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Blue Skies and Tumblers

Chapter Text

"Settle down, cowboy."

Leathered hands grip your hips and you buck and howl obscenities at the offender. There's not much you can do, though, because most of you is pinned under what must be thirty thousand pounds of mail bags. Your failure is rather fortunate for you, because it seems those hands are trying to get you out from those thirty thousand pounds of correspondence, despite your flailing.

"Fmurfmannh! Ahmmnhamnanm!"

"Yeah, I completely understand. How about next time you book a train to Kansas City, you try not to get in the way of a mail heist."

He shoves his foot against the mail bag on top of you and gives one almighty tug. You both go sprawling free.

"Oof," he says and doesn't release you fast enough.

You are on him like a rat terrier.

"Ruffian! Scoundrel! Unhand me and pay for your crimes against the free post and the spirit of the frontier!"

You knock him back into the floorboards and get one leg up over his hip--and it's good you do because he can't get his gun trapped under your thigh--and get ready to show him the wild courage of a budding frontiersman!

You will show him with your fists because you are a real pioneer realizing your Manifest Destiny and not an overeager doctor's son from Pennsylvania on your first trip West.

"Have at, you--bandit!"

You attempt to let him have it, but he curses and catches your fist, grabs the hand that you're pinning him down with. You may not have thought this through.

You realize you knocked his hat off. He's young, and fixes you with an exasperated expression.

"First time, huh."

"...Perhaps. I don't see that I have to answer the likes of you."

"'The likes of you.' Who even says that? That ain't a thing to say, even for you."

"And what is that supposed to mean?"

He lifts an eyebrow. You realize that he is both devilishly handsome and still holding your hand.

"Well, I don't know, Sheriff. What are you? A quack?"

You flush. "I'll have you know I'm going to be a completely respectable ranch hand, and explore the untamed lands of the plains, and fight Injuns and run tabs in saloons!"

"You're going to run tabs in saloons."

You deflate a little under his regard. "Well. Yes. That's part of the experience, isn't it?"

He stares at you a good, long, uninterrupted time, and you catch yourself staring at the wry quirk of his lips. His features are rather fine--too angular to be feminine, and a little long besides, but he's clearly the kind of attractive rogue you'd like to kiss.

To be! Not to kiss. Jacob Harley, where did that thought even come from?

He flicks you in the forehead and you realize you've let him go. As you sputter, he sits up and rests his arms on his knees.

"You know, a good-looking gentleman who runs into a mail car, unarmed, yelling his head off about the American way and the spirit of the West may not be best suited to a life of cleaning up horse shit. You don't get as much travel done as you'd think."

You have no idea what to say to that. He holds out his hand.

"Dirk Strider. You ever consider robbery?"

Chapter Text

and it’s thirteen thousand, one hundred and seventy-one miles long.
you can see it from the moon.

Woooooooow, John, consider me tot8lly impressed. Not!
Your culture’s puny wiggler 8uilding escapades are totally l8me compared to stuff I threw together 8efore I could even talk.

haha, says you!
you are totally wrong.
the great wall of china is a world wonder and everybody knows that. you are just jealous.
i did a report on it in fifth grade.

It’s not too lame, you think, watching it snake away into a distance made of jagged, verdant hills and blue sky. Earth colors are so weird, all brilliant golds and greens and blues where there should be ochre and purple, burning colors and black. Sometimes it reminds you of the Land of Maps and Treasure, but there was little there of this bright, restful blue.

John’s wearing a puffy jacket that makes him look like a neon marshmallow, but you allow it. It brings something out in his eyes.

I guess it’s not 8ad to look at.
Even if it’d 8e a total cinch to 8reach with even the we8kest horde, hahahahahahahaha!

wow, i totally felt that burn.
i am totally insulted that you think you could overrun a wall built thousands of years ago by a country on the other side of the world from me.
a country that would totally wipe your barbarian horde out with their nuclear bombs.

They could try!!!!!!!!
What’s a nuclear 8om8, anyw8y?


The sun seems to plunge suddenly over the horizon, and maybe it does, because the abrupt shift into sunset takes your breath away like a fall. Red, fuchsia, the flushed insides of a fruit John called a blood orange, and gold, real liquid gold at the edges, a blazing reminder of Prospit. The trees beneath you change color, take on the shadows of majesty, and you feel maybe a smidgen of respect for this ancient culture of John’s.

Carting a thousand tons of rock up the mountain range, building it for five hundred, six hundred, eight hundred sweeps—it should be a laughable exercise in futility and hubris. How could anyone expect to defend such a sprawling monster? How could it be anything but an eyesore on the land? How could anyone not want to scrap it and make it something leaner, something stronger, something 8etter?

But it’s not a monster, not an eyesore. There’s nothing to improve. It just is. And you watch the sun wash it in red and, with pain, you think: Terezi.

John stirs beside you.

hey, vriska.

You think he might hold your hand, but instead he punches your shoulder and grins like light itself.

i’ll race you.

And he takes off, whooping into the wind as fast as his jet pack can take him, and you roll your white eyes and remember what it’s like not to have wings. Your sneakers regain that new shoe scent for a second before you can only smell jet fuel and exhilaration, because you are rocketing after John along the Great Wall of China.

You chase the dying light, chase the last threads of gold, and the wind takes you and you forget everything but flying. You forget the dream bubbles, you forget SGRUB, you forget death and justice and the sudden whiteness at the end of everything, and you hear John laugh and you bark a laugh back at him as he does a loop-de-loop. What a show-off.

He’s a piece of sky held against the sun, and you love him.

You do hold hands now, your fingers tied together against a light that wipes out any difference in color between your skin. There’s no telling where he starts and you end, and his smile is bending your lips, or maybe that’s yours in his eyes. The wall never ends. It breaks in places and splits and turns, but it goes on forever like you never could.

And that’s the thing about being dead eight times over between the two of you: you are nowhere, but you can be anywhere. You can be everywhere.

And if both of you are everywhere, then finally, there is no place the two of you are not together.



The Great Wall of China is not actually visible from the moon, but if you believe in something hard enough, that makes it slightly less fake.

Chapter Text

“But where do you go to have fun?”

He stares blankly for a moment, not because he’s forgotten the word so much as he’s forgotten what it has to do with him. It’s a long enough pause that Mr. Strider and Ms. Lalonde trade a look across the table. He straightens and clears his throat, looks down.

“Well, you two know how it is, a single father and working man…”

Ms. Lalonde’s eyes crinkle sympathetically and she covers his hand, but Mr. Strider frowns. Mr. Egbert knows he’s doing it deliberately, that it’s for him to see, and he casts around for something to say.

“I used to go to the circus,” he finally says with a questioning note, like a student not quite certain of the capital of Canada.

The two exchange another glance, but this seems to be the right answer, because the next morning there are three tickets on the table to Cirque du Soleil’s Alegría made out to one Dr. Lalonde.

“Hell, Lalonde, how much did you pay for these seats?”

She smiles and bumps shoulders with Mr. Strider, tips up the brim of Mr. Egbert’s hat. “Only the best for my boys.”

She and Strider sit on either side of Mr. Egbert without thinking about it. It’s simply how it should be, today. Ms. Lalonde will take the middle next time they watch a foreign film, and Mr. Strider will cozy up to both of them and chuckle at their attempts to play his skateboarding games. (Ms. Lalonde wins every time, even more so when she’s been drinking.)

“So this is really a thing for you, huh. That why you have clowns all over your house?” Mr. Strider says as Ms. Lalonde withdraws a chic, discreet flask from her purse.

“Harlequins.” Mr. Egbert folds open his program and misses his pipe. “And it isn’t really. I got them for John.” He ignores how Ms. Lalonde shoots another look over his head at Mr. Strider. “But over the years, I guess you could say I developed an appreciation for the craft.”

He has. It’s acting, it’s performance—the art of moving people. He prefers more of a classic slapstick, buttonhole-flower routine himself to all the tumbling and theatrics, but even his white-collar soul has a little wonder in it for people who fly.

The lights dim. The ringmaster approaches. Ms. Lalonde puts away her flask, for now.

It begins.

“Italian,” Ms. Lalonde murmurs into Mr. Egbert’s ear as the acrobats begin to circle to the music. She begins to translate, but it shifts into English, and then again into another language. “Mm, Spanish?”

Claro,” Mr. Strider remarks, and they both turn to him.

“You know Spanish, Strider?” Ms. Lalonde asks.

He inclines his head, offers a smirk in the darkness. “Nothing I can repeat in public.”

She laughs, Mr. Egbert smiles, and they say nothing as Ms. Lalonde places her hand on his elbow, as Mr. Strider casually winds his arm around his shoulders.

They remain like that throughout the double trapezes and the bouncing contortions of the tumblers. Ms. Lalonde gasps quietly at the flying man on his ropes of silk, and Mr. Strider squeezes her shoulder. In turn, when he says, “I can do that,” at the fire-knife dance, Mr. Egbert tells him, “You’ll have to show us sometime.”

They remain like that until the end of the Russian bars act. All at once, Ms. Lalonde’s hand tightens on Mr. Egbert’s elbow, Mr. Strider’s arm tenses and then draws away. They watch the little monkey-eared boy mount the bar. They watch the older gymnast lift and cradle him against his chest. Mr. Egbert thinks he can hear Mr. Strider’s soft inhalation as the boy clings to the man’s neck—or maybe it’s his imagination, maybe it’s him.

All three jerk in unison as the gymnast leaps, flips in the air, lands safely on the bar again with the child in his arms.

For a moment, the image remains burned against his eyelids: the man curled around the boy, protective, powerful, helpless in the moment of falling.

The boy jumps down and runs to the front of the stage, kneels and grins to his applause, but Ms. Lalonde turns her face into Mr. Egbert’s shoulder. Mr. Strider takes off his cap to run his hand through his hair.

They are all shaken in ways that no one can see.

Mr. Egbert takes Mr. Strider’s hand, rubs his thumb over the window of skin in the back of his glove before interlocking their fingers. They are both warm, both callused.

He kisses Ms. Lalonde’s temple and slides his arm around her waist, holds her close. She hiccups a little and grips the back of his shirt, then reaches across him with her free hand.

Mr. Strider takes it, holds it tight.

They breathe.

He is a man that gives nothing away.

She is a woman who gives all that she has.

And Mr. Egbert will hold both of them until the final bows, as light reenters their world and they have to blink away the dream of the circus. He will hold them still, and Mr. Strider will snort and kiss Ms. Lalonde’s knuckles, and she’ll laugh and press her nose against his neck. Only then will he remember his Latin class: Alegría. Alicer. Joy.

And he knows what that word, at least, has to do with him.

Chapter Text

He was never going to have an opportunity like this again. There was Professor English, THE Professor English, beaming like a Barboach over three Pokéballs set out just for him.

Or, well, just for him first, at least.

“Whenever you’re ready, Skylark. I’ll just sit my ass down here and start my career catching a week’s worth of z’s.”

Tavros tried not to look over his shoulder. He knew Dave was waiting, hands in his pockets and weight tilted just so on his narrow hips, narrow shoulders. Professor English’s magnificent mustache twitched over his further-widening grin. Tavros blushed and cleared his throat and firmly fixed his attention on the waiting Pokémon.

“Um, uh, uhhhh—”

“Steady there, lad, they’re not going to scarper on you. Not these ones, anyway, ha ha ha! You’re on your own for the rest of the species, boy, but it’ll be the adventure of a lifetime.”

He could feel Dave roll his eyes behind him, but Tavros’s own chest swelled. He looked over the balls with the expert eye of a kid who was only good at one thing.

Bulbasaur was prime, a special power-hitter and sturdy, with all the versatility the Grass type had to offer. It had actually been Tavros’s first choice for a while. Squirtle was even tougher, though, and since Tavros was pretty sure Dave was gunning for the fire-type, the advantage of water…



He knew exactly how to get back at this guy, the plague on his childhood who out-rapped and out-snarked and out-cooled him at every turn. (Not the one who pushed him into Beedrill hives and off ledges, of course, but Vriska was a special case.)

“I choose this one,” Tavros said, palming the ball smugly.

The professor looked surprised. “Charmander? Well. A spiffing choice, young man! You’ll have a little trouble with the first two gyms…”

Professor English went on, but Tavros wasn’t really listening. He turned back to his rival, letting the beginnings of a smile tickle his face. It had the potential to become quite the impressive shit-eating grin, especially when he saw Dave’s unimpressed expression. Maybe Tavros was imagining it, but it seemed just a little bit put out.

Then Dave swept past him and picked up a ball without any deliberation at all.

“This squirt’s mine, then.”

The thing inside him that felt dangerously like confidence sunk back into the pit of his stomach. Squirtle. Dave picked Squirtle.

“How about we take these suckers for a test drive.”

Tavros lost. Horribly. How was it possible to lose so badly when their Pokémon only knew like three moves between them?

His self-esteem slunk into the bottomless pit normally reserved for encounters involving Vriska and Pidgey poop. Dave recalled his Squirtle—he’d already given the thing a pair of shades and had taken to calling him Fabio. That was such a stupid name. Rufio would’ve been much better. Maybe he’d name all his Pokémon Rufio, Tavros thought.

He decided to have at least ten times as many Pokémon as Dave, and they would all be named Rufio, so when he said, “Rufio, go!” he would wipe Dave’s cool right off his face.

And then Dave would see just how good Tavros was.

And it’d be his turn to pine after Tavros’s hips and shoulders.

Now, though, Tavros could only cradle Rufio I to his chest, try to make sure the flame on the tip of his tail stayed healthy. Professor English crouched beside him and patted his back, murmuring there-there’s and promising him that the journey had yet to begin.

Dave just shrugged.

“Smell ya later, Nitram.”

Chapter Text

Karkat knelt by the gutted corpse of Gamzee Makara and screamed until his throat tasted like blood, screamed until his voice was shredded nothingness, screamed until every carrion crow in this fake fucking desert knew where and when to find his next meal. Here. Now. And still Karkat screamed, soundless but for the squeaks of his vibrating vocalization cords at the end of each mute howl.

The silence was deafening. As loud as a cannon.

It still wasn’t enough to drown out the blood on his hands, his chest, his sickle.

It shouldn’t have come to this, it should have been him, Gamzee had been his best fucking friend through the training and a motherfucking Career, even if he’d been lazy and weird and completely fucking unstable. Karkat wasn’t anything but a stunted, underfed guttersnipe from District Eleven. He’d scored a goddamn three with the Gamemakers. A three.

And Gamzee’s face was the one up there, projected onto the fake sky-cage-ceiling without even his name, just a number, and his sleepy, retarded, precious smile.

Karkat bowed his head into the sand and wept like an orphaned baby.

Terezi was gone. Kanaya was gone. Even Equius was gone, drowned when they flash-flooded the arena, his final act taking down the drunk, blonde girl who had killed Nepeta, what was her name? Who cared. She was dead, too.

Karkat was the Victor. It was him.

Why wasn’t it over?


Karkat choked and whirled, grabbed his sickle before he even drew breath. There, angled behind him where his shadow wouldn’t cross Karkat’s line of vision, stood Dave fucking Strider. The king carrion crow.

Karkat hated him with a sick, boiling, white shrieking passion.

Scrawny, like him, but taller. Pale. He’d gotten along with Terezi like fleas on an alley meowbeast and probably had just as many diseases. He was a District Ten nobody, a nonentity, the second-lowest score after Karkat because he was thirteen and bird-boned but everybody liked him anyway. He was so fucking charming. A real quality douchebag.

Terezi had liked him and now she was charnel leavings at the bottom of an acid pool.

Dave had lost the shitty sunglasses someone had let him keep as a Token the night she died, the night that blonde had swooped in like a banshee to rescue him from Gamzee and Terezi and Equius’s trap. They’d almost had him—Karkat could see even now the bruises on Dave’s throat from Equius’s chokehold, the cut from Terezi’s blade—but instead they’d lost their muscle and their brains and he’d lost everything he’d ever dared to want.


“I’m going to fucking kill you,” Karkat rasped, lurching to his feat. His throat burned with the effort of saying even that, but he couldn’t look at Dave without wanting to hurl, without wanting to cry, without wanting to beat him bloody with the side of his fist HE HATES HIM HE HATES HIM HE HATES HIM—

Dave just raised his sword and jerked his chin at him. “Bring it.”

Karkat lunged and Dave blocked and gave way. He was better with that sword than he should have been, fast and light on his feet even in the sand. Karkat knew how to use a sickle like it was part of his arm, though. And he fought like a wildfire. He had nothing left to lose.

The locked blades, leaned into it; Dave broke and rolled.

Karkat realized then that he was yelling, though it only came out as frantic grating: “I’ll kill you I’ll kill you I’ll kill you I’LL KILL Y—!”

Dave caught him full in the stomach with both feet and propelled him clear over his head. Karkat cracked his skull against a stone wall, thudded into the sand like a sack of flour.

Dave’s shadow fell over his shoulder. Staggered. Swayed. That sword had been Eridan’s; favored Career, too good to join sides with anyone but the other girl from Four. Prince of douchenozzles. He'd been the first to go. Dave, Ten’s obnoxious crow, crushed his windpipe with a rock while he slept. Looted the body.

Karkat got enough air in him to croak, “Finish it, you asshole.”

Dave was bone-exhausted. Karkat could see it, could see the remnants of his shirt wrapped around a heavy gash in his arm. It was still bleeding sluggishly. He had shadows under his eyes to rival Karkat’s, sickly against white skin and blistering sunburns.

But Karkat was done.

“Fuckers need a winner,” Dave said, and Karkat couldn’t grasp anything beyond the hollowness of the asshole’s voice—was he apologizing? Was that what this was, was he fucking—

Dave tried to haul him up, but Karkat's weight was too much. He pitched forward, the wall broke beneath them, and they both toppled into the crumbling well.

Karkat came to in a bed, surrounded by machines and white and beeping, and he had won.

He tried to remove the IV keeping him alive, but Dave had been right. They needed a winner.

He couldn’t cry anymore.

And then there was the revolution.

Years passed, and Karkat finally returned to the Arena. He found the desert scraggly with the lowly, pathetic growth endemic to lowly, pathetic deserts all across the world. Perfect for lowly, pathetic Survivors like Karkat.

He came to put away his ghosts.

The one he saw, though, wasn’t one he expected. Tall, bony, pale like sand or winter light on a dove’s wing, gawky as a crow. An omen of death, then and now.

There was a knotty scar on his arm where a Tribute tracker would once have been. It was ugly. The kind of scar a kid would give himself trying to do surgery with a sword.

“Hey,” said Dave. It took him longer to turn, to regard Karkat from the safety of new sunglasses.

“Hey,” grunted Karkat. His voice had never recovered. He waited, then spread his arms. “Are you finally going to finish it, asshole?”

Dave looked at him a long time. Finally, he nodded. “It’s finished.”

He walked past Karkat, and Karkat knelt again in the sand like there was a corpse for him to mourn. And wept.