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Menthol Cherry Red

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When you wake up in the middle of the afternoon, it's just a tickle in your throat, a vague sense of unease. Your breakfast tastes weird, but you just assume the milk is going off. You brush your fangs and take a shower and try to wake the hell up.

An hour later, you're a wreck.

Your head is splitting open. You can't seem to get warm. You put on a sweater. You put on a sweater over the sweater. You stare at the work you did yesterday and can't make heads or tails of it. You may not be apeshit bananas at computers like a certain duotone douche, but you don't suck anymore, you're good enough to make a living so you don't have to mooch off your roommate, you're good enough to write this code on your screen so why the fuck can't you read it?

Your nose whistles when you breathe. You sniff hard, feel snot hit the back of your throat, and it flips a switch from 'itchy tickle' to 'racking cough that nearly knocks you out of your chair'. By the time it finally lets you go you're sweaty and shaking.

Gripping the edge of your desk so hard your claws leave dents, you stare into the yawning depths of horror. You played and fought and grieved and triumphed for this? A sweep, a couple years of peace in a joint universe with all your friends, a universe where your empty quadrants aren't a death sentence and your mutant blood is a mere annoyance, where the closest thing to strife you have to face is a cereal fight with John over the kitchen table... and then death by respiratory infection in the comfort of your own apartment.

When you think of it like that... it's not so bad.

- carcinoGeneticist [CG] began trolling ectoBiologist [EB] -

CG: THE INEVITABLE HAS OCCURRED.
CG: SOME MICROORGANISM ENDEMIC TO THIS FECULENTLY OVERCROWDED PLANET HAS MUTATED SUFFICIENTLY TO COLONIZE MY DEFENSELESS BLOODSTREAM.
CG: MIMICKING PRECISELY THE SCENARIO FROM THE HUMAN LITERARY CLASSIC 'WAR OF THE WORLDS'
CG: EXCEPT THAT INSTEAD OF SAVING THE HUMANS FROM DESTRUCTION AT THE GRUESOME APPENDAGES OF MINDLESS GENOCIDAL MONSTERS, THIS HEROIC MICROBE HAS SAVED YOUR PATHETIC ASS FROM MY COMPAF;DS'
CG: COMPARATIVELY MILD WRATH AT YOUR COMPLETE FUCKING INABILITY TO EVER DO DISHES EVER.
CG: SO BASICALLY NOTHING LIKE THE BOOK AT ALL EXCEPT THAT I'M DISEASED.
CG: YOU CAN HABJD
CG: '
CG: YOU CAN HAVE MY ONE PIECE FIGURES ON THE CONDITION THAT VRISKA IS NEVER TO TOUCH THEM.
CG: I DON'T CARE HOW PERSUASIVELY SHE ARGUES THAT ALL THINGS PIRATICAL ARE SOMEHOW HER PURLIEU, IF YOU LET HER SOCIOPATHIC GRIPNUBS POLLUTE THEIR PURE FRIENDSHIP I WILL HAUNT YOUR ASS.
CG: AND NOT IN A FUN JUMPSUITS-AND-BACKPACKS WAY EITHO[L;;KDL
CG: EITHER.
CG: WE ARE TALKING INEXPLICABLY PERSISTENT STENCHES, BLEEDING WALLS, AND 'Ksdd;AL   ;
CG: GFDI EGBERY AT; THIOS RAT4E I''LL BR DEAD BEFORE YPU

The door of your room opens with an insulting lack of urgency. John lounges in the doorway with his hands in his pockets and watches you cough up your airsacs.

"Wow, that sounds like a bad one!" he says, and you contemplate whether you still possess the vitality to punch his inappropriately cheerful smile down his throat. "You should go back to bed!"

"Fuck that," you gurgle. "I will die at my post like a troll, damn you." You can't give up yet, you still have to troll Sollux and tell him he can have all the rest of your stuff.

- carcinoGeneticist [CG] began trolling twinArmageddons [TA] -

CG:      LM;;LK,.M.,;LL[]0-=

"Okay, you're done," John says brightly, taking hold of your arm. He loops it around his neck and starts steering you toward your bed.

You try to explain how unacceptable his attitude is. The first word sets off a coughing fit so bad your knees buckle. John matter-of-factly scoops you up and carries you the rest of the way. He tucks you in, pulling the covers up to your chin, and turns away. You catch his wrist. Your grip is weak, but he stops and looks back.

"That's it?" you rasp. "No goodbye? No 'It was nice knowing you, Karkat! I'll miss you, buddy!' Why are you acting happy about this?"

His smile melts slowly into confusion, confusion into remorse, and remorse into honest-to-God, punched-in-the-heart, poleaxed pity like no one has ever shown you before.

"Holy shit, Karkat," he breathes. "You actually think you're dying."

Your glare is ruined by the effort it takes not to cough.

"You're not playing it up for humor. You think you're dying for real. And you think I would just laugh it off? And walk away? You dick." He sounds hurt, but his eyes are still pity-soft. "It's just a flu, Karkat! Jeez! And for the record, I was going to get you some medicine and extra blankets."

"... Oh." You have no idea what a 'flu' is, and you're not at all convinced it won't kill you, but you should've known he wouldn't just leave you. "Sorry."

He sighs. "It's okay. Just... quit freaking out. I'll be back in a minute."

Left alone with nothing to do but listen to your sinuses whistle, it feels more like an hour before he returns with his arms full. He juggles a small army of bottles onto the bedside table, then piles blankets on you until you ought to be roasting. You still feel cold.

He makes you take chalky little white pills, big chewy orange pills, and a tiny cupful of deep green syrup that tastes like something you'd mop floors with. He has you wash it all down with big gulps of blue Gatorade, which is palatable only by comparison with the green syrup. The green syrup, you inform him, is obviously made from the bile secretions of horrorterrors.

"Nobody likes it," John assures you, "but it'll make you feel better."

You scowl up at him. "I notice you aren't saying it'll cure me."

"There's no cure, it just has to run its course."

You're about to tell him precisely what you think of his chirpy bullshit, because the words 'there's no cure' should not be said with a smile, but he derails you by bending closer and stroking an icy hand across your forehead and down your cheek.

"Egbert," you croak. "What."

"You're really hot."

"Um."

"I hope WebMD is right about human fever reducers working on trolls."

"Oh." Well, that was almost really awkward. But his hand sure is lingering.

He sits up and puts his smile back on. "Don't worry, if your temperature doesn't come down soon I'll do some more research and find something that does work. So what do you want me to read to you?"

You blink up at him, dizzy with emotional whiplash. Well, mainly dizzy from an incurable disease that is probably still going to kill you despite his assurances. But realizing that the reason he took so long to fetch the blankets and Green Death bottle was because he was looking up treatments for you... you don't know what to do with that. It's almost worse than the face-touching.

"Or should I just leave you to sleep?" he adds when the silence stretches too long.

"No!" You bite back the rest of it: don't leave me alone. "Um, the -- on top of --" Coughing cuts off the rest of it, but your gesture leads him to your to-read pile, and he brings back the book with the bookmark in it.

"Wow, 'Wuthering Heights', that's like real literature! I don't think a single bodice gets ripped in the whole thing, are you sure you want to hear this one?"

"Fuck you," you rasp. "Read it or don't, I don't care."

John flops down on his stomach beside you, hip to hip and elbow to elbow. Opens the book to your place, props himself up on his crossed arms, and starts reading. "'But I don't like the carving-knife, Mr. Hindley,' I answered; 'it has been cutting red herrings. I'd rather be shot, if you please.'" He looks up at you with a laugh. "Maybe your taste in books doesn't suck after all!"

"A little less --" pause to cough -- "commentary, John."

"Oh, fine. Um... 'You'd rather be damned,' he said; 'and so you shall' -- I can't even point out the blatant semicolon abuse going on here?"

You groan. "John..."

He giggles, but goes back to reading without further interruption.

His voice washes over you like eddies of warm wind. Little by little the shivers abate. The headache doesn't go away, but it subsides from 'my skull is about to burst and release a vast swarm of slightly smaller skulls, each one equipped with eye lasers, spider legs, and a throbbing headache of its own' to 'three or four angry monkeys with rubber mallets'. The urge to cough gets easier to fight. You sink into a stupor, feel unconsciousness sucking at you like a deep, black bog.

Is this the medicine he gave you, or is it death? You feel so hazy, so heavy, maybe this is the final weakness. Would John lie to you? Would he tell you there's hope of recovery to make your final moments less terrifying? Would he be able to joke with you, to read to you with that sweet little smile on his face?

He glances over and sees you struggling to keep your eyes open, and his smile turns pitying again. Would he look at you like that if you were truly going to be all right? "You're not shivering," he says gently. He puts the backs of his fingers against your cheek for a moment. "Good, it's working."

"'m so tired," you say, in a tiny wiggler voice that doesn't sound like you at all.

"Should I go so you can sleep?"

You shake your head slightly. "Keep --" You glance at the book.

"Okay." He resumes reading.

If you are dying, you know for a damn fact there are worse ways to go than warm and sedated, lulled by the sound of John's voice. With a great, final effort, you work a hand free and grope toward his until you feel him clasp it. Then you let yourself sink into the dark.