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should've stayed back at hive

Chapter Text

The hive you share with Karkat is on the outer fringes of the city; a few miles from the rustblood gutters, where you always keep an eye out for one particular troll, and not too far from the bronzeblood ghetto. A few humans also mingle with you, their hives blocklike and reminding you of ugly boxes, but Karkat had specifically chosen the knoll as the spot. He tells you it's for tactical advantage and not for climbing up to the crooked spires on a clear dawn and watching the pink and green spheres blend into harsh red, the kind of scene that makes romance burst from the chest and sparkle into the air. His eyes have hearts when he sees this shit. 

It's times like these that you're loathe to bother him, when he's perching on the spire like a rabid bird. He doesn't notice you floating up to the roof until you zap him lightly on the horns.

"SHITFUCKfuckonastick Captor, what the hell."

"Fuck you too," you say mildly, joining his spot on the roost. It's a particularly warm sunset and the stone under your ass feels like a sauna. "Your skin's going to look even uglier if you stay out like this, man. You need some fucking sleep."

"And you don't, dipwad?"

How could you ever not enjoy this completely useless volley of half-crumpled insults and jabs at your trollsculinity? You resist zapping him again. "I slept yesterday."

"Shut up, Tholluckth. It's a nice view."

You don't disagree. It's aesthetically pleasing, even if the sun starts to sting your retinas, but it's the way it lights up the gutters and the ghetto and the lowblood district that makes you frown. Under impeding daylight they look...ordinary. Pleasing, even. Like it's a nice place to live, in snug hives along the sgruban zone, and not a complete horror when the moons are full.

What you hate most are illusions.

Contrary, Karkat finds it inspiring. "This is what they should look like," he's mentioned once, pulling at your sleeve, and his voice had sunk into didactic mode. It's rougher and lower and crackles with a passion he usually conjures during losing at video games. "They should be -- not paradise, and definitely not hell. People should be able to go anywhere in the gogdamn city and live their life without worrying about blood. It's -- "

"Unfair? What a shock, KK."

"It's like being singled out for having paler grey skin or different horns." Unconsciously, he touched at his own little nubs. "It's something we're not able to fucking control -- not when we're getting trollhandled out of caverns -- why is a whole shitting society modeled like this? There's rational highbloods, there's good trolls, there's humans that'll vouch for this, you can have a whole league of voices pointing out why this is stupid and there'll always be this invisible muffler that turns them away. Are we that shitty, Sollux? Do they really want to see our faces planted in the mud?"

"They like control," you told him. "It's not an exclusive thing; if the roles are reversed, if AA was on top and some fuchsiablood on the bottom, it would be the same. No one ever wants to fucking relinquish control, no matter what they say otherwise."

"It's not fair," he had said, his voice bordering on pleading, as if you had the power to smooth down all the rungs. "It defies logic, it defies rationale, and it's full-out insane."

"It's hard to think when your head's up there," you agreed.

But most of the time you don't hold sociopolitical discussions on the roof; it's pointless, obsolete, and does nothing to change the fact that AA has to sleep with one eye open, or that long after KK slumps asleep you're still squatting on the sill, listening to the distant shrieks and clangs of metal. Once a building had been blown up, and a brief flare of voices whispered to you of charred bone and a puddle of bronze blood, soaking into the ground. Alternia feeds off of blood. It feeds off the bodies, and it's not a fucking rumor because the corpses are swallowed whole.

The world's alive and it self-wanks to your mutual destruction.

Lecture-loopy isn't your mindset for the morning. Your jobs today are to force KK back into his recuperacoon, attempt to hack into the Imperial database, be rebuffed by the firewall, try not to get tempted into hacking by it because you really don't want the Condesce's drones over you like an overeager prostitute at your bulge (even though you've hacked into it once), maybe explicitly avoid the humans -- there's only a handful of them, and the last time someone had tried to attack the orange-sari one it ended with their body being a temporary pincushion.

Off track again.

"KK," you groan again, but he doesn't humor you. His eyes shine in silvery pools, scanning the horizon, the blackness of forest just where your hive is perched and the cityscapes that gleam pristine steel and polished mirrors. Ascension day, you think wistfully, is when his eyes will flare into crimson red -- and the fight will come to your hive. You can sense it. Voices whisper to you, soft and rustling like leaves, but they're insistent in your dreams.

True to your word, he's sunburnt when he finally comes back down.

====

You and Karkat share a coon.

Immediately the scenario draws up erotic scenes -- if there's anything erotic about sopor slime covering your genitals -- and to debunk the particular thought, Karkat has gone through he habit of, you're not even kidding, stuffing pillows between the two of you. Despite them getting absolutely soaked.

"KK, I swear on my pinky that I won't crawl over and hump you in the middle of the day."

"It's a precaution," he snaps, his face turning slightly pink. You're in your boxers and a ratty shirt, leaning against the coon's walls. It's cooler and clammier than you'd prefer, but heated coons are luxuries resolved for midbloods and higher. Karkat curls up in a saggy shirt and off-pointedly stares away. Ever since he had to buy a new husktop, your old coon had to pay for it, the piece of shit. Sometimes he thrashes in his sleep and kicks you in sensitive areas. You never mention it, because he'll probably just add some more during his waking hours.

Sleep usually comes quickly -- the less awkward the better -- but this morn's a little different.

He's not drifting off. Typically, it's the steady rhythm of his drowsing that lures you into your own slumber, the way he makes some unholy creaking sound when he shifts -- but he's still sharply awake. Outside, the sun burns hot and heavy against the walls. Even with curtains it leaks through, making the room blister in heat.

"Sollux?"

"That's my name." You adjust yourself, craning your head to look at the ceiling.

"Do you ever, you know...think about it?"

You want to quip back at him that it could mean anything, from Alternia's living graveyard to possible fungus growing between your toes. You know he's talking about Ascension day, and the question sinks heavy and sick in your gut.

"That's still several perigees off, KK. A fuck-ton of shit could happen."

"Like what?" His voice is soft, but intense enough that you're suddenly self-conscious. "The Empress isn't dead. She'll be alive even when you're yellow paste and I'm on the sign-me-the-fuck-up list for cullbait! We're dead, dude. We're as gone as dust."

"I'm not going to be paste," you remind him.

His eyes snap to you, burning with anger. "No," he hisses, and you squash down the urge to recoil. "Don't -- don't think that, man -- "

"You're the one that took the joyride to depression route, I'm just along for the trip."

"You are not going to be a gogdamn helmsman." He says it almost proudly like he's going to have a fucking say in the matter. 

"You just said we're dead meat." Helming, you had realized, was a dull, slow horror you didn't have to face yet. You've seen pictures and you've heard stories and it's all too easy to imagine biowires inserted under your skin, throbbing in time with your own blood, and letting people cut you open like their personal puppet project. You'll never admit it to Karkat, but too many of your daymares result in you lying stone-still in the recuperacoon, every muscle corded in terror. It's pain you're terrified of, but it's the vulnerability -- not having even a single iota of power to defend -- that leaves you sweating.

"I -- I don't know." He wrings his hands in irritation. "I hate waiting for this. I hate waiting for the drones, and knowing I'll end up on some freakshow where people can go beer-keg on my blood."

You've thought about it before -- alternate escape routes, hiding places -- but some innate fear roots you to the hive. The drones are merciless. You can run, and when you relax they'll fall upon you like dogs on rotten carcasses. You can level a city and they'll drag you off in a collar. If it's not drones then it's subjuggulators, it's laughassins, it's every bit of shit Alternia can throw at you. There won't even be enough of you for the planet to reclaim.

"We could get off this planet," you say.

Karkat's laugh is harsh and rasps against your ears. "Yeah? And what fucking planet would we drag our cull-imprinted asses to? Derse? Prospit? Earth?"

"I'd rather die than helm," you say casually. Of course you would; you've never went through the experience, obviously, but you can imagine it so vividly it's like slipping into a second skin. 

What you don't expect is Karkat lunging across the coon, disrupting his sacred pillow barrier, to slap you hard across the face. 

"Sollux," he says, a quality in his voice that seems to stop your bowel movements. "Don't you FUCKING say that."

"It's a fact, dumbass. I'm a battery or I'm dead. You're cullbait, exile, or you'll get sold to seadwellers. I'm not going to bother to lie."

Ironically, he's the one cementing himself as bratty pessimist, but currently he's trying to brand his palm into your face by the fact he's smacking you on the cheek again. Holy shit, you'd think he practices slapping himself in front of a mirror. He sort of absentmindedly rubs at the spot as a half-assed apology and you're hyperaware that he's basically sprawled across your legs. 

Is he trying to convince you? To agree with him? But, on the basic principle, you really do -- you're doomed, he's dead, and survival is moot. Other worlds are far away, just glimmers in the sky. You're trapped under its expanse. As long as Alternia lives and the hemospectrum exists, you were fated to get handed absolute shit the moment you emerged from your incestous slurry.

"Karkat," you decided to say. Your voice is surprisingly calmer than you feel.

He stills at the sound of his full name, one of his hands still resting on your face.

"...yeah?"

"Karkat, do you want to live?"

Already he's opening his mouth, and you can see the torrent of verbal fuckery he's about to unleash on you -- noooo, I'm alive today for shit and giggles, where's my medal? -- so you preemptively lay a finger against his lips. You try not to notice that it's slightly moist, most likely because he keeps licking them when he's nervous, or that you can feel the teeth marks made when he chews on the bottom one. He's made up of so many little things. 

"I can keep you alive," you say quietly. "Say you want to live, and I'll steal a spaceship for you. I'll blackmail a crew together; I'll get you a new anything. I'll set its GPS to whatever fucking place you want."

"I just said -- "

"Shoosh." You pap his mouth. "You want to stay here? I'll kill any drone they send after you. I'll tear them into scrap metal. You want to sneak in the city, stay in the quarter, live in the woods, anything you want I'll dig it up for you."

"Sollux -- "

"Do you want it?"

The moment stretches, him leaning over you, somewhat cradling your head, and your heart's twisting unfamiliarly. The temperature rises, drawing out beads of sweat on his face, trickling down his neck -- the sopor's warm, gentle, bubbling at the edges. You don't hesitate in gazing at his features, at his thick eyebrows, the heavy planes and slopes of his cheekbones, his mouth is full and wide, black cowlicks splayed everywhere -- he's small. Not tiny, just small. He'll grow, and muscle will replace his scrawny little limbs. He's this angry, angry knot of energy and rage and helplessness that makes your fucking heart shrivel.

You can feel his breath against your lips.

"KK?"

"No." He pushes off you; some weird little part of you droops in disappointment. You dismiss it as nerves. "Hell no. I'm not going anywhere unless -- "

"Unless?"

He's splashed to his end of the coon again, curling into a ball. "I'm not leaving you behind."

A surge of warmth floods into your chest.

When dusk comes, subtle across the windowpanes, you find yourself waking alone in the coon. The air's cooler, stinging alongside your arms. For once, your dreams were empty and reminded you of buzzing static.

Chapter Text

For the most part, your routines are the same.

Your lusii are dead -- your chest still squeezes when you remember finding Crabdad still and cold in the kitchen, his pincers open and relaxed -- and you had to bury him with your own hands. Already, the ground started swallowing him the moment his exoskeleton touched the mud. You concern yourself with food, the rare occasion to go down to the yellowblood sector nearest to your hive and trail around the market, but you spent most of your waking hours loitering in front of your husktop. You distract your impeding death with rom-coms; you yell at others online, and you try not to give yourself time to think.

Your forays are how you meet Sollux, after all.

Even when Crabdad was around you still dared to go to the other blood districts. You only toed into the rustblood gutters at dusk, never later, not unless you wanted a firsthand view of your intestines. The bronzeblood ghetto is slightly better; there's definitely still corpses, but now they're out of sight and not on the fucking public street. The yellowblood sector, however, is all straight-cut buildings and stiff lines, and you're surprised at how -- well -- not completely bloodbathed it is.

There's a reason, of fucking course.

Lowblooding drones are considerably smaller than their higher-caste counterparts; their size doesn't matter when psychics can rip them apart like paper. They are built for speed, however, and how quickly they descend onto the sector is comparable to a flash storm. Within moments they're swarming the streets, trolls are screaming and running into the alleys, and the bag of food you're clutching in your hands weighs a thousand pounds as they mechanically position themselves on the street.

"Class E Psionics and higher." The leading drone reads off the numbers dispassionately. "At least six sweeps. Recruitment for bioengineering purposes."

Shit. You wonder if anyone'll attempt to run or hide, but already a trickle of yellowbloods -- and a few other hues -- began shuffling toward the drones, their gait awkward and unsteady. Most psionics are sent to ships; only the strongest are fully helmed, but the others still serve as batteries for electronics and data transmissions and whatnot. The ability to electrically manipulate any goddamn thing in the world is the bitterest, cruelest double-edged sword, you think, and you're glad that your secret's concealed under skin.

The drone has a gogdamn list in his hand -- it's counting the number of psionics, you realize -- and a low, warning hum starts when it comes up one short. The whole sector seems to hold its breath. 

"Yellowblood #2222, age six sweeps, at least Class B -- " your eyes widen at the statement; class B's are fucking powerful. At wigglerhood they can blow up entire rooms. On the rare chance they reach adulthood, they could level buildings. The legendary ones, the class A's, are distant and fabled -- there's only been one in the course of history -- so most prominent Bs helm the biggest ships, both land and seadweller. You've heard rumors about them being used as living, breathing weapons. A dozen class B's could take down an entire city in less than an hour.

"Yellowblood #2222, age six sweeps, at least Class B." If a drone could sound impatient, this one would. You carefully back into an alley, your breaths harsh and tight in your throat. You don't want to be here. You should've listened to your lusus.

"Marked for recollection." There's a faint beeping sound, and then the drones began to filter out, herding along the dozen or so psionics entrapped between their bodies. You feel sorry for 2222. Recollection is pretty specific for psionics, since they're too useful to be culled, but it's a guaranteed one-way to permanent helming.

Poor troll.

You turn around to leave, something horrible writhing in your gut, and you walk facefirst into a troll. 

The impact is greater than expected and you're dropping your bag -- it sails toward the floor, your pocket already burning from the absolute waste of money and shit, all you're doing is digging yourself into your deeper hole, spiraling away at the vortex of thoughts that'll leave you wiped and pleading on the floor.

Nah, it's really just walking into someone. 

It's the bag being caught a mere inch off the ground that makes you swear.

"SHITTING fuck-on-a-stick dude, did you just -- "

"Shut up," the troll hisses, and something tingles through your jaw before you realize your tongue is pinned to the roof of your mouth. "Not so fucking loud!"

You want to slap Past-You for your stupidity; there are drones meters away and the thin electricity tendrils, you realize belatedly, are red-and-blue colored. Only psionics have the idiotic multi-colored psychics that ring as a dead giveaway. He's trying to use as little as possible.

You motion to your mouth that you won't be speaking anymore.

He releases your mouth. You resist the instinct to gasp in air, and then -- carefully -- you pick up the hovering bag from the floor, cautious not to disturb any of the contents. Your psionic troll stands a few feet off and you get your first good look at him.

Angles and limbs and scrawny muscle, around your age, double horns -- double horns? even the Condesce herself has only one pair -- a larger set bracketing a smaller set comparable to your nubs, there's these ridiculous shades pushed up into his hair, black and messy, double snaggleteeth sticking out of his mouth, framing his face, the shades have one red lens, one blue -- does he want to give himself away? the stupid shit -- taller than you, not by much, clothes are ratty and hang off a starved frame 

What you take away from the impression is that he's thin. Not just in body mass -- the way he's standing right now, balancing on the balls of his feet -- his eyes are wide and he's scared of you. He's scared of you while you're holding a bag of groceries.

His eyes have no irises whatsoever -- just solid red and blue sclera, but you feel the intensity of his stare skimming over your body, sizing you up. You try not to flinch.

Drones? you mouth at him, cocking a thumb over your shoulder.

Fuck yeah. When he opens his mouth, you see a row of crooked fangs and what looks like a forked tongue. 

The drones and their assorted psionics are still on the street. He beckons you quickly to follow him down the alleyway, and you'll be forever questioning why exactly you did that instead of walking away like a normal troll.

No risk, no game.

So you follow him.

Once you're deep enough in the alleyway, he pushes you up against the wall. This time your bag hits the ground and you flinch at the subsequent splattering sound. Crabdad's going to be pissed.

"Dude, what the fuck -- "

"Shut up, shut up, shut the fuck up -- " he's saying the phrase he first said to you, but this time he's louder. His voice is nasally, almost wheezing, like he can't get his lungs to work right. "Who the hell are you? What's your deal?"

He says it as what'th, the lispy little shit.

"Nothing's my fucking deal!" You can't afford to yell, but your voice cracks in all the wrong places. You realize he's pinning you with psionics when you try to shove at his body. "You're the one pushing me up the wall, you deluded fucktard! I'm trying to buy some gogdamn food!"

"Shit, sorry." He releases you, and you nearly slump onto your knees. You blearily flip him off.

He opens the horror of his mouth to pop off another question, but you beat him to it. "Don't talk, shitwad. Are you a psionic? Are you avoiding the fucking drones?"

"None of your business," he snaps angrily.

"You are -- " The realization hits you like a truck. You're so. Stupid. Sometimes. 

"You're the 2222 guy, aren't you?"

"What, hell no -- "

"You're avoiding psychic conscription, are you NUTS?"

"Hey, hey, calm your vomit down," he gives a halfassed pap to your face that's as effective as a buzzing gnat. "I'm not avoiding anything, I'm just -- flying under the radar, I guess -- "

"Flying under the radar -- how old are you? Nine? Ten?"

He looks at you weirdly. "Six."

Your age, then. You feel a little guilty. "Still. You're old enough to realize that that was probably the stupidest, fucking, decision you made in your pathetic lifetime -- "

"I'm not explaining this to a complete stranger," he snarls, tension flooding back into his body. He kicks your ruined bag toward you. "Have fun, you dense piece of shit." He's already ambling away, moments from breaking into a full sprint, and you can't help but notice the way his limbs move like water under his rags. 

He pauses at the end of the alleyway, where a maze of darker streets awaits him. "Thanks for not turning me in, though."

You don't remind him that he had essentially sealed your mouth close.

And that you didn't answer his first question --

"Karkat Vantas!" You call after him, hearing his footsteps fade away. It's not a loud sound, and for a moment you don't think he heard you -- but then a blue-red spark floats lazily in front of you, sending little tremors through your legs.

====

It's still early enough in twilight when Sollux gets up; you hear him shuffle in the cooking block a few moments later, his hair a complete shitting mess framing his face and his glasses skewed sideways. He blinks blearily in the room -- it's not dark enough yet to adjust to night vision -- and doesn't seem to notice you staring at him.

The past almost-two-sweeps' been good to him. He's taller -- not monstrously so -- his horns longer and more polished, his snaggleteeth even sharper, and his walking-skeleton act has been dropped in favor of still being a skinny fuck but a bit more filled out. He's still bones and sharp points, though.

You watch him pace around the room, his hands twitching with a restless energy -- his nails are shorter than yours to accommodate the billions of hours he taps away at the computer. You're also noticing that you're paying attention to all these little details, the way he tilts his head slightly when's thinking of something, or the way his glasses are getting tangled in his horns when he tries to push them up again, or the way a little spark flutters down his thumbnail as he touches the counter, reaching for the cereal box.

"Dude, KK." He's waving at your face. "You're a bit zoned out there. You okay?"

"Peachy," you automatically respond, frowning a little at yourself. He's not terrible looking, you suppose.

Nothing to write home about.

And why the hell is this your train of thought?

Armed with a dry bowl -- fucking dry, what the fuck -- he slumps on the windowsill seat and eats while watching the moons rise. From the angle, he can see both moons -- which literally gets him off. "Duality," he had once explained to you like that was the fucking answer to everything in the universe.

You perch up besides him; you have a thing for nice landscape views, after all. From the low vantage point, though, you can't see anything beyond the knoll.

Pink and green slants across his face. It's an unholy combination of colors that should never exist.

Some days you just swim in your own morose swamp of thoughts, but when Solllux is sitting across from you you can't really bring yourself to talk up your problems again. You already did that last night.

Sometimes you're so fucking scared of the inevitable.

"So," he says after a mouthful of cereal, his crunching loud and obnoxious, "what's your plan for tonight?"

"What plan?"

"Game grubs, movie night out, coding sprees?" He chews on another flake that probably tastes like painted shit. "More mortality contemplation?"

"I've got nothing."

"Cool, then. I was thinking I could go hang out with AA."

Not jealously, you stupid douche, but you know the flare of bitterness in your stomach from anywhere. "Have you still filled a quadrant with her yet?"

Sollux looks at you strangely, then gives a little laugh. "In my fucking dreams. She's -- she's just -- you should come along sometime, dude, it's not that bad."

"The gutter's too dangerous," you protest.

"Bro, we literally never meet up at the gutters. She's actually stringing me along to some excavation site; it's pretty close to our hive."

"Not really down for digging shit out of dirt."

"Are you going to visit the humans, then?" he says, and you swear you can hear a slight flatness in his voice as he continues to chew on his flakes. You shrug it away.

"Maybe." You'll be honest here; the humans fucking scare you sometimes. It's rumored that they dropped out of the air as children and grew up with weapons in their mouths. You don't know how they cope with this world, or what they think of trolls at all -- hell, you've only seen the green one twice in your life. Their four-person settlement is small and cramped and reeks of foreboding. You really only know one person well enough there, and the thought of him sends little flutters through your stomach.

"Let me know how it goes," he says, climbing off the sill.

Chapter Text

Talking with a human is awkward.

It's a short distance from your hive to their settlement -- you don't enter yet, and instead stare up at a scarecrow of the pincushioned troll. His blood has long been dry and it's been eagerly lapped up by the ground; still, his eye sockets are empty and one of his horns are broken. You wait patiently for Dave while contemplating the white of the troll's skull.

Human voices aren't built to speak Alternian. His is low enough, hitting the right tone and cadence, but he can't pull off the clicks and guttural rasps that even wigglers can do in their sleep. It might have something to do with how their blunt their teeth are, or that their tongues are literally just slabs of pink meat. He's dressed in a shirt stamped with a broken record and ragged jeans, but ever-present are his aviators on his face.

"It's the dead of the night, Dave," you tell him as he walks alongside you.

"I'm not taking them off." 

You're not sure how this all started -- maybe it was when you ventured a little too close too close to their place and the next thing you knew you were facing down the tip of a katana. You might've been gutted there and then if you hadn't said 

"mercy"

in his native language. Later, you tell him you were trying to say "fuck you" in Alternian. He says he'll live with that information.

Your night vision is not a switch turned on-and-off; it's more of a gradual seep, sharpening the outlines of the world until you blink and realize you can see everything in the shadows as clearly as if there was light. You can't say the same for the humans. They're soft, pink, with no fangs or claws -- they can't even see in the dark.

"Besides," he says, tapping his shades, "they kinda help me see stuff."

Right.

You think back to Sollux's question earlier -- mainly, what the hell you're going to do tonight -- and you glimpse back in the direction of your hive again. You've spoke to Dave for nearly a sweep, and you know where he lives, but you adamantly refuse to tell him of your hive's location. It's more than just smart survival -- the hive is your sanctuary. You share it with Sollux, and no one else.

"Where's your friend?" Dave's asking. Your paths curl along a dry riverbed. "You know, the two-toned cotton's-got-nothing-compared-to-the-shit-in-my-mouth hacker bomb, the one that threatens to zap me every time I look at him?"

There's a reason why Dave and Sollux have only met each other twice.

"He's out," you say shortly. "And speaking of that, do you have free time tonight?"

"Well, I'm here, am I?"

You flip a finger at him. "Thank you for your vouch of douchebrand assholery, Dave."

He gives a quiet laugh at that. His shoulders shift a little, and you catch something shiny slanted across his shoulder blades -- there's a gogdamn sword strapped across his back. It's usual protocol for trolls to carry around weapons, but Dave's is in clear, visible sight. It sends a jolt of nervousness in your stomach.

"I was thinking," you say, giving a little cough, "that we could -- you know -- just a thought, maybe -- there's a nice rock jut looking over the sea, and it's high enough that seadwellers can't reach it, so -- "

"Like a date?"

"No!" you yelp reflexively, and you swear you see disappointment cross Dave's face, but it's probably just your imagination. "Just -- a friendly outing, it has a really nice view -- " Gog, why is this so fucking awkward? You can feel yourself shriveling up into silence.

"Sure," he says, a small smile on his mouth. It makes his face glow under the moon and his white hair glisten, like it's coated in silver, and you have to grin back. "Lead the way, Karkles."

"Don't call me that."

====

Well beyond the radius of the gutter, you meet Aradia at your usual meeting spot -- sandwiched right under a brace of dying trees. She's already dressed for exploring; a coat protects her arms and torso from the worst, baggy trousers pooling around black shoes. She scrutinizes your own attire -- a T-shirt, a bag, and fucking jeans -- and snorts a little.

"AA, that's mean."

"I'm wracked with guilt," She's even brought her 'explorer set' with her, which is dumb code for a dumber toolbox-mechanism. "Are you ready to venture into the land of the unknown?"

"I was hatched for it."

Despite her protests, you lift both of you up into the air with your psionics. Aradia's not much of a physical psychic -- she can't level a building, but she can still toss around boulders like toys -- but her specialty is more into the paranormal realm. You've seen her talk to empty air. 

At least, empty to you.

You don't risk flying. Being able to float higher than seventy feet somehow takes a lot more power -- and it's too easy for you, hell, it's harder for you to walk down the stairs then fly -- but any trained troll can immediately sort that you're Class C or higher. And the last thing you need is for anyone besides Aradia and Karkat to know how helm-worthy you are.

So instead you catapult yourselves across the ground, skimming the grass with your toes, and she laughs the entire way. The forest blurs alongside you. Trees become greys and browns, and as your vision adjusts to the night you finally have Aradia give you directions where to go. Sometimes you accelerate a completely different direction, the sudden turn making your head spin, but Aradia doesn't mind. Her face is flushed with sweat and hair plasters to her face, curly, soft hair that drapes across her shoulders. Her horns gleam delicately under the pink moonlight.

She looks so soft -- sweet mouth, limpid eyes, all unbridled, raw elegance like a hawk watching from afar -- but she's the last thing from the word. Her bones are as brittle as yours, but all it takes is for her mouth to open and the night would be torn apart from screams.

Dark, vivid power, and you can sense it. Recently, it's been stirring with distant mumbles in the back of your mind -- you know it's a psychic attribute, having voices other than yours in your head, but you feel uncomfortable with what they whisper in your ear.

"Sollux?"

You realize you've been hovering for a nearly a minute. The night is cool and clear around you. Here, the trees are massive, trunks the size of small huts, and the sky is completely underlaid by heavy canopy. A breeze tickles your horns, Something cold and sweet fills the air, like fresh pine, the ground shifting softly beneath you. 

Alternia's always been ravenous.

"Don't tire yourself out," Aradia says, tugging you back to ground as she does the same. "Come on. Let's walk on the dirt."

"I don't want to dirty my shoes," you complain.

She looks at your shoes -- or one of them, where the original color had been white.

"Fair," you say, deigning to touch the ground. 

Tonight's not exactly open to conversation; Aradia gives you a few pointers, mainly that it's a "frog temple" she heard of and that it's one of the oldest structures in the outskirts. Inside, she explains cheerfully, there's artifacts dating to even before the Condesce's reign. The foliage begins to lighten, the ground growing firmer, and before long you're stumbling into a large, spacious clearing.

You've seen larger temples before. This one is still picturesque, though, with careful stone steps and a bastardized frog head on the top like the ugliest cherry-on-ice-cream ever. Six spires of stone surround the structure, glimmering a little like polished gleel. Aradia's already in hunting mode; her eyes are wide, trying to absorb in every possible detail, her posture as tense as a cord.

"You okay, AA?"

"Spirits," she says, frowning. "Not actual ones -- but imprints. Someone died in pain here."

You can't suppress the shiver that goes down the spine. "Do you want to call it quits, maybe?"

"It's not too bad." She gives you a smile and gestures; slightly reluctantly you follow her, making sure to heighten your sense of psionics. Just a bit. It can't hurt, after all.

There'a a gaping hole in the side of the temple where there were once double holes, and inside it's dark enough that even your night vision can't penetrate the shadows. It smells musty, like uncollected dust, and something cold and wet drips down the walls. Carefully, you set a few sparks afloat in the air, giving the room a faint red-blue glow.

"This is so creepy," you whisper to Aradia.

"This is so cool," she whispers back, her eyes already bugging with excitement. The room's not too different from your previous sites -- although, strangely, there's a lot of books. Scrolls, texts, tomes are piled in the corners, along with what looks like animal bones.

"Someone lived here," Aradia said, bending down to a set of --

tablets?

Aradia's hands meticulously sweep off the dust from the stones. The stone's all cracked and grainy, but ancient Alternian is carved legibly on each slab.

"Can you read it?" you ask.

She can decipher a few words -- tears    death         martyr -- but shakes her head on the rest, a curl of black hair slipping across her brows. Ancient Alternian is nearly a completely different script from present-day; it's all harsh, bizarre strokes and angles, compared to the smoother contemporary curves of the current glyphs. Some words still bear resemblance, but it's like trying to read through mud. Your head pounds just looking at it. 

"It's full of -- " she bites her lip, her fingers subtly tracing the symbols. "It's full of despair. Fondness. So much emotion."

"I don't think they died unless they dropped the book on their head."

"Wouldn't there be a body?" she asks quietly.

A jolt of dread goes straight to your bladder, and you have to tense your thighs to keep the sudden urge to pee in. What the fuck. You just realize how quiet the night is, only leaves and branches scraping, and the hairs on your arms raise.

"The person living here -- are they not dead?"

"They're definitely dead." Aradia hands you a tablet; without question you stow it away into your bag. She knows you too well. "But other people have come here before. And clearly -- "

She gestures to a set of dust prints on the floor; holy shit your heart has never thumped so hard before.

"Pretty recently, if I may add."

The both of you stand there in this awful silence, hyperaware of every gogdamn noise outside. It's too quiet. Paranoia rises in you in a cold wave, and your sparks fizzle a little.

So quietly, a voice murmurs in your ear.

"I think we should go, Aradia." Your voice is tight. You're about five seconds from peeing in your pants like a wiggler. "Tonight -- I don' know, but tonight just feels weird. Like something's going to start happening really soon."

"Yeah," she says slowly, glancing at a rough set of sketches on the wall. It's a group of four figures, one with mismatched horns, one with doubles -- like yours, you note with discomfort -- one with catlike shapes, and the last one wears a tattered hood over its cloak. And in a smaller figure, just off to the side --

Aradia peers closely at what looks like spiraled horns and ribbons of something curling around its arms.

"AA?"

She ghosts a hand over the drawings, her expression unreadable. It's the same expression she has when she's truly listening to the spirits.

"AA -- "

"Yeah." She draws in a breath, her fingers shaking slightly as she stashes away a few scrolls. "I was just -- thinking, I guess. Don't worry about it."

 

Chapter Text

You have to say, you're proud of your spot.

It's a little mound on the clifftop that cancels out the need to get close to the edge, but it gives a silvery, glittering view of the ocean caught in the moons' crosslights. The pink shimmers into a dull flush just above the salt foam, the green making the water below pulse vividly, like a beating heart. Above, a spray of stars arc across the sky, the sight hitching your breath in your throat. 

You guide Dave down to a grassy spot between some boulders, feeling cold dew moisten your stomachs. It's perfect. It's perfect and quiet and calming, so close and yet so far, and all you can hear is the rhythmic lapping of waves against the rocks.

"Did you have the ocean back on Earth?" you whisper to him.

Dave's laugh is full of bitterness. "Nearly the whole globe's covered in it. That's probably why your Empress wanted it in the first place; it'd serve as her private bath or something." He rests his chin on his hands, tilting his head a little. "They're not so shiny, though. And definitely more waves."

"It gets stormy during the day," you say.

"Makes sense." From this distance, you can see the ocean reflecting off his aviators. 

"Have you ever swam in it?"

"Once. My bro took me down to the coast." He rolls over on his back to a more comfortable position, gazing up at the moons. "Do you have sand here? Or is it always the pebbly shit?"

"What's sand?"

"It's like -- " he grits his teeth, searching for an explanation -- "it's crumbly, powdered rock, I guess. Soft. It gets between your toes and in your clothes and when it mixes with water it becomes slushy mud."

"Sand," you say, tasting the word in your mouth.

"Yeah, we had a lot of that. Our beach was polluted as fuck, though; it had all these little shells and bones strewn across the shore. My bro didn't let me wade in too deep."

"Was this before or after -- "

"Just before." Dave let out a small sigh. "The very next fucking day, the trolls' ships arrived. I haven't seen the ocean up close ever since."

You...don't know what to say. You have the weird urge to apologize to him, on behalf of your Empress completely wrecking his home, so you do that.

"Sorry."

Dave groans and puts a hand over his face. "Dude. No apologies. Not a single damn bit of your fault."

"I know, but I just wanted to say it. Your world's not the only one she's fucked over."

"You don't say." He gestures to you, to your shirt's lack of symbol. "The hemospectrum thing. The drones and culling stuff. That's all her, isn't it."

"Technically, they started before her reign -- "

" -- and grew worse during hers." You'd think Dave was closing his eyes if it wasn't for those damn shades. "I'll tell you, none of us deserve this. I don't know how much humans are alive. I miss Dirk like hell."

You missed Crabdad too, and you tell him that.

"Welcome to the pity party then, Vantas," he mumbles softly, tracing patterns in the air. "We all have someone we need. John's got his dad -- sorry, lusus -- and grandma, Rose's got her mom, Jade's got her granddad, you've got your own crabby dad -- hell, I bet your hivebuddy's hankering after someone. Everyone's got someone."

You swallow a bit. You wanted him to enjoy the view, to fill up on what he's left behind -- you're not expecting this sudden rush of warm, sleepy emotions pooling in your gut. Dave looks as relaxed as ever, his chest moving up and down from his breaths, and you feel that stupid flutter again in your stomach.

"Dave -- "

"Yeah?" He turns his head a fraction toward you.

You shuffle closer to him, your fingers inches away from his own.

His body stills, but he doesn't shift away.

Fuck.

Closer...

He definitely knows what you're trying to do --

his lips part as your hand grazes his

a little shudder

and it all goes into pieces as something thrums, like a bowstring released, the waves crashing and splitting with a splash.

In an instant your muscles are tensing and you're ready to bound onto your feet -- only now Dave's hand clamps onto your wrist like a fucking clam, pinning you on the ground. He presses his other hand across your mouth when you reflexively try to shout. He's shaking his head frantically, trying to peer down at the shore.

"Karkat, hold the fuck still," he hisses. When you stop struggling he releases you, noiselessly beckoning you over to the precipice.

It's a dizzying drop to the beach below. There's two figures mulling on the (sand), and judging by their height and girth you immediately know they're adult trolls. You whisper that to Dave, trying not to flip the fuck out.

"Adult trolls?"

"Adults," gog, your voice is about to crack. You're such a fucking pansy. "They're fucking adults, Dave, they can tear trolls like me to pieces, oh my gog."

"Hey." Dave's hand pats your cheek, the gesture so pale that you almost splinter from the emotional whiplash. You forgot humans and their tendency to pale their brains out to every organism possible. "Hey, relax. Just tell me what you see."

You suck in a deep breath, and look again.

Most adult trolls don't show themselves in sight -- in the city, it might be a different story, but out in the lowblood quarters they're usually glimpses in shadows and murky basements. Even in dual moonlight you can't observe the two down below too clearly. Dave's right beside you, his breathing tight but controlled, and somehow your heart slows so that it isn't about to tear out of your chest.

One of them's female, the other male. The female's decked in a heavy longcoat and a floppy-brimmed hat, a set of bizarre horns crooking from the headwear. A mess of heavy, black curls descend to her waist. You can't see her face in the shitty lighting, but you do recognize faint cerulean highlights among her clothes and gloves. A highblood adult.

Your fucking luck.

The other troll's decked out in -- get this -- fucking violet-colored armor, the jagged scales and peaks all too similar to a drone's design. His horns are zigzagged, golden bangles dangling from his wrists, and he's honest-to-gog wearing what looks like pinstriped pants. A flowing cape droops all the way down to his ankles. What makes your heart stutter in fear is the ever-so-slight view of the fins flaring from the sides of his face, 

You've only ever seen seadwellers in pictures before.

The two of them are moving restlessly on the beack -- now you notice they're dragging something across the sand, something roughly the same size as themselves, and it's Dave that voices the thought out loud:

"It's a body, isn't it?"

"Fuck," you mutter. The body's obscured by their longcoat and cape. In a distant cove, you see a standard ship haphazardly moored, the rope creaking and straining against the waves. 

Pirates, you realize, noting the ship's flag is bereft of the Condesce's symbol like most ships are. Instead, it's a set of parallel, wavy lines and a triple set of lines and loops, complete with a little arrow at the hook. You're looking at an actual pirate ship. Steered by actual highblood adults.

If they knew you and Dave were here -- well, they'd probably leave Dave alone. It's an unspoken rule among trolls to not lay a single finger on humans, and for your life you can't imagine why. You'd think they were ambassadors, but judging that Dave's currently out with you and not in some fancy consulate meeting, you're skeptical on that train of thought. You, however, are not granted that amnesty.

If they saw a single drop of your blood, they'd tear you to pieces.

They're still dragging the body. It occurs to you that it's leaving wet streaks of water behind, which means it must've washed up on shore. You wonder why pirates would need a body. Some seadwellers had been rumored to eat landdwellers, but the female troll's clearly the latter and she's not the violet douche's supper yet. Voices flit from the pair, one clear, cloying tones, the other a guttural rasp. They both have the metallic edges adult trolls have; the kind that grates your ears and makes every instinct flare in fear.

You don't know how hard you're shaking until Dave holds your fingers, trying to suppress your trembling.

"Shh, dude," he's whispering, squeezing your hand. "We're all the way up there. They're down there. Unless you think they can jump a hundred feet into the air."

You stare at him blankly.

"Oh shit, they can. Okay. Cool. Still, no biggie. They can't hear us all the way there, and they're just getting on their illegal-as-fuck ship -- see, look, they're dragging the body up on the ramp, and it looks like -- " Judging by how his head tilts, you realize Dave's squinting. His hand is warm over yours. "Huh. The dead troll's got double horns, for some reason."

Your insides freeze.

It's only Dave's hand gripping the back of your shirt that prevents you from falling to your death; still, you strain forward, your eyes frantically scanning the two adult trolls, searching over their shared baggage -- and the moonlight slants just right with shadows, your night vision in full effect --

The body's an adult male troll.

From a faint green light, it's clearly dead -- yellow -- just like Sollux's blood, shit shit shit -- pouring out from a dozen wounds, like every internal organ exploded -- there's goggles plastered to his face, blank and hollow, and Dave's right: two sets of horns curl upward, longer than Captor's, but you'd recognize the shape anywhere. His face briefly illuminates, and you see his mouth is a gaping maw, a pair of double fangs grazing his lower lip. 

And then you see his symbol, a bit muddied from the blood staining his jumpsuit, ad the double lines are branded in your memory.

Sollux's name rings in the air, loud and harsh as a bell.

It takes you a few, fucking awful moments to realize you shouted it out.

====

Aradia's just trolled you a few minutes ago, asking you to help translate the texts.

The hive's quiet when Karkat's not around. Which is such an obvious observation that you don't hesitate rubbing your eyes in exasperation. Of course it's going to be fucking quiet, KK's voice could fill a thousand megaphones if he really blew off his top. Yet somehow, over the sweep you've been living with him, you've gotten used to it.

You'd never say it to his face, but the constant stream of shit coming out of his mouth is familiar to you. Soothing. As long as he pulls metaphors out of his ass like colon snakes and proceeds to verbally flay you with them, then all in the world's good. No Ascension will ever show. No drones will march up to your door. You won't go batshit and blow out half the hive.

Eh, pipe dreams.

It's the silence that grates at you a little as you settle in front of your husktop, your chair squeaking obnoxiously loud. You set the tablet next to your keyboard and relish the sound of your mainframe heating up. You hadn't been able to bring your bees over, so your device runs at the speed of honey dripping off a stick, but you didn't want to impose on Karkat's shit any more than necessary. 

Besides, the bees probably would've stung him.

You push out thoughts of Karkat and bees out of your mind. Irrelevant right now; Karkat's probably a hundred miles away, skipping down in moonlight with Dave's hand in his. The mere thought makes something queasy pool in your gut.

Probably just some weird dust you breathed in the temple.

In a few moments, your online translator is up and buzzing. You take a picture of the tablet with your webcam, and then start manually tracing the symbols -- fuck your life -- with as much precision as possible. The output function begins spitting out a few incomprehensible syllables, and it takes nearly forever until it strings into a readable word:

I write

You've read worse translations before. You feed in the next glyph, cursing loudly when you miss a stroke. You try again.

I write in

Great. You're making fucking progress here. You think about asking Aradia to assist you in a joint effort, then realize she's probably going through the other readings right now. If she's not bugging you for help currently, you don't have to intrude in her findings either.

I write in b6f9re

Ugh, stupid fucking quirk.

Is this some apocalyptic log? Did you unluckily choose the last tablet? Why do you care again?

Right, AA.

Unconsciously, you make a diamond symbol over your chest, and immediately flush a ghastly yellow. Where the hell did that urge come from?

I write in 6ef9re face

What.

You check your input again. A genius urge strikes you, and you scrub out the last two words and put them in together instead.

I write in preface

Okay, better.

I write in preface f9r

This could go on all night. On a whim, you decide to dump in the whole gogdamn thing, all too aware that it'll probably be mind-blowing rubbish spat out. Your hand is cramping by the time you're done (and yes, you're aware of the innuendo).

I write in preface f9r Meulin's rec9rds, in which she has s9meh9w decided to dedicate t9 me. I am h9n9red 6ey9nd reas9n.

As this st9ne is f9r the eyes 9f us f9ur, and us f9ur 9nly, I h9ld n9 secret 9r shame t9 admitting myself as the Signless. I am 6ereft 9f 9ne 6ecause 9f the c9l9r 9f my 6l99d, which t9 this day 6leeds a 6right vermilli9n.

The pe9ple call me the Signless. In utm9st privacy, h9wever, my dearest three friends -- f9ll9wers -- call me Kankri Vantas.

When your brain stops short-circuiting, you let out the only exclamation your cells can conjure up:

"What. The. FUCK?!"

====

twinArmageddons [TA] began trolling apocalypseArisen [AA]

TA: ii wa2 tran2latiing 2ome of the text2.

AA: h0w is it g0ing

TA: AA, iit fuckiing 2ay2 "vanta2" here.

AA: the same surname as y0ur friend?

TA: ye2.

AA: maybe its a c0mm0n name, 0r a misspelling

TA: no, iit2 related 2omehow, iit 2ay2 they even have the 2ame bl

TA: ....

AA: s0llux?

TA: nothiing.

TA: but ii al2o deciiphered hii2 fiir2t name.

TA: doe2 the name "kankri" riing any bell2?

AA: n0t that i kn0w 0f

AA: maybe y0u sh0uld ask y0ur friend ab0ut it

TA: yeah, okay.

TA: be riight back.

twinArmageddons [TA] ceased trolling apocalypseArisen [AA]

twinArmageddons [TA] began trolling carcinoGeneticist [CG]

TA: KK, ii need to a2k you 2omethiing.

TA: KK?

TA: gogdammiit, are you bu2y makiing out wiith DV riight now?

TA: ii liiterally have iimportant 2hiit two tell you, 2o gog help me.

TA: KK, iim 2eriiou2.

CG: SOLLUX. YOU KNOW WHAT I'M DOING RIGHT NOW THAT REALLY CAN'T WARRANT YOUR UGLY PISS-COLORED TEXT TO FILL MY SCREEN?

TA: you two aren't even legal for 2econd ba2e.

CG: FIRST, SERIOUSLY, NONE OF YOUR FUCKING BUSINESS.

CG: SECOND, WE ARE NOT ENGAGED IN ANY FORM OF CONCUPISCENT ACTIVITY, BECAUSE RIGHT NOW?

CG: ME AND DAVE ARE STOCK STILL, ANIMALS-TRAPPED-IN-HEADLIGHTS FROZEN, BECAUSE IF WE MAKE THE WRONG MOVE SOME CRAZY BATSHIT HIGHBLOODS WILL SEE US FROM THE BEACH AND TURN US INTO LOWBLOOD FODDER.

CG: THEY'RE LITERALLY FUCKING THERE, THEY'RE LOOKING FOR US BECAUSE OF MY STUPIDITY, I WOULD TAKE A PICTURE IF I WOULD LIKE TO LATER BE FLOGGED AND SHOT WITH ARROWS.

CG: AND THEY JUST DRAGGED UP WHAT LOOKS LIKE YOUR FUCKING ADULT BODY FROM THE OCEAN, WHAT THE HELL.

CG: I EVEN TURNED OFF MY PALMHUSK'S VOLUME FOR ONCE. JUST FOR YOU, SHIT STAIN.

TA: WHAT?!

CG: I KNOW, I KNOW, I'M AN ELECTRONICS GENIUS.

TA: no you den2e fuck, what do you mean by my adult body?

TA: iim not even anywhere clo2e two the beach OR moltiing.

CG: THAT'S WHAT I'M TRYING TO FIGURE OUT, DUMBASS.

CG: BECAUSE I DON'T THINK ANY OTHER FUCKING TROLL HAS THE SAME STUPID DOUBLE FANGS, DOUBLE HORNS, MUSTARD BLOOD POURING FROM EVERY ORIFICE, AND AN ASS-UGLY JUMPSUIT THAT HAS YOUR SAME FUCKING SYMBOL!!!!

TA: how ii2 that even po22iible?

CG: I DON'T KNOW, YOU DOUCHE, THAT'S WHAT I'M TRYING TO DEDUCE.

CG: BUT WHAT WERE YOU GOING TO TELL ME THAT NECESSITATED A PRELIMINARY LUNGE AT MY BULGE AS THE HIGHBLOODS PLAY HIDE-AND-FUCKING-KILL A HUNDRED FEET BEFORE ME? DO GO ON, SOLLUX, I HAVE ALL. FUCKING. NIGHT.

TA: no, fuck you, 2tay 2afe.

CG: AS LONG AS WE DON'T MAKE ANY MORE NOISE WE'RE GOOD.

TA: holy 2hiit, how ii2 thii2 happeniing?

CG: IF I DIE, YOU CAN HAVE MY SHITTY HUSKTOP.

TA: DON'T FUCKIING 2AY THAT!!!!

CG: JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WERE GOING TO TE

CG: okay i got him away from the palmhusk before he pops a wiggly

CG: im guessing youre his hivebro

CG: really trying not to interrupt but were definitely in a bit of a jam here

TA: DV?

CG: dunno who that is but if we want to make it out alive in the next thirty seconds ill probably have to drop the conversation here

carcinoGeneticist [CG] is idle!

TA: FUCK.

twinArmageddons [TA] ceased trolling carcinoGeneticist [CG]

twinArmageddons [TA] began trolling apocalypseArisen [AA]

TA: ii would 2ay, "aa, we have a biig fuckiing problem."

TA: cau2e

TA: we do.

Chapter Text

Despite being butt-ugly off the hemospectrum, you don't have an ounce of psychic powers -- else you would be frying your ass trying to broadcast the sound didn't come from up here, the sound didn't fucking come from up here all over the place. Dave's fingers are laced around his katana, yours around your sickle handle, but neither of you dare draw. It'd only take a glint of metal to catch their attention.

The two trolls are absolutely still, and it looks like they're sniffing the air. Holy crap, if the wind blows the wrong way -- if they can sense life forms or some shitty ability --

please do not look up, PLEASE DO NOT

The female one throws back her head and laughs, prodding the seadweller in the chest. Their voices are a mangle of hisses and clicks, too distant to understand, and your fingers dig into the dirt painfully. Dave's busy typing out something to Sollux, keeping a elbow on your shoulder to ward you away. You can't take your eyes off the scene below.

The ceruleanblood gestures upward toward your vicinity and your heart drops to your stomach.

Karkat, Dave mouths, what the hell's happening? I can't see anything.

The seadweller pulls out a gun.

Your breath stills in your throat.

It's a sleek riflekind, slim edges and vibrant blue, glimmering with a sharp point that's lighted all on its own. The seadweller casually slings it across his back, leans forward and -- 

kisses the ceruleanblood on the lips? what the fuck --

and begins

oh shit.

He hasn't exactly leaped a hundred feet, but it's pretty damn close and you can hear him scrabbling up the side of the cliff, pebbles tossed into the hurling sea below -- and above all, the long, drawn-out cackle of the ceruleanblood, clear as spring water --

You don't waste a moment.

The tips of his horns peer over the edge -- bright wavy orange -- and Dave's already grabbing your arm, holy fuck he's fast, stepping so that the world blurs around you -- when did his sword leap into his hand? fast enough that it seemed like it teleported -- and then a blue bolt of

pure fucking energy

hits a tree on your right. The shit is decimated. There's not even ash.

"SPLIT UP," you scream at Dave, but he shakes his head and runs even faster. The shots are slower now, but they're in wave motions, sweeping back and forth and reducing the land to ash -- fuck fuck it's your fault, you're going to be responsible for Dave turning into powder and you into something worse --

He's chasing after you, you don't dare look back, you can't. You'll die.

You don'r even know where you're running; it's all a blind chase now, and at one point Dave slices off a branch and chucks it back -- stupid heroic shit -- you have your sickle out but you might as well carried a toy for all its usefulness. The ground's solid and firm under your steps; it's the only hope you're latching onto; that you can outrun a seadweller on land. 

Dave's fast, but the shots are ceaseless and the air's acrid with their smell. The moonlights swim into a nauseating haze, until all you can focus on is Dave's fingers clenched around your forearm, your own breathing ringing loudly in your eardrums.

====

"So," Aradia reiterates as you two fly toward the beach a nice five feet off the ground, "Karkat is in trouble?"

"Him and Dave," you gasp out, trying to will yourself to go faster. Every bone and nerve in your body screams in protest. Aradia floats behind you almost effortlessly, her eyes shining brightly. "He hasn't answered my messages since."

"Maybe -- "

"Maybe nothing!" you burst, and your head swims like a wrecking ball smashed into your skull. Fuck, you're already starting to burn out. "He could be dead, AA, I have to go check, I can't -- "

"Hey, hey." She catches up to you in mid-air, the trunks and branches grazing her skirt. "We'll find them, Sollux. Even an adult troll will have a hard time with the both of us."

"Gog, it's my fault, I should've gone with him -- "

"You couldn't have known." She gives you a quick pap, her hand rubbing across your face, your neck, your hair, and a tingle runs down your spine. You don't dare voice what your brain is trying to tell you. You take in a deep, slow breath, calming the fuck down. "But if you pop yourself like a packet of mustard there's no way we can help them."

"AA -- "

"There is no point in killing yourself over nothing, Sollux," she murmurs in your ear. You bury your nose into her hair, letting the curls brush across your cheeks. Fuck, why didn't you hold her more often? She's amazing to hold. She's so full of vitality, filling your jaggedness with roundness, smoothing out your angles. 

You disentangle yourself from her grip. "Yeah, you're right."

"Of course." Her smile is almost mischievous. "We have a troll and human to save, after all. Follow me." Her head tilts back a little, like she's listening to someone whispering in her ear -- for a moment the ambience around you thrums a pale, surreal aura, the air rippling like waves.

She drifts to a different course, looping around a thicket of unruly trees instead. She's being guided by the spirits, you realize. It's endless row after row of trees and field, stark bare land with no trace of troll settlement. The air begins to take a briny edge, laced with salt and a fishy tinge, and the wind whips through both of your hair. You're scanning the horizon for any signs of a fight -- Karkat's not exactly the paragon of martial prowess, you realize uncomfortably, but Dave should at least be handy with his katana. They wouldn't have gone down that easily.

Then again, you've never seen an adult troll in action.

Aradia stops so suddenly that you nearly crash into her; she's tracing patterns in the air, her hair shifting restlessly like a nest of snakes, muttering to herself. You hover beside her.

"Sollux," she says, "what are your voices telling you?"

You gape at her. "Voices?"

"I can hear the dead," she says simply. "They're telling me that someone is coming, and we have to be at the right time in the right place. What are yours telling you?"

"But -- I don't -- I don't even know what kind they are! They're barely even there!"

"Listen."

Something about her tone brooks no argument. You put your hands on your temples, slowly rubbing them in circular motions, and listen.

Just silence buzzing in your mind --

or maybe

something caresses the edge of your thoughts, the faintest whisper --

of what? not the dead, but not the living....? they're living, but they're

Your eyes widen.

about to die...?

Your thoughts and their words bleed into one voice, cold and hollow as a well.

"NOW!" you scream at Aradia, and she understands immediately -- several figures appear in your vision: two in the front, one ominously-large adult troll in the back, holding what looks like a --

You and Aradia work in tandem. Already you're uprooting a tree, snapping it into a shield between the two and their pursuer, and Aradia's tearing and whirling the leaves around like a miniature cyclone with a single twitch of her finger, obscuring the pursuer's sight. His next shot goes awry into the air, missing the cluster of you by a terrifying foot.

You shred the tree to pieces, red and blue viciously sharpening the wood into jagged splinters -- and Aradia flings them at the adult troll. You see him falter, stumble, and already she's yanking out another tree. You pulse shockwaves through the ground, the grass lighting up with your sparks, and it rocks him back on his feet.

Not for long.

You concentrate on renting the ground apart, chunks of dirt pummeling through the air, forcing the troll to focus on his balance instead of the rifle.

"You!" Aradia says, and points to -- they come into vision, and it's a battered Karkat and Dave limping to where you're at. Karkat looks like he's about to flip the fuck out.

You really can't blame him.

Dave, by contrast, is relatively composed -- he's still wearing his aviators, despite all fucking logic that they should be a trail of shards by now. 

"Human boy," Aradia says, and you have to laugh -- Dave's literally the same age as her, but now she carries herself like a queen and he doesn't object. "Can I have your sword?"

"Uh," you think he glances at Karkat. "Not really wanting to part with it -- "

"Lovely. Thank you." She effortlessly tugs it out of his grip and throws it at the adult troll, whom you realize is a seadweller from the heavy set of fins that are plastered to the side of his head. That's why he hasn't shredded Karkat into pieces yet; he's gogdamn landed.

You might even stand a chance.

He hoists his gun to fire the sword off, but at the last second Aradia tugs the blade downward, trying to jam it into chinks in his armor. The movements are liquidlike, like the way she wields her whip, all hissing blurs and scrapes of metal as the tip gouges along the pauldrons. Sparks fly off into the air, whirls of metal and blade clashing in a miniature storm. He changes his grip on the gun, wielding it like a melee weapon, and there's a fucking psychic fight holy shit you kind of want to see this -- 

"Any day, Sollux," Aradia grits out, her fingers twitching and bending like puppets. Her limbs are beginning to tremble --

Shit.

You don't waste a second; you hold up your arms, letting psionics play at your fingertips, and you fire a direct blast at him.

The resultant blow knocks him back a good fifteen feet. His finger's already on the trigger -- but then Aradia catapults the sword to his face, and he's forced to block it with his rifle instead, and then you're liquifying the ground beneath his boots, Alternia bubbling and roiling like turbulent waves. In the sea, he's the undisputed master.

On land, he's fucking toast.

He doesn't even look like he's stepped on solid ground before.

It's too easy to settle in this rhythm; Aradia distracts him with the sword, landing some killer wounds on his face, his neck, and you stun the ground beneath him until his legs turn into jelly. You could almost throw a party in your joy. You, two kid lowblooded trolls, are currently asskicking a fully-grown seadweller. Too bad Karkat can't do much here; you would've loved a "gutterblood over aristocracy" banner draped in your hive.

Aradia's jaw clenches -- and the sword spirals, twisting and grinding as it sinks into a gap in his abdomen armor.

It's not a lethal blow -- no matter how inept they were on land, seadwellers were still tougher than oversized whales -- but your subsequent flare knocks him flat on his back. The rifle flies out of his hands; you quickly fry its circuits inside, making it inoperable, relishing the sound of wires torn asunder.

You both float a little closer. Aradia's trying to push the blade in deeper; you gather up your energy to do the killing blow --

the killing blow?

You should kill him, right?

"Aradia -- " you began, your gut twisting, and then the seadweller rises.

You finally see him clearly.

He...doesn't have much of an appearance. He's older -- much older -- than most adult trolls you've seen, judging by how darkened grey his skin is and how his eyes shine a horrible, glistering violet, like he wants to burn your insides with sheer gaze alone. His horns are over a foot long, wavy and bent in the middle, and two jagged, blackened scars twist his expression into something that makes your every nerve flare with panic. What makes you hesitate is when he looks right at you -- drinking in your appearance, even when you're posed to burn him alive --

"Mituna?" he croaks out, and his voice sounds like shredded razors. "But you -- I just fucking saw you --"

fucking saw you

You release your energy, and everything flares into red.

====

When the world sharpens into focus again, you first see his silhouette as a distance, already moving back over the cliff to where he fucking belongs. The next thing you process is that you're in Aradia's lap, her hands stroking your larger horns, and that Dave and Karkat are leaning over you hazily. Your head feels someone stomped in your skull a billion fuckton times. The taste of metal saturates your mouth.

The third thing you process is Karkat's yelling, Gog bless him.

"...and you actual NOOKSHIT, you almost killed yourself with whatever the fuck you just pulled there, how are you such a wizard in computing and such a brainless, vomit-shitting piece of idiot in real life -- "

"Dude, you need to breathe."

"I will NOT breathe, DAVE!" Karkat's straight-up pulling his hair, haha. He actually stomps the ground too. "My hivemate was almost fucking dead!"

"Then I'd suggest you lower your voice," Aradia says calmly, still rubbing your horns. "You're not helping him recover with your screaming."

That quickly Karkat clams up -- the look he throws at Aradia makes you frown a little, but then he's speaking again -- with difficulty -- at a much lower volume. "Can someone just tell me what the fuck happened back there? One moment the douche's trying to fry us, then he sees Tholluckth here and he says...what fucking name did he say?"

"Carlos?" Dave offers.

Karkat opens his mouth to scream in rage, then remembers Aradia's words.

"Mi -- mah -- tuna? Something? Why would he -- ?"

His transition from rage to horror has to be seen to be believed. His whole fucking jaw drops, like it's a black hole ready to swallow the whole forest in, and his eyes go so wide that Aradia stops stroking your horns in alarm. Even Dave looks concerned -- if concern meant he attempts to fit his hand in Karkat's mouth just to see if he could.

Karkat slaps at his wrist. "Oh, fucking, shit." 

All three of you stare at him.

"He saw you." Karkat points his nubby finger at you. "I mean, of course he saw you, you looked like you had firecrackers plugged up your asshole -- but he saw you. He saw your face."

You remember what Karkat told you, and your insides tighten in dread.

"He thinks he's looking at whatever the fuck he found in the ocean -- the same fucking body, oh my gog, they know you have some relation to whatever waterlogged corpse they found -- why the fuck would they even need a body -- this is -- why do you even look like him --" he sucks in a breath, and you decide to finally speak.

"Karkat," you rasp.

He jolts in surprise, even though he just saw you open your eyes a few moments ago. Stupid adorable piece of shit. 

Adorable? What the hell?

"He was probably just messed up in the brain," you say to him. You pointedly ignore the growing stir of voices in your mind. "Just because we look alike doesn't mean anything. Hell, sometimes people confuse me and AA."

"That was one time," Karkat snaps in embarrassment, but his worry lessens a little.

You disentangle yourself from Aradia's lap. You give her a smile, and pap one of her horns in response. "You were amazing. Kidding, I'm a liar. You still are."

"You did good, too, and I'm glad you're okay." The grin she gives you back is nothing short of sly. "You know, I'm thinking for our next excavation -- "

You remember your translated tablets, and your stomach drops, but Aradia's still speaking.

"Maybe we could go to an empty field." Her fingers brush your knuckles. "A completely empty one, where no troll will ever go -- and -- "

"And?" you prompt.

"Psychically blow stuff up." Her smile reminds you of a shark.

Dave and Karkat make appropriate gagging noises in the background. You rub her horns again, not willing to put a word on the fuzzy feelings you're getting, and then you turn to Dave and Karkat.

"Glad to see you're alive," you say to both of them.

Dave nods a bit, his hair glinting in the moonlight, and Karkat wobbles on his feet like he's unsure what to do. You sigh and wrap him into a hug.

"Fuck you, Sollux!" He claws a little at you, then realizes he's only denying himself before sinking in the embrace. He's warm and compact and your abdomen tightens.

Out of the corner of your eye, you see Aradia drift over to Dave and hand him a bloodstained blade.

"Sorry about that," she says. "I didn't mean to steal your sword."

"You did, actually."

"Just this once! But even though I've never seen you in my life, it's good to see you unharmed." She peers at him closer. "I never saw a human before either."

"Mm."

The conversation's literally killing your brain.

"Introductions," you say, still busy with the armful of rabid Karkat. "This is Aradia, my, uh -- " You remember how she papped you, quick, gentle gestures across your face and neck, and you know there's a light blush on your cheeks.

Aradia looks at you, but you can't spit it out.

"Friend," she says, holding out a hand for Dave to shake. The word feels strange; it spreads warm gooey things through your chest, but somehow you know you're longing for more.

Karkat -- almost imperceptibly -- stiffens in your arms, but you don't let him go. You continue to pat his shoulders, not trying to make it pale, but he really needs to calm the fuck down -- 

"Dave," Dave says, taking her hand lightly. "I'm Karkat's, er, friend too. Maybe." The way he looks at KK, still in your arms, says anything but.

"You can let me go, Tholluckth," KK mumbles. You push him toward Dave, something twinging in your stomach. 

The four of you stand there in the most awkward silence imaginable. The moons hovers at the border, you're about to pass out from exhaustion, but none of you make a move. You're not trapped by camaraderie, not with a set of strangers, and even if you saved their lives it's not something you bring up in conversation. You test shifting your weight from one foot to another, but it's Aradia that finally smiles.

"It's been nice to meet you," she says to Dave, all sweetness, and she also shakes Karkat's hand. "Dave, was it? I'll keep that in mind. And lovely to see you again, Karkat,"

She gives you the lightest of kisses, right on your cheek -- you don't hesitate, You stroke one of her looping horns, feeling the membranes flitter under your touch, and you run a finger through her hair. She smells like dirt and dust and ancient things, but she smells like her -- something heady and overpowering, like condensed wine. Your foreheads rest together. The emotion that burns in you is strong, so strong, and for a moment you almost spill it out, in front of the other two, in front of her --

"Good night," she says with a slight smile, drawing away.

"You too," and you mean it with every inch of your heart.

Dave's farewell to you isn't as touching. He offers you a fist, his face impassive as ever, and you ignore the thrum of discomfort and return the fist bunp. He gives a one-armed hug to Karkat, the latter bellowing out a stream of curses before returning the embrace, and then he's gone in a flash of red.

Just you and KK.

He's blushing slightly. 

"So. Friends, huh?" he says first.

"Yup." You offer a hand to Karkat mockingly, but to your mild surprise he actually takes it, entwining his fingers with your own. Your heart skips a beat. You've touched each other before, but now you focus on how warm and rough his palm is, how one finger absentmindedly brushes across your knuckles. The warmth that vibrates through you is completely different from what you felt with Aradia, but it leaves you with the same, simmering resonance you can spend hours in. 

"She's amazing," you say instead. "I -- I don't deserve someone like her."

"Thomeone," he lisps at you, but he doesn't let go of your hand. The first rays of sunrise are already sending flares of hot pain on your spine; you reckon you have minutes before your skin starts peeling like a fruit. You tug at Karkat to make him walk faster. Each time his calluses brush against yours, a shiver runs down your spine.

"I'll assume your night was great too," you say.

"Apart from some highbloods going downtown on your corpse lookalike, yeah, it was great. And making a crazy chase scene after us." He shudders at the memory. "I really thought it was you for a second. I need to check my fucking eyes."

You squeeze his hand in reassurance. "I won't go down that easily, KK. Didn't me and Aradia winning prove that to you?"

"Hell no." His laugh feels strangled in his throat. "But anyways, up to that point, it was...nice. Dave's cool to hang around with."

You're not feeling jealously, you chide yourself, you're feeling protectiveness.

"Are you flushed for him?"

"Fucking, what? WHAT? You shitlicker -- "

You raise an eyebrow.

"I mean," he actually shuffles his feet, the precious bastard -- "maybe. I wouldn't rule it out. He doesn't like me back that way, though, I don't think -- "

"Karkat," you say, running a hand through his hair -- as thick and scratchy as ever -- and you ignore what your mind is furiously screaming at you. "You're not that shitty of a troll. And he wouldn't have stuck by if he didn't like you."

Get the hint, KK, Jegus.

"I can't believe I'm talking to you about this."

"Hivebuddies, bro." You flick the back of his head. You'll tell him later about what you found; right now you realize you can't bear to disturb that sleepy, peaceful expression he's got, like he just crawled out of the coon. Even though what he just says is twisting your stomach into knots. "Anything for you."

"You too," he grunts, before adding "bulgelicker" under his breath. You zap his pinky finger for that, but you don't separate your grasps until you reach the hive door. Immediately he's heading for the bedroom, already shambling toward the coon even before the door's finished closing.

You swallow down the words stuck in your throat.

====

As I 3egan som3 of my first r3cords, I must pr3fac3 that, dutifully, I am th3 on3 and only to hav3 th3 honor of doing so. On3 day trolls will write him down in th3ir t3xts, and know his words as scriptur3, but at this mom3nt th3r3 is only on3 soul that pr3s3rv3s his knowl3dg3 on pap3r.

I was giv3n th3 nam3 M3ulin L3ijon in th3 cav3rns; to b3 truthful, it has n3v3r don3 anything for m3. Thus, I chos3 a n3w nam3 wh3n I follow3d his t3achings. I b3cam3 his Discipl3.

Stupid trolls and their stupid quirks. You congratulate your hypocritical ass and skip further down the texts. You need to know if Kankri Vantas has anything to do with the little one currently curled up in your coon, and it would be such a small, small chance --

You skim the passage you've read earlier today.

...and wh3n I pr3ss3d him for his s3cr3t, h3 still r3fus3d to t3ll m3. To p3rsuad3 him, I told him of my lif3 story. I spok3 that I was born a huntr3ss, pron3 to dragging raw b3asts back to my hiv3. I 3njoy3d th3 intricaci3s of r3lationships, of how th3y constantly t33t3r on th3 bord3rs of quadrants. My lusus had p3rish3d long ago and I liv3d alon3.

I would hav3 spok3n mor3, but th3 troll r3ach3d up and touch3d my face. H3 could not allow m3 to dr3ss his wounds, h3 said r3gr3tfully, b3caus3 it would dirty my hands. How3v3r, h3 3v3ntually could not conc3al his lif3 fluid from l3aking onto his cloth3s. It is bright candy-red, b3autiful and sparkling. It r3minds m3 of dying 3mbers and old flam3s.

"A jad3blood troll will com3 by soon," h3 t3lls m3 with only a hint of f3ar. "Sh3 is my moth3r. L3t h3r go, and t3ll h3r you mad3 my culling quick and painl3ss. Sh3 has alr3ady don3 3nough for m3." I ask him his nam3 inst3ad. H3 calls hims3lf Kankri Vantas and h3 has no f3ar in dying.

It tak3s m3 quit3 a whil3 to assur3 him that I could not giv3 a cat's tail about his blood. It is his words I wish to h3ar, and th3 things h3 has to say could span the stars its3lf. H3 has so many things to say.

Geez, this isn't making your brain sappy or anything.

I Shall Be Brief In Mine O+wn Intro+ductio+n. Because O+f My Status As A Jadeblo+o+d, I Was Relegated To+ The Grub Caverns Fo+r Much O+f My Life. I Suppo+se Kankri Can Write Do+wn Ho+w He Ended Up With Me.

In My Wigglerho+o+d I Was Kno+wn As Po+rrim Maryam, But, By All Means, I Am The Do+lo+ro+sa. O+ne O+f My Fello+w Jadeblo+o+ds To+ld Me It Meant "Mo+ther O+f The Savio+r."

Great. You applaud her.

II 0we everythIIng II have t0 the 5IIgnle55; he II5 re5p0n5IIble f0r my freed0m. When II wa5 a 5lave, II wa5 the P5II0nIIc.

KankrII'5 fIIr5t reque5t t0 me wa5 t0 ch00se my 0wn name. II kept my tIItle, t0 remIInd my5elf that II am 5IImply a part 0f the 5y5tem, but IIn prIIvacy II am deemed MIItuna Capt0r, t0 remIInd my5elf that II am m0re than my abIIlIItIIe5.

Oh.

Oh, fuck.

Chapter Text

apocalypseArisen [AA] began trolling turntechGodhead [TG]

AA: g00d evening dave!

TG: sup

AA: theres n0 reas0n im messaging y0u at this time

AA: i was actually ab0ut t0 sleep

TG: this really is a fascinating conversation

TG: did you want to ask me something

AA: why are y0u 0n alternia

You give a surreptitious glance over at your tablets resting next to your husktop. You've been diligently working on them for a few days now, and you're still only halfway through. It had taken you a day to realize you were translating them backward.

Not that it mattered.

TG: that is

TG: an excellent question

TG: one which i really dont feel like answering if you get my drift

AA: i d0nt

AA: is it a pers0nal matter?

TG: its more of a mine own business matter

TG: as in im really not in the mood to share it with strangers

AA: but were n0t strangers?

AA: we kn0w each 0thers names we exchanged chumhandles under karkat's twitching eye and i used y0ur sw0rd t0 fight a seadweller!

AA: im sure we at least pass int0 distant acquaintances territ0ry

TG: okay ill admit that swordfight was lit as fuck

TG: but this is literally the second time weve talked

TG: the first was like a month ago when you accidentally messaged me instead of your monorail

AA: monorail?

TG: moyrail

TG: morali

TG: fuck if i know

AA: i d0nt have a m0irail

TG: whatever you have between you and the psionic nerd

TG: look the point is that you seem pretty chill from your total of three interactions with me so far

TG: but me being on this foreign planet isnt really shit i really discuss with anyone

TG: private stuff you know

AA: i see

AA: then y0u w0uldnt happen t0 kn0w these names

TG: what

AA: dirk jake jane r0xy

You glance over at your translations -- the names are unusual, but they follow the blunt, four-letter motif Dave's has. You make sure you spelled it right.

AA: strider english cr0cker lal0nde

AA: are these earth names? why are they different lengths?

TG: hey

TG: fuck off

turntechGodhead [TG] blocked apocalypseArisen [AA]

AA: 0_0

Huh. Not really the reaction you're expecting, but it does confirm your suspicions. 

You'll do a little delving tonight, you suppose. You make sure to check your hive is secure -- it's honestly a piece of junk, like someone had scissored layer after layer on top of each other as haphazardly as possible, but you're loathe to wipe up any messes if someone manages to successfully break in. 

Being an explorer has its uses, such as knowing how to set traps. You don't know how many times you and Sollux have had to shield yourself against a parade of darts when one of you steps on a tripwire. You implant the classic setup as your defense -- carefully, you shift the wires across some of the openings to your hive. You position a whip, a knife, and a set of needles across each of them. They won't be enough to kill -- unfortunately? -- but they should give you time to escape.

Fondly, you remember the psychic swordfight. 

And then what you had proposed to Sollux afterwards.

The warmth in your belly simmers away a little. You were genuine in your attempt: you really wouldn't mind going out with him to a field and completely wrecking shit into the air. His power display would be beyond amazing. The energy is so different from yours; all crackling, raw electricity, sparks fizzling in the air, and yours is a quiet, steady wash like the wind. Hell, you wouldn't be averse to trying a psychiduo with him -- even though it's usually reserved for quadrantmates -- 

Your cheeks warm in a blush. 

He hasn't responded to your invitation anyway. You wave away your thoughts, and finally pull your attention to the tablets.

You don't know the names of these writers. You're thinking of messaging Sollux about it, since it's most likely he has the first introductory tablet, but your stomach tightens like someone's squeezing your intestines when you hover over his chumhandle. That was several nights ago, and your messages have been pleasant, occasionally humorous, and superficial.

You hate superficial the most.

So instead of sorting out the queasiness in your gut you had dutifully feed each glyph into the translator. It's monotonous work, and you don't bother reading what comes out -- hell, you don't even know what you're searching for. Sollux has mentioned something about "Kankri Vantas," but you can't even tell who's who in the texts.

It's the change of tablets that had surprised you a little; suddenly the quirk was different, the tone was different, and you surmise that the original writer had passed away. So he or she hadn't been the only one in the temple.

Huh.

You push away cold, hissing voices to the back of your mind and continue reading the new writer's:

4nd it's 4 sh4m3 th4t th3y found h1m 1nnoc3nt. 1f 1 h4d b33n pr3s1d1ng ov3r th3 tri14l, 1 would'v3 h4d h1m h4ng1ng by th3 noos3 under M4NY ch4rg3s: th3 f1rst 4nd for3most s1mply b31ng th1s:

b3tr4y4l.

1 c4nnot st4nd b3tr4y4l. Oth3r cr1m3s I w1ll n3v3r r3l3nt, but to st4b 4 fr13nd 1n th3 b4ck 1s lo4thsom3. 1t 1s d3gr4d1ng. 1 would'v3 sought for h1m on my own, str4ngl3 h1m 1n my own noos3, but 1 4m comp3ll3d not to by th3 S1gnl3ss' words.

1t h4s b33n p3r1g33s s1nc3 1 stumbl3d upon th3 t3mpl3. Th3 pr3v1ous 1nh4b1t4nt k33ps 4 m3t1culous s3t of r3cords on h1s s3rmons. 1ntr1gu3d, 1 found mys3lf putt1ng down my c4n3

Very fascinating, surely, but you already read this part. You skim ahead.

1n l1f3 1 4m known 4s L4tul4 Pyrop3; 1n court 1 4m known 4s N3ophyt3 R3dgl4r3 >:]

Even more fascinating. You scroll down further -- she's a tealblood, and has a longer lifespan than the previous oliveblood recordkeeper; her writings could even last several centuries. And she definitely captured the moment when the Condesce invaded --

Ah, there it is.

4t on3 of tod4y's proc33d1ngs th3 Gr4nd H1ghblood h4d dr4gg4d 1n 4 w1tn3ss to som3th1ng th3 Cond3sc3 pr3f3rr3d to k33p qu13t -- wh4t sh3 s4w, th3 offic3r b4bbl3d, w4s som3th1ng so hum1l14t1ng th4t sh3 would b3 s1l3nc3d p3rm4n3ntly for 1t:

th3 Cond3sc3 h4d b33n dr1v3n off.

V3ry f3w sp34k of th3 n3wfound pl4n3t's n4m3. Through my cont4cts, how3v34, 1 d3duc3d th4t 1ts n4m3 w4s 34rth.

1t 1s d3scr1b3d to b3 cov3r3d w1th oc34n, p3rf3ct for H3r 1mp3r1ous Cond3sc3ns1on, 4nd popul4t3d w1th hornl3ss, p1nk 4l13ns c4ll3d hum4ns. Four n4m3s p4rticul4rly r3p34t th3ms3lv3s 4mong my s3cr3t 4ffl14t1ons: J4n3 Crock3r, Roxy L4lond3, D1rk Str1d3r, 4nd J4k3 3ngl1sh.

You take a moment to absorb the feeling of the ground under yout feet, warm dawn air ghosting over your face, letting the details of your shambled hive fade into a faint, rhythmic flutter. You let yourself go. You're dimly aware that you're slumped on the floor, dust brushing across your lips, but then the whole world bleeds into swathes of glittering cyan and purple and you're nothing. You're a simple speck floating in the chasm, and the voices are quartz-clear and melodious in your ear.

A thousand misty, ephemeral strings tug at your fingertips -- they're your only way back, they're your lifeline, as you slide into the realm of the dead.

Their voices rise like a tidal wave.

A cacophony of screams, clicks, and sighs shudder across your ear, and you feel yourself relax.

All psychics can hear some degree of voices -- you've known a rustblood that listened to the voices of those in mourning -- but the dead will always sound different from the listening, the way their words are barely there like fresh dustprints. You can see them too, in the corner of your eye, some vague, blurry form minimally assuming a troll as it floats near you. Faceless, all murmurs, it reaches for your throat.

You let it near you.

When its face is nearly pressed in your hair -- when it's almost corporeal under your presence -- it whispers an answer to you.

When your eyes fully open again, you're lying on your back on the ground, your vision trying to focus on the lumps on your ceiling. You'll need to repaint them sometime. You slowly exhale a breath, letting your stomach and heart calm to a quiet movement, and you steel yourself before reaching for your husktop.

apocalypseArisen [AA] began trolling twinArmageddons [TA]

AA: s0llux!

AA: s0llux i need y0ur help with s0mething

AA: its ab0ut the translati0ns

TA: hey AA.

AA: can y0u help unbl0ck me fr0m dave

TA: um.

TA: can ii get 2ome context here?

TA: and what the hell doe2 DV have two do wiith anythiing? or ii2 thii2 about KK?

AA: i need t0 ask him a few questi0ns

TA: over what exactly?

AA: did y0u ever w0nder why theres even f0ur humans on 0ur planet f0r abs0lutely n0 reas0n

TA: AA, they've been 2quattiing here for a pretty decent amount of tiime.

TA: diid somethiing happen two them?

AA: i f0und s0me human names in the tablets

AA: and when i asked dave ab0ut it he bl0cked me

AA: 0_0

TA: jegu2 chiill wiith that face, iit creep2 me out.

TA: ii gue22 ii al2o read up 2ome crazy 2hiit.

AA: did y0u ever ask karkat ab0ut what y0u f0und

TA: ....

TA: ii mean ii have a fuckiing theory but iit'2 been absolutely bat2hiit iin2ane and he wouldn't ever beliieve me.

AA: can i take a guess

TA: ii don't tru2t my an2wer2 yet.

TA: here, let me burrow iinto DV's hu2ktop for you.

====

twinArmageddons [TA] began trolling turntechGodhead [TG]

TG: right its troll #2 today

TG: what can i order for you

TG: a piping fresh hot plate of 'not your business' shit topped with some douchecream

TA: ii2 douchecream a type of aniimal?

TG: nah its my organic fountain of youth

TG: natural 100% guilt-free syrup

TG: see where im getting at

TA: can ii ju2t 2kiip the platter of pa22iive-agre22iive iinnuendo2and jump two where ii 2ay ii need you two unblock aradiia?

TG: look okay

TG: i probably shouldnt have lashed out and im sorry about that

TG: but my sole existence on this junk planet is actually a fucking thing that none of you really need to pry into

TG: its not even a you or me thing

TG: its shit that will lead to my broken body if it ends up in the wrong hands

TG: not to mention my friends

TG: seriously i dont think youre out for my blood considering you did save my life but i cant straight up tell you why were here

TA: fuck thii2.

TA: ii have been liiterally doiing iimportant 2hiit for fuckiing 2EVERAL gogdamn niight2 iin a row becau2e ii'm tryiing two fiigure out 2omethiing that wiill eiither en2ure ii get two liive two a riipe age of fuck you or re2ult iin the 2ame fuckiing end, only thii2 tiime me and 2ome unknown friiend2 you'll probably able two gue22 out unle22 you have the braiin cell2 of a dropped grub, and ii'm not goiing two que2tiion your obviiou2ly ulteriior motiives, 2iince we'll be gettiing a personal vii2iit card to our 2weet benevolent ruler her2elf iin the form of wrapped up bodiily pre2ents becau2e whatever the HELL ii'm lookiing at riight now ii2 goiing to blow my braiin 2hiithiive maggot2 iif the drone2 DON'T DO IIT FIIR2T, OKAY??!?!??!

TG: dude have you tasted the sweetest fucking solution of sleep before

TG: or do you go off on your monorail like this

twinArmageddons [TA] ceased trolling turntechGodhead [TG]

apocalypseArisen [AA] began trolling turntechGodhead [TG]

AA: hey dave

TG: god fucking dammit

turntechGodhead [TG] blocked apocalypseArisen [AA]

apocalypseArisen [AA] began trolling turntechGodhead [TG]

AA: y0ull have t0 try a little harder t0 t0p s0lluxs skills in c0mputing devices!

AA: he cant willingly eat with0ut karkats help but he can impl0de the imperial database if he ch00ses to

TG: you know you two are dropping down on my approval list like a bag of barrels right

AA: why w0uld barrels be in a bag

TG: why not

TG: but i said it to sollux and ill say it to you: its dangerous shit im involved in

TG: hell talking to you is risky as fuck

AA: w0uld y0u like me to p0int 0ut a str0ng example 0f y0u n0t adhering t0 y0ur 0wn rules?

TG: fire away

AA: if y0ur mere presence spells imminent danger t0 any tr0ll near y0u

AA: why d0 y0u c0ntinue t0 hang 0ut with karkat

AA: 0_0

TG: ...

TG: um

TG: uh

AA: is he included in y0ur "danger0us shit," as y0u aptly put it?

TG: what the fuck no

AA: s0 y0ure admitting to kn0wingly putting him in danger

TG: im not putting him in any fucking danger

TG: that seadweller crap was kind of out of my control

TG: and when i mean kind of i mean completely

AA: karkat is n0t exactly my cl0sest friend

AA: but he is my cl0sest friend's hivemate

AA: thus by extensi0n itd be a tragedy t0 y0u if he is ign0rantly inv0lving himself in matters that c0uld potentially harm him

TG: are you threatening me

AA: yes

TG: subtle

AA: ill c0nfess that my curi0sity f0r y0u is n0t simply altruism 0n karkats behalf

AA: alth0ugh that is definitely included

AA: but i have listened t0 the v0ices and they whisper y0ur name

TG: the fuck are you saying im going to die

AA: i d0nt kn0w

AA: i can 0nly hear the v0ices 0f th0se already deceased

AA: but i can tell a bit ab0ut the future

AA: very s00n you will be dragged int0 0ur w0rld

TG: i really dont think im flying off this planet anytime soon

AA: n0 i mean

AA: truly experience 0ur w0rld

AA: y0uve been inexplicably unt0uched and unperturbed in y0ur shelter here

AA: the tr0lls that kn0w 0f y0ur presence have deigned t0 d0 n0thing

AA: and y0u are endangering my friend

AA: s0 let me ask again dave

AA: what are y0u d0ing 0n alternia?

==== 

carcinoGeneticist [CG] has joined memo [h0w THE FUCK ARE WE gettiing thr0ugh a2cen2iion]

AA: y0u kn0w this is publicly accessible right

TA: don't worry, ii already got the 2elf-wiipiing app runniing.

CG: THE FUCK DO YOU MEAN BY "2ELF WIIPIING?"

CG: WAIT, WHY THE HELL CAN'T I SEE YOUR PREVIOUS MESSAGES?

TA: priivate 2hiit KK.

CG: THE HELL IT IS.

CG: YOU KNOW I CAN HEAR YOU TYPING FROM MY ROOM, RIGHT? YOU'RE WITHIN VICINITY TO BE BESTOWED A LONG-DESERVED NOOGIE RIGHT TO YOUR GREASY LITTLE HEAD.

CG: I'LL DO IT, I SWEAR ON MY PINKY.

TA: fuckiing chiill KK we were ju2t talkiing about 2ome p2ychiic crap.

TA: nothiing to blow out of your a22 for.

CG: YEAH, BECAUSE I NEEDED A REMINDER THAT NOT ONLY I'M STUCK ON THE BOTTOM OF THE SOCIAL LADDER RUNGS, I CAN'T EVEN HAVE THE SWEET RELIEF OF LIFTING SHIT HUNDREDS OF FEET IN THE AIR TO ALLEVIATE MY FEAR OF BECOMING ROADSIDE PASTE.

CG: OH WAIT, THAT'S STILL CONSIDERED FOR THE MENU.

CG: SO HOW THE FUCK IS THIS GOING TO GO DOWN?

AA: ill give a quick recap then

TA: great, let'2 hear 2ome fuckiing expo2iitiion, iit'2 the 2hiit we've been mii22ing all our liive2.

CG: VERY SUBTLE, YOU FOUR-HORNED FUCK.

TA: thank you for POIINTIING IIT OUT, cap2-lock geniiu2.

AA: hush, y0u tw0

AA: we are currently still setting 0ur sights 0n marjurer p0rt

AA: there its m0stly smaller ships for d0cking supplies and its far en0ugh fr0m the city center that we can get a g00d start

AA: 0nce we reach hyperspace we will be relatively safe fr0m direct gl0bal pursuit

AA: the wh0le thing can be carried 0ut in less than a day if we play 0ur cards carefully

CG: IS THERE ANY BACKUP PLAN? BECAUSE IT SEEMS WAY TOO FUCKING RISKY JUST TO DEPEND ON THIS ONE SOLUTION.

AA: hmm

AA: it depends 0n h0w g00d they are from hiding

CG: WHO'S "THEY?"

AA: im n0t sure yet either

TA: waiit, AA, ii thought we weren't goiing two

TA: you know

AA: s0llux itd be easier in the l0ng run

TA: he really doe2n't need two 2ee thii2 2hiit, iit'2 fuckiing me22ed up.

CG: WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU GOING ON ABOUT?

CG: IS THERE SOMETHING I'M MISSING?

AA: y0u d0nt trust this new alternative?

TA: he diidn't giive any concrete an2wer back when you a2ked hiim.

TA: and iif he'2 connected wiith them there'2 no 2oliid rea2on two tru2t them eiither.

AA: y0u kn0w hes not fragile, s0llux, im sure he can handle the truth

CG: WHO'S NOT FRAGILE? WHO'S "THEM?"

TA: ii have two veriify iit, okay?

TA: becau2e iif iit'2 2ome 2tupiid prank then we'll be wa2hiing our liive2 riight down the fuckiing draiin.

AA: if the events truly transpired as described then y0u w0uldnt be able t0 verify it at all

AA: why d0 y0u think im asking him

CG: HOLY HELL, ARE YOU TWO **TRYING** TO WIN A GOLD MEDAL FOR WHO CAN SPOUT OUT THE MOST CRYPTIC BULLSHIT IN THE SHORTEST TIME INTERVAL?

CG: WHO THE FUCK ARE THESE **HIM'S?** WHAT ALTERNATIVE ARE YOU DREDGING UP? IS THIS SOME SORT OF JOKE?

CG: CAN ONE OF YOU FUCKING ANSWER MY QUESTION?

TA: ii'm the fuckiing be2t hacker on thii2 2hiity world, ii 2hould be able two track down 2OMETHIING.

AA: y0u w0nt

AA: y0u cant find s0mething that technically never existed in hist0ry

TA: ii'll do a quiick 2earch of theiir name2 then, that'2 grubfeed level even KK can follow through.

CG: ARE YOU FOR REAL.

CG: AM I ACTUALLY BEING PUSHED INTO SPECTATOR MODE IN A PLAN THAT INCLUDES PRESERVING MY LIFE, WATCHING YOU TWO TALK CIRCLES AROUND MY COMPLETELY IGNORANT ASSHOLE.

CG: CAN SOMEONE JUST TELL ME WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON??!

TA: ....ii diidn't fiind anythiing.

AA: i t0ld y0u

AA: y0ull have t0 trust with what we have

AA: y0ull have t0 trust these newc0mers

TA: liike hell ii wiill.

TA: look AA ii 2ure a2 fuck don't want two 2pend the re2t of our liive2 floatiing out in the wa2te chute of 2pace, but ii'd take that over a bliind 2hot iin the dark.

TA: you're gambliing here that they weren't bat2hiit CRAZY when they were jottiing down thii2 2hiit.

TA: or ii2 thii2 2ome 2piiriit 2tuff goiing on?

AA: f0r the hundredth time the spirits d0nt 0utright tell me things

AA: but theyre telling me that things will happen if we ch00se this route

TA: what'2 that 2upposed two mean

AA: i really d0nt kn0w

AA: ill be g0ing 0ff t0 my c00n then

AA: im a bit tired

TA: um.

TA: good day then.

apocalypseArisen [AA] has left memo [h0w THE FUCK ARE we gettiing thr0ugh a2cen2iion]

CG: SO.

CG: CARE TO FILL ME IN? OR DO I HAVE TO WRING IT OUT OF YOU LIKE A HEADLESS CHICKEN?

TA: don't be 2uch a 2alty grub, KK.

CG: CAN YOU PLEASE VAULT OVER THE DENIAL AND CUT TO THE PART WHERE YOU'RE CLEARLY HIDING SOMETHING FROM ME?

CG: IS ALL THIS SECRET SHIT WHY YOU HAVEN'T TOUCHED THE COON FOR SEVERAL GOGDAMN DAYS?

CG: I'M READY TO ENACT "EMERGENCY SITUATION: SCRAPE SOLLUX'S BONY CORPSE OFF THE CHAIR BEFORE HE MELDS INTO ONE WITH THE WOOD."

CG: I'M LITERALLY NOT KIDDING, I'LL TROLLHANDLE YOU RIGHT INTO THE SOPOR IF I HAVE TO.

TA: there'2 not much "2ecrecy" goiing on.

TA: ju2t me and AA checkiing over 2ome thiing2.

CG: AND WHY THE DAMN HELL AM I NOT ALLOWED TO AT LEAST GET A BASIC GRASP OF IT?

CG: IS IT A BACKUP PLAN? WHAT'S THE HARM OF ME KNOWING?

TA: you don't want two know, tru2t me.

CG: DOES IT HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH...

CG: UM

CG: THE INCIDENT FROM A FEW NIGHTS AGO? WHERE IT'S CLEARLY SHOWN THAT I'M THE MOST IDIOTIC TROLL TO EVER WALK ON ALTERNIA?

CG: I REALLY DIDN'T MEAN TO PUT ANYONE IN DANGER. I DIDN'T MEAN TO BE A LIABILITY.

CG: I JUST THOUGHT...

CG: I REALLY THOUGHT THAT BODY WAS YOU, OKAY?

TA: fuckiing JEGU2 KK are you actually 2piiraliing down the vortex of 2elf-2hiit whiile chewiing me out at the 2ame tiime?

TA: ehehehehe, ii don't thiink ANYONE iin the hii2tory of paradox 2pace can pull that off.

TA: iit'2 got nothiing two do that, okay? no one blame2 for you that.

TA: ii mean who the hell'2 2tupid enough two.

TA: and me and AA got two 2oundly tra2h that fucker'2 a22, 2erve2 hiim riight for cha2iing you two.

TA: that lowblood over hiighblood choiice 2hiit wa2 liike a one iin a liifetiime chance, 2eriiou2ly.

TA: that diidn't even happen when our ance2

TA: ....

CG: ...OUR WHAT?

TA: fuck.

TA: nothiing. ii 2aiid nothiing.

CG: JUST BECAUSE YOUR SELF-WIPING PROGRAM IS ACTIVE DOESN'T MEAN I CAN'T USE MY FUCKING EYES, CAPTOR. WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU ABOUT TO SAY?

CG: COME TO THINK OF IT, YOU WERE GOING TO ASK ME SOMETHING ON THAT NIGHT TOO, RIGHT BEFORE DAVE AND I WENT FULL TROLL POINT BREAK.

CG: BY ANY FUCKING CHANCE, ARE THEY RELATED?

TA: ii'm.

TA: really not wiilliing two have thii2 dii2cu22iion riight now.

CG: BULLSHIT.

CG: DO YOU REALLY WANT ME TO DO THIS?

TA: two do what.

CG: SUCK ON A KARMIC BULGE. HOW DOES THAT FEEL TO BE ON THE SECRET SIDE OF THINGS, CAPTOR?

TA: you're not goiing two fuckiing do whatever you're iin2iinuatiing, you nook2ucker.

CG: INCOMING, YOU PIECE OF SHIT.

You don't bother to give him the customary three seconds your movies' villains give to their protagonists; you straight-up drop-kick heel-slam your foot right into the wood, praying that he didn't lock it.

As usual, you find Sollux hunched over at his husktop.

It's a mass of bones and wiry hair typing bullet-speed away at his husktop, grey and yellow text clogging up his screen, glasses on a nearby drawer. He's bent over a stupid tablet, you realize, the one he brought back hive from him and Aradia's excursion. You can't count the number of times he's dragged home some bizarre oddity fished right out of the depths of Alternian hell. Once you had found a skull in the freezer, innocently placed along soda pops and grubloaves. But it's the sight of him -- typing away like an insane troll at the keyboard, still spamming at your chathandle -- that's as familiar to you as the back of your hand. All restless energy, frantic motions, like he's being paid by the cent to reach the threshold of fainting.

He hasn't left his damn seat in days, you think bitterly.

And it's not a rare occurence either -- when he goes on one of his coding sprees, when he's immersed in another archaeology crisis that you know drives him shithive bored -- you're the one that pulls his sleeping carcass with you into the recuperacoon and forcefully insert food into his lispy shitty mouth. You don't know how many times you had to toe into the room, the place smelling like sweat and unwashed hair and grease, clean up any stray food wrappers, and kindly save his work to the computer before dragging him off.

You don't even hesitate on your next action. You kicked it open, for fuck's sake, you could at least get the courtesy of a completely hornswoggled expression. Or him unceremoniously falling out of his seat. You'd never let him hear the end of it.

"Sollux," you say, and it's the only damn warning you'll give before you practically tackle out of his chair. Reflexively you twist so that your side takes the brunt of the impact; tussling with him had its private benefits, but you'd never get out of your coon if you actually broke one of his bones.

Through previous experiences, you found that getting up-and-close with a psionic gave you the edge, especially if he's taken by surprise. Using their powers too close to proximity is a clear alarm for short-circuiting; it's a reflex not to do so. You press down on him, your face close to his stupid double set of horns. From the illumination of his husktop, you glance over at the mess of black hair, his sharp, bony features, red and blue eyes glistening, how he's all uncoordinated grace under the shitty shirt he wears, and you remember him flying in with Aradia, his skin glistening with raw, psionic power. 

At this moment, however, he's the complete fucking opposite of graceful.

"KK, WHAT THE FUCK?"

Already his powers flare up -- before instinctively sizzling out, a few burnt sparks drifting in the air. You don't hesitate. You knee him in the stomach, hard enough that he buckles, and you press his head against the floorboards lightly while twisting his wrists behind. From your vantage point you try to read the screen that he's partially obscuring, but he uses the last of his psionics to shut the damn thing closed instead of breaking out of your grip. He doesn't bother to continue yelling, not when you lift his arms a little and his spine strains and you, quite patiently, wait for him to desist. You've gone through these motions way too many times for your comfort.

"KK, let me go, you nubby-horned piece of shit -- "

"Nope," you say flatly. Nights of malnutrition's left him weaker than a wigglergrub. You'll never be a Threshecutioner, you've accepted that much, but you know the standard moves to keep an opponent restrained. You can do that, at least.

"Karkat -- "

Wow, he's using your real name, give him some fucking brownie points. You lift his arms higher, making him gasp in pain. Some part of you, deep and dark and absolutely revolting, gains no small satisfaction watching him writhe under you.

"I can dislocate your shoulders like this," you tell him. "I'm not going to, because that'd be a pretty asshole move from my part, but I'm going to need a fucking explanation as payment. Do you understand me?"

"Please do not go full Threshie on me, you incompetent sack of shit."

You squash down your anger and grab his hair instead -- it's oily as fuck under your fingers, disgusting -- and you yank his head back. You don't use much force but he still gasps loudly from his spine twisting. You briefly contemplate twisting his horn, hard, but decide that probably treads sadism territory.

"I'm going to ask you a few questions," you spit out, tired and heartsore and pissed off. "Then I'm dragging you to the cooking block, we will have a passable meal together, then you're getting submerged into the coon for eternity until I decide where you're going to draw your boundaries of health at. Are we clear, you dripping, festered nooklicker?"

"I'm going to blow off your head, you shitstain -- "

"You won't, because then you won't feed yourself." When he doesn't respond, you slam his face onto the floor -- not too hard, but with just enough force to drill in that you're dead serious. "Alright, I'll take your silence as compliance. First question on the roster."

Too easy.

"What the fuck were you two talking about on the memo?"

"Shipcraft plans," he says without preamble. "Now get the hell off of me."

You dig your nails into his scalp, hard enough to draw blood. You're surprised at how willing you're going along with the action -- but you're getting answers, gogdammit, and you're not leaving without them.

"Nope," you say cheerfully, trying not to flinch at a stray spark. "Not until you tell me what the fuck that memo was about."

"I fucking told you, you bulgelicker, it's nothing important -- "

"Sollux, your fucking reputation as a liar is as unsullied as the Condesce's regarding population control. That was a lie too, if you couldn't tell, you bulge-fondling crapcluster. Try the hell again."

"Can't tell you," he gasps, drool beginning to leak out of his mouth. "KK, don't push it, let me go and I'll even step foot out of this room, okay? Don't -- "

You squish his face lightly into the floor so that his words turn into a gargly mess. When he's done attempting to find compromise, you turn his head a little sideways again.

"What were you saying?"

"Fuck you."

"Pass." Other thoughts begin creeping into your head; you can always go with a more hands-on approach. Adjusting yourself to maintain your grip, you reach out for his husktop --

"No, KK, don't fucking touch it, for the love of Gog -- " he gives a violent, wild thrash, reminding you of a slippery eel, and you're almost thrown to the side. Each of his reactions only solidifies your suspicions. Whatever the hell he's packing under his horns, it's got something to do with you -- and the thought that he distrusts you, thinks that you're weak or fragile, disheartens you more than you imagined it would. You pause in your attempt to stretch your arm.

"So you're hiding something big from me." A pang of pain hits your sternum; you know Sollux gets shady around his shit, but you never expected him to fully seal it away from you. "Great to know. I'm your hivemate, your supposed best friend, and you won't tell me a single word on what the hell you're working on. You really know how to make a troll feel good, dude."

"It's called privacy," he snarls at you. His tone is a bit too venemous to be authentic, but its acidity still burns in your gut. Sometimes you've wandered into the territory of vitriolic banter, bu but rarely do your conversations actually devolve into full arguments -- you can count the number of times it's happened before on your fingers. And it's escalating again, even if he saved your life just a few nights ago and held your hand and you couldn't spit out the mess of warmth and comfort and something else pooling in your chest, and now cold fingers are ripping into your chest --

"It's called fucking privacy, and I don't go into your pile of shit, so leave mine out of it, okay? Do you want me to repeat that?"

"It's not just that," you snap, suddenly angry. "Whatever the fuck you're working on -- you look like a zombie. You haven't spoken anything for several damn days, I'm surprised your mouth's still functional. What's your game, Captor? What secret shit's filling your brain in like narcotics that turning you into a registered ass?"

"Fuck. You," he bites out.

"Again, pass."

Curiosity burns like pure gasoline in your gut. Somehow, you know everything's packed into that one-inch thick slab of metal, mere feet away from your hand, your fingers twitching like crazy. Sollux has long given up the fight and lies passively under your weight. A few sparks skitter down his shoulders, jolting tremors through your hand, but you don't pull away.

"Karkat," and you'll admit, hearing him pull of a tone barely classified as "gentle" has always jerked your heartstrings around, "please? Just -- I'll tell you everything later, okay? I promise. I fucking promise."

What a gogdamn dilemna -- risk provoking this incident into a full-fledged altercation, or hold your horses a little longer and let him ease you into it. You're pretty fucking sure whatever Sollux is holding out on you it's not going to be pissing gold and rainbows. You should trust him on this.

Then again, as you've reiterated before, you're not exactly known for being the smartest troll.

"Okay," you say, deliberately shifting your weight off of his frame. He gives a good-natured groan as he gets to his feet, exhaustion filling his features, and seeing him all sleepy and dopey does shit to your heart that you can't even pinpoint. When he's unwound he's a gogdamn miracle. "Alright, I believe in you, man. Your call."

"When's my judgement ever off, KK? Jeez, you didn't have to twist my arm so ha -- "

You jab him hard in the neck.

Hitting someone on the back of the head is stylish in the movies, but not always the best strategy -- instead, you make a quick cutoff of blood-to-brain, pressing a little harder into the skin until he goes limp in your arms. His face is still contorted in pain and surprise and guilt rises in you like a tsunami.

You've knocked him out before -- sometimes you sneaked sopor into Faygo drinks -- and he always wakes up like a bird set on fire until you lay down the facts that a) yes, you're an asshole and b) yes, you're going to keep doing it until he actually closes his eyelids and sleeps. Sometimes you had to do it when he was in a more wild phase of his moods, making sure he didn't set you and the hive on fire with his psionics.

This time, however, you don't have an excuse.

But already you're peeling open the cover -- disgustingly wiping away a little line of drool from the edge -- and you know you'll regret this when he comes to consciousness -- in minutes -- and he'll loathe you so much, and he'd never trust you, but he's never hidden something so enormous from you before and you have to know --

He'll forgive you, you're sure. You'll forgive him too.

Chapter Text

COMPIILIING...

COMPIILIING...

COMPIILIING...

COMPIILIING...

iinput 2triing?

>2ollux Captor

2ucce22.

recent tab2 o-p-e-n-i-i-n-g

Okay. Simple rudimentary functions. You're not swamped in merciless code yet, even as the most recent Trollian tabs open up -- instinctively you minimize them, sealing them away to the desktop corner. Those chats are a level of brain-fried privacy invasion even you're not going to broach.

The shit he found with Aradia, though -- that's definitely fair, fucking game.

COMPIILIING...

openiing fiile "kkcan2uckmybiifurcatedbulge4.~ATH

LOADIING....

import (casualty, package2)

public class Dissection {

              public static void main(String[] args) {

              String AA = refer.theory(); //giive her the tran2latiions from anciient two modern alterniian

              public Dissection();

              for (int x=2; x < iinfiiniity; x++) {

                          if (refer.theory() == false)

                                    return false;

                          else 

                                    returntwoMaiinCommand(); //use thii2 ~ATH two tran2late how theiir doom2 were coded

                          }

                super(AA);

               }

        }

 

 

...from what you're seeing, he's using fucking ~ATH code to translate ancient Alternian. Even after he's already finished converting the original thing.

The thought of that is so stupid -- and yet so typical of him, just fucking typical to go the extra gogdamn mile -- that you almost smile from the contrast. Leave it to Sollux to be the most contrary shitty mess of genius and moron. It makes no logical sense anywhere in the universe to convert perfectly acceptable modern Alternian to ~ATH, but here you are.

theiir doom2

Huh.

Even now, when Sollux still doesn't cease to make fun of your abysmal coding skills, you couldn't code the most basic programs to save your life. Coding is something you've long metaphorically chucked over your shoulder and proceed to ground into fine, untouchable dust; you operate under the rule that if it's not something that'll save your life from a confrontation with an adult troll, it's completely obsolete.

No regrets whatsoever.

But now that means you have no -- gogdamn -- idea how ~ATH code functions, and Sollux has only taught you the mechanics once -- something about its hacking capacity, psychic backup compilations, unmatched processing power, and he's lisping it out without stopping to breathe and you just remember the circuits of his husktop humming -- and it's a memory that lazily bubbles to the surface of your mind. Your fingers stall a little over the keyboard.

You wrest down your internal conundrum; you have a mission to accomplish. You can't spare the time to get sentimental.

How the fuck do you code "theiir doom2?"

Maybe it was a psychic thing; maybe it was Sollux typing shit when his brain cell-count reached an all-time nadir. Drones are coded. Gamegrubs are coded. Culling chambers are coded. Helmings are coded. Non-material things are not coded, because the amount of sense that idea contains is pit-splittingly, fucking-undeniabaly, zero.

You really need to feed him some sopor.

Typical translations you can handle, however. You swipe aside the ~ATH code Sollux's got plugging and dig through the tabs, making sure to tear your eyes off of any Trollian chats before you can see the correspondent. It's highly unlikely he talks to too many trolls, not with the axe over his head -- you'd guess his conversations are mostly relegated to yourself and Aradia.

You open up the "tran2latiion2-2et-2iix" tab. There's dozens and dozens of tabs of translated material -- you genuinely can't be too picky.

Th3 first tim3 w3 claim 3ach oth3r, it was in a small, s3clud3d cav3 a littl3 off th3 cours3 of Synchiatown. In th3 morning w3 d3cid3d to do it und3rn3ath th3 blank3t --

...Okay. So Sollux's deepest, darkest secret is a cache of -- what the fuck, fanfic? -- that kept him up for several consecutive days, made him try to fight you tooth and nail, and you just knocked him unconscious so you could dig around his porn stash.

In an effort to tell yourself that you literally didn't go and do all this shit for nothing, you minimize the tab and move on to "tran2latiion2-2et-ten."

His culling was liv3 on th3 t3l3scr33n ports. It's a r3lativ3ly n3w inv3ntion, d3sign3d by th3 3xpatriat3 hims3lf, and alr3ady it has s33n its us3 on s3v3ral s3adw3ll3r v3ss3ls and highblood royal courts. Th3r3's on3 curr3ntly s3t up in th3 main squar3, wh3r3 h3 had onc3 spok3n his s3rmon. Sinc3 th3y ar3 still on th3 lookout for m3, I watch from th3 all3yway inst3ad.

From my account you would inf3r that I was exquisit3ly dispassionat3 to th3 3x3cution. Nothing could b3 furth3r from th3 truth, but in as n3utral of a ton3 as I am capabl3 of I simply d3scrib3 it th3 way I witn3ss3d it.

First, th3y dragg3d him along th3 road of sham3 -- th3r3 is nothing uniqu3 or r3markabl3 about this. Mituna's f3llow rustblood fri3nd had b33n punish3d th3 sam3 way b3for3 b3ing hang3d. H3r3 th3y throw ston3s at him, call him t3rribl3 nam3s, and still h3 n3v3r flinch3s or br3aks from his prid3. H3 was always proud about his composur3 in public. H3 was dr3ss3d in th3 rags h3 was captur3d in.

The scr33n shows a growing throng; I am unabl3 to spot Porrim or Mituna in it. Th3y may hav3 b33n forc3d to watch, or sold into slav3ry, or d3ad. Nothing would br3ak th3ir h3arts mor3 than to s33 th3ir son and fri3nd slaught3r3d lik3 a m3r3 dog. All of his visions, all of his dr3ams -- all r3duc3d to a troll limping and chain3d, stumbling as rocks ar3 flung at his head, rocks thrown from th3 v3ry sam3 trolls h3 had sworn to ch3rish.

It's all v3ry syst3mic. A highblood h3ats up a s3t of iron shackl3s in th3 forg3 until th3y glow ruby-r3d and th3n th3y us3 th3s3 shackl3s to chain him to th3 flogging jut. Anoth3r whips him r3p3at3dly until h3 can bar3ly mak3 any sound. Th3 Cond3sc3, th3 Grand Highblood, th3 3xpatriat3 watch on th3 sid3lin3s, th3 form3r two occasionally laughing. Th3y draw out his d3ath until h3 sh3ds off his prid3 and b3gans to pl3ad. By now h3's bl33ding all ov3r th3 podium, his b3autiful candy r3d 3v3rywh3r3, and th3 Grand Highblood hims3lf kn33ls at th3 sight and licks th3 drops off th3 ground.

Soon th3 3xpatriat3 shoots an arrow at his ch3st -- it prolong3s his pain until h3 b3gans crying and scr3aming, calling out for Porrim, for Mituna, for m3. H3 calls my nam3 ov3r and ov3r to sooth3 him, to tak3 away th3 pain, and I am unabl3 to do anything. I cannot do anything. I am disgust3d with mys3lf, r3nd3r3d as h3lpl3ss as a grub, list3ning to him di3.

H3 scr3ams obsc3niti3s th3n. H3 sland3rs his audi3nc3. His words ar3 full of pain and hatr3d and d3spair, 3v3n as blood soaks his cloth3s compl3t3ly, l3aking out of 3v3ry orific3. H3 scr3ams to th3 trolls that h3 wish3s th3y w3r3 d3ad. H3 tri3s to spit in th3 3mpr3ss' fac3. H3 di3s a martyr, but in such agony that no on3 will 3v3r justify it as it b3ing n3c3ssary. H3 di3d choking on his own blood.

I will continu3 to r3cord tomorrow; today, I will n33d som3 sil3nc3. I wish I had b33n d3af wh3n h3 di3d so I would n3v3r hav3 to h3ar his final s3rmon.

Kankri Vantas' d3ath -- on th3 s3v3nth p3rig33 of th3 four hundr3th thirt33nth sw33p of th3 3mpr3ss, may h3r r3ign b3 right3d.

~Th3 Discipl3.

==== 

"KK." 

When he wakes, there's already the telltale sign of psionics humming through the air -- then he must've realized what set of translations you were reading, because the pressure in the air lessens. He stays a safe radius away from you.

"KK?"

You feel cold inside. Detached. You rationalize it as fantasy, as some sick gorn fiction, as some private, depraved fantasy Sollux nurses -- but your brain can't seem to conjure the right reasoning.

"Fuck...KK, Karkat, I -- I...I don't know how to explain. If you even want one."

Your eyes keeping getting drawn back to the phrase

candy red blood

like it's a black hole sucking your gaze in. You can't tear away from it. Suddenly you're hyperaware of your very own fluids thrumming millimeters beneath your skin. Your skin is the only barrier between you and instant culling -- and it's such a thin shield, so easily broken and torn and flayed.

"I -- probably wasn't going to tell you anytime soon. It's not crap I want to share -- but I would've told you, okay?! Hell, I still don't know if this shit's even real." He draws in a shaking breath. "KK, please, can you just fucking say something?"

"Were you going to send all this to Aradia?" you ask, and you barely recognize your voice. You didn't think your tone could ever drop so flat, so listless and lifeless like you're speaking from a corpse. "All of this?"

You somehow know that he flinches; he's always been sensitive in his movements. Every motion is peppered with jitteriness and high-strung tension like he's about to erupt from within. "You bothered to read the code?"

"Yup."

"I -- I mean, fuck, maybe not the whole thing -- she's my friend, okay? She's the one that found the site!" You swear that there's begging in his tone. "She'll probably know what to do with it, somehow I trust all the stuff she has to say -- she can talk to the dead, you know, she could tell us more -- "

"She would've figured out my blood color." 

You can hear Sollux swallowing outright. "KK -- "

And the anger erupts in you, cold and white and freezing against your nerves, and your stomach tightens like it's made of steel, and you're bounding out of your chair, your rage flickering a hot, thrumming rhythm against your skull -- your hands are shaking, shaking for something, your fingers itch to wrap around --

Sollux stands there like a bag of bones, one hand rubbing over a welt on his neck. 

He stands there, delicate and bony and damn near fragile, like some porcelain set, and he has the tenacity to meet your gaze -- his eyes wide as pie plates -- and all you see mirrored back is one orb as bright blue as the sea, one blazing red like your --

like your

This time when you lunge at him, he doesn't hesitate.

Blue-and-red tendrils crackle in the air, each of your hairs standing on edge, and they're looping around your limbs like flaming ropes even as you reach for his throat. Pain twists across his gaunt face -- with so much psionics concentrated too close to him, the recoil must have been amplified twofold -- but he grits his teeth and holds you in place, watching you thrash and struggle like a gutted fish. Sparks pop wildly across his horns. His fangs dig into his lower lip, drawing out beads of golden blood from black skin.

You think you've gone rabid.

"Sollux, you -- you -- " and you're spitting pissed, you're beyond mad, you're mad and scared and it's a horrible combination festering in your chest, even as you hurl words at him like the way the dead troll did, because apparently the same gutter swill pumps in both of your veins like liquid poison and he died like a sack of meat and you're -- Gog, your head pounds and you don't know what you're feeling, but it's all centered around Sollux and his twin horns and the way he's still grimacing in pain even as he holds you aloft, yellow sweat smearing his brows, trying to plead with you silently, trying to reason with you --

"KK, c'mon, can we just -- just fucking calm down, okay?!" 

"YOU FUCKING calm down!" you snarl at him, and the noise you make in the back of your throat is so guttural that Sollux takes a step back in alarm. "You -- you can't even file this away as some messed up prank, you're sharing my blood color with some stranger -- "

"AA's not a gogdamn stranger -- "

"I don't fucking care! Who do you want to pass this parcel next, some stray seadweller shimmying it up on the shore? Your other psychic friends? Every shit-eating troll on the planet? I'm surprised you haven't sent this shit right to the fucking Empress herself!"

"I haven't shared it with anyone!" he shouts. "You paranoid jackass, you really fucking think I'll pull something like that -- what the actual grub-eating fuck, that's depraved, that's so gogdamn fucked up! And you're just beyond stupid if you believe all of this shit at once, you gullible asshat!"

You don't want to believe. You want to deny that all of this is speculative, that Sollux stooped morally low enough to pull off one of the most perverted pranks of all of history, that it's something you can laugh about later and not worry about your hideous color and look forward to your remaining time on Alternia before you're forced to run because at the very end of the night it's still an anomaly crawling right under your skin, keeping you alive, dooming you to the end of your nights.

"Let me down," you say instead, and your voice feels like you've flipped a switch -- it's passive, controlled. Cautious. "Can you give me the sweet fucking relief of feet onto floor, at least?"

Sollux hesitates and that little motion sends pain to your already-throbbing heart. "I -- I don't know, man. You went full highblood rage there for a second."

"Hilarious. Put me the fuck down."

"KK, we can talk about this -- "

"Put. Me. Down."

He slowly lowers you to the ground. Your lungs suck in staling air as your legs wobble once more under the influence of gravity. Your head spins dizzily. You're aware that Sollux still watches you with the scrutiny of a hawk, his frame still tense, his posture twitchy.

"There's his name. Mituna. It's the same one, isn't it? The same dude that axe-crazy seadweller was freaking out over? The troll me and Dave saw that looked like yellow vomit washed up shore?"

"I..."

"What's his last name?" you ask him, your question so direct that it catches him off-guard. His psionics fizzle to a low thrum.

"Captor."

You suck in a sharp breath.

"Hey KK, can we just -- think about this? Can we not..." He trails off, his expression almost desperate.

Your fury is slowly being ebbed, slowly diluted, replaced with a gaping, sick kind of horror. These were real trolls. Real, concrete trolls that walked and breathed and suffered, and somehow -- by the slimmest of chances -- they share some similarity in slurry with you. With both of you. The implications make your stomach twist like a pretzel.

The old highblood legend of something like ancestors existing -- once it was laughable. Dismissable. Another thing royalty slandered like the freshest copy of a newsfeed. But now the theory's holding some significant weight, and his name --

Kankri Vantas

that's...not exactly the hugest of coincidences. 

So there it is.

The two of you fuckfaces, standing in a hive in the middle of nowhere, on a planet that laps up your blood like a dog dying, and somewhere in ancient history there was two similar to you that thought they had a fucking chance in the world. It's the same ground. It's the same air. There's no fucking reason why it'll play out any different, why you won't ever end up with a single milligram of justice, of something fair, and you don't know how long this trend goes back -- it goes back and back to trolls you've never seen, blood the same shades as yours -- and it's repetitive. It's dastardly. It's life paved out from the fucking bottom, just like it's meant to be.

Sollux clears his throat a little awkwardly, and you're reminded how fucking wiped he is. Especially after you pretty much knocked his brain fluids out of commission. "So...uh, I guess you know."

You need to know.

 

"What -- " you enunciate the question slowly, dragging it out, and change in your tone instantly entraps his attention -- "the hell happened to 'Mituna?'"

Sollux swallows and looks down at your bare feet; his own is always clad them in black and white socks, on the occasion that he remembers to put them on. 

His eyes dart between you and his husktop.

"I'm really not hearing an answer here, dipshit."

"Shit," he's mumbling, "shit, fuck, KK, get the fuck out of here."

"Just fucking tell me!" And your anger begins leaking back in. You're not sure who you're more furious at: Sollux, for hiding this shit from you, for trying to dismiss it, or at yourself for being so -- utterly -- powerless in this situation, just like with every other possible thing on Alternia. "Mituna -- whoever the fuck he was -- he's fucking dead! I already know that! You've already hidden so much from me, surely your pathetic ego can tank one more --"

His hand flashes out and seizes the front of your shirt; for an irrational, terrifying moment you think he'll backhand you, or fry you alive, and you don't know if your heart can take it if he does any of these things -- but all he does is tug you closer. His eyes gleam even more brightly than usual. His fingers are shaking with -- not anger, you confusedly realize, even if your own's threatening to blank out your vision. He's about to freak the fuck out, a gogdamn color array dancing over his hair.

"KK," he says, and his voice is almost from a different troll entirely -- "KK, for the love of gog, you -- okay. Okay. I'll do anything you want, alright? Just -- it's almost -- we're almost -- we don't have that much time together, I can't -- " he's babbling, his ears flattened, and you dully grasp that it's his attempt to apologize to you. "Just -- please. Don't ask me what happened to him. You don't ever want to know, I swear on my life. You fucking don't want to know what happens."

You should say sorry back, at least.

Or something.

Instead, you let your mouth go on autopilot, and a sneer's already twisting your face even as you slap his hand away -- he blanches in shock, in pain, but you're already speaking --

"You're talking about Ascension day," you say coldly, your heart beating a million miles per minute. "The one where you and Aradia go behind my back  - "Wow, I'm going to fucking not tell KK anything, even if it'll end up with me being strung up like some fucking battery because I want to hoard my secrets like some greedy shitlicker -- "

Up to this day, you've never been manhandled by psionics before. Sometimes Sollux will gently levitate you when he's found you passed out on the couch, once he had to pin your arm down to wrap a wound so you didn't hurt yourself thrashing around -- and he just lifted you today, but it still remains in the territory of passive action. A defensive reflex. And sometimes it's scary, about how powerful he could end up being, and you wonder if his (ancestor) did the same, if they ever just wielded the power as casually as you with a sickle.

He's never harmfully touched you before.

And you find that doctrine being warped, twisted in its foundations as he flings you out of his room -- it's not the strongest flare of power you've seen from him, but then you're crashing into the carpet of the living room and your head rings like a bell and something sick and venomous claws in your chest, stabbing its fingers into your stomach, the words still pounding in your brain, pain settling into dull throbs in your spine --

The door slam echoes with a horrible finality in your ears.

====

AA: s0llux are y0u still there

AA: hell0

AA: ...

AA: y0ure alm0st never away fr0m y0ur huskt0p

AA: are y0u with karkat again

AA: did y0u tw0 have a fight

AA: y0ure never 0n y0ur huskt0p when y0u fight with him

AA: ...

AA: g0sh an answer w0uld surely be appreciated

AA: l00k i hate t0 intrude int0 y0ur em0ti0nal m0rass

AA: but right n0w i need y0u t0 track this tr0llian handle

AA: it was written in miniscule script at the c0rner 0f the tablet

AA: we need t0 establish c0mmunicati0n with 0ne 0f them as s00n as p0ssible

AA: if we want t0 have a much m0re desirable plan f0r adulth00d

AA: h0wever, y0u are always free to c0me 0ver t0 my hive and have a feelings jam later :)

AA: y0u need t0 track d0wn this tr0llhandle

AA: gall0wsCalibrat0r

Chapter Text

TG: barring my own reason on why im up right now

TG: its the middle of the day

TG: and youre active

TG: see the image im trying to draw here

Over a billion sweeps ago you'd never think that right now, it would be Dave's bright red text filling up your screen that would comfort you, not a gross mustard-yellow that you could hear pinging from the other room. You're slumped in your seat, head in your hands, and trying to burn a hole through your desk by sheer eyepower alone.

CG: IT'S NOTHING. SOMETIMES I JUST STAY UP LATE. THAT'S ALL.

TG: as i repeat dude

TG: its the middle of the day

CG: I STAYED UP LATER THAN USUAL, OKAY? YOU DON'T NEED TO PLAY LUSUS WITH ME.

It's amazing, sometimes, on how single-tracked your mind can be. Your conversations with Dave after the Incident have ebbed and flowed back to a fairly neutral territory, but there's an undercurrent of something more potent lurking behind every candy-colored text crossing in straight tight lines. There's a stab of guilt in your chest when you scroll up and realize that your conversations have transformed into something dry, bland, and tasteless.

Your words had been terser; his monosyllables chopped, almost perfectly mimicking his real-life deadpan persona.

TG: just checking on a bro here

CG: DON'T YOU HAVE YOUR OWN SHIT TO DO?

CG: POLISH YOUR OWN SHADES, STRIDER. I'M NOT IN THE MOOD TODAY.

TG: hey

TG: whats wrong

Fuck. You bite at your knuckle furiously; you've already poured oil over fire with Sollux, and there's absolutely no fucking reason to burn a bridge with Dave. Even if things have been mildly awkward between you two these past few nights.

And those two words, not even phrased as a question, somehow make your chest feel lighter.

CG: I

CG: I FUCKED UP.

CG: I SAID SOME SHIT I SHOULDN'T HAVE EVER ***FUCKING*** SAID.

TG: with who

CG: THE NUMBER OF INDIVIDUALS I SPEAK TO ON ANY CONSISTENT BASIS CAN BE ACCOUNTED FOR ON ONE HAND.

CG: YOU, ARADIA, AND SOLLUX.

CG: THAT'S PRETTY MUCH FUCKING IT. TAKE A WILD GUESS.

TG: huh

TG: are you close pals with aradia

CG: NOT REALLY? BUT I DON'T MIND HER COMPANY, AND WE SOMETIMES TALK ABOUT FILMS AND SHIT.

CG: THE EXPERIENCE OF REPEATEDLY DISCUSSING ABOUT TROLL INDIANA JONES IS NOVEL AND SHOULD NOT HAVE AN ALLOCATION IN ANY PART OF MY NIGHTLY LIFE.

CG: WHY, HAVE YOU BEEN TALKING TO HER RECENTLY?

TG: nope not at all

TG: so some shit happened between you and sollux then

CG: ...

CG: YEAH.

Maybe you should be grateful that someone's talking to you, willing to engage in prolonged conversation without tearing their own eyes out. Or throwing you out of the room. You're reminded of the blank white spaces your chat had previously been.

CG: DAVE, CAN I ASK YOU A QUESTION?

TG: go ahead

CG: IT'S NOTHING PERSONAL.

CG: ABOUT YOUR LIFE, I MEAN.

CG: AS I'VE RECENTLY LEARNED, IT'S COOL TO HAVE YOUR OWN PRIVACY, YOU KNOW.

TG: damn straight

CG: I JUST WONDERING WHY YOU HAVEN'T

CG: UM

CG: I MEAN, I GUESS IT'S REALLY JUST MY PERSPECTIVE, BECAUSE I HAVE A TENDENCY TO SHIT ON SITUATIONS AND WONDER WHY EVERYTHING GOES DOWNHILL.

TG: ...

CG: WE HAVEN'T BEEN TALKING AS MUCH, I GUESS.

CG: YOU'RE PROBABLY BUSY NOW WITH GOG KNOWS WHAT.

CG: I MEAN, YOU PROBABLY DETECTED THE VIBE ON THE SEADWELLER NIGHT, RIGHT?

TG: yeah

CG: FUCK.

CG: OKAY, SO I'M REALLY SORRY ABOUT THAT. I DIDN'T MEAN TO MAKE YOU UNCOMFORTABLE OR ANYTHING.

CG: JUST FEEL FREE TO TELL ME IF I'M STEPPING INTO YOUR SPACE OR SOMETHING.

CG: I KNOW I'M A CERTIFIED ASSHOLE, I DESERVE TO BE BURNT IN THE LOWEST RUNGS OF TROLL HELL.

TG: bro

TG: what the hell are you even talking about

TG: i mean

TG: look you mightve gotten this switched around

TG: ...

TG: kinda thought you didnt want anything to do with me after that

TG: you replied to my messages weird and stuff a few nights ago

TG: so i got the memo pretty quick

TG: you didnt want to get bothered by me which is completely cool and all

TG: i can totally respect that im like professionally licensed for this shit

CG: NO. FUCK. NO, NO, THAT'S NOT WHAT I MEANT AT ALL.

CG: I THOUGHT YOU DIDN'T WANT ANYTHING TO DO WITH ME!

TG: why in the everloving hell would i think that

TG: dude i like hanging out with you and listening to your shitfits

TG: maybe not running from crazed seadwellers but hey we all got our wacko quirks

CG: FOR THE MILLIONTH TIME -- HUMANS DON'T HAVE FUCKING QUIRKS, DAVE.

TG: compelling argument there

TG: so im sorry if i made you think i was ignoring you

TG: i really wasnt trying to

TG: i promise

TG: its been pretty hectic over at our place though

CG: OH.

CG: WELL.

CG: I WASN'T TRYING TO IGNORE YOU EITHER.

TG: glad this mystery is settled then

TG: so

TG: back to your domestic problems

TG: whats up on the new addition to the karkles newsfeed

CG: CAN YOU PROMISE NOT TO HATE ME AFTER I TELL YOU?

CG: I DON'T THINK I CAN HANDLE SOMEONE I'M CLOSE TO WISHING I WAS PROBABLY DEAD.

TG: uh

TG: sure i can handle that

TG: this wasnt a typical friendly fight was it

CG: IT'S THE FARTHEST THING FROM THAT.

TG: huh

TG: maybe its because of

TG: you know

TG: the thing that hes doing

CG: WHAT THING?

TG: you really dont

TG: ...

TG: okay that kinda makes sense

CG: WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU GOING ON ABOUT, STRIDER?

TG: just tell a bro what happened

====

It's amazing how emotions can flip from zero to fifty in a second -- one moment you're gunning away at your computer, your brain still trying comprehend what the actual fuck the texts were showing you, and the next thing you know you and Karkat had a fight nasty enough to be pitch, but it's worse because it wasn't any pitch at all, it was all shaped from sheer spite and venom and the actual urge to hurt.

Fuck. 

You're absolutely wiped, and you're painfully reminded of Karkat's words -- you should go out and eat something. Take a fucking shower, at least. You probably smell like grease turned solid. 

You wallow in your cesspool instead, staring up at the ceiling patterns.

When you finally drag your gaze back to the screen, you reread through AA's messages slowly, almost tenderly, and each rust-colored letter smooths out the dull pain in the back of your skull. Without her words, you think blearily, you would've sunk into your sinkhole and fester for even more days. And you can't afford to do that now.

Not when you're still trying to save them.

Thinking of him just ignites another bout of agony in your chest. You two've said shit to each other before that you don't mean a word of -- but some invisible, treasured boundary was crossed when you had the fucking audacity to hide something from him, because apparently you couldn't shovel in your own stash of clandestine -- but then again, it's not your run-of-the-mill-hey-I-hid-the-mail-from-you or I-changed-your-password, it concerns a troll that's not going down as the exemplary role model in going out with a bang. Not that kind. And in your --efforts? evasions? -- he full-on slap/slam/strikes at you that, boiling down to the end, you can kiss goodbye to any semblance of passable life. 

All you'll be good for is a battery. All of your life's summations wound down to terrible darkness and your nerves frying into raw stubs, simply because you were born with the wrong color.

You can talk to him later. He won't disturb you for a sizeable time, anyhow, and you really can live with that.

TA: 2orry AA, ii wa2 away from the hu2ktop.

AA: f0r several h0urs? 0_0

AA: sh0uld i ask what happened

TA: maybe not now.

TA: fuck.

TA: god, what the fuck am ii even doiing.

TA: ii can't even 2top two proce22 the 2hiit ii'm doiing, and ii don't even know what ii wa2 tryiing two accomplii2h.

TA: and then he call2 me a

TA: ....

TA: ii thiink he legiitiimately hate2 me, AA, ii don't know iif ii can handle that.

AA: karkat?

AA: what did he call y0u

TA: iit'2 nothiing.

AA: i see

AA: y0u w0nt mind hashing it 0ut with me later w0uld y0u

TA: ii

TA: ii thiink ii'll actually be 2iick

TA: iif iit wa2n't for you ii probably would've torn out my own tongue now

TA: 2hove iit down my throat

TA: make my2elf 2hut the fuck up becau2e ii can't push down 2ome fuckiing natural a22hole reflex.

AA: s0llux

AA: please track the fucking tr0llhandle

And just like that, she yanks you out of your mood.

You can mope in your own self-pity swamp later; you have shit to do, trolls to save, and Ascension Day to prepare. You don't have all night wishing to drown in your own puddle of vomit.

TA: AA.

AA: y0u will thank me later

TA: ii

TA: ....

TA: yeah, okay.

Chapter Text

ectoBiologist [EB] began pestering tentacleTherapist [TT]

EB: hey, i'm just wondering if "operation dave" is still currently in the gears!

TT: You mean the ingenious plan Dave had conjured.

TT: Allow me to paraphrase:

TT: "just trollnap the nubby dude and hope no one notices"

TT: Surely no hitches in this process will manifest in due time.

EB: heh, alright, we'll flush this one down the swirly.

EB: is your glamor still in full effect?

TT: It's beginning to weaken.

TT: As he prepares for final maturation, his body is able higher levels of resistance to the spells I've inserted into his framework.

EB: gee, you make him sound like a computer.

EB: dave's also been talking to his contact, i think.

EB: still not sure when they met.

EB: do you want me to rope them in with us?

TT: What's their relation towards our very own troll?

EB: he didn't really elaborate! but dave just mentioned that apparently k*a*rkat's friends unearthed that our family members somehow got name-dropped in these really old troll artifacts.

EB: dave wasn't really surprised, though. that's kind of weird.

EB: are our local troll's friends going to be a problem?

TT: John, we cannot simply waltz into their hives and threaten to blow shit up.

EB: hey! that was totally jade's fault that one time!

TT: Supposedly.

TT: Do their interests conflict with ours?

EB: dave says they know about us too.

EB: or at least, they know about roxy and jane and everything about the humans in the batterwitch's invasion!

EB: i mean, i'm not sure why he's repeating this? his contact already told him all this stuff!

EB: ugh, i'm seriously running low on information supply here.

TT: Hmm.

EB: hmm, what?

TT: I need to talk to mine own contact about something, then.

tentacleTherapist [TT] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB]

====

twinArmageddons [TA] began scanning

scannii1111111#$848@&@^4%nnbbbbbbb IP [100000333333333333333]

097 099 099 101 115 115 032 100 101 110 105 101 100

Scanning...

097 099 099 101 115 115 032 100 101 110 105 101 100

085 083 069 082 032 078 079 084 032 082 069 067 079 071 078 073 090 069 068

twinArmageddons [TA] IP [1194848772938899999999999999999999999999....]

i%%%put c0000000de [103 097 108 108 111 119 115 067 097 108 105 098 114 097 116 111 114]

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117 115 101 114 032 116 119 105 110 065 114 109 097 103 101 100 100 111 110 115 032 104 097 115 032 083 069 067 085 082 069 032 065 067 067 069 083 083

117 115 101 114 032 116 119 105 110 065 114 109 097 103 101 100 100 111 110 115 032 104 097 115 032 083 069 067 085 082 069 032 065 067 067 069 083 083 032 116 111

117 115 101 114 032 116 119 105 110 065 114 109 097 103 101 100 100 111 110 115 032 104 097 115 032 083 069 067 085 082 069 032 065 067 067 069 083 083 032 116 111 032 116 114 111 108 108

117 115 101 114 032 116 119 105 110 065 114 109 097 103 101 100 100 111 110 115 032 104 097 115 032 083 069 067 085 082 069 032 065 067 067 069 083 083 032 116 111 032 116 114 111 108 108 104 097 110 100 108 101

117 115 101 114 032 116 119 105 110 065 114 109 097 103 101 100 100 111 110 115 032 104 097 115 032 083 069 067 085 082 069 032 065 067 067 069 083 083 032 116 111 032 116 114 111 108 108 104 097 110 100 108 101 032 103 097 108 108 111 119 115

117 115 101 114 032 116 119 105 110 065 114 109 097 103 101 100 100 111 110 115 032 104 097 115 032 083 069 067 085 082 069 032 065 067 067 069 083 083 032 116 111 032 116 114 111 108 108 104 097 110 100 108 101 032 103 097 108 108 111 119 115 067 097 108 105 098 114 097 116 111 114

℞##☾➿➿♾⑊⑇⏍⌸⌍⎈✥♎︎♎︎♎︎

GC: YOUR SK1LLS 1N COMPUT1NG M4N1PUL4T1ON 4R3 QU1T3 FORM1D4BL3, MR MUST4RDBLOOD!

GC: BUT YOUR ST34LTH T4L3NTS M4Y REQU1R3 SOM3 SH4RP3N1NG >:]

TA: gog fuckiing damniit.

====

"Two perigees, four days, and counting."

"Try running the stats on Subject 69 again -- "

"Okay, jegus. Hivesquare 3A2 -- 66 -- 000, not associated with any significant quarter."

"Hemoanonymous?"

"Hemoanonymous."

"Lusus?"

"Perished from old age."

"Additional hive inhabitants?"

"Hold up -- yeah, I'll get back to you on that."

You quickly flip through the pages. Above, the sun's beginning to slowly bubble through the surface, trickling down to the windows of your joint hive. The other trolls are probably milling around the base -- a decent handful of radical seadwellers and highbloods able to fit into the breathing bubble. She's been bugging for you to scoop up more midbloods or some lowbloods to join the cause, much to your constant annoyance.

"No registered hatchmate or occupant," you declare.

"We really need to check the Imperial Database for this," she says, rubbing her hand hard across her face. "Do we really not have any computer extraordinaires in the base right now?"

"Nah," you say back, thumbing through Subject 69's file again. "No one down here does or gives a fuck about any computers."

"And you're not able to track him because -- "

"One: another group gets a whiff a this, they'll be on us faster than larvae on a drowned fish. Two: we're not able to."

"Was there some sort of intereference?"

"Yeah." You scratch at your horn. "I've sent three scouts to monitor his movements if he ever leaves the hive, but they report, uh, 'disorientation?' Unable to reach physical location. Static intereference with their equipment. And computing-wise we've got absolutely nothin'."

"He's got another faction tailing him, then," she say grimly. "Hell, they might even have psychics in tow."

Your heart sinks in your stomach. It should be so fucking predictable, when Ascension is just bare perigees away, but you're still lacking sorely in intel about 69. Plans could formulate later, coups could be drawn up carefully, but you need to have the subject. He's -- well, not exactly the lynchpin to her operation, but he's the motor that could crank it to full blaze. He has to be here, physically, with his candy-red blood and his ancestry, to counteract what the Empire could throw at you.

Maybe you could storm his hive ahead of time -- but clearly the troll's hiding something, because there's no way in hell he's surviving by himself hemoanonymously without a lusus or some companion. Not fucking happening. And you'd have to find his hive too. Someone's got his back, watching for every move; someone's sealing off any way to contact him, to even reach out to him. Prevent you all from talking him to your side. It's like he's got his own squadron of gogdamn guardian angels.

"But who could possibly know about him?" she wonders, fiddling with a bangle on her wrist. "Granted, he does live near the human settlement -- "

"I tracked the orange-sari human for a while," you butt in, flushing slightly in embarrassment. "Hey, hey, no, don't give me that look -- not like that kind of tracking, jegus. More like -- all she does is stay in her hive and shit. Same for the others. They're kinda diurnal too, you know, they really don't go out of their little hives unless one a them likes looking at the moons for a while."

"So you're saying humans don't play a role in hiding him from us at all."

"Don't think so." If they did, your intel should be able to demonstrate it. "Shit, do you think the Empire knows about what he is?"

"He would be flat-out cullbait regardless of hemoanonymity if they knew who he is. He'd be collected in pieces at this very moment."

"Yeah, but what if they're waiting for something? What if they're waiting to see who follows him, who gets caught up in his business, so they can wipe 'em all at once in a single blow? That's what I'd do if I were them."

"But why would the Empire let him live to that ripe age in the first place? By their standards, he's not even supposed to be breathing. Why would they give him the chance to start up anything?"

"It's all mindgames an' stuff," you reluctantly confess, trying to rein in your brains. If the Empire knew about him, then he's paste. And logically, since he's not -- and you can't confirm where he lives, who he is, but the few highblood psychics you've looped have very much confirmed the anomalous blood-tracing signal at Hivesquare 3A2 -- they don't know about him. One less thing to cross off what you should be accounting for.

"What about other interested parties?" you ask instead, fiddling at your sleeves.

"Hm?"

"We can't be the only one gunnin' for him, aren't we."

"Maybe they're waiting to Ascension so his blood color's visible..." Her eyes widen as she speaks her own revelation. "Oh, fuck. It's not the Empire's entourage we're going to have to worry about."

"Yeah, that's my fuckin' reaction."

"Glub," she says, almost snarling. "Change of plans, then. Huge-time change of plans."

"Fire it at me."

"You're thinking someone's living in his hive with him, correct?"

"Yeah -- "

"Then they're bound to leave the thing at some point. If we can't track 69, we track his hivebuddy instead." Her smile is as full of teeth as a grinning shark's. "Whatever spell's covering up 69, it won't be applying to his hivemate, don't you think? Especially if they weren't together since birth."

Briefly, you make a diamond shape with her hand because -- why the fuck not. 

She smiles at you, her expression momentarily softening.

"I'll do you one better." You unlock your special weapons cache floating at your feet, feeling obscenely proud of the slender, white wand you personally crafted so many perigees ago. You'll never confess that the inspiration was from the orange-sari girl's needles. "I'll personally attend to this mission myself."

She laughs at you, lazily swishing her trident through a stream of bubbles, but her smile is genuine. You have to roll your eyes at that.

====

A follow3r cam3 slow and by to m3. I was trav3ling among quaint towns, r3v3ling in a rar3 mom3nt of r3st, wh3n som3 t3alblood shambl3s up to me and asks if I still am faithful to Kankri's t3achings.

Att3ntion is what h3 want3d, aft3r all: not the glory-hounding vari3ty, but mor3 of a qui3t r3cognition that at l3ast som3wh3r3, his words w3r3 b3ing list3n3d to. Porrim and Mituna would've b33n 3xasp3rat3d but proud.

I am still d3t3rmin3d to follow through on his vision, no matt3r how bitt3r I'v3 b3com3 towards Alt3rnia. Such an 3ncompassing mov3m3nt, h3 onc3 said to us, cannot b3 carri3d out by m3r3 individuals, no matt3r how pow3rful th3y ar3. It r3quir3s all of Alt3rnia, from th3 rust3st of blood to th3 Cond3sc3 h3rs3lf. Th3 problm3s ar3 far b3yond cast3s and h3mosp3ctrum; it is ingrain3d in our subconsciousn3ss to d3m3an thos3 suppos3dly inf3rior. It's to th3 futur3 g3n3ration h3 t3ach3s to.

Even in your room, you couldn't say you felt like you were safe.

Instead, you'd had to settle for reading some of the most pretentious shit ever put to codification -- there's still several fucking tablets to revise through, and the mere thought of it making you want to shoot lasers up your eyeholes. It's boring. It's boring, useless blather that somehow you're still trying to read back, trying to pick out any crucial details, because for some stupid strange reason you have the urge to keep AA and Karkat alive.

Even if one of them hasn't bothered to talk to you at all ever since the argument.

You push that intruding thought of your head. You swore to yourself that you wouldn't think on it, not while you're up to your nook in getting the fuck-it-all signal for Ascension. There's definitely more important shit that needs wondering about.

You'll have to tell him anyway.

Maybe just not now.

At the moment, you're currently in cahoots with an absolute stranger.

TA: your dii2ciiple wa2 ab2olute tra2h.

TA: even ii can wriite better fanfiic2 than her.

GC: T4K3 1t OR L34V3 1T, HOTSHOT

GC: H4V3 YOU CONS1D3R3D MY OFF3R Y3T?

TA: ii'm not iin the po2iitiion two judge.

TA: iit'2 not ju2t my own liife ii'm rii2kiing here, after all.

GC: DONT B3 SO PR3T3NT1OUS

GC: YOU R34L1Z3 TH4T T3CHN1C4LLY YOUR L1F3 1S M34N1NGL3SS TO M3, Y3S? W3 W1LL 4CCOUNT FOR COLL4T3R4L D4M4G3

TA: thank you for your vouch of confiidence, ii can 2leep better at day now.

TA: how can ii tru2t you?

TA: how can you prove your handle wa2n't ju2t 2ome 2tray graffiittii that happened two be iin the wriitiing2?

TA: and how the hell do you even know about u2 iin the fiir2t place?

GC: 1 L1K3 YOU ON YOUR TO3S, MR MUST4RDBLOOD!

GC: 4ND 1 H4V3 TO 4NSW3R TH4T T3CHN1C4LLY TH3R3 WOULD PROB4BLY B3 NO CONCR3T3 M3THOD FOR 3V1D3NC3

GC: D1STRUST 1S 4 TWO W4Y STR33T >:]

GC: 1 H4V3 MY OWN W4Y OF L34RN1NG 4BOUT US3FUL P3OPL3

GC: BUT D1D YOU TH1NK YOU W3R3 TH3 ONLY ON3S TO KNOW 4BOUT TH3S3 WR1T1NGS?

TA: they were du2ty a2 fuck, ii can probably a22ume that 2afely.

TA: 2o are you 2ayiing you diid a hiit and run on them or 2omethiing?

TA: ju2t waltzed riight iin and iintelliigently decided, 'wow, ii'll ju2t leave my per2onal handle iin full publiic, iit 2urely won't bite me on the a22 later!'

TA: gog, even iif you're who you're claiimiing you are that'2 a level of iincompetency ii could almo2t get jealou2 of.

TA: ii dream that ii could be that iincompetent.

GC: Wh4T 1F 1 TOLD YOU 1 KN3W YOU W3R3 GO1NG TO F1ND 1T?

TA: then you would be a terriible liiar.

GC: DO YOU R34LLY W4NT M3 TO GO DOWN TH1S L4N3?

GC: 1TS NOT 4 POW3R 1 3NJOY US1NG

GC: W41T YOUR3 R1GHT, 1 4M 4 T3RR1BL3 L14R, 1 LOV3 US1NG 1T

TA: uh

TA: are you a 2ecret miindreadiing warmblood or 2omethiing?

TA: what wacky new power platter can be part of a fuck-you daiily 2erviing, ju2t lay iit on me.

TA: are you able to 2mell my blood or what.

GC: POSS1BLY

GC: HOW WOULD YOU L1K3 M3 TO PROV3 1T?

TA: haha are you fuckiing kiiddiing me, ii knew thii2 wa2 a 2tupiid bluff.

TA: ii'm was2tiing my tiime here.

GC: SOM3ON3 W1LL 4TT3MPT TO 3NT3R YOUR ROOM SOON

You nearly topple out of your chair when Karkat knocks against the door. Carefully you reach out with your psionics to pull it open -- you still haven't forgotten his expression when you've tossed him out of the room in blind fury, the utter betrayal that you actually willingly tried to attack him -- if you had mishandled the pressure, even by an iota, you might've burned through his skin --

"Hey," and your throat goes dry when you hear how cautious he's sounding, like he's afraid to anger you (and you'd laugh at the irony if you had the energy to) -- "we're running a bit low on food. Just wanted you to know."

In dusk he looks like soft clay. His hair hangs limply around his cheeks, his hands twisting around each other nervously, shifting his weight from one foot to another. He doesn't meet your gaze.

"Why the heck are you telling me?" The moment the words leave your mouth he flinches, and you feel like a complete asshole. Per usual course.

"Yeah. My bad." Something darker fills his face, but then he's shuffling out of the door, away from you. "Just thought I'd tell you."

Your heart beats nervously against your ribs. You note how frazzled his hair's been, how dark the shadows under his eyes are, the way his mouth's twisting like he's sucked on something sour. He's exhausted. He's probably been that way since --

Speaking of which, you really haven't slept much either. "Much" as in probably not at all.

And maybe this newfound empathy sweeping over the venom bubbling in your gut -- that he never said an apology to you, not even through Trollian -- and maybe regret that you haven't dared to apologize either -- they blur into a haze, all jumbled and chaotic in your mind -- until you realize you're standing.

"KK, wait."

A quick 'sorry' should work, you decide. Barbs and claws dig into your chest as you try to speak, though, and you find yourself wresting down the monosyllable. He's already near the front door.

"I'll go," and his eyes widen a little at the precedence, because for the past sweep it's always been him venturing into the quarters for supplies, even if he's guaranteed cullbait. He had extensively argued that you were technically still 'on the run' for avoiding conscription, no matter how much you protested vehemently.

"Sollux, we've been over this -- "

"I can handle myself." You're already shrugging on a jacket wadded up in a corner -- an ugly dark green piece of shit, but it serves its purpose adequately. Nightlight's already ticking. You scoop the palmhusk into your pocket, pushing down the teal words into the recesses of your coat. 

Some private, twisted part of you hopes he would stop you.

"Okay." He's fallen back into flat, passive neutral. "Sure. Put your life at risk. Don't mind me, do whatever the hell you want."

You're already halfway out the door when he speaks, and the words cut through your layers like a knife. You turn back to stare at him -- maybe to spit something back, maybe to beg at his feet, you don't even know -- but he's already trudging back to his room, each step as heavy as a stone.

You don't even bother to say goodbye when you slam the door behind you.

Chapter Text

GC: 1 T4K3 1T YOUR3 NOT ON B3ST T3RMS W1TH YOUR COMP4N1ON?

What the hell.

TA: you could 2ee all that 2hiit, huh.

GC: NOT 3X4CTLY

GC: 1 D1D H34R 1T THOUGH >:[

TA: great, ju2t what ii need.

TA: 2ome random, po22iibly iin2ane 2tranger gettiing full cable on my dome2tiic ii22ue2, wonderful.

TA: why don't you ju2t u2e your 2pooooooky future power2 and tell me what the hell you want, ii'm not iin the mood.

GC: NO N33D TO B3 4 B1TT3R B33, MUST4RDBLOOD

GC: DO YOU B3L13V3 M3 NOW?

TA: don't giive a 2hiit.

GC: 1F YOUR3 WOND3R1NG WHY 1 C4NT T3LL WH4TS GO1NG TO HAPP3N 4LL TH3 T1M3, 1TS B3C4US3 1M NOT OMN1SC13NT

TA: ii2 iit really a good iidea two tell me all thii2?

TA: ii could hunt down your locatiion and kiill you iif ii had two.

GC: TH3N 1 WOULD 4LR34DY KNOW YOUR 4RR1V4L, SM4RT4SS!

TA: fuck, riight.

TA: 2o what el2e do you know.

TA: you probably have more 2hiit on me than my own iimperiial databa2e.

GC: 1 DONT

TA: bullcrap.

GC: 1T DO3SNT WORK L1K3 TH4T

GC: F1RST, 1TS H4RD3R FOR M3 TO LOOK B4CK 1NTO YOUR P4ST

GC: TH3 FUTUR3 1S MUCH MOR3 T4ST13R 4NYW4Y

TA: ii'm 2ure iit ii2.

GC: S3COND, 1TS NOT SO MUCH OF WH4T 1 W4NT TO KNOW 4S WH4T SHOULD B3 KNOWN

GC: 4ND TH1RD, 1TS POSS1BL3 FOR TROLLS TO BLOCK OFF TH31R FUTUR3

GC: CUTT1NG OFF 1TS P4THW4Y

GC: 1TS 4 V3RY F1CKL3 4B1L1TY

TA: thii2 ii2 2o iintere2tiing, ii'm practiically 2kiipping wiith curiio2iity.

TA: do you know what ii'm 2hiit goiing two buy, then?

GC: 1 DONT

GC: YOU WONT B3 BUY1NG 4NYTH1NG

Your footsteps slow down a little.

TA: diid no one tell me there wa2 a market cra2h or 2omethiing?

TA: alterniia'2 not even capiitalii2t.

GC: WH4TS C4P1T4L1SM?

TA: u2e your weiird power2 two fiind out, jeez.

GC: HMM

GC: OK4Y

TA: what the heck are you goiing on about?

GC: WH4T 1S YOUR V3RY CLOS3 FR13NDS N4M3?

TA: you have two be more 2peciifiic here, ii'm practiically drowniing iin friiend2hiip ocean.

GC: YOU UN4MB1GUOUSLY H4V3 ONLY ON3

TA: douché.

TA: and the day ii tell you ii2 the day you can 2piit over my corp2e.

GC: 4 POSS1B1L1TY

TA: ....

TA: what the fuck are tryiing two 2ay?

GC: 1T W1LL B3 34S13R 3XPL41N1NG TH1NGS TO TH3M

TA: AGAIIN, bull2hiit.

GC: WH4TS TH3 WORST 1 C4N DO TO TH3M?

GC: 1M NO 3XP3RT1S3 H4CK3R L1KE YOU, MR MUST4RDBLOOD

GC: 4ND 1 PROM1S3 1 M34N YOU 4LL NO H4RM

TA: you realiize how fuckiing one-2iided thii2 ii2, riight?

TA: you probably know everythiing about u2, but ii 2tiill don't know why your name wa2 on the tablet2.

TA: ii don't even know what kiind of per2on you are.

TA: you could be a grub, you could be a full fuckiing adult, you could be the gogdamn empre22 her2elf and all ii have for your crediibiiