearly sobs seeing him and he reaches around her. He can see where a brand-new cast (probably from even earlier that day) put her out of commission. She holds onto him as Becca makes even worse choking noises, literally sobbing around her own tongue.

                There’s something cool to the back of his head.

                “Other side of the fucking house, Roxy; I swear to God if you don’t fix that placement I will personally murder you.”

                Roxy is frozen though, staring at whoever is behind him in horror. She’s shaking her head, horrified at what's happening. Dave manhandles her, placing her face in his chest as best as he can. He doesn’t think Becca can see the entire extent of what’s happening.

                A hand wraps around his neck, pulling him up. Dave tries to toe the closet shut, tries to hide Roxy from them, but the guy with the gun puts it under Dave’s chin and holds him so close he can smell the egg on his breath. He’s saying something, words washing over Dave almost deafly. Something like taking out his men and vengeance and the cold clock of a gun muzzle smashing against his temple. Dave hits the ground before he realizes what happened. The toe of a foot slaps his forehead enough to make him roll. He hears Roxy or Becca or both or neither he doesn’t fucking know anymore run out of the closet and something like a door slams against the wall as he sits up. The attacker’s foot presses into his chest, the toe pressing on his Adam’s apple just enough to make him gag.

                A blur of black and red and Aradia has her arm around the gunman’s neck. Dave rolls to his feet, twists his ankles and immediately gains enough balance to shut the door to the closet. Whichever girl is still in there sobs again.

                Aradia disarms him with three yanks and a kick that barely misses his crotch. Gun in hand, Aradia leaves Dave to handle him as she goes back out. Yelling, banging, screaming. Overwhelming noise. He can’t breathe. He puts the man down with a kick to the gut and a slap on the back of his head.

                Closet door open, Becca is sobbing uncontrollably. Roxy’s phone is beside her, left there when the woman ran. He gasps—his side ablaze with an inferno too hot to cool—“9-1-1.” She nods, her fingers fumbling just enough for him to get out of the room. Roxy is backed into a corner, sight trained on an attacker. Her weaker arm is shaking and she’s grunting, yelling at them to leave.

                Dave takes him out with a punch to the back of the head. Roxy doesn’t bother thanking him, only curses as she checks her magazine to find it empty. She puts it back with the clever press of her thigh to the bottom of the cartridge and mutters about faking it. Dave shakes his head, leading the way into the living room. Aradia and Karkat are back-to-back, two against eight and how many people was that again? Eight or twelve? It looks like twelve but some of them are inside each other…. It doesn’t matter. How many people do they need to send to an apartment? That doesn’t matter either.

                Dave pushes one out of the way enough to muscle his way to the Trolls. A flurry of fists, kicks, fury swipes, biting, hissing; Aradia goes down first. Dave folds down on top of her, protecting her front. Karkat is manhandled to a stop, arms behind his back and trapped beside Roxy.

                The kicking doesn’t stop, though, not until the door bursts open a third time that night and a cop wrestles him away. Dave is coughing up what he thinks is blood by the time that Aradia comes-to.

                Officer Stuart doesn’t look pleased to see them there. Dave pushes free of both him and Aradia, almost running to where Roxy is shaking in a corner. Dave’s hand scramble to find her shoulders, nearly shaking her in his effort to keep still. “Roxy? Roxy are you ok?”

                She nods, gasping for breath. There are tear tracks down her face, but a smile has replaced the terror. “More or less. In pain—my arm. Fell down the stairs this morning. Are you ok? Bleeding?”

                He ignores her questions to his wellbeing. “Are you sure you’re ok? What about Becca?”

                “We were already in her room when we heard the break-in. I pulled her in and she started getting scared, sobbing over everything, and then I got scared because she was scared but I’ve dealt with worse why was I so scared? Dave, thank you. Thank you so much I was so frightened I, I really just, I need a drink.”

                He laughs breathlessly and puts his forehead to hers. “You’re fine, then. Thank God, I thought you were going to be shot when I had that gun to my head.”

                She plants a rough punch to his cheek. “Do you have any idea how scared I was when that happened? And then you go and hide me from him you fucking bastard! Don’t you ever fucking do that again, do you understand me? Mom would have my head, then go into the afterlife, revive you, then have yours just to revive you and do it again! Dad would be the same way!”

                He sighs, lying flat out on the broken glass despite the pinches of pain. “You’re fine.”

                “You bastard. All you ever think of is yourself! Trying to be the fucking hero all the time! And then you go and you get in trouble for it and you don’t even explain yourself you asshole!” She sobs, scrubbing furiously at her cheeks. “Now you have me crying again you bastard! You know how much I hate crying!”

                “Someone get her a drink; this is annoying.”

                “Yes! Yes someone should!”

                Eventually, he and Karkat manage to get Aradia up on her feet. Roxy helps Becca downstairs, too, while the cops figure out how to deal with the (evidently much smaller in number than Dave thought) attackers. There’s an ambulance set up to look after them. Becca comes out the best of them all and Roxy comes out with just a few bruises and scrapes. Aradia has to get stitches on her tongue and part of her cheek as well as on the arm she fell on. Karkat seems a little disoriented and gets an icepack to his forehead as well as a sling for his arm. Sprained his shoulder, the caretakers say. By the time it’s Dave’s turn, he’s feeling much better. Aside from having to have glass scrapped out of his hair and forearms, he doesn’t need a lot of bandaging, getting away with two stitches on his jaw. He’s questioned on the bruise under his wrap, which leads to Karkat hiding his face in his hands. That seems to be enough of an answer, though, because the physician moves on to checking his ribs.

                “These are old injuries, about two weeks if I’m correct?”

                “Yeah,” he nods. He can see Officer Stuart walking up to them and the officer’s yellow eyes immediately go to Dave’s side.

                “What happened?”

                “Got the piss beat out of me coupl’a weeks ago,” he answers, cringing when he takes a deep breath on cue. “Broke two ribs. Other than that, I’m healed up.”

                “Did you tell the police?”

                “What would cops do?” He laughs through his nose with a cynical eye roll. “With my rep, they would assume I beat them up and book me. Don’t tell me that it’s not true; it’s happened twice before.”

                Roxy smirks, leaning against the back of a cop car she and Aradia are sitting on. “That was that week that Daniel was fucking pissed at everything and its mother, right?”

                “No, it was the week where he was so quiet that everyone was walking on egg shells.”

                “Oh, that’s right; he’s always pissed at you.”

                He shrugs his shoulders. “I brought that on myself though. But, needless to say, the court wouldn’t drop the charges and I’m two marks farther than I should be.”

                Roxy shakes her head, sighing. “I really need a drink.”

                Dave rolls his eyes.

 

                They’re taken to the Police Headquarters to get everyone’s statement before their parents are called. Dave, Aradia, Karkat, Roxy and Becca are placed inside of a holding cell two cells over from their attackers for “safe keeping”, but the gate is left unlocked and open, for the most part. Roxy makes a few bad jokes about being unjustly imprisoned before asking for a cup of water. Dave is laughing into his hand by the time she chugs half of it. She runs it along the bars as she sings an off-key tune of some sort of Jail Blues song. She quiets after it’s pointed out that she’s not even locked in.

                It ends with Roxy turning to Becca and saying, stone-cold in her seriousness, “I’m getting new ammo and keeping my gun in my bedside table.”

                Becca smiles shakily. “I would feel better with it like that. Sorry... about being so stingy earlier.”

                They are picked up about ten minutes after they call for a roommate. Dave, Aradia and Karkat talk for a little while, mostly just lulling conversation to keep Dave’s attention off of his side and to keep him from falling asleep.

                He wakes from a quick snooze by Officer Stuart calling his name. He blinks his eyes open, looking up at where the parole officer is standing beside the open gate. “Your mother is here to take you home.”

                He nods his head, slowly standing up. Aradia helps him when she notices his hand on his side and smiles lightly as he mutters a “fuck off” sort-of thank-you. There’s a shift outside the pen as Officer Stuart turns and leaves him to his own devices.

                He feels all the blood drain from his face as the woman that’s supposed to be picking him up comes forward. She looks exhausted and more than a little confused. When she speaks her voice is calm, but commanding.

                “Take those damned things off your face, David.”

                His glasses are off his face before she can finish her sentence with a muttered “yes ma’am”. She smiles a little more, gentle red-brown eyes reflecting hurt emotions yet still broad-shouldered and proud. “What are you doing here mo”—he stops himself mid-word, swallows and corrects himself—“Michelle?”

                Michelle just shakes a head-full of long blonde hair—kept up and out of her face, like his—and gestures for him to come with her. Her voice is soft for someone who knows no more than the fact that she’s practically bailing him out. “I’m taking you home, David. Your father must be worried if you’ve been out this late. In the car, c’mon.”

                Dave takes a long arched path out of the cell, keeping his head down as Michelle leads him to a small little two-door car. He takes his seat in the passenger’s side, head bent and away from her. They hit every red light for three stops before Michelle asks how he’s feeling.

                “Fine. Tired, mostly. But fine.”

                “Even after that fight?”

                “Side hurts a little, but other than that I’m just sore.”

                She smiles ever so slightly. “I’m glad that you’re not seriously injured, then.”

                They hit two more red lights before she sighs, muttering about how bad traffic is when you don’t hit the first light just-right. “But you probably know that, don’t you, Dave? You and Dirk have had your licenses for almost a year now.”

                “No,” he shakes his head. “Just Dirk has.”

                “What? Why?”

                “Dad doesn’t think I can handle the responsibility of driving a car when I can’t go through a span of two months without getting in a fight.”

                “But he let Dirk get one? That’s just not fair.”

                “Dirk’s a good kid. I’m not.” He shrugs. “That’s just fact.”

                “Well, I’ll have to talk to Daniel then. That’s really not fair.”

                “No, really, it’s fine, Michelle. It’s not as if I really go anywhere that requires driving, y’know? School’s close, I work from home unless I’m working on-parole, but even then the place I work at is pretty close at hand. Skateboard’s nothing to get there. And the store’s on the way back, so it’s all really easy to get to. I don’t need a license.”

                “I just don’t think it’s fair that Dirk should be able to drive when you can’t. I’m not saying you have to or that you even have to have a car. All I’m saying is that you should at least have something like driving privileges to have taken away along with something like your phone. So what’s this about parole? God fucking damn it, move it you stupid motherfucker. The light’s green!”

                Dave chuckles. “Did you see the Trolls I was with?”

                “Yeah, I guess. What’s the big deal there?”

                “Well, the woman is my moirail. And I guess I’m sort-of black-flirting with the guy?”

                “Not surprised. You and Dirk always took to my mentality with Trolls.”

                Dave chuckles. “Well, about a month ago, Aradia and I broke up a fight between some freshmen and some seniors and we were pinned as the cause. Then two weeks ago I was just an idiot and talked out of my ass until the guy I’m black-flirting with started a fight. A lot of drama later, I’m stuck working during parole.”

                She nods. “And this incident?”

                “Defense,” he answers, “plus most of the attackers weren’t injured, so much as distracted enough to save Roxy’s stuff. The cops got there in time to tell that we weren’t doing any of the attacking. So it’s not going to be a permanent blemish.”

                “Ok. Are you fucking kidding me? This is the fifth God damn red light in a row! Do you even know how to drive you idiot?”

                Dave laughs again and Michelle reaches over, rubbing his shoulder. “I’ve missed you, Dave. Especially your laugh. You were always so shy as a kid I rarely ever heard it.”

                He laughs again, this time cynically, and rolls his eyes. She squeezes again. “So, where are you working?”

                “At West Ridge Orphanage.”

                Her eyebrow arches. “Does your father know?”

                “He assumed I was cleaning trash up on the side of the freeway and left it at that. The others think that, too.”

                “Typical Daniel.”

                “He’s still my dad, Michelle.”

                “And he’s my ex-husband. I know him well enough to bad mouth him and still be in the right.” Dave snorts. She smirks.

                The next two red lights are in silence. She attempts to make a right turn to avoid some of the reds, but that seems to just make it worse considering they’re faced with a lot of construction and red lights galore. Michelle curses enough to rival Karkat.

                Dave leans forward a little more, curling in to hug his knee to the side of  his chest that isn't injured. He puts his chin against the side of it and frowns. “Michelle?”

                “Yeah, David?”

                “Why haven’t we talked since the divorce?” She doesn’t answer, not even opening her jaw to attempt to. “It’s been over eight years since you two split up and I haven’t heard more than a few words out of Dirk’s mouth about you. He told me about that movie you’re working on with Miyazaki’s son, by the way. Congratulations.”

                Her voice is distant and hurt. “Thanks.”

                Dave nods. He isn’t surprised when, eight lights later, she still hasn’t spoken a word, not even to curse at the idiots behind the wheels of the other cars. They’re less than a block away from his building when she apologizes.

                She kills the engine in the parking lot and turns in her chair to face him.

                “I’m sorry that I never kept in contact with you, Dave. It’s my fault. I should have been more forceful. After the divorce… I don’t know if you remember, but you were really messed up after we split up, more so than Dirk. Daniel put you through therapy, or at least was going to last I knew.”

                “Yeah, he tried, but I wouldn’t talk, so the therapist said it would be better if I just spent time with people my age and tried to keep me from thinking about it.”

                “I thought that maybe you were mad at us for splitting up. We used to tell you when you were five or six that we would never split up—that we would never leave you—so I thought that maybe that was why you were angry. I wanted to give you space, just for a few weeks. Let you sort out your life without me.

                “Those ‘few weeks’ turned into a few months. I don’t know what fronts I’ve given you, but I’m a coward at heart and I just… After six months passed, I couldn’t even possibly think of talking to you without crying. And more time passed. Then fourteen months since I had last seen you and I got a call from Daniel saying that Dirk wanted to talk to me. I learned so much about you in that time. You had started getting into trouble, dealing with people that you shouldn’t be, that sort of thing. I thought that it was your way of lashing out at me or at the world or whatever it was but Dirk said that it had quieted down. I guessed that you were just over my not seeing you. Then Dirk told me about how he got a cell phone and he gave me his number and we just never fell out of contact.”

                “And you didn’t think, not once, to ask Dirk for my number? Because I know he would have given it to you.”

                “Of course I thought of it. Almost every conversation we’ve had, I’ve wanted to ask him. I’ve wanted to bring you up, but it’s not fair to him if I talk about you and not him. Of course we did talk about you, but only when he brought you up. When I found out that you made AP classes, I was so incredibly proud. And you like drawing and acting and mixing music, too. I went to a couple of your plays, but I never quite got the courage up to talk to you in person. I loved it when you played Romeo, by the way. You were fantastic.”

                That had been freshmen year. He was the only frosh in the Cast. “Thanks.”

                “Dave, I know that what I’m saying now sounds like a bunch of excuses, and it is really, but know that I am so, so sorry that I hurt you.”

                “No, it’s fine; I’m just curious.”

                “Bullshit ‘it’s just fine’. I know you, David. If it were ‘just fine’ you wouldn’t have asked. You wouldn’t be staring at the floor, you would already be up those stairs and I could be on my way back to my studio trying not to cry because you have”—her voice cracks. He winces—“grown to be so, so handsome in such a small amount of time. And I missed all of that. I missed watching you grow up because I’m a coward and I’m so, so incredibly sorry to the point where you will never understand.”

                She brushes away the few stray tears. Dave forces himself to smile. She gives him a bad look, sniffs, and rubs her eyes with the sleeve on her baby doll shirt. His question is quiet, hidden in his knee and more important for him to say than for her to hear. “Can I have your number?”

                “Are you sure?”

                “Almost nine years’ worth of ‘sure’, mom…, Michelle. I mean, I’m still a piece of shit kid who fucked his life over before it even began, but I still have time to call or text you sometimes. It’s not a big deal.”

                She nods her head, rubbing at her eyes until she just gives up and pulls a napkin from the glove department. She takes her makeup off as she finds her ID card in her phone, handing it over. “It’s new,” she explains. “My old one broke after, like, twelve years of having it, so Dirk helped me pick it out.”

                “It’s a good phone,” he replies as he pulls the same model out of his pocket. She flings her head back, laughing with that edge of crying no one likes to hear. “It’ll stay sturdy when you throw it at the wall while you’re working with Miyazaki.”

                He punches the number in and sends her a quick text. She saves it under “David”, he notices by the extra punch of a letter. “I know you’ve gotten into a lot of trouble, Dave,” she finally mutters. “And you should go inside soon so that Daniel doesn’t worry.”

                “He’s probably still at work. He’s been pulling a lot of overtime lately. Ronnie might be home though.”

                “Ronnie is Rose’s mom, right?”

                “Yeah.”

                “Do you like her?”

                “Dirk took to her first, but I mean, they like the same things. We have almost nothing in common… But I guess I ended up liking her after a while.”

                “Wait, wait, stop detouring me. I’m trying to be serious here. You should go inside soon so you don’t worry anybody, but I just want you to know that with all of this fighting, all this battering and all of that, if you are doing what you think is right, what you know is right in your heart, then I’m proud of you. And I’m proud that you would go and help your sister out knowing that if the cops took it badly you would be in juvie or, God forbid, dead by the attacker’s hands. I’m proud of you, David. You’re a strong man. Now go inside.”

                He nods numbly, absentmindedly thanking her for the ride home. She nods and he hears the engine purr into life as he walks inside. He takes the stairs up.

                Dirk and Rose are in the living room, each on their laptops and the game off, for once. Dirk greets him as he walks in, adding in that his medicine is open on the counter. Dave detours through the kitchen long enough to take it before sitting on his bed heavily.

                He hasn’t seen his mother in almost nine years and the first thing she says is that she’s proud of him. Of what he’s become—of what he’s done—after so long of being berated and yelled at for it and… and he really isn’t sure how to react to that.

                He just curls around his pillow, letting it sink in slowly.

 

                “Dave!”

                He snaps back-to at Ronnie’s call, barely managing to slip onto his feet. He notices, after a second to replace himself in The Now, that his head feels like it has a throbbing pulse in it. It distracts him just enough that he trips as he tries to open the door, misjudges the step and catches himself on the wall. He follows the wall, watching his feet flop uselessly around themselves as he tries to get to the kitchen to find out what Ronnie wants.

                He twists, mid-fall, when he doesn’t even remember falling, and lands on his back with his eyes closed. He hears Ronnie’s voice, hears her asking what’s wrong, tells him to slow down but he’s vaguely positive he’s not talking. Right?

                There are two of her when he opens his eyes, four purple eyes staring at him confused and another six to the side where Rose is kneeling sort-of out of the way. Everything is spinning but nothing is moving and holy fuck he is going to be sick but there’s no bile in his throat so maybe he’s not? He’s really not sure. Everything is so bright yet so dim and he can’t string more than a handful of words together without getting woozy.

                “E-R.”

                “What’s that, Dave?”

                “You need…. Take me… E-R.”

                “What’s wrong, Dave?”

                “I don’t know.”

Chapter Text

                Aradia shows up to take Dave’s position at the orphanage the next morning. She tells Rachel, straight-out, that Dave won’t be in for a few days due to “health reasons”. Rachel laughs sardonically, rolling her eyes at how ridiculous the notion is as she mutters about reports and expecting it to happen sooner or later.

                Karkat asks where Dave is just after lunch. He’s sweaty and gross from training, but he appears to be on his way to the shower. Aradia is, although hot and slightly sticky, relatively fine as she starts washing the dishes. Rachel is clearing the table, soon to join Aradia at the sink. She looks up as Aradia answers, “He’s in the hospital.”

                Karkat’s eyebrows arch high and his eyes fight not to widen. “Is he ok?”

                “As far as I know,” she shrugs her shoulders, leaning her head slightly to one side. “Dirk said that he would keep me posted. Rose is, evidently, sitting with him right now.”

                “What’s he in for?”

                “Being an idiot.”

                “He would have been institutionalized when he was three, if that was true. I’m serious; what’s wrong?”

                “Broken ribs, fractured skull, and an acute subdural hematoma that required some sort of letting or drainage—if Dirk didn’t lie about that part. Evidently, he had Ronnie drive him to the E-R, but by the time he tried to write, he didn’t have the coordination to walk a straight line. Passed out almost as soon as he sat down.”

                “Can we see him?”

                “No.”

                Rachel turns to her, incredulous. “You mean he’s so injured that they’re not letting him have visitors?”

                “No, I mean that Ronnie took him to a no-Troll hospital. You could go see him, but we couldn’t.”

                “Why would she do that? And can’t moirails be allowed in?”

                “It’s closest to his house, I guess. I don’t think she really, consciously, made the decision to take him to one. Hospitals don’t care for your relation; if you’re a Troll, then you’re not allowed. Could be adopted family and still not be allowed in.”

                “Oh…. Then Dirk and Rose? Are they Human then?”

                She laughs, nodding her head. “Dirk and Dave are twins, to the point where if I wasn’t so close to Dave, even I couldn’t tell them apart. Given that they’re, y’know, not wearing their glasses. And then Rose is his step-sister from after Daniel married Ronnie. Evidently he has an older sister, too. Her name’s Roxy. Karkat met her yesterday.”

                Rachel nods. “I didn’t realize he had such a large family. Do you know anything about his birth-mother?”

                Aradia shakes her head with the smallest of shrugs tacked on at the end. “He’s never talked about her before. I know nothing about her, or even if she’s still alive.” She pauses just long enough to think about what Rachel said. “But, anyway, yeah, Dave kind-of has to have a big family. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have anyone—other than me—to talk to. He met all his friends through them.”

                Rachel nods. “So, then, is family important to him?”

                “One of the most important things.” She nods, turning the faucet on. “Dave puts any and every one he knows before himself, but his family has a way of shouting at him until they get it through his head that it’s not healthy.”

                Rachel hums, pulling her lips to the side as she scrubs some of the dirt off of a plate. “Dave doesn’t talk about himself often, does he?”

                “After three sentences, he’s desperate to change the subject.”

               

- ) - ( -

               

                It takes three days before Aradia manages to get the A-OK from Dirk and drags Karkat out of the orphanage. She gets him to drive her to Dave’s apartment, parking in the lot across the street and dragging him over, checking the street thrice before diving into the alley. She has Karkat pull the fire escape ladder down as she quadruple-checks the parking lot for Daniel’s or Ronnie’s car. When she deems it safe, she drags Karkat up the metal railing, as quietly as creaking metal will allow, and counts the eight landings to the ninth floor.

                It only takes a little bit of wriggling the screen (and a couple of snapped hisses for Karkat to shut up) to get to the window. A push along her forearm and a jingle-cruck-shhhhk unlocks and slides the window open enough for her to climb in, leg-first.

                Dave is on his bed, lying on his stomach with his eyes shut and the tiniest hint of drool shimmering on his bottom lip. There’s a white bandage—pristine against the color of his bedding—wrapped around his forehead and another around his ribcage. She smiles as she pushes her fingers through his hair, gently stirring him back to wakefulness.

                His eyes are cloudy, pupils hazy, and his tongue is thick in his mouth as he talks. “I may not… be endierlee—endyely—entyelee—entyrelee—entirely lushid righ’ now… but I’m baguely poshitibe y’re naw’ s’pposed t’be here.”

                She giggles and kisses his forehead. “We wanted to know how you were doing. Dirk has been short at best, but you know how he is better than I do. How are you feeling?”

                “Tired and dthrugged.”

                “I noticed.”

                Her breath catches in her throat as the doorknob curls. She’s halfway across the room with Karkat’s wrist in her hand, nearly out the window, when the door is open completely. Someone who could be Dave walks in with gauze in his arms and an eyebrow high in the air. He lets out a sigh, goes straight up to her and drops everything into her arms. “Six remedial questions every hour on the hour. Make sure he moves every half-hour or so, not much but twitches in the least. If you’re worried, unlock the door and text me. Rose is at Kanaya’s today, otherwise you would be stuck with her smirking constantly. I’m going to go chat with Jake, though. I’ll have my phone on me. Dad’s not supposed to get home until about eight o’clock, but with how work has been lately, I wouldn’t be surprised if he were to come home early. Just keep the door locked. Dave’s medication should wear off around seven-thirty. Make sure he takes the next dose. S’in his drawer. He knows which one he needs to take, don’t worry. Peace.”

                Dirk locks the door before leaving, closing the door and jostling the knob behind him.

                Dave smiles slightly as he sits up, balancing his weight on his elbow. Aradia lets out a breath, smiles back, and starts to work the bandages off his head. There’s a small shaved spot at the back where an incision had been made during his hospital stay. It’s no larger than the first bone in her thumb, but it must mean a lot being that it’s on his head.

                “What’s your middle name, Dave?”

                “Matthew.”

                “Ronnie’s maiden-name?”

                “Lalonde.”

                “Which of your quadrants do I lie in?”

                “Moirail.”

                “Who was the man that just left?”

                “Dirk.”

                “Who’s Dirk?”

                “My brother.”

                “And who’s Daniel Strider?”

                “My dad.”

                She nods her head, deeming him fine for now as she wraps the new gauze around. Dave smiles brilliantly in his drunken state and Aradia turns to see what he’s looking at. Karkat is smiling lightly back, relief painted all over his face as he reaches out. Dave takes his hand by the fingertips and tugs at him until Karkat is crawling onto the bed beside him. Dave presses his lips to Karkat’s cheek ever-so-slightly. Karkat returns it before unwrapping his chest to see the ribs.

                The skin is, unsurprisingly, three times better than before. The black, blue and green have faded away under the hospital’s Advanced Care, turning it to faint shades of yellow-green, barely visible against his pale skin. Aradia rewraps it before Dave leans back, putting one arm out to the side Karkat is lying on. After a little urging on her behalf, Karkat puts his head on Dave’s shoulder with one of his grey arms over Dave’s side. The other goes around Karkat’s waist, awkwardly hugging himself. Dave sighs and his head lolls over just enough to nuzzle his nose into the mop of black hair between his horns. Aradia lies down beside them, kisses behind Dave’s ear and listens as he hums. He’s back asleep within ten minutes.

                “So?”

                Karkat looks up from where Dave is nuzzling into him, half unsure and half startled at her talking. “What?”

                “Are you two together or just—?” She waves her hand in the air, emphasizing a word that wouldn’t come to her.

                Karkat hides his face in Dave’s arm. “I don’t even know.”

                “I think Dave would be happy to think that you two are officially black.”

                “What gives you the right to say that?”

                “I’m his moirail.”

                A truer argument has never been spoken.

 

- ) – ( -

            

                Dave eventually rolls away from Karkat, going back to hugging his pillow. Karkat sits up when he does, gently nudging himself out of bed. Aradia laughs at him as she rolls over to watch from her position beside Dave.

                The room is nicely sized, even if it is smaller than his room back at the orphanage. The closet has two sliding-doors with mirrors mounted on top. It’s relatively clean, too, if not for the streaks on the mirrors and a shirt or two on the ground. There’s some sort of desk with a record player and sliders to the side of the window, but the cord is on top and there’s some sort of warning note taped to the top about knowing the moment he even tries to touch it. There’s a sketchbook to the side, half filled with silly doodles when he does a quick once-through and half filled with beautifully detailed profiles. Most of them are of Aradia, either when she is sleeping or when she’s so enthralled with another action that she doesn’t notice him sketching her. There are others, too. Some of a random kid in a library; of Her Imperial Condescension, the Royal Blood Feferi Peixes (probably based off of a picture online); Troll War Administrator, “Prince” Eridan Ampora (again, probably an internet-based picture); a junior in their class he doesn’t know too well, but knows enough to know her name is Terezi Pyrope; even more of people with half-finished faces and who he didn’t get a good enough look to finish it before the person moved. Somewhere in the middle there he hears Aradia make a comment about how he shouldn’t be going through Dave’s sketchbook, which he waves off with a “he’ll never know”.

                It’s only when he comes to a picture of himself that he truly has to stop. It’s not finished yet and he can barely tell that it is him—a bunch of thin lines making up the outline and eraser marks where the lines for his clothes have been added in. The only reason that he does indeed know it is him is the fact that, on his chest, there are three scars, nearly invisible. He remembers the two of them—Dave and him—getting stuck up on the top of a tree at the start of their first grade year and falling out of it. Dave and he had received nearly-identical scars, though Dave’s had been on the back of his shoulder.

                He quietly puts the sketchbook back to where it had been before he picked it up. The majority of the rest of the room is filled with a single bookcase, most of which is filled with sketchbooks, useless animes that probably aren’t even any good and the stuff from last school year. Maybe the year before, too.

                Aradia laughs at his exploration. “It’s too bad we can’t show you the rest of the house. It’s not that interesting, but it would give you some things to be nosy in.”

                He rolls his eyes. “I don’t want to see the rest of the house.”

                “Liar.”

                He shifts, looking for something—anything—to change the topic to. Instead, all he gets is the stupid, “so what the hell even is this thing?” as he kicks the desk with the record player on the top.

                “His turndeck. It’s what he uses to mix his music. Y’know… how he gets the money to support himself, what little he can.”

                “And he’s grounded from it?”

                “Looks that way.”

                “For what?”

                “Getting into that fight with you.”

                “That fight was over three weeks ago!”

                “Daniel was pretty pissed over it. Probably stayed at work all night and came home around four in the morning. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dave doesn’t get the turndeck back until almost a month after we get off of parole.”

                “Why are you even on parole? You two are, as much as it pains me to say, fucking good at fighting. If you really wanted, you could get away with the fighting. Cops would never have to know.”

                “We don’t do it for us.” She shifts a bit and pushes Dave with her shoulder until he rolls onto his other side. “We do it because those that we fight for can’t hold themselves steady on their own and need our help.”

                “Oh, great, two more heroes to add to the list of people that will never be recognized?”

                “What? No. We love fighting. For a while there, it was a bad addiction. But we managed to make it work in our favor. The only problem is that no one believes a couple of delinquent kids.” Karkat’s eyebrows pinch together in confusion. Aradia smiles. “When I first met Dave… he was very lonely. And he didn’t have much more than acting out in violent tendencies and fighting. That’s how we met: through fights. Eventually we figured it out that fighting for ourselves would get us killed. We got mixed up in some fights where we were defending others and it worked perfectly. We never stopped.”

                Dave stirs, lifting himself up onto his elbows and wrists. He smiles sleepily at Karkat and beckons him over with the flick of a wrist. Karkat listens, if only because he’s in bed—nearly an invalid—and follows Dave’s arm in when he puts it out. It’s a quick press of lips to each other before Dave rolls over and pulls Karkat with him. An awkward flurry of arms and a punch to the wall leaves Dave with his head on Karkat’s chest and Aradia threatening to lie on top of them to keep them from moving.

                “This bed was not made for three people,” Dave declares as she presses as close against him as possible.

                “It wasn’t even made for two, let alone one,” Aradia laughs. Dave chuckles, nuzzling Karkat’s chest, right over the edge of one of his scars. Karkat’s hand rubs Dave’s shoulder and he places a quiet kiss to Dave’s chin.

                “I vote that we all sleep,” Dave mutters.

                “I vote that you do that and Karkat and I will talk.”

                “I can’t fall asleep when you’re talking, Loudmouth.”

                “Then keep your eyes shut and hum some sort of melody, Miss Beauty Sleep.”

                Dave elbows her in the boob. She knees him in the thigh. Karkat laughs at the two of them before they squirm around and Dave falls back asleep. Aradia stays perfectly still for almost ten minutes, absolutely silent, before she rolls back just far enough to open Dave’s bedside table. She shuffles a few pairs of socks around before she hears the rattle of pills against a plastic case. There’s another rattle somewhere in there and she grunts as she shifts her shoulder awkwardly to reach the second bottle.

                She rolls the labels around to face her, reading the instructions on them before she pulls her phone out of her back pocket with the tiniest of hip-shimmies against her sleeping moirail’s butt.

                Her eyes almost bug out as she reads what exactly he is in for. “Holy shit,” she breathes. “This stuff is fucking strong. No wonder he’s getting knocked out from it! Whatever fucking insurance he has must have him under the guinea-pig clause, because I’m not entirely sure this is legal for Humans to take yet.”

                “What is it?”

                “Some Old Beforan word I can’t pronounce.” She shrugs. “It’s that stuff that’s made to heal the person in not even a third of the time it would normally take.”

                “That shit knocked me on my ass when I had to take it. How the hell can he walk in a straight line?”

                Aradia shrugs and rubs her hand over Dave’s shoulder. Dave shifts, nuzzling into Karkat’s chest a little more. “He probably had to take it before now, too. That or, knowing him, he’s taking it at night and the effect-span is long enough for him to go to work in the morning and come back home afterward to take it. It is twenty-four hours, right?”

                “Most are, yeah. Why does he have two bottles of it?”

                “No, the other is something to do with the blood judging by the 'hemo' in it; probably so that the hematoma doesn’t get any worse.” Karkat nods and reaches over, taking them from her hand for the moment. The one that is almost impossible to even dream of pronouncing is just over halfway gone, but the “hemo”-stuff has barely had a quarter of it taken, but the pills are large and make for maybe three doses to be missing.

                Karkat gives the pill bottles back to Aradia and puts his hand on the back of Dave’s shoulder. He watches him sleep for some time. Aradia smiles and taps away at her phone, pretending not to notice.

               

- ) – ( -

               

                Dave jerks awake at the sound of the pounding on the door. Aradia looks ashen as she tears him off of Karkat’s chest. Her grip on Karkat's wrist is almost crushing as she pulls him to the window. Climbing out is awkward and the shuffle of staying out of sight of the window is weird as she pulls him on top of her and wraps her hand around his mouth. There’s a hiss of a threat about not biting her hand, but he won’t even if he should. It’s not often that he’s forcibly removed from a potential kismessis’ bedroom by said man’s moirail.

                There’s a grunt and a shout of “one minute!” A few muttered curses leads him to try to lean forward and see what is happening inside, but Aradia yanks him back and locks her muscles so hard that he can’t possibly move. He feels the brush of her nose against the back of his neck as she shakes her head.

                He doesn’t recognize the voice of the man who is obviously the cause of Aradia’s weird behavior. It’s old, gruff, and sounds exhausted. It’s the kind of exhausted that comes after talking for far too long to too many idiots, instead of the exhaustion that hits after a long, hard day. “Dave, what is your door doing locked?”

                “I fell asleep while I was changing, dad,” he can almost hear Dave’s yawn as his last word is drowned out mid-way.

                “Why aren’t you wearing a shirt?”

                “Yes, dad, go ahead and get so distracted by my obviously stunning physic wrapped in gauze while I answer the question you ask only after the answer occurs. This is obviously something that is logical and should happen to someone who studied debates as well as you have. I cannot possibly hope to fight you on this point.”

                “Don’t patronize your father, David.”

                “Sorry, sir.”

                “I take it by your snip that you are feeling better.”

                “Not really. Just cranky.”

                “Why?”

                “I was asleep when you tried to get in.” The springs on Dave’s bed creak as one of them sits down—or lays down or jumps like a monkey or really does anything under the realm of the sun, how is he to know? “How long were you knocking?”

                “Not very long at all. Why is your window open?”

                Aradia tightens around him. He can almost tell that her eyes are squeezed shut, even without looking. Whatever is with Dave’s dad, it’s obviously something against Aradia. He feels his shut, too, before he even realizes it. Each thudding footstep seems to be getting closer and closer, louder and louder. He backs into the corner over Aradia, ignoring her small noise of exhalation.

                “It was fucking negative a-hundred degrees in here this afternoon! All day!”

                “It’s one-oh-three outside and your screen is broken again! Any amount of birds and bugs can get fly in here and make you sicker!”

                “Dad, don’t close the window; I’m just going to open it again!”

                “Bullshit you are, David. The AC is on room-temp; you’re not freezing cold.”

                “It’s like thirty-two below in here when the AC is on; just leave it open! I’ll close it later.”

                “It’s a waste of money and electricity.”

                “Then turn the AC off to my room and I’ll pay you back for earlier today. It’s only been like this for about an hour or-so.”

                “Dave.” The sigh is exasperated, close to giving up. Karkat chances opening his eyes and watches long enough to see a slim hand—Dave’s hand—slip out of the window and tug a thicker arm dressed only in black back inside.

                “Dad, c’mon, when have I ever been easy to persuade? Other than when I was five and thought that you were the closest thing to God I would ever get. Man, I was an idiot.”

                There’s a brief chuckle as Dave grunts. Karkat imagines the older man with his arm over Dave’s shoulders, hugging him, and hopes that that’s what is actually happening. “You seem to be a lot better than you were these past few days, Dave. Starting to get some life back into you. When Michelle showed up at the hospital, I nearly had a heart attack. Still think you might’ve.”

                “She was there?”

                “You two talked for almost three hours each day you were there. You don’t remember?”

                “I remember having a dream about her running around like an idiot and a few others about some guy named Irvin, but I don’t remember having actual conversations…. Well, maybe I remember her walking into the room on Sunday…. Maybe it’s just my mind trying to place your words into reality, though, too." His dad chuckles and Dave makes a quiet noise. “I want to go back to sleep.”

                “This medicine is much too strong for you.”

                “When you broke your leg, you were out just as much as I am now. Same medication and everything. I just wanna sleep it off.”

                “Fine, fine. I’ll ignore the fact that I’m over thirty years your senior and that medication affects us differently in favor of letting your body take care of itself. And if you’re going to leave the window open, at least put a shirt on.”

                “I have a wrap on. That’s close enough, right?”

                “David.”

                “Fine, just, hand me that shirt by your foot then.”

                “By ‘shirt’ I meant a clean one.”

                “That wasn’t in the Terms and Conditions.”

                “Fine print.”

                “I read the fine print, dad. You’re the worst at writing it; no wonder you always had me do it. It mentioned nothing about the cleanliness of one’s article of fabric made to cover the torso. It mentioned underwear, though, but that’s not the debate right now.”

                “Dave stop being stubborn.”

                “You’re hilarious. Your stand-up is quite the motivating speech, however I refuse to agree with your ideals and therefore your opinions are rendered useless with little to no value above a source of laughter. Besides, I wore that shirt for, like, not even ten minutes.”

                There’s a sigh or maybe a groan, he’s not sure at this distance, before his dad makes some sort of odd noise. Dave shuffles his clothes as he pulls the shirt on. “Have you seen your sister?”

                “I’ve been asleep all day.”

                “Right.”

                “Why? Is she missing?”

                “Probably at Jade’s, I suspect.”

                He hears Aradia hiss Kanaya’s name before he leans against her stomach. She bites her lip.

                “Why not just ask Dirk? He should know.”

                “Sent him to the store before I realized that Rose was gone. I’ll ask him when he gets back. Get a little more sleep before dinner. Keep your door unlocked.”

               “I know dad. Like hell I’m going to forget that rant when it hasn’t even been three months since.” The door opens and shuts a little bit later. Dave doesn’t immediately come to get them, waiting for a few minutes. With each passing second, Aradia’s grip gets tighter and tighter.

                It feels almost as if he hasn’t breathed for a long time when Dave leans out the window, bracing his weight on the sill. He smiles ever so gently, shoulders sloped and red eyes squinting against the brightness.

                “That was way too close, Aradia.”

                She lets out a shaky breath that makes his ear feel congested. “Uh-huh.”

                Karkat puts his hand under Aradia’s palm, pulling it away as much as he can with the awkward entrapment of one arm under hers. “Can I have my mouth back?”

                Dave puts his arm out toward them and Aradia releases him. Karkat follows, ignoring the arm in favor of standing in front of him, waiting to be allowed back in. Dave puts his arms on Karkat’s waist and pulls him forward, capturing his mouth with a quiet “no, no you cannot.” Karkat chuckles and puts his hand on the back of his neck, holding him there.

                Finally, Dave moves back far enough to let him squeeze through. Moving back gives Karkat just enough room to watch as Dave strips out of the black ACDC shirt. He steps up behind him and hooks his fingers into the edge of the wrap. With a small little tug at the silver pin, he is free to unwind it from Dave’s skin.

                “Buy me dinner first, you entitled son of a bitch.”

                Karkat nips at the back of his neck, hinting at teeth with the very tip of teasing pleasure. Dave shifts his head to give him more room. “Buy your own fucking dinner you freeloading idiot. I want to see how well your side has healed.”

                “That’s what they all say—then we fall into bed together.”

                “Who’s ‘they all’?”

                “You, the hyperbole for life, people in general, porn movies, Aradia; no one can resist the Strider charm.”

                “All I see is an inflated ego from the guy who should be punching it down. Trust me; the fabled ‘Strider charm’ is just that: a fable. It’s not that hard to get passed whatever that’s supposed to be.”

                “You failed to do that.”

                “I just want to fight with you, you dick.” Karkat’s teeth dig in further this time and Karkat’s hands press against Dave’s stomach. It squirms beneath his fingers, twitching in delight as Dave gives him more of his neck to chew on. Dave stops him partway through by tapping his elbow against Karkat’s chest. “No hickeys,” he mutters.

                “Fucking killjoy. I should give you one just to give you shit.”

                “Dude, my dad will be pissed at me. He’s mad enough as is.”

                “He seemed fine.”

                “You obviously haven’t met him.”

                “Well, I haven’t.”

                It doesn’t matter anyway, though, because Karkat goes straight back to unwrapping his chest. The bandage pools on the floor at last and Karkat steps back far enough to examine Dave’s skin. The mottling has died down since the last he saw it, barely even discoloured where the bruise used to be. Karkat pushes him back onto the bed. His chest looks even better than his back, where he has to almost squint to see it. Almost three weeks’ worth of healing has been accomplished in under three hours. Karkat should be surprised, but he really isn’t.

                Aradia appears from nowhere, pushing against his shoulders until he lies down on top of Dave. The Human chuckles and watches as Aradia goes to close the window before returning to the bed. “You two are the stupidest people I have ever met.”

                “Yeah, well,” Dave laughs, “you’re stuck with me. But I really do want to go back to sleep.”

                Karkat kisses up his neck and pecks his lips. Dave puts his arm over the back of his neck, wriggling into the bed as he asks Aradia to check and make sure the door is locked. She does, nodding as she climbs back in the bed with them. Dave is caught in between the three of them again, squished with the weight of the two of them. He lets out a sigh of relief as Karkat and Aradia put their arms over his ribs and it doesn’t hurt.

                “Can’t wait to get through a day without a nap,” he mutters into Karkat’s jawline. Karkat chuckles and kisses his neck again. Aradia runs a hand through his hair and mutters about how it’s almost over now.

 

- ) - ( -

 

                They visit for the next two more days. On the third day, Dave is on his feet, stretching, and over all a hell of a lot better than he was before. He greets Aradia with a one-armed hug and presses Karkat into the wall. A slurry of curses slip out of his lips, condemning Karkat for being so lenient while he was sick. Karkat growls, biting on his lip as they pull apart. Aradia makes a clever comment about being glad that he’s feeling better before flopping on his bed and pulling her phone out. Dave chuckles, dragging his teeth down the side of Karkat’s neck with a pleasured hiss.

                Dave has a hickey in the valley of his collarbone and two more on his waist before they take a rest from biting each other. Karkat has three small reddish-blotches on his chest and another just under the right side of his jaw. Aradia is texting Sollux, judging by the 2-quirk, and Dave smiles brilliantly at the two of them.

                “You two are both assholes who deserve to die painful, fiery deaths.”

                Aradia leans over and kisses his cheek patronizingly. “You’re welcome for taking care of you, Davey.”

                “Don’t call me Davey.”

                “I’ll call you whatever I want, Dave.”

                “Not Davey.”

                “And why not?”

                “I’m not above kicking your ass.”

                Karkat puts one hand over Aradia’s mouth and another over Dave’s. “Do either of you ever shut up?”

                They shake their heads simultaneously and Karkat grumbles about getting earplugs as they laugh.

               

- ) - ( -

 

                Dave returns to the Orphanage the next day. He goes in the back way and greets Rachel in the kitchen. She inquires about his health, almost making a big deal about it before he calms her back down. It’s over and done with now and he’s open to do things quicker now. And maybe help train the wrigglers, just a little bit.

                Almost on cue, Trynna walks into the kitchen and breaks into a huge smile. She sprints to him and laughs as he stoops to pick her up. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she puts her forehead to his chin as best as she can with her horns not getting in the way. “You’re back!”

                “I am. How have you and the others been? Listening to Karkat while he tries to teach you guys?”

                “Yeah! After your fight the littler kids got all scared and they started listening. That made it a lot easier! Your aura is all nice and clean again, Dave. Is your side hurt no more?”

                “No it’s not.” Trynna smiles, showing where she’s lost a canine tooth. He grins back.

 

                Work is easy and the wrigglers and kids welcome him back enthusiastically. Dave spends the majority of the day working with the wrigglers. He’s on his way out to leave when he finds Trynna curled in a ball behind one of the couches. Her arms are over her head and she is ducked down, quivering in fear of something. He kneels down beside her as best as he can and puts a hand on her shoulder. She jumps, nearly hitting her toe on the wall.

                “What’s wrong?”

                “N-nothing,” she stutters, turning away from him. “I… I just didn’t think anyone would catch me h-here, is all.”

                “Are you afraid of something?”

                “N-no! J-just…. Just tired, is all.”

                “Don’t lie to me, Trynna.”

                “You can tell when people lie, too?” He pauses, but nods. He supposes this lie is easy enough to see through. “So you can see auras, too?”

                “No, I can’t. Humans don’t have the same abilities that some Trolls do. We’re just normal, compared to you.”

                “Then how do you know I’m lying?”

                “I’m good at telling when people are lying, that’s all.” The fact that she’s not particularly good at it is beside the point.

                She deflates, turning back to look at the wall. “I wish I couldn’t see them. I see what people are feeling, where they’re hurt, how bad it is…. I see when they lie, when they don’t like me, when they don’t like whatever we’re talking about. I see everything, even in the dark, but no one understands because no one else can, too. I’m alone with this. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with it. Am I supposed to call them out? Play along? Why do I get headaches from seeing them? Why can’t I just be normal?”

                “All normal people strive to be something like you, Trynna. We want to be special. We want to have that place in the world, the one where no one else stands with us, but normal people can’t be there. But you, Trynna, you were born there. You’re so incredibly lucky and you don’t even know it.”

                “But I don’t want to be special! I want to be normal! I just”—her voice cracks and she scrubs at her eyes—“I just want… to… to be something I’m not.”

                “Trynna,” he reaches out and pulls her in, turning her until she’s forced to look at him. “This is a gift. This is something you can use to your advantage. The Trials are tomorrow, right? You can still see auras without seeing someone, right?”

                “Th-that’s why my headaches don’t go away. I see everything.”

                “In the Trials, you can see where they are. You can see and move and maneuver until you’re alive and winning. Use this to your advantage. You can survive—live—if all you do is watch.”

                “But… But that’s cheating.”

                “Others will listen to the voices of the dead and will call upon even worse things to make sure they survive. It’s not cheating because you were born with it. The others were born with the same things.”

                “Karkat wasn’t.”

                “He’s unlucky. Like me, he’s normal. But then again, he’s really not, now is he?” She puffs her cheeks out, but nods slowly. “Now promise me that you will use this to your advantage.”

                “I promise.”

                “Then there’s nothing for you to be afraid of. You’ll survive. Tomorrow will be a piece of cake, ok?”

                She nods, albeit slowly.

                “Do you know where Karkat went?”

                “Um, either out front or to his room.”

                “Ok. Now go get cleaned up. You smell of sweat from today’s workout.”

                She nods and he stands, giving her enough room to slip out of.

                He leaves the house, scanning the front yard. It doesn’t take long to find Karkat sitting on the edge of one of the dead flowerbeds. He’s looking forward, staring into nothingness as cars drive in front of them. Dave walks straight up to him, stands in front of him and kicks his shoe. Karkat starts and looks up to him, eyebrow raised.

                “Tomorrow’s the Trial, right?”

                “I only said that forty or fifty times today.”

                “I want to go.”

                “No.”

                “I’m going.”

                “I’m not taking you.”

                “You’re obviously driving.”

                “Why do you want to go so bad?”

                “I trained these idiots. I want to see how well they fight without us.”

                “I’m not taking you.”

                Dave fists his hands in his collar and pushes him back until his shoulders press against the wall. Pressing his knees to either side of Karkat’s legs, he leans his head in, hissing, “I’m going.”

                Karkat’s fingers clench in his shirt, pulling him close enough to taste his breath. “I’m not taking you.”

Chapter Text

                Dave isn’t sure what he expected from The Trials location. Maybe a cave? An underwater facility thirty kilometers away from the center of Aftori? A place thousands of miles into the sky where an invisible factory has been built above the clouds? He really, honestly, doesn’t know. In hindsight, he supposes that he expected it to be somewhere dark, dank, musky and maybe a little cramped, like the air has been stagnant for a few years (or more).

                Above all, he really didn’t expect to be led into a warehouse on the outskirts of town about three hours before the lusus were expected to arrive. There are only two other groups there with them, so he supposes that he expected to have more competitors, too.

                Karkat has been a complete basket case all morning, though. He’s silent, eyes straight ahead and shoulders resolute. He’s holding himself like a soldier, batting the wrigglers with the back of his hand when they get out of line and nudging them forward and in front of him without a single word. Dave hasn’t said a word in reply.

                When he got to the orphanage that morning and Trynna had tattled, he had said that he would figure it out and sent her on her way. He had gone to look for him and found him in the section of the backyard they use for an overnight parking space. In his hand he had held a piece of paper with the names of all of the wrigglers on it, counting them off as they eventually mustered up the courage to get into the car. Dave had shoved his hands into his jacket pockets, curled his fists, and watched. He had taken the passenger’s seat and watched.

Still now, he watches. It has set an edge to his nerves he has never felt before—the kind of edge he’s only read of in books and heard of in movies, where he’s looking at everything from a higher point of view and waiting for the first domino to fall. But, unlike the books and the movies, he doesn’t know the second step. Who will fall next? Why is Karkat such a bitch today? Which of the wrigglers will die? Survive? He feels edgy, shifty; ready to run but not knowing where.

                Trynna glances up at him from the front of the Second Trial Group, but he refuses to meet her eyes from beside Karkat. There’s a brief creeping look in Karkat’s shoulder as they walk forward and he thinks it could be hesitance, but knows it isn’t. Karkat isn’t the kind of Troll to be hesitant. He’s not the kind of idiot to see hesitance in every action.

                There are only three wrigglers there from the Third Trial group, and they go up to the technicians (Trolls of some sort of medium-blood) first. Fingers raised, they take the prick from the needle quickly and take the tablets offered to them, checking the data on it. Karkat and Dave walk around to the edge, where the three of the wrigglers wait. The Second Trials go next, letting them prick their fingers. Dave catches sight of one of the tablets after a wriggler moves toward them and they wait for the next blood-prick to go through.

                There’s an info sheet on there. A full-body picture of the wriggler with an analysis of the blood color, height, weight and even more than that; he can’t make everything on the sheet out before the next comes up and it’s turned to Trynna, but it’s enough for him to get the main idea of what they all say.

                After they have amassed the wrigglers back up, one of the technicians tells Karkat which room to take them to. Dave follows half a step behind him, watching his every move out of the corner of his eye—not for hesitation, no, no, but, maybe something just like it. Karkat shows nothing, though, and opens the door with a key he hadn’t seen be passed to him before. The wrigglers file in before them and Karkat closes the door behind him.

                It’s an armory. Weapon after weapon are lined on the walls; swords, spears, staffs, nunchuks, whips and things he doesn’t even know how to name are on the walls. The wrigglers rush to get their weapons, running so that they aren’t stuck with an unfamiliar one when the storage runs out. Karkat points them to a door off to the side when they all have weapons balanced in their hands. The door is unlocked, waiting for them to walk in. Trynna hesitates outside of it before she squares her shoulders, clears her throat and curses herself for being so stupid. She can see, after all.

                Karkat locks the door behind them and leaves through the door they entered from. Dave turns and follows, hands still in his jacket pockets. They climb a staircase through another door down the hall and emerge into a large room spanning probably a third or more of the warehouse. In the center, there is one large dome, completely empty if not for fuzzy dots: yellow-ish or brown-ish, a green-ish over there, even more maroon-ish over here…. It only takes Dave a few seconds to realize that the fuzzy dots are in the color of the wriggler’s blood.

                Karkat leads him around the empty dome, toward the back, where he can see the door to the staircase right across from them. He can’t see much of a damn thing with his glasses on, though, and he pushes them up over the top of his head. Karkat is leaning over something glowing connected to the dome. Dave elbows him a little bit before he can get in and see the touch-screen over them. It’s pulled up to a welcome screen, which he skips through without a second thought.

                He opens his mouth to tell him to slow down, but Karkat silences him with a spit-fire grunt; “it’s just telling you how to select which wriggler you want to examine. Tap on a dot and it’ll bring up the bio you saw downstairs. Click on the select portion of the bio and a trapdoor will open under the wriggler and they’ll slide out mid-fight for you to take under your wing. Not that you have to deal with that, Strider.”

                There’s an edge to his force that sends chills down his spine. Dave closes his mouth and doesn’t reply, letting Karkat tap his way through the tutorial. There’s an effeminate voice off to his right that catches his attention, and he turns to look at where it’s coming from. Karkat doesn’t even look up. “I take it this isn’t your first ballpark, then, huh?”

                She’s probably a Jade Blood. She’s tall, with the same kind of physique that Kanaya has, with broad shoulders and nice breasts. Long black, curling hair and eyelashes long enough to obscure the shade of green her eyes have taken. Her horns go forward to about her forehead before curling down and back to the back of her head. She stands with the kind of regal look that comes only after growing up in a palace—or after hundreds of years of life.

                Karkat grunts. “No.”

                “But it’s your first time, right, Strider, as he called you?”

                “What’s it to you?”

                “Nothing, more than the fact that Humans are rarely ever seen at Trials. Too ‘gruesome’ as your reporters say. They tried to get the Trials banned, too, but only a threat of war kept them together.” There’s a rough sort of laugh—a patronizing one, he realizes, as if it was his direct fault they would do that. “You probably won’t even last half way through them, will you, Strider?”

                “If I actually cared for your patronizing ass, I would be insulted, but seeing as how I don’t even know your name, let alone why the fuck I should care, I’m not.”

                Karkat elbows him, roughly, in the ribcage. “Don’t forget that you’re the only Human here, idiot. I’m not going to take it easy on you if you get yourself into a bad situation. I’m here to make sure these idiots either kill each other or get culled, as Her Imperial is trying to make us say. I’m not babysitting you.”

                “Isn’t it ridiculous?” The Jade Blood scoffs. “The word ‘culled’ isn’t meant to mean something as benign as adoption. It’s being murdered. Killed for what you are. By someone with the power and the authority to do it. Not adoption.” She turns her head away. “Her Imperial is just too woozy with power to realize it.”

                “Be careful someone doesn’t hear you say that,” a second voice says from just beyond her. Dave can’t make out who it is, but it sounds like a man. He wonders if they can even see in the dark. He can’t see any farther than the Jade blood to his right and a few feet from Karkat on his left. “Could get you culled.”

                The Jade giggles. “Oh, Jistuc, you still know a good joke or two.”

                “The lusus are arriving,” Karkat snaps. “Keep your traps shut or you might scare them away again.”

                The Jade huffs, but Jistuc cuts her off. “He’s right, Melnov. Last time you lost almost your entire lot because you couldn’t keep your mouth shut. Maybe if you trained them more, they might survive.”

                Dave listens to the argument rage on, something about training them enough and that a good majority of them were “culled”, rather than killed. He turns to Karkat, trying to get as good of a read on him as possible. He seems to have relaxed with the sound of Melnov’s and Jistuc’s argument, but he’s on-edge anyway.

                The lusus fill the room, encircling the dome and an alarm sounds inside the fighting grounds to mark the beginning of the fight. One brave mustard blood steps forward, weapons raised, and the yellow fuzz ball smashes something down on a brown blood. It dominoes, falling into the wriggler at its side instead of forward and the fighting explodes. He doesn’t have to reach forward and tap the yellow dot, even as Karkat does, to know Trynna is the one who started it all. The bio appears to the right and, there, at the bottom of it the words “survival at all costs” stand in the Quotes section.

                The first wriggler dies out within the first five minutes. Karkat taps the one that goes down before the fuzz blurs, but he doesn’t recognize who it is when the bio pops up. There’s a tight breath that escapes Karkat before he taps out of the bio and the fuzz dies completely. A maroon blood, like Aradia. Never had a chance with his fists.

                There are probably sixty-some kids down there, even more that the pan of the touch pad’s camera doesn’t recognize, so probably one hundred and more killing each other so that they can be adopted. One after another goes down, some of which Karkat flinches at as he recognizes faces and names. Dave doesn’t understand. This is a part of life. This is a part of Karkat’s life. Trolls kill each other to get a life, after all. How many Trials did Karkat go through before they stopped having suitable combatants? Ten? Twelve? Shouldn’t he know by now that people die?

                Dave doesn’t understand, but he stands resilient beside him, watching as another yellow-blood goes down.

                Karkat is shaking before an hour is out; shaking violently with his hands fisted in his pockets and teeth deep into his lip. It’s the most emotion he has shown all day and Dave isn’t sure what it is. Anger? Fear? Apprehension? Recognition? He doesn’t know—doesn’t understand—as he watches wrigglers from the same Orphanage as Karkat’s go down, one after the other, interspersed with others. A trap door opens at one point and a low-blooded-green wriggler drops into the shoot, soon to become a real Troll.

                Dave imagines himself down there in that pit. Maybe that’s what’s bothering Karkat; he’s remembering what he had to go through all those years ago. He imagines himself without any sight whatsoever, fighting by the grind of muscles on bones and every sense but sight. He imagines killing people he doesn’t know, doesn’t dream of knowing. He imagines fighting Dirk again after so many years, of killing him like Karkat killed his orphanage-mates and that’s when his blood goes cold. He feels almost sick to his stomach. He can’t imagine killing Dirk—of living without him or Rose or even John or Jade, despite their being in another state right now. He can’t imagine it.

                Yet here Karkat is, watching those same people murder each other just so that they can have a chance at life. He supposes it almost makes sense. Knowing that his siblings are going to die is one thing—something that could make a man go emotionless—but watching it must have him in such a large jumble of emotions that he almost can’t breathe.

                Dave reaches out, his hand gently finding Karkat’s wrist and sliding down until he can tug his hand out of his pocket and grin gently. Karkat rips his hand away without a second of hesitation and Dave lets his hand go. He waits for it to be replaced in its pocket before he tries again, this time stepping close enough to whisper in his ear. “I’m Human, Karkat. I’m not supposed to see this stuff.”

                “It was your stubbornness that got you here, Strider.”

                “And I was wrong,” he finishes. “Give me a little leeway.”

                The answer isn’t immediate. Karkat is dead-set against giving him any “leeway” for almost twenty minutes before Beldan dies. Karkat’s hand slips into Dave’s after that and he squeezes as he rides out the wave of agony it must cause to watch his little brother die before him. Dave pulls his hand into his jacket pocket and leans against his side. He’s there for him, even if he wishes he could turn Karkat’s, or even his own, back to the dome and wrap his arms around the Troll. He would like to think that doing that could possibly help, but it wouldn’t. Holding Karkat’s hand isn’t even going to help—it’ll make everything worse in the long run—but for now, it’s helping Karkat at least keep a straight face.

                The Trial lasts seven more hours before all the lusus have left with their newly culled wrigglers and all the survivors have had a red light shone on them to direct them to the door they entered from. He releases Karkat’s hand and follows him downstairs to the armory. They unlock the door and in walk eight wrigglers.

                One of them is from the Third Trial group. He knows another was culled and the last was one of the last to fall. Trynna and Gadsfa—a rust blood closer to orange than brown—are the only two Second Trials left, with the last five being First Trials. Karkat points them toward a door on the other side of the armory. Trynna almost jumps at the chance and she, Gadsfa and the Third Trial (or is it Fourth, now?) race. He hears the sound of showers being turned on as the First Trials enter the room behind them.

                Karkat is stock still in the middle of the armory, caught between relief that some hadn’t died and the horror of not going back into the fighting grounds to see which ones hadn’t been culled. His voice is quiet, almost desperate, and he doesn’t sound to be so good. “Can you drive?”

                Dave shakes his head. “I don’t have my license.”

                Karkat looks physically broken, as if he doesn’t have the resolve to do anything at that moment. Dave sighs and rubs the back of his head, weighing the possibilities. “W-well… I haven’t been arrested before… but I also haven’t gone on a highway o-or even gone somewhere I didn’t know how to get to beforehand, either. I could, if I had to, b-but…. It’s really not a good idea.”

                “I don’t think I can get us home, after all.”

                “Are you ok?”

                “I don’t… normally watch.”

                “Then why did you?”

                “You’re Human, Dave. You said so yourself.”

                “That’s a piss-poor excuse and you know it.”

                “Can you drive us home?”

                “Just… I guess I’ll just turn the radio off and let you direct me back. I mean, the wrigglers will probably be asleep anyway.”

                Karkat nods and fishes the keys out of his pocket. Dave slips them into his jacket for the time being and laments over what a bad idea this is as he waits for the Remaining Eight to join them in the world of the clean.

                They’re asleep almost by the moment they get into their seats in the minivan. Karkat takes the passenger seat after he checks that they’re buckled and as Dave slips into the driver’s.

                It’s not the first time he’s driven. Dirk used to take him out on clear nights and get him practice when Dirk still had his permit and when cops were less-likely to notice them. He’s better at driving at night than in the day and it leaves a foul taste in his mouth every time his mind replays the thought of being pulled over (coincidently, this is also the only thing in his mind). Karkat talks him through speeding up on the highway, merging correctly, and he shouldn’t be nearly as surprised as he is when he does it as correctly as he can with half-hearted instructions.

                The drive is completely silent for almost half an hour. When they pull off the highway forty-five minutes into it, Karkat reaches over and pulls one hand free of the wheel, letting him readjust his other hand before twining their fingers together. Dave glances at the kids in the back and sighs gently as he turns onto a road he recognizes.

                “Thanks for being a complete asshole and making me take you.”

                “Thanks for being a stubborn prick and making it worth pushing.”

                Karkat is silent for a second, fingers tapping and squeezing an addictive tattoo into the back of Dave’s hand, before he begins to mutter, “I know you didn’t need to have your hand held during the Trial. You were the most blasé out of everyone there, including the lusus-to-be…. Which shouldn’t be a surprise considering how much of a fucking shitstain-dick you are, but… thanks. I guess.” He clears his throat and looks away. “And thanks for not crashing the car.”

                The gas meter dings, alerting them to the low level. “If I crashed the car, I would probably die too, not just you.”

                “You’ve gotten out of worse things, like getting fucking hematomas from some idiot kicking your head.”

                Dave grins gently and turns down the road, asking if he should detour through a fuel stop. Karkat says they’ll get to it later and for now he just wants to get back home. Dave nods and takes him there.

                Karkat waits outside after waking the others and pushing them inside, where the smell of food wafts from out of the window. The remaining eight of them are inside before he can even finish one sentence and Dave can’t blame them. “You sure you don’t want me to go in with you, Karkat?”

                “I’m fine. Just tired. It’s been a long day.”

                Dave nods his head. It had been a long day before he even woke up, judging by the black circles under his eyes. “Well, make sure you call Gamzee tomorrow. Rachel said she doesn’t want me to come in tomorrow this morning, if that makes any sense. I’ve got a meeting with Officer Stuart, so she said not to bother coming in at all.”

                “Not everything is about you, you know.”

                Dave pecks his lips, nodding. “Be asleep when I come back, ok? You’re even more tired than you look, and you look exhausted.”

                Karkat chuckles. “I’ll call Gamzee tomorrow. You sure you don’t want a ride back to your apartment?”

                “I’m going to stop by Aradia’s and I probably have to go to the store anyway, so its kind-of useless to get a ride. I’ll talk to you later?”

                “Yeah. Text me?”

                “Maybe.”

                Karkat grins and Dave waits to see him inside before walking down the street.

 

                Aradia’s window is open when he passes by it and he takes the short way in. She has her nose somewhere in her closet, digging through a bunch of stuff with plastic bags wrinkling inside. Dave sits at her desk, silent as a mouse, and props his head on his fingers as he watches her wriggle-dance to the sound of the song in her head. She eventually stands up and turns around, jumping out of her skin when she sees him. Dave smirks and greets her with a distracted kiss to the corner of her mouth.

                “What’s on your mind, Dave? You’re usually more vocal when we’re alone.”

                “Just thinking. And you’ve known that I’ve been here for all of three seconds, how the hell do you do that?”

                “Dave, there’s a reason we don’t kiss on the lips. That’s because you’re basically me.”

                He nods his head and relinquishes the desk chair in favor of sitting down on her Human-bed. Aradia arches her brow at him and he smiles reassuringly. She kisses his temple and goes back to the closet. There are two backpacks, one on either side of her, he sees now that he’s closer. She’s placing something in, a different thing each, and she pauses at one item for a minute before pulling the left bag closer and dropping it in. “Well? Are you going to tell me what happened today or not, Dave?”

                “The Trials were today.”

                “Oh yeah. What happened to Trynna?”

                “Survived and not culled.”

                “Sucks to be her. I know she really wanted out of there. What else?”

                “All of them want out of there. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I went to the actual warehouse today. Watched the fights.”

                “And?”

                “Am I a bad person?”

                “Who are you asking? A person on the street or someone with knowledge or access to your record?”

                “I’m being serious, Aradia. No jokes.”

                She turns and looks at him over her shoulder. Her hair falls in long curls, nearly brushing her knees where she’s sitting on her calves. The black abyss behind her reminds him of the dome and the frown of her brow reminds him of Karkat’s silence all day today. He wants to forget it all without ever forgetting. The phrase “put it all behind him” has never held a truer meaning before. “Of course you aren’t, Dave. Despite what we tell people, you know and I know that we’re good people. Why?”

                “I watched children die today, Aradia.”

                “It happens to Trolls all the time. It’s normal for wrigglers to do that stuff. I did.”

                “No, I mean. I watched them murder each other. One of them was sliced in quarters… and I didn’t care.” Confusion etches her face, but there’s a glimmer of understanding in her eyes. Far off in the back, where the nerve meets the brain, it shimmers, but it doesn’t grow. “I watched almost one hundred wrigglers kill each other just for a chance at life and I couldn’t find it in myself to give two shits. I know Trynna started the battle, but… if she died during it, I really, honestly, doubt I would have cared. I’m Human, Aradia. We tried to outlaw the Trials—we thought that they were gruesome—… gruesome things that shouldn’t exist. And I really did not honestly care. Karkat was next to me shaking like a fucking Human and I’m standing there like a Troll who doesn’t give a fuck. This is so wrong. Am I a bad person?”

                She sighs as she stands, kneeling on the bed beside him. She puts her hand on the side of his face, pulling him to look up at her. He resists for a time, but when she gives a third pull, he follows, looking up at her. She smiles gently, the tips of teeth barely being hinted at between unpainted lips. “No, Dave. You’re not a bad person. You went in there knowing what happens. Maybe if you went in completely unaware, you would be. But no, you knew, and you were just prepared for it.”

                “But I didn’t care. I’ve been caring for these children for almost a month now and over half of them die or were culled—which is pretty much the same thing because I don’t know what happened to which—and I don’t care.”

                She brushes her palms against his face and offers a small smile. He doesn’t return it. “If I thought you were a bad person, I would not put up with you.”

                “I don’t care what you think, Aradia. Am I or am I not a bad person?”

                “No you are not Dave. You went there for Karkat, not for the wrigglers. And you stayed there all the way through.”

                “But they were dying.”

                “And you feel horrible for being prepared, which is pretty much the same thing as standing over the fighting grounds and flinching at every death. You are not a bad person, because bad people wouldn’t care if they are bad and also because you’re scared that you didn’t feel anything when you did.”

                “Karkat was a wreck and I-“

                “Stop comparing yourself to Karkat. He went through those battles. He has memories—scars—left over from being in the pitch dark and fighting for his life. You don’t. Those wrigglers live with him and have lived with him far longer than you have worked there. He knows them better. You know them as a worker-client sort-of relationship. Not brother-sister. You didn’t react as violently as he did because there’s no reason for you to.”

                “But-“

                “Stop it. Stop that, David Strider. Don’t make me use your middle name. You are, for certain, absolutely not a bad person. You have saved lives and will continue saving lives. You stretch out hands to those in need. You will always do that. You are not a bad person, Dave. What you are, though, is prepared. So you were a little more prepared than Karkat. That’s the only difference.”

                “This wasn’t his first arena where he was the showrunner, though. He was in bad shape. And here’s me, who has never been to one before, who is too busy watching a prospective kismessis tear himself apart to notice when a few of his charges die.”

                “You’re being too hard on yourself. Stop comparing yourself to Karkat. There were others there even more apathetic than you were. You’re not bad. Just smart. That’s all.”

                “You’re sure?”

                “Positive. Now put these handcuffs on.”

                “What?”

                “Put these handcuffs on.”

                “This is really bad timing, Ara. I mean, I’m in a moral crisis right now and you want me to synch my hands behind my back.”

                “Well, the crisis must have been diverted enough if you’re able to label it by your lonesome. Now come on. If you don’t help me, I may very well be in a crisis.”

                “How?”

                Aradia sighs as she spins the metal around her pointer finger, frowning slightly. “We’re into pretty much the same stuff sexually, right?” Ah, um, right, no, of course there isn’t a red flush on Dave’s cheeks now. It’s not like he’s the only virgin in the room or anything, so why in the world would his cheeks be that hot? Ah, ha, um, right…. “Well, bucket time is coming up here pretty soon and last year when I was with my ex-kismessis—“

                “He has a name.”

                “—no he doesn’t. Ahem. When we were together, the only way we could finish off was if we started getting kinky. So since we’re allowed to bring whatever we need there, I figured, hey, why not prepare now? Last year we finished with barely three seconds left, so we were running down the hall as fast as we could after being that exhausted. I’d like to have time to walk down the hall, y’know?”

                “So you want to know if it turns you on when your partner has handcuffs on.”

                “Pretty much.”

                “And my moral crisis is nothing compared to this?”

                “Well you seem to have calmed down.”

                “You changed the subject.”

                “This is true. I mean, all you have to do is look a couple lines up in the text of our conversation; it’s pretty obvious.”

                “And this couldn’t wait an hour?”

                “Well, I figured my surviving long enough to give you an acceptable reason why you’re not a bad man is more important than the moral crisis that started it.”

                “Fair enough. I’m really not bad?”

                “You were always much more of a rational thinker than anyone gave you credit before, Dave. You rationalized it before you even got there and prepared yourself by doing so. Now can I tie you up?”

                He sighs and nods halfheartedly. The smile he is rewarded with could light up a room without a second’s thought. He shrugs and pulls his shirt off when she asks for him to and leans forward so that she can lock the cuffs in place.

                “You better have the motherfucking key.”

                “Well, there is one pair that I lost the key to. Speaking of that, I haven’t been able to find the one with the key for a while now.”

                “You son of a bitch.”

                “Key’s on the desk; don’t worry you idiot. Ok, now I’m just going to… do this ok?”

                “This is so fucking awkward and we haven’t even started.”

                “What? We’ve been naked with each other before.”

                “No you’re like…. Going to molest me… an’ stuff.” He clears his throat and looks away to hide his blush. She grins nervously and shrugs her shoulders.

                “If it’s any consolation, I’m imagining Sollux, so you can imagine Karkat.”

                “You sure?”

                “Yeah, go ahead. Wait, first, things that turn you on? Biting, obviously. Anything else?”

                “Nothing that I know of. Didn’t even know about the biting one before Karkat.”

                “That’s right,” she laughs. It’s awkward and heavy. Dave glances around for his shirt and frowns when he finds it just out of reach—oh, wait. Right, the cuffs, he forgot about those. Fuck—way out of reach. “You’re still a virgin.”

                “I’m going to kick you in the nook if you don’t either figure this stuff out or let me go.”

                “Ok, ok, I’m hurrying.” She takes a deep steadying breath and leans down. Not even an inch away from his skin, she stops again and takes another deep breath before pressing her lips to it. Dave flinches and grimaces as he watches her slide down. She tries teeth in his skin only once before she leans back and rests her forehead against his chest. “You’re making it too awkward Dave.”

                “Well you can’t fucking blame me. I would never fuck you and I can’t exactly imagine Karkat when my moirail is biting me. The entire situation is awkward.”

                She sighs. “I can’t imagine Sollux, either, when it’s you in the cuffs.”

                Dave taps the back of his head against the wall and frowns. “When did you say the bucket-thing is again?”

                “Saturday.”

                “Whoa, wait, what? Like, end-of-the-week Saturday the fucking eighth?!”

                “No, the fifteenth.”

                “Is that sarcasm?”

                “Got the date wrong; that’s my bad.”

                He sags in relief, letting out a sigh a little too large for his lungs. “Holy fuck, woman. Don’t do that to me.”

                “Well, this is a big deal, so thanks for at least being worried.”

                “Well, we need to figure this out, right? I’d rather a living moirail than a dead one.”

                “Never would have guessed.” He jerks his knee up until it taps against her nook. She jumps and five-stars his side. He chuckles painfully but reasons it was fair enough trade. “Wait, I’ve got an idea. Stay here.”

                “No, you know, I thought I’d leave, maybe go to the store? Dirk said we need some milk, thought I’d grab some.”

                “Thank you Sergeant Sarcasm.”

                “You’re welcome Colonel Dipshit.”

                She snorts and climbs off of him. She disappears out of the room and he frowns, counting the minutes until she returns with a black jacket in her hands. “Ok, how’s this? Its Sollux’s so if I close my eyes, I’ll smell him instead of you. And it’ll cover your eyes so you don’t look at me when I do this.”

                “But what about what I smell?”

                “Can’t you imagine what Karkat smells like or something? I mean, smell-memory is triggered by thoughts, right? That’s how the saying goes.”

                “’Memories are triggered by smells’ is the saying… or it’s something along those lines. And I… can’t really think of what he smells like.”

                “It’s musky right?”

                “After a fight. Before it, it’s some sort of spice and Axe bodywash, but that’s about it.”

                “Well, think of the musk or something. I dunno. Figure it out.”

                She repositions the jacket over his shoulders and pulls the edge of the hoodie down over his eyes and glasses. She pulls the string to tighten it and nods when she pulls away, satisfied with how it turned out. Dave shakes his head as hard as he can to get it off, but it just budges slightly without falling. Aradia fixes the shoulders over his and he hears her take a deep breath from it before leaning down. Dave curls his fingers in anticipation and fights as hard as he can to imagine Karkat being the one over him.

                It works until he feels her teeth scratch against where she bitten earlier and the entire illusion shatters. He goes on though, swallowing difficultly as she nips and bites at his sides and front. He thinks he lasts for about three minutes before he collapses against the wall. “Stop—just stop. I can’t do this—”

                “—It’s way too awkward—”

                “—tried really hard but—”

                “—I just can’t imagine fucking myself—”

                “—and that’s pretty much what this feels like.”

                “You got all that?”

                “Yeah, you got it? Cool. So, um, did it help?”

                “Not really? I mean, a little I guess, but I think I’ll have to try with Sollux to make sure. Here, let’s try with me on bottom. Put the jacket over my head when you get it on.”

                “I need the keys to do that.”

                “Oh, uh, yeah, right.”

                Dave swallows thickly as he arranges her the same way he was only ten seconds ago, shirt missing and all. He takes a deep breath, reminding himself that her life depends on it. “A-any kinks? L-like biting or whatever? Turn-ons.”

                “Li-licking.”

                “Ew.”

                “You like being bitten.”

                “I suppose you chose a good guy, then, what with him being Two Lisps Captor since preschool.”

                Her head bounces on the wall. “Look, just, give a girl a hand, ok?”

                “Fine.” He swallows. “O-only because this is your life and consequently mine.”

                “O-of course. This is so awkward.”

                “You saying its awkward makes it more awkward.”

                “I know. Just… do it already.”

                He nods and kisses her stomach. It’s different than kissing her cheek and leaves his stomach twisting awkwardly as he takes a deep breath. He’s ready to gag by the time he sticks his tongue out and drags it across a small portion of her skin. Aradia shivers and her knees bend in together, but that’s the end. Dave does it again a little higher up, and more to the right and manages one last one between her breasts before he breaks, shaking his head.

                “Anything?”

                “Not much,” she whispers. “Just a sick feeling in my gut and the urge to go get sick to get rid of it. You?”

                “Same.”

                “Well, that sucks.”

                “Yeah. Sorry?”

                “Nah. Just undo this lock already.”

                He grabs the keys off of the “bedside” table and reaches around her. She nuzzles the space between his shoulder and his neck and he smiles gently as her wrists break free. She pulls the jacket off and gives a sickly, shaky grin. He thinks his looks even worse as he lies beside her. “Just going to have to try with Sollux, then?”

                She makes a gross face and nods. “Yeah, he’ll understand. It was just convenient that you were here. But I don’t think that’ll ever happen again. Just so you know.”

                “Not missing out on anything.”

                Aradia grins halfheartedly and shivers as she pulls her shirt back on. Dave takes his proffered one and tugs it into place. “Are you going to bucket-villa with Karkat?”

                “Dunno. We’re just kind of blackflirting and hatesnogging right now, y’know? Nothing concrete. We’re not even quadrantmates or anything. So I think he’ll go with someone else. You and Sollux a thing or what?”

                “Yeah. I guess we are. We’re going together at least. Wanna come with us if you’re not going to be with Karkat?”

                “Uh, what?”

                “Well, a moirail can go with a Troll legally so long as it doesn’t interfere with their timeslot, even if we really don’t have slots, y’know-what-I-mean? So why not go with us? That way you can make sure I stay awake long enough to fill two buckets and you can beat Sollux up if you think he’s not treating me well enough. Which he does, by the way.”

                “Good, but no worries there anyway. Not like he’s going to murder you or anything. Well, if it’s the fifteenth I really don’t have anything planned. I think I’m supposed to meet with Officer Stuart that day, too, so I won’t be going to the orphanage that day…. Maybe.”

                “It’s free porn. Done right in front of you.”

                “You’re getting me. I’m almost on the line.”

                “Neither of us care that you’re a virgin and if you don’t spring a boner during it I will be sorely disappointed.”

                “Almost.”

                “What do I have to do to make you come?”

                “We never think of this again.”

                “I thought that went without saying.”

                “That and my virginity.”

                “We might have to decide on that one later.”

                “We good?”

                “Totally.”

                “Yeah, then I’ll go. But how come I didn’t go last year?”

                “I didn’t know you could, otherwise you would have. I was a nervous wreck, too. Did you see how half of the Trolls didn’t even show up the next year for school? Almost all were killed because of this. Well, culled, but you know…. Her Imperial.”

                “She’s starting to grow on me.”

                “I dunno. Maybe if I knew her more personally.”

                Dave chuckles and nods. Aradia grins. “Hey you mentioned earlier that scent memory thing, right? What does Sollux smell like?”

                “Honey. Why?”

                “Reminds me of the time my mom got stung by a bee and she had to go to the hospital.”

                “Is she allergic?”

                “It was a Mind Bee.”

                “Oh.”

                “Yeah, pretty much.”

                Aradia nods halfheartedly and climbs over him. “So I’m going to go through these and see if there are any more kinks in here that I might be able to get into. I’ll have to ask Sollux to try them later though.” She sighs. “This’ll be tons of fun. Wanna help me decide what to keep and dodge?”

                “Dirk is supposed to text me a grocery list, so I should head over there soon. Besides, I don’t want to look around in your closet for that kind of stuff. I don’t want to know what you do and don’t have.”

                “I bought a lot of stuff last weekend.”

                “Don’t care I’m leaving.”

                “Love you. Wow that’s awkward to say.”

                “Yeah, ditto. You’re totally right.”

               

- ) - ( -

 

                Dave puts the milk in the fridge without a single word before stopping in the doorway to the living room. Rose is flicking through her videogame with one hand while she takes a drink from some sort of Mc-Choke-And-Puke cup-o’-soda. He pauses there and wonders what she would think. Is he a bad person? Does she have an opinion on that? But, then again, she’s his sister and is completely privy to all of the reasons why he does the things he does, or at least to the point where he knows why he does them. She’s biased, too much for him to feel comfortable asking her.

                He could always ask Ronnie. She had studied psychology for almost three years before having Roxy and Rose only a handful of years later. She would be able to dig deeper than Rose could (even if she’s studying to be a therapist) and tell him an almost unbiased view of him. In order to do that, he would have to tell her everything about the orphanage, though, and that would lead to a lot of questions he doesn’t want to deal with.

                “You ok, Dave?”

                “Huh, oh, uh, yeah,” he nods and rubs at his head with his hand. “Just got a little distracted, that’s all. Thinking. What’cha up to?”

                “Waiting for the she-bitch from hell to log on so that we can take out some idiots.”

                “Playing with Vriska again?”

                “Yeah.”

                “She’s not good for your mental state, y’know. You curse three times as much when you go with her.”

                “That’s the cramps talking.”

                He nods his head, three short jerks, and figures that he’s pretty lucky to only have the blow-back from her being impatient. “Need any medication?”

                “Just took some more. Gotta wait for it to kick in. How was your day?”

                “Long. Yours?”

                “Slept mostly.”

                “How’s Kanaya?”

                “Avoiding me and my bleeding-ways.”

                “Really?”

                “No, her lusus took her to the lake up north for the day. She’ll be back soon.”

                “Why didn’t you go?”

                “I couldn’t come up with a good enough excuse to give to mom and Daniel. They still think Jade and John got back two weeks ago.”

                He snorts and puts his hand on her shoulder. She offers a half smile in return. “Dirk told me that you were thinking about proposing to the she-Troll.”

                “What about it?”

                “I want to be the guy that crashes the party and ruins it, ‘kay?”

                “Duly noted.”

                He grins and wishes her luck on the game as the system buzzes to announce Vriska’s party-going. He goes to his bedroom and grabs his sketchbook, flipping through the pages before deciding on ripping out a half-finished one of Karkat. He’s almost done with the profile of Rose hard at her game when his phone buzzes.

 

                Michelle (mom) said: hey. how r u feeling?

 

                He smiles gently and settles against the wall. The last he had spoken to her, he had still been a little out of it from the pills, at least according to his father. He must have still been in the hospital, then, since he can’t remember anything after that. He puts the sketchbook down and rubs at his shoulder as he leans against the wall.

 

                Me: pretty good a lot better than before thats for sure

                Michelle (mom) said: thats good to hear. :) what r u up to??

                Me: drawing

                Michelle (mom) said: can i see?? :x

                Me: maybe when im done

                Michelle (mom) said: can i see a finished one?

                Me: a fun one or a serious one?

                Michlle (mom) said: whichever just tell me which it is when you send it please :x

               

                He laughs lightheartedly and flips to one of Aradia figuring out the plot on a Doctor Who episode. He tells her that it’s just a silly one, but adds that it was a try at a new art style. He doesn’t particularly like it, but he likes the way it makes the shading look. He doesn’t think it’s entirely worth it.

 

                Michelle (mom) said: i can tell ur new to it. but it looks good too :) took after ur momma

                Me: what are you up to?

                Michelle (mom) said: just got out of a meeting with miyazaki ewwwww ;.;

                Me: on your way home?

                Michelle (mom) said: think im gunna stop by jack in the crack on my way. y?

                Me: you shouldnt text and drive

                Michelle (mom) said: ik.

                Me: hey do you think we can meet up tomorrow and talk in person?

                Michelle (mom) said: maybe y? what time were you thinking?

                Me: sometime between ten and six? maybe nine to six depending on when officer stuart lets me go

                Michelle (mom) said: that’s a p broad horizon. yeah i think i can do something about it. :) any ideas on what you want to do?

                Me: hang out and talk mostly

                Me: i wanna ask you some things

                Michelle (mom) said: ok on one condition

                Me: what?

                Michelle (mom) said: i wanna see what you’ve done with your art.

                Me: ok

 

Chapter Text

                Dave meets with Michelle at the Starbucks on First and Eliot. She’s in line when he looks up from doodling some characters from a stupid comic he used to have online and he flags her over when she looks around. Michelle smiles as she takes the seat across from him and places her purse next to her ankle. “You look better than you did in the hospital.”

                He smiles back and nods. “Feel a lot better, too. I still have bouts of being sore, but that’s to be expected after being in the bandage for so long. You look exhausted.”

                “I didn’t get much sleep last night,” she shrugs her shoulders and excuses herself as her coffee is called. Dave puts his pencil down along with his sketchbook, repositioning himself as he waits. She sits back down with a warm smile, practically giggling in delight. “So what spurred on the sudden meeting?”

                “Well, I don’t… really remember what happened while I was in the hospital all too well.”

                “You don’t remember my visiting you?”

                “Kinda? A little? Well, the thing is: dad told me about you visiting and before that I didn’t remember, but after that I did, but I’m still pretty sure I don’t remember. If that makes any sense.”

                “I was never any good at mind games, but I’m going to assume that all of what you just said means that you don’t remember at all.”

                “That’s basically what I said, yeah,” he nods. She grins. “So I kind of want to make up for that. And we haven’t really talked much anyway, so I figured that since I have the day off from the orphanage, I might as well try, y’know?”

                “Well, there’s no reason to make up for it. We didn’t talk about much and most of the time you were asleep or near enough to be counted as sleeping.”

                “I remember something about an Irvin, but I think that was a dream.”

                “I was complaining about my boss—whose name is Irvin—one time when you were almost asleep but insisted on talking anyway. Maybe that’s why?”

                He laughs and nods as he accepts the explanation. She smiles back and brushes a lock of her blonde hair behind her ear. Dave takes a drink of his coffee. “Alright, fair enough. How have you been? How much of a pain is Miyazaki?”

                She groans and puts her head back, but it’s lighthearted and she has some semblance of a smile on her lips. “He’s better than his father, at least. I mean,” she sighs horribly and puts her hand on her forehead as she leans forward. “I mean, he doesn’t have the urge to always have a cow of some sort in it, y’know? And his father was even worse than his great grandfather, what with all of his boars! But the son, oh my gog, he wants a rabbit somewhere in there! It’s a movie that takes place where there are no rabbits anywhere! And he’s pushing the issue; it’s so annoying! You don’t see me putting a cat in there anywhere!”

                Dave snorts and nods. Michelle arches her brow. He grins. “It’s nothing; you’re just totally a cat. This is a children’s movie, right?”

                “‘Course it is.”

                “How old are the kids in it?”

                “There’s a nine-year-old, a seven-year-old and a three-month-old. Why?”

                “What are those things called that spin around over the baby? It’s attached to the crib or something.”

                “A mobile?”

                “Is that what it’s called? Anyway, aren’t there usually different things attached to the mobile on strings? You could have one of the things be a rabbit and another be a cat or have a cat in the background or something. Meet in the middle. If he gets one self-interjection, then you get one, too. They don’t have to actually be alive. What was that one that the original Miyazaki helped out on? Tonya or something? Didn’t that have the boar as a toy in a mess on the floor?”

                “You mean the one where the fish turns into a human?”

                “Yeah, that one.”

                “Ponyo.”

                “I was close.”

                She nods her head. “I’ll think about proposing that one to him next time we talk.” She sighs and rubs her forehead. “That is, if our next meeting doesn’t end in another fight.”

                Dave grins. “Keep it up; your record might look just like mine.”

                “I’m frightened to think of what that would entail, Dave.”

                “You should be.”

                Michelle gives him a bad look and he smiles back. She makes a motion to his eyes and he rolls them as he takes his glasses off and hangs them in his shirt. “You know I hate that you wear those, Dave. You and Dirk are so different that even a single glance at you is enough to tell you two apart. Why Daniel needs you two to differentiate yourselves by using some hunks of plastic is beyond me and, quite frankly, is aggravating.”

                “You’re possibly more worrisome when you’re frustrated than any other time if only because you actuate the usage of words one wouldn’t normally use.”

                “Says the guy who uses ‘actuate’ in a sentence.”

                “Word of the day.”

                She arches her brow. “Really, now?”

                “Actuate is a cool word, shuddup.”

                She laughs, nodding her head. “I’ll give you that one. What’s on your mind, Dave? You seem distracted.”

                “I told you about how I’m working at an orphanage, right?”

                “Yeah, West Ridge, right?”

                He nods his head. “Well, it’s an assimilated orphanage, y’know?”

                “I don’t think that’s the correct definition of the word, but sure. There are both wrigglers and children there.”

                Dave nods. “You know what Troll Trials are, right?”

                “Sure I do. There was a huge uproar about it about fifteen years ago. A bunch of Humans wanted to get rid of them; said something about unsanitary conditions or, no, no something along the lines of insanity. I don’t remember entirely. I just remember that I was against the Trials being abolished because we have the custom of marriage and it’s not like we force the Trolls into that every time they get a new quadrant.”

                “I’m not entirely sure those two are comparable subjects.”

                “There were a lot more reasons why back then. I don’t remember them all off the top of my head. Back to your story.”

                “Well, I got Karkat—“

                “Who’s Karkat?”

                “The guy I’m blackflirting with.”

                “Ok.”

                “Well, I got him to take me with him to the Trials.” She nods. “There were at least a-hundred wrigglers there. And…” He sighs and shakes his head. “I guess I’m just wondering whether or not I’m a bad person.”

                Her brow pinches and she looks as if she is physically hurt at the thought of him wondering that. He feels guilty for it and adverts his eyes, concentrating on taking a drink of his coffee. She sighs before she begins speaking and it’s obvious she’s walking on eggshells and forcing herself to hear the rest of his story before she denies it. “What’s the rest of your argument?”

                “Why do you assume I have an argument?”

                “You are your father’s son, after all.”

                He laughs through his nose and smirks, but he can’t feel his heart in it and he knows she knows. “It’s just that… there were so many of them there. There’s this one girl that I watch over—her name’s Trynna—and she started the fighting and came out worse for wear, but alive so that’s about it. And I honestly don’t believe I would have cared if she had died. We went there with a little over thirty wrigglers and came back with only eight. They were murdering each other—one kid was quartered—and I still don’t care. I’m standing there watching them kill each other as best as I can through the apparatus and I’m almost wondering what we’ll have for dinner. Then there’s Karkat next to me and he’s flinching and trying his damned hardest not to watch while still watching. He’s shaking like a leaf—like a Human—and I’m just… I’m some sort of Troll or something because I’m completely unaffected.”

                “You think you’re bad because you disassociated yourself from everything.”

                He glances up at her sharply and pinches his brow together. “What?”

                “You disassociated yourself from the fight.”

                “Reiterating what you said before doesn’t clear the confusion, Michelle.”

                “Neither does being a smartass but you do that anyway.”

                He rolls his eyes. “What do you mean by that?”

                “Your jabs and pokes with words and the way you use them just leads you to being a smartass.”

                “Mom.” Dave rolls his eyes.

                She smiles gently. Dave pretends like he doesn’t feel his skin flush as he takes another drink. “Disassociation is a coping mechanism in the brain. Sometimes it hides entire memories, other times emotions or feelings, or just a removes the body from feeling, sort of like a fugue, but more prolonged and out-of-body. It happens when everything around the body is too much for the brain to handle and it shuts down.”

                “But it didn’t feel like a fugue.”

                “How would you know what a fugue feels like?”

                “I was pretty fucked up for a while after the divorce.”

                She grimaces, but nods as she accepts it as a fact. “Well, not everything feels like a fugue. You may have just been removed emotionally. It wouldn’t be the first time you’ve done it. You used to do it all the time when Dirk got in trouble or when you saw a cat on the street and we wouldn’t let you keep it. I’m not surprised that you would disassociate yourself from something as traumatic as that.”

                “How do you even know this stuff?”

                “My psychology class was pretty in depth.”

                “You took psychology?”

                “I wanted to get a better grasp on how people react to events in stories. I mean, I only took it in high school and sat in on one or two classes in college, but not many, y’know? It was mostly just reading books.”

                He nods. “I didn’t know you went to college.”

                “Your grandfather forced me to. I always was a daddy’s girl.”

                “Mom, c’mon. You and I both know that he didn’t force much on you.”

                “That stays between us. If he asks, I absolutely hated going there and every class I went to sucked. My art professor was the worst of all, though. Got it?”

                “I highly doubt I’m going to have a conversation with him anytime soon.”

                “Well aren’t you a maven?” Dave snorts and nods, making an over-exaggerated motion with his hand for her to continue. “Did you feel anxious at all?”

                “Well, yeah, I guess. There at the end there, I did. But that’s mostly because Karkat asked me to drive us home because he didn’t think he would be able to. I mean, I’m a pretty-ok driver, but for whatever reason the only thing that went through my mind for a long time was the bad things and I started feeling a little panicky and anxious. I just figured that it’s because I didn’t want the wrigglers to get wrapped up in some traffic violation. Why? Does it have to do with the disassociation or anything?”

                “It could,” she shrugs. “I’m no licensed psychologist, so I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it definitely is, but it might have been increased because you were coming back into your body. Might have been. Might. Did you lose track of time?”

                “You know how impossible that is for me to do.”

                “Answer the question, Dave.”

                “Now who’s the maven?”

                “Don’t speak to your mother that way, Dave.”

                “I’m just vitsing, mom.” He pauses, frowns, and sighs as he leans his head away. “Why do I get the feeling that I’m going to start using more Yiddish words around you?”

                She smiles but brushes it off. “Did you lose track of time?”

                “I mean I guess, but only a bissel, y’know? Not really lose track, either, I just… felt like time went by faster than it normally does. We got to the warehouse—yeah, a warehouse, I expected some sort of cave, too. We got there like three hours before the lusus were supposed to arrive. To get situated.”

                “Do you mind if I go get something to nosh on during this? I feel like this is going to be a long-ish story.”

                “No, go ahead. The muffins are the best.”

                “Kay. Be right back.”

                He nods. It doesn’t even take a minute for her to return and place two muffins on the table. He ribs off part of the top and pops it in his mouth as she gets situated again and slips some sort of wallet-thing into her purse. “Where was I?”

                “You got there three hours earlier than the lusus.”

                “Oh, right. Well, we did. And then after that, we had to take the wrigglers to the armory to get their weapons. Karkat had the key to the room, but I don’t really remember him taking it or it being handed to him. I barely even remember the conversation where we were told which room we were supposed to take them to. We went upstairs where this rizik—and I mean rizik—dome stood. It probably took up more than half of the floor, like, remember the size of our apartment when Dirk and I were kids? Triple that size and it’s still probably not enough.”

                “Wow.”

                He nods. “And that’s just the dome." He shakes his head, batting the thought of how large the dome was from his mind. It didn’t feel that large when he was there, but now that he thinks about it, it was probably twice as large as he is tall with room still to spare before it hit the ceiling. “Anyway, Karkat was clicking through the touchpad to get to where he can see the wrigglers inside of the combat area when I started talking to this older Troll-lady. It was kind of a one-sided conversation, mostly on my part, because she just kept talking and talking and it felt like she wouldn’t stop. It just went on and on and almost immediately after she and another guy stopped talking, like, five minutes later the lusus walked in, but I’m still almost certain that there was supposed to be three hours in there that I didn’t maintain.”

                “How emotionally involved were you?”

                “Not really. I mean, with the fighting taking place in total darkness, I couldn’t tell which wriggler was which unless Karkat pulled up the info screen on the touchpad. I think I spent more time paying attention to Karkat than I did the actual fight. I couldn’t understand—still can’t, really—why he seemed to be in such bad shape. He was shaking and looked ready to be sick. When I tried to hold his hand, he got all defensive. He did it in the end, but he still seemed pretty worse for the wear.”

                “But you didn’t feel anything?”

                “I just knew that I wanted to help him feel better and that knowing someone is there for him might help, but there really wasn’t much emotionally invested. I considered hugging him, but that didn’t seem to be the right thing to do. Know what I mean?”

                “I think it’s kind of weird that it would start so soon. Did anything happen in the morning before you got to the orphanage?”

                “Like what?”

                “Did you see anything or hear anything you normally wouldn’t that would upset you?”

                He frowns and shakes his head. “Dad made a stupid comment about my meeting with Officer Stuart today. And Ronnie had a bad hangover—don’t tell the others, though. They don’t know that she still drinks.”

                “Does she have one often?”

                “Yeah. Almost every morning.”

                “What a schmuck.”

                “Pretty much, yeah.” He grins and takes another bite of the muffin. “Dirk went to Jake’s pretty early in the morning and Rose slept the entire time. I saw the fuckers who beat me up about a month ago, but they didn’t really notice me and that’s fine.”

                “You didn’t talk or anything?”

                “They were getting stoned on a park bench across the street. I couldn’t find it in myself beat the shit out of them when I was busy walking away. Besides… If I had done that, Aradia and I…” He looks off to the side and clears his throat. Michelle looks concerned, but keeps her silence as she waits for him to finish. “If I had done that, Aradia and I would be in juvie already.”

                Her eyebrow arches. “You’re that close?”

                He nods, ashamed. “It kind of just crept up on us. We didn’t realize it until the threat became real. If that’s any consolation.”

                “Not really, but fact is fact. Anything else happen? What were you thinking about?”

                He shakes his head, frowning. “I started thinking about how all of the kids were probably going to die at the end of the street. But I guess other than that, nothing was too bad.”

                “Are you close to any of the wrigglers? That Trynna girl?”

                “Well, not really close, I mean I just work for the woman that takes care of them, but out of all of them, yeah, I guess you could say I was a little relieved when I found out she wasn’t dead. A little. Like, so little that not even ‘bissel’ could describe it. If relief were to be formulated into a physical manifestation, the amount of liquid it would create wouldn’t even be enough to fill a thimble. Like, maybe at the head of a needle used to check blood sugar—that would be enough, but nothing else.”

                “You like Trynna, then?”

                “She’s pretty chill. First one I met while I was there. I let her ride on Dirk’s skateboard every now and again, but over all I guess I’m closer to her than anyone else. Especially out of the eight remaining, I know her the best.”

                “And you’re only a little relieved that she’s alive? Or were you so relieved that it permeated your dissociative state and brought you feelings of anxiety as your mind realized that you need to resurface and you weren’t entirely ready to?”

                “Is that a thing?”

                “It can be.”

                He opens his mouth and closes it a few times before he sighs and looks back up to her. He meets red-brown eyes carefully and manages half of a smile. “You really don’t think I’m a bad person?”

                “Do you think you’re a bad person?”

                “I don’t know. I feel bad for not feeling anything, but I don’t think that I’m… overall a bad person. Especially not after that talk. So I guess… I don’t?”

                “You just feel a little guilty for disassociating yourself so soon. That’s all. You’re not a bad person. You just coped a bit early.”

                He nods his head and sighs. He feels as if a thousand tons have been lifted from his shoulders and all is right with the world. Everything is a lot easier to deal with knowing that he isn’t just some sadistic bastard who secretly, deep down, really enjoyed all of that.

                “Better?”

                “A lot,” he nods. “Thanks.”

                “Ok, so, tell me about this Karkat-fellow you’re blackflirting with.”

                “Hmm… In one word? He’s a complete and utter sheygets.” She laughs and covers her mouth with her hand. It’s the kind of movement that one would expect to hide a gasp, but he can see the way she’s hiding a full-blown smile and forcing down a giggle. He smiles back. “No, but seriously, Karkat’s a pretty good guy over all. Works hard, takes care of his siblings, does better than most in school. He’s the guy that I’m fighting with for the 4.2 GPA. But he’s violent and he has this thing where if he feels in even the least bit threatened, he starts getting loud. Screaming and yelling, shouting just to get his point across; it’s pretty funny when you’re not getting the brunt of it.”

                “Is he a good debater?”

                “Fantastic one. He would make a good lawyer, I’m telling you. Or, legislascerator or whatever they’re called. I think he’s interested in computers, though. I used to hang out with him, up until about third grade. Used to tell stories all the time, remember?”

                “Is that the same Karkat after all? Wow, he surely has grown.”

                “Ok, just say it.”

                “Say what?”

                “You know you want to say it, mom.”

                “That’s not overstepping a line, is it?”

                “Mom. Just say it.”

                “He’s pretty easy on the eyes, Dave.”

                “Knew it.”

                “What’s that supposed to mean?”

                “Nothing, nothing. I just knew you were going to comment on how smoking he is.”

                “Dave.”

                He smiles. She rolls her eyes. “Anyway, have you been dating?”

                “Would you be ok with that?”

                “Mom. Dad’s already gotten remarried. And you think that I wouldn’t be fine with you dating? Very logical argument, very logical.”

                “He was also having an affair with her.”

                “That is not the topic of this conversation. Are you or are you not dating?”

                She looks guilty, but it’s a happy sort of guilty. “Well… There is this one guy. We’re only flirting right now; we’re not together or anything…. But we, well, we have plans to go to dinner next Friday.”

                “Where at?”

                “He won’t tell me! Oh my gog, that mamzer won’t tell me where we’re going! All I know is that I’m supposed to dress up, but I don’t know if he means dressy dress or a nice dress or if he means that I should wear more than just my painting pants and a tanktop! Coincidently, that’s what I was wearing when I met him.”

                “How?”

                She grins. “He’s a renovator. I wanted to fix up the guest bedroom and he came in to do a once-over to draw up some plans and I had kind-of forgotten what time it was. He… kind of thought it was cute and, well, he’s pretty easy on the eyes, too. And we started flirting. And we had a date, but we’re not dating even if we are?”

                “You’re not serious? You’re not boyfriend-girlfriend? He has a tattoo?”

                “What would a tattoo have anything to do with it?”

                “I’m just spouting out ideas right now.”

                “Well, if that’s it, then we’re not boyfriend-girlfriend, but we are dating? If that makes any sense.”

                “More than you know.”

                She shakes her head hurriedly. “You kids are ridiculous.”

                “Well? What’s his name? What else does he do?”

                “His name is ridiculous.”

                “Mom, c’mon.”

                “Ok, ok. Jean.”

                “Like, French-for-John-Jean or Jean-as-in-pants?”

                “He says it’s the French-for-John one, but he goes by his middle name, which is Levi, so….”

                “That is fucking hilarious. And his last name?”

                “You won’t believe me.”

                “Mom. My dad absolutely abhors Trolls and here I am with a moirail and blackflirting with another one. I’m almost positive that I can believe it.”

                “You’re going to laugh.”

                “No I won’t.”

                “You’re lying through your teeth.”

                “I can’t be lying if I don’t know what I’m lying about.”

                “You’re totally going to laugh.”

                “Mom!”

                “It’s Garfield.”

                He supposes that he really does try not to laugh. The fact that he bites his finger to try to stifle it doesn’t seem to help at all and Michelle makes a resigned face as she rolls her hand. He tries even after that, but it doesn’t last long. He at least has the decency to smother the laugh behind his hand. “You’re right,” he finally amends when he finishes, “you’re completely right, that is just way too funny.”

                “I told you.”

                “Well, he’s at least nice, right?”

                “More than! Remember how I used to kvetshn about how no one seemed to have manners anymore? I tried to make you and Dirk all chivalrous because of it? Daniel used to think I was crazy saying that kids these days wouldn’t know how to open a car door for a lady to save their life. Guess what Levi does? The whole shebang. You’ve got a little schmuts on your cheek, Dave.”

                He wipes at it with his wrist. “You sound like a bad rerun of The Nanny when you say that. Did I get it?”

                “Yeah, you got it.”

                “So is he Jewish?”

                “He wasn’t born Jewish, but he assimilated when he was in his twenties.”

                “How old is he?”

                “Thirty-eight.”

                “So he’s younger than you.”

                “I’m only thirty-five!”

                “I know, I know. I was just giving you shit.”

                She rolls her eyes and he offers a smile. She doesn’t seem entirely grateful, but when she finally smiles it’s in relief and has more to do with being the mother of a wise-ass than anything else. “Any other comments you wanna make, wise-ass?”

                “Do you really like him?”

                “He’s sweet and charming and we both like sculpting.”

                “You should teach me how to do that sometime, too.”

                “Well, you’ll have to come over for me to do that.”

                “I’m sure I can manage some wriggle room for that. Maybe not immediately, but soon.”

                “When do you have open?”

                “No idea. I would say next Saturday, but evidently I’m going to Bucket Filling with Aradia and her matesprit Sollux.”

                “Is that legal?”

                He shrugs. “Evidently.”

                “Well, have fun. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

                “That’s not saying much other than ‘don’t get pregnant’. Thanks to anatomy, I can’t do that. So any other recommendations?”

                “Stop being a smartass?”

                “You’re asking the impossible of me.”

                She smiles. “Well, another recommendation is to have me stop being so anxious and just let me see some of your pictures. I’m so excited to see what you have done.”

                “They’re pretty old,” he shrugs. “So they’re not the best I have, but I feel comfortable showing a couple to some people. Most of them are of Aradia—moirail, remember? But there are some of some characters I fucked around with when I was younger, too. Ok, here’s one. She’s asleep in this one and had somehow ended half-off of her Human bed. I didn’t even try to figure out how she got in that mess, but this is the largest-scale sketch I have of anyone.”

                She nods and takes the sketchbook from him. She smiles, examining every nook and cranny. He remembers how difficult it was to get the curl and pull of the sheets right with a pencil and a bad eraser. He also happens to remember how oblivious Aradia was when she woke up. He was going to draw that position, too, but she woke up with her legs in an awkward off-to-the-side thing over her head and he was pretty sure she had briefly become a pretzel. Her hair seemed to agree.

                “I really like the way you shaded it,” she nods. “You can tell where she’s drooling without ever having to ask if she is or see the outline of it on her lip. I wonder what she was dreaming about so that she could get into this position and not wake up.”

                “Knowing her? Sex, drugs and money.”

                “Really?”

                “Nah, probably just Doctor Who or something.”

                “Do people still watch that show?”

                “Evidently it has quite the fanbase. She claims to be a huge ‘whovian’ or whatever.”

                “That show was popular when my grandma was your age.”

                “Admit it. You watched it.”

                “What makes you say that?”

                “I happen to know of two or three painting shirts that just-so-happen to have the Tardis on them.”

                “Bullshit. How do you know about those?”

                “Remember when Dirk and I would get really sentimental and would steal one or two of your shirts when dad was stuck in the office or something and you wouldn’t sleep in our room anymore? Yeah, those were the first to be stolen.”

                “You little shits.”

                He smiles. “What can I say? You love us.”

                “More than you know. Now, can I just flip or do you want to show me a specific one?”

                “I’ll just… show it to you.” She nods, understanding, and he very pointedly looks behind him before flipping to the next page. She laughs into her hand as she waits, smiling as the next picture comes into view.

                “You and Aradia are close.”

                “Moirails.”

                “I have no idea what that means in Human terms. I’m told it’s like best-friends?”

                “It is much, much more than just best friends.”

                “Well, explain it to your mamele. What does a moirail mean?”

                “It’s like… she’s me. And I’m her. And if she were to die, I would be so lost. And I know it’s returned. After I got into my fight with Karkat… I broke it off with her. And I was so, so lost. Every waking moment was agony and every time I would sleep, I would be tormented with visions and memories of her. Every fiber of my being wanted to go to her and wrap her in my arms. It was like losing myself with twice the pain because she’s more than me. She’s the one that kept me sane during a shit-ton of fighting. And I did it because we needed the space, but it’s not like I have the balls to keep us apart if she were to find me and track me down. And she did. Like the motherfucking bitch she is, she tracked me down at the orphanage and used her mumbo-jumbo bitchy ways against me and got me back into it.”

                “But did you fight all that hard?”

                He frowns and looks away. “No, not really. But being away from her for a day was hard enough. I practically lost track of time. Day after day, I could barely move. I had entire emotional breakdowns because I- because it’s like….” He sighs, grasping for words and analogies that cannot possibly exist. “It’s like… I don’t know. It’s like… a best friend doesn’t describe it but there is literally no word in English—or Yiddish, for that matter—that comes near enough to describe it. Soulmates isn’t even close enough. Sibling bonds aren’t. It’s like she’s literally the blood in my veins and the rationality in my body or brain or wherever science has decided rationality lies this week. She’s… everything. And nothing at the same time and fuck-all if this isn’t possibly the hardest thing to describe. It’s like, like trying to describe sex to a virgin.”

                “You are still a virgin, right, Dave?”

                He hates the way his skin just gets so red without his permission. She grins. “And if I’m not?”

                “Well, the blush on your face says otherwise.”

                “Do you at least understand the analogy?”

                “Somewhat.”

                He drops his head back and groans. “I haven’t had this much difficulty describing something since for-fucking-ever. And it sucks but it doesn’t at the same time. There for a long time, I jumped on any fight that could have been. She started making me think rationally. She’s the one that keeps me from fighting when I shouldn’t. I’m the explosive one and she’s the pacifier, but there are times where it’s reversed. She also knows when to and when not to let me fight and it’s reversed. Everything is give-and-take, which is what makes our moiraillegence pretty weird.” He sighs. “Moiraillegence is platonic, in terms of Human romance, but it’s also the rarest kind in terms of Troll romance. It’s really difficult to describe if you’ve never had one before. Words cannot possibly be worked to describe it.”

                “You really care for her, though.”

                “I could live with her for the rest of my life so long as it meant that I didn’t have her kid. I love kids, too, but the thought of having hers is so awkward that I wouldn’t be able to do it. If she were to have one and by some mishap of Troll anatomy she were to be forced to give birth and basically be a Human to the grub, I would be able to care for it if, God forbid, she would die, but I wouldn’t be able to impregnate her. Assuming it was possible for her to do that. Which she’s not.”

                “You seem at a loss for words, considering how much you’re talking.”

                “It’s a difficult subject.”

                “I noticed.”

                “You can just turn to the next one. I don’t remember which comes after that, though, so when you’re done with that, give me the book back.”

                “I understand.”

                “Thank gog. There are times where I think that people sneak in through the window and start flipping through it without my consent. I just get so paranoid and there isn’t really anything in there I should be ashamed of. It’s not like I draw sex or anything.”

                She laughs and nods. “I know what you mean. You eventually get over the paranoia, though. Not completely, but it wanes. A little. Enough so that you can draw and be in the same room as someone else.”

                “The mere thought is frightening.”

                She smiles. “So, you’re going to go help Aradia fill a bucket with Sollux? What about Karkat?”

                “Are you asking me if I’m going to have sex with Karkat?”

                “No! No, no, no nothing like that! I, I just mean: what is he doing? But if you did fill a bucket with him, well, I- I wouldn’t be against it, but I do think you should… think rationally about it.”

                “Are you telling me that if I do end up having sex with him, you would be fine with that?”

                “You’re reading too far into this, David!”

                He laughs—embarrassed, but he laughs anyway. It feels like there’s nothing else for him to do. “I don’t know what Karkat is going to do, but he probably knows what he’s doing. I mean, he’s an idiot, but he’s pretty damn smart.”

                “Well, just so long as he doesn’t go up there completely alone, he’ll be fine, correct?”

                “Well, yeah. If he goes alone, then he’s going to be killed for being unable to meet Troll requirements or whatever. He’s not dumb enough to do that. There was this huge stupid thing last year about how he went with a girl who also needed a matesprit. It was some sort of relationship of convenience. If he really doesn’t have a matesprit, then he’ll probably do that again.”

                “And if he has a kismessisasinine?”

                “Yeah, I can’t pronounce it either. Karkat’s the kind of guy, though, that wouldn’t flirt for a quadrant that’s full. So I don’t have any worries there.”

                “Well, so long as he treats you right.”

                He smirks. “He treats me just as I want to be. And he can fight.”

                “He good?”

                “Damn good.”

                “You two should let me record you. What’s he use? Shortsword?”

                “Scythes.”

                Her eyebrows shoot up until they’re almost trapped in her hairline. “You’re kidding me. No one uses scythes these days!”

                “He does.”

                “Wow. You seriously have to ask him about letting me record you two fighting.”

                “I’ll talk to him about it, but no promises. Wait, how do we get from talking about Garfield to Aradia to Karkat all in one breath? You have to tell me more about Garfield. It’s only fair.”

                “You could not call him Garfield. He has a name.”

                “Yeah. He’s named after a jean brand that makes Karkat’s ass look fantastic.”

                “Yours, too, for the record.”

                “Mom!”

                “What? I can’t admire how handsome my son has grown up to be?”

                “Not when it involves looking at my ass!”

                “Dirk lets me.”

                “I’m not Dirk!”

                “Finally, straight out of the mouth of babes!”

                “What does that even mean?”

                “You and Dirk let Daniel and Ronnie think of you two as a pair, up until you get in trouble. Finally, you admit that you two are two entirely separate entities.”

                “Mom. Stop degrading dad and Ronnie when they have no idea this conversation is even occurring. I want to know more about your not-boyfriend, not your ex-husband. I know about your ex-husband; I live with him.”

                “Fine, fine. What do you want to know?”

                “Well, you gave me slim-to-none about him, just how you met. You know quite a bit about Karkat. Start talking.”

                She laughs and takes a drink of her coffee again. “Alright, fine, fine, what do you want me to begin?”

                “Anywhere.”

                “You’re helpful.”

                “I’m the smartass, remember?”

                She grins. “You get it from your mamele, and you know it.”

                “I guess—but only just a bissel.”

                “Ironically, Levi does not wear levis.”

                “He’s growing on me.”

                She laughs. Dave smiles. 

Chapter Text

                Dave thinks that he really should stop expecting things from Troll society. When he heard “bucket-filling”, he expected some place out in the open with guns trained on them and the constant feeling of sweat beading on skin, anxiety laid out everywhere and the feeling of his heart beating in his ears. What he didn’t expect was to find a bunch of Trolls standing in several lines with card games going on, hand-held video games, and loud conversations. Out of all of the Trolls that he can see, he can only make out low bloods, nothing higher than a low green. Not a single Jade blood is present.

                Aradia has one of the backpacks over a single shoulder and Sollux has the other over his. They’re talking about anything between what classes they plan on taking next semester and if they plan on going on the Culture Club trip. They’re flirting, too, but they seem to be completely avoiding the subject of the buckets later on.

                He turns away as they flirt, scanning the crowd to see if he can’t find Karkat. Nowhere in the mesh does he see the nubby-horned loudmouth, but he supposes that he has time to get there. Or he’s just so far ahead that he can’t see entirely. Or he just blends in really well. Any of the options are huge possibilities.

                Dave waits for a lull in the conversation to ask what, exactly, he’s supposed to be doing while they do their thing. “Mostly, you’re just going to be there to make sure that neither of us falls asleep,” she shrugs. “You’ll probably be on your phone more than anything else. What are you looking for?”

                “I wanted to see what Karkat is doing.”

                “I thought you said that he was figuring it out.”

                “Anytime I asked him what he’s doing, he just brushed it off or shoved me off the conversation. He won’t let me know anything, so I wanted to see if I couldn’t find out what he’s doing in time to tease him about it.”

                “Knowing him,” Sollux mutters, glancing over the several rows of Trolls around them waiting to be ushered inside of the building, “he’th probably without a matethprit. Or he went with Nepeta again. Then again, he thaid that wath really awkward latht year, tho…, maybe not.”

                Dave shrugs his shoulders and glances around again. “I’ll put my money on Nepeta and leave it at that.”

                Sollux snorts. “I’ll take you on that bet.”

                “Five bucks?”

                “You’re on.”

                Aradia laughs at their antics, but gives a half-hearted shove both of their ways. “This is his life, guys. You shouldn’t be laughing and betting about it.”

                “Sheesh, it’s just vitsing; get over it, Aradia.”

                “What the hell does ‘vitsing’ even mean?”

                “It’s Yiddish for ‘joking’.”

                “Why do you know Yiddish?”

                “Mom’s Jewish, so I just learned it.”

                “Ronnie’s Jewish?”

                “No, Michelle is.”

                “Who’s Michelle?”

                “My biological mom.”

                “Wait, isn’t Michelle the name of the woman who bailed you out of jail the day that we went to help out Roxy?”

                “Yeah, that’s her.”

                She smiles gently. It kind-of reminds Dave of Michelle, if only just slightly. “You look just like her.”

                He rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “Nah, I look too much like dad to look like her. Hey, is that Karkat up there?”

                “Where?”

                “Up talking to the Trolls there.”

                “Holy thit, it ith.”

                “He doesn’t have anyone with him, Dave. You’re not… going to bail on us, are you?”

                “Y-yeah, I am. I am. I’ll text you later.”

                “Here, take this with you.” She shrugs the bag off and pecks his jaw. He jumps out of the line and races to the front.

                He only catches the last bit of what the Trolls on either side of Karkat are saying, something along the lines of “…your failure to find company to the—“ and it’s in the tone of the Miranda Rights. Dave cuts them off by putting his hand on Karkat’s shoulder and spinning him around to face him.

                “Is it really so fucking hard to wait three minutes for me to get my fucking shoes on before you leave? And how the hell did you get so far ahead of me in that little time, you asshole.”

                The Troll to the right of Karkat is tall and some sort of Rust Blood, probably closer to Brown than Maroon. He looks between him and Karkat for a moment while he waits for Karkat’s response. He just stands there, mesmerized and startled by Dave’s sudden appearance. It’s not until the Brown Blood clears his throat that Dave looks to him. “What’s your relationship to Vantas, Human?”

                “I’m his Kismessis. And it’s Dave Strider.”

                He nods and scribbles something on a clipboard. From the side, he pulls a single silver-grey bucket, handing it to Dave. Then, very pointedly, he turns to look at Karkat and says, “next time, just wait the three minutes.”

                Karkat’s cheeks heat bright red, but there’s anger in his eyes and Dave is quick to follow the Troll’s directions to the room they’re designated. He grabs a hold of Karkat’s wrist, tugging him along the hallway until he’s practically frothing at the lips and growling. Dave isn’t surprised when Karkat rips his hand from Dave’s grip and slams him into the wall with one hand over his shoulders and the other dangerously close to his neck.

                “What the fuck do you think you’re doing, Strider?!”

                Dave looks him straight in the eye and answers in a matter-of-fact way, “saving your life.”

                “Why do you think that I want you to do that?”

                “Because you’re not an idiot. You have a life ahead of you. I could go on, but I don’t really feel like getting that sentimental about it.”

                “Do you have any idea what the hell you just did?”

                “Saved your life.”

                “No; you endangered your own!” He shrugs his shoulders. Karkat cuts him off before he can retort. “By saying that you’re my kismessis, you agree that you’re willing to have your life put on the line and that you’re willing to give it up being that the two of us can’t finish filling a bucket in five hours.”

                “So we fill the bucket.”

                “It’s not that easy! Have you seen the size of that thing? Don’t tell me Humans can magically generate half of that in one session, because Trolls sure as Hell can’t. There’s a reason why Trolls are culled—killed after they find they’re unable to fill one. It’s hard and it’s a damn-good test to keep the good ones alive and the obsolete ones dead.”

                “Then we prove that you’re not obsolete and fill the bucket. You’re making it harder than it has to be.”

                “You’re a virgin, aren’t you?”

                “What makes you say that?”

                “Because you’ve obviously never had to fill a fucking bucket. It’s hard enough to do in four days, let alone five fucking hours.”

                He shrugs his shoulders again, pushing Karkat off by his waist. “Well then why are we wasting all of this time talking when we should be filling?” Karkat opens his mouth to reply, but Dave pushes him down the hall, arching his brow over the rim of his glasses. He tugs him along, smiling gently until they get to the door with the room number given to them—461132.

                Dave puts the backpack and the bucket down, casually shutting the door before locking it. A small green panel he hadn’t noticed before flicks to red and a timer over the top of the door keys down: 4:59:59—there are also three little numbers in the corner that imply milliseconds, but he can’t read them fast enough to discern what time it is exactly.

                Karkat grunts at it, kicking the backpack before slipping his shoes off. Dave pushes him against the wall, viciously attacking his mouth and tugging at the shirt on his chest. Karkat pushes him off, gasping for breath as he leans his head against the wall. “You’re going to have to slow down, Dave.”

                “Why?”

                “Because if we go at this rate, we won’t fill that bucket and we definitely won’t be able to have enough energy to do so.”

                “What makes you so sure?”

                “This isn’t my first time around the block.”

                “Don’t make it sound like you’ve done this you’re entire life. This is only the second time you’ve been eligible for it and the last time you did it, it was a relationship of convenience.”

                “Can we not talk about her when we’re getting ready to pail?”

                “Can we not talk about her at all?”

                He nods. “You still won’t have enough energy to keep this up. We’re already down one point because you don’t have a nook—or you shouldn’t, judging by my Anatomy and Phys’ class. How long is your refractory period?”

                “I dunno.”

                “It’s that period betwe-“

                “I know what a fucking refractory period is, Vantas. I’ve just never sat down and fucking timed it, y’know? Not usually the number one thing on my mind when I’m getting off. ‘Hey, why don’t I see how many times I can cum in an hour’ doesn’t really cross my mind. Want me to guess?”

                “As close as you can, yeah.”

                “Nine to fifteen minutes, I suppose. I think it kind of just depends on how strenuous it was before, how many times before, that sort of thing. What I’m thinking about.”

                “Well, I hope to fucking God that you’re thinking of something incredibly sexy because that nine minutes is going to be crucial.”         

                “Why? How long are yours?”

                “Nook-wise, it’s technically nine minutes but I can push through it a lot easier than I can with my bulge. Do that as much as you can or have to, by the way.”

                “Why? Do you like it?”

                Karkat clears his throat and Dave grins at the red flush on his cheeks. “And then when it’s bulge-wise, it’s about fifteen minutes. Last year, we—“

                “Didn’t we agree not to talk about her?”

                “—would flip between them. I think that’s the only reason why we finished—“

                “Are you done?”

                “—because otherwise we would have taken twice as long and we finished with barely ten minutes left—and oh my fucking God stop grinding on me I can’t fucking breathe in these pants.”

                “Then why didn’t you wear better pants?”

                “Didn’t expect you to fucking—holy fuck—show face out of nowhere! Fuck, fuck, fuck, let me get out of these; they’re practically choking me.”

                “Fine by me.”

                “Don’t be surprised by what you’re about to see.”

                “I will be. Guaranteed.”

                “Well, don’t choke on your tongue or anything.”

                Dave nods his head and steps back, watching as Karkat nearly rips his belt off to get to his jeans. Dave smirks as he groans, kicking out of them and his underwear simultaneously. Dave bats at his shirt before he stands up completely, smirking as he tugs it off.

                When at last he’s standing up, Dave nearly ogles. He’s toned, ripped to the bone with a six-pack and everything—muscles he already knew about, but doesn’t mind getting the full eye-view of. Then there’s his bonebulge. He shouldn’t be surprised, considering it’s called a bulge but he still expected something more than a literal bulge on his pelvis that sort-of wriggles when he leans back in and grinds against him again. Karkat gasps, but grins up at him anyway.

                “You asshole. Your pants scratch, too.”

                “That is possibly the best way I’ve ever been told to take my pants off.”

                “How many ways have you been told?”

                “The fact that this is the first time is beside the point, Karkat.”

                “Let me guess: the others just push them off, right?”

                Dave arches his brow at him. “Karkat, I’m a virgin.”

                He looks like a deer caught in the headlights. “Shit, dude, I was just kidding out there. Somewhat. You know what I mean.”

                “Yeah, but fact of the matter is, I’m a virgin.”

                “Then what happened with Rebecca Fernz?”

                “Who?"

                “Girl at school that went around telling everyone about your amazing night together.”

                “I don’t know anyone named Rebecca, or none that come to mind. I don’t know a Rebecca Fernz, though.”

                “So she was lying?”

                “Evidently.”

                “Then do you really have a birthmark on the bottom of your foot?”

                “Back of my heel, why?”

                “She was talking about it as proof that you two were together, then a bunch of girls went and asked you about it. You said you did.”

                “That was, like, August of last year, dude. How am I supposed to be expected to remember that a bunch of girls were asking? Though, that explains the random question.”

                “And you had no idea why they were asking?”

                “I figured they mixed me up for Dirk again and left the matter alone.”

                “Dirk’s your twin, right?”

                “Yeah.”

                “You two even share birthmarks?”

                “We both have two, but that’s the only one we share. Why?”

                “What’s the other one?”

                “You’re not going to spout it off to the world after this, are you?”

                “Should I?”

                “No.”

                “Then where is it?”

                Dave takes Karkat’s hand and lays it on the small of his back. “Dirk’s is on the back of his neck. I swear to gog, that’s the only way that dad told us apart for a long time. Sometimes, I think that’s the only way he knows us apart, even with our glasses.”

                “Wow we are spending a lot of time doing fuck-nothing when we should be fucking.”

                “What’s the clock say?”

                “4:57:32—31.”

                Dave nods, undressing in an entirely too rushed way. Karkat at least pulls his shirt off over his head, making up for the fantasy of being disrobed by the other when he lost his virginity. He doesn’t waste time knocking Dave to his back, either, and his hand slips around his shaft without a single pause. Dave grunts a quiet “ow” Karkat’s way and grins as the Troll chuckles.

                Dave doesn’t know the Rules of Sex. When is “too much” groaning? Too little? When is he allowed to start? Questions swirl in his head and he doesn’t even notice when his muscles start to tense or when Karkat kisses up his chest, biting at his neck, kissing the red mark that forms. He almost forgets that Karkat is over him and would, too, except his hand is fucking great on his dick and riding his hand wouldn’t be bad at all. “Relax, Dave,” he coos, nibbling on his earlobe. “You’re going to have to relax in order to do this.”

                “Not helping.”

                “Well, having sex when you’re this tense is pretty difficult and more than a little awkward. Just relax and let things take their course. Not like we’re tying each other up or gagging each other or anything. Unless you want to. What’s in that backpack, anyway?”

                “I have no idea. Aradia packed it.”

                “Stop biting your lip. Stop thinking about—well, no, just stop thinking. Or, if you can’t, think about fantasies or situations you find hot. And whatever you do, orgasm into that bucket. Got it?”

                “Still easier said than done.”

                “Am I going to have to massage your shoulders?”

                “No, no, just, stop talking and do stuff. As good as this feels, it’s still awkward.”

                “Mostly because you’re so tense. But you’re hard enough for me to sit on it, though. Ready?”

                “Anything you want me to do?”

                He shakes his head. “Nothing yet. I’ll tell you, though. Ready?”

                Dave nods his head and tries to relax, repeating the word through his head as it does just the opposite. Karkat kneels over him, sinking onto him slowly. Dave groans as warm, slightly moist heat envelopes him, muscles contracting in a rhythm as Karkat lets out a long, low moan. Karkat’s breathing hitches in his chest as his hands brace him on the top of his stomach, fingers clenching in his stomach and tickling his navel. His head bends forward, dropping toward Dave’s as he carefully breathes.

                Karkat chuckles gently, lifting his head at last. His voice is breathless and his pupils are slightly larger than usual, dark circles surrounded by brilliant sanguine red. “Forgot that the first time is always… Always tight.”

                “I wouldn’t know otherwise.”

                He’s even more breathless, eyes slipping shut as he stretches, testing himself by rolling his hips. He squeezes a tight moan from Dave’s throat and grins. “Kind of relaxing, actually. No fucking levels to live up to. Expectations. Expectations, not levels.”

                “Can’t say the same for myself.”

                “You’re already better. Shut the fuck up and let me fuck myself.”

                “All yours.”

                Dave moans outright as Karkat clenches around him. “I noticed.”

                Karkat starts out small. He lifts himself up only enough to take the pressure off of his hips, then drops again—barely even rocking. He makes each sweep longer, further, completely wetting Dave’s length until his hands find Karkat’s hips and he thrusts up with every motion Karkat makes downward. Karkat hides his face in Dave’s neck, moaning, nibbling with every motion that brings them closer together. He cries out as Dave pulls him down, letting out a long string of moans that ends with him cursing as Dave takes full control of the motion. He rolls them over and Karkat presses his hands into Dave’s chest, feeling for soft spots, grinning whenever he finds a sensitive spot.

                “Hickeys below the neckline of my shirt, Karkat.”

                “You just can’t let me have my fun can you?”

                “I will fuck you as hard as you want, but if my dad finds hickeys on my neck, he’s going to freak.”

                “Kind of ruins the point.”

                “Got the whole rest of my body to cover.”

                “Oh God fuck, the bucket, the bucket; I’m not- not going to last.” He grabs for it, pulling it over without paying attention. Karkat curls his back, giving him a better angle, and cries out as his fingers scramble for purchase on the back of his neck. The coil in Dave’s stomach tightens, tighter and tighter, waiting for its moment as he lifts Karkat up over the lip and keeps him going. Karkat mutters in his ear, almost chanting, asking for more and then asking to let him cum. Dave goes as hard as he can in the awkward angle, groaning into Karkat’s neck as he keeps it going. Karkat takes complete control at last, crying out as he pulls off and sits on top of the bucket, gasping for breath. He pulls Dave closer, angling his dick so that he fits between his legs and pumps until the coil breaks and he’s limp in his hand.

                4:42:29                                          

                “We’re going to have to be a lot quicker if we’re going to do this,” Dave whispers. Karkat nods, but puts his forehead to Dave’s neck. He takes Dave’s hand and puts it on top of his bonebulge, working his fingers for him until he gets the idea to pump it. It takes no time at all for the head of the bulge to poke out of the slit near the top of his nook and Dave smirks as he tickles the tip. Karkat groans, his hand falling away in favor of gripping his arms and riding it out. Dave teases until it’s out all the way, dripping into the bucket from both the hilt and the tip.

                “I didn’t expect you to be so—tentacle-y.”

                “Sorry to disappoint?”

                “Is it prehensile?”

                “A little.”

                “Then I’m definitely not disappointed.”

                “And if it wasn’t?”

                “I’d say the same thing, but I wouldn’t mean it nearly as much.”

                Karkat chuckles breathlessly and bucks as Dave squeezes a little too hard. He moans, though, kissing Dave’s Adam’s Apple as he rides through it.

                Dave’s wrist aches by the time he manages to get him into the bucket. Not nearly as much time as it took to get both of them off and talk, but too much time altogether. Karkat crawls off the bucket, straight-legged, and stretches carefully. Dave glances in to see the red on top of the white and frowns. It’s barely enough to fill the bottom of the bucket, but it’s still a start and they have a little over four hours to go.

                “Well, we know two things now,” Karkat grumbles.

                “What?”

                “You’re pretty quick to pick up on things.”

                “Duh.”

                “And you’re also not a half-bad fuck for it being your first time. How much longer till you’re back on your feet?”

                “I dunno…. Three minutes?”

                “Just enough time for me to get to breathe. We’ll have to work out the timing a little later. The beginning seems to be rocky a lot. Anything that I can’t do during this?”

                “Nothing at the top of my head. Just no hickeys. Me to you?”

                “Nothing in my wastechute. I’ve got a nook for a reason; I don’t need anything up there. Also, don’t bite my bulge.”

                “That goes without saying.”

                “Figured as much, but it’s always good to get it out in the open. I’d rather say something that doesn’t need to be said than not say something I assume doesn’t but really does. Kinks?”

                “I dunno.”

                “Oh come on. You’ve got to be shitting me.”

                “I don’t really get a whole lot of time to fantasize. I’m either constantly studying or, when I do get the urge, I’m too worried about Dirk or Rose or dad or mom or Aradia, for that matter, walking in on me. Not that I would stop if Aradia walked in, but it would still be awkward. Why? What are yours?”

                “Being gagged.”

                “I never would have guessed. Any particular way?”

                “Nope. I just like being gagged. Blowjobs count as gagging.”

                “I’m liking where this is going.”

                He smirks. “You’ll like it when your tongue is so far down my throat I can taste your tonsils, too. I don’t like hearing myself. So I’m quiet.”

                “You weren’t very quiet back there.”

                “Your first time. Wanted to make sure you knew you were doing everything right.”

                “You sure I was?”

                “Better than fucking ‘right’, man. Almost had me cross-eyed. I wasn’t expecting you to flip us. You ready?”

                “Close enough. Just don’t expect much from the next couple of minutes.”

                Karkat nods, hitching his legs up and around his waist. Dave nibbles on his chest, his chin, smirking as Karkat welcomes him into his mouth without hesitation. He pounds into him as hard as he can, watching as he bites the knuckle on his first finger to keep quiet. His moans sound like hums through it, feel even better, and he throws his head back when he hits him just the right way. His chest lifts up, thrusting his nipples out toward him.

                Dave glances between the bucket and the clock as he flips Karkat around to all fours, balancing his waist where his nook can drip straight into the bucket and the tugs on his bulge don’t go down in vain. Karkat’s claws dig into the ground, moaning into his mouth as he gets both of them going. With his free hand, Dave leans forward, shoving two fingers into his mouth.

                Karkat grunts around them, sucking as hard as possible to resist making any noise. He makes a muffled groan as he cums, leaving him to beat inside of him. He’s quivering, shaking, moaning into his fingers as best as he can with his shoulders barely off the ground.

                He can feel one stream escape him before he pulls out, cuming straight into the bucket. He bites the bottom of Karkat’s ribcage, chuckling as he moans even louder.

                Dave notices that Karkat doesn’t really cum a lot when it’s through his nook. It’s only about a fourth of what his bulge produces and four times as slow. But this time, it’s different. This time, it’s about half as much, even as it moves as slow as before. He helps Karkat sit up on the edges, leaving him to pant and sweat after the workout.

                “How long?”

                “3:57:12….”

                “How far are we?”

                “I dunno… about a third, I would have to guess. But I don’t have much left in me.”

                “Take a break. Let’s take one. What’s in the bag over there?” Dave shrugs and stands up, pulling it up. Karkat grins tiredly and motions him down for a quick peck on the lips before Dave opens the bag. The first thing he sees is a small little note written with a dark red pen: Good luck <>

                Dave smiles gently and pulls out two plastic containers. Karkat grunts and gets off of the bucket, taking a seat beside him as he opens one of them. In it, he finds some sort of guacamole mix. In the other container, two sandwiches, each cut into triangles. Dave checks for anything more in the bag and comes out successful: handcuffs, something that looks like a blindfold, weathered ropes, a ball gag that Karkat blushes terribly at, and a plastic spoon.

                He puts the spoon in the guacamole and takes a bite of one of the sandwiches. Karkat agrees, leaving the guacamole by itself in favor of eating his sandwich. Dave clears his throat after a bite and asks, “Why do you think she has the random guacamole? She usually doesn’t eat avocados….”

                “Avocados increase libido.”

                “Huh. Never knew that. Look’t that, I learned something this summer.”

                Karkat rolls his eyes. “Are you actually going to eat that by itself, though? It’s sort-of gross.”

                “I think I’m going to try a bite and if I don’t like it, I’ll leave it. That way, Aradia can’t get on me about not trying all of her food, too.”

                Karkat nods and wipes at his mouth as he finishes the last of his sandwich. Dave does the same and pulls it over. He wrinkles his nose but takes the first bite anyway.

                It’s surprisingly good. It has a substance in it that’s not just avocado, which makes it better than just some sort of dip. It tastes like some sort of cracker with avocado on top instead of the other way around. There’s something else in it, too, some sort of meaty substance. Whatever it is, Dave likes it. It’s delicious. He takes another spoonful and hands it to Karkat to try.

                He turns it down.

                “It’s good. Try it.”

                “No fucking thanks.”

                “Dude, no, I’m not shitting you. Just do it. Trust me.”

                “No.”

                “You trust me enough to keep you from winding up dead, but you can’t even take a bite of a really fucking delicious dip that’s not even a spoonful.”

                “Low blow.”

                “I’m just pointing out the obvious and how it doesn’t make sense that you trust me on something on a much higher level than this. So, unless you’re allergic or something, at least try it. I’m only asking for one bite.”

                Karkat frowns, but nods hesitantly and wraps his fingers around Dave’s wrist. He guides the spoon and tries it. It takes about half a minute before he nods his head.

                Dave hums. “I wonder what that meaty thing is.”

                “You don’t want to know.”

                “Sure I do.”

                “No. You don’t.”

                “Troll thing?”

                “Yes it’s a Troll thing. Trust me when I tell you that, no, you don’t want to know.”

                Dave frowns, but nods his head slowly. “It’s not something that would make me sick if I knew, is it?”

                “I don’t think so.”

                “Think or know?”

                “Know. Hand me that spoon; it’s really good.”

                “Told you.”

                Karkat chuckles at him before taking another bite. He goes in for a third, but Dave catches his wrist and takes it from him before it reaches his mouth. It’s just as good the second time as it was the first time, even with the mystery flavor. They finish eating and close everything up, sorting through the toys.

                “Only thing I’m immediately interested in is the gag,” Karkat admits. He’s blushing again and Dave kisses his cheek, pulling the skin of his jaw between his teeth. Karkat turns his head and kisses back quickly. “Any you are?”

                “Not really. Like I said, I don’t get time to fantasize, but whatever you’re interested in, I’m up for. Gag, then?”

                He nods. Dave stretches. “Do you think you’ll be able to go again?”

                “It’s been more than enough time, but I’m also really tired.”

                “She should have put coffee or something in here. Come on, if I massage your back, it might help.”

                Karkat arches his eyebrow and turns around, exposing his shoulders. Dave gently kneads into it. He works his thumbs into the tight spots until Karkat his humming with delight. He moves down slowly, working at his ribcage, his lower back, nibbling on the back of the Troll’s neck with delight. Karkat shudders, pushing back at him as he does so. He gasps before biting the knuckle on his first finger. Karkat ends up pliant beneath him, his head rolled back and his eyes shut in pleasure. “How’d you get so good?”

                “Mom’s a sculptor,” he answers. “When I was younger, she would overwork her muscles and ask me to massage her. I guess I just got good at it eventually.”

                “Fucking phenomenal,” he breathes, biting his lips together. Dave chuckles as he leans forward enough to peck his lips. Karkat follows him, letting him spin them around until their chests are together again. Dave pulls Karkat onto his lap—his stomach—his chest—and goes until Karkat is sitting on his face. Dave licks carefully. Karkat’s lips tighten at the sensation and Dave chuckles.

                He puts his arms over Karkat’s hips and holds him there as he explores with his tongue. He licks the insides of his thighs, kisses trails up inside of him, tastes the juices from his nook, sucks at the small bump between the top of his nook and the hilt of the bulge that makes Karkat take in a loud gasp. Karkat’s fingers weave into Dave’s hair as Dave takes a deep breath. He remembers Rose joking with him one day about oral sex—keep it on the sensitive spots, leave the actual exploration of the vagina for later.

                He does just that. Karkat ruts against him, desperate, moaning his name. He feels his mouth fill with pure, unaltered Karkat before the Troll moans brilliantly and wriggles away from him. He sits on the edge of the pail and shoves his hand between his legs. Dave puts his head between his legs to spit out the rest of it before looking up at him.

                “You, Dave Strider,” Karkat gasps as he finishes riding out the wave, “are an asshole.”

                “Of course I am. Any particular reason why it’s worthy of being mentioned this time around?”

                “Couldn’t have warned me, could you have?”

                “That’s half the fun, right?”

                Karkat smiles lazily, pulling him up for a kiss by placing the tips of his first two fingers under his chin and tugging. Dave puts his arms on either side of his waist and kisses. Then, he grabs hold of Karkat’s bulge and starts tugging. Karkat lets him, taking the ride for all it’s worth. When he finishes, he collapses off the back of the pail. Dave barely manages to catch it to keep it from falling.

                “How close?”

                “Not much closer than before. But I have an idea?”

                “What’s that?”

                “It can wait until you can have nook sex again.”

                “Well, it won’t be much longer now. Oh, God.”

                Dave leans down and kisses his collarbone. Karkat puts his hand on the back of Dave’s head and kisses him again. Dave doesn’t have any qualms about returning it.

 

                Karkat moans and writhes under him, hiding it behind a bitten arm or a hand as much as he can until Dave puts his hand over his mouth and bites his neck. Karkat shudders again, nearly coming then and there. Dave thrusts, forcing himself to orgasm inside of Karkat’s nook. Karkat holds onto him, nearly screaming into his hand as anger flashes in his eyes. He kisses the Troll’s ear and whispers, “trust me”.

                Karkat isn’t the most trusting of people, though, and Dave barely manages to turn him over—still mounted on Dave’s dick—and manages to get the pail beneath them. He pulls out carefully, shoving two fingers into him to keep as a block while he finishes off Karkat’s bulge. Karkat flings his head back, elbows going weak before he falls to them. He continues to ride his fingers, though, thrusting back until he’s begging to let the pressure go. Dave sits him on the pail and pulls his hand out, groaning as he watches Karkat empty his nook.

                “What, the fuck, was that, dipshit?!”

                “That was you filling the bucket twice as much as you do with one normal load.”

                “Because yours was in there, too!”

                “I meant with mine removed from the equation.”

                “Bullshit!”

                “Then tell me why the pail is almost full now.”

                “I… because we’ve been at it for hours!”

                “Stop finding excuses to get mad, Karkat. You and I both know that, whatever that is from, it helped tremendously.”

                “Well… I won’t be able to do it again. And there’s not much more to be done. But I don’t think I’ll be able to cum anymore at all…. Do you think you could… do the rest yourself?”

                “Maybe. How much time do we have?”

                “Enough.”

                “I meant numerically.”

                “Don’t look, Dave. Trust me when I say we have enough time. Ok?”

                He nods his head slowly. Karkat climbs off of the pail and welcomes him to the room. Dave leans over the pail to kiss him again, which Karkat returns with a slow, sensual, lazy tongue. He’s half asleep, Dave notices, and it’s actually pretty alluring.

                He tugs on himself. Three rounds later, he shakes his head, saying there’s no way he can finish this off without Karkat’s help. Karkat grins, kisses him again, and lays him back.

                It starts without Dave’s immediate attention. He’s too distracted by Karkat’s kissing and questing hand to notice the spread in his butt. Then, one notch by one notch, a finger dives in. Dave grabs his wrist, demanding to know what he’s doing.

                “This is the only time. I don’t like it any more than you do. Actually, I think it’s pretty gross, but if it gets us there, then it’s worth it, right?”

                Dave bites his lip, scanning Karkat’s face before he nods. Karkat kisses behind Dave’s ear again and he sighs. He forces himself to relax, replaying one mantra after the other until Karkat manages to get him on all fours and pushes in.

                Wow.

                Fuck wow; that feels different. Aside from the minor burn of being stretched, Karkat’s bulge is moving and squirming inside of him, leaving him breathless. The tip works its way to his prostate and fuck wow. It’s like someone is jacking him off from inside, a strange presence, like—like a lightning bolt has shot up from inside of him and to the head of his penis. Dave moans into his mouth, turning his head into the soft spot on his wrist to bite. Karkat’s bulge does all the work, moving and writhing until Dave is already heady, desperate, and reaching under himself just to end it so wondrously. Karkat knocks his hand away.

                He knocks his hands away four more times before Dave drags the backpack over and hands him the handcuffs. It's a pair of children's Escape-Me-Not handcuffs, where the lever on the side of the actual cuff so that the parents don't have to worry about children losing the key in the middle of their magic tricks or game of Cops-n-Robbers. The cuffs go on around Dave’s wrists and he strains against them, biting onto the backpack as the pleasure grows to be unbearable.

                The first wave of pleasure decimates the coil in his stomach. His body tenses half way through and the wave ends, leaving Dave breathless. He bites onto the backpack, shaking from the pleasure as Karkat moves his hips. Dave pushes back, meeting him. He can’t release the backpack, though. Even with his teeth around the zipper, his moans are loud enough for Karkat to hear. The second and third rounds echo the first until Dave is a shuddering puddle of goo, jaw empty and completely a slave to this feeling.

                When at last he comes, Karkat pulls out and leaves him quaking. Dave pushes the backpack out of the way, leaving his forehead to rest on the ground as he gasps a small “thank you”. Dave doesn’t know if it’s for the great ride or releasing the handcuffs. He doubts that Karkat knows the answer to that, too.

                “How close?” Dave asks, breathless, after he falls to his side and rolls onto his back.

                “We’re fucking done, but I can’t move very much.”

                “H-how much time?”

                “29:18.”

                “That felt like a lot more than just five hours.” Karkat nods his head at his side. Dave groans as he continues. “We should get up. We can nap when we get out of here. I don’t want to be done, only to fail because we fell asleep afterward. C’mon. Get dressed.”

                Karkat snorts derisively and gives him one long, slow look. “You’re moving a whole lot, too, you fucking sloth.”

                “Karkat.”

                “What?”

                “That was four fucking orgasms at once. Let me at least catch my breath.”

                There’s a beat of silence as Karkat lifts himself off of Dave’s side. Dave puts the back of his hand on his forehead and lifts his chin, slowly regaining his breathing. Karkat’s voice is small in disbelief and the frown on his lips is almost audible. “Four?”

                “That’s what I just said. Did your ears break during the course of the last four and a half hours?”

                “Did it really feel that good?”

                “Shit—fuck yeah. Wow. I never thought it would. Always thought it was gross. Fuck wow. Just get dressed. I’ll be up in a minute.”

                Dave opens his eyes long enough to see Karkat nod and to tilt up to meet him in a quick peck of the lips. Karkat stands up and walks across the room, grabbing up one of the shirts. He doesn’t seem to care for whose it is and tosses the other in Dave’s direction.

                He sits up painfully and groans as he glances at it. No, this most certainly isn’t his shirt, but switching clothes at this point in the day feels really pointless. Reversing the situation feels even more pointless, though, and he tugs it on along with the jeans Karkat throws his way. He manages to do up the belt as he stands on shaky legs. He tenses the muscles, trying to work feeling back into them, and Karkat comes to his side a moment later. Arms wrap around Dave’s waist, holding him up and steady. Dave kisses Karkat, holding either side of his face in his hands.

                “Make me a promise that the next time we have sex, it’s one round and that’s it.”

                “Fuck, that’s all I really even want,” Karkat nods. “If we filled a pail every time we fucked, I would kill myself.”

                “That is something I could stand to hear more. Death by over-sexing; now that would get headlines.”

                Karkat chuckles and kisses his cheek. He hands Dave the backpack while he picks up the pail. He grunts as he does so and barely catches his hand on the bottom of it before losing control and spilling all over the ground.

                They leave the room carefully, making sure that they didn’t leave anything behind. Sore and bruised, the two of them work their way down the hall and through another two before they come to a processing center. It looks like a counter of some sort, the same size as a trash basket at a fast food restaurant like McDonalds. In the middle, there is a small, inclined, touchpad. On either side, two metal plates in the shape of circles cover what Dave assumes to be the shoots.

                Karkat starts selecting parts on the pad and Dave watches over his shoulder as he types in “K-A-R-K-A-T S-I-G-N-L-E-S-S”. A moment later, it asks for his quadrant type, which he selects to be KISMESSITUDE. He types “D-A-V-I-D S-T-R-I-D-E-R (-H-U-M-A-N-)” next. A light Dave hadn’t noticed before shines green and a small beaker-like apparatus lifts out of the left hole. Karkat fills it to the top, careful not to dribble, before he selects a button on the pad. The beaker descends and another rises out of the right hand side. He pours the other half into it, selects yet another button and watches as that beaker disappears to. A chute in the bottom of the counter opens, near their feet, and Karkat kicks the pail inside.

                At last, they are dismissed and Dave blinks his eyes as they are reintroduced to the sunlight outside the EXIT door, which had been next to the counter. He follows Karkat through what appears to be some sort of a parking lot. He doesn’t recognize any of the cars and thinks them lucky if this is just the Low Blood day.

                Karkat takes his wrist in his hand, slipping their fingers together at last. Dave kisses his jaw and whispers, “I told you I would get you through this.”

                “I’m tired as shit. I don’t want to have to argue.”

                “Fair enough. Aradia will be worried if we leave without telling her, though. I don’t want to text her right now, though, and disrupt her business.”

                Karkat nods his head. “Just set a reminder on your phone for later. I want to get back to the house.”

                “My apartment is closer. Do you really want to walk that far when you can walk half the distance?”

                Karkat grimaces. He sighs, though, and drops his shoulders. “Can I?”

                “Yeah, totally. Just be warned: Rose and Dirk are probably gaming right now.”

                He nods his head. “So long as they don’t wake me more than five times, I don’t care.”

                “You’re lenient today.”

                “I used to have thirty-some little siblings who insist on screaming in the middle of the night. You get used to it eventually. C’mon. I’m tired. I don’t want to sleep on the sidewalk.”

                “I’m coming, I’m coming. It’s this way.”

                Karkat nods. They walk in silence for a bit before Karkat snorts. “Is that Sollux’s car?”

                “Which one?”

                “The canary yellow one. No, the one right there. The Bug.”

                “Vintage hipster. Yeah, it is, though. He picked me an’ Aradia up with it this morning.”

                “Why are we going over to it? I’d rather not wait for them to get out first, thanks.”

                Dave shakes his head and puts the bag on top of the hood. There’s no other way for it to get there unless Dave put it there himself, after all, and it would be a sign to Aradia not to worry. As long as they’re standing by the car, though, Dave pats down his pockets and pulls out Karkat’s phone and wallet. Karkat snorts, mutters about at least getting the underwear correct, and trades him for the phone and wallet in his own pockets.

                The walk back to Dave’s apartment feels like it takes forever to get there. When at last they arrive, feeling like it’s been two hours (when in actuality only half an hour had passed), Dave tugs Karkat into the elevator. He doesn’t even bother looking at the WARNING and CAUTION signs as he hits the button for their floor.

                They don’t have to wait long, but the wait is silent as the lift doesn’t play any music. Karkat leans against his side, almost asleep, and Dave breathes gently as he tugs him out. Karkat follows sleepily as Dave pulls out his keys and unlocks the door.

                Inside, as predicted, Rose and Dirk are playing videogames. He calls their names, trying to get their attention, but the most he can get is a distracted “yo” from Dirk and a grunt from Rose. Dave tells Karkat to wait behind the couch, in view of the door, and leans over Dirk’s shoulder to hit the pause button. Dirk jumps, jerks, and waves him away with a distracted noise as he exits the pause screen. Dave does it again, this time with Rose’s controller. At last, he gives up, walks around them, and takes their controllers from them in order to get their attention. He pauses the game without thinking about it.

                “What the fuck is your problem, Dave?” Dirk demands.

                “Look behind you, numbnuts.”

                They do.

                Dirk takes one long, appraising look, taking a moment to make a long sweep from head to toe. When he finally speaks, Karkat yawns into his hand and Dirk whistles. “Is this Karkat?”

                “Yeah.”

                “Sweet. I’ll keep an eye out. Now, the controls?”

                In hindsight, giving the controllers back so easily was probably the worst thing for him to do.

                He tugs Karkat back into his bedroom, where he takes the moment to take a picture of the both of them in the closet mirror. Karkat and he both look exhausted, but accomplished. Dave sends it to Aradia before killing the battery on the phone and tearing Karkat’s clothes off of his body. Karkat gets Dave's clothes off of his own.

                They collapse on the bed and fall asleep.

* * *

                Dave wakes around midnight that night to find Rose in the kitchen (after he empties his bladder, of course). In her hands, she has a cup of tea, with a saucer not far away from her, only instead resting on the island. She smiles faintly at him as he starts making a sandwich. He smiles back, only stopped from taking his first bite as Karkat comes into the room and asks where the bathroom is.

                “Down the hall on the right. Door right across from mine. If you open it and find a hot-pink room, you’ve gone too far.”

                He nods and disappears. He’s gone long enough for Dave to make a second sandwich and start to eat his own.

                “So, how was it, Dave? The Pailing?”

                “Long. I’m so sore, you have no idea. Why do you ask?”

                “Was it hard?”

                “Not really…. Just long. And I got a little worried in there that we wouldn’t be able to finish, but Karkat came twice as much as I did, so I’m amazed at how far he can go. I’m surprised he isn’t asleep right now.” Karkat, of course, arrives back just in time to hear that. Dave greets him with a kiss on the cheek and hands the other sandwich to him. Karkat takes it without another thought. “Why do you ask, Rose?”

                “The High Bloods have their turn tomorrow and Kanaya asked me to accompany her. I guess I’m just a little nervous. Any advice? I’ve never had to do this before. She went with an old kismess last year.”

                He finishes off the sandwich, opens the fridge, and pulls out four water bottles. Two of them, he shoves in Rose’s direction, one of the bottles goes to Karkat and the last Dave opens and takes a long drink of. “My advice? Take it slow. Work with Kanaya’s body as much as you can, considering it’ll be hers that will fill most of that pail.”

                “Yeah, ow, Dave. My body is still twice as sore as yours.”

                “I gave as much as I could, damn it. My wrists have bruises around them from those cuffs, there at the end.” Karkat grins and Dave returns it before picking the phone up out of the cradle. He dials the number he’s searching for slowly, sighing gently as he hears the tone. “Also, Rose, get a lot of sleep. Don’t be afraid to get kinky. Do whatever you can. You can bring anything you want. Drink a lot of water, I feel like I’m dying of thirst right now. And for your sake and your fiancée’s, I hope you’re a squirter.”

                “We’re not engaged.”

                “Yet. I still want a cordial invite. Tons of tulips—no roses, though.”

                She kisses his cheek and steps back. “Thanks for the advice.”

                “Sleep, Rose. You’ll regret not doing it tomorrow—or, really, today, huh?”

                “Yeah, yeah. Night, Dave. Night Karkat.”

                “Good luck, tomorrow,” the Troll finally says. She thanks him and disappears with her cup and saucer around the corner. He hears the door to her room click shut gently, just in time for the other line to pick up.

                The woman on the other side is sniffling. She sounds as if she has been crying a lot lately. Worried, too, if the tremble in her voice is anything to go by. “He-Hello, West Ridge Orphanage, this is Rachel Wester speaking. H-How may I help you?”

                “Hey Rachel, it’s me, Dave. I’m calling you from my house phone. Is everything alright?”

                “Ah-yeah. Yeah it’s ok. What are you doing calling me at this hour? Have you heard from Karkat?” She sniffles particularly hard. Dave winces, but smiles gently anyway.

                “He’s the reason why I’m calling, actually.”

                “Really?” She sniffles again. “What about him?”

                “I wanted to apologize for not texting you earlier. It didn’t even cross my mind to do that. I just wanted to let you know that he’s fine. He’s actually standing across from me right now, if you want to talk to him.”

                “He is?” She gasps. It sounds almost forced. Dave nods into the phone despite her not being able to see it. “Oh, thank God, he’s ok. Thank you, Dave. Thank you so much. When he didn’t take the car to the Pailing, I wasn’t sure what would happen, but I had a bad feeling. Thank you so much. He’s really ok?”

                “We’re both sore and tired, but we’re fine.”

                “Really? Oh, thank you, Dave, thank you so much.” This is probably the only time he will ever be thanked for having sex with someone by someone other than his partner. He isn’t sure how to think of that. He doesn’t comment.

                “Do you want to talk to him?”

                “Are you sure he’s ok?”

                “I’m one-hundred percent positive.”

                Karkat chuckles and smiles, lifting himself up enough to say, “tell her that I’ll be home by five tomorrow afternoon, depending on how late I sleep in.”

                He relays the message and Rachel thanks him again, this time almost gasping. She tells Dave that he doesn’t need to come in tomorrow—to just rest the day and come in the day afterward. He asks if she wants to talk to Karkat, then asks Karkat if he wants to talk to her. When they both turn it down, he nods his head, says goodbye to Rachel, and puts the phone back in the cradle.

                “Thanks for that, Dave.” Karkat grins. Dave returns it before pulling him off to bed.

 

                He wakes up late that morning, nearer noon than anything else. Karkat and he get out, shower together, and Dave presses Karkat against the wall for a long, slow moment of tonguing. Karkat borrows one of Dave’s clean shirts and they ready to leave when Dave hears the sound of his father’s voice in the kitchen.

                It takes everything he has not to curse. He knows that Daniel had to have seen Karkat, if not before now then at this very moment. There’s no way he could have missed it. He escorts Karkat to the door anyway and waves off a kiss with the excuse that Rachel must be worried.

                Dave stands in front of the door after Karkat leaves, stalling for time, waiting to make sure that he has made it a majority of the way down the stairs before he turns. He waits, stalling for time. He waits, trying to regain the courage he isn’t aware he lost. He waits, checking for a phone and a wallet in his pockets, for lack of anything better to do. He waits, afraid of his father.

                “David, come here.”

                He takes a shaky breath and goes into the kitchen. Daniel is leaning against the counter that Rose had been against the night before and Ronnie is at the table. They each have a mug of coffee somewhere near their person.

                Dave is already sweating slightly, looking between the two of them. He hides it behind the glasses and hides his shaky hands by sticking his thumbs in the waistband of his jeans. He fights not to get jumpy. He fights not to run. He fights not to barf. This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening.

                Daniel is the epitome of calm when he speaks, acting as if Dave hadn’t broken the cardinal rule of the house: no one is allowed in the house without permission. Dave desperately needs something alcoholic to drink. “David.” Fuck. Full name—as if he didn’t have enough things to be terrified of before now. “Would to like to tell me why that abomination was in your room?”

                “I-“

                “Stop right there, David. Don’t open your mouth. I already know why he was here. Obviously, it’s because you can’t respect rules, isn’t that correct, David? Answer me when I ask you a question.”

                “Y-yes sir.”

                “David.”

                He pinches his lips together. His body grows ever tenser as Daniel walks straight up to him. They stand chest-to-chest. Dave drops his eyes and swallows heavily.

                “David, I’m going to give you one chance to answer me honestly. Did you, or did you not, invite that cur into our home?”

                If he says no, then Daniel will know he’s lying. If he says yes…. Dave doesn’t even want to think of that possibility. He bites his tongue, rather forcefully, and refuses to answer.

                “David, if you do not answer me, I will take your silence as an admission of guilt.”

                Nothing.

                “David. You have until the count of three.”

                “One.”

                “Two.”

                “Three.”

                Dave is caught completely off-guard by the fist in his cheek. He stumbles backward, and looks up to see Daniel nearly frothing at the mouth. He stumbles even further back, until he’s pressed against the wall, and blocks the second snarling punch to his stomach with his arms. A third attack and a fourth are deflected. Dave finds his opportunity.

                He decks him so hard that Daniel winds up on his ass. While he’s on the ground, though, Dave steps on his chest to hold him down. His other foot stays on one of his arms. “Don’t you ever fucking lay a hand on me again, you motherfucking idiot.” He’s frothing angry. Fear and adrenaline march through his veins, finding solace only when channeled into something like this. “You’re better off a drunkard, you motherfucking—you motherfucking cunt. Ronnie’s stash is above the fucking fridge; use it! But don’t you ever”—he pushes harder at his chest, until the man almost chokes—“don’t you ever fucking lay a hand on me or the other two ever again.”

                “You are not my son, David! No child of mine would fraternize with the cur of our time! Trolls are not your friends, David! I don’t know what lies it has spewed, but they’re nothing more than lies, David. How dare you fall for its curse?”

                “His name is Karkat. I will say this one more time: don’t you ever fucking lay a hand on any of us again. Alcohol is over the fridge. I hope you are happy, getting drunk in an empty house tonight.”

                He turns and stomps out of the door, slamming it shut behind him. His phone is out of his pocket, in his hand, without a single thought against it. He sends three texts.

                He needs Aradia. Until then, though, he keeps his head down and forces himself not to look at anything but feet. He needs Aradia. He needs Aradia. He needs Aradia.

Chapter Text

                Dave is in the park when Aradia finds him.

                More appropriately, he thinks he’s in the park. He is seated on a bench with his feet in front of him and his arms around his legs to keep well enough hidden. His fingers have lost all sensation to them and he refuses to lift his head, even as people ask him if he’s ok. He chants Aradia’s name in his head, refusing to look up, to open his jaw, to scream, to deck someone else. To do everything. He needs Aradia. He desperately hopes that Aradia is still alive, because he isn’t sure if he can get out of this without her.

                His prayers are answered, though, when Aradia’s darling voice grows stone-like and commanding. “David Matthew Strider, what the fuck do you think you are doing right now?”

                “Fuck off!”

                “Stand your ground, David.”

                “Don’t fucking call me that!”

                There’s a moment of silence—the beat of a heartbeat in Dave’s ears. He barely hears her drop her voice to someone else and ask if they could be alone. There’s a shuffle and more words Dave doesn’t give a face to before two sets of feet leave. He feels Aradia’s presence drop down at his side and shoves his head as much as he can in the opposite direction. “What did Daniel do?”

                “Nothing! Fuck off! I’ll be fine by myself, Aradia!”

                “If you get into a fight, it’s me that going to juvie, Dave. Not much longer now until we’re tried as adults, too. All they have to do is find a judge willing to push the court date back for evidence reasons. Then, all that it takes is to just say the word ‘adult’ and bam, we’re going to jail, not juvie. Prison. Whatever the difference is. I need you to talk to me, Dave. Do you really want to spend the first few years of your adults life locked away?”

                He frowns and lifts his head up just enough for summer air to breeze past his face. He takes a deep breath of the chill. It burns in his lungs, but he holds it for a time. “….n-no, no I suppose not.”

                “Dave.”

                “No. I don’t want to.”

                “Then talk to me. What did Daniel do?”

                “Nothing, not really. I mean, it’s my fault—“

                “Dave.”

                “Really, no, I’m not taking the blame.”

                “Just tell me what happened.” He grins half-heartedly and shrugs his shoulders. He doesn’t curl out of his ball, though. He shakes his head, not sure what to say, and he turns his head toward her. “Shit! What the hell is on your cheek? Where did you get that bruise? What the fuck did Daniel do?”

                He opens his mouth then shuts it again. It takes him a while to find the words. “Karkat stayed at my apartment after the Pailing. We didn’t want to walk back to the orphanage. I had Dirk and Rose keep a look out for us, because we were out before I even sent that text to you. Somehow… dad found out about it—him—Karkat. I was walking Karkat out of the apartment this morning when Daniel said my name. I was so fucking scared. He wasn’t supposed to be home! Neither was Ronnie! But, they were both in the kitchen.

                “Dad was so pissed, I couldn’t even breathe. Then he started calling Karkat things like ‘abomination’ and ‘cur’ and saying that he poisoned my mind. He demanded to know if I brought Karkat inside. I couldn’t lie to him—you know I can’t fucking lie. And—and, I don’t know. I don’t know; I just kept my mouth shut. And Daniel fucking punched me across the face!” Her eyes widen and her jaw weakens. Daniel has never laid a hand on any of them before—to Dave’s knowledge. He’s just as startled as she is and he’s the one with the smarting cheek. “And he kept coming!”

                “So what did you do?”

                “Socked him one in the jaw! Fucker landed right on his ass, too!”

                “And then?”

                “I stepped on his chest and told him to never lay another hand on any of us again. I told him about Ronnie’s stash—the one that I swore to her I would never tell anyone about, not even Ronnie herself. A- and then- then I don’t”—he scrambles, looking for words, just as lost and pissed off as Aradia—“and I don’t know, I just booked it. Slammed the door shut. I heard something break when I did it. A-and… I don’t know, I don’t fucking know. I don’t know. I pulled my phone out. Told Dirk and Rose not to come home tonight. Then I told you to find me. It’s taken everything I have not to beat the shit out of the first person I see, Aradia. I can’t last like this.”

                She leans forward and wraps her arms around him. She shushes him quietly; her hands pat the back of his head and she lets out a long shushing noise. He can feel the letters materialize out of her mouth, coiling like a boa constrictor around his body. They tighten and crush until his muscles are forced to relax and the anger melts like ice out the bottom of his feet.

                He opens his eyes slowly and Aradia pulls away, smiling at him. “You did the right thing, Dave. I’m very impressed with you. Really proud of you, actually. Dirk? Rose? Where are they today?”

                “Rose is Pailing with Kanaya. I don’t know about Dirk, but if he was home at the time of me getting the shit beat out of me, then he’s not now. If Rose is alive at the end of the day, she’ll be at Kanaya’s. Dirk will probably go to Jake’s or Roxy’s place for the night. None of those three will tell Daniel where they are no matter what happens.”

                “Do you need to spend the night somewhere? I’m sure Sollux will be able to house you for the night. I mean, I stayed there last night. Officer Stuart didn’t seem to mind and he was asking after you.”

                “No, that’s a bad idea. If he sees my face, he’ll be curious. Daniel was pissed, but he’s not abusive—most of the time. He won’t do it again. What’s your lusus up to?”

                “Out of town, otherwise I would ask. You know how she hates it when you’re over. I don’t think it’s a good idea. She’ll definitely tell Daniel, regardless of the fact that he hates Trolls. She’ll even drive you over there and haul your ass up the stairs to get you in there. That won’t help you when you’re in trouble for having a Troll in your house.”

                “No, you’re right. Besides, she doesn’t like me staying at your place overnight even when she is there, so it wouldn’t work out. But thanks for the consideration.”

                “What about Karkat’s?”

                “I can’t impose on the orphanage like that.”

                “John and Jade’s?”

                “They’re still out of town. They’re gone for the entire summer, remember?”

                “I thought they got back this week.”

                “They get back the week we go back to school, Aradia.”               

                “Right, I’m thinking about the Culture Club trip. Anyone else?”

                “There are one or two people in my phone that’ll give me a couch. Don’t worry about it, Aradia. You just need to watch me for a few hours to make sure I don’t get in too much trouble. What are you up to?”

                “Well, Sollux and I were walking back to my place when I got your text. We started heading toward your house when we met up with Karkat. Are you sure you’re ok?”

                “I’m fine, really. Just”—he breathes in and out slowly, trying to center himself when all he wants to do is punch a hole in a brick wall—“I just need to breathe, y’know?”

                She nods her head. “Let’s just all hang out today. Dave, trust me when I say that this isn’t your fault. Daniel is too close-minded. Ok?”

                He frowns and meets her eyes. She’s earnest, with every ounce of trust in Dave evident for all to see. He smiles shakily. When he nods, he doesn’t agree with her, but he understands that she’s trying to reassure him that he did the right thing. For the first time in his life, throwing a punch doesn’t feel like the “right thing” that had to be done. “Ok. What do you want to do today?”

                “I dunno. It’s been a while since we all just… hung out and did nothing. We could go to the pizza joint on Fifth.”

                “That’s, like, four miles away.”

                “Sollux can take us in his car. C’mon. Karkat’s probably chewing himself out with worry at this point.” He nods and stands up with her. Her hand slips into his without much of a second thought and she starts tugging him toward Karkat and Sollux, who are both out of hearing distance but watching them intensely.

                Dave stops mid-track and tugs her hand until she turns around to face him. “Aradia?”

                “Yeah, Dave?”

                “What’s going to happen now? With you and me? And me and Karkat? Now that dad knows that I’m friends with Trolls?”

                “We’ll be more careful when we come over to your house. No more locking the doors, though. He’ll be suspicious. Maybe just hang on the fire escape, if we even stay there at all. Daniel will probably ground you even longer. But other than that? Nothing. You’re still interested in me an’ Karkat, right?”

                “Aradia, I’m in fucking love with you. I can’t not be interested in you. And I still want to be with Karkat.”

                “Then why should anything happen? It’s your life, Dave. Not Daniel’s.”

                He frowns then gives a tight nod. She smiles and he returns it, drawing level with her as they walk toward the other two. Karkat and Sollux come straight up to them and Dave wraps his arms around Karkat’s body, holding him tightly. Karkat chuckles and pulls away from him with a grin large enough to show the tips of his teeth. “It hasn’t even been that long since I left your place, dude. What happened?”

                “Nothing. Things just got out of control.”

                “What happened to your face?”

                “Mosquito bit it.”

                “Liar.”

                “That’s what it felt like.” Karkat sighs but nods anyway. “What are you up to today? Aradia and I were thinking about hanging out together for a while.”

                “I wasn’t planning on much, but Rachel is probably still worried about me. I’ll have to check in with her. I’d like to change my pants, too.”

                “Fair enough.”

                “Why don’t you two go back to Karkat’s place?” Aradia asks. “You’ll stop by and say hi to Rachel, then we’ll drive by and pick you up. Or, at the very least, Dave, if you can’t go, Karkat.”

                “Sounds good,” Dave nods. Karkat agrees and they say a quick goodbye. Aradia tugs Karkat close and whispers something in his ear that Dave doesn’t get the chance to hear. He assumes it has something to do with keeping him calm and leaves it at that.

                Karkat doesn’t mention it.

 

 

They walk into the back door to the orphanage. Rachel is in the kitchen, washing some more dishes. She looks up and smiles. Relief is etched into her very being as she sweeps Karkat into a hug and hides the lower half of her face in his neck. Karkat holds her, rubbing his hands up and down her back. Tears are waving in her eyes, swimming around, but she brushes at them until they catch on her hands. Karkat smiles gently. “I’m fine, Rachel. Really.”

                “I know, I know. I was just so scared. After all these years, you could have thrown your life away and all because you didn’t take the car. I’m insane. I don’t know why I thought that. You should have texted, though.”

                “Yeah, I know. I’m really sorry for worrying you. I was just so tired afterward that I couldn’t even think. I can’t believe I made it to Dave’s apartment afterward; I could have slept standing up.”

                “I’m glad you’re ok, though. Are you going to stay in today?”

                “Dave and I were thinking about hanging out with his moirail and Sollux today.”

                “What about Gamzee?”

                “He’s Pailing with his matesprit today.”

                “Isn’t his matesprit a brown blood?”

                “Yeah, but he’s a High Blood, remember? That means he gets to decide which day he wants to go and he wanted to go today. That’s why you don’t see a bunch of Drones out today rounding up Trolls that would normally show today with their High Blood quadrantmates.”

                She nods her head. “Well, ok. That’s fine by me. Is your phone charged?”

                “I turned it off last night, so it’s at about half-battery.”

                “Ok. Well, turn it back on. Text me later, ok? I want you back here by eight tonight.”

                “Alright. I’ll tell them. Before that, though, I want to go change my pants.”

                “Yeah, ok, go, go. I’m glad to see you’re alive.”

                Karkat grins briefly before disappearing upstairs. Dave waits just inside the doorway as Rachel braces herself on the counter. She bows her head and breathes carefully. Dave chuckles at her, smiling when she looks up. She reaches forward, tugs him in close, and attempts to suffocate him with a tight fitting hug. He, hesitantly, returns it.

                “Thank you so much, Dave. I thought he was ready to go without a partner and would have been killed. I just lost almost all of my wrigglers; I can’t stand to lose my baby so soon behind them.”

                “Your… baby?”

                “I… it’s nothing,” she smiles as she steps away. “It’s just how I think of Karkat as. Don’t tell him. He would go crazy. Just… thank you so much for keeping him alive, Dave. I can’t possibly describe to you how grateful I am in the amount of time left.” She leans forward and kisses his cheek. Dave is thankful for the swelling, considering it’s the only thing that kept him from blushing. “Thank you so much Dave.”

                “No offense, Rachel, but I didn’t do it for you. I did it because I’m really selfish and don’t want to see Karkat dead before I get my chance to have… something with him.”

                She laughs, but nods. “Sometimes, Dave, being selfish is the most selfless thing one can do.”

                “Who said that?”

                “I did.”

                He gives her half a smile before wrapping his arms back around her neck. She clings to his shirt before they step apart. “You need to yell some sense into Karkat, though. Just saying.”

                She nods her head. “Trust me, that’s way up there on my To Do list. You have fun with him today. You two deserve it, especially with Karkat taking on so much responsibility here. Make sure he has some fun while you’re away, ok? What is taking him so long to change his pants?”

                “Well, according to Murphy’s Law or whatever law it is, I don’t even know at this point—Karkat should walk through that door any second now.”

                “Right, ok. Have fun with him. You two have work again tomorrow.”      

                He nods his head. Karkat walks through the door, as predicted, wearing a pair of lighter pants. They’re not jeans, but they’re still some sort of blue color. He grins at Rachel and returns her one-armed hug briefly. “We’re going to wait for Sollux and Aradia to pick us up,” he says. “I guess we can just wait outside, since the grubs are supposed to be asleep, right?”

                “They’re all sleeping right now. Thank you for being considerate.”

                He nods. “Trynna and the other wrigglers?”

                “They’re around somewhere—if they haven’t slipped away to go to that park they like so much.” She says it with a hint of knowing and Dave grins as she winks his way. Karkat grins, too, and sighs as Rachel takes another hug from him. They walk out the back door and around to the front of the building, where they sit on the flowerbed wall.

                It’s hard to believe, really, that a month ago, he and Karkat had sat here and the Troll had listened to him complain about how hard it was to get through without Aradia. So much time has passed, yet it feels like almost no time at all. So much has changed, too. Whereas he and Karkat could barely stand to glare each other’s way oh so long ago, he’s now embracing him and kissing him—filling a bucket with him.

                The feeling he had when they first started to fight is different than it is now, too. Before, it had been fueled with adrenaline and the rush of battle, the sweet sting of fresh bite marks and the heavy weight of wrestling him. Now, though, it’s there. It’s warm and constant and he can feel Karkat beside him without even having to look toward him. It’s sweet, but the thought of fighting, biting and wrestling aren’t the kind of thoughts that would turn him off of Karkat.

                He always thought that redrom would be the kind where blackrom things aren’t interesting, but perhaps only the feelings have changed?  He isn’t even sure how to think of it. He isn’t sure how Karkat wants to think about it. He just, over all, isn’t sure. And on top of Daniel, how can he even think of his emotions with Karkat? It’s ridiculous for that to happen. He needs to figure out his home situation before he even thinks of his relationship with Karkat.

                Still, when Karkat scoots closer and puts his hand in between them, Dave slips his into it. Karkat leans against his side. Dave leans back. “I never properly thanked you for being an asshole who couldn’t keep his nose in his own business,” Karkat mutters. Dave turns to look at him and arches his brows over his glasses. Karkat takes Dave’s lips in his and Dave closes his eyes. The kiss is awkward and it sets Dave’s shoulders in a weird way. Karkat doesn’t seem to notice, though, and pulls away with a smile. “Thank you, Dave.”

                Dave fakes the smile expertly. “Hell, if I thought I would get such a cute reaction out of you, I would have done that sooner.”

                Karkat punches him in the shoulder and they stop holding hands. Dave thinks it’s probably for the better.

 

They hang out at the pizzeria until almost six PM. It’s around that time that Aradia gets up to use the bathroom and Dave pulls his phone out to text someone about a couch to sleep on. He flips through his phonebook, reading the names, until he gets to one that he is the most uncertain about.

                For some reason, he starts typing in the question to her. After it’s done, he supposes it’s because if she declines, he won’t feel too bad about it (but he will, he definitely will).

 

                Michelle (mom) said: of course I have a place 4 u! Y do u need it?
                Me: no reason
                Michelle (mom) said: dave?
                Me: …i might tell you later
                Me: might
                Michelle (mom) said: well still do u need 2b picked up?
                Me: no just give me your address itll be k
                Michelle (mom) said: i can pick u up really
                Me: ill be fine mom
                Michelle (mom) said: where r u now? if its on my way ill pick u up deal?
                Me: address first and where are you coming from?
                Michelle (mom) said: meeting hall downtown where i was with miyazaki ew… ;.;
                Me: ):
                Michelle (mom) said: and i live off of grand central and seventh. where r u now?
                Me: Louie’s Pizza on fourth
                Michelle (mom) said: that is most certainly on the way. ill pick u up
                Me: do i have a choice in this?
                Michelle (mom) said: no
                Me: ….ok

 

                Aradia returns and smiles, seeing him slip the phone back into his pocket. “So, do you know where you’re staying tonight, Dave?”

                “Yeah, Michelle is going to pick me up here pretty soon, I guess. Didn’t exactly get a choice in it.”

                “Whoa, wait,” Karkat interrupts. He turns to him, almost abruptly, and tilts his head. “What do you mean you’re not going home tonight? What the hell happened? Does it have something to do with your cheek?”

                He shakes his head. “After you left this morning, dad and I got into a huge argument. I got pissed off and left. I texted Aradia to get me to calm down and sat at the park. Guess my cheek just swelled a little when I was trying not to hit anything.”

                Karkat doesn’t buy it, but he doesn’t argue it either. Instead, he just frowns and nods. “Well, yeah, I have to be back by eight anyway.”

                “I’ll drive you home, then, KK,” Sollux says. Aradia leans against his side and grins as she points out, “I need to get home soon, too, so I guess our little party fest went well. How many of our friends do you think died in Pailing the last two days?”

                “Probably not as many as last year,” Karkat says. The conversation evolves from there until he receives a text from Michelle saying that she’s outside. He looks out the window to see her silver, two-door car before kissing Karkat’s cheek. Aradia perks at the sudden gesture. “You going?”

                “Yeah, she’s out front.” He stands and slides out of the seat before leaning across Sollux to press a chaste peck to the corner of her lips.

                “What?” Sollux says. “I don’t get anything?”

                “Knuckle sandwich or door number two?”

                “I don’t know. What’s behind door number two?”

                He rubs his hand through Sol’s hair and pretends to lean in for a kiss. Sollux pulls away last second and the four of them burst out laughing. He’s still laughing as he leaves the store, heading straight for Michelle’s car. He pulls the sunglasses off his face without being asked.

                “What happened to your cheek, Dave?”

                “Well, hello to you, too, mom.”

                “Hi, Dave. Now what happened to your cheek?”

                “Nothing, not really. I’ll explain later. I just kind of want to get behind closed doors, y’know? It feels like it’s been years since I’ve been in a safe place.” She nods her head and puts her arm out to rest over his shoulders. He leans against it and sighs as he tilts his head back.

                It feels like the drive took almost too long to stop in front of a house. There’s a driveway—three car, he supposes, but he’s not sure—where half of it leads up to the garage and the other half to a front porch. She parks in front of the porch entrance and he notices, as he exits the car, the side gate to the garage. Probably for easy biking access, or something, he’s not sure.

                Michelle tells him to go crazy the moment she unlocks the door. He smiles at her and nods as he takes off, looking in all the doors. He can hear her giggling behind him as he starts with the first door and works around.

                The front porch leads into an entryway. It’s not large, but it’s large enough to hold room for two (probably homemade) stain glass windows on either side of the front door. There are some end tables around, showcasing pottery and a place for her keys to go. She puts a coat up next to her keys as wanders into the hall.

                The hall is actually a gallery, he notices. On all the walls hang her paintings, end tables have sculptures and pottery on it, and there on the smaller wall hang some pictures that Dave remembers painting when he was little and couldn’t quite get the paintbrush to work the way he wanted. To the left, he finds, is a large, well-used, bedroom. On the back wall hangs a normal-sized window and on either side of that, two stained-glass rose designs hang. Turning left inside the door, he finds a door to a toilet. In front of him, outside of the toilet room, is the master bath—all of which is painted in a sea foam blue color.

                “Not my idea,” Michelle answers. Dave will definitely admit that it startled him. “But the color grows on you after a while. The last owner painted it some atrocious colors. I’ve covered most of it up. I just haven’t gotten around to here yet.”

                He nods as he walks forward. Just a walk-in closet through there. How boring. He returns to the gallery. On the left, a large family room stands. There are hazy-translucent tarps down and clay residues stick to it. A large television is pushed on a cant in the corner with a couch-armchair-footstool set pushed off to the side. He can see out the sliding glass doors onto the back porch and the small grass area beyond it.

                After the hardwood turns into tile, he finds the kitchen. The fridge is on the right, in a wall across the gallery spits off into. A counter with cupboards over it and a coffee maker under it. On the wall to the left, more counters and cupboards. The second cupboard from the free end leading into a dining room is actually the stove. Behind him, the island is shaped to have counters on either side with triangular pieces of counter space added on before a two-sided sink is set into it.

                To the right of the kitchen and still, technically, part of the gallery is a section with two doors. Through one of them is a staircase leading down. He saves that for the moment before going through the other. An office space—it’s covered, head to toe, in paintings, half finished, complete and ripped to shreds. Paints, tarps—used and not, brushes, canvases, clay blocks, a spinner, sculpting tools—all the items an artist can dream of and more dot the room. He steps over the things in the room carefully, over everything, and through the door into some sort of storage space-slash-washing room. One half of the room is worse than the office, while the other has all the utilities prepped and ready to go.

                He leaves the office, grinning stupidly as Michelle catches him from her place in the kitchen. She smiles back.

                There’s a small hallway just beyond the room with a staircase. There are two doors—one on the right and one straight in front of him. He glances into the one in front of him to find the two-car garage. Another door stands not far away and he opens it to find the water heater. He goes to the other door and walks through.

                He immediately finds a door on the right, a wall not far in front of him and a corner on the edge of it. The door opens to a bathroom, but the turn leads to a room with a single double-sized bed. Faded blue sheets stretch over it, but they fit snug and look warm to be under. He turns around to inspect the second bedroom, only to see a walk-in closet of some sort. There are three bay-window seats without the window. They open to find storage. He goes through to sate his curiosity. In one of them, he finds a small stuffed bird. He sits on the unit for lack anywhere else to look. He turns the bird over in his hands.

                The bird itself hadn’t meant much to him. As a kid, he had taken it for granted—thrown it across the room, almost lost it in the street, nearly traded it for a piece of gum in third grade and attempted to light it on fire before Dirk distracted him. But on the hard nights, when his parents were yelling and screaming at each other, he would find the bird in his arms and his head tucked under the beak. It was the thing he confessed everything to when he couldn’t tell Dirk. It was the thing that he hid away from the world with and sobbed into and kept his secrets.

                He smiles slightly as he finds the burn wound where the tag used to be. Had Michelle really kept it all this time? He would never have even thought of the thing for the rest of his life if he hadn’t found it, yet here it is. He wonders if she ever comes in here to just stare at it and the toys that he and Dirk used to have.

                But he still has the rest of the house to look through. He gets up to put the bird back in the box, but stops mid-motion and returns to the bed to place the bird on it. He notices the window then—the blinds and shades are drawn shut. He doesn’t open them.

                He goes back to the staircase and descends slowly. The basement itself is, as he hears it referred to often, no more than a Texas Basement. It’s small and used more for storage than anything else. There is so little room down there that he almost feels as if he’s suffocating, even if he knows he isn’t. He doesn’t succumb to claustrophobia often, but this time he does. He goes to the back porch and hums as he looks around. There’s another door—which leads to a half-bath so small you could practically wash your hands while on the toilet. Then, a backyard large enough for a small fight.

                Overall, he really likes the house. He goes back inside and finds Michelle trying to pull the couches back into place. Dave helps her, picking up the opposite side to help drag it out. They get everything in place before he notices that she has changed out of work clothes and into a pair of shorts and a tanktop.

                “I don’t suppose you’re hungry, are you, Dave?”

                He shakes his head and reminds her that he just came from the pizzeria. She nods and sits on the couch. He takes a seat beside her. “Anything in particular you want to watch?”

                “In all honesty, I would be fine just sitting here in complete silence. I don’t care.” No, actually, in all honesty he just wants to sit down and be beside her. She could be asleep for all he cares. He just wants to have her near him.

                Michelle nods and turns the tele on. She finds a random movie—Practical Magic, just before Midnight Margaritas—and changes the channel. Dave shifts around until his shoulders are lying on the arm on the other side of her lap and he tries to relax. She puts an arm over his stomach and smiles at him as her fingers play in his bangs. He lets her, simple as that.

                The movie ends before either of them moves. Dave starts as his phone vibrates in his pocket and he pulls it out to find Aradia had messaged him on his PesterChum app.

 

                apocalypseArisen [AA] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG]

 

AA: hey!
TG: yo
TG: what can i do to help such a beautiful lady on this fine night?
AA: so hows michelle?
TG: good
TG: quiet but good
TG: its relaxing
AA: thats good to hear
AA: how are you and karkat?
TG: awkward
AA: you two didnt look awkward today….
TG: we kissed earlier and all i wanted to do was pull away
TG: it was so weird
AA: you were punched today because you were with him dave
AA: your dad is pissed at you because of it
AA: you two are fine!
AA: just let a few days pass and the emotions will be back to normal again
TG: …also
AA: youre leaving me hanging!!
TG: calm down woman!
TG: im working on it!
TG: not everyone types as fast as you do!
AA: sheesh go on
TG: also i dont think i want to blackrom with him anymore
AA: whoa wait what
AA: you dont want to be with him anymore?
TG: no!
TG: no thats not what i said
TG: i dont want to blackrom anymore
TG: redrom though…. thats a different story
AA: does karkat?
TG: i really dont know
AA: hey lusus is calling ttyl?
TG: yeah sure
AA: <>
TG: <>

 

                “Hey, Dave?”

                “Yeah?

                “I want to get something to drink, ok?

                He nods and sits up. She thanks him, kisses his temple and goes into the kitchen. Dave grins watching her pull a glass from the cabinet next to the fridge. “Would you like anything?”

                “No thanks.” She nods and puts the glass in the door. Dave stands slowly, walking up behind her. He puts his arms around her shoulders and she takes the cup out far enough to release the trigger. She turns around in the hold and puts her arms around his shoulders as his slip down to her waist. He holds her as tightly as he can and breathes evenly.

                “Dave? Is something wrong?”

                He shakes his head. “No, no, just… thanks for letting me stay, mom.”

                “Of course, Dave. Any time you want to stay here, you are more than welcome to. Even more, if that’s what you want!”

                He smiles and pulls away far enough to kiss her forehead. She smiles up at him and he reassumes the normal hug. “Just, thanks mom.”

                “Anytime, Dave.” She squeezes the hug and they step away carefully. “Now will you tell me what happened to your cheek?”

                This is a place where there are no secrets. She doesn’t have a stash of alcohol that she doesn’t want Levi to know about. There is no hatred of Trolls here. He doesn’t have to keep half of his life sealed and hidden away from her. She wants to know everything. Doesn’t care about anything he does and supports him through everything. Hell, she’s completely ok with him having sex with Karkat only just yesterday!

                This is a place where there is absolutely no weight on his shoulders. But he still smiles halfway and says, “I can’t tell you.”

                “Why?”

                “If I do, you’ll be pissed off and rush to conclusions.”

                “No I won’t.”

                “Yes, you will.”

                “What did Daniel do?”

                “There you go, rushing to conclusions!”

                She sighs heavily and waves her hands.

                “You should sit down. Also, let me finish, ok?”

                She nods and takes her glass with her back to the family/living room. He sits down with her. He places a leg over hers and she arches a brow. He rubs the back of his head.

                “In his defense—“

                “—oh fuck—“

                “—I did bring Karkat into our home without permission.”

                “Dave.”

                “No, wait, what did I say? Do you want to hear the story or not?”

                “Yes, yes I do.”

                “Promise me you won’t go to dad.”

                “I can’t do that, Dave.”

                “Mom.”

                She purses her lips. “Are Dirk and Rose ok?” It occurs to him that she really shouldn’t care about Rose’s wellbeing, but the fact that she does is nice anyway. It just means she accepts her as part of his family.

                “I told them not to go home today. I got a text from Rose about an hour ago saying she would stay at Kanaya’s and Dirk called to say he’s at Jake’s. They’ve gotten a bunch of messages from Daniel and Ronnie asking where they are, but they said all they will tell them is that they’re safe but they’re not coming home tonight. Ok?”

                “But they’re ok?”

                “I would trust Kanaya and Jake with their lives. I do.”

                She nods. “Ok. It depends on what happened. Ok?”

                He frowns but nods tightly. “Promise?”

                “Promise.”

                “Karkat and I went to the Pailing Day yesterday.” She nods. When he waits for it to sink in, her face colors, but she seems fine with it. “Afterward, we were exhausted. He didn’t bring his car and I still can’t drive, so we just walked to the apartment. Karkat and I asked Dirk and Rose to keep an eye out for dad and Ronnie so that we would be safe. Neither of them likes Trolls, y’know? Well… Somehow, dad found out about it.

                “I walked Karkat to the door this morning, around ten or eleven? I don’t remember entirely. I went to talk to him. He asked if I had really defiled his home by letting a Troll in. I didn’t answer. And… he punched me for it.”

                “He did what?”

                “Mom!”

                She makes a frustrated noise but nods her head.

                “He kept trying, but I blocked the punches.”

                “What did you do?”

                “I decked him so hard he landed on his ass and told him to never lay a hand on any of us again.”

                “David. Has he ever laid a hand on you before?”

                “No, no not that I know of. He’s never done it to me, and I’m the one that is in trouble almost one-hundred percent of the time. I don’t think Rose and Dirk have ever been hit before, but I was going to wait until we were all in person before asking them. If I had to hazard a guess, then no, they haven’t.”

                “Do you think he’ll do it again?”

                “No, no I don’t think so.”

                “Dave….”

                “If it ever happens again, I’ll come straight here and tell you to call the police, ok? But you can’t tell them this time.”

                “They need to know!”

                “Mom! Dad will lose his job if they find out!”

                “Don’t protect him, Dave! He should lose it!”

                “Give him one more chance, mom. He won’t do it again. I swear.”

                “You can’t swear anyone else’s actions, Dave. It doesn’t work that way.”

                “Mom, look at my reputation. Look at dad’s. They’ll see how great of a man he is and how much trouble I’m in all the time and they’ll think that I got my shit handed to me so I blamed my dad to keep the real perp out of it. It won’t hold up. I’m not a reliable witness, let alone a reliable victim. Please, mom, just drop it.”

                “But Dave—“

                “Mom! Please! I’m ok! Dirk is ok! Rose is ok! Ronnie is ok! Dad will be. I decked his ass and gave him a shit-ton of alcohol to drink it off with. It’s ok. Everything is ok. Mom, calm down. Calm down. If I weren’t ok, don’t you think I would have called the cops earlier?”

                “But, you just said—”

                “I just came up with that stuff off the top of my head right at this very moment. Really mom. Please believe me. We’re all ok. If he ever tries again, you will be the first person I call, ok?”

                She frowns but nods. “You’re really ok?”

                “It didn’t even really hurt. Dad can’t throw a punch to save his life. It just caught me off guard, that’s all.”

                “You sure?”

                He nods again and takes her into his arms. She clings to him like a raft in the middle of a flood. She holds him as if her life depended on it. Dave presses his lips to the top of her head and holds her back.

                “My poor baby. You should never have gone through that. Are you ok? Are you sure you’re ok?”

                “Mom, I’m fine, really. I just need a place to sleep tonight. Maybe tomorrow, if that’s not too much trouble, but I want to stop by the apartment tomorrow first to make sure. And maybe grab some clothes.”

                “Stay here as long as you need to, Dave. Really.”

                He nods and lays further back, letting her lie on top of him. The tele turns on some sort of television show about a teenage vampire coming into her powers. He ignores it, even as Michelle pretends to watch it with her ear on his chest.

                It’s the same lost feeling he has now that he had the first time he and Michelle had spoken—when she had told him she was proud of him. After so long of not knowing what he should do, of getting by on the skin of his teeth, of fighting instead of talking, he had been told that someone was proud of him. After so long of getting a perfect 4.2 GPA and watching Dirk make Bs and Cs and fail classes, but hearing Daniel praise him for trying his hardest, then to have himself be berated for something that wasn’t entirely his fault just to rub salt in the wound. After so many years of keeping secrets and telling lies that people want to hear, but he doesn’t want to say, how is he supposed to react when someone finally admits that they are proud of what he is? He’s beaten—sore, bruised and ugly—but here she is saying that he hasn’t even been touched by a single fist.

                And it makes him want to cry. It makes him want to curl up in a ball and hide from the world. It makes him want to cling to her as long as he can and work his ass off just to hear the word one more time. To work the rest of his life to hear “I’m proud of you” just one more time. He just needs to hear that same phrase—that same meaningless set of words—once more.

                “Dave? Are you ok?”

                “I’m fine,” he whispers. He presses his lips to the top of her head and closes his eyes as he breathes carefully. “I’m fine, really. Just… thinking.”

                “Are you sure?”

                “Yes.”

                “Are you lying?”

                “No.”

                “Does Miyazaki suck his own balls at the back of a vacuum?”

                “Even though I have no idea what the hell that means, I’m going to say yes anyway.”

                “Ok. You sure?”

                He laughs, but it sounds broken and hollow. Her fingers hold his sides tighter and make his muscles quiver as he tries not to get too ticklish. “Yes mom. I’m sure.”

                And to say “mom” and truly mean his mother makes him feel the same way. He will work his ass off to hear “I’m proud of you” just so long as his mom means it.

                He doesn’t really realize he’s even talking until after he’s begun to speak again. “Thank you.”

                “I told you: if you ever want a room, all you have to do is ask. The answer will always be ‘yes’.”

                “No, not that. The first time we talked, you told me that you were proud of me. And I didn’t know what to do. I still don’t. It’s been so incredibly long since anyone has been proud of me—I’m so lost. I almost can’t think straight when I remember that you said that.”

                “Of course Daniel is proud of you, Dave.”

                He shakes his head and takes a deep breath to avoid shedding tears. “No, he’s not. This stuff has been going on for the last nine years. He can’t stand the fact that I do this to myself. He hates it. You can’t be proud of someone when they make mistakes you hate. Instead, you just pity them or you berate them. You’re not proud of them.”

                “Even if that were true, there’s still Dirk and Rose.”

                He shakes his head. “No, that’s not the point, mom. It’s been so long since I’ve heard it. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to be told that someone is proud.” He scrubs at his eyes and she pulls his arm away. She brushes the tears away for him. “I had forgotten. I’d completely and utterly forgotten what it was like to be able to live up to someone’s standards and even be proud of myself for doing so. Today, when Daniel hit me and after I ended up walking away, it was so incredibly hard to not hit anyone. To not hit anything. I wanted to pick a fight the moment that I was out that door. Before that. And instead I got to the park and didn’t fucking do anything. I didn’t do anything mom. That’s amazing. And then fucking Aradia is proud of me for doing that and I can’t help but feel proud of myself for doing it. I don’t even remember the last time I was proud of myself. It’s been a long time.”

                She smiles and brushes his tears away again. “Dave, I will always be proud of you. I will tell you that however many times you need me to. I will always and have always been proud of you. You are an amazing boy and an even better son. I’m proud to say you’re mine, despite everything you think that you’ve done to deserve otherwise.”

                It hurts to hear that. It really does. Somewhere in his chest, where words and emotions are the same thing, pain blooms forward and holds his heart captive. He squeezes his eyes shut to push it away—to push it back to the recesses it was hiding in, but all that does is succeed in scattering tears and a quiet, hitched breath.

                “I am proud of you Dave. I will go through a list of everything just off the top of my head of what I’m proud. You’re handsome. Smart. Work hard. Made the part of Romeo your freshmen year. That’s unheard of! Your acting skills. Your drawing skills. Your sense of freedom. Your superior knowledge. Your work ethic. Your responsibility. Your trustworthiness. Your protectiveness over your siblings. Your openness. Your individuality. Your luck. How well you’ve grown in an environment where all the odds are against you. Your fighting ability. How selflessly you Pailed with Karkat. Your musical prowess. Your”—he sobs. He sobs again… and again. He sobs until he can’t hear what in the world she’s saying. He sobs until she stops listing things and instead just holds him, waiting for him to calm down. He sobs until all the energy has drained from his body—his very spirit. He sobs until he is almost asleep beneath her and she’s smiling up at him, happy to see his face after so long of hiding it.

                “You… you really think all of that, m-mom?”

                “Even more,” she smiles. It’s small, sensitive—earnest. “And even more that I will never be able to list, because you do it so well that I can’t even tell you’re doing it.”

                His voice cracks, but neither of them comment on it, “thank you.”

                “You’re welcome. Are you feeling better?”

                He nods his head and wipes at his eyes with his thumbs. At last, she gets up, yawns, and kisses his forehead. “I’m going to go to sleep. Is that ok with you?”

                He nods again. “I’m not going to last much longer after all of that.”

                “I truly am proud of you Dave.”

                “Thank you.”

                “I love you.”

                He nods back. “Love ya, too.”

 

 

He’s almost asleep that night, lying in bed with the crow pressed to his chest when he hears the door open. He rolls over, facing it, and smiles in the darkness. He hears her walk across the floor, around the corner, and the bed dips as she sits on the edge. He wriggles closer and puts his forehead to her leg. She wraps her fingers in his hair. Slowly, she lies down completely and puts her arm under his head.

                “I think the last time you crawled into my bed because of a nightmare, you were six years old.”

                He shrugs his shoulders. Her hand rubs between his shoulder blades and he lets out a quiet, long breath. His voice is hoarse from crying earlier, but he still says, “yeah. That sounds about right.”

                “How is living with Daniel and Ronnie?”

                He shakes his head. “I can’t even come up with the words to describe it right now.”

                “Do you have to work at the orphanage tomorrow?”

                “Yeah.”

                “What time?”

                “Eight.”

                “I’ll drive you, ok? I pass by there every couple of mornings on my way to the studio.”

                He nods his head and allows himself fall asleep next to his mother for the first time in over ten years.

Chapter Text

                Dave could say that a lot happened the following day, but in all reality, very little did. After Michelle dropped him off at the orphanage, he spent the entire day working around the house and keeping it in shape. When it was time for him to go, Rachel all but kicked him out, letting him have only two minutes to run upstairs and say goodbye to Karkat.

                After that, he had walked back to the apartment his father owns and gone up the fire escape to get into his bedroom. He’s almost ready to climb in through the window when he takes the moment to stop and survey the room. There’s a hole in the wall about the size of a fist behind the door, but other than that, everything seems to have been left untouched.

                Dirk is sitting on his bed, tapping away at his laptop when he climbs in. Rose, who is lying behind him with her face buried in his pillow, lifts her head tiredly at the sound of him entering. He greets them easily and gives Rose a one-armed hug at her request.

                “So, why didn’t we come home last night?” Dirk asks as Dave opens his closet. He immediately pulls out a pair of pants and a shirt, which he changes into. Neither of them makes any noises of protest and Dave kicks his dirty clothes into the bottom of his closet.

                “Can I ask you two a sensitive question and not have either of you change the subject?”

                Dirk shrugs and Rose nods as she sits up slowly. She rubs at her eyes, obviously waking up from a nap on Dave’s bed. He goes over to sit on the windowsill, making use of the semi-comfortable seat. It would probably be really comfortable if there wasn’t a metal strip digging into his ass.

                “Has dad ever hit either of you?”

                Dirk’s brow immediately dips in the middle and his head tilts as he stares at him. Rose, too jetlagged by her sojourn in snoozeville, just shakes her head no. Dirk, however, opens his mouth and says, “no…. Why the fuck would you ask that?”

                “Have you ever felt like he was going to?”

                Rose, again, shakes her head. Dirk’s lips press together, but realization is beginning to dawn in the muscles of his face. “Dad’s more of the guy… who avoids the conflict until four in the morning and thinks about what he should do about it on his drive home. Whoa, wait, what the fuck Dave? Are you fucking telling me he hit you yesterday?”

                “No.”

                “Dave! I’m being serious! I don’t care about the obvious grammar mistakes or definitions not lining up! Did he or did he not hit you?”

                “Yeah. He punched me. He was pissed. I was ready to piss myself.”

                “Why the fuck would he do something like that?!”

                Dave shrugs. “He knew that Karkat was here. You know how he is with Trolls. He was furious, but you need to calm down, Dirk. It only landed once and the shock of it hurt more than the actual punch. I was pissed at him, so I decked him back. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a black eye now. I just had to get out of there as fast as I could. I told you two not to come back in case he redirects his anger or you two stood up for me. When did you come back?”

                “I got back really early this morning, before dad went to work. Rose got back about an hour ago and has been in and out of sleep since.”

                “Have not,” she grumbles. She definitely has.

                “Did you see how dad was when he left? Angry? Mad?”

                “No, just hung over. I guess he went out last night after you left or something and got hammered. I see he left this hole in your wall, though.”

                “Better that than either of you.”              

                “Any of us.”

                He waves it off. “Anything else?”

                “He was really worried. Pulled me in close and told me to never listen to you again before he left. When he mentioned you, he was still really angry though. I just figured you two had gotten into a pissing fight again and you left. Not—that.”

                “How mad did he seem?”

                “After what you just told me, I wouldn’t advise you coming back anytime in the next few days. Where are you staying?”

                “That’s not important. How many is ‘a few’?”

                “Three or four, including today.”

                He nods his head as he pulls his phone out of his pocket. The battery blinks on the verge of death and he stands to plug it in. He opens up his messages and starts texting Michelle.

 

                Michelle (mom) said: r u sure? what about dirk n rose?
                Me: dirk says theyll be fine because hes not mad at them hes mad at me
                Michelle (mom) said: positive? they can stay 2
                Me: they say that they would rather stay here
                Me: itll keep dad at bay for the next few days anyway
                Michelle (mom) said: well… ok if thats wut u think it shud b
                Me: if its not too much of a hassle of course
                Michelle (mom) said: not at all! so long as you dont mind meeting levi tomorrow night
                Me: i dont mind
                Me: just warn me when you two are getting ready to have a steamy make out session
                Michelle (mom) said: ill keep that in mind. R u @ the orphanage?
                Me: at home
                Michelle (mom) said: i can pick u up in half an hr k?
                Me: ok

 

                “So are you staying at Aradia’s or something?”

                Dave looks up at Dirk to see him still sitting on the edge of the bed. At length, Dave shakes his head. “No, her lusus is out of town for some work conference or something. It was a last-minute thing, I guess. Even then, her lusus doesn’t like me staying the night there, not that I can blame her. I mean, dad is the same way when one of Rose’s girl friends stays over.”

                Dirk nods the fact away. “Where are you staying, then?”

                “It’s not important.”

                “If worse comes to worse, I want to be able to find you, Dave. It’s been a long time since we’ve been apart because of something like this and even then it was because of the divorce proceedings. I knew where you were at all times and vice versa. At least give me that peace of mind.”

                Dave frowns, debating all points of it. In the end, though, Dirk has a phenomenal point and he can’t keep his brother in the dark to save his life. “Mom’s.”

                “I thought you said that you two haven’t talked since the divorce was finalized.”

                “Remember when I had to be admitted into the hospital because of the hematoma?”

                “Yeah, you had me worried sick—whether or not I would admit it in front of dad.”

                “Earlier that day, Roxy called me because there had been a break in at her house. Karkat, Aradia and I went to help her out and I was hit over the head, which is what led to the hospitalization. Well, the cops showed up to take the robbers into custody and in the meantime the rest of us were taken in for questioning and blah blah eventually we were all waiting around for someone to pick us up. I was told that my mom was there to get me and I stood up expecting Ronnie. Surprise of my life, mom is actually there. We’ve been talking a little. Not much, but enough. Y’know?”

                Dirk nods at him. “Well, tell her thanks from me. Do you want help packing? Ronnie is in the front room, so you can’t exactly go into the hallway without her seeing you—unless you don’t mind her seeing you.”          

                “No, she’s pissed at me, too. Different, unrelated reason; I just said something and betrayed her trust. If you could get my toothbrush and that kind of stuff out of the bathroom without keying her suspicion, I’d really appreciate it.”

                He nods his head and stands. Dirk leaves the room without another word and Dave pulls a sports bag out of the top of his closet. Rose stands and starts getting his phone and its charger ready, as well as a few things to pass the time with. She asks if he wants his laptop, but he turns it down while he continues packing his clothes.

                At last, she pulls him into her arms and he hugs her back. “Be safe, Dave. I won’t tell anyone that you’re with your mom, but that doesn’t mean that Daniel won’t suspect something. Just keep your head down and do what you gotta do. Are you sure you’re ok?”

                “I’m fine. I just had a long night, that’s all.”

                She nods her head and steps away, getting the last of his sketching supplies in there. Dirk returns at last and puts his stuff right on top. Dave thanks the both of them and closes the bag. He sits on the bed with them to wait out the next twenty minutes.

                “So, how was Pailing, Rose?”

                She shrugs her shoulders. “Exhausting. I can finally understand why it is that being unable to fill it is a crime worthy of death, though. That was never something I could wrap my head around before that.”

                “How is Kanaya?”

                “She was still half asleep when I came back here, but she seemed fine over all. She had to give twice as much as me, though. She must be really sore compared to me.”

                “Yeah, Karkat was still sleeping it off when I met up with him today. I kind of wish I could do that, too.”

                Dirk snorts at the both of them and runs his hand through their hair. “You two just complain too much. Filling a bucket would be completely easy.”

                “Yeah, and habaneros are sweet.”

                Dirk grins at him anyway.

 

Walking into an actual house with his mom is still a little bizarre, but Dave appreciates the woman anyway. Michelle makes an apologetic noise as she kicks a towel out of the way. Dave wonders where it came from in the first place, since he hadn’t seen it that morning, but ignores it. They were in a hurry that morning anyway—it’s completely possible that it had been there and he just hadn’t noticed.

                “Can you help me move the couch forward a little more? I have a project I want to work on.”

                “Give me a moment to put my stuff in the room, ‘kay?” The room, he is careful to say—because he’s stayed here for literally one night and there is absolutely no reason for him to say his room.

                She nods and Dave goes to drop it off. When he returns, he finds her with a couple pieces of glass that have thick black lines in them and some sort of paint tubes and glue beside her. There is also a tarp—maybe two—beside her and she’s preparing to move the couch. Dave bends down and helps her to scoot it away before they lay the tarp.

                She’s careful with laying the glass down on top of the plastic. Only after she is one-hundred percent sure it’s safe on the plastic does she go to get a lamp—on an extension cord—and bring it over. It remains off, for now.

                “I’ll bite,” Dave says. “What are you doing?”

                “A buddy of mine introduced me to this really cool way of fake-stain-glass. Come here, I’ll show you.” He kneels on the ground beside her and watches as she takes a bottle of clear glue in her hand. It’s rather large and takes two hands to squeeze, but she gets just as she wants out of it and into a muffin sheet she has obviously used for paint before. Artists have to make due, after all. (He suspects there’s a second one she uses for baking, on the rare occasions she does that.)

                “I already outlined what I want to do in the stained glass. I did that a couple of days ago and left it overnight to dry, but I haven’t gotten the chance to work on it since. What I did was take Elmer’s white glue—the stuff you used to put on your hands just to peel off. Then I added black acrylic paint until it looked like this.

                “Now what I’m doing is adding acrylic paint to this glue here so that it sticks to the glass when I put it on. Otherwise it flakes a little and doesn’t spread so easily. Yeah, it shocked me, too. You’d think it would spread just fine either way but, no.

                “The basic process is simple. You just paint between the black lines. After I’m completely done, I’m going to have to let it sit for another day or-so before I go in and fix any mistakes. Then I’ll hang it or sell it or do whatever it is I’m going to do with it. Want to try? I’ve got an outline done and dry. I just don’t know what colors to make it. I was practicing with the gluing technique.”

                “Sure; this sounds like a lot of fun.”

                She nods her head and stands up. She groans a little and her hands rest on her knees to push herself up, but Dave thinks that whatever pain is ailing her is probably in her lower back, not her legs or hips. He remembers late nights bent over a textbook and sketches that left him with a pain in his back he half revered and half abhorred.

                She returns with an oddly designed glass “window”, which she lays down with the utmost care. Dave helps her put it down before she goes back to sitting where she was before. Rather belatedly, Dave thinks that it probably doesn’t help that it’s a hardwood floor instead of carpet.

                “It was originally supposed to be a bird of some sort, but I think I went a little crazy. Feel free to do whatever you want. Word of advice, though: do all the sections you want to be the same color before you move onto another—otherwise, you just spend a lot of valuable time just washing your brush out.”  At that, she hands him his brush and tells him to go crazy.

                He dips his paint brush into the yellow and is careful to only use half of the bristles to scoop some up. Then he uses the back of the brush to get a few globs of red on top of his yellow pile on the corner of the tin. Using the brush to mix the colors, he only pulls away from the mixture when he finds a reasonable yellow-orange combination. He starts on the beak.

                It’s a lot of hard work. Sitting there with the tedious motion of back-and-forth, making sure that the paint is all flat for even-drying while also making sure to add just the right amount of tint to get the shading right on the bird’s underbelly. His shoulders ache from the awkward angle he holds himself at as he does it, but when he finally finishes half of the “stained” glass, he feels more than a little triumphant. There’s a thrill of excite that runs through his tired and achy body. He spins his head around on his neck for that exact reason.

                Michelle looks up when she notices him moving and smiles at him. He smiles back. There’s a blue mark on her lip from where she attempted to eat the paint (by accident). Her tongue flickers out and tastes it, pulling a grimace onto her otherwise beautiful face. Dave has to laugh at that. Michelle smiles again before returning to her work.

                Dave washes his brush out in the water, careful to squeeze all of the gluey acrylic out before he goes about making a slightly-darker orange. The feet get painted—the talons were already painted a navy blue-black—and after he’s done, he makes the orange just the slightest bit darker to make it look like there are folds in them. He isn’t sure if it’ll show up on the finished product or not, but this way he can’t blame himself for not trying.

                Michelle smiles seeing him concentrating on the work and turns back to her own. Dave enjoys just taking the time to do something like this with his mom.

* * *

AA: sounds like you like her a lot!
TG: its nice to be able to sit back and do what i want without worrying about it
AA: that sounds like a breath of fresh air!
AA: i wish that i could meet her.
TG: what are you doing tomorrow?
AA: what time?
TG: i dunno

TG: sometime after six?
AA: lusus is getting back in town around eight but i dont know before then
AA: why do you ask?
TG: wanna come over around six to eight tomorrow evening?
AA: whoa wait what seriously
AA: i was only joking!
AA: i didnt mean it seriously
TG: mom does
TG: she really wants to meet you and karkat
TG: wants to know what youre up to
TG: gotta makes sure youre not going to be the cat that spat me up like a dead rat
TG: wants to be able to prepare for what youre going to do
AA: stop the “rapping” already
TG: no
AA: if i say ill come will you stop
TG: yes
TG: address y/y?
AA: n
TG: grand central and seventh ave
TG: the white house
TG: you cant miss it
AA: watch me do just that
TG: w/e bro its been a long time since weve gotten to just be alone
AA: almost too long

AA: ysure its ok with her?
TG: shes the one that proposed to do it in the first place
AA: oh ok
AA: you sure?
TG: yes
TG: im sure
TG: shes not like dad
TG: shes going to love you
AA: im still nervous
AA: wow
AA: this is the first time ive met your parents
AA: this must be what sollux felt like when i introduced him to my lusus
AA: i gotta go apologize
TG: text me back soon
TG: we still gotta talk about stuff
AA: like what?
TG: stuff
AA: vague

AA: me likey
TG: <>
AA: <>

 

                He meets Levi before Aradia makes her way over. He’s tall and broad in the shoulders with a lot of muscles in his arms. He has dark hair with shockingly green eyes. His face and lower-arms are tanned, his lips chiseled, and he moves like a dancer with the body of a soldier. He’s got the sort-of humor that comes with being nervous or embarrassed at meeting someone, but Dave can’t blame him. He has butterflies in his stomach and he hopes that his mom will like Aradia. It feels like a lot all at once. The first time he’s lived with his mom—spoken with her for less than a month—in nine years and suddenly his heart feels like it’s skittering and jumping. Aradia hasn’t even met Daniel and now she’s meeting Michelle.

                Levi is a nice guy, over all, though. He’s sweet and he treats his mom with a lot more respect than Daniel had in the last few months they had been together. He helps her in the kitchen, flirts with her, kisses her neck and tickles her with his chin hairs. Michelle jumps and giggles, laughing with the sort of childish glee he hasn’t even heard from Trynna since before the Trials.

                They’re still flirting in the kitchen (and obviously fucking together; what kind of blind does she have to be to not recognize that?) when the doorbell rings. His heart skitters as he stands up, hurrying around the back of the couch and to the front door. He’s relieved when Aradia is standing there and her body goes from nervous to relieved visibly. She smiles and brushes a lock of her bushy hair behind her ear.

                “I was afraid this wasn’t the right house.”

                “I told you that you couldn’t miss it. Big white house. All ya gotta know.”

                Aradia’s smile grows briefly before returning to where it was before. She bites her lip at last and casts her eyes around, looking for something. “H- how do I look?”

                “Beautiful.”

                “You didn’t even look!”

                He rolls his eyes and does a double take over her body. She’s wearing a black dress that fits her curves wonderfully. The belt around her waist is in her blood color and she has the Megido sign embroidered on her collar in the same dark red color as her PesterChum text. He hadn’t been lying, though. She does look beautiful. She always does. The dress does little to accentuate this, but what little it does is still just as beautiful.

                He shrugs. “You still look beautiful.”

                “You’re just saying that.”

                “Stop stalling you little shit and come meet my mom already.”

                She takes a deep breath and nods. She steps in. He shuts the door behind her and sweeps her into his arms. He holds here there, nuzzles his nose into her hairline and breathes in. It’s a scent he hasn’t smelled quite so strongly since before everything started. Since he fell asleep in Aradia’s Human-bed after finals and woke up to Rose and Kanaya showing them a livestream of Karkat and his siblings (or was that the other way around? He doesn’t think the order of events even really matters).

                She giggles breathlessly and clings to him. She lets him spin her around for a moment and her smile is large enough to match his. “I like this you,” she says laughingly. “It’s a lot happier than the other you.”

                “I’m still me,” he retorts. She arches her brow and he wonders if there really is that large of a difference between the him that stays with Michelle and the him that stays with Daniel. He doesn’t feel like there is, but she seems adamant in believing so.

                It doesn’t matter, though, because he takes her hand and pulls her into the living room after a chaste kiss at the corner of her mouth. She follows, grinning, and stops just when Michelle and Levi come into view.

                Michelle smiles seeing her and gestures her over. “You must be Aradia,” she says. She doesn’t even seem to care that Aradia is the only Troll there and obviously outnumbered if anyone tries anything funny. “Dave talks about you a lot. Wow, you’re quite the krasavitse. Dave didn’t lie about that.”

                Aradia is silent for a moment before she turns to Dave. He grins. “It means ‘beautiful woman’.”

                Her lips form a perfect O-shape before she turns back to Michelle. “Th-thank you, ma’am.”

                “Don’t call me ma’am. You and my son have been together a lot longer than you should have been when we first met. I’m practically your mother at this point, anyway. Michelle works a lot better than ‘ma’am’ does.”

                Aradia nods her head and smiles. “It’s really nice to meet you after so long.”

                “I’ve been bouncing on my toes all night just to get one sight of you. I’m not disappointed, to say the least. Oh, before I get too carried away, this is my friend, Levi. Levi, this is Dave’s monorail—“

                “—moirail—“ he and Aradia correct simultaneously.

                “—Aradia.”

                “It’s really nice to meet you, too, sir.”

                “’Sir’ is a bit unnecessary, Aradia.” He clears his throat and rubs the back of his neck. He looks somewhat ashamed, but he’s willing to say what he needs to. Aradia takes an immediate liking to him—Dave can tell just by the glimmer in her maroon eyes. “But, I’ll be honest with you. I’m not too sure on meeting a Troll, but I’ve only met Dave today as it is. I’m in no position to chastise either of you for your relationship. I’ve been wary of Trolls for the majority of my life and I don’t know if I’ll be ok with you immediately. I might say or do something insulting. Tell me about it, alright? I don’t want to step on the toes of people I just met.”

                Aradia’s smile is full-blown and she’s obviously enjoying herself. “I would have honestly been a little more afraid to have met two people completely ok with Trolls right off the bat. Especially with the way that Daniel is about us. I hope that we’ll end up pretty good friends.”

                Levi smiles. “Me too.”

                Michelle and Levi return to making dinner shortly afterward and Aradia bounces over to Dave. Her brow is quirked and she’s obviously nervous. She rubs her arms and shivers slightly. Dave rubs his hands on her arms and smiles encouragingly. Her voice still wavers a little, though. “How do you think it’s going?”

                “Great—not that I had any doubt otherwise.”

                “You’re not helping. You make it sound like I have to live up to some sort of expectation. What if it doesn’t go great from here?”

                “Then it’s because you’re too worried to realize how much mom loves you already.”

                “I’ve been here for not even half an hour!”

                “She makes her decisions rather quickly. Why else wouldn’t she like Miyazaki?”

                “Who?”

                “A guy that spilled a tray of food on her during her senior year of high school.”

                “I feel like I’m missing something big here.”

                “I’ll explain it to you later.”  She nods and sighs, shaking her arms out. “You can’t honestly be that nervous, can you?”

                “I’m really, really nervous. We’ve been together for almost three years, Dave and I’m only now meeting one of your parents! You can’t blame me.”

                “If I could have introduced you to dad and not been afraid for your life, I would have introduced you to him a long time ago. As it is, explaining to you why I could never do that was embarrassing enough.”

                “I guess I’m just really tense.”

                “Do you have your phone on you?”

                She hums as she grabs a purse off the corner of the couch and starts going through it. At last she pulls free her phone and hands it to him. Dave puts Sollux’s wriggling day in and smirks when Aradia pouts. He flips through the music folder before he comes to the stuff that he put together. The volume goes up as high as it can go before he props it up on the edge of the remote so that the sound bounces off of the counter as an amplifier.

                Then he takes Aradia’s hand and pulls her onto the floor behind the couch. He leads her in the dance and she relaxes as they play along to the music.

 

                She’s smiling beautifully when Levi turns off the music and tells them that dinner is ready. They sit at the table and Dave grins her way. She returns it as Michelle brings them each a cup of water. Dinner starts easily and conversation isn’t hard to come by. It mostly centers on school, how he and Aradia met, how Michelle and Levi met—the long “get to know you” speeches that no one enjoys listening to, let alone giving.

                Eventually it gets to the part about Levi asking which artist made the music they were listening to when a phone rings. Dave jumps and Aradia snaps, “Dave!”

                “It’s not me, I swear! My phone is in the bedroom”—the bedroom, not his bedroom; gotta be careful.

                “Uhhuh.”

                “No, seriously!”

                “Calm down,” Michelle laughs. “It’s the house phone. Let it ring; no one who matters would be calling at this time of night.”

                “Dirk could be calling.”

                “Dirk and you have a special ringtone.”

                Dave nods his head and looks at his place to avoid blushing. When that doesn’t work, he turns to Aradia and asks, “Why do you have to rush to conclusions?”

                “If I didn’t, you wouldn’t love me nearly as much.”

                “And here I thought you were ok with everything.”

                “Don’t talk on the phone and sit at the table at the same time. That’s all I require.”

                “My phone isn’t anywhere near us and you still accused me of doing that!”

                “Someone has to keep you on your feet, don’t they?”

                “Karkat does it just fine.”

                “I have more practice.”

                “Have I mentioned how much I fucking love you yet today?”

                “Have you? I don’t remember.”

                Dave laughs lightheartedly and Levi reiterates his earlier question. Aradia answers that with a simple finger-point in Dave’s direction. “It’s some of his older works, though, so not all of it flows as well as it does now. I still like it, though. It’s great to dance to, slow or fast.”

                “You two seemed to be having a lot of fun out there.”

                Aradia smiles again. “What can I say? Dave just gets under people’s skin until all you have left to do is jump and bounce around.”

 

                That night, Dave wraps his arm around Aradia’s waist and nuzzles his nose into the junction of her neck and shoulder. She hums, wearing only her underwear, no bra or dress anymore. The blanket is pulled up far enough that her arm lays over it without difficulty.

                Dave just really likes feeling the rise and fall in her chest as he kisses the nape of her neck.

                He thinks that her having such a fun time with Levi and Michelle really does help.

* * *

                Rachel is unusually quiet the next day. Dave works hard, helps to clean, keeps the kids in order and plays with the wrigglers a little. After lunch, Rachel sends Karkat to the store to get them restocked and he takes Gamzee with him. The house doesn’t feel much different after that, but it’s definitely quieter now that the littler kids have been put down to a nap.

                “We didn’t get the chance to talk yesterday,” Dave says conversationally.

                “Yeah, we were really busy. Why? Is there something you want to talk about?”

                “I was going to ask about why you call Karkat your ‘baby’.”

                She nods her head slowly. There’s a small smile on her face as she grabs a towel and starts to dry her hands. Dave keeps at washing the dishes, though. “I suppose I have some explaining to do, considering he’s a Troll and I’m anything but.”

                “Not that it matters or anything,” Dave adds and sticks her with a quick look. She smiles gently and turns around, lifting herself onto the counter for lack of anywhere else to sit. Dave scrubs at a spot on a pot that just doesn’t want to get clean.

                “Karkat wasn’t a grub under my care. When he was about four years old, during his pupation stage, he was brought here by some hospital workers. Drones had cracked down on the orphanage he had come from and were getting ready to kill him for his blood color—you know what it is, right?”

                “Well, it was never really much of a secret after Freshman year. His eyes changed.”

                “Yeah, that happens. But some hospital workers took pity on him and brought him here. I made room. Days passed and then almost a perigee later, he emerged from his pupation as a wriggler and tripped down the steps in the middle of the night. He was still lying there when I got downstairs. He was dazed and looked confused. I asked him if he knew his name. He didn’t. I told him it. He smiled and hugged me. Probably the best expression I’ve ever gotten out of him.

                “Karkat has never been a normal Troll. It might be because of his blood color. It might just be because he’s weird in and of himself. I knew instinctively that we’re the same color, I guess. From almost the day that we met, he referred to me as his lusus—up until school started, of course, and he learned what a real lusus was supposed to be. I suppose that from him calling me his lusus, I started calling him my baby in return. Or thinking of him or something of that sort.

                “You can’t blame me for worrying over him when you and I first met. We don’t get a lot of money here at an orphanage. Most of it, we either get from the government or from adoptions. As you can tell, adoptions don’t happen a whole lot. Karkat is a smart kid—gets a 4.0 GPA—“

                “4.2 GPA.”

                “How do you know that?”

                “We’re fighting over who’s going to be valedictorian next year. I’m thinking about letting him win, though.”

                “You’re really that smart?”

                “I just study a lot. That’s all.”

                “You do yourself no justice. I’ve seen the way that Karkat pulls several all-nighters in a row. You must be the same.” He shrugs. “No wonder you wear your glasses then. The bags under Karkat’s eyes are horrible when he does them.”

                “Oh, no, I wear them so my dad can tell us apart.”

                “’Us’?”

                “Dirk and I. We’re identical twins. My dad can’t tell us apart unless we’re wearing our sunglasses.”

                “That’s not right.”

                “Well, luckily, our mom doesn’t need us to wear our glasses. Evidently we look a lot more different to her than the rest of the world.”

                “Mother’s intuition, I guess.” He shrugs his shoulders. “Personally, I would never know.”

                “What do you mean ‘never’?”

                “I can’t have kids of my own. Impossible. My ex-husband and I tried for years, but”—she shrugs—“I’m just infertile.”

                “But, you have tons of kids. You run an orphanage.”

                “You’re not supposed to think of them as kids. That way, adoptions go through easier. I suppose that subconsciously, I think of Karkat as my own because he’s so low on the hemospectrum that I can’t think of him as anything else. No one will adopt him. The only reason he has a last name is because that was the surname of the last Troll who had his blood color and that was almost a-hundred years ago. The Drones don’t even accept that as his name since he was never officially adopted. Anything he does through them, he has to sign his last name as Signless.”

                “But Rachel, whether or not you think of them as kids isn’t really important. All these kids--wrigglers included, before you ask—probably wouldn’t have anywhere to live if not for you. And, if by some random chance of luck struck and they made it into another orphanage, their lives would be harder, what with larger amounts of children there. These kids love you in the most Human of ways. You’re their mother right now. They may want to go to a home where they’re the only kid or the youngest of three or whatever, but for the rest of their lives, they will always think of you as their first.”

                She smiles and reaches out, wrapping her arm around his neck. He pats it with his forearm so that he doesn’t get her wet, too.

                “But anyway, I didn’t finish my explanation. Where was I before we got distracted?”

                “Karkat has a 4.2 GPA.”

                “Right. Well, Karkat likes to format computers. He likes the codes or whatever they’re called. He likes to play around in the scripts. And he’s really good at it, but to get better at it he has to go to college. He gets the best grades he possibly can in hopes of a scholarship of some sort—he plays sports, though he wasn’t on the team last year. He wants to get back on this year, though. It’s obvious that he misses it.”

                “I’m sensing that there’s a ‘but’ in here somewhere.”

                “But his record not being clean really pulls away from his chances of getting a good scholarship. Some of them might give him some leeway because he’s had only one incident. He won’t get a full-ride now and the orphanage can’t support him more than a little here and a little there, but Karkat says that he’ll get through it.”

                There’s a peel of loud laughter through the hallway before the door bursts open and in rushes Trynna. Another wriggler is behind her, chasing her, but Dave bends down and scoops her up before he can get to her. “Ew! Your hands are wet!”

                “Trynna, the grubs are sleeping.”

                She’s almost wheezing from her laughter and her smile is tremendous. “I know, I know! They’re all upstairs, though!”

                “But babies have really good hearing. Remember what happened last time they woke up before they wanted to?”

                She frowns a little, but the joy from laughing so hard is still in her eyes. “Y-yeah. They were really loud.”

                “If they hear you two being loud, they’ll want to join in because they’re so jealous of you two. So if you’re going to play, keep it quiet. You don’t want a bunch of babies trying to join in, do you?”

                She shakes her head and he puts her down again. They sneak out the back door and Dave watches through the window for a moment before returning to the dishes.

                “You have a way with kids that I can’t describe, Dave,” Rachel says. “It’s amazing. I’ve never been able to get Trynna and Ozwald to be quiet while the grubs are asleep. At least, not when they were that loud before. You just have to say a couple of words and they’re as silent as mice.”

                Dave shrugs again. “I just like kids. I’m taking a little of my frustration out on them, though, which really isn’t fair at all.”

                “What frustration?”

                “I can’t have kids when I grow up.”

                “Why not?”

                “Well… not ‘can’t’, so much as ‘won’t’… I’ll never be able to get a respectable job. Not with a record as long as mine is. If I even manage to support myself with what I make, it’ll be a miracle. I’m not willing to bring a kid into this world or adopt one into my life if I can’t afford to take care of one. That’s all I really wanted to do when I was a kid: be a father.” He sighs and shrugs once more, as if shrugging could make the pain of it any less. “So I’m taking a little of my frustration from doing this to myself out on the kids.”

                “I never would have guessed.”

                “Most people take a look at me and think that I would never want kids. Dirk’s that way, though. Can’t stand little rascals, for some stupid reason.”

                “No, that you’re frustrated. You treat these kids like you actually care about them.”

                “I do, though. I mean, I know I’m just working here because of Officer Stuart, but these kids are in the prime of their life. They don’t have records and only some of them go to school, even if it is summer break. This is the time of their life where they should have fun—not be worried that some random guy, practically off the street, getting mad at them and yelling.”

                “You’re nowhere near living off the street, Dave.”

                “I should be.”

                “What do you mean by that?”

                “After the fight I was in before the one with Karkat, my dad refused to bail me out. Not that I blame him. I actually agree with him. He should have done it a lot sooner. When I finally got home the day after, he told me that one more fight and I’ll be on the street. I’m waiting and waiting, but I haven’t been kicked out yet. It’s terrifying thinking that he could have forgotten or that he just doesn’t give two shits about it anymore.”

                “Perhaps you could stop fighting?”

                “It’s a lot more complicated than that, though. I mean, my fight with Karkat was for shits and giggles and he’s the one who started it, actually. But it was fun. And I hadn’t let go of some steam for a long time before that.”

                “That’s not what he told me.”

                “I’m speaking from a law point-of-view. No matter what anyone says, whoever throws the first punch is the one that started the fight. You can’t get into a fight against words. It just doesn’t work. I could be here talking shit about you or anyone really but no matter what I say, you can’t punch me. But yeah, I didn’t say what he thinks I said. I’m not responsible for what anyone else believes I implied. It’s in my Terms and Conditions.”

                “Nobody reads those.”

                “Exactly.”

                She laughs despite the topic of the conversation. “Ok, I’ve been wondering this for a while: what happened to your cheek?”

                He shakes his head as he finishes the dishes and wipes his hands off on a towel. “It’s nothing, really. Don’t worry about it.”

                “Nothing usually doesn’t swell up like that. What happened? You can trust me.”

                “It’s…” He sighs again and glances out the window at the two wrigglers out there. “It’s just that… What I’m about to say, you can’t tell Karkat. You can’t even hint at it with him. Ok?”

                “This doesn’t sound too good, Dave.”

                “And you can’t tell Officer Stuart.”

                “What in the world happened?”

                “You can’t tell. Promise me.”

                “Fine. I won’t tell. What happened?”

                “The day that Karkat and I Pailed, we went back to my house. He didn’t take the car and we didn’t want to walk all the way back here—which, in hindsight, would probably been the best option.”

                “What happened?”        

                “I’m getting there. It’s just that… my dad and Ronnie—my step-mom—they… don’t exactly…. How can I put this nicely?”

                “Put it in the bluntest way possible.”

                “They abhor Trolls and everything they stand for.”

                “Oh.”

                “Well, somehow, they saw Karkat. It might have been when I was walking him to the door or it might have been sometime earlier that night. I don’t know. But dad was pissed. I made sure that Karkat had left before I went to talk to him… and one thing led to another… and I stood up for Karkat as much as I could without pissing dad off more… and then he punched me.”

                “Are you ok?!”

                “I’m fine, really. I punched him back—and I left. I haven’t seen him since.”

                “And your siblings?”

                “They’re fine. Dad hasn’t laid a single hand on them, so far as I know. They would have told me not to come home if he had. Just the same as I did to them that night.”

                “Wait, then where are you staying?”

                “With my mom. I’m fine, really. It’s not really that big of a deal—“

                “That big of a deal? Dave, your dad punched you! Because of Karkat!”

                “No, no not because of him! Karkat didn’t do anything. He… doesn’t even know about my parents’ views on Trolls. He has no idea. I mean, I’ve had a moirail for almost three years now—I’m assuming that he would assume that my parents are fine with Trolls. I mean, my mom is—Michelle is—but the two that I live with aren’t.”

                “Why don’t you live with her?”

                He sighs. “My parents got divorced when I was about Trynna’s age. My mom’s an artist—an animator, really—but at the time she didn’t make enough money to support me or Dirk at the same time as herself. My dad’s a lawyer. He knows how to manipulate the legal system. He got sole custody because she was considered unfit to care for us. She was pissed. Sobbed a lot. I can’t say that I blame her, but even this long later the divorce, if I could have had the choice, I would have stayed with her.”

                “You love her a lot.”

                “She’s my mom,” he laughs. “She gave birth to me—and Dirk—simultaneously. That’s something to admire in and of itself. But she’s also a lot better of a Human being than dad is. Over all, I mean. He’s still my dad and I will never have another, so I love him too, but I agree with her point of view more than I do his.”

                “Do you spend a lot of time together? You and Michelle?”

                “Honestly? No.” Her eyebrows shoot up and play peek-a-boo in her bangs. “After the divorce, I didn’t talk to her until the day that Karkat, Aradia and I got caught up with the cops. Not that it went on any of our records or anything, but you remember picking him up, don’t you?”

                She nods her head. “But, Dave, that’s almost… what? Almost ten years?”

                “We’ve talked. A lot.”

                “It sounds like you have, if you’re staying with her. Are you happy to be with her again?”

                “It’s nice. Relaxing. I don’t feel like I have to live up to something in her house. Give me another week and I will, but for now it’s like a breath of fresh air.”

                “Well, I’m glad to hear you’re doing well.”

                He nods his head and shushes Trynna and Ozwald as they run through the kitchen. They apologize quietly and pretend to tip-toe out of the room. He and Rachel laugh after the door shuts. “Hey, Rachel? Can I ask you to do something really… weird?”

                “Well, you can ask. Whether or not I answer will depend on the question.”

                “It’s more of a request.”

                “It still stands.”

                Dave lifts his head slowly and looks her in the eye. “I want you to press charges against me.”

                “What? Why?”

                “I’ll give you the number of a really good lawyer, ok? I know a lot of them, because of my dad. If you tell them the story—and leave out the part about me requesting you to do it—then they’ll try and offer a deal to clear Karkat’s record. With my record and the fact that we’re both Humans, so it’ll go through a Human courtroom, it’ll go off without a hitch. It might not even take an entire day to go through all of the proceedings.”

                “But, Dave…. I don’t know if I would even be able to afford it, if I thought it would be a good idea.”

                “He’ll do it pro bono.”

                “What does that mean?”

                “For the public’s good; free. Basically.”

                “But, why?”

                “Karkat has a better future than I do. No matter how many years I spend in courtrooms or jail cells or whatever comes my way, not matter what happens, my record can never be completely expunged. But Karkat? Karkat only has one blemish. If it’s gone, he has a chance to go to college on some full-ride scholarship. If we go through with this and get it through and over with, then—poof, there he goes, a great fucking future—pardon the French.”

                She waves her hand at it and he wonders if she even cared for cursing in the first place. This is, what, the third time today? “But that will never work, Dave.”

                “It will, though. Just talk to him. If you don’t go through with it, you don’t, but I swear to you that it will make Karkat’s future a lot brighter and it’ll be a lot easier on this place, too. Do you have something I can write on?”
                She frowns and it’s obvious she doesn’t want to go through with it. In the end, though, she points at a draw behind him and out he pulls a pen (which he checks for ink on the back of his hand) and a piece of scrap paper.

                He knows the number almost as well as he knows his own Social Security number. When he gives it to her, it’s obvious that she still isn’t sure, but she slips it into her pocket anyway.

                “C’mon. We better go make up the front room before Karkat gets back.”

                He nods his head and holds the door open for her.

* * *

                “I really don’t want to go there.”

                “Dave, your father has got to be worried sick and I still don’t have the Right to take care of you.”

                “So?”

                “You’re in enough trouble with the law as is. I’m more than willing to take care of you and help you, but”—she shrugs—“my hands really are tied, Dave.”

                “I know, I know.” He sighs and stares out the window. “Thanks for taking me in, though. I had a lot of fun staying with you.”

                “So did I. You should come over more often. I still need to teach you how to sculpt.”

                He smiles at her brilliantly. “Well, I don’t have plans for quite a while.”

                “We’ll have to get together soon.”

                He nods and they step out of the car as she pulls into the parking spot outside of the building. She insists on taking him to the door and he sighs as they walk into the rickety elevator. They take it to the sixth storey before it decides to keel over and they have to take the stairs the rest of the way up. Dave stops outside of the front door and Michelle nudges him with her elbow. He slips his key into the lock and opens the door.

                Dirk and Rose look up from where they are sitting on the couch and greet them. Michelle crosses the room and kisses Dirk’s head before introducing herself to Rose. Almost immediately upon the door opening, Daniel walks out of the kitchen and straight to him. He grips Dave’s arm as hard as he can as he tugs him close, probably hard enough to bruise, and hugs him. Dave returns it and sighs.

                “I’m really sorry, dad.”

                “No, no don’t you be. I’m sorry I hit you. I never should have done that. I don’t know what came over me. I had no right. Are you ok? You’re not hurt are you?”

                “The swelling is going down. It doesn’t hurt, though.”

                “I’m so sorry, Dave. I’m so sorry. You had me worried sick. Where have you been? You haven’t answered your phone or any of my texts.”

                “Look, before I answer your question, I didn’t answer my phone because of me. She actually yelled at me when she realized what I was doing.”

                “Dave, where were you?”

                “I was staying with mom.”

                Daniel takes in a deep breath and holds him even closer. Dave relaxes in his grip. “At least you’re safe, Dave. You had me fucking worried sick. I couldn’t sleep at night.”

                “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

                “No, don’t be. I’m sorry that I chased you away. Never again, I swear. I will never do that again. Not even if my life depends on it.”

                “In all honesty, I shouldn’t have brought Karkat over.”

                “No, you really shouldn’t have, but that doesn’t mean that I had the right to hit you. You’re sure you’re ok?”

                “I’m positive, dad.” He pushes away from him and smiles up at him. “I’m fine, really. Mom took care of me. And no, before you ask, I didn’t miss any of my parole days.”

                His brow furrows. “Speaking of that, I got a call from a woman, asking me to help her press charges against you.”

                “Yeah, I know.”

                “You know?”

                “Who do you think gave her your number?”

                “Dave, you know I can’t do that—“

                “You can and you will. I’ll explain later, ok?”

                Daniel frowns, but sighs as he nods. His hand lingers on the swelling in Dave’s cheek and he looks as if he’s been sucker-punched. Dave brushes it off.

                Michelle pipes in. “Speaking of things that you should probably explain, Daniel, you’ve got a few things to explain to me.”

                Daniel sighs as he turns to look at her. “What in the world could I possibly have to explain to you?”

                “Quite a few things, actually.”

                “Oh, God, mamele, please, don’t.”

                “Dave, your father and I need to talk.”

                “You mean you two need to yell at each other until our ears bleed,” Dirk corrects. Dave thanks him for his help.

                “If that’s what it takes to get him to listen, then I’m sorry and I’m more than willing to pay for any and all medical expenses. Is that alright with you three?”

                Dave lifts his arms and looks between the two of them hurriedly. “I’m not any part of this, ok? I didn’t ask for you to do this, mom. This is all on you. Until then, I need to go put my stuff in my room.”

                She nods and Dave manages to see Daniel escort Michelle into the kitchen before he goes into his room. The first thing he does is pull out the charger cord for his phone and plug it in. While he’s at it, he opens the Internet app on it and exits out of the windows—some site that Aradia wanted him to look at, a log of his own site, MustardClinic and a forum board he linked to off of MustardClinic’s site. Nothing too in depth, but he thinks that what he read might help some.

                He comes back to find that Dirk has gotten off his laptop and the TV has been muted. Rose has looked up from her book to glance into the kitchen, where the fireworks have already started.

                “That didn’t last long at all.”

                Dirk hums in agreement. “What did you expect when you brought her here? Sunshine dust and flowers?”

                “I was hoping she wouldn’t do anything, considering I didn’t even ask her to come.”

                “Oh, God, now she’s going on about your driving. What didn’t you tell her?”

                “In my defense, I told her that the day that I had to go to the hospital. That was a while ago.”

                “No wonder they’re already so loud. She’s had a lot of time to stew.”

                “Yeah, in hindsight? Probably not my best decision to mention that….”

                “You think?”

                Dave nods as he sits down on the edge of the coffee table. He can see the two of them in the kitchen, arms in the air, red in the face, and the yelling is unusually loud. Dave sighs as he listens to the two of them argue over him when he didn’t ask either of them to do it.

                Not that he really cares. Usually, he would be in there yelling at them to shut the fuck up and to let him deal with his life the way he thinks is fit. After all, if they’re going to argue, then they have every right to. He can barely hear them right now as it is. He might as well just get his phone and play tetris until they’re done or something like that.

                Wait. No. Stop.

                He puts his hands on his head and breathes. He focuses. It’s—what time is it? It’s- it’s six-twelve PM. It’s six-twelve, his name his David Matthew Strider. One, two, three, four. Six-twelve, David Matthew Strider, five, six, seven, eight, calm down, control yourself, David. Six-twelve, David Matthew Strider, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, fourteen. It’s six-fourteen, David Matthew Strider, fifteen, sixteen, eighteen, twenty-one. It’s six-nineteen, David Matthew Strider, twenty-two, twenty-three—he really needs to get out of here.

                “Rose I need to talk to you outside.”

                “Dave? Are you ok?”

                “I need to talk to you outside.”

                She nods and puts her book down. They walk out, into the hall, and Dave leans his entire weight against the wall. He covers his ears and chants his own name, trying to keep calm, trying to centre himself.

                “Dave, what’s wrong?”

                “I need you to talk to me.”

                “Why?”

                “Trust me.”

 

                The next thing he knows, he’s inside his living room with Dirk pressed completely against him, pinning him to the wall, yelling at him. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

                “What the hell is wrong with you, Dirk?”

                “What the hell is wrong with me? Dave, you just fucking punched Rose across the face!”

Chapter Text

                She’s never actually gone through the front door. She’s had the key for two and a half years, but this is the first time that the metal has slipped into the lock. It’s the first time the cam has shifted and turned the tang using this key. It feels like she should be marking everything down—smell, touch, the odd taste in her mouth from having a long make-out session with Sollux—so that she can remember all of it later on. Reminiscing is a nice hobby, when you get down to it.

                Instead of all of that, though, she’s nervous. Fidgety. She’s taking deep breaths to calm herself and trying to brace herself in order to prepare for whatever lay beyond the door. She’s hyper-aware of the presence of the cop behind her and to her left, set at a cant in the hallway so that he can see down it without turning his head. She should be joyous and celebrating this momentous occasion with Dave. Instead, she’s trying not to barf at the thought of Daniel and Ronnie on the other side of the door.

                She takes a deep breath one last time as she withdraws the key from the latch and goes to open the door. Officer Stuart makes a noise behind her and she waves it off. This is a lot to brace for. The two that own the house are anti-Troll (not that he knows), her moirail is in some sort of crisis that Dirk can’t describe via text and she can almost taste the tension outside of the door. He can’t possibly understand what’s going on. Having a Human moirail is hard. It’s hard and nobody understands.

                Aradia fixes her shoulders and her chin so that even if she doesn’t feel completely in control, she can at least sell it. It was Dave that introduced her to the concept of Fake It ‘til You Make It, after all.

                The door slips open and she’s allowed into the apartment she has only seen from Dave’s room on occasion. It’s large for an apartment, sure, but small for a house. It’s about the same size as Sollux’s hive, she thinks. Maybe a little larger to facilitate so many rooms. It doesn’t really matter, though, because her eyes immediately train on Dirk, who is standing not far behind the couch, almost immediately level with her. He points his finger toward the TV on the wall without a single word.

                There are searing eyes on her the moment that she starts walking toward him. Two pairs, of course; it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who Daniel and Ronnie are. Michelle is there, too, surprisingly. Rose is a little closer to Dave, but not by much. Her cheek is red, as if she’s been slapped recently, and she rubs at it absentmindedly. She grabs at Aradia’s arm as Aradia passes, but the Troll rips her arm from her grasp and instead goes to stand in front of Dave. She vaguely notices that Officer Stuart stopped not far into the door.

                Dave is curled in a ball, not quite in the fetal position but close enough to constitute calling it just that. His head is bowed and his hands have covered his ears. It sounds as if he’s having a difficult time controlling his breathing, alternating between large and small gasps of air. It’s ragged and shallow, as if no matter how hard he tries, he can’t fill his lungs. Hyperventilating? She can’t tell. She pulls her phone out and texts Dirk to get a paper bag, if he can. Dave hasn’t appeared to take notice of her presence yet and Dirk has already left the room.

                She waits for Dirk to bring her the paper bag before folding it and putting it in her back pocket. It’s simpler to just leave it there than trying to hold it or put it in her front pocket. She only needs to fold it once to get it in there anyway.

                Aradia breaks the silence with a single barked order: “David Matthew Strider! Stand your ground!”

                He jumps visibly and his breathing quickens. It doesn’t sound too good at all. The fact that he doesn’t speak at all is enough to make her stomach squeamish. He just shakes his head, almost violently, but his hands don’t move. Well, at least she knows it doesn’t have to do with something that Daniel caused directly.

                She sighs, deflating under the view of everyone in the room, before kneeling in front of him. She pulls the paper bag from her pocket and puffs air into it to expand it. Then she crinkles it around her fist.

                Manipulating Dave’s arm is harder than bending his fingers to her will and getting him to lift the bag to his mouth is the hardest thing of all. He’s rigid, as if he had somehow died between the time she made her command and now—and had already hit the rigor mortis state without ceasing to breathe at all. He turns his head to look up at her when she takes his chin in her hand, tilting it up.

                His pupils have blown wide. He cringes away from the light and she makes a vague gesture toward the switch next to the door. Officer Stuart gets it, but the light from the setting sun out the window is enough to make everything visible in the room. Dave’s eyebrows relax a little, but he’s still obviously in pain. She can’t blame him, either; his right pupil has grown until only a sliver of red surrounds the pupil. His left eye isn’t blown quite so large, but there’s still only a fraction of the iris that should be there with the amount of light in the room.

                It makes her heart palpitate. Dave’s never gone through this before. She’s never seen him in such a state. How is she supposed to react? She doesn’t know what magic pill is supposed to cure him of this. Is it anxiety? Stress? Is he afraid of something? Is he being paranoid? Is he just coming down from a high? She has nothing to run on here. “Flying by the seat of her pants” isn’t even an accurate description.

                “Dave,” she says softly—like talking to a child… or a man on the verge of an emotional break. “You need to breathe. Into the bag now. Breathe in with it over your mouth, then out with your mouth, too. If you feel light headed—more than you do now—you need to pull it away and take a breath out here. Ok?”

                He jerkily responds to her actions. His eyes slide shut as he focuses on breathing. A minute passes… two… five… seven—it feels like it’s never going to end. She tilts his head up and covers his eyes with her hands, hiding the light from them—or the others from his view. She’s not quite sure which it is.

                “Dave, keep breathing.” He nods faintly, just a bare swipe of skin against her fingers. She keeps eye contact with him until the dark masses of his pupils begin to get smaller. It’s not by much, but at last they are the same size. It’s enough to help the nauseous curl and punch of her stomach acid. “Are you ok? Blink once for yes, twice for no.” He takes the slow moment to blink… then again… and a third time. She knows that it means he doesn’t know and nods her head acceptingly.

                “Do you remember what happened before you flipped?”

                One blink. She waits for him to blink a second time. She’s almost ready to nod and accept his answer when he blinks a second time—a third in rapid succession. She isn’t sure if it’s supposed to mean “I don’t know” or “I don’t.” She shakes her head and he returns her with three blinks—then stops. She nods her head.

                She drops her voice so that even Dave will have to strain to hear what she’s saying. It’ll be better if no one can hear her than for him to react violently at her question, anyway. “Are you scared?”

                One blink. No more follow for over half of a minute and she nods.

                “Do you think you can talk now?”

                One blink. No more follow. She smiles and pulls away.

                Dave still cringes when the light hits his eyes and he pulls away almost violently. Shading himself with his hand for the moment, he grasps at his collar blindly. Aradia turns to look at Rose when she realizes that Dave’s glasses are missing. Dave doesn’t seem to register this fact, though, and continues groping all over his body for them.

                Dirk hands his over when she motions to his eyes. Red-orange eyes stare back and she slides the pieces of black-tinted glass over Dave’s ears. He readjusts them as he needs to until he nods his head and leans back. He doesn’t release the fetal-like curl, but he does lean against the wall. “Dave, what happened?”

                There’s a noise in the background—a man’s voice that she doesn’t recognize. She turns and glares daggers over her shoulder and makes a shushing motion. Daniel seethes, but Dirk calms him with a few hushed words that she can’t hear completely—something about rights, though. A courtroom? He is a lawyer, right? She isn’t sure who’s right, but it’s not as important as Dave is anyway.

                “Dave?”

                “I”—he breaks off and shakes his head. “I don’t know. I- I really don’t know.”

                “Start from as soon as you might think relevant. We don’t need all of the details, but we do need a handful of them. Whatever you think is necessary or you can remember—and feel fine with admitting. Ok?”

                He nods, slowly, but it’s still a nod either way. It’s bizarre seeing the flicker of the points of Dirk’s shades as they come in and out of her peripherals, but they’re there to help right now. Nothing more; nothing less. “I- m- mom drove me home. After work. She drove me home. Didn’t want to come. Nervous. Been a week.” She nods her head and his eyebrows pinch. She can see the vague outline of his irises as they meet in the middle. He’s confused about something? The set of his lips seems to add to that.

                When he continues to talk, it’s slow and enunciated. It’s almost as though he’s afraid to forget words in his sentences. “Thought… that maybe… dad would be angry. He wasn’t. Just… scared. Mom came… with… me. Came with me. I- I put bag my…. Put my bag in room. My room. Cleared phone internet history. Wasn’t supposed to be on internet anyway. Felt really guilty about it… but I wanted to look up something. Medical-relevant.

                “Mom and dad fighting… in kitchen. Yelling. Again. Boring stuff. ‘Bout me… driving… all that stuff. I sat. T-t-talked with Dirk a-an’ Rose. L-lost track of time. Went outside to think. Asked Rose to come in—come with. N-next thing I know, I- I’m inside and Dirk is screamin’ at me. Telling me I hit Rose. Aradia, I hit Rose and- and- and I don’t even remember it.”

                She gently curls her fingers around his wrists and pulls them away from his face. She’s careful to keep her hand over his watch, though, and asks, “what time was it when you got home, Dave?”

                “I- I don’t know. Six-ten?”

                “And what time would you say it was when Dirk told you that you punched Rose?”

                “I- I went outside at six-twenty-five-ish, so… Six-forty?” She turns and looks over her shoulder at the brother in question, but his brow is furrowed and his arms are folded over his chest. She doesn’t have to ask to see that he disagrees. He merely does. When he notices that she’s looking, he mouths the word seven-fifteen to her. She nods and returns to Dave.

                “What time was it when Dirk called me?”

                “Di-didn’t even know he did.”

                “I was at Sollux’s. Sollux lives about ten minutes away from here in the traffic going on outside. At what time do you think he called me?”

                “Uh… um… I don’t- I don’t know. S-seven?”

                Sure, seven might have been part of the answer, but truth of the matter is, she finally answered the phone around seven-forty-two. It must be past eight if the sun is so low—especially if being in the middle of the summer perigee and traffic are put together.

                “What time is it, Dave?”

                He curls his arm over, trying to see his watch. She follows, letting him control his arm, but he keeps his watch face covered. He tries to shake her off, but she keeps on. “You won’t let me check.”

                “Ballpark it, Dave.”

                “I… I don’t know. Twenty-til eight, I guess.”

                She turns his watch to look at it now: eight-eleven. She carefully removes the clasps from it before slipping it in to her pocket and away from his grip. There’s no tan-line on his arm from it, as he doesn’t wear it nearly often enough to get one, but it still pops free of his skin with the slightest bit of difficulty.

                “Dave, do you want to know what time it actually is?”

                He looks scared and shocked, but his eyes behind the glasses are getting harder as each moment passes. As each second is filled with nothing but the view of his moirail, he’s relaxing and remembering what he can. He starts off with a nod, but cuts off half way through, shaking his head. “You don’t want to know?”

                “No, I don’t.”

                She nods and shifts around to sit beside him. She keeps her hand in his and breathes in time with him. His hand clenches hard enough to turn the skin white and she bites her lip to keep from hissing. This is difficult. She can understand this. Deep breaths, deep breaths—don’t pull away. He needs help, Aradia. He needs someone to be here for him right now. She’s the one doing it. Simple as that.

                Dave leans against her side with his shoulder. It’s like she’s a balloon ready to float away and he’s the rock tying her to the cement. She clings to him just as hard as he clings to her. His shoulders shake as if he’s convulsing, but he remains firmly planted to her. It’s just shaking, she reasons.

                “Dave?” Michelle walks toward him carefully. He flinches, digging himself into the wall. She stops where she stands and kneels to the ground a bit of the way further than where Aradia had been before. “Can I ask you a question?”

                He nods his head slowly. It’s obvious in the way he does it that he’s wary and doesn’t want to actually answer, but he’s not one to turn someone down—especially not if he did something like punch Rose.

                “Has this ever happened before? When you were younger? Maybe when your father and I were still together?”

                He shakes his head.

                “Do you remember listening to us argue?”

                “You two would be up until three in the morning screaming for no reason. Of course I remember.”

                “Do you remember what the arguments sounded like?”

                “What do you mean?”

                “Loud? Quiet? Did anything break while you were listening to us?”

                “Most of them were loud. You were screaming and yelling, like you two were doing earlier. And… And that’s pretty much it.” With his free hand, he scrubs at his eyes. He tests whether or not they can last without the glasses by pushing them to the top of his head. While he squints, he leaves them there. “But you never broke anything. It was just words and verbal stuff.”

                “No, wait, no,” Dirk shakes his head. His brow is pinched, but he’s lost the lingering traces of anger that were there earlier in exchange for confusion. His arms are still folded over his chest, like they were when she asked for the time. He looks more lost than confused and she wonders how jumbled their conversation really is from outside. “Dave, they used to throw glasses all the time. We would make bets with each other to see who threw theirs first. You would wake up in the morning not remembering why you had more or less, but you still held firm to the bets. Remember?”

                Slowly, Dave’s head shakes. His eyes stay on Dirk’s face, but they twitch Rose’s direction every couple of seconds. It hurts Aradia to see him so lost and confused on what he should do to fix it all, but she is just about as lost. “I don’t remember that at all, Dirk. Explains a lot, but I don’t remember it. I just remember their fights being really, really long or really, really short. That’s it.”

                “Dave,” Michelle says. It’s calm and quiet enough that it pulls his attention and captivates it, but at the same time the others can still hear her without strain. “I think I might know what happened. Do you remember why you went into the hallway with Rose?”

                “I… I started not caring that you two were arguing over me again. I knew I should’ve so I went out there. I’ve been reading on stuff. Ways to prevent what happened at the Wriggler Trials. It said that I should repeat my name over and over and try to have idle conversation.”

                “Do you remember what I told you at Starbucks?”

                “About Levi?”

                “About the Trials.”

                “…yeah.”

                “Dave, I think that’s what happened right now. You lost almost an entire hour of time and only came out of it when Dirk nearly cracked your head on the wall. You can’t breathe right now. You’re anxious—fidgety. Nervous. You’re twitching all over. You can’t remember what happened and you did things you would normally never do—like punch your sister.”

                When she first mentions Starbucks, his skin grows a little pale. The further she gets in the explanation, though, the whiter he gets until he’s paper white and has the expression of seeing a ghost on his face. Aradia practically watches as his stomach falls out of his bottom and through a few stories below them. She doesn’t know what it is that has him afraid but, whatever it is, it terrifies him.

                He slowly begins shaking his head. His free hand goes up and taps against it his temple, almost to make sure that it doesn’t screw off of his spine and into the air. “No. No, no, that can’t be, no, it- it didn’t feel the same! I still remember the Trial!”

                “Dave,” Michelle whispers. She narrowly beat Aradia to the punch, so instead Aradia squeezes her moirail’s hand. She’s still here, after all. Even if she has no idea what they’re talking about. “The case at the Trials was so minute it only affected your emotions, too. This took your body with it.”

                “I- but- but, no….” His eyes grow larger than the saucers they almost are now and the shaking in his shoulders stops. The tremors in his spine haven’t, but half a start is better than no start. “Oh my God. Gvald geshrign, oh my God. Rose”—he scrambles for purchase, using the wall and the “TV stand” to get up. He nearly knocks the flatscreen off the wall in the mean-time, but it only teeters and threatens to fall. It doesn’t actually go down—“Rose, I’m so sorry, no, you don’t understand. I’m so sorry. I had no idea what I was doing. I’m- I’m so sorry. I literally wasn’t myself. I’m so sorry.”

                “What did you do, then?” She asks. She lowers her hand from her face carefully, but it only crosses over her chest with the other arm. It doesn’t reach fully down.

                “I- I dissociated.”

                Her lips form a perfect “O” shape and there’s something in her eyes that clicks. “Are you ok, then?”

                “You shouldn’t be asking me that. I punched you, Rose. I didn’t mean to—I swear if I were in my right mind, I never would have! I swear, please Rose, believe me. The last thing I want to do is to hurt you. Please believe me.”

                She nods her head. He visibly relaxes. He all but tugs her in and holds her as if she will crumble to pieces if he doesn’t, instead of the other way around. Aradia pretends like she doesn’t see the shimmering pools of his tears in the corners of his eyes. He doesn’t once stop whispering, “I’m so sorry” as long as he embraces her. Rose holds him like he’s falling apart. Aradia briefly wonders if Rose understands more than Aradia does, because she has no idea what dissociating means but Rose appears to have full knowledge to it.

                Aradia stands and walks up to them. Rose smiles gently at her and shuffles Dave over to Aradia’s arms. She holds him, cradling his head, and she presses her lips to the curl of his ear. He shakes and quivers in her arms, but he clings, too. He clings so hard that even if she had dreamed of letting go, she wouldn’t have been able to. She holds Dave in her arms until he’s lost so much energy that he is literally hanging off of her.

                Dirk helps her usher him to his bedroom and she sits with Dave until he falls asleep. Ronnie comes in a short time before he does with two small pills and a third larger one. She smiles gently and he looks at them carefully. He takes them without asking and within ten minutes he’s already knocked out cold.

                Ronnie stays with her as she watches Dave fall asleep. When at last he’s so far out that Aradia won’t be able to wake him even with her loudest scream, Ronnie speaks. “I don’t know you. I don’t like you. I don’t like you how knew Dave was in trouble. I don’t like that you’re here or that cop is in the front room. I don’t like this one bit. I really don’t like how easily you got into this house. Most of all, I don’t like you being alone with Dave. Come out to the kitchen and we’ll talk.”

                She wants to fight. She wants to bite and scream, to make a whip of one of the shirts Dave has lying on the ground. She wants to stay by Dave’s side, but she also knows what Daniel is capable of doing—especially when Trolls are involved. It’s better that she go with Ronnie. Dave will be safer if she does. Dave’s safety outweighs everything, just like her safety outweighs everything in Dave’s mind.

                She nods, kisses Dave’s forehead and follows Ronnie out. The others have moved into the kitchen in the time it took for Dave to fall asleep and Aradia has to pause on the threshold. There they are. Two Troll haters, three “lovers” and one Troll.

                Troll Haters aren’t unusual. Their school has enough of them as is, considering it’s a Human Supremacy.  She deals with them almost daily, during the school year at least. There should be nothing wrong about this situation but now? Now, the Haters are the parents to her moirail. They have the power over Dave to lock him away. They’ve done it before—they did it not even an hour ago. She already had to deal with Dave ripping himself away from her once this summer. To stand with it again, whether or not they’re legitimately together, would break her in ways that Sollux wouldn’t be able to deal with.

                Dave has been the only constant in her life for the last three years. They hadn’t even been apart for a month and she had found it hard to get out of bed—to shower—to do everything she normally would have. When he had finally embraced her at Karkat’s orphanage, she had been ready and willing to sob until she fell asleep right there in the middle of the kitchen. She had gone home that day and done just that. When he had snuck up on her and they had watched Doctor Who until her lusus had to drive him home, she hadn’t even paid attention to the episodes. Everything had been her in Dave’s lap and remembering the thick feel of his muscles against her back and the loose way he would laugh at the jokes.

                She wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she fucked something over right now that she wouldn’t be able to see Dave again, even if only for a day.

                To cross this threshold feels like she would be doing just that.

                Dirk seems to notice and beckon her over. She licks her lips and crosses behind the island, past Rose and accepts his hug. His arms tighten almost minutely and she’s reminded slightly of Dave. It doesn’t help. If anything, that makes it worse.

                When she pulls away, she notices that her face is a lot colder than when she leaned in. She wipes at it and finds with a little shock that her fingers have the beginning haze of sweat on them. Cold sweat. She can’t be that nervous, can she?

                “Thanks for coming when I called,” he says. “You really helped Dave.”

                “Just—comes with the quadrant.”

                He claps his hand on her shoulder. It feels like a weight, holding her down, tethering her to the ground. She could float away at any second and they would never notice. She wishes Dirk would let her.

                Daniel and Ronnie are on the other side of the island. Michelle is leaning against the sink across the island from Officer Stuart and on neither of the sides. She wishes that Michelle were standing there, next to her, supporting her. She feels like the needle in the haystack everyone is searching for, except they looked for her out of fury and are getting ready to discard her after snapping her in half.

                Daniel and Ronnie’s glares don’t help.

                Daniel is the first to talk. “Who are you?”

                “Aradia Megido a low-blood Troll in the maroon vector.”

                “How do you know my son?”

                “Would you like the story or the summary?” He gives her yet another glare that makes her swallow and waits. Aradia wants to run and cower next to Dave and never move. She wants to, but she will never let herself. She squares her feet on the ground, centers her balance, and casts her eyes around for a quick weapon. There’s nothing she’s experienced in, but a weapon is better than no weapon, especially where there is a generous supply of knives. She thinks that if she had her whip, she would be a lot calmer.

                “We met in middle school. Nothing too fancy. We just had a couple of classes together over the years and I helped him out of a fight around the end of eighth grade. He owed me when we went to high school and some kids tried to beat me up. After that, we started fighting together until, eventually, we started harboring feelings of a pale type… and now we’ve been moirails for almost three years.”

                “Moirail… that’s a romance quadrant, right?” Ronnie asks. Aradia nods. “That’s the one where you two hate each other, right?”

                “No.” It’s hard to keep her voice in one tone. It’s hard to remind herself that there is no reason to fear these two Humans. They can only do things to Dave. They can’t harm her. Still, the anger in her voice at the blatant misconception is hard to hide, too. “Moiraillegance is where one person swears to another to keep them in line.”

                “You do a damn fine job of it, then, considering how often Dave gets in trouble.”

                She has to take a deliberate breath in to make sure that she doesn’t scream at them. “My responsibility to Dave is to keep him safe and unharmed. I do that. In the last three years, the only times Dave has been injured are either when he is not in my company or when I’m the one injuring him. The latter happens even less frequently than the former, especially when you remove nights from the equation.”

                “Then you admit you’re a danger to Dave.”

                “Just about as much as you are, but I haven’t acted on it within the last year, unlike you last week.”

                Low blow. That felt refreshing. The rush of satisfaction as the adrenaline cools and Daniel grows silent. Anger burns in his eyes, but his hands are curling. He’s trying to keep calm. She wonders how a lawyer could let himself get so out of focus. Then, she remembers that lawyers don’t risk their necks defending someone like a legislacerator does. If a legislacerator so much as reveals a single emotion in the Hanging Block, they become yet another person who has lost their life to the name of the court.

                “I don’t believe that you and Dave are truly together.”

                “May I ask why?”

                “Dave has never once uttered your name in my presence. He would have done that.” Dirk rolls his eyes to her side. She can see how much he disagrees with the statement by the overemphasis on the movement and the way his neck rolls along with it.

                “Because you’re so Troll-friendly that you would be fine with him mentioning my name. Of course that makes perfect, rational sense.”

                “I have nothing against Trolls.”

                Dirk cuts her off before she gets the chance to answer. “Bullshit.”

                “Dirk, stay out of this.”

                “Bullshit! I live with you! I know how much you hate Trolls! We can’t even tell you half of our lives because you’re so against them! You took away my car when we hinted at Troll Politics at dinner three months ago!”

                “Dirk!” Aradia shouts. He starts and turns to look at her. “You shouldn’t do this.”

                “You’re not my moirail, Aradia. Stay out of this-“

                “No, you’re right. I’m not your moirail. I’d rather be with Dave than you any day in the nicest way possible. It’s not my job to see you safe or calm. It’s my job to make sure Dave is safe and if you forfeit your brother’s safety, I swear to God you have me to answer to.”

                He looks just as pissed as before, but Dirk is rational. He knows which of the two of them are more prepared for a fight. He knows which of them would win if it came to fists; he knows what the chances are that he’ll be given the opportunity to get a weapon. He knows that he wouldn’t win and nothing Dave could do would stop her. He won’t risk it. She can see the moment in him where he decides against it. She can see how he hates himself for it.

                He pushes past her. “I’m going to Jake’s. See you when-fucking-ever.”

                “Thanks for the call, Dirk!”

                He flips her off over his shoulder and the door in the living room shuts.  She doesn’t look forward to meeting him after this.

                “You come into my house—you terrorize my son and make my other storm out without cause! Leave—or I’ll sue.”

                “What for?”

                “Trespassing!”

                “I have a completely lawful reason to be here and by the Equal Race Act, all Troll laws must be abided in Human courts as is vice-versa. My being a Troll brings myself full rights to enter the house of my moirail, if provided a key”—she reaches into her pocket and holds it to him as though it were some sort of weapon on display—“and permission from one of the residents to enter. Dirk gave me that permission.”

                Though, even without it, she would have come at the first whisper of a problem.

                “Dirk does not own this household and therefore cannot give you the Right to enter.”

                “The law says resident not homeowner. Your argument is invalid.”

                She doesn’t like this. This is the first time in what feels like forever that anger has bubbled in her. This man hurt her moirail. This man is threatening to tear her from his side in his time of need. She will claw and scratch and bite if she has to, so long as Dave is safe and remains—somewhat—at her side.

                “Nevertheless, that gives you no right to treat Dave the way you did!”

                “In what way does my moirail not deserve to be given respect and a little, how to say, Human decency?”

                “Do you not remember what you said when you first entered my house? You demanded that he stand his ground! You were preparing him for a fight!”

                She tries to stop herself, but the small laugh that escapes her sounds more like a derisive snort. She supposes it sort-of is. “Do you remember teaching Dave how to swordfight? In the beginning, how much he hated and complained about it? How you would tell him, day after day, to stand his ground until he grew so angry that hearing those same words makes him want to fight just because he hears them? He hears them and immediately thinks of you. Whenever he’s upset and you're the cause, if I say those words, you know what he says? He tells me to fuck off. And guess what he said the day that you punched him and he left for a week.”

                Daniel shakes his head violently. Rose steps forward and puts her hand on her shoulder. “I understand that you’re angry, Aradia. Being angry, though, will only hurt Dave in the long run. If Daniel gets too angry then he won’t see reason. Remember what happened the last time that Dave had a Troll over?”

                “In Dave’s defense, Dirk called me over.”

                “All of you!” Michelle screams. Aradia jumps, hard, and bangs her knee on the cupboard door. She had almost forgotten that she was here at all. “Shut up! Daniel, I know you’re pissed and you have every right to be. Aradia entered your home without your permission and, worst of all, helped your son when you couldn’t get any closer to him than the back of the couch without him flipping! You have no reason to hate her because she isn’t Human.

                “The same with you, Ronnie, though you have been able to keep your mouth shut for the majority of this argument. You didn’t have to give Dave sleeping pills, though. He is capable of deciding whether or not he’s comfortable with hearing us argue. He’s his own man and you taking pity on him is not helping.

                “Rose, you need to remember that not everyone is rational and Dave did not do that because he wanted to. I would be telling this to your brother if he were here, too, but you need to start telling Daniel and Ronnie your lives. At this rate, your own mother won’t be at your wedding because you’re too afraid of the power they hold over you to tell her the truth. Do you really want to have a wedding where your mother isn’t present? And a life where you can never speak to her again?

                “Aradia, you, most of all, need to calm down. The woman I met was a lot more level-headed than this. Dave is in trouble, yes, but it’s not an outer-source that’s endangering him. He’s a danger to himself, which is all the more reason that you should be sitting here and begging to Daniel to let you stay the night. Whether or not he admits it, you are the only one that can help him through the night tonight. He needs you.”

                Aradia shifts on her feet and looks away. What Michelle said is right. She should be begging Daniel to let her stay. Even if she were to be kicked out, though, she knows how to get up the fire escape and is more than willing to get in that way. She will do whatever it takes to keep Dave safe. That doesn’t mean that she should endanger herself to do it. It would be safer to just ask Daniel his permission to stay.

                He’ll say no.

                Better just to ask.

                “Daniel”—the question tastes like bile in her throat and she can’t even make herself look him in the eyes—“may I stay the night to care for Dave?”

                She braces herself for his “no”, but it never comes.

                “Michelle, as much as it pains me to say, is right. He freaked out the moment I stepped in front of the couch. There’s nothing I can do for him right now. So, yes, you can stay. For this night only—and only because Dave is off-kilter. Do not take this as a token of affection or anything. I still don’t like you. However, Dave’s security is more important to me. You can take the couch, I suppose.”

                “Ah, thanks, but I think I’ll just stay up and make sure that Dave doesn’t get himself too fucked over or anything. It would be better if I watched him in his sleep…. That didn’t sound nearly that creepy until after I said it.”

                There’s a round of lighthearted chuckling before Ronnie and Daniel back away from the island the three of them had been leaning on during the fight. Ronnie swallows and licks her lips before turning to look at Officer Stuart. “Everything you heard—are you going to do anything about it?”

                “There’s nothing I can do, unless Rose”—he nods his head her way and she arches her brow in return—“wishes to file charges.” Rose shakes her head. “Or even Dave, for the punch. I was asked here to quell a fight, if either you or Daniel were to muster one up with Aradia. The Psiioniic Force was not called in. Nothing will be admissible unless someone is to file charges. With this knowledge, I wouldn’t be able to open a case file to investigate either. It would have to be brought up and all the information I’ve already learned will have to be corroborated by someone else.”

                Aradia sighs. “Well, I doubt that there’ll be anything that either of them will do, so if you’re ready to go then I’ll walk you out.”

                “Are you certain, Aradia?”

                “I’m just going to go straight to Dave’s room. It’ll prevent any sort of interaction between us, for the most part, I’m assuming.”

                He nods his head and asks Rose one final time whether or not she wants to file charges. When she shakes her head firmly, Aradia escorts Stuart to the door.

                “Are you sure you can’t do anything against them?”

                “It would be unlawful. I’m not willing to go to the Hanging Block and not return, regardless of whether or not I got justice for anyone here. A legislacerator may be able to break the law, but Psiioniic Forces can’t.”

                “Well, thank you for coming anyway.”

                “Take care of your moirail, Aradia. Maybe I was wrong. You two seem like a pretty good match from what I saw tonight.”

                She smiles gently and feels her shoulders slump. “Thank you, Officer Stuart.”

                “I’ll tell Sollux what happened.”

                “Tell him I’m sorry, too.”

                “I’m sure he’ll understand.”

                Aradia closes the door with a forced smile on her face. She goes straight to Dave’s bedroom without detour and sits down in the chair he keeps in front of his turntables. Dave sleeps on, blissfully unaware of the shouting match that had gone down not long ago. She pulls the chair closer to his bedside and smiles as he nuzzles into the bed. One hand drifts up and closer to where she’s sitting and she reaches out, taking it. He hums in his sleep.

                Michelle comes in less than half an hour later. She sits on the edge of his bed, leans over and kisses Dave’s forehead. He shifts in his sleep, smiling vaguely at something he’s dreaming about. His free hand comes across his chest and tightens into some sort of a fist. Aradia wonders if he’s dreaming of Karkat.

                “Sleep well, Dave. Have him give you my number in the morning. I want to know if he gets through the night alright.”

                “Can I ask you a sensitive question?”

                “Sure, of course. I don’t know how coherent my answer will be, but I’ll try my best to answer it.”

                “Why isn’t Dave under your care? And Dirk, for that matter.”

                “You mean ‘why does Daniel have sole custody?’, don’t you?”

                “If that’s how I get my answer, then yes.”

                She laughs ruefully and smiles gently as she takes Dave’s free hand. “Daniel and I got divorced because I found out that he was having an affair with Ronnie. I only found out because I found a pregnancy test in the bathroom one day while I was cleaning and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was furious. It was negative, of course, and I didn’t want to have kids when I had already had twins and he treated them like they were one person.

                “I lived mostly off of Daniel’s dime, as embarrassing as it is to say. I’m an artist and all artists go through poor streaks. Mine happened to be when I married Daniel to about the time that the boys were nine—a year after the divorce. He—Daniel—had rented out a studio for me to do my artwork in during the time that Ronnie and he were together. At the time, I hadn’t thought much of it, though hindsight is twenty-twenty….

                “At the time, I hadn’t made enough money to support myself on a healthy lifestyle. Daniel insisted on taking the matter to court. They say that only fools represent themselves, but Daniel is no fool… and I lost. If I can’t make enough to care for myself, how can I make enough to take care of two boys half of the time? The fact that I had taken to living out of the studio he had transferred to my name instead of my own home doesn’t help. In all honesty… I think it’s better that they lived with him for that first year.

                “I tried to ask Daniel for joint when I could afford it… but I couldn’t make myself face either of my sons after that. I hadn’t spoken or seen either of them for over a year… and by the time that Daniel called saying that Dirk wanted to talk to me, I almost couldn’t stand it. I was sobbing by the end of the conversation. Dave—even longer. I regret every minute I spent away from them, and I will for the rest of my life. Especially after tonight. But… I at least like to think that my boys would like to live with me even for a single weekend every three months.”

                “If it’s any consolation, I know that Dave would rather live with you than here.”

                “Why do you say that?”

                “He’s happy with you. Here—he’s expected to live up to something. He’s expected to not tell anyone things that even I have to pry out of him and he tells me everything. He can’t tell anyone about Ronnie’s drinking problem and he can’t tell his parents about his friends—his Troll friends. He can’t tell anyone that his chore list is almost quadruple the size of Rose’s and Dirk’s put together or that he’s so exhausted by the time that he comes home that he’s quiet not because he doesn’t have anything to say but because he realizes that it’s not worth the argument. Then he has to get off his ass after dinner and do that chore list. He’s up until almost eleven o’clock at night just to make sure that stuff gets done. With you, he doesn’t go through the daily stress of not telling someone something. He’s happy. He laughs and Dave and I danced at your house. We haven’t done that since Freshmen Year at the Frosh Dance. He’s always too stressed or too busy to do that but he laughs at your house in a way I’ve heard enough times to count on one hand and still have room.”

                “You really think that?”

                “He’s my moirail. It’s my responsibility to know.”

                “Thank you, then, Aradia. You’ve made me really happy. A little peeved at Daniel for expecting that of him, but happy just the same.”

                She smiles and watches as Michelle kisses Dave’s forehead once more before standing. Just inside the door, Aradia calls to her and she stops. She turns and arches her blonde brows. “If it’s any consolation, I would rather live with you than Daniel too, just from tonight’s experience. You’re a wonderful woman and… I really look forward to getting to know you more because of Dave.”

                “I look forward to getting to know you, too, Aradia. I hope we get to meet more often than Dave and I have, in the past.”

                “I will personally beat the shit out of him if the guilt doesn’t do it for him. Have a nice night.”

                “You too. Thank you—for watching Dave. And caring for him. And, well,”—she lets out a breathless laugh—“everything, I guess.”

                Aradia nods her head in return. “Drive safe.”

                “I will. Thanks.”

                Aradia watches as the last adult she felt safe in this house with leaves.

                Questions swirl in her head, twisting and writhing as she tries to stumble over them, but her concern for Dave eventually wins out. She’s nodding off in her seat when she hears the door open and Daniel walks in. He’s quiet—resigned—and has traded his slacks for long sleeping pants and a loose white shirt. He steps in slowly, awkwardly, and takes a precarious seat where his ex-wife had sat probably an hour and a half ago. (Aradia’s muscles ache at the thought.)

                His voice has dropped and he’s quiet, now. More focused on the fact that his son just had a psychological episode than the fact that a Troll is holding his hand. “How is he doing?”

                “The pills knocked him out. He’s been pretty restful for as long as I’ve been in here.”

                Daniel relaxes and smiles as he slips a hand into Dave’s bangs. He shifts in his sleep, scrunching his nose up but smiling nonetheless. His hand doesn’t leave Aradia’s grasp, not because she won’t let go but because his fingers have gently curled to surround her hand. There’s no pressure, but he’s still holding it.

                “I was scared half to death when he didn’t come home. Afraid he went and did something stupid because he left while he was angry. Then Dirk and Rose didn’t come home and I almost went crazy trying to call them—all three of them. And none of them answered. Dirk came home when I was leaving for work and Rose was back when I came home, but Dave still hadn’t come home. I was terrified. Thought I had lost my son because I couldn’t control my fists—and over a Troll I don’t even know.”

                “His name is Karkat.”

                He shrugs his shoulders. “I still really don’t care all that much. I doubt I will ever care about Trolls the way that Dave does. But… That still brings the question: who is Karkat to him?”

                “Well, at the time, they were pretty far into the kismessis quadrant, but Dave has been talking about some matesprit feelings for about as long.”

                “In Human terms?”

                “Well, at the time, they were pretty far into the hate-love quadrant, but Dave has been talking about some flushed-love feelings for about as long.”

                “So now he thinks he loves the Troll because of love, not hate?”

                “In laymen’s terms.”

                “I will never pretend to understand the way you Trolls make your feelings work, nor will I agree with having four people at once—or whatever it is. But if you guys make it work, then don’t shove it in my face.”

                “Do you mean Dave and myself or Trolls in general?”

                “In general. I want to see Dave happy… I don’t like that him being with Trolls makes him that way and I’m more than willing to get into a physical fight over it, as evidenced as earlier… but Dave’s happy. One step at a time, I suppose.”

                Aradia nods her head. “I’ll attempt to not fight you the next time I see you as well, then. A truce.”

                “A truce,” he echoes. They stay there silently and, after a moment, Dave turns his nose into Daniel’s palm. Daniel smiles and rubs his hand in Dave’s hair before removing it carefully. Dave is still smiling vaguely when it leaves. “When Michelle said that Ronnie won’t be able to be at Rose’s wedding, do you know what she meant by that?”

                “Yes.”

                “Will you tell me?”

                “That’s something that you should speak to Rose about.”

                “We’ve tried, but she won’t explain.”

                “Then she’s not ready. She hasn’t proposed yet, but you need to start getting them to open up. To do that means you have to try and overstep your prejudices over just about everything you have. As far as I’ve figured out, that’s what being a parent means. Not that I’m experienced or anything.”

                “Don’t come here telling me you’re pregnant with Dave’s child or anything.”

                “First off? Ew. I would never be able to have Dave’s child. Second? Trolls can’t get pregnant.”

                “You know, maybe there’s something to this whole Troll-thing.”

                Aradia snorts this time and Dave rolls toward her. He muffles something into his pillow and groans in his sleep. Aradia wonders when he got to be such a loud sleeper.

                “I’m off to bed. Do you have everything you need for him?”

                She nods. “As far as I’m aware, that is. Do you know what dissociating means?”

                He shakes his head. “I’m a lawyer, not a psychologist. All I know is that it’s really hard to prosecute on and getting a defendant with it is pretty much a death wish. Rose is the one studying to be a psychologist. You should ask her in the morning. She’s already gone to bed.”

                “Have you heard from Dirk?”

                “Not so far as I’m aware. He’ll be back tomorrow though. I’m not really all that worried if he went to Jake’s. Though, I am surprised that you managed to get him to storm out. He’s not usually like that.”

                “He’s just rational when he’ s angry.”

                Daniel nods his head. “If you need anything, call. Ronnie and I are just down the hall. Rose is barely even two doors away. Someone will hear you.”

                “Can you help me get him under the sheets? He fell asleep before he pulled them up.” Daniel nods and, with little struggling, helps her. She thanks him and waits for him to leave before muttering the word “creep” under her breath. Dave laughs and she looks down to see him bleary-eyed and drugged.

                “I thought you took medicine.”

                “The pain killers she gave me with them have the side-effect of keeping me awake. S’why I took them together. The schleeping pill knocked me out, but it won’t keep me out. Come to bed.”

                “I need to watch you sleep.”

                “No place better than in my arms.”

                “I’m still wearing my bra—“

                “Take it off.”

                “If Daniel walks in and sees my bra on your floor, he’s going to flip.”

                “He can suck it.”

                She smiles gently and unhooks it. He’s right; fuck Daniel. She throws the bra to the ground and wriggles out of her jeans before joining him under the sheets. He wraps his arm around her ribcage and kisses her forehead. “Thanks for watching me.”

                “I’m not done. Before you fall asleep, though, can you tell me what dissociating is?”

                “It’s, basically, where the connection between emotions, thoughts and, like, who you are as a person doesn’t line up right because of some event that pushed you over the edge.” He yawns and half-buries it in the pillow between them. “When my parents were arguing, there must have been some sort of click in me because I don’t remember anything after that and I ended up punching Rose, which is something I would never do. I don’t know what would have made me do it in so little time or while they were arguing, but I don’t remember them throwing shit around when I was younger, either, so…. I’ve begun to think that I’ve done it my entire life.”

                “Oh. Ok. Warning, next time?”

                He snickers. “I’ll try.” She smiles and kisses the corner of his lips before pulling him close. He really had worried her, after all. “So, you wouldn’t have my kid but you’ll kiss me?”

                She laughs awkwardly. “You heard that…?”

                He chuckles tiredly but kisses her cheek anyway. “S’ok. I wouldn’t have your kid either.”

                “Good. We’re in agreement.”

                “But we would make beautiful children.”

                “Duh. Just look at their father. No wonder Karkat fell for you.”

                “Shuddup.”

Chapter Text

                Despite how often he sees Karkat, he doesn’t see the Troll’s moirail all that often. He thinks that it’s probably for the better. The taller (fucking giant) troll is usually elsewhere when he’s at the orphanage or, when they are at the orphanage at the same time, holed away in Karkat’s room and spending time with his moirail or reading his freaky pagan bible or whatever it is. Overall, Dave is lucky enough that they don’t cross paths often.

                The fact that this is the first time he’s seen the High Blood since he and Karkat pailed is probably just because of luck, even if the disturbed, sick-to-his-stomach nausea has left a disgusting taste in his throat and he can barely hear anyone talking over the sound of his heart in his ears. Then again, those feelings might be because Gamzee has been following him since the moment he stepped onto the orphanage property. The fact that Aradia went with Karkat on a grocery run isn’t settling in the slightest bit.

                Gamzee is phenomenal at following. Dave hadn’t noticed him at all—in the beginning. He just saw him as he walked into a new room and brushed it off. Once, he had gone into a room to change a light bulb and found him playing with one of the children (the wrigglers, being that this is a low-blood orphanage, have a natural instinct to be wary of him that Dave sort-of marvels at). He had brushed it off. He hadn’t really thought much of it when he turned around and Gamzee was gone, only to find him in the kitchen.

                Part of the problem is that Gamzee is completely silent as he moves. He can go through a squeaky door without a sound. He knows what to do and what not to do in order to not be caught doing something to the point where Dave’s heart palpitates when something goes wrong. Dave thinks that the only reason he even noticed was because he was chasing Trynna in order to get back a spoon she had stolen from the kitchen (covered in chocolate from a cake everyone knows that Karkat doesn't want for the off-year celebration of his Wriggling Day) and Gamzee had followed him through the entire thing.

                After that, he stayed only a few feet behind Dave. In the same room, watching his every move, not even trying to hide his presence. Dave’s fingers twitch and sweat gathers on his forehead and upper lip as he goes throughout the day. Rachel doesn’t seem to notice or, if she does, she doesn’t comment on it.

                His chest feels constricted. He’s swallowing almost every moment and constantly licking at his lips. He’s glancing over his shoulder, watching Gamzee nearly as much as he watches Dave and he can barely make himself think in straight lines. He’s all over the place. At some point, Gamzee starts talking, though the words and idiosyncrasies of his inarticulate speech blur and slur until they’re just noises rushing over Dave—things he can’t even hear over his heartbeat.

                He doesn’t even notice when Gamzee stops talking. Dave helps Rachel make lunch, but Karkat and Aradia still haven’t returned by then. Dave is left to do the dishes by himself when Trynna steals away with another chocolate-covered utensil and Rachel goes to chase her this time.

                He swears that Gamzee is pressed almost inch-for-inch against his back. His heart beats right out of his chest as something—a hand?—ghosts down the back of his neck, over the back of his shoulders, his spine—oh, God, what is he going to do to him? The slightest squeeze of pressure against the back of his neck and—oh God, oh God, oh God

                Nothing.

                Dave spins around as soon as the pressure disappears, but the door to the kitchen is already swinging shut and Gamzee is nowhere to be seen.

                His knees go weak and he collapses to the ground. He leans his back against the cabinet, breathing heavily, and fights not to whimper. He also fights not to piss himself. He’s shaky and disturbed and he needs to get on his feet again. What if Rachel walks in on him right here—right now?  What’ll he do? Say? How will he explain his situation?

                He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know much of anything beyond the terrified, jelly mush of terror in his brain. All he really does know right now is that his legs won’t be able to support him and the sudden silence in his chest makes it feel like he’s been shot.

                There’s a Neo-Classic book that won several awards a couple hundred years ago in the Alex Rider series—a series Dave adored when he was a kid. In one of the books, the protagonist—Alex Rider, as the series’ nomenclature implies—is forced to listen to his own heartbeat through some sort of radar. Suddenly the sound turned off and he felt as if he had been shot from just the lack of the sound. Dave hadn’t understood it at the time, but now—now he’s lived it—experienced it—and he will never forget it.

 

It’s not the only time that day that he has a brush with Gamzee. After the situation in the kitchen, Dave doesn’t see him again. But he feels him—lurking in the background, in the shadows where not even the best of eyesight can see him, in the corners he looked at seconds before and came up empty, and, oh God—is he in the air vents?

                He doesn’t know. He doesn’t want to know. He just wants to go home. He just wants to end this all. He wants to sneak off to his bedroom, hide under his bed and not come out until he’s absolutely positive that he’s not being followed.

                The second time ends with Dave shaking and bent over the side of a bed he had leaned down to change the sheets on. A hand had trailed down the side of his shoulder, hinting at someone’s presence—tickled up his spine and played a fancy tune on the sides of his neck. He hadn’t looked behind himself until after he was positive that the door had shut (he still couldn’t hear it and, dear God, was Gamzee even here in the first place?). At that point, he was already nearly-wheezing. His fingers couldn’t release the sheet for a good ten minutes.

                The third time, he had been checking to make sure that the grubs were still asleep, gone through the entire room twice just to make sure and then felt hands wrap around his wrists. He could still move his arms and when he looked at his wrists, the hands were gone but he could have sworn— The feeling had moved to his elbows, but still nothing—his upper arms, nothing there either. The hands were on his ribcage, squeezing, as if searching for the bone he had cracked so long ago and would probably still be broken if not for his hospital visit—fuck, oh man, oh man, is Gamzee even in the same room as him? Is he just crazy? He spins around, trying to land a hit, but there was only air.

                He doesn't stand up and leave the nursery for almost half an hour.

                The fourth time…,

                Fifth time…,

                Sixth…,

                Seventh…,

                Eighth…,

                Ninth time, he’s in Karkat’s bedroom, making the bed at Rachel’s request, when his arms give out on him and he’s lying, face down, on his bed. There’s a knee in the middle of his back and a hand on the back of his neck. This time, he knows it’s real. His heart his beating so fast that he can’t hear anything else and his fingers are curled in the bedspread. His eyes are clenched shut, as if the moment he opened them he would be staring at the man—Troll—beast doing this to him. His breathing shudders in his throat and he can’t—can’t—no, he can’t, no—

                Just as quickly as he came, he’s gone again. Dave slips off of the bed, forehead tilted forward, pressing against Karkat’s blanket. He breathes carefully, not even caring that he just messed up his work, and he hisses and shudders until the first few tears that had fallen down his cheeks are gone and the next don’t come.

                This is the last one. Nine times he feels threatened for his life and two hours haven’t even passed from start to finish. He’s shaking and numb and overall unable to breathe at all. Everything feels labored and he feels like he can’t see past the dark lines of his peripherals. Everything is tunnel vision. He wants to run and hide and never have to fight someone so utterly terrifying.

                He gets up eventually, finishes making Karkat’s bed, and goes downstairs to find out the next task Rachel needs done. Gamzee isn’t behind him, he isn’t behind him, he’s not behind him, he’s not behind him, he’s not behind him, he’s not behind him, he’s behind him, he’s behind him, he’s behind him, behind him, behind him, behind him—

                She asks him to take a few of the toys in the backyard to a small storage room around the back of the house. He nods, leaves, chanting the morphed mantra constantly. He picks up the toys and they go into a door in the back of the house.

                He’s behind him, behind him, behind him, behind him, behind him, behind him—behind him.

                He sees the arm before it even appears there. He sees it on the wall over his shoulder, sees it splay its fingers out and he turns around, faster than even Gamzee would be able to flee.

                And Gamzee’s there this time. He’s so relieved that he could sit there and sob for joy. He’s not crazy, he’s not. Gamzee is right there in that same, inhumanely (introlly?) tall, menacing, mutant terrifying, God oh-so terrifying, way. He can practically see purple blood dripping out of his mouth, past his teeth—dear Lord what in the world did Dave just do?

                Gamzee’s hand moves off of the wall and onto his shoulder. Is it just him, or is his grip as strong as a metal clamp? Pinning him to the wall and holding him in place as if he’s a piece of paper under a paperweight. His other hand comes up and tickles his cheekbone, hinting at power and something more and Dave’s stomach twists and he feels like he’s going to be sick and and and and—

                The free hand opens and tickles his throat. It tilts his head up and when Dave tries to put his chin back down, Gamzee wretches it back up and holds it there until his neck is sore and he thinks he feels a bruise coming on. The hand goes back to circling his Adam’s apple, tickling and curling around it. Dave’s eyes squeeze shut and he hopes—prays—that what he thinks will happen won’t.

                The pressure steadily increases until Gamzee has four of his fingers on one side of his neck and his thumb on the other—with Dave’s neck right underneath a plane of every-blossoming pressure. He breathes unsteadily, opening his eyes, trying to find the reason why in Gamzee’s face.

                His blood-colored eyes are trained on the strain in Dave’s neck, though, and soon enough the hand on his shoulder moves and joins the other one. Five fingers wrap around either side of Dave’s neck and his hands fly up, wrapping around Gamzee’s wrist, pulling at them. The pressure increases. Slowly, moment by moment, Dave can feel the air escaping him until it can’t escape any more.

                He scrabbles, fingers curled around the wrists, pulling as hard as he can, fighting, bitching, pulling his head away, trying as hard as he can. Black spots dance in front of his eyes. Stars twinkle in the midday sky. A pain in his chest no mere words can describe blooms and he’s fighting. His toes dig into Gamzee’s legs, fighting, screaming in silence. Tears stream down his face. He punches the Troll as hard as he can. He’s desperate. The hands tighten. He thinks Gamzee says something. The pressure behind Dave’s eyes increases and they’re rolling—rolling—rolling

                He wakes up a few minutes later, gasping for breath and looking around. Gamzee’s gone. The door has long since shut, but he hears Rachel in the other room, clinking dishes around. He uses the wall to help himself get to his feet. His knees are shaking and one gives out on the way in. He kneels there, breathing raggedly, but breathing nonetheless. He has never before missed breathing. He thinks he’ll remember the sweet taste of oxygen for the rest of his life.

                He gets to the door eventually. Aradia is in there with Rachel, helping to put both dishes and groceries away. She smiles seeing him and he manages to plaster one on his face back.

                “What’s wrong with your neck, Dave?”

                He blinks and shrugs, excusing himself for the moment. He goes to the nearest bathroom and he swears he hears Gamzee—swears he does, but he’s still not there. He swallows hard, leaves the door open, and stares at his reflection in the mirror. It’s faint, but it’s there—the reddish outline where Gamzee’s hands had held him against the wall. It’s there. He’s not crazy. He has proof.

                He’s not crazy.

                He breathes carefully, ducks his head, and figures himself lucky to be alive if Gamzee was the one that held his life in his hands. Something tells him that Gamzee has taken lives before—and Karkat has to know about it, especially if they’re moirails…. But of course he has! He went through the Trials….

                Oh God, Dave feels like he’s going to piss himself without ever needing to pee.

                He goes back to the kitchen, shrugs his shoulders at Aradia, and helps to put everything away. For the rest of the day, he shadows Aradia. Gamzee doesn’t show face again.

 

He feels like he’s being followed.

                He has all day, really. It shouldn’t be so new or unsettling, but it’s there—following him. The same half-menacing, half-curious look on the back of his shoulders that leave him breathless and watching his over shoulder; he’s constantly aware of someone behind him. He collapses into a park bench and doesn’t stand back up.

                He can’t go home like this. He can’t sit and wait for the feeling to disappear—it won’t. He can’t. He can’t risk Gamzee knowing where he lives—he can’t risk putting his family in danger like that. He can’t go home, can’t go to Michelle’s—can’t go to a friend’s house and endanger them either.

                He squares himself away and sighs. He waits for the feeling to disappear. He can figure out what he’ll do then. Only, the feeling doesn’t disappear.

                He wakes long after the sun has set to a hand on his shoulder and an insistent buzzing in his pocket. He groans, trying to roll away from the hand, but at the last second right before he falls to the ground, he remembers that he never left the park bench. He opens his eyes and pushes his glasses off his face. He has to squint and rub at his eyes, but eventually the profile of one Officer Stuart Captor comes into view. The buzzing in his pocket stops and he realizes then that it had been present in the first place. He groans and falls back against the bench.

                His voice is gravelly and cracks a little when he speaks. “What time is it?”

                “Almost midnight.” Dave’s head falls against the bench again, but he hadn’t noticed that he had lifted it in the first place. He curses and rubs at his eyes again. He doesn’t have to guess to know who’s trying to get a hold of him as the phone vibrates again. “Why aren’t you home, Dave? Did something happen with your father again? Has he abused you a second time?”

                “What? No, no, nothing like that! How do you even know about the first time?”

                “I was there when Aradia helped calm you down last night. It was mentioned in numerous parts of the argument. Are you sure nothing happened? What about your neck? It’s heavily bruised.”

                “No, no, I swear—nothing like that. I was walking home from the orphanage when I sat down to think. I guess I just fell asleep. I didn’t realize I was so tired. Fuck, dad’s got to be worried out of his mind.”

                “And the bruising?”

                “It’s not from anyone I’m related to. I’m fine. Just—I really need to get home. Can you give me a ride?”

                “The car’s over there. Go ahead and take the passenger’s seat.”

                He nods and stands up. He doesn’t stretch—he just goes straight around the bench and hurries to the car. Stuart is almost immediately on his six. He takes the driver’s seat and Dave slides in. He almost can’t close the door completely—he’s so tired and disoriented.

                But he doesn’t feel like someone is watching him. He’s fine with that.

                The clock on the dashboard says 11:42 as they take off down the desolate road. Stuart idles the car outside of his apartment building and Dave mutters a full-hearted thanks as he climbs out. Just before he shuts the door, Stuart calls his name and he ducks his head to see him. “If you ever feel threatened in returning home, you can come to the station. We’ve helped more than our fair share of people get a temporary roof over their head in order to protect themselves from someone they don’t want to charge.”

                “Daniel’s not like that. No one from my own home chased me away from there this time. I swear. But I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks for the ride.”

                “Be careful not to stay out past curfew again, Dave.”

                He nods his head and thanks him for a third time before shutting the door. He rushes inside and almost runs up the staircase when the elevator takes too long. He runs up them almost twice the normal speed, skipping steps here and there, and he stops to breathe in front of the door. His lungs are still burning when he steps through, bites his lip, and calls, “dad?”

                Daniel’s in the kitchen. That much is obvious by the sudden sound of plastic against the Formica countertop of the island. He can hear Daniel’s rush of breath in his sigh of relief and a muttered, “thank fucking God.”

                Dave immediately goes into the kitchen. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. That’s the first place he goes. It also matches the first words that slip out of his lips: “I’m so sorry. You have no idea, I’m so, incredibly, sorry.”

                Daniel wraps his arms around him and nods. “I was worried out of my fucking mind, Dave. Your mother has no idea where you are. I have to call her—tell her you’re alright. Where, the fuck, have you been?” 

                “I’m so sorry, dad, I’m so sorry. I was walking home when I stopped at the park to take a breather. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to fall asleep. I swear. I was just going to catch my breath, then go on, but I fell asleep. I didn’t sleep too well last night. I’m so sorry.”

                He sighs in relief and Dave feels Daniel’s hand press against the back of his head. Dave breathes carefully and hugs his father. All the while, the constant apologies never stop.

                Daniel calls Michelle up (the last person he expected when Daniel said “your mother”) while he’s still holding Dave. Dave passes a few words to her in order to make sure that she knows for certain he really is there. He explains to her the same reason he had given to Daniel and Stuart. He mentions that Stuart also gave him a ride home and was the one that woke him up. He’s so, so, so sorry.

                Daniel eventually sends him to bed, but Dave leaves the door open for easy access. And, for the first time in a long time, locks the window. He adds on the child safety lock he had twisted off not long ago—on the bottom of the sliding area—and extends the blinds as far as they can possibly go. He puts the chair to his turndeck against the bottom rung of it, just to make sure it’s held in place. If it moves in the middle of the night, he’ll hear it.

                He hopes.

                He lays in bed and sleeps.

 

Gamzee greets him when he gets to the orphanage the next day. He’s smiling lazily and his eyes are hazy. He smells of weed and has a small black pocketbook full of random scribbles from as far as Dave can see. He wonders if Gamzee gets high because of that weird pocket bible in his hands; is it part of his religion to smoke joints?

                He opens his mouth and greets him back. Gamzee’s smile grows into something odd and lopsided without much thought. His hands move deep inside of his polka-dotted pants and Dave has to wonder where the murderous Troll from only yesterday went. Where’s the danger that he emitted just by existing yesterday? Where are the murderous eyes? How could Dave practically see his purple blood dripping past those lips? It’s like he was crazy or something.

                But he’s not crazy. The bruises on his neck are dark enough to see each individual finger. He had to pull a scarf out of Rose’s room when she “wasn’t” looking in order to keep it covered. He had been called a hipster several times as he just walked straight to the orphanage. It’s not uncommon, this day and age, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t piss him off.

                He has no idea what to do about this different Gamzee. Has he even met this Gamzee before? The Gamzee he knows is always stony and wary of him—forceful as he signs a contract saying that he won’t press charges while he and his moirail fight. He’s seen this Gamzee, though: in the school yard and as Karkat waits for him to put the blunt out, the Gamzee in the back of the class that just smiles and drones in an off-center voice, the Gamzee that eats twenty bucks worth of money almost every day for lunch. This is the normal Gamzee that everyone in the world knows.

                No one knows about the Gamzee that pinned Dave to the wall by his left—weaker—hand until he was choked into unconsciousness. Or, if they do know about this one, they’re dead. It’s Karkat that keeps him doing his drugs—that keeps him happy and stoned until the urges to hurt people are silent in Gamzee’s mind.

                And Karkat is supposed to be out of the house, talking with Dave’s own father for the next couple of days—far, far away from where he would be able to keep Gamzee calm and sane and high off his ass. Rachel, for a few of those days, is supposed to go with him, leaving Dave alone with Gamzee and possibly Aradia every couple of days, too.

                Dave swallows as he enters the house and prays that he won’t have to spend too much time with Gamzee in this next week. He also prays that Gamzee will keep the blunts coming until he’s so far out of his head he won’t come back down until the end of senior year.

                Rachel smiles at him when he finds her in the backyard, helping to get some of the toys out of the closet that Dave had put them in the day before. “How did you sleep last night, Dave?”

                “Fine. Why do you ask?”

                “You seemed a little sluggish when you left yesterday. I’m going to need you to come in early on Wednesday and Friday. Can you do that?”

                “How early?”

                “Sometime between six and seven to make sure that the kids are able to finish eating when Karkat and I go to speak with Mr. Strider.” He nods his head and pauses for a moment to put a reminder in his phone to change his alarm clock. She smiles when he nods and slips the phone away. “Ok. Why don’t you shadow me for the day so you can see everything that I have to do to keep this place running? You should probably take notes, too.”

                His grin matches the one on her face and he cocks his head slightly. “I’ll get my favorite note-writing pen out and ready.”

                “Good to see you taking it seriously. First thing’s first: breakfast cleanup. This is usually what you walk in on me doing in the mornings.”

                He nods his head and follows closely behind her all day. He doesn’t see Karkat or Gamzee until he’s getting ready to leave and hurries upstairs.

                Gamzee is sprawled out on Karkat’s bed with his little pocketbook open under him and his undivided attention on the page. Karkat is sitting at his desk, writing something up when he walks in.   

                Karkat glances at Gamzee before standing up and kissing Dave gently. Well, “gently” isn’t really a word meant to keep it’s dictionary-definition when applied to Karkat. The kiss is still hard and forceful, but there aren’t any teeth and he’s not vicious about getting Dave’s lips open like he normally is. It’s relaxing to just slip his arms around Karkat’s waist and hold him close. Karkat’s hands take Dave’s hips and pull him close.

                “You leaving?” He asks.

                “Yeah, I’m getting ready to shove off here in a moment. What’re you up to?”

                “I’m just writing up an account of what happened when we fought. I got an e-mail earlier asking that I had one ready when we went in so that he could read what I remembered without being questioned on it. I’m really not happy that you had Rachel do this.”

                “What makes you think that I had anything to do with this?”

                “Because Rachel wouldn’t ask for charges to be pressed on someone she likes as much as she likes you unless you asked her to do it.”

                “She likes me?”

                “She’s leaving you alone with everyone in order to be present with me at Mr. Strider’s office, isn’t she? She doesn’t even do that with Gamzee, though that’s probably justifiable…”

                There it is. That little, small bit of information that anyone would be able to write off as Karkat referencing Gamzee’s being a Troll and Rachel’s being Human. Anyone would be able to write it off as a fluke; the weakened part of Karkat’s defense that no one would have possibly noticed.

                No one would have noticed except that No One, in this case, has a bruise measuring the same exact specifications as Gamzee’s hand as it wrapped around his throat and slowly began to choke the life from his very body. Karkat does know about his other side, doesn’t he? It’s not some stupid hunch, is it? Karkat knows what Gamzee is capable of. He knows. Dave isn’t crazy.

                Dave kisses Karkat again and leaves him to his work before he leaves the house. Trynna stops him inside the door and demands a hug from him before he leaves. He sighs, obliges, and tells her to have a nice night as he leaves. There’s lightness to his step that hadn’t been there yesterday. He’s not crazy. Gamzee is going to stay in Karkat’s room with Karkat until long after Dave has gotten home. He’ll be safe to go straight there.

                But, off of the subject of Gamzee, Dave’s mind lingers on the trial coming up soon. He heard Daniel talking about it with Ronnie this morning. He’s trying to get as many rushes on it so that it occurs before the start of the school term in less than a month. It won’t be difficult, no, but usually cases involving Trolls take a lot longer because each echelon in the hemospectrum encompasses different rules and responsibilities. With Karkat’s being so low, it will take extra time to rule and devise the exact specifications he has to abide by and even longer to decide how Daniel will attack Dave through that.

                This also means that, since Dave has no idea how to even begin that research, he will be royally fucked if he can’t find someone to take his “defense”.  Daniel won’t go for money at first, but if worse comes to worse during the preparation stages, he knows that he’ll be stuck with some monetary value as well as the charge to the court to make sure that Karkat’s record is expunged. That in itself will cost him five hundred-some dollars in order to pay the court to do so. (The figure hurts his wallet and he can barely think of the money in his bank and his need to get back to his turndeck in order to get some more singles out there.)

                He remembers his stint as a secretary for his father last summer and how he met a lot of pretty decent lawyers. They were heartless and emotionless in the court and while meeting with clients, but in the office (when they didn’t have cut throat competitions) they were really nice and genuinely friendly. He remembers making friends with more than a few of them and hopes that one of them will be able to help him out.

                While he waits for the crosswalk sign to flip and tell him to walk, he pulls out his phone and opens up pesterchum.

 

TG: hey
TG: you think you could help me out of a tight spot??
TG: it might have to be pro bono though…

 

                There’s no answer, but the emotion hadn’t been flipped to anything involving online anyway. He isn’t expecting one. He silences the app just in time to get a text from Dirk with about thirteen different things he needs to pick up on his way home. He sighs and rubs his forehead as he makes a slight detour to pick up the groceries and hope that the bags don’t rip on his way home.

                By some stroke of luck, they don’t. Dirk and Rose each take a bag when he walks through the door and help to take them to the kitchen. Dave unloads them before sighing and leaning against the fridge.

                Rose is still in the kitchen when Dave looks up at her. She’s smiling that coy little sly smirk of hers and has her arms crossed in that cocky way. She exudes snark and sass out of every pore in her body. “Isn’t that my scarf, Dave?” It’s a rhetorical question.

                Dave answers it anyway. “What’cha go’nn’a do about it?”

                She still looks knowing, sounds knowing, is knowing, but she doesn’t press the issue. Dave thinks this is possibly the worst option she could take. Fucking psycho-bitch, trying to get under his skin and make him wonder about her decisions. “It looks good on you.”

                She leaves the room and he frowns after her. Within minutes of him walking out of the kitchen, the door opens again and he turns to see Daniel walking in. He’s still dressed in a suit and has his work-mind plastered all over his face. It’s obvious that now isn’t a good time to bother him, so Dave just steps out of the way and lets Daniel into the hallway before he goes in to his bedroom. He shucks his shirt for a tank top and debates on the scarf. It looks weird with his new shirt, but he would rather be told that he looks like a girl than endure the suspicion and worry that the bruised neck would bring him.

                He drops on the couch next to Dirk and leans on his shoulder, pretending to be completely enthralled by the inner workings of his internet life. Dirk pushes at him with his elbow, frowning and jabbing at him. Dave bats it away easily and keeps his attention on his computer until Daniel walks back out and into the kitchen. He hears the door to the refrigerator open.

                “Sorry,” he says to Dirk, “am I in your way?”

                “Your fat ass is covering half the keyboard.”

                “My luxuriously large ass is nowhere near your keyboard.”

                “Get off my lap fucker.”

                “I’m not on your lap, bro.”

                “You’re all over my shit.”

                “I’m sitting very comfortably on the couch.”

                “You’re hanging off my grit.”

                “Scoot that way and I’ll stand up—wrong way!”

                “Sorry, am I in your way?”

                “Your fat ass is covering half my leg.”

                “My luxuriously large ass is nowhere near your leg.”

                “Get off my lap fucker.”

                “I’m not on your lap, bro.”

                “You’re all over my shit.”

                “I’m sitting very comfortably on the couch.”

                “You’re hanging off my grit.”

                “Scoot that way and I’ll get up.”

                Dave chuckles and pushes at Dirk using both his hands and his feet until there’s just enough room to wedge himself out of the couch. Rose is still giggling at their antics by the time that he gets up and absconds into the kitchen. Dirk flips him off lightheartedly in the meantime and Dave returns it with a grin.

                Daniel is in the process of pulling a package of meat apart and cutting it for whatever he decided they would have for dinner (it looks like fajitas). Dave pauses just inside the threshold and watches for a moment. He knows that Daniel notices him because they meet eyes for a moment before he goes back to cutting meat and Dave starts working on the dishes that had accumulated since dinner the night before.

                He finishes long after Daniel is done with his knives and cutting board, so by the time the door to the dishwasher shuts Daniel is in the middle of cooking, Ronnie has returned home and Rose and Dirk are still doing ass-fuck nothing on that couch over there. Dave turns to watch as Daniel continues to do what he’s doing.

                “What do you want to ask me, Dave?”

                “It’s… nothing.”

                “If it were nothing, you wouldn’t be so silent. It’s enough to tranquilize an elephant. What’s on your mind?”

                “It’s just…. I think I already know the answer.”

                “You can’t know it until you ask.”

                “Normally you say no and extend it, but I have a really good reason as to why I should have it back.”

                “Dave, just ask your question already. I had a long day. I don’t want to play games.”

                “Can I have my turndeck back?”

                “You know the rule about asking for things back before they’re granted, Dave.”

                “I know! I know, really. But, I mean, I have a really good reason for it.”

                “Alright, fine, what is it?”

                “It’s just that after the trial is over, it’s going to cost me over five-hundred dollars to pay the court to expunge Karkat’s record, since you’re going to win. Even if you were to even consider helping me to pay that—which I know you won’t—I wouldn’t let you. But that means that I have to supplement what I already have and I can’t get a job anywhere quick enough to get caught up with that amount of money except in the music that I sell online. But I will need my turndeck back in order to make the music to sell it.”

                “You have no idea whether or not you will owe the court that much money.”

                “Honestly, dad, who do you think is going to win this? It’s not me; that’s for certain.”

                “Why do you say that?”

                “I know what happened in-depth.”

                “Why don’t you tell me, then?”

                “You know full well that I can’t tell you considering you defend the opposite party.”

                “If we go by those rules, then you also can’t live in this house, but I highly doubt that whoever you find to defend you will really care enough to look that far into your situation considering your priors.”

                He nods his head to the side, conceding the point. Maybe the whole affair will be easier than Dave had thought originally. Maybe the whole affair will be over within two hours; “Dave, how long is your record?” “Pretty damn long.” “You’re right. Case dismissed with the court in favor of Karkat Vantas.”

                “But that would still mean that your side wins the floor and I have to pay.”

                “And you’re in full confidence that Karkat will win?”

                “I am more than positive. I would stick my life on it. Or Dirk’s. Or Rose’s or mom’s or Ronnie’s or yours. That’s how positive I am on this.”

                “And Aradia’s?”

                Why would he need to ask that? “Of course,” he would. Aradia is one of—if not the—most important people in his life, but Daniel shouldn’t care about that. He doesn’t like Trolls, after all. The fact that he can admit that Aradia is important to Dave is pretty awe-inspiring in and of itself.

                “Then, yeah. You can have your turndecks back, but only for that reason. Limited internet so you can post them, too. Finish your chores before you get on.”

                He smiles warmly. “Thanks, dad.”

                “Just make sure that you don’t owe me any money.”

                “Right, right. Thank you.”

                “Chores, Dave.”

                He nods his head and disappears to do them. He has never finished the list faster than he did tonight. It almost feels as if he finishes them in one breath. Dinner is ready at the same time that he finishes and he eats quickly, avoiding the questions about the scarf around his neck expertly. He’s used to avoiding things. After one gets through blocking punches and kicks, it doesn’t take long to work words together to keep people from asking the important questions. Though, it’s pretty impressive when you manage to work it until a lawyer drops the subject.

                Dave sits at his turndeck after dinner and sighs. This is the first time this entire summer that he’s been allowed to touch it. Just sitting here, looking at it, makes his blood sing and a giddy smile touch his lips. It hadn’t really been that hard to get through the summer without it—not with so much drama going on in his life but to be here and know that he can use it again makes everything dim in comparison.

                He turns the power on and frowns when it doesn’t turn on. It takes him a moment of time to think and wonder why before he realizes it: the power cord. He had unplugged it the same day that his dad took his phone and his dad had left a note on it to remind him not to try any funny business. The note is missing, but he tore that off ages ago knowing that he wouldn’t mess with it anyway. He could have sworn that the cord had been on top of the turndeck just last night, though. He had scratched his arm on it when he got the chair and put it against the blinds.

                He takes a cautious look around the room, searching for anything else that looked different. Nothing pops out at him, either. The few clothes that are on the floor are where they were earlier. His closet is still a mess, but he thinks it will probably be like that for the rest of forever. His laptop is still in the exact spot that it had been at a week before school let out. Nothing had moved.

                Maybe… he just knocked it over yesterday when he scratched his arm. He doubts it. It had still been taped down.

                He plugs it in, pretending like the creepy-crawly sensation running up and down his spine isn’t there because he’s obviously alone in his room and Gamzee can’t be here. The window is still locked. Besides, he would have heard the blinds.

                (He tries really, really fucking hard not to remember all the creaky doors at the orphanage and how Gamzee moved through those without making a sound.)

                The first piece that he makes sounds ominous and foreboding, but he uploads it anyway. He goes on and on, hours on end, but he only makes that one and one that sounds more nervous than excited before he puts the turndeck down and goes to sleep. Still, it’s a good amount done in so little time, he thinks.

                He goes to bed with the light on and only after four sweeps of the room and maybe he checked the size of the airvent, too. (It’s much too small to fit a wriggler, let alone someone Gamzee’s size.) His thoughts wrack him and leave him feeling vulnerable as he tosses and turns. Or maybe he just feels vulnerable overall. He had thought that he was safe today. Gamzee had been so high on cloud nine that he hadn’t been able to even follow Dave around all day.

                Or maybe he did.

                Dave doesn’t want to think about this. He squeezes his eyes as far shut as he can and curls up, hiding himself under the blanket. He’s still there ten minutes later when the light switches off.

                He jerks up and looks at the lightswitch. Who did that? Are they still there? (Was it Gamzee?)

                Daniel chuckles at his reaction. “Didn’t mean to wake you, Dave. I saw that your light was still on and thought that I should have you turn it off when I saw that you were asleep.”

                He nods his head and fights to keep the stutter out of his voice. “Ok. Thanks dad. Didn’t even realize….”

                “Sleep well.”

                “Yeah, you too.”

                Daniel shuts the door and Dave curls up in his bed with his back so far against the wall that he can feel the pressure of wedging himself into place on both of his sides. He doesn’t fall asleep, but he does pass out a little after midnight.

 

The orphanage is quiet when he gets in the next morning, scarf still in place around his neck. Everyone is awake, but they’re moving slowly and yawning every few moments—except for Karkat and Rachel, who are both dressed in what looks like their Friday’s Best, getting ready to walk to the synagogue for service. They both seem really reserved and Karkat doesn’t seem to have slept well the night before.

                Trynna greets him with a sleepy hug as she gets up and puts her dish in the side of the sink. She yawns into her hand and slips out of the room with a couple of the other kids who ate quicker than the others. They all file out quickly and Karkat grunts his way in the most cordial manner he can probably come up with at six-thirty on a Wednesday morning in the middle of summer. Rachel is next to him as he starts on cleaning up.

                “I really want to thank you for coming in so early, Dave. It really helps us out a lot that you can do that.”

                “Yeah, no problem. It’s pretty much my fault that you two have to leave, anyway.”

                She smiles gently, quietly laughing at that last part. It’s true, though. If he hadn’t asked her to press charges, then she would never have gone through with this. He had to force Daniel to do it, too. They really aren’t doing this for Karkat, in the short run. They’re doing it for Dave and his stupid conscious. He can’t ask for anything more than that.

                “I told you everything that you need to know to get through the day without us,” she says. “If anything comes up that you don’t know how to deal with, ask Trynna. She likes to help me a lot and has learned a lot about what running this place takes.”

                “I’ll keep that in mind.” Rachel nods her head and watches as the last of the kids leave their dishes next to the sink. She waits for the door to close completely before she speaks again. “Listen, I know that your father is against Trolls. Do you… have any advice as to how to react if that comes out in conversation?”

                “Keep calm. Don’t attack him. Just take the verbal blows. Make sure that Karkat keeps his mouth shut, too. He’ll just exacerbate the situation. Just, calmly, remind him that this is a case against me, not Trolls, and that you would like to get this over with before school starts so that neither of us have to worry about it. If that doesn’t work, just tell him that I think juvie is a pretty nice place this time of year.”

                “You don’t seriously mean that, do you?”

                “I’m serious about you telling him that, yes. I don’t really think I would want to go there, though. He’ll back off if you tell him that, though. I can guarantee it.”

                “How?”

                “He’s my dad. I live with the guy. I know how to push his buttons.”

                “Ok. Thanks.”

                “Also, a little advice for you: breathe.” She smiles lopsidedly. “Everything will be fine here. I’ve worked long enough to know what to do and you just gave me the rundown of everything yesterday. I have Trynna if anything goes wrong.”

                “It’s the first time I’ve left the orphanage in anyone’s hands when I haven’t been just down the street in over a decade. You can’t blame me.”

                “And I don’t. But everything will be fine. I swear.”

                She nods and pulls him in for a quick hug. He hugs back and almost pushes her out of the kitchen in order to meet up with Karkat. Speaking of the devil, Karkat is waiting in the front room and perks when they enter and he nods to Rachel. In a quick, brief second that he would later deny, he turns to Dave and pecks his lips. Dave grins stupidly and ushers them out the door.

                He keeps the stupid grin for a while.

                It’s about twelve o’clock in the afternoon and all is going well when Gamzee walks in. He’s not quite as stoned as he was yesterday, but he’s also not as lucid as he was on Monday. He’s somewhere in the middle—irritable, but understandable. He’s pretending to be stoned, though, and Dave doesn’t want to see him flip over.

                Gamzee says a quick “hey bro” and he greets him back before the Troll goes upstairs. Dave waits and watches. He doesn’t breathe until long after he hears Karkat’s door open and shut.

                There’s a quiet knock on the front door and he turns to watch as Trynna skips up to it and opens it. There’s a couple there—a man and a woman, Human. The woman has dark hair and light eyes while the man has the exact opposite. They smile at her and ask, “is there an adult here we can talk to?”

                Trynna giggles. “Well, I dunno about adult, but you can talk with Dave!”

                “Hey now, Trynna,” Dave all but snaps at her. She giggles again and sticks her tongue his way. He grins and walks toward the two Humans. “I’m Dave Strider. How can I help you?”

                “I’m Matthew Winslow and this is my wife, Peach. We’re… interested in adopting a child.”

                Oh. Yeah, right. They do that here. That’s a thing that orphanages do. Obviously. It was just pure dumb luck that it just-so-happened that the first adoption since the time that he has started working here also just-so-happened to be the day that he’s working without Rachel.

                Oh, God, he’s fucked, isn’t he?

                “Come on in. I’ll just be a minute. I need to finish something in another room. We’re a little understaffed today. Feel free to take a look around.”

                They nod and enter and Dave really has to stop himself from freaking out. That’s a good idea: no shit flipping. Yes, that’s something he would like to do.

                Trynna takes his hand as soon as the door is shut and tugs on him to get his attention. “Dave, can I help you?”

                “Sure, if you want to.” Translation: please, Dear Lord above, please—I will bring you candy if you do.

                She nods and he lets her lead him out of the room without making it seem like that. As soon as the door to the hallway is shut behind them, Dave bites his lip and forces himself not to freak out. Trynna takes him into Rachel’s office—a small room with only a professional desk, a laptop on top of that, and a couple of filing cabinets with a printer on top of the one nestled in the corner.

                “What do I do, Trynna?”

                “You help them get a kid, of course!”

                “Why did it happen today? Why do adoptions have to be a thing? Why can’t they be a thing that was temporarily suspended for just a few days?”

                She frowns at him. “Dave, peoples’ lives can’t just stop and go because yours isn’t ready for them yet.”

                He stops, mid-thought, and stares at her. She doesn’t seem to think that what she had just said is really philosophical or something that an eight-year-old would even think. She’s just opening one of the cabinets on the file and is going through the folders, looking for a packet of papers. Dave, rather stunned, opens his mouth and asks, “how old are you, again?”

                She blinks up at him. “I’m almost two. Why?”

                “Oh. Right. Ok.” He nods his head and kneels next to her. “What do I need to do?”

                She pulls the papers out of the file and frowns as she looks at them. She puts them on the ground and opens the cabinet under that one. There aren’t as many folders as the previous one, but she still puzzles through them. When at last she does pull out the paper, she makes a little “ah-hah!” noise and smiles brilliantly.

                She’ll make someone a beautiful matesprit someday.

                “You give them these and tell them that the adoption process is slow and expensive. Then, after they’re done filling this out, you ask them to leave. You need to do a lot of research to make sure they get a kid that will like them and they will like. When that’s done, I’ll show you how to start the research, ok?”

                He nods his head and thanks her as he takes the packet she hands him and a pen off of the desk. He breathes carefully, measuring his breaths, and smiles as he enters the front room to find Peach smiling at the kids as they run around chasing each other. Matthew is holding her hand, watching with her, and it’s probably the most serene anyone has ever been while the kids are trying to kill each other.

                “Mr. Winslow,” Dave says. Both of them turn to look at him and he narrowly stoops to catch Ron before he falls flat on his face. He tells them to take it outside before they break something—including them—and the three of them nearly break the door trying to get outside. “I need you two to fill out some papers. It’s all routine information. You are aware that the adoption process takes a lot of time and money, though, correct?”

                They nod their heads. “We’ve been looking into it for some time,” Peach explains. “I think we’re finally ready to start the process, too. Though, you’re a little young to be running an orphanage.”

                “My boss is out in a meeting with some kids and their new parents. She’s making sure that everything is going alright and that the kids have everything they can possibly need.”

                “So you’re left behind?”

                “Well, we’re not going to leave this many kids on their own.”

                “You must be quite the dependable person to be able to put up with this kind of responsibility so easily.”

                “That’s one way to put it,” he laughs. They smile at him and take a seat on one of the couches. Trynna trots into the room and sits down with them, sparking up a friendly conversation while Dave excuses himself into the kitchen. He leans against the wall and vaguely hears the sound of his pesterchum ringing on his phone. He leaves it for now.

                “S’wrong?”

                He jumps and turns to see Gamzee with a glass of water in his hand and a quizzical look on his face. It’s like Dave is a puzzle Gamzee is trying to work out with his eyes and he’s insanely grateful that he isn’t trying to use his hands to figure him out. Not after what happened to his neck.

                “Couple is trying to adopt and I have no idea what I’m doing.”

                “Harsh.”

                He nods his head.

                “Trynna got her help up all on this?”

                “Yeah, she’s helping.”

                He thinks that’s what he asked. He’s not entirely sure.

                “Good girl.”

                He nods his head and watches as Gamzee disappears around the back of the house. Dave takes a look at the clock and chastises himself as he goes to empty the dishwasher. This would be a lot easier if he could just breathe a little.

                Trynna comes in all too soon and smiles up at him as she puts the papers on the table. “Mr. and Mrs. Winslow already left,” she explains. He lets out a sigh of relief. “They’re really excited and they’re looking forward to being called soon. Are you doing anything important?”

                “Well, I just finished the dishes. We still have about half an hour before I need to start making lunch. So, what do I do for the research?”

                “It’s really easy! Let me go get Rachel’s laptop.”

                “Ok. Don’t break anything.”

                “I won’t!”

                Dave sits at the table when she returns and she takes the seat beside him, sitting on her legs. “Rachel has the websites bookmarked. It’s easy. See—you just go here—and then you type their names in. And you start reading. If nothing comes up, it means they don’t have a record! See, if I put your name in, it’ll say—“

                “I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Trynna.”

                “Ok. If I put Karkat’s name in, though—look! It came up with the fight that he had with you that one time! Why did you two fight, anyway?”

                “Because I was being a dick.”

                She laughs. “But you’re too nice!”

                “I can be a bit of a dick sometimes.”

                “I think everyone can. Ok, put their names in.”

                The research goes along so swimmingly that he’s already and eighth of the way through today’s stuff by the time that Trynna stops him and tells him that he needs to make lunch. He starts, nods, and frowns as he stands up. He needs to finish a great deal of research by the end of the day and he has no idea when it’ll actually “end”. Karkat and Rachel could be gone for the entire day and not get back until eight at night, or they could return in an hour. Either way, he needs to get a majority of this stuff done without neglecting the kids.

                He sighs as he makes up his mind as to what he has to do.

 

After he’s done cleaning up lunch, he goes up to Karkat’s room. Gamzee’s there, but he seems tired and half-asleep when he walks in. The Troll starts and looks up at him, bleary-eyed, when he opens the door.

                “I really hate to ask this of you,” Dave starts. Gamzee blinks and for a moment Dave remembers the sheer terror he went through the entire day on Monday. His blood goes cold and he can’t breathe. There’s some sort of fist in the back of his throat and what was he saying in the first place?

                “You goin’ to get your motherfucking gab on or what? Words all over the place, but no meaning.”

                “I- I really need your help taking care of the kids. I need to research the couple that was here earlier and, well, there isn’t anyone else that I can go to since Karkat and Rachel are still gone…. So… could you watch them for a few hours? Make sure they don’t get into too much trouble?”

                Gamzee is utterly silent for several minutes. The room has grown oppressive and Dave is ready to retract it, tell him to forget he ever asked, sorry he disturbed at all, go back to whatever it was he was doing before Dave so rudely interrupted, but the moment that he opens his mouth, Gamzee speaks.

                “Let’ch’or neck be gazed upon by my sparkling gazing orbs.”

                “My… neck?”

                “Deaf or something?”

                He shakes his head. His fingers twitch as he pulls at the scarf, gently taking it off, and Gamzee crosses the room. Dave moves backward, his back pressed against the wall, and his breathing hitches. Had he really just backed himself against the wall? Is there going to be a repeat? What’s Gamzee going to do?

                He tilts Dave’s head back by the chin and his fingers graze over the marks on his throat. He can feel his blood pushing through, grazing the surface underneath Gamzee’s fingers. His nails are sharp—Dave’s afraid that he cuts his neck open on one of them for a second, but no blood dribbles down. Gamzee’s fingers stretch, covering the bruise, and the pressure starts building—

                The door opens and Trynna walks in. She’s frowning and looks confused as to why Gamzee jumps away from him or why Dave is tugging the scarf tight against his skin. “Dave, I don’t think Rachel will be happy if we start the research but don’t finish it. What are you doing up here?”

                “Just—talking with Mr. Makara. Let me just put something on Karkat’s desk and then I’ll go downstairs with you, ok?”

                She nods her head and waits. He pulls a small letter out of his pocket and places it on the desk—it’s nothing more than a small Happy Wriggling Day note with a flashdrive that has a few homemade songs on it.

                Trynna takes his hand and tries to pull him down the stairs. He hears Gamzee behind him and glances over his shoulder to see the High Blood smile lazily and give him a thumbs-up. Dave smiles back shakily and tries to stop the quiver in his muscles.

                He barely finishes the research in time to make dinner, at which point Gamzee saunters up beside him and helps him cook. Rachel and Karkat return home as Gamzee sets the table and he can tell just by the look on Karkat’s face that he’s not interested in talking with another Strider today.

                Not that he can blame him—especially by the decibel level on the door slamming shut upstairs.

                “Dad give you two shit, then?” Dave asks.

                Rachel nods her head. “Thanks for the advice, Dave. How did everything go today?”

                “Pretty well. I’m sure that Trynna can give you all the details, but I should be heading home. I don’t think that dad will be very happy if I come home really late tonight.”

                “He probably won’t be, regardless. Karkat and he got into more than one argument. Have a nice night, Dave. Thanks again for taking care of everything.”

                “Yeah, of course. It was fun.”

                “Well, I’m glad to see that you didn’t overwork yourself. Go, before you get in trouble.”

                “Thanks.”

                “I’ve already kept you here far too long.” He laughs and brushes it off as he goes to leave. Trynna stops him just inside of the front door and he kneels down to her level to give her a large hug.

                “Thank you for all of your help today, Trynna. I really appreciate it.”

                She nods her head. “I had a lot of fun helping you! It was really funny, too.”

                “Well, we might have to do it again tomorrow, so we’ll have to see what happens, ok?”

                “Kay! Have a nice night, Dave.”

                “You too.”

                Rachel calls for dinner and she scurries off into the kitchen. He turns to leave when he hears his name being called and he turns to see Karkat walking down the stairs. In his hand, he has the envelope, which has been opened. He hurries the rest of the way down the stairs and stands in front of Dave.

                He hands the envelope back to Dave, frowning with a creased brow. “It’s not my Wriggling Day.”

                Dave smiles at him, forcing the envelope back to his chest. “I know.”

                “Then, why would you give me this?”

                “Because next year on this day it will be.”

                “But, that doesn’t make any sense.”

                “If you were human, this would be your eighteenth birthday, Karkat. Even if you don’t go all out or anything, you still deserve a little something.”

                “I wouldn’t even let Rachel get me anything; why do you think that I would let you give me something?”

                “Because I won’t take no for an answer. I’ll sit here and cry if you make me take it back.”

                “No you won’t.”

                “No I won’t. But I will fight you.”

                “I’ve already had a long fucking day fighting with your father. I don’t want to put up fighting with you.”

                “I meant physically, but ok.”

                “Still stands.”

                “Then take the present.”

                “What’s even on the drive?”

                “Why don’t you open it and find out?”

                Karkat frowns. “I don’t want this.”

                “Maybe, but I want to give it to you anyway. You don’t have to like it. You don’t even really have to open it. You just need to pretend like you will for the next few minutes, then we’ll never mention it again. Ok?”

                Karkat’s mouth opens and closes for a few moments, unable to find words, before at last he sighs. “You’re a fucking bastard, you know that?”

                “That’s not the first time I’ve been called that.”

                “Go die in a hole.”          

                “Can I drag you with me?”

                “No.”

                “Then I don’t think I’ll be doing that any time soon.”

                Karkat punches his shoulder and Dave laughs lightheartedly. He pulls Karkat close, his hands on his hips, and he presses his lips to Karkat’s. Karkat tilts his head, returning the kiss tiredly, and jumps as someone giggles behind him. The two of them turn to see Rachel, Trynna and a couple other of the kids leaning out the door. Gamzee is one of them and his face has gone from the uncaring lull from earlier to the dark glare from Monday. Dave’s heart skips and he turns to Karkat.

                “I should go.”

                “G’night,” Karkat replies. Dave nods his head, pecks Karkat’s cheek and closes the door behind him. He hurries away as fast as he can, trying to come up with a place to stay tonight since today, technically, marks the first day of the set of weeks he won’t be able to stay at home during. He pulls his phone out to text Michelle and ask her when he sees a blinking icon from Pesterchum, alerting him to a reply.

 

GC: SUR3! 1 TH1NK 1 C4N H3LP.
GC: WH4T DO YOU N33D?
GC: YKNOW 1F YOU 4NSW3R P3OPL3, TH4T USU4LLY H3LPS.

Chapter Text

                He’s nodding off in the back of the Starbucks when he hears someone approach. He assumes it’s probably an employee, reminding him of how late into the night it is and how he should probably leave soon. The last time he had looked at his watch—or his phone—or anything with a clock, really—it had been 11:24. It feels like twenty minutes have passed and this particular store doesn’t stay open any later than midnight. While he feels bad about being here so late, he really needs to meet up with the woman.

                He’s only mildly surprised when a nasally drawl flies through the air and lands on his shoulder like a small little bird, only to peck at his ear. “Hey there, pretty boy.”

                He turns and manages part of a grin at her as he takes another drink of his hot coffee. It’s begun to wake him up, but even at this late of an hour there’s no way that it’s going to keep him awake for long. He’s not the kind of guy that can just skip a night of sleep—which is the exact reason that he always ends up passed out around two in the morning, at the very latest. He is no stranger to waking up with a crick in his neck from sleeping over the top of his notes.

                “Hey, Terezi.”

                She smiles at him. Her teeth are unusually sharp for a Troll. Of course, Trolls teeth are pointed, but they’re also normally kept blunt. The sharper the teeth are, the more likely Trolls are to hurt themselves, so they just keep them blunted to avoid the insurance costs or whatever cost that came their way. Terezi, though, she’s one of a kind.

                First of all, she’s blind. Second, she keeps her teeth sharp. Half the time, she licks things to “see” (or whatever equivalent she has thereof—he doesn’t know) and yet she has no qualms with running her tongue over them from time to time, risking slicing open that pretty little eye-tongue of hers and showing off her teal blood.

                Dave thinks it’s all a ploy for the Hanging Court and to scare whomever she is questioning into the truth. It probably works really well, too, considering he has yet to even think about lying to someone who could rip open his jugular with just a simple touch. She wouldn’t even need a lot of pressure to do it.

                “So, what’s this little”—she pauses as she pulls a chair out and takes a drink of her own coffee. She grimaces and shakes her head at it before taking another drink. He wonders if she doesn’t like the taste or whatever she sees in it—“problem you need help with?”

                “Well,” he starts. He only gets that far before her nostrils flair and she smirks at him. He rolls his eyes behind his glasses and reaches up to rub at the corners of them. Exhaustion is not a good look on him, he thinks. Karkat may be able to pull it off, but it just feels weird to have bags hanging off of his eyes. He can’t stand it.

                “It has to do with your dad, right?”

                “I would ask how you guessed that, but I have a feeling you knew already.”

                She giggles a little. It’s more subdued than it normally is—a mere “hehehehe” under her breath instead of the head-thrown-back, full-blown cackles she usually exhibits. It’s the first hint that she’s tired, too. He feels bad. She was probably at the office all day today, working either on some stupid legal secretary shit or the last part of her studying before her bar exam. She must have been up late the night before and the one before that and now here he is: the reason she’s up late tonight. She should be studying or sleeping, not conversing with him in the middle of a Starbucks no one wants to be at—not even the employees.

                “He’s been going on and on about how stupid this case is,” she explains. “Something about how convoluted you are and how conceited you must be to think that he’s going to try a case against his own son. And then he went and met with our dear friend, Karkat Vantas today.” She hums and one slim eyebrow plays peek-a-boo over the edge of her red eye-glasses. “It must just be a coincidence that the last thing to go on your record was a fight you had with him, huh?”

                “How is he your ‘dear friend’? When have you and Karkat ever had a complete conversation? Whenever I see the two of you, he always has his head stuck in a book and you’re talking so far out of your ass that they can hear you three galaxies over and Karkat has his head stuck in a book.”

                “You said that part already.”

                “What? Oh, right. Fuck,” he sighs and rubs at his eyes again, groaning out, “I am really tired.”

                “You smell exhausted. Something around your head is bruised, too, but it’s not your eyes, is it? What do you have covering something that deep?”

                “Can we keep on the conversation topic for once?”

                “Answer my question and we will.”

                He sighs and stares at her. There’s really not too much trouble he can get into for showing her. She won’t tell anyone. She’s the kind of person who holds the “attorney-client privilege” over everyone’s head, even when the “client” is actually a friend and she’s a legislacerator. If she doesn’t have permission from her “client” to say something, then she really won’t say it. She’ll lie about it, though, which always makes for more than a few funny situations. If he tells her about Gamzee and he tells her that he doesn’t want to press charges, it’ll just be another little tidbit to be filed into the rolodex that is her mind.

                “You swear on your legislacerative license that we’ll stay on-topic as best as we can if I show you?”

                “I swear upon the Hanging Block.”

                “You can’t tell Aradia. I don’t care if she pulls the moirail card—she cannot know.”

                Terezi nods and he tugs the scarf off. It only takes a single pull at the top of it to pull it down far enough to show off the color difference on his skin. The scarf barely even unravels, but Terezi isn’t hindered. She merely leans across the table and sniffs three times before leaning back. He fixes the scarf and tries not to scald his mouth on his drink.

                “Smells like a hand. Were you choked?”

                “Yeah.”               

                “Well, it obviously wasn’t a Human. I don’t think I’ve ever met one that has scared you enough to get you to stay still long enough to get their hand around your neck. So what Troll did that to you?”

                “A blood higher than yours.”

                She whistles. “Was it Gamzee?”

                “How did you—“

                “Well, let’see, I’m totally not privy to your father’s meetings with his clients, no not at all. So, of course, I didn’t hear anything at all about you and Karkat working together. Nothing like that even came up.”

                “Was the sarcasm really necessary?”

                She gives him The Look. Drawn-out disbelief and sass all mashed and getting friendly on one visage. One little canvas shows the entirety of what ten years of careful cultivation has created on the blind woman’s face. He snorts a little. “Yes. It always is.”

                “Did Karkat mention where we work?”

                “You know I can’t—“

                “You just said that Karkat is my dad’s client and thereby nullified your attorney-client privilege.”

                “However, you are the opposition in the case—“

                “But the location of our workplace is not a part of the case. The date of the offense we are debating on took place before the first day of our work together.”

                “Because one came forth due to the other.”

                “But we’re not debating on where we’re working.”

                She sighs and her shoulders slump. “So far as I heard, he didn’t mention it.” He probably got lucky. She has been known to hold arguments for hours on end for the sake of having arguments, but the exhaustion must have hit her pretty bad for her to give up like that. She isn’t one to give up prime real-estate like that so easily.

                “And how did you guess it was Gamzee?”

                “It’s no secret that Karkat and Gamzee are in each other’s quadrants. Not to gossip or anything, but is there any truth to their kismessitude?”

                “Moirails.”

                “Ooh, I was right the first time.”

                Dave snorts lightheartedly. He goes to reply, but the employee at the counter clears his throat and says, “shop’s closing in five.” He nods and stands, tucking his chair in beneath the table. Terezi joins him, wrapping both of her hands around her cup to keep her fingers warm. He shoves one hand into his pants pocket and keeps the other around his cup. They’re on their way out the front door when the same employee stops them, saying, “hey, we’ve got a bunch of extra pastries if you want one. On the house.”

                He turns and meets eyes with Terezi. She shrugs at him and he returns it before asking, “are you sure?”

                “It’ll just go in the trash if you don’t take it. At least this way, you two won’t go hungry for long. What’re you doing out so late anyway?”

                Terezi rubs the back of her neck with one hand. “I was working late.”

                “And I really can’t go home right now, so,” he shrugs. “I thought I would keep her company for a little.” The employee nods and pulls the pastry rack free of the plexiglass cabinet, laying it out where they can reach out and take one. He tells them to take as much as they want. Dave just takes one of the muffins and Terezi gets some sort of sticky-bun looking thing. They thank him as they leave and Dave pushes the door open with his lower back.

                “Where were we?” Dave asks.

                “We were just getting back to the original topic. So, what did you want my help with?”

                “I was under the impression that you knew.”

                “It’s only polite to ask the legistlacerator for help in trying your case, Dave.”

                “It’s also polite to get on both your knees, begging, and offer up your first born. Which I’m not going to do.”

                She sighs, stressing her words melodramatically. “I think I’ll be able to get over the pain of your rudeness under the circumstances. So, why did you come to me?”

                “One? You need to get your name out there, regardless of the connotation. No one is going to hire you if no one knows who you are. You have the bar exam soon and I’m assuming you want to be able to actually, you know, use your knowledge. Two? It’ll be better if it’s done pro bono and you still owe me for that time that I helped you study for that test.”

                “Right. Study.”

                He elbows her and she digs her awkwardly-sharp elbow into his side. She’s all angles and corners, more pointed than rounded. She never really grew out of the awkward lanky-phase of puberty and he thinks that if she were to do that, the world would be severely disappointed. He likes her pointy and sharp.

                “Three? No Human is going to take a pro bono case that they’ll see as losing.”

                “You want me to lose the case?”

                “That’s not what I said. Humans are very one-dimensional when it comes to court cases, so far as I’ve seen in my own experience: they either win or they lose. But legislacerators….” She grins at him, pointed teeth and all, but the grin disappears almost as soon as it appears.

                “If you weren’t being picked on by Karkat, then I would have to try you like a lawyer and not a legislacerator. You realize that, right? Just because you’re in a tight spot doesn’t mean you can always have a legislacerator at your side. There has to be another Troll in there.”

                “Lucky for me, Karkat’s a Troll and Rachel has insisted that this go through Human court.”

                “Has she insisted on going through Human court or did you say that it would if she asked it to? Karkat is eighteen years old and he, therefore, has full rights to decide what court style he wants—Hanging Block or courtroom.”

                “But he’s not of legal sweep-age yet. He still has another year before he hits that. Therefore, Rachel has the rights as his lusus to decide the court style.”

                “A lusus has to be—“

                “Someone of the same blood color. There is nowhere in the decree that the lusus is required to be a Troll. As Karkat is not of the regular hemospectrum but instead with the blood color that a Human would normally have his lusus can legally be a Human without breaking any laws.”

                “But even then he would have been forced to take her name—“

                “Where is that part of the law?”

                “Fair enough. Do the Drones accept Rachel as Karkat’s lusus?”

                “Do they have to?”

                “Well, if we—“

                “The law says nothing about Drones accepting the lusus. It just maps out the culling process, right?” She nods her head slowly. “So long as Rachel thinks of Karkat as her own and Karkat has addressed her as his lusus one time since his eligibility, then they are legally bound.”

                “And has he?”

                “Rachel says he has. That’s enough for me.”

                She nods her head. “Ok. Then we made it through there—though, I don’t know how much I like jumping through these loopholes.” His apology is swept away on the wings of the sigh that escapes him. The owl that it becomes takes off into the night, watching with the eyes of a hawk as the two of them continue down the street. “I’ll help you out on this, Dave. But… there are a few stipulations.”

                He shrugs and his head bobs along to the sound of their feet on the concrete. “Figures. I would actually be a little disappointed if there weren’t. Lay ‘em on me.”

                “First and foremost, you are not to discuss our progress in the trial proceedings with anyone outside of myself. Aradia may hear our discussions on the slight chance that she is in my presence, but otherwise you’re not to tell her anything. This rule applies most formally with your father, Karkat and his lusus.

                “Second, you have to do everything I say when we get to the courtroom. Word for word, you have to recite what it is I repeat back to you without hindrance. You must act the way I instruct you to and you cannot, for a single moment, doubt my actions or motives.

                “Third and, though this may be the last up-front stipulation, this is far from the last, you must not stay with your father during the time that we are preparing for the court day. I don’t want him to have this opportunity to abuse you for information on our side of things. After all, we are going to win this.”

                “So long as you agree to tell me of the further stipulations before I cross them, then I will agree to these.”

                “I agree.”

                “Looks like I just got myself a legislacerator.”

                Her grin catches him off-guard—or, perhaps, it’s less of her grin than the way she bites into her food with a ravished, fiendish tear. The way the strawberry jelly oozes out doesn’t help any. He shrugs it off. Women.

                “So where do we start, Miss Legislacerator?”

                “Well, my client, the first thing is that you don’t address me with such a mundane name.”

                “What would you prefer?”

                “Your Honor the High Legislacerator of the town of Dave’s Ass.”

                “I’m assuming you’re the one that saved the town from jeopardy and that’s how you got the title?”

                “What gave it away?”

                He laughs lightly. It’s tired and drawn, nothing more than a quick thing evident more in the way the air puffs out of his mouth in the cold night air. It’s always a bizarre thing to feel—the cold night air. Earlier today, it had been toeing about one-hundred degrees Fahrenheit but now it’s almost sixty and the humidity in the air has already begun to press at his hair. It feels sticky on his skin and Terezi keeps scrunching her nose every few minutes. He thinks that’s probably why.

                “But seriously, where do we start?”

                “Well, I’m not really entirely sure. This will be my first trial and a lot is hinging on the fact that I will pass the bar on Saturday—“

                “Which you will.”

                “And what will you do when I don’t?”

                “Well, considering you’ll pass, I don’t think that it matters. You’ve been studying law since before I met you and I met you a while ago, if you don’t remember. Because I do. When was it again? Eighth grade year where you were having the shit beat out of you by some assholes who were taking advantage of a nasal headache, you called it?”

                “See, I seem to remember that you needed some help from a low blood during that same fight?”

                “Did I ever thank you for giving my moirail and me a reason to talk?”

                “Nope and you’re not welcome.”

                He shrugs. “What do we do? And ignore the ‘if I pass’, because you will, you little shit.”

                “Well, you’re a ray of sunshine today.”

                “I’m just tired as fuck. Now, answer the question. I don’t want to have to ask again. You’re the legal intern; you know more than anyone else that nobody wants to hear you ask the same question time after time again.”

                “Well, I suppose we work from the ground up. Let’s get somewhere warm, though. I don’t want to talk about this stuff in the middle of nowhere when it’s negative thirty degrees.”

                He rolls his eyes at her. “Where do you suggest we do that? All the stores around here are closed and the nearest places would be the police station—where we would be given a lot of questions and no time to actually talk about this—and my house—which you’ve already forbade me to spend my nights at.”

                “Well, we can turn around and go the other way. My hive isn’t that far, though the walk will probably just tire us out in this weather. It’s the middle of the summer perigee, I mean come on, can’t it be warmer?”

                “Not in the middle of the night. I mean, it’s”—he turns his wrist over to glance at his watch, frowning when he has to wipe it on his pant leg to wipe the condensation away—“wow, shit, it’s already ten past midnight. How long have we been walking?”

                “I think he let us stay a little later than the normal five-minute call. We haven’t been out that long. C’mon, I’ve got a multiple-person reclining chair you can stretch out on after we’re done for the night.”

                “No, really, I can’t—“

                “Well, we’re going to my hive regardless. You can take or turn down the couch, but I think we both know that you’re going to love being somewhere warm. Neither of us really like cold places, anyway. That’s one part between you and Aradia that I’ve never been able to understand. She just absolutely adores the cold.”

                He shrugs. “She’s also pretty warm, so keeping close to her”—(“You two snuggle?”)—“keeps me warm enough. So I’m assuming that I’m being kidnapped and taken to your hive?” She snorts and nods her head, making a large sweeping motion toward the way that they came. “How long will it take to walk there?”

                “Half an hour? Give or take, depending on how fast we move.”

 

Terezi is on the lower end of the High Blood spectrum. Accordingly, she lives in the High Blood quarter of town. There isn’t much of a difference between the two quarters, but what difference there is, is always obvious. The streets are better paved, sure, but the houses usually aren’t any larger than those in the low blood quarter. The Low Bloods don’t keep theirs boarded up or any of that bullshit, either. The High Bloods usually have better lawns, but that’s because they don’t have to work so many hours to break even.

                Over all, it’s hard to tell if you’re in the High Blood or Low Blood quarter of town if you’re just dropped off without any sort of focal point. Dave’s lived in this city long enough to know where each of the sections tapers off at—exactly what street at exactly which intersection at exactly which blade of grass. Maybe that’s why he knows the difference between the houses. The naked eye wouldn’t be able to see the difference, after all. It could all just be a little switch in his brain that tells him “High Bloods are higher on the caste, means they have more appearances to keep up, and that means their residences look better”. 

                Her hive could, appropriately, be called “larger” than most, though. Her lusus is a well-off Troll with his sights trained on the position of His Honorable Tyranny. She was raised without much guidance, but for a Troll as smart as herself, she never really needed it. Besides, she has all the trees she could ever want to climb right there in her back yard.

                Dave has only been here once before. After helping her out in the fight, Dirk had all but kicked his butt over here and had stood by while he, awkwardly, apologized for fucking up when he was trying to help her. Dirk hadn’t stuck around any longer than that, but he had been invited in and they had spent most of the rest of the day playing with chalk in the backyard. Eventually that escalated to grabbing cans out of the kitchen and creating Can Town.

                Despite the years that have passed, Dave still remembers the vague outline of the house: the large front room with high ceiling because there’s a spiral staircase that opens straight up to the upper floor and the marbled kitchen with more windows than actual lights. He remembers being told the upper story’s structure (her room on the left, a game room in the middle of the loft, her lusus’ room on the right, a guest bedroom-turned-study off to the side), but he hadn’t gone up there at the time.

                The house had smelled of citrus when he got there last time. He remembers this because the smell had overwhelmed him so much that he had gotten a headache by the time he left. At the time, it had been tangerines and grapefruit, even though there’s also an orange tree out back. That doesn’t seem to have changed, but at least the smell is easier to bear when he’s expecting some sort of a citrus smell. Upstairs, in her bedroom, it’s not that bad anyway. He doesn’t even smell it here.

                Her room, like most the rest of the spacious house, is large. The recuperacoon isn’t hidden underneath a reclining platform, like Aradia’s is. It’s out in the open, in the corner, and her computer desk is pressed against a wall with a large window in pure view of the forest of trees in the backyard. The couch she had mentioned is on the wall opposite of the recuperacoon with a small pile of beanie chairs in the back corner. The room is pretty clean with wires every here and there, but what mess is there is pleasing to the eye, as hard as it is for him to believe.

                They sit in the beanie chairs for some time. It’s there that he recounts the story of running into Karkat in the hallway, of being frustrated at his finals when Rose and Kanaya called on Skype, of seeing him and Makara at the park with the kids and of picking the fight. He goes into detail about breaking up with Aradia, his meeting with Officer Stuart the next day and of how he came to work at West Ridge Orphanage. He goes on and on until he has explained every minute of every hour that he can remember since the entire story began. He answers the few questions she spots the story with as they come and all the while she takes notes on a clipboard with college ruled paper.

                At the end, he asks, “what do we do now?”

                “Well, it’s nearly two in the morning and I honestly doubt that Miss Wester will stop needing your help just because you were up really late.” She yawns into her hand and smiles seeing the way he’s laying completely languid on the chair. “I’ll go get you a blanket. Sorry it’s not the most comfortable thing, but considering you’re not allowed to stay at your house anymore, I figure it’s the least I could do.”

                “Hey, speaking of that, can I still go home?” He cuts her off before she can answer, speaking through a yawn that just doesn’t want to stop. “I mean, I still have to make my music in order to afford to pay the money at the end of this and then I need to be able to get my clothes. If Dirk doesn’t see me, he’ll flip his shit and drag me home to have a huge conversation with dad which’ll basically nullify everything. Invalidate everything?”

                “Fine, but you have to leave before dinner every single time you go there.”

                He nods his head and groans as they both fight to get up. Dave collapses onto the couch without argument and kicks off his shoes. His phone slips inside of it and he vaguely manages to get his exhaustion-dulled fingers to select an alarm. He barely even manages to open the button on his jeans before laying back.

                He’s asleep by the time that Terezi returns with an extra blanket, which she unceremoniously drapes over him. She doesn’t have to worry about him watching her undress for bed before she slips into the coon. The light turns off when she claps twice before slipping under completely.

 

“Dave, wake up.”

                He groggily opens his eyes, brow furrowed, and blinks into the bright light the room currently has around him. Terezi is leaning over him, but her eyeglasses have been left next to her coon and she isn’t looking too happy to be awake so early. The sky outside has barely been tinged with the pink color of the early morning sunrise, but Dave thinks there is probably another ten minutes before it starts to get anywhere.

                “What do you want, Terezi?”

                “What’s the password to your phone? It’s been screaming for you to wake up for the last ten minutes.”

                “Wait, shit, really?” He groans as he uses his elbow to push him up. Terezi shoves his phone toward him with a none-too-pleased look. He yawns as he opens it, silencing the device before it can wake the whole neighborhood. “Fuck, wow, it’s really late. Do you mind if I use your shower before I leave?”

                She makes a few vague gestures accompanied by a couple “right”s and “left”s as she gives him directions. He thanks her and she returns to the coon, slipping into the green slime without mentioning anything. He grabs his shoes and stretches on the way to the shower.

                The bathroom is, unlike the rest of the house, rather small. The counter is covered in various objects Terezi uses to get ready, including a hair straightener, various makeup pieces and more than a few scattered towels. He finds a clean one in the cabinet and turns the water on. It heats quickly and he’s out of the bathroom in twenty minutes.

                He leaves a message on Terezi’s Trollian thanking her for letting him spend the night before hurrying downstairs. He nearly runs into Terezi’s lusus down there before apologizing for the speedy departure, but he has to get to work. He gets a long, strange look from the Teal as he escapes out the front door and down the street.

                He’s about an hour and twenty minutes away from the orphanage and by the time he arrives, the sun has risen, his hair has dried and it’s about ten past eight. Rachel smiles seeing him and he greets her as he shuts the door.

                “How was your father last night?”

                Oh, right, fuck, shit. He was supposed to go home and defuse the bomb that is his father’s temper. He had completely forgotten after he had heard the stipulations that Terezi had forced his way. He runs a hand through his hair and shrugs his shoulders before changing the subject.

                Karkat comes in half way through putting the dishes away and kisses Dave’s cheek with a gentle smile. Dave smiles back after returning the kiss. “Thanks for the present,” he mutters. Color rises to his cheeks for a moment before he clears his throat and turns to look at Rachel. (He’s obviously denying his embarrassment and that only makes Dave chuckle.) “Need any help?”

                “Can I get you to run to the store and get”—she grabs a piece of paper off of the fridge, writing down a small list for him to take—“some shampoo, body wash, conditioner, toilet paper, napkins and paper towels?”

                “Yeah, sure. Be back soon.”

                “Are you going to take Gamzee with you?”

                He shakes his head. “He’s in the middle of a prayer. I should be back soon, if traffic’s good.”

                “Juniper’s blocked up ten miles from Hell. There was an accident this morning. You should go around,” Dave warns.

                “You don’t live anywhere near Juniper,” Karkat returns. “How would you know?”

                If he tells him about staying at Terezi’s, he’s going to start asking questions. It’ll eventually get back to how he never went home last night and then Karkat is going to explode at him given that he has an extra reason to not want this trial to happen. If he has too many, he’ll drag his feet just hard enough to make Rachel rethink this and decide it was a bad idea. Fuck, this morning just can’t get better, can it? “I notice things.”

                He’s never liked lying, anyway.

                Karkat frowns and his brow creases. His eyes skitter over his clothes for a moment. “Didn’t you wear that yesterday?”

                Yes. “No.”

                “I could have sworn you were wearing that yesterday. Are you sure?”

                He nods. “It’s the same scarf. That could be it.”

                “Maybe,” he frowns. Eventually, he leaves and Dave can hear the car start up out front. Within a few moments, Trynna calls his attention away, smiling brilliantly as she tugs him back to Rachel’s office. She sits him down in her desk chair, tells him to open up the laptop (which, just as yesterday, doesn’t have a password) and she goes to the file cabinets.

                “Rachel says that since you started the research, the least you can do is finish it! She said you did a really good job yesterday, too! Really, um… through-row, she said. You did a really good job!” The smile on her face only seems to grow as she brings the pile of paperwork over to him. He pulls her up onto his lap, careful to keep her on his knee and grins down at her.

                “Well, that just means that you’re going to have to help me with today’s stuff then, too, because I couldn’t have done that without you. Now, what do I do first, Trynna?”

                “Well, first of all, you need to open the internet. That helps.”

                Fucking sassy children these days, honestly. (He wouldn’t have it any other way.)

 

They finish the first part of the day’s research by the time that he has to go help make lunch. He’s invited to sit down and eat with them, not for the first time, but he actually accepts today. The dead weight in his stomach has started to get to him and his thoughts aren’t as straight as they normally are. He should have stopped by the Starbucks and grabbed a muffin on his way over. Something to just sate his stomach, but without dinner the night before, he doubts that a muffin would get him through the day without lunch.

                When they finally finish, Dave stands and does the dishes, as he does every day. He hums a stupid tune in his head, figuring out the way that his synthesizer would be able to recreate it as he busies himself with the mindless activity.

                He vaguely hears the door open once—twice. He doesn’t put any thought into it—probably just one of the kids slipping in to grab some sort of treat while he’s not paying attention and then out before he can catch them. It opens a third time and he turns to put a stack of dishes into the cupboard while glancing at the freezer. No one’s over there, so he can’t reprimand them.

                He’s halfway through cleaning the next pile of plates when he feels an arm curl up and around his neck. The free hand slips his head up by the chin the same way that Gamzee had Monday—

                Dave freezes in place and shuts his eyes. He breathes carefully, focusing on the way that the arm is around his neck, the way that it isn’t tight, merely there. What can he say? What will he have to say to get him off? What will he say to have the arm tighten completely? He’s frightened to realize that there are more points on the latter half than the former.

                “What are you doing?” It’s a safe question, he thinks—something to get the attacker’s voice out more than to offend him. Still, the arm tightens and his eyes squeeze even closer shut. His hands squeeze the lip of the sink.

                “Don’t talk.”

                It’s Gamzee.

                There was never really any doubt about that but knowing, for certain, that this is the High Blood in the flesh just makes it all worse.

                “Bro’s gotta look out for his moirail,” he explains. “One word, one toe, out of line, and he’ll never see you again. No one ever will.”

                There are a lot of things that should have punctuated the threat to his life—should have terrified him more than they did. The way that the arm tightened or that poison dripped free of Gamzee’s pointed teeth without a single thought. The close proximity to the gargantuan Troll or how unnecessarily easy it would be for him to slam Dave’s head into the counter—like Karkat had done, his very first day.

                It’s the fact that Gamzee is speaking in complete sentences that makes Dave unable to reply.

                The door shuts long before Dave manages to breathe again.

 

* * *

 

Rose and Dirk greet him at the door and he tells them the situation with Terezi and how he won’t be around a lot for a while. They ask where he’s going to go. He shrugs. Dirk tells him that he’ll call Jake and see if he can’t square a couch away for him that night. He turns it down, but the mention of Jake reminds him of Roxy and he sends her a text, asking if he can steal hers. She gives him a 10-4 reply and he is stuck laughing at her literal “10-4”.

                He spends most of the rest of the night on his turndeck, making music and putting up what he finishes. He glances through his bank account, slightly relieved when he realizes the sheer amount of downloads that have occurred in the last two days. Maybe he should have long pauses between uploading music considering how much money that brought in.

                He logs onto his website and frowns as he opens the log. He doesn’t know a lot about websites and everything that he does know was taught to him by a teacher a couple years back. He only learned the basics, a handful of Command Prompts and he still struggles to read them. Still, he knows how to open the part of the log with the download count and frowns. Those numbers don’t quite meet up correctly….

                He keeps a flat rate for all of his music. The total amount of money would be much higher judging on the amount of downloads, according to the calculator on his laptop. He sighs, running his hands through his hair. He has no idea—absolutely no idea—what he can do to stop that. Fucking pirates. (He doesn’t even think his music is worth pirating anyway.)

                He hears the door open in the living room and groans as he looks at the time. It must be Daniel. He’s the only one that would appear so late into the evening.

                Standing up is harder than he expected it to be. His muscles creak and his knees pop and he feels twenty years older because of one night of mostly-lost sleep. He yawns, but it feels like it never ends. He stretches his shoulders and pulls down the bag from his closet. He packs clothes for a couple of days, rubbing his forehead as he sneaks into Rose’s room to steal a few more scarves.

                She’s smiling from where she’s sitting up on her bed. The swelling in her cheek is going down and the bruise around her eye isn’t nearly as deep as it was two days ago. It’s healing quickly. He’s relieved.

                “Hey, Rose. I was just… coming to see how you were.”

                Great. The lies don’t end.

                “You’re a terrible liar.”

                He sighs. “I know.”

                “What do you need?”

                “I was… hoping that I could get a couple more of your scarves, actually.”

                She makes a vague motion to her pile in the corner. “But, wait, no, no not that one. That’s for Kanaya. That one’s fine, though. Yeah, you can take that, too.”

                “Thanks, sis.”

                “No problem. What are you hiding, again?”

                “A lingering ache from a horrible night’s sleep.”

                “You’re not hiding it very well.”

                He wraps his arm around the back of her neck in a quick hug. She returns it and he steps back staring at her. When she hums, he laughs at himself. “Nothing, it’s just…. You still want to be a therapist, right?”

                “Of course.”

                “If you do it soon enough, I promise I’ll be your first patient.”

                “I thought you already were.”

                Fair enough. That was actually a pretty nice blow. He grins and hugs her again before slipping into his room and throwing the scarves into the bag. He goes to leave, but Daniel stops him on his way. He’s standing on the threshold to the kitchen, talking with Ronnie, and still in his work clothes.

                “Where are you going, Dave?”

                “Out.”

                “Why do you need that bag to do that?”

                “I’m not coming home tonight.”

                “Why?”

                “In light of the upcoming trial, I do not think it’s a smart idea for us to stay under the same roof.”

                “You do know I was kidding, right? I would never mean that.”

                “I’ve been talking to some people and they agree with me when I say that it’s not a good idea.”

                Daniel sighs. “You’ll still come back and see us, though, right?”

                Dave’s sigh matches his father’s and he nods his head slowly. “Yeah. I think I would go crazy if I didn’t.”

                By which he means that there is no way he will let his father be subject to the worry over his well-being, regardless of what Terezi says.

                “If it ameliorates anything,” Dave adds, “I’m going to Roxy’s tonight.”

                “Thanks for the warning. Text me when you get there.”

                “No promises.”

                “Dave.”

                “I’ll probably be asleep by then.”

 

He texts Daniel anyway and Roxy forces him to eat dinner with her and four other women he hardly knows. Roxy’s arm is still in the cast, but she’s supposed to get it off soon. Becca looks worlds better than she did the last that he saw of her and he figures that more than enough time has passed for that to make sense. The apartment doesn’t even look like it’s been ransacked at all.

                He sits on the couch, yawning as Roxy takes the seat next to him. “Hey,” she greets. “How’s the apartment search going?”

                “Huh?”

                “Didn’t Daniel tell you, like, nine months ago, that the moment you turned eighteen you’re being kicked out?”
                He runs his hands through his hair and curses. “I’ve been so busy I completely forgot.”

                “Well,” she hums, “I was at the store today when I saw this really cute magazine. It’s got a bunch of listings in it that I’m not really interested in. Maybe you should start looking?”

                “I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford to live on my own, Roxy.”

                She pats his shoulder with her unbroken arm. “Well,” she smiles encouragingly, “you’ll figure it out by then. If not, I’m looking to move out of a place with three hellish women. We can both share a place. I could do that.”

                He shrugs his shoulders. “I would hate to do that to you.”

                She waves it off. “I need someone to keep me away from alcohol anyway. I’m sure I can get you a job somewhere. It probably won’t be worth much, but… Well, I mean, some is better than none, right?”

                “Still, you would be paying for most of the bills and college.”

                “So? You act as if my dad wouldn’t be able to give us money any time we’re short.”

                “Every month?”

                “It won’t be every month. I get paid a lot. Listen, we’ll figure it out, ok?”

                He smiles gently, sighing ever so slightly. “I’m not so sure… but the sentiment is appreciated.”

                “I’ll give you the pages in the morning. You look exhausted. Bathroom is through there”—she nods her head toward the door, winking as she adds—“the girls don’t mind if you sleep in your underwear, either. They’d probably be impressed. Let me get you a blanket. Towels are in the cupboard in the morning.”

                “Hey Roxy?”

                “Yeah?”

                “I’m glad you’re sober.”

                Her smile lights up the room. “Me, too.”

Chapter Text

                Karkat and Rachel are gone by the time he gets to the orphanage. Gamzee is already playing with some of the kids and, as fearful as Dave is, he’s grateful for it. He goes straight to doing the dishes without a single thought and falls into the familiar moan-and-groan of the day. Trynna calls to him after lunch and they finish that day’s research within two hours, giving him enough times to chase down a group of kids and play with them in the backyard.

                Dave likes working at the orphanage. This was never much of a secret, though. Between playing hide-and-seek and tag, cleaning dishes and consoling trouble-hearted kids is nothing. He almost wishes he could do this for the rest of his life, but he knows he can’t. He needs to find whatever semblance of a job he can get soon. Make a career of loose-end jobs, maybe become a public speaker for “reasons why you shouldn’t fuck yourself over”, prove it to them with actual, hard-core facts. He could imagine himself behind a desk in front of Terezi’s office, playing secretary, but he knows better. No law firm will hire someone with a record.

               Dave works his way through making dinner without trouble and Gamzee waltzes in, taking a seat on the counter. His eyes follow every single movement Dave makes from the way he stirs the simmering pot to the way he looks over his shoulder to sneeze away from it. At first the other man makes him feel uncomfortable, but within a few minutes the silence grows into something more comfortable. He watches Gamzee out of the corner of his eyes, never once completely relaxed, and bides his time.

               After dinner, Karkat and Rachel still aren't back. It's eight-thirty by the time he gets everyone into bed that needs to be there and goes to clean up some loose ends around the house. He catches Trynna out of bed at nine-ten, rubbing at her eyes and trying to get a cup of water. He helps her and tucks her back in, thanking her for all of her help today. She smiles and wriggles into her pillow as he turns the light out.

               He tells the older kids to go to bed shortly thereafter and relaxes when they do. He relaxes into the couch downstairs, checking his phone for lack of anything else to do. There are four messages from Karkat he missed earlier, one from around eight-twenty saying that he and Rachel won't be back for a few hours and to hopefully hold down the fort. There's another message about ten minutes later telling him that Karkat texted Gamzee and asked him to hurry down to help him. One not even five minutes after that saying that Gamzee said he "has been here all day" and Karkat asks why he isn't answering. There's one three minutes after that, completely capslocked, saying that he needs to fucking answer already. Over two hours have passed and it's been eerily silent. Dave would be afraid, but he's faced scarier this past week.

               He rubs his face and starts formulating a text back, but deletes all of it before sending it. He tries again, but when he trips up the stairs he stops and blacks his screen out until he can take a seat at Karkat's desk. Gamzee is on his bed, reading his still-freaky-if-not-even-more-so-now bible. There's a smile on his lips. Definitely more-so now.

               He opens his phone back up, trying a third time to figure out what he should reply with. The words don't come and the exhaustion drags at his eyes, clawing at them until they're almost shut. He takes his glasses off, leaves them on the desk, and rubs at his eyes—trying to wake himself up.

               He stares at his phone screen for ten minutes with a blank sort of off-focus, dead-man-walking stare before Gamzee clears his throat and announces that he's going home. Dave jerks and nods, muttering a quick thank-you for his help today when Gamzee gives him a long, unfeeling look. Dave swallows and doesn't breathe until he sees the door latch shut.

               Dave stands and stretches, trying to work blood back through his system. When that doesn't work, he lies on Karkat's bed, breathes deeply, and tries to think. He breathes in the deep scent of Karkat's musk on his pillows and smiles gently as all thoughts of the creepy murderer-slash-walking pariah disappear. Karkat is much better than that clown, anyway. (And much less frightening, which is always a plus.)

 

Karkat shrugs his shoulders at Rachel's question as he slips his key into the lock. He opens the door, finding it unlocked, and frowns as he holds the door open. There are no sounds coming from inside, which is always a great thing at eleven o'clock at night. None of the babies or grubs are crying, either, which is a relief. He doesn't want to have to spend any time consoling any criers at this time of night—not after his day with Mr. Strider, that stupid legal secretary who kept explaining the same laws over and over again, all those stupid comments on his being a Troll and the (near) heart-attacks he had suffered when he thought he lost his wallet and when Dave decided to be a complete and utter asshole and not reply to any of his texts.

               "But seriously," he continues, whispering as quietly as he can while still being loud enough for her to hear. "I really doubt that Dave would have left without having anyone back here to supervise these kids, even this late at night. At the very least, Gamzee is here. If not, he probably called Aradia or something. I'm not sure. He's not the kind of guy to forfeit responsibility like that."

               "Well, considering how long his record is—"

               "You can't say that because you didn't know prior to today. I didn't even know. I doubt that Aradia knows."

               "Well, go check and see who's here. I need to go to bed. I'm dead on my feet." She leans over and kisses his cheek. He grins gently, agreeing with her, and hugs her good-night before trudging his way upstairs. She stays on the ground floor to go to her own bedroom.

               Karkat enters his bedroom fully expecting to see Gamzee napping against the wall having fallen asleep in the middle of the prayer. What he doesn't expect is to see Dave on his side with his arm stretched out and his phone just barely out of his hand. It's teetering on the edge of the bed and Karkat manages to catch it before it cracks its screen on the floor.

               (He should let it crack; this motherfucker had him worrying.)

               On the front screen of the phone, other than the dead-battery signal, blinks the cursor of Dave's in-progress text. He recognizes his own messages from earlier that day, read but not replied to, saying:

sorry i didnt reply earlier i was really busy wi

               (He should let it crack; this motherfucker had him worrying over nothing.)

               Karkat sighs and smiles gently as he watches Dave's arm curl up and around Karkat's own pillow. He smiles in his sleep, muttering stupidly bizarre words that probably have no translation in any language known to Man, Troll, or monkey. Karkat reaches up and unbuttons his shirt, removes that and as his pants, as well his tie (fucking ties; he hates these wrong-ways nooses). He kneels on the edge of the bed, places his hand on Dave's side and nudges him until he makes a noise in the back of his throat and asks what he wants.

               "Take your clothes off, dipshit."

               "Last time," he slurs as he props himself up on his elbow, "you were a lot nicer with the way that you told me to do that." He has a smile on his lips and a grin in his eyes, mocking Karkat in the kindest way possible.

               "Do you really want to sleep in jeans?"

               Dave pulls a face and rolls onto his back, patting at his pockets. "Shit, where's my phone?"

               "Right here," Karkat snorts. He makes a vague motion to it with the tip of his nose and slips his hands under Dave's shirt. Dave grins stupidly and sits up completely, letting Karkat undress him. Karkat leans him in and kisses him, smiling when Dave nudges his nose into the crook of his neck. "You can go back to sleep now, Dave."

               "I should get back to Roxy's place."

               "Dave, it's almost fucking midnight. You're not walking at this time of night and I doubt Rachel will let me drive you home right now. That's ridiculous. C'mon. You're sleeping here tonight."

               "But—"            

               "No buts. You owe me."

               "Owe you? What for?"

               "Freaking me out. I thought that you left when you didn't reply!"

               "Really sorry," he murmurs. His fingers slip up around the back of Karkat's neck and nudge at him until he eventually gives in and lets Dave kiss him again. He punctuates every word with the slow drag of lips and Karkat barely smiles into them as he returns each and every kiss. "I was so busy I didn't get it until a couple hours ago. Meant to reply. Must'a fallen asleep. Why were you two so late?"

               "We stopped to get something to eat before we got back. Spent most of the day with idiots."

               "Welcome to the legal system where the lawyers are idiots and intelligence doesn't matter."

               "That doesn't even make sense with the show's opening."

               “That show is also like a hundred zillion years old; how do you even know what it is?”

               “Every now and then a video floats up from the bottom of GrubTube. Whose Line is actually pretty funny, though. You?”

               “Same.”

               “Never say ‘zillion’ again, either.”

               He shrugs his shoulders and his arms slip up the top of Karkat's neck, fitting him in the bend of his elbow. Karkat chuckles and slips his hands through Dave's hair as the kisses get deeper and deeper. Dave makes a quiet moan and Karkat pulls away to breathe. He rests his forehead on top of Dave's, keeping his eyes shut as Dave's hands slip down his shoulders, down his arms, and come to rest when Dave's forearm meet the mattress.

               "I really am sorry for worrying you."

               "I'm just glad that I can trust you, Dave. Rachel would flip her shit at me if she found out that I trusted you to be here and you bailed out because you didn't feel like it."

               "Kids need someone to watch 'em."

               "Scoot over. Your fat ass is hogging the bed."

               "You could lie on top of me."

               "You could scoot over so I can sleep in my own bed."

               "You could stop complaining."

               "You could sleep on the floor."

               Dave laughs breathlessly as they kiss again. Karkat trails one hand down and tickles at the fresh skin on Dave's neck, where the scarf had been discarded along with the rest of his clothes. He loves the small shiver that dances along Dave's muscles as he cranes his neck for him to play with. Karkat kisses the side of it and laughs as Dave hums.

               Still, Dave wriggles a little further away and Karkat lies on his side facing him. Dave rolls onto his stomach but faces him with a simple shift of his head. Karkat places his arm around Dave's waist when Dave puts his hand up between them. Karkat kisses Dave's shoulder and settles in for the night. His arm slips a little until the hand splays open on her lower back.

               "Y'know," Dave laughs, "sex sounds fucking awesome right now."

               "I'm too tired. And my head hurts."

               "Endorphins released during sex help headaches to go away. And you sound like a girl."

               "I'm just telling the truth."

               "Well, I doubt that Rachel would be very happy about me having sex with her charge under her own roof. So other than the fact that it's way too late, I don't think that I would go through with it anyway."

               "Then why mention it?"

               "Good question."

               "You're so tired that your brain-to-mouth filter has ceased to work—if you even had one in the first place. Just go to sleep."

               Dave nods, yawns, smiles as he leans against Karkat and falls back asleep.

 

“Dave, wake up.”

               “Do I have to?” He grumbles into the pillow. There’s a low laugh, much lower than Dirk’s or Rose’s and he blinks his eyes open to see Karkat kneeling on the edge of the bed with a small smile playing across his lips. His hand is still on Dave’s side and his fingers are tickling over the scars on the back of his shoulder.

               “Well, would you rather sleep in and not eat breakfast or wake up now and eat breakfast with me?”

               “With you?”

               “I just said that, didn’t I?”

               “Gimme a moment to get dressed.”

               “Don’t forget your scarf. It’s on the desk. I’ll be downstairs.”

               Dave nods his head and stands up, groaning as the muscles in his lower back stretch. Karkat chuckles and kisses the back of his neck before closing the door behind himself. Dave smiles as he manages to find his jeans, half-buried under the bed, and his shirt. He dresses in them and wraps the scarf around his neck without thinking about it.

               The kitchen is empty except for himself and Karkat. The sun has barely begun to rise and shine through the windows and he thinks of Terezi’s kitchen. It’s probably swamped with orange sunlight right about now. It probably stinks of citrus, too, for that matter.

               He takes a seat next to Karkat and grins at him as he pushes a bowl of cereal Dave’s way. They eat in silence, mostly, and Dave enjoys being alone (and awake, for that matter) with Karkat for the first time in forever. He presses his knee against Karkat’s and the Troll glances up at him with somewhat of a derisive snort. He grins, though, and continues eating.

               Karkat has a faraway look in his eyes as he eats. He’s deep in thought in such a way that Dave’s head hurts. Thought of that variety should not occur during the summer holiday—and not at this time in the morning. Dave is almost halfway through his cereal bowl when Karkat finally speaks.

               “When did he do it?”

               “Who do what?”

               “Gamzee choked you.”

               Dave stops, mid-motion, and lowers the spoon back into the bowl. “What?”

               “When did Gamzee choke you? How long ago?”

               “How do you—when my scarf was off this morning?”

               “It’s a pretty deep bruise. I’m surprised that I didn’t notice last night, but it was pretty dark when I got home. How long ago did Gamzee choke you?”

               “Why do you think Gamzee—“

               “He’s my moirail. I know him. I know what he’s like and how he acts. I know the size of his hand and I know how easily he forgets that Humans bruise. I know him like you know Aradia and vice-versa. When did he choke you?”

               “You can’t tell Aradia.”

               “Do I look like someone who cares about Aradia right now? I just want to know when he did it. It’s not like I’m going to call up Aradia and start telling her everything that you haven’t told her. I don’t care what she learns and doesn’t. I only care about my moirail. In this situation.”

               “It was Monday.”

               “And you’re not dead yet?”

               “What?”

               “Well, typically, Gamzee threatens them the first day, they break up with me on the second or third day, and then they’re dead a few days later. S’why I don’t, really, hardcore date a lot of people. You’re only the fourth person I’ve been in a relationship with, not including Gamzee. Same thing happened to all of them and almost happened to Nepeta before I managed to stop him.”

               “I’m not interested in breaking up with you. So I guess that’s probably why.”

               “You’re an idiot.”

               “I’m an idiot because I want to date you. That’s totally not self-demeaning at all.”

               “You’re still an idiot.”

               Dave shakes his head and continues to eat.

               “You should have told me. Or Aradia. Or someone. How did she not even notice?”

               She did, but the bruise took a long time to set, so when she noticed it, it wasn’t as dark as it is now and you couldn’t make out the hand. It just looked like I had hit my neck on something or just wiped something off of it, I suppose. I had to squint to see the outline. She hasn’t seen me since. If we did see each other, she would probably rip the scarf off of my neck and demand that I tell her who did it so she can promptly kill whoever did it.”

               “Smart woman. I’m probably going to do the same.”

               “Karkat, no—“

               “I’m tired of him abusing people I’m interested in. There’s more than just him, you know.”

               “But you’ll get hurt—“

               “He has more than just me in his quadrants and, God damn it, I deserve to be with someone I’m seriously fucking interested in so don’t you even fucking try to talk me out of this. Better comparison: I’m not the only one in his quadrants, so why the fuck does he have to be the only one in mine?” Dave doesn’t point out that it’s the same one.

               “Is there anything I can say to make you stop?”

               “Yes. But don’t.”

               Dave frowns and finishes his cereal. Karkat finishes at the same time and Dave does the dishes, humming quietly to himself as he goes through the familiar actions. After he dries them, he goes to put them in the cupboard and smiles to himself as he feels Karkat press him into the corner on the counter.

               He turns around and Karkat returns the smile. Karkat moves forward until there is absolutely no room for Dave to breathe and, slowly, he presses their lips together. Dave’s fingers wrap around the back of his neck, pulling him close, and Karkat’s arms rest on the counter on either side of Dave.

               Kissing Karkat is like kissing no one else. He makes it a personal challenge to best himself at every given chance. He goes out of his way to find new ways to make Dave go crazy, to make him hum and moan and forget everything going on around them. Kissing Karkat makes Dave’s entire body sing with a blood rush, makes him forget that his eyes are closed and that typically men don’t close their eyes during kisses—at least, not in the popular movies.

               When they pull away, Dave is breathless and smiling like an idiot. Karkat is the same and he pulls himself in for another one—and another and another until Dave’s hands are in Karkat’s hair not to hold him but because if he doesn’t have them there then he’ll slip down into a puddle of nothingness. (And, wow, was Karkat always taller than him or are his knees that weak?)

               This time, when they pull apart, Karkat puts their foreheads together, noses tickling each other’s, lips barely sliding against each other enough to make them tingle. Dave is breathless, eyes half-lidded and dreamy as he stares up at the man who did it all. Karkat grins.

               “Keep your eyes open,” he whispers. This time, when Karkat leans in, Dave watches as red eyes look straight into his. His breathing hitches, seeing nothing but Karkat’s every emotion, every powerful one of his emotions centered, staring, straight into Dave, and Dave’s eyelids start to lower—Karkat bites his lower lip and his eyes pop open again. He can feel the pull of a grin on his lips as he focuses on staring into the Troll’s eyes rather than closing them. Butterflies dance in Dave’s stomach and he pulls away laughing at him.

               “What’s so funny?”

               “Your nose is fucking huge from this angle.” He whispers, half embarrassed, half glad to be here again. He doesn’t want to ruin this moment by speaking too loud. Besides, the way that Karkat snorts and speaks at the normal volume makes it all the better.

               “Asshole. That’s what I get for being all romantic.”

               “How is staring into your eyes as we kiss romantic?”

               “I don’t know. I saw it online one time and thought that I should try it. And it was pretty fucking intense until you pointed out the size of my Jewish motherfucking nose.”

               “Hey! I’m Jewish and my nose isn’t that large!”

               “Hey! I was making a joke and not being serious! Besides,” he adds as an after note, “you have a fucking button-nose anyway. Small as shit.”

               “Shut up. I do not.”

               “Cute as shit, too.”

               Dave sticks his tongue out, fitting Karkat’s neck into his elbow for a change as Karkat takes it in. Dave closes his eyes, chuckling, and Karkat’s fingers play peek-a-boo with the hem of Dave’s shirt. Dave moans ever-so-quietly, humming as Karkat’s lips trace down the angle of his jaw and down the length of his throat that isn’t covered by the scarf. Karkat tugs at it, pulling it down and away from his skin. It slithers, tickling at him as it falls away. Dave shivers at the cool air, grinning again as a pair of lips attaches and sucks.

               “No marks, Karkat.”

               “Too late.”

               Dave groans as Karkat’s teeth dig in and as he comes away, suckling at his skin. Karkat’s hands pull at Dave’s shirt, taking it straight off of him. Dave’s hands hook in Karkat’s shirt and he manages to get it half way up Karkat’s chest when a woman’s voice cuts in—“I hope you two aren’t planning to do anything in the kitchen, of all places.”

               Karkat jumps away from him as Dave just clings to the countertop, standing rigid and upright as he stares at Rachel. She’s seated at the table, smiling up at them with a coy look in her eyes. Karkat’s face is darker than Dave’s with the blood rushing through both of them and the cool hiss of being caught has slowed Dave Jr’s ascent.

               “I, h-how long have you been there, R-Rachel?” Karkat stutters (and, yeah, that’s cute, but Dave doesn’t think that he should be lingering on his every cute-moment right now… even if he has a lot).

               “Long enough to know that Dave thinks you’re a good kisser. And you’re a natural at sneaking up behind him and trapping him in corners.”

               “The whole time? You’ve been watching us make out the whole time?”

               “Well, it was cute watching you make him so shy.”

               “I’m really not that shy, though.” Dave mutters as his face gets even darker than before.

               “I’ve noticed.” She lifts the spoon from her cereal and grins as Dave snatches his shirt out of Karkat’s hand and pulls it on. “You two should run along upstairs if you don’t want the kids catching you. Don’t be too loud now.”

               “Rachel!” Dave’s shout matches Karkat’s and the two of them all but run out of the room with their heads down. Karkat is the one that ends up shutting the door and Dave sits down, heavily, on Karkat’s bed. Karkat joins him after a moment, breathing carefully.

               “That fucking sucks.”

               “What’s the opposite of blows with the negative connotation still the same?”

               Karkat snorts and shrugs. Dave turns his head and carefully presses his lips to Karkat’s cheek—his jaw—down his chin—down his neck and sucks on the skin there. Karkat’s lips twitch into a smile and he sighs without the slightest sound.

               Dave pushes him down and grins as he swings his leg over to the other side of his bed. He pulls his own shirt off, letting the scarf unravel and slip away without a fight. Dave’s hands slip up Karkat’s chest, taking his shirt with them, and Karkat lifts himself up far enough to deter Dave.

               “I swear to God if we wake anyone up, I’m going to kill you.”

               “Well, I’ll be quiet. So as long as you keep your voice down, I don’t see anything bad.”

               “And if someone walks in on us?”

               “Do people usually walk in on you at six on a Saturday morning in the middle of the summer?”

               “No.”

               “Then I don’t see why we should worry.”

               “Lock the door, then you can have at it.”

               Dave takes Karkat’s lower lip into his mouth and nibbles on it until Karkat’s breathing jitters against his skin. He locks the door but when he returns, Karkat stands and meets him in the middle. Karkat kisses him again and Dave grins as he pulls the other close.

               “Rachel knows we’re having sex.”

               “No she doesn’t.” Dave laughs and nips at the skin under Karkat’s ear. He grins when he starts to shiver from it and does it again. “She teased us so that we would leave. I highly doubt that she expects us to finish when we were that embarrassed to go.”

               Karkat nods gently and tugs him along, changing their position in time for Dave’s knees to bend over the edge of the bed. Dave tickles his fingers over Karkat’s back, chuckling when he wriggles over him. Karkat pushes him until his shoulders tap against the wall. Then, he goes for his jeans, pulling open the button and undoing the zipper.

               Dave wastes no time in undressing Karkat, taking the underwear with the pants. “You know,” he says impatiently, “as much as I love kissing you, I’d rather get this started.”

               “My sentiments exactly. Lift your ass up so I can get these off.”

               “Ever the romantic soul, aren’t you, Karkat?”

               “Shut up and help me get your pants off, darling.”       

               Dave snorts and helps him, wriggling himself out of the denim. Karkat’s lips adhere to Dave’s collarbone again, biting down just hard enough to make his toes curl. His arms wrap around Karkat’s back, slipping them down over Karkat’s waist, hips, thighs, until he pulls Karkat’s legs open by his knees and tugging him as close as he can.  Karkat reaches down, wrapping his hand around Dave’s cock, and starts pulling and tugging. Dave has to bite his hand to stifle the moan. Karkat grins, pulling away from his collar in order to kiss and bite at his lips instead.

               Dave groans into Karkat’s mouth as he enters Karkat’s nook. It’s just as great this time as it had been the first and Karkat has to pause half way through in order to breathe. Dave places his hands on the man’s waist and grins as Karkat supports himself on Dave’s shoulders. When at last Dave is far enough in that Karkat can comfortably support himself on his legs, Dave leans forward and takes Karkat’s nipple into his mouth. He bites gently and Karkat’s breathing hitches. It’s as close to a moan that the other will let out and that’s enough to make Dave’s blood sing.

               Karkat does all the work, even going so far as to snap at Dave when he tries to help. He keeps his arms around Dave’s neck, barely even letting Dave rest his hands on Karkat’s waist. Dave drinks the sight in, watching the way that Karkat’s head tips back, his heart beat in his neck, the red in his skin, by God it’s glorious. With the way that Karkat has trapped him into sitting up, every move has Karkat’s chest rubbing against Dave’s. Holy fuck they’re going to have to do this again, this is amazing. And the look of ecstacy on Karkat’s face. Holy shit, it’s beautiful. He licks at a bead of sweat on his neck and Karkat--and Karkat nearly groans. It’s amazing.

               The muscles in his stomach squirm, his face heats, bright red—he’s a majestic sight and Dave drinks it all in. It’s fucking amazing. Watching this man right here embrace him with his entire being and fuck him simultaneously while still barring razor sharp teeth and utter silence. It’s breathtaking.

               And fuck Dave if he doesn’t have to bite his hand hard enough to draw a bruise when Karkat cums—and again when he does, seconds later. Karkat collapses on top of him, teeth in Dave’s neck, panting and fighting for breath. Dave wraps his arms around him, catching his own breath, and smiles at him gently when he finally pulls away.

               “Holy fuck you reek.”

               “Because the first thing I want to hear after sex is how badly I smell. Thank you, Karkat. You are obviously the light of my life and I can’t help but be amazed by how obviously you know every inherent wish of mine. You have made me the happiest man alive by knowing that one little fact. I can’t be any happier than I am at this moment.”

               “You could always suck it up. No one’s in the shower right now and I’m sure that if we hurry fast enough we can get in there before anyone else.”

               “But that’s a lot of work.”

               “I know. Across the hall and everything. C’mon, I hate being this sweaty.”

               “But damn do you look good like this.”

               Karkat grins as he drags his lips across Dave’s. He climbs off carefully and lays on his back, groaning as one arm pillows his head and the other drapes across his chest. “You’re totally right though,” he yawns. “Too much fucking work.”

               “You’re the one that is complaining about all of it!”

               “Come here and lie down. Lay down. I don’t even know. How do you even conjugate that word?”

               “Lie down. Scoot over.” Karkat shakes his head and instead throws the arm next to his head across the rest of the bed. Dave groans, but slides under his arm with little fighting. Karkat turns his head and pecks a kiss on Dave’s cheek, eyes slipping shut.

               “No. C’mon. You can sleep afterward, but I’ll feel bad about myself if I make Rachel have to pay for an extra shower. She puts up with enough anyway. I’m jealous of you already.”

               “You should be. You definitely should be. I mean, I just had an amazing fucking orgasm and you got a minimal ‘eh’ one. But you shouldn’t feel bad. Gamzee does it enough that we have it factored into the budget.”

               “That’s Gamzee, not me.”

               “Lazy-ass. Just hand me a shirt or something. And some pants. And we’ll go.”

               “Mind if I borrow a shirt from you, by the way? I can wear the same jeans, but the same shirt is a little out of the question.”

               “You can borrow a pair of boxers for all I care. It’s all over there. You’ll just have to get off your lazy ass and get them, y’know.” He hums. Dave rolls his eyes at him and glares at the distance between him and the closet. Much too far. That is so far away that the entire planet of Aftori decided to go on a vacation and there is still enough room for what is left of Earth and Alternia. More than enough room, the three planets are hanging out in a jacuzzi, sizzling along with some girl planets and schmoozing. (Aftori is just winning in the schmoozing war because He can make fun of the other two for not having any life.)

               “Look. Are you going to shower or what?” Karkat groans, rolling onto his side to better face Dave. “If you get up and get some clothes and pull a pair of pants on so as to not risk anyone seeing shit they shouldn’t, I’ll go in with you. Deal?”

               “Do I have to go now?”

               “The deal expires in the next half minute. Twenty-- nineteen--”

               “Asshole. Typically, the countdown starts at thirty, y’know.”

               “Ten-- nine--”

               “I’m going, I’m going.”

               Karkat grins and kisses Dave’s chin. Dave kisses him back for a moment before rolling away. He groans as he gets to his feet, finding a shirt in Karkat’s closet as well as one for Karkat himself. He also finds his own pants (hidden half under the bed, again--honestly, how many times in one day?) and pulls a pair out of Karkat’s dresser for the Troll.

               Karkat drags him off to the closer of the bathrooms, muttering about locking the others out of his room long enough to get the smell of sex out and Dave hugs him close, laughing about how he’s not angry about it at all. Karkat shoves him away, muttering about stupid attempts to be even slightly romantic at stupid times. (Karkat is grinning like an idiot and Dave takes it as an obvious win. Dave: 1. Karkat: 0.)

               The water is hot when he steps in and Karkat lets slip a legitimate groan as his head tips back. Chest-to-Chest, Dave can’t help but grin stupidly as he watches Karkat come up, spluttering, with water dripping off his nose. So, of course, in the most mature of retaliations that Karkat can possibly come up with, he fills his mouth with water and spits it out at Dave without a single thought.

               “You know what we should try some day?” Dave asks some time later, after he’s finally managed to slip his arms around Karkat’s sides and pressed his chest to the Troll’s back.

               “Not pissing each other off?”

               “Boring.”

               “Good point. What?”

               “Shower sex.”

               “Definitely a possibility. It depends on how out of your fucking mind you are.”

               “What conversation are you referencing this time?”

               “Gamzee. Your neck. That deep-as-fuck bruise your neck magically acquired from your journey into the middle of the town in the middle of butt-fuck nowhere called Idiotville.”

               “Just don’t get killed trying to stand up for yourself, ok? I would honestly be really... emotional, if you did.”

               “Sad? Melancholy? Angry? Pissed?”

               “Emotional.”

               “There are a lot of emotions that fall under that section. Namely: all of them.”

               “I would be very emotional.”

               “Asshole.”

               Dave kisses Karkat’s jaw and tightens his arms anyway. “Yeah, well, shuddup. Don’t get yourself killed, ok? I’ll pay any hospital bills so long as you don’t die.”

               “Just don’t piss Gamzee off any more than I will and we’ll both survive. Deal?”

               “I would tell you to shoot me a text when he gets here but I’m pretty sure that my phone is more dead than the Third Condesce after a chariot race in the Third Galaxy.”

               Karkat snorts and flicks water in his face. “We better get out soon.”

               Dave sighs. “You’re right. I don’t think that Rachel will be happy to find out that I’m late to work, let alone that I’m late because I was showering with you.”

               “Oh God, whatever you do, don’t you dare tell her that we had sex. Even if she guesses, don’t you dare confirm it. I don’t care. Just fucking ignore the subject altogether.”

               Dave kisses his cheek again and nods. “Will do, butter muffin. Go ahead and turn the water off.”

               Karkat does so, all the while glaring over his shoulder. “Butter muffin?” Dave arches his brow at him as he steps out of the porcelain tub. He grabs a towel for himself and tosses another. Karkat almost bats it out of the way before realizing what it is and catching it. “Did you just fucking call me butter muffin?”

               “Yeah.”

               “What the actual fuck is wrong with you? What’s wrong with me? Why would I date someone with such a horrible sense of cutesy-names? Don’t ever call me butter muffin again. I will have your balls. Don’t test me.”

               “Oh, come on, you’re asking a lot of me, Karkat. I mean, not telling Rachel and not calling you butter muffin? That’s a lot of work. Hard work and perspiration.”

               “Look, if you wanted to tell me that you weren’t going to tell her in the most asshole-ish way possible, you did. But that name never leaves this room--it never leaves your lips again. You are not even allowed to think it again. Got it?”

               “Yeah, yeah. Come here, your hair is all messed up.”

               “I just got out of the shower. What do you expect?”

               “Oh just come here?”

               “Why is that a question?”

               “Are you going to come over here and find out?”

               Karkat shrugs and, after a moment of thought, finally walks up to him. Arms crossed and sour mood all over him. Dave runs his hands through his mess of black hair and presses a gentle kiss to his lips. Karkat pushes away half-heartedly and leans into Dave when they kiss again.

               “So anyway,” Dave mutters, “Despite how often we’ve had sex--”

               “What, all two times?”

               “Who’s counting?” Karkat rolls his eyes and motions for him to continue. “Despite how often we’ve had sex we haven’t had an actual one-on-one date. How does dinner sound? Sometime?”

               “Sounds fun, but I’m not sure if I want to do it before the trial is over. Might give your dad more reason to hate me.”

               “I can wait. On one condition.”

               “What’s that?”

               “I pay.”

               “You motherfucking asshole.”

               “What do you say?”

               “No.”

               “You’re only saying that because you want to pay.”

               “Yeah and the whole way I’ll agree is if I at least pay for myself.”

               “No, that’s unacceptable. No way to have a date. I should pay. I asked you out first.”

               “We’re also naked, in the middle of a bathroom, and we just had sex. I think that rules out about nine out of all ten of the ‘Proper Rules of Courtship’. I’ll only agree to it if you let me pay for myself, if not for you, too.”

               “I think this is something we’re going to have to argue over later.”

               “Good idea. Which shirt was the one you were borrowing, again?”

               “Whichever you don’t grab.”

               They dress in relative silence, poking and prodding at each other with their elbows and fingers whenever the other isn’t expecting it. It ends up with Dave against the door and Karkat attached to his neck, teeth scraping and digging at it until the space that had once been Gamzee’s middle finger is nothing but an abnormally shaped bite mark that’s going to last longer than the handprint, if Gamzee doesn’t decide to give him another scare.

               “You are way too easy to pin,” Karkat grins, all teeth and humor.

               Dave grins back and shrugs. “Only when there’s someone interesting enough to pin me down.”

               Karkat shakes his head and wraps the scarf around Dave’s neck. Dave ducks his head to help him before they leave. Dave walks Karkat to his bedroom door and gives him a bad attempt on a shy kiss to the cheek. Karkat pulls away, rolling his eyes, but the faint red hue on his cheeks says different. “You’re acting fucking stupid, Dave.”

               “Well, I at least enjoyed this outing.”

               “You are a fucking idiot.” He kisses Karkat again and this time Karkat returns it. “Stop being a sap.”

               “I’m dating the Karkat Vantas, Knower of Ridiculously Stupid Dating Tips and Dating Advisor Extraordinaire. And you’re telling me you don’t want to date someone who has his sappy moments.”

               “You know what? Shut up.”

               “I should be getting downstairs anyway.”

               “Rachel is probably in her office downstairs. It’s not really time to wake the others up yet.”

               “Thanks, babe.”

               “Ok, stop with the cutesy names.”

               “What do you mean, honey?”

               “I mean that the next cutesy name that slips by your lips will result in a knuckle sandwich, darling.”

               Dave laughs and kisses him until Karkat grins.

 

Rachel has her head in her hands as she stares at a document on her laptop. Dave arches his brow and knocks on the doorjamb beside him. She glances up for a moment before smiling tiredly and asking him how he is. He shrugs his shoulders, answers in the most blasé way he can, and asks her if there’s anything he can help with.

               “Oh, no, I’m just working on the budget. There’s not much you can really do, unless you know how to make money appear out of thin-air.”

               “Invest in mortuaries. They’re never going out of style.”

               “That’s a bad joke.”

               “No I’m entirely serious. Made, like, twenty-nine-grand off one of them on the stock market. Most of it has gone into hospital visits and insurance, but it was still a nice surprise considering how much was going wrong in my life at the time.” She furrows her brow and he waves his hand as if the motion would literally brush aside the subject. “I was in more fights than ever before. Dad threatened to kick me out. I was being an idiot. Still am, really, but I can help with the budgeting, if you want.”

               “It’s fine, really. I’ll figure it out.”

               “Dad wanted me to be a tax accountant when I told him that I would never be a lawyer. Made me take a bunch of summer classes about how to budget and how to keep other people’s records, a few courses on discretion, that sort of thing. You sure?”

               “Yeah. It’s just a few figures, after all.”

               Dave laughs lightly and shakes his head. “I have less than three weeks before I start off my last year of education. Let me teach you something.”

               “You’ve taught me enough.”

               “Like what?”

               “The difference between children and wrigglers.”

               “Care to enlighten me on this difference? Because I’m a bit lost.”

               “There isn’t one. You literally do not see a difference between our species.”

               “Well, that’s probably because, beyond the whole other-world’s-culture-shtick, there really isn’t one. And the whole four-quadrants thing makes sense. But you can blame my mother as to why it is that I think like that.”

               “Well, there’s not much more that you can teach me, Dave.”

               “Ok, but at least let me show you an easier way to do it.”

               “How do you know I’m not doing it the easy way? Running an orphanage is expensive.”

               “Because if you were doing it the easy way, you wouldn’t look so stressed out. You don’t have to keep to it, but at least let me try to help. Open up a spreadsheet--or, a new one, at least.”

               She sighs and gives in, shrugging as she hits CTRL+N.

 

Dave winds up back at his apartment shortly after he finishes work and manages to “persuade” Karkat into giving him back his phone. By “persuade”, he means kissing him until he doesn’t notice that he stole his phone out of his hand and slid it into his own pocket.

               Rose is on her laptop in the living room, reading something by the look on her face. He leans down to give her a one-armed hug around her neck and catches some sort of journal that has a header of a man and a woman sleeping together in some sort of spoon.

               “The hell are you reading?”

               “It’s a journal entry about how a couple’s sleeping position may reflect their relationship. It’s really interesting. I was going to e-mail a link to you. It says that the way that Kanaya and I sleep together shows that we are in our honeymoon stage and are very erotic and sensual with each other.”

               “Didn’t need to know that. But it is pretty interesting. Which is that one?”

               “We’re facing each other with are arms and legs entangled. How do you and Karkat sleep?”

               “I dunno. It changes.”

               “Well, how did you two sleep together last night?”

               “How did you know?”

               “Roxy texted me around eleven-thirty last night saying you hadn’t come back, so I assumed that you stayed with him. And the fact that you don’t actually own a Troll-band shirt. I’m vaguely positive that Aradia doesn’t like the Sirens of Alternia, either.”

               “Whatever.”

               “How did you two fall asleep, then?”

               “I dunno. I was half asleep when he got back, but I suppose that I was sort-of on my stomach and my arm was reaching out... Karkat fell asleep on his side.”

               She scrolls through the article for a moment before finding the section that she’s looking for. Dave’s face grows red seeing the title of the section and he pushes at her. “Don’t you dare fucking say it. Tell no one!”

               “There’s nothing for you to be ashamed of, Dave. It’s perfectly reasonable for you to be--”

               “Don’t you dare tell anyone! Don’t you fucking tell Dirk, either! Most of all, don’t tell Dirk!”

               “But Dave--”

               “I’m dead fucking serious, Rose!”

               “Don’t tell me what?” Dirk asks from his place in the hallway opening.

               “That he’s the submissive one in his relationship with Karkat.” Rose answers with a grin that would be beautiful if she weren’t such a devil-in-disguise.

               “You fucking bitch!”

               The grin turns on him and he withers beneath it. She’s just doing it out of fun--and he’ll prank her computer or something to get back at her with. He’ll even enlist Egbert to help him with that. Until then, she can stew in the knowledge that he’ll get her back in the most passive-aggressive way possible.

               “If you didn’t want her to tell me, why did you tell her in the first place?”

               “She was asking me about sleeping arrangements.”

               “She got me with that one, too. Evidently the way Jake and I sleep together means that he’s nurturing or some shit like that. I dunno. Reverse-spoon. Not all of the explanations make sense for a man-on-man relationship, y’know?”

               “When’d you two get together?”

               Dirk sighs and shakes his head, walking into the kitchen.

               “If you get the dick out of your ass and ask him out, maybe--”

               “Shut the fuck up. It wouldn’t work out, anyway.”

               “And why’s that?”

               “I’m too clingy. I get jealous easily.”

               “So you’re going to let a simple thing get in the way of possibly the best relationship you will ever have when you can warn him ahead of time?”

               “You know what? Shut up.”

               “I mean, it’s no different for you to date Jake than it would be for me to date a Troll--”

               “Shut the fuck up.”

               “So you’re going to give up before it even starte--”

               “I swear to God if you say one more word I will punch your face in. I’m already pissed at Aradia--don’t make me take it out on you, bro.”

               “Fine, fine. Fuck, just trying to help.”

               “Your form of ‘help’ leads to you stepping on toes and getting your teeth knocked in. I don’t want to fucking talk about it, ok?”

               “Fine, fine.”

               “Speaking of not talking about Jake, why has Terezi been pestering me all day? She says she can’t get a hold of you and she really needs to.”

               “Oh, yeah, that. Tell her my phone is dead and I’ll talk to her later.”

               Rose slips her phone out from it’s hiding place in the top of her shirt and takes the battery out, handing it to him. She levels him with one long look of exasperation and says, “it’s been going on all day.”

               He trades batteries without a fight and powers on his phone. It goes through the typical too-long-don’t-care power-up and he frowns as his background comes into view. It starts screaming immediately, six messages from Terezi, two from Aradia, one from a girl Dirk had given his number to as a joke (and, admittedly, it was pretty funny) and a call from a number he doesn’t recognize.

               “Terezi is just cheering about the fact that she can represent me after all.”

 

TG: fucking told you so
GC: WH3R3 H4V3 YOU B33N 4LL D4Y?
TG: working whats it to you
GC: COULDNT YOU H4V3 4T L34ST 4NSW3R3D?
TG: dead phone battery
TG: anything so important that i need to know now?
GC: NOT B3YOND TH4T
TG: ok well congrats i guess
GC: TH4NKS
TG: pester you later tz

 

               “Ok, but how else do you and Karkat sleep?”

               “Do you want me to text him or something?”

               “Yes.”

               “No, fuck you. You’ll just embarrass me some more.”

               “Come on. It’s fun. I promise I won’t tell mom and Daniel.”

               “No fuck you.”

               “I’ll tell them if you don’t.”

               “You bitch.”

               “So?”

 

TG: how did we wake up this morning
CG: WHY DOES THAT MATTER?
TG: i dont even fucking know 
TG: rose wants to know
CG: DO YOU WANT HER TO?
TG: to be honest i dont even really care im just giving her shit for the sake of giving her shit
CG: YOU WERE CUDDLED UP UNDER MY ARM
CG: I WAS LAYING ON MY BACK
CG: LYING?
CG: SERIOUSLY HOW DO YOU CONJUGATE THAT WORD
TG: whatever sounds the best in that situation

 

               Dave turns the screen around on Rose’s lap and scrolls a little bit before he finds the answer he’s looking for. Evidently, it just means that Karkat provides emotional support for Dave and is happy to do it.

               “Whatever, it’s all bullshit anyway. You said you were going to send me a link. Have you tinyurl’d it, yet?”

               “Forwardslash-Sleeping-Habits. Why? What’s it mean? How do you two sleep?”

               “It’s all bullshit anyway. Need You section.”

               Her eyes scan the excerpt before she smiles. “That’s adorable.”

               “I swear to any and all Gods that if I find anything hinting towards a fiction, I will personally strangle you.”

               “I will die honored.”

               “Fuck it, I’ll get Makara to do it.”

               “Can’t even choke me out yourself? That’s cruel. But why Gamzee?”

               “He’s a High Blood. He won’t be charged.”

               “Ass.”

               “Whatever you say, sis. Whatever you say.”

 

CG: WHY?
TG: http://tinyurl.com/SleepingHabits
CG: WHAT?
CG: WHY THE HELL DOES THIS SAY YOU NEED EMOTIONAL SUPPORT?
TG: i dont even fucking know
CG: THIS IS STUPID
TG: very
CG: JUST LIKE YOU PAYING FOR A DATE
TG: gog fucking damn it i walked straight into that one didnt i
CG: THIS CONVERSATION IS NOT OVER
TG: im paying end of discussion
CG: WHAT NO FUCK YOU
TG: did that this morning but if you want to go again...
-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] FLIPS DAVE OFF WITH THE CRUELTY OF A THOUSAND SUNS --
-- turntechGodhead [TG] gets burned --
CG: SERVES YOU RIGHT
TG: im laughing really hard right now you have no idea
CG: WE REALLY ARE NOT DONE WITH THIS YET THOUGH
TG: hows gamzee
CG: ...HES SORRY
CG: THAT HE CHOKED YOU
CG: …BUT YOU SHOULD STILL KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR HIM
TG: i will
TG: how are you then??
CG: UNHARMED
TG: thats good
TG: thats really good
CG: WHY?
CG: SO YOU DON’T GET ALL “EMOTIONAL” ON ME?
TG: you know what
TG: fuck you
CG: E:B
TG: what the hell is that?
CG: IM STICKING MY TONGUE OUT AT YOU
CG: ITS HARD TO FIND A LETTER LIKE THAT MAKES IT LOOK LIKE THAT WHILE STILL USING B FOR MY HORNS
CG: IT WAS EITHER THAT OR C|:B
TG: youre so fucking weird you have no idea
CG: I SHOULD SAY THE SAME TO YOU
CG: MR-I-NEED-EMOTIONAL-SUPPORT
TG: you know what shut up
CG: IM LAUGHING REALLY HARD RIGHT NOW YOU HAVE NO IDEA
TG: you know what fuck you

Chapter Text

           Dave doesn’t think anything of Gamzee’s I-got-reprimanded-by-my-moirail-I’m-immediately-sorry attitude for the next three days. On the third day, though, Trynna raises her eyebrow at him and tells him that “Mr. Makara has been here every day this week,” and the red-flag goes up.

           No one hides that well for any amount of time while under the same roof as the person they had choked out barely a week before. No one just lets him sneak into Karkat’s room late at night and pry a few lighthearted kisses out of the Troll before he goes back to whomever will lend him a couch for that night (Roxy—he manages a night out of the girl Dirk slipped his number to—he braves a night with Jake and considers asking Sollux for tonight, but that would get to Aradia far too quickly). No one just lets him exist without making their presence known, especially not after stalking him until he nearly went mad. He had thought the Troll was in the air vents, for Christ’s sake. No one just does that.

           He watches his back for a few more hours before Rachel kicks him out to help the wrigglers put away the playground toys before dinner. He sends them inside and picks up the last of the slack so that they can get washed up.

           The end of his scarf falls over his shoulder as he bends over to shove one of the plastic trowels into the stack on one of the lower shelves. He fixes it as he stands up and tugs at it to keep it loose but covering the bruise. He reaches his arms over his head, stretching his muscles before going back inside. He hasn’t seen Gamzee all day; he must be busy with bothering Karkat or, generally, not being around to terrorize Dave. Either way, Dave muffles a yawn into his arm in time to be swung around from a broad hand on his shoulder. One hand catches perfectly under his jaw, lifting it up until he’s craning his neck and the other rips the scarf from his neck.

           Dave plants a kick into his attacker’s stomach. Gamzee stumbles away for a second and Dave sets himself up in preparation for a fight: low shoulders, tight muscles in his arms and stomach, and always ready to run. He looks around, trying to find a way out of this and finds it—

           Gamzee’s fist throws him onto the ground. He lands, roughly, on his side and groans into a clenched jaw as pain ripples through him. A rock digs into his cheek, splitting skin, and others cause bruises down his side. He’s rolled onto his back before the pain can dissipate, wrists held down by painful, bony knees that dig into him like manacles pulled three notches too tight. Gamzee’s ankles and the majority of his weight go over his knees with just enough pressure that he can’t lift them beyond a few inches. Both of his hands wrap around his neck for a moment.

           At first, it’s just testing, as if he’s looking at the bruises that will result. Dave’s breathing skitters, fear courses through him as a cold and terrifying glacier takes up every ounce of blood he has. His heart beats faster, harder, until it’s all he can hear. He tosses his shoulders, fighting, biting at nothing, but Gamzee stays on and he’s terrified, please, please, please make it stop. PleasepleasepleasewhateverittakespleasesomeoneanyoneKarkatKarkatKatkat—

           The hands move away and for a split second he thinks that they’ll stay that way, that this was all a joke, that it was never real, but Gamzee, oh fuck Gamzee—Gamzee fixes one hand over the initial bruise, crosses his right arm over his left and pushes down on top of the left hand as hard as he can while still pinning him down with the rest of his body.

           Dave throws at him as much as he can. He hears bones creaking in his neck, prays that his hyoid bone doesn’t go because he really doesn’t want to die, he doesn’t, he wants, needs to live, let him up, let him up, up, upupupupupupupup please let him gogogogogogogopleaseGodpleasepleasenononononodon’tlethimdiepleasedon’tlethimdiehedoes’ntwanttodiepleasepleaseplease—

           The hands tighten and Dave squeezes his eyes shut as tight as they go. His lips shake along with his thoughts, half-forming words and silence as he begs for help. He can see his peripherals giving out on him, even with his eyes shut and his body is shaking, his lungs burning, God they’re burning, a fiery inferno that can’t be tamed please, anyone, Lyb h’r ‘yn hyml, byt’ pyrn zyyan h’ant ẕw r’at’ww’n myyn I’bn. ‘yk d’awwn’n ẕw dyr ‘yn h’p’nwng’n ‘yr z’l b’aşyẕn myr pwn ‘r ww’s yymz ẕw ş’atn ‘nd’r’. Byt’, byt’ b’aşyẕn myr. ‘mn.

           He blinks at the swirling black-on-black around him, trying to focus past the ringing in his ears. “Dave! Dave! Can you hear me? Dave!”

           “Fk”—he hacks, coughing and moaning as cool air sears his lungs. It tastes sickeningly sweet and he will never again forget the beautiful taste. “K-Kark—?”

           There are hands on either side of his face and the sound of relief as something rests on top of his forehead. Dave blinks rapidly, trying to get his eyes to work, but he thinks he knows what’s going on. Karkat is leaning over him with his hands on either side of Dave’s face and their foreheads are pressed as close together as possible without fusing. Karkat is on his knees off to the side of Dave’s waist, begging, no, pleading that he be alright. “Dave? Dave, thank God. Are you okay? Are you hurt? Don’t answer that. Are you okay?”

           “Oh God everything hurts.”

           “Broken? Is anything broken? How does your neck feel?”

           “Sore, really fucking sore. Dear fucking God what in the world happened?”

           “I came outside when Rachel said you hadn’t come back in and I found Gamzee choking you. I was so fucking scared. I opened the door and you were fighting one second and the next you just went fucking still. I threw Gamzee off as quickly as I could but you weren’t moving and I had to fucking check your pulse; I think you fucking died! I was pounding on your chest and I had to fucking breathe into your lungs but is anything broken? Holy shit. And then when you came back to, you weren’t even muttering in English; it was some bizarre language and I was terrified. Are you ok? Are you ok? Is anything broken?”

           “Oh, God, nothing feels broken. Everything hurts, though.” He gasps again and reaches up. He grabs Karkat’s hands until his knuckles burn, but Karkat is gripping just as tightly and dear Lord had he really died? “How—how long was I not breathing?”

           “I don’t know. Less than a minute. Less than thirty seconds, if I had to guess. I got Gamzee off immediately and started CPR but fuck I was terrified. I know I should have waited to breathe in but I just, I couldn’t, y’know? Are you ok?”

           Holy fuck Dave died. He died. He fucking died. No pulse, no breathing, not-shitting-you Grim-Reaper died, and he’s shaking and frightened and tears are still drying on his cheeks and he knows that almost none of them are tinted red. And fuck he’s terrified but it has already happened and it’s over with. His stomach is in knots, skin is still sweating, and he feels like he’s going to roll over and be sick. He’s clinging to Karkat for dear life and he can’t let go, not now, not ever. He can’t let go. He just wants his dad.

           Someone is shushing him. This time when he opens his eyes, the grey face of a Troll is staring over him and he thinks he recognizes it, or at least he should and a shaky, tear-blurred blink later he realizes it’s Karkat and how couldn’t he recognize Karkat? He’s only—dear Lord, oh God no, please, no—

           “Karkat what time is it?” He snaps it between blubbers and Karkat looks confused. Dave’s still shaky, still splayed out like he was ten seconds ago, still shaken, but, but fuck he needs to know the time.

           “Uh, I don’t know? Six-thirty-ish?”

           “No what fucking time is it, not approximately. Just tell me what fucking time it is.”

           Karkat’s hand has no trouble getting free of Dave’s and slipping into his pocket to pull the phone out. He checks it, brow furrowed, and leaves the phone on Dave’s chest. It feels like a boulder, skittering around and grinding pebbles in its wake. It’s too heavy, too much, too large, but it’s just a fucking cellphone, what the hell? “It’s six-twenty-two. Why?”

           Dave starts muttering the time and his name. Karkat corrects him as each minute passes and he mutters it, mutters it over and over again and refuses to lose himself until Karkat takes Dave’s shoulders in his hands and shakes him hard enough to get his attention. “Why are you worrying yourself over the time? You’re just working yourself up.”

           He’s working himself up. Ha. Right. He can do that. He totally forgot. He gasps in a few clear breaths, trying to keep as many thoughts out of his head as possible. He clings to Karkat’s shirt, clings to Karkat and bends his head forward. His arms are shaking, his stomach still flippy and he doesn’t think he’ll make it much longer but fuck, Karkat is right. He’s working himself up. He’s making it worse.

           He isn’t sure what it’s going to take to make everything better again. He just wants his dad. He wants to hug his dad and apologize for every stupid thing he’s ever done. He wants to take Aradia in his arms and kiss her and apologize for everything. He wants to apologize to Dirk, Rose, Roxy, Ronnie for things he never even did. He just wants to apologize. He wants to beg forgiveness. He wants out of here and far away from Gamzee. He wants to get as far away as possible, even if that means running hard enough to puke. Dear Lord he wants to get away.

           Karkat rolls off of him and stretches one arm out, waiting with an expectant look. Dave rolls into him, burying himself in Karkat’s side, and he breathes in Karkat’s scent: the musky smell of his skin mixed with the flowery smell of detergent. Karkat’s arms wrap around him as best as they can in the position and hold him until the shaking starts to dull. Dave forces himself not to think, squeezes his eyes shut and breathes in Karkat.

           Rachel finds them after Dave has clenched Karkat’s shirt in his hand and squeezed his eyes shut. Rachel tells him that Karkat will drive him home when he’s ready to stand up and Dave nods, accepting the fact that Rachel already knows what happened. Karkat rubs his hands up and down Dave’s back—which doesn’t really help but this is Karkat—murmuring quiet apologies and “I’ll explain later”s. Dave nods, trembling, and that feels like all he’s been able to do since he came back is shake and almost piss himself.

           It’s a short, curt laugh that catches them off guard and Karkat’s hand clenches in the fabric of the shirt near Dave’s shoulder. Another laugh and this time it’s little more than a wheeze but it’s there. Dear God it’s there. Karkat leans his head away, brow furrowed again, and he’s so confused that it looks to cause physical pain. It’s then that Dave realizes that he’s the one laughing.

           “What’s so funny?”

           “I feel like I just pissed myself and I’m too nervous to look down and see.”

           “Well, you didn’t. I feel like I did, though. Are you okay? Nothing broken?”

           “No,” he laughs again, but it’s awkward and had he heard it out of anybody else’s mouth at any other time, Dave knows it would be enough to make him cringe. It’s not shocking when the noise makes his stomach do a little flip and he gags around it. “No nothing’s broken, I don’t think. I’m breathing, so my hyoid is intact. I’m frightened and I haven’t pissed myself yet, so everything is going better than expected.”

           Karkat’s hand leaves his shoulder and pushes the bangs up and out of Dave’s face. It’s like he doesn’t even care that they’re lying in a bed of dirt or that they’re gross and sweaty and still burning off the aftershocks from the shakes. He probably doesn’t. Not with that look on his face—that sly smile and the gentle, relieved eyes. He’s too relieved to care.

           Even though he returns the gentle kiss, Dave pulls away, shaking his head. “Don’t kiss me, man. I feel like I’m going to roll over and vomit.”

           “Okay, okay. Yeah. I don’t know where Gamzee ran off to. He split really fucking fast after I started compressions. We should get you out of here before he comes back. Where are the keys?”

           Dave doesn’t realize that the last part is directed toward Rachel until she tells them to stay where they are and returns with the keys in less than a minute. Karkat herds him into the car to the point where Dave has to fight him about being able to put his own seat belt on. Karkat rolls his eyes at him as he slides into the driver’s seat and starts the engine.

           “Just to your apartment, right?”

           “Can you take me to dad’s office? I just… I really need to see him right now.”

           “Yeah, I can do that.”

           “Thank you.” He isn’t sure what he’s thankful for. There are a lot of things to be thankful for right now. When Karkat takes his hand and squeezes it, Dave takes as deep a breath as he can. Dave shuts his eyes, leaning his head back, and he tries to calm down. His heart is fluttering and he should probably go to the hospital or the police station, but dear fuck he doesn’t care. He just wants to see his dad. It’s the single most bizarre feeling in the world.

           “We’re here.”

           He doesn’t even remember the ride and when he opens his eyes again his scarf is in his lap. He doesn’t remember grabbing that, either. He doesn’t remember most of it, but he does remember the feeling of cool, sweet air against his neck and Karkat turning the radio off with Dave’s hand. He remembers feeling Karkat’s hand tighten around his periodically and hearing him grumble about traffic and hitting a few red lights. When he looks over at Karkat, the Troll is looking at him half-expectantly, half-worried, but there are no cuts, no bruises, no black eyes. So maybe he didn’t disassociate. He doesn’t even know.

           “Thanks.”

           “I’ll wait here for you.”

           “No, no, I think I’m going to stay here a while.”

           “And if he’s not here?”

           “I’ll pop in, ask the front desk. If he’s not here then I’ll come back, otherwise I’ll just wave you off.”

           Karkat nods carefully, bites his lip for a moment, and nods again. His hands don’t leave the steering wheel and for a moment Dave thinks he sees them flex, as if Karkat is afraid to let go of it. Dave swallows thickly, pinches his lips together, and turns to look Karkat straight in the eye. “Thank you.”

           The only answer Dave gets in reply is a shaky smile—something more easily equated to an upturning of his lips than an actual smile and definitely something he hasn’t seen in a while. Dave lingers for a moment, not entirely sure why, and takes in a deep breath before opening the door. He goes to shut it, but Karkat calls his name and holds the scarf out to him. Dave smiles shakily and laughs at himself. “I’m not entirely sure I want anything on my neck right now.”

           “I don’t blame you.”

           Dave takes it hesitantly and closes the door softly. He hears Karkat kill the engine for the moment and Dave speeds up, ducking his head when someone walks out of the building so they don’t see the bruise.

           There’s a woman working at the counter today. He doesn’t recognize her from his stint working here and she doesn’t seem to recognize him since one of the men from an office near his father’s greets him on his way out of the office. Dave nods at him, keeping hidden, and asks the woman if Daniel Strider is in his office.

           “Yes, he’s still here. Do you have an appointment?”

           “Uh, no, not exactly.”

           She hums and for a moment Dave knows she’s going to shoot him down by telling him that the office is closing and clients are being asked to come back the next day, but then he sees her eyes flicker and he knows she saw the bruise. Maybe he should have put the scarf on after all. (He knows that, if he had, he would have started hyperventilating at the pressure, as little as it would have been.)

           “I’m sorry, what are you here for?”

           “I need to see Mister Strider.”

           “Do I need to call any public services, sir? The police? An ambulance?”

           “No. What you need to do is to let me see Mister Strider.”

           “I’m sorry, but Mister Strider isn’t currently seeing clients, or potential clients.”

           “I’m not here for a debriefing. I just need to see him. Is he with any clients now? If not, I’m going to see him.”

           “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that. If you will, sir, please leave the building and you may return tomorrow to set up an appointment.”

           “Just let me see him! If he isn’t in a meeting, I’m not infringing on anything! It’s not that big a deal!”

           “What’s going on?” Dave jumps hard enough to bang his toe on the front of the desk. He hisses and turns to see the man that had greeted him has returned from outside. There’s a frown on his face and a crease in his brow.

           Dave thanks whatever there is out there—fate, destiny, God, whatever it is—that he came back in. “I’m just trying to go see my dad and she won’t even tell me if he’s in a client meeting.”

           “I just talked to him. He’s not in any meetings, just reading over some papers his secretary prepared for him. Go ahead and go meet with him, Dave. I’ll talk to Penny for you.” He pauses, eyes roaming over Dave. Dave ducks his head to hide the bruise as much as he can. “Is everything alright?”

           “Fine—I just—I need to talk to my dad.”

           “Daniel has a kid?” Penny asks

           “Four—two sons and two daughters. Go on ahead, Dave. I’ll deal with this here.”

           “I have to tell my ride. Thanks.”

           “If you’re lucky, you’ll catch him before he locks his office door. There’s a rumor going around that he’s trying to leave a little earlier than usual today.”

           “Thanks.” He can’t even remember the guy’s name, but he just saved his ass. It’s a conscious decision for Dave not to run to the point where he’s deliberately counting out a four-beat measure as he walks. He keeps one foot inside the door and waves to Karkat until the Troll perks up in the car. He holds up a thumb and Karkat nods, returns it, and starts the engine.

           One. Two. Three. Four. Dave passes several people in the hallways, including Terezi, who stops and turns around, following him. Dave keeps going, ignoring her incessant questions, focusing more on controlling his speed. One, two, three, four. He eventually gets to a turn, where newbie, nine-to-nine interns would normally be, but the lights have been turned out and there’s not a single head there. One of the firm-partners must have let them off early or something, but he can’t even see the lights on past this point.

           Dave breaks into a run, desperate, hoping beyond hope that Daniel hadn’t gone out the back exit. If he had, he would be halfway to a car Dave doesn’t know the location of, maybe even already driving off, and his only way back just drove off. He would be forced to beg for a ride from Terezi, explain what happened, and he doesn’t think he can do that, not yet.

           He literally runs straight into someone. Dave stumbles back, but whomever he hit falters and lands on their butt. Dave looks up, still slightly breathless, and feels his shoulders slump as relief washes over him—a cold wave of relief that leaves his muscles lax and his fingers curled near his palms. It makes the bruise on his neck pulsate with the beat of his heart and he really couldn’t care any less right now because his hands are out and Daniel is accepting the help up.

           “What are you doing here, Dave?”

           “I’m so sorry, I’m really sorry, I know you don’t like us bothering you at work and I just—I couldn’t wait, I couldn’t go home and wait for you to get there, I’m so sorry.” Dave is rambling already. He has been talking to his father for less than ten seconds and his words are already coming out fast enough that they almost sound slurred. Daniel has to put his hands on Dave’s shoulders to get him to stop and look him straight in the eye.

           “Dave, breathe.” He does so, taking one large breath in and holding it for only a few seconds before letting go. He does it a second and a third time before Daniel speaks again. “What’s wrong?”

           “We need to talk,” Dave is fighting down the shaking again. His muscles have begun to quiver all over again and his teeth keep dragging at the skin on his lips. He can swear it’s broken up by the itchy feeling in them, but he isn’t entirely certain it’s chapped or if he’s so nervous that he bruised it by biting his lip without realizing it. “We need to talk somewhere private, where we can be alone. We just need to talk.”

           Daniel nods and pulls away. He’s hardly an inch off of Dave’s side as they walk to his office. Dave rolls between the balls of his feet and his heels as he waits for him to unlock the door, fighting the urge to bite his lips or his fingers any more than he already has. Daniel gets the door open after what feels like an eternity and turns the light on. Terezi is hardly a step inside the office before Dave barrels into Daniel again, wrapping his arms around him and holding him in his arms. His head pillows on Daniel’s shoulder. Dave tries to relax when Daniel’s arms wrap around his back and squeeze.

           “Dave, what happened? Why are you shaking?”

           “I’m so, so sorry dad.”

           “What are you sorry for?”

           “I don’t even know. I don’t know. Nothing. Everything. Being an idiot. Making you worry, forcing you to punish me when I know you don’t want to, making you deal with all of the shit I’ve made you deal with, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

           “Calm down. Calm down. What brought this on?”

           He starts to explain, but before he can get the words out, his voice hitches in his throat and he shakes his head. Daniel places his hands on either of Dave’s shoulders and shakes him, ever so gently. “Calm down.

           “I know. I know I need to calm down. I’m so sorry. I just—I thought I was ok, I thought that I would be able to get through this without breaking down, and then the fucking woman at the front desk started arguing with me and I thought that you had left out the back and Karkat already drove home it would take forever to get back and by then you would probably be asleep and I just—I really, really need to talk to you.”

           “I’m right here Dave. What’s wrong? What time is it?”

           “Fuck if I know. I don’t care. I’m not disassociating, at least I don’t think I am. I know what’s going on and I can feel everything and it doesn’t feel like either of the last two times, but I mean I can remember this time anyway. I don’t even feel anxious just really, really scared.”

           “What’s wrong?”

           “Dad, I died today.”

           “Dave, this isn’t funny.”

           “I need to sit down.” It doesn’t occur to Dave that this is the wrong situation. It doesn’t occur to him that typically, the story-teller is the one standing while the other is sitting, not the other way. It doesn’t occur to him and Daniel doesn’t comment on it. He just pulls the chair out from behind his desk and herds Dave into it.

           “What happened, Dave?”

           “I was at work and Karkat’s moirail was there and I hadn’t realized it. The guy hates me; I didn’t do shit to him and he hates me—I never thought that he’d….” Dave clears his throat, shakes his head, and puts his elbows on the arms of the chair. He holds his head in his hands and notices that the shaking in most of his muscles has left, leaving it in just his voice and his hands. “I was outside, cleaning up, and he ambushed me. I tried to fight him off—I don’t know why; I’d never done it before. Maybe it was because of something Karkat said, I don’t know, but I kicked him off and he got pissed and he pinned me down and I couldn’t breathe, Dad, I really couldn’t breathe. I’m lucky my hyoid isn’t broken. He literally choked me to death and then Karkat reses-resus-re-fuck it! Karkat gave me CPR and I came back and I didn’t even realize I had died until he told me I had, dad. I don’t even understand it, but I’m sorry. I’m so incredibly sorry and I don’t even know why.”

           “Dave.”

           He closes his mouth and pauses. He doesn’t want to look up—he doesn’t want to see a look of anger or sorrow or pity or anything on his face. He doesn’t want to see it—he’s afraid to see how he’ll react. He’s afraid to hear “I told you so” about Trolls. He’s afraid of everything but he needs his dad. He needs him so much that he has no idea what else to do about this. He needs to be told what to do.

           He’s saved the effort of looking up, though. Daniel kneels in front of him, rests one hand on Dave’s knee and uses the other to lift his head up. Dave pulls at the collar of his shirt, showing as much of the bruise as is possible. He watches Daniel swallow and for a moment he thinks he’ll hear it—he’ll hear that one sentence no one wants to hear because it always comes when you’re either pissed or hurt or both and that’s not what he needs to hear right now.

           “Are you ok? Just this bruise? Nothing broken? Nothing hurts?”

           “Everything and nothing hurts—simultaneously.”

           “You’re just scared. You’re probably in shock. Have you gone to the urgent care yet? An emergency room?”

           “I don’t want to go; please don’t make me.”

           “If you’re still like this in the morning, I will personally sign you in.” Dave nods his head and tries to breathe—he tries to relax, but he just can’t quite seem to make it happen. “Does Aradia know?”

           “No, no she wasn’t there. I haven’t seen her since this whole thing first started. She would be pissed to know, please don’t make me call her; I don’t think I’ll be able to handle this.”

           “She wasn’t there? When you said you were working, I assumed she was there with you—for your punishment in the fight you had with Karkat.”

           “Yeah, yeah that’s where I was.”

           “Why wasn’t Aradia there?”

           Terezi cuts in right then. “Don’t answer that, Dave.” He has to stop mid-word in order to follow her orders and he fixes her with a confused look. She shakes her head and Dave sighs, shaking his own, not willing to get into the argument right now. Not when he’s so shaken up. He feels like he needs to barf.

           “It’s not Aradia’s punishment,” Dave supplies. Terezi nods her head at him and he files that away for later questioning. They both know the way that he would have answered it, anyway. Why wouldn’t he be allowed to tell him the story behind how he didn’t take her to the parole meeting?

           “Where’s Karkat?”

           “He’s on his way home, probably there by now if traffic is ok.”

           “And his moirail?”

           “I don’t know. When Karkat brought me back, he was already gone. I don’t care.”

           “Do you feel safe right now?”

           “What?”

           “Do you feel safe? Do you feel like anything is going to attack you? Do you feel like someone is waiting for you around the corner?”

           “Not before you asked. Should I be?”

           “No, no. You feel safe, though?”

           He nods slowly, looking at him in confusion. Daniel takes his own deep breath and nods his head. “Have you already spoken with your mom? With Ronnie? Rose and Dirk?”

           “What? No. Karkat literally drove me here. I haven’t seen anyone. I just needed to talk to you. I needed—I don’t even know. I needed to apologize. Why do I need to apologize? I don’t understand what’s going on. I thought I was calm. I was pretty fucking calm on the car ride over here.”

           “Dave. Breathe. You and your mother, I swear to God. Get you worked up and suddenly it’s like you can’t think of anything else!”

           “I can’t!”

           “I know.” Daniel’s smirk is there and gone in a flash. “You need to breathe though. Take a deep breath and let it out and do it again. You’re okay. You’re going to be okay. You’re going to stay okay. I’m going to take you home and you’re going to talk to your siblings and Ronnie and then I’m going to see if your mom can take you for the night. Is that okay with you? Do you want to stay with us?”

           “It’s a good plan. I like it. I don’t care, not really. I just want to see everyone. God I’m so, so incredibly sorry.”

           “Stop apologizing for being sorry. It makes you sound stupid.”

           “Thanks for the compliment, dad, that’s totally what I need to hear now.”

           “Well, the sarcasm in that remark is a good sign that you’re a little calmer now than you were a second ago.”

           Dave laughs. It’s short and bitter, the sort of noise you would expect of a witch, forces and rhythmless. It makes Dave’s stomach flip and he honestly hopes he won’t get sick. It calms within seconds as he takes another deep breath.

           “I’m going to go get the car, okay? Pyrope, can you stay with Dave out front while I bring it around?”

           Dave doesn’t have to look up to know she nods. Daniel stands and Dave follows. His father slips an arm over his shoulders, holding him close, and Dave tries to relax under his arm. It doesn’t work very well and standing still long enough to let him lock the office door makes Dave antsy. His stomach isn’t doing flips, though, and he finds that something to be relieved for.

           Penny eyes him as they leave but doesn’t say anything. Dave doesn’t spare her a glance but the weight of her eyes on him is like Gamzee’s knees on his arms. Terezi stands close to him as they wait, close enough that he can smell her and practically see her every emotion even with his eyes closed and his back pressed against the side of the building. She would be proud, under any other circumstance, to hear that.

           “Are you okay?”

           “Shaken. Stirred. I feel like I’m going to vomit and I need to piss, but I also don’t feel like I have a bladder or stomach anymore so I don’t really know. I’m in knots. And I still don’t know why I’m so apologetic!”

           “Some people are calm after they come back from the dead, others are happy they’re alive. I suppose you’re just not ready to die and you’re sorry that you did. How long were you dead?”

           “Karkat said not even a minute, but I don’t know how reliable that is. I mean, he was pretty shaken when I came-to. Time is pretty fucking weird even without something like this over our head, so I mean I could have been out for ten minutes and it could have felt like half a minute.”

           “You wouldn’t be talking if you were dead for so long.”

           “You’re not helping.”

           “Under the circumstance, I would assume that time felt as if it took longer to process rather than shorter. If he says it was only a few seconds, it was probably only a few seconds. I think Karkat is right. Strider is almost up here. Don’t talk about the case with him, ok?”

           “I don’t even want to think about the case right now.”

           “That’s why I’m not following you home. And, Dave?”

           “Yeah?”

           “I hope you feel better. And a little less apologetic.”

           He manages a pained half-grin at her but she shakes her head and tells him not to force himself. He nods and straightens as Daniel thanks her for waiting with him. Dave climbs into the passenger’s seat. He only buckles out of habit but when the belt brushes his neck, he flinches away and puts it behind him. Daniel pulls out of the parking lot with one hand on the wheel and the other on Dave’s shoulder.

           “You said ‘since this whole thing started’, Dave. How long has this… thing with Karkat’s moirail been going on?”

           “A while? A few days over a week, I think. Maybe almost two? It’s been a while. I don’t even remember when it started.”

           “The scarves. You coming home late that day. How could I have missed that?”

           “I didn’t give you a reason to suspect. Dad, I’m—“

           “No. Don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault. I’m sorry you felt like you couldn’t come to me, though.”

           “No, Dad, that’s not it at all.”

           “I don’t want to have this conversation right now.”

           “I’m s—“

           “No, there’s no reason for you to be. I’m sorry I can’t listen to this right now. I’m just a little worried since my son, evidently, died today and came back to life. And I had no idea his life was being threatened in the first place. I just—it’s not your fault that I can’t deal with both of these issues at once. I’m sorry.”

           “Can we both be sorry and agree not to argue?”

           “Will that make you feel better?”

           “I think?”

           “Then yeah, I suppose we can.” The hand on Dave’s shoulder squeezes and Dave leans into it.

           “I’m sorry I act like a selfish brat all the time, Dad.”

           “I can’t remember the last time you were selfish, Dave. A brat, on the other hand….” This time, when Dave laughs, it’s lighter with a little rhythm to it. It’s still awkward, but a little less forced. Dave’s stomach doesn’t protest at the sound of it, either.

           “I’m sorry I worry you with my fights.”

           “I just worry that one day you’ll get in a fight and you’ll be knocked out, but you won’t wake up again afterward.” His hand squeezes on Dave’s shoulder, eyes trained strictly on the road. His voice isn’t shaking, but Dave is starting to wonder how much of his acting prowess he got from his dad rather than his mom’s artsy behavior. “Then I get pissed at you because I know that at the end of that fight, you won’t have realized you could have died. That you’ll just get into another and another and with each fight, you get closer and closer to dying without you ever even realizing it and just—to hear that you died today because you fought someone off—“

           “That’s not how it happened.”

           “—I know, I know, it’s just how I think, though. I worry about you. And you fucking died today. Dave. I’m just relieved that you’re alive and breathing right now.”

           “Dad.”

           “What?”

           “I love you.”

           “I love you too, Dave.”

           “I’m sorry I worried you.”

           “I think that’s the only thing in this entire”—he waves the hand that had been on the wheel in the air for a few seconds, looking for a word that neither of them can think of—“to be legitimately sorry for. I’m just so relieved. I don’t even care.”

           “Dad, I’m sorry I break the rules you set up around the house so much. I don’t do it because I hate you, though. I just—I don’t know. It’s a teenager thing. I do it because I do it.”

           “You do it because you need positive attention but the more you do it, the more negative attention you’re going to get. And then you’ll do it again and get negative attention, but I should be giving you positive attention the rest of the time—“

           “You’ve been talking to mom, haven’t you been?”

           “Is it that obvious?”

           “A little.”

           This time, the two of them laugh together.


The drive home feels like it takes no time at all. Rose and Ronnie are in the kitchen, the former with her headphones in and completely obsessed with whatever she is reading online. Ronnie is bustling about, trying to make something edible before it gets to be too late in the day. Daniel walks straight in and turns Ronnie around, holding her in his arms without any words.

           Rose looks up at the movement and, without taking her headphones out or asking him what he was doing or anything of that sort, she says, “Dirk’s in the bathroom. Hasn’t been feeling well for a few hours. Mom thinks it’s food poisoning since he had last night’s leftovers for lunch—what’s that on your neck?”

           He turns and walks away. He knocks on the bathroom door and pushes it open before Dirk gets the chance to tell him if it’s open or locked. Dirk is leaning over the sink with a toothbrush hanging out of his mouth. He’s covered in sweat and obviously hasn’t been feeling well for some time. Dirk glances up at him through the reflective surface of the mirror and pulls the toothbrush from his mouth. "Wow you look like shit."

           "You're one to talk. How long have you been ill?"

           "About two hours ago?"

           "Huh."

           "Why?"

           "I guess it could have happened that long ago. Drive is supposed to be half an hour from Karkat’s to dad’s office… then I was at the office for maybe ten minutes? Well, no I would say fifteen. The drive home is, like, what, forty minutes? So I guess Karkat hasn’t been home that long, but,”—he shrugs. “I don’t really remember most of the drive to dad’s office since I was trying to keep calm. I don’t know how bad the traffic is.”

           “Ronnie said that there was a nine-car pileup around Renahld, so traffic is horrible through downtown. Must’ve taken a while to get there and back. What happened about two hours ago to you?”

           “Gamzee.”

           His brow furrows and Dirk shakes his head. “That High Blood Makara-something?”

           “Yeah. Him.”

           “What happened?”

           “He choked me until I stopped breathing.”

           “How far is ‘stopped’?”

           “I think you know.”

           “Please tell me that’s actually you and I’m not seeing a ghost right now because I don’t think I would be able to handle you being a ghost.”

           “We’re not even that close.”

           “You’re still my brother. You’re still my twin and even though I don't believe in that twin connection thing, it's really eerie that the timing lines up like that. Please, just—are you here or am I seeing something?”

           “Don’t ghosts usually appear as how you remember them looking?”

           “I don’t know! I’ve never exactly seen a ghost before! It would explain why you’re being such an asshole, though.”

           Dave laughs and shakes his head. He considers hugging Dirk—wants to, really, and stifles the urge to—but he doesn’t think Dirk would appreciate it. They were never the huggy type of brothers, just the if-you-kill-someone-I’ll-bury-the-body-and-give-you-an-alibi type.

           Dirk takes the decision from his hands, though. After placing the toothbrush down and turning to stare at him, Dirk tugs him close and it’s in this moment that Dave realizes he hasn’t been shaking lately. And that Dirk smells like piss and sick-sweat. “What happened?”

           Dave sighs and explains it to him. Dirk pulls away long enough to examine the bruise on Dave’s neck before he gags again and runs to the toilet.

           Dave leaves him with an “I think just it’s food poisoning, Jesus fucking Christ man,” apology that he received a middle finger for.

           He moves on to Ronnie and Rose, by far more calm now than he was when he first met up with Daniel. Ronnie gets her hug first and it’s the overprotective my-baby-is-in-trouble-I-must-protect-him-from-the-world-and-himself sort of hug that he has to literally wriggle himself out of in order to hug Rose. When they pull apart, her eyes linger on Dave’s neck and, of course, being the all-seeing woman that she is, she hugs him again and offers the use of another scarf. He turns it down.

           This time when he explains it to them, Rose and Ronnie don’t ask any questions and in fact they act as if they already knew. He doesn’t have to doubt it since Daniel is still in the room and is talking on the phone—probably to Michelle. Dave hugs Rose a third time and breathes.

           “You seem to be feeling better than in Daniel’s explanation,” Rose offers. Dave shrugs. “You’re at least staying for now, right?”

           “Yeah, for now. I’m not that hungry though, so I don’t know when I’ll go over to Mom’s. I really need to see her, too.”

           “Do you want me to tell Roxy that you’re not going to stay over there tonight?”

           Dave shakes his head, brushing the suggestion away. “Nah, it’s fine. I’ll text her later."

           Rose nods her head slightly before asking, "How’s Karkat?”

           “He seemed fine when we split ways, but I think he’s pretty mad at Gamzee.”

           “He should be.”

           “Dave,” Daniel says, and he turns to look at him. “Go ahead and get your laptop and anything else you’ll want for the night. Leave it by the front door for when we leave.” Dave nods and drags Rose along behind him. He sets her to searching for his mini-soundboard, which she manages to dredge up from a hole to the middle of nowhere, location: closet.



Daniel told him not to apologize to his mother immediately after he’s dropped off. They wait at the front door for her to answer it and, of course, the first thing Dave does is wrap his arms around her and apologize for intruding on her when he really shouldn’t be.

           “I thought you said you wouldn’t apologize, Dave.”

           “I lasted a lot longer with her than I did with you, ok?”

           “Dave, what’s wrong?”

           “It’s a long story, Mom. Thanks for letting me stay the night.”

           “Of course. Any time, Dave. Come on inside. Sorry about the mess; Levi and I just got finished painting.”

           “Thanks for the ride, Dad.”

           Daniel nods. “Text me in the morning. I’m serious about taking you to the emergency room if you’re not feeling any better.”

           Dave remains at the doorway with Michelle after they close the door. He holds her as tightly as he had with Daniel. Michelle holds him as he rambles on. “I’m sorry for intruding, for breaking up your alone time with Levi, for not texting you more, for not trying to find you when I was younger, for being an asshole, for being selfish and for not telling you about any of this. I’m really sorry. I’m sorry for being sorry. I shouldn’t be so sorry, I wasn’t this sorry half an hour ago, but then I saw you and I was really sorry I don’t understand it.”

           “Calm down, Dave.”

           “I’m really sorry that I’ve heard that phrase so many times today.”

           “Dave. Go put your stuff in your room and go sit in the living room. Okay?”

           He nods his head and follows orders. Levi is laying the tarps out in the backyard in hopes that they dry faster and Michelle is doing something in the kitchen. She pulls a quart-large Pyrex liquid measure out of the microwave after it goes off, pours the hot water into something in front of her and walks into the living room with two mugs of hot cocoa and the promise of apple juice later.

           “Go ahead and explain what happened, Dave.”

           He launches into the explanation without hurry, refusing to look anywhere but the mug in his hands as he explains it. At the end, when he finally looks up, there are tears in her eyes that she is fighting down and Dave squeezes his eyes shut, begging her not to cry, apologizing for making her do so.

           “I’m sorry that happened to you, Dave. I’m also really sorry you felt like you couldn’t talk to me about it.”

           “No! It’s not like that! I didn’t tell anyone, Mom, not just you.”

           “Still, Dave—"

           “No, Mom, you don’t understand. Aradia doesn’t know. She still doesn’t know. She has no idea about this at all. Only Karkat knew and he found out about it less than three days ago because he took my scarf off while we were sleeping together—Mom! Don’t give me that look! I didn’t mean it like that.”

           “What did Karkat do when he found out about it?”

           “It’s normal for Makara to do it, evidently. He was kind of pissed because he’s tired of Makara doing it. So he talked to him. And that was supposed to make it stop, dear fucking Lord, why did I think it would stop because of something like that?”

           “You had no reason to think otherwise, Dave.”

           “Mom, I was terrified! I literally did not see it coming! I’m lucky I didn’t piss myself! I’m just lucky in general.”

           “No one sees death coming—when they’re as young as you are now, at least.”

           “Mom,” he shakes his head. “Mom, I don’t think you understand. I was praying to God to let me live. Full-out Yiddish. I think I was still praying when Karkat brought me back. I’ve never been so terrified before in my life… but I didn’t disassociate either. And I can’t understand what’s bugging me about it.”

           “You should count yourself lucky about not disassociating.”

           “No, not that. I just…” He sighs. “When I told Karkat about it, he explained to me that Makara did this to almost all of his previous relationships, only one of which is being excluded due to it being a relationship of convenience. But…” He shakes his head again. “Karkat also said that Makara also only killed them after they broke up with Karkat and, I mean, I didn’t even break up—“

           “What’s wrong, Dave? Why did you stop?”

           Levi laughs at him from the kitchen. He’s grinning lightly and the moment that Dave latches eyes with him, Dave feels his face heat up. Michelle furrows her brow as she looks between Levi’s casual grin and Dave’s deer-in-the-headlights look.

           “Dave?” She asks.

           “You didn’t even consider breaking up with him, did you Dave?”

           Dave shakes his head very slowly. “I didn’t even think of the possibility. Like, being without Karkat is so foreign to me that I can’t think of not being with him. We haven’t even been dating for that long, what the hell? We haven’t even gone on an official date! Yet. I’m working on it. Don’t give me that look.”

           “You are ass-over-head in love, mizinik.”

           “I thought I told you it was awkward when you called me that!”

           “That is absolutely precious! My baby is in love and had no idea.”

           “It’s not precious! It’s just…”—he waves his hands around before ducking his head—“it just kind of makes me want to see him. He must be freaking out. I got away from the orphanage as fast as I could and he must think it had to do with him or something. I don’t know.”

           “If you want, you can invite him over for the night.”

           “It’s not too much, is it? I mean, I’m already imposing—“

           “You stop that. You stop that right now. You’re always welcome here.”

           “But—“

           “Stop that.”

           “Yes ma’am.”

           “Text Karkat and ask if he wants to come over. If he does, then I’ll go get him, okay? Until then, I kind of feel like making brownies. You want to help?”

           “If by ‘helping’ you mean sitting on the counter and making fun of your inability to bake without getting flour everywhere, then yes.”

           “I meant more along the lines of cracking eggs and then having one of you two pull them out of the oven if I’m gone while they finish.”

           “Yeah, sure, I can crack some eggs. Let me text Karkat.”

pack a bag youre coming over tonight you dont have a choice in the matter

           Michelle leaves to get him just after putting the brownies in the oven. Dave waits on the couch with a pair of headphones plugged into his laptop and the mini-soundboard plugged in so that he could work on some songs.

           Levi waves at him after he finishes the rough draft of his first song. He looks up, lifting one of the phones off of his ear, and asks him what he said. Levi just laughs it off, tells him that the brownies are almost done and to keep his headphones off because he’s going to go get something from downstairs and won’t hear it. Dave nods, tries to see what the time on the microwave reads and gives up within a few seconds.

           The door opens before the microwave goes off. Dave puts the laptop down and stands up to see if Karkat came after all.

           He did.

           His hair has been messed up, as if his hands had run through it several times that night. His skin is slightly pale and his bag is being held in his hand. He is flapping his jaw, looking for words to say something, but Dave only hears the words “I’m really s—“ before he has his hands around Karkat’s jaw and kisses him. Karkat drops the bag, hands immediately on Dave’s waist, and Dave sighs as Karkat leans into the kiss.

           “Holy fuck,” Karkat gasped, pulling away to speak between their kisses. “I’m—sorry about—Gamzee being—an idiot and—everything that—“

           “Karkat,” Dave stops him, pulling away long enough to look him in the eye. “The last thing I want to hear you talk about when we’re kissing is another man.”

           “That’s not—“

           “Shut the fuck up and kiss me.”

           He does.

After some much-needed kissing and brownies, Dave settles into Karkat’s lap and works on melding some of his tunes. Karkat watches, silent for the most part, and kisses the back Dave’s neck periodically. When enough time has passed that he gets bored, Karkat sighs and asks, “What are you doing?”

           “Making more music to put onto my website. It’s a good way to vent. I can actually think straight now. Speaking of my website…” He opens a command prompt and logs into his server. Karkat hums, reading through it, and Dave types in the only commands he’s familiar with. He leaves that open in one screen while he opens his website in a browser. Karkat groans seeing the black-on-white of it and Dave chuckles halfheartedly as he scrolls over to the “download music” tab of his website.

           Karkat hums and Dave makes him close his eyes as he opens his bank account. He copies the numbers over into a calculator before closing out and telling him he can look again. He does the math in front of Karkat and groans as he compares that to the amount of downloads he has recorded.

           Karkat, wordlessly, bats his hands out of the way and starts typing. Dave watches in awe as he clears the command prompt, types in a few things, scrolls through the long lines of text, types in more, cancels another thing, types, reads, clears, all one after the other in a way so advanced and rapid-fire that Dave can’t possibly keep up with it.

           Eventually, it gets to where the two of them are staring at a log-in screen for Karkat to log back into the server. “What did you just do?” Dave asks.

           “You’ll see eventually. Log me back in, I need to check something.”

           “Why’d you log out?”

           “My fingers were working faster than my brain, ok? Log me back in, mister—wait, is that seriously your name for this? You couldn’t have done something original like ‘root’ or something?”

           “I thought you weren’t supposed to run shit in root.”

           “Some shit, yeah, not all of it. Like, stupid things like Minecraft and other java scripts shouldn’t be run in root because of the way that root with—oh, God, I can’t remember the current name of the program, but it’s baby name was CentOS or some shit like that. Anyway, the way the java works has been known to, sometimes, reset the values of certain things and while it may not be irreparable, it’s still a pain in the nook to fix. Tell me you at least remember your root password so that I can log in and run this shit in a lot safer way.”

           “The hell is Minecraft?”

           “A videogame I’m introducing you to sometime soon. It was dredged up out of the internet a few years ago; evidently it’s pretty fucking old. Please tell me you were listening.”

           “Yeah, set it up. I’ll log you in under the condition that you’ll change the repetition.”

           “Deal.”

C:\bromosapien.net:8080>login:root
Enter Password:_
Password correct now operating as root
root>

           Dave isn’t at all surprised when the first thing he sees is:

root>cls

           The rest of the screen disappears and Karkat sets to work. He does the same commands as before, creates the same cacophonous noise of keyboard clacks, adds some humming, kisses the back of Dave’s neck, works on over-all creating whatever mystical thing he’s going to create and logs out when he’s done. Dave logs back onto his cawcawmotherfucker> server name and Karkat goes back, deleting what he had put there before he had gone through root. It’s only a simple alt-tab and F5 combination later that has Karkat selecting one of the sounds to download. It doesn’t work.

           “What did you do?”

           “I disabled the javascript that the pirates were using to get through, circumvented the ones that are going to grow from that, shut down a port that you had open which you really shouldn’t have, set a back-ping to locate people who know of its existence and created a pathway and made it a forward requirement to pay ahead of time.”

           “How will you guarantee that?”

           “The server now compares the amount of downloads to the amount of payments that have gone through. I hope you use PayChum, because otherwise I’ll have to redo it.”

           “Yeah, it’s the most reliable way to make it work online.”

           “That it is. Now to fix this eyesore of a website.”

           “I don’t think so.”

           “It’s fucking black on white!”

           “It can also wait until morning. It’s late as fuck and I’m tired.”

           “You bother me, Dave. I mean, it’ll only take a few minutes—“

           “I don’t care if I bother you. I also want you to teach me and that’ll take a while to do if we do it this late at night. C’mon, bedtime. I promise I’ll let you fuck around in the morning.”

           “But—“

           “No buts. C’mon.”

           “Dave—“

           “It can wait.”

           “Maybe it shouldn’t.”

           “It’s been like that for edging-on five years now. It can wait. C’mon, Mister Anti-Piracy. Let’s go to bed.”

           “Fine, I’m coming. Just at least shut down your computer. It’s better for the battery than that is.”

           Dave sighs and nods, making a point to let him see him hit the actual shut down button and place it on the kitchen counter. Karkat follows him for a few steps before Dave leads him to his bedroom and Karkat goes straight to the bag on the bed. He takes his shirt off as he opens it, getting his shirt stuck around his neck as he also gets the zipper stuck. Dave laughs at him as he pulls his shirt off and drops the jeans in favor of a pair of sweat pants that lost both its elastic and “sweat” qualities years ago. He lays on his bed as Karkat finds a small pill bottle, pours out two eerily green pills and pops them. He undresses down to his boxers, leaving the bag beside the bed.

           “What were those?”

           “Sopor pills,” he explains. “They’re still experimental, so I’m not supposed to take them often, but after everything that happened today….” He clears his throat. “Finding a recuperacoon the size of a teenage Troll is difficult, especially when there is so little money at an orphanage, so I never really got one. The sopor pills help some and they’re inexpensive compared to the 'coon, but”—he shrugs—“they’re also really dangerous. Still experimental, like I said. Side effects make me sleep all damn day long and yawn the rest. Most of the time I’m over at Gamzee’s hive, he’s making me sleep in his coon. Part of the reason we don’t hang out over there.”

           “But the pills help.”

           “They definitely do. I don’t wake up screaming and thrashing, so…. I’m only supposed to take them once every three to four days, but what with today—“

           “I wonder if they make a recuperacoon for, like, couples or some shit.”

           “I do. I read about them all the time in—in really good literature don’t give me that look Strider.”

           “You read romance stories?”

           “I will shove my foot so far into your ass you’ll be—“

           “That’s adorable.”

           “—puking toe jam for a week.”

           “I wonder if Humans can sleep in recuperacoons. Like, how does that work? Do you submerge your head? Can you still breathe in it?”

           Karkat nods. “Naturally, the body floats, so our face floats to the surface and we can breathe out of it, but with the way that it dissipates in the blood stream, it makes it really safe to breathe in if you were to, say, roll over or something. Otherwise most of us would be dead by now. That was kind of a stupid question now that I think about it.”

           “But can Humans sleep in it like Trolls can?”

           “The only difference is that Humans get anywhere between four to six hours of sleep instead of eight. Lay down.”

           “I am laying down.”

           “No, you’re on your side and holding a conversation. Lay down.”

           Dave sighs and settles back, waiting for whatever it is Karkat is going to do. He answers by lowering a pair of lips to Dave’s neck and kissing every bare inch of Dave’s neck and more.

           “I don’t want to have sex, Karkat.”

           “Then we won’t, oh well. Probably should have considered sex before the sopor pills anyway. That shit knocks me out good. Well? Fuck grammar.”

           “You’re half asleep and making out with my neck. What’s wrong with you?”

           “I’m just really sorry that you’re dating a Troll whose moirail is an asshole.”

           “He isn’t his moirail though, and I find him to be much more attractive than his moirail any day. So, you done with making out or should I leave you two love birds alone?”

           Karkat places one last, lingering, kiss to his neck before he rolls off and puts his arm around Dave’s stomach. Dave considers rolling over and letting him spoon him, but instead pushes him over until they can situate and rearrange with Dave’s head on Karkat’s chest with Karkat’s arm around Dave’s back.

           “Thank you, Karkat.”

           Karkat’s hand squeezes on Dave’s side. He waits for the sopor pills to kick in, all the while listening to the sound of Dave’s breathing slow to a sleeping rhythm. He starts when he hears Dave’s phone vibrate on the bedside table and picks it up to see who is calling him so late at night.

           It’s not a call so much as a message telling him that he missed a call three hours ago from someone who is a ménage of random numerals. He puts it down, deeming it unimportant, and looks back to Dave.

           He’s asleep soon enough.

“Dave, I’m getting ready to leave. You and Karkat are welcome to stay all day, but your father is getting antsy and wants to know how you feel.”


           Dave rouses himself up enough to squint up at the woman who, obviously, does not deserve to be condemned to a life of (great looking, even better fitting) suits. She has the house phone in her hand and she looks like she’s getting ready to yell at whoever is on the other line.

           He accesses himself quickly, checking over his muscles more than a few times in the process. In the end, the only thing he can find that feels different is Karkat’s arm around his waist as they spoon. “I’m fine,” he answers. “Just really tired. I’m sore, too, but tired mostly. I’ll be fine.”

           “You sure?”

           He nods tiredly and rubs his head into his pillow. “I’ll text if anything changes when I wake up more.”

           “I’ll leave a note reminding you of that. I’m being called in early because Irvin thinks he may have hit a breakthrough in some last-minute hiring for the voice actors and wants some advice. Text me if you leave, ok?”

           He hums affirmatively and Karkat pulls him closer. Dave smiles in his half-asleep mind and rubs back into him. Michelle closes the door with a quiet shk as if she didn’t want to make too much noise.

“I still don’t really want to go through with this, Dave. I’m just going to call off the entire thing. It’ll make everything so much easier—“

           “Don’t!”

           “Why not? I don’t even want you guys to do all of this. I had no say in this matter, so why the hell would I want to go through with this? It’s not like it matters that I have anything on my record; it’s only one offense!”

           “Karkat, that’s not the point! This has nothing to do with you!”

           “Nothing to do with me? It’s my fucking record!”

           “This is all me being selfish, Karkat! This trial—this case—is all me trying to make up for something stupid. It’s only about you because it’s your record—there is literally nothing else you can do to make it different. So whatever you do, don’t call this off.”

           “Since when the fuck are you selfish?”

           “Exactly! I’m not that selfish. I try really hard not to be selfish, so just—give me this Karkat. I want this one thing from you, so let me have it.”

           “I’m not getting a choice in this matter, either, am I?”

           “Of course you have a choice. Just—give me this, please.”

           Karkat sighs and shakes his head. “Fine, whatever. But when you lose, don’t come—wait. You want to lose.”

           “That depends on who you ask.”

           Karkat nods his head, laughing slightly at how ridiculous the situation is. “You’re a fucking idiot. You’re setting yourself up for failure, aren’t you?”

           “I don’t want to talk about this, Karkat. We were having a good time earlier. Let’s just—I don’t know. Why don’t you fuck around on my website or something?”

           “I’m still pissed at you.”

           “I don’t care. Just… Let’s talk about something else.”

           “Like what?”

           “I don’t know. I don’t care.”

           “I guess we could do your website then. Come here. Log in.”

           “Hold on, my phone’s going off. This guy again, what the fuck? This is literally the fourth time I’ve gotten a call from them.”

           “Answer it, then.”

           “I’ll call them back later.”

           “Well, if it’s the fourth call, then it’s probably important.”

           “Unless I get an e-mail telling me that I need to answer them, it can wait. I’m busy. Oh I have a text from Terezi, too.”

           “What’s she say?”

           “She just wants to meet up tonight to talk about some stuff. That’s all. Ok, teach me how to not bother you with my website.”

           “Well first you get your scrawny ass over here and log me in.”

           Dave sits down beside him, logs into root for him, and leans against Karkat’s side. Dave kisses Karkat’s cheek and settles in for a long day of learning stuff he’ll probably never mess around with anyway.

* * *

Dave clenches his jaw as he stares into the drink currently swirling in his hands. The froth from the heat in it has melted to the point where only small bubbles are left, a thin colour of white to offset the murky brown. It looks like an almost-perfect spiral, something to be revered. Getting smaller and smaller as it gets into the center until it decides “you know what? I don’t want to be here anymore. The corner-party in the drink three seats down looks like a much more enjoyable place to party at see ya later losers.” His fingers flex and relax on the edge of the cardboard as he sighs, shaking his head.

           “Terezi, you know I can’t—“

           “Yes you can. I’ve seen you do it before. ‘Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.’ You didn’t exactly have any difficulty saying ‘shall I hear more or shall I speak at this?’ back.”

           “I had rehearsals for thirteen weeks before the performance. Longest amount of prep-time I’ve ever had, too. That’s not even the point.” He pauses and swallows a large amount of his coffee. He sighs when it doesn’t even scald his mouth. He had let it sit too long. He chokes down another lukewarm, piss-filled drink as he reassembles his thoughts, looking for a way to express the difference in words. When he finally speaks, it’s with a sigh and he hopes the stress on her name will make her reevaluate her thoughts.

           “Terezi. You’re asking me to lie under oath.”

           It doesn’t work. Her rebuttal is fast on his feet and he barely has time to finish the last sound before it slips out of her mouth. She’s a true legislacerator; she knows how to manipulate information out of people—knows how to predict what they are going to say in order to fight them for the information. “No. I’m asking you to act.”

           He sighs, exasperated. It’s one of the most difficult concepts to explain to someone who has never acted (beyond childish games) a day in their life. Somehow, he knew that he would be stuck in the spiral of explaining this, just as the once-froth is stuck in the spiral of nothingness in his drink. “It’s not acting if there’s nothing of me in it. There has to be an aspect of yourself in everything you do. Otherwise it’s fake. It’s a front. It’s a lie. I can’t lie under oath. It’s illegal, for the most part.”

           She smiles as she takes a drink from her own cup and Dave knows that whatever is coming his way is not going to be good. Anyone with teeth that pointed is going to have a forked tongue too. How hadn’t he seen that coming? Oh. Right. He had trusted her to help him, not use him.

           “Terezi, I still have time to find someone else to defend me. I’m smart enough to defend myself. I refuse to lie under oath. Pick a new line of attack or so help me, I will drop you from your work.”

           “Only fools represent themselves.”

           “Then a fool I am. Pick a new plan.”

           She sighs for a moment, placing her pointed chin (points, points, points; that’s all this woman is and he hates it) in the valley her palm makes as she cradles her head in though. She has the decency to look as if she is examining the menu above the counter before she returns to look at him. “Well, I suppose I could always go with Plan B.”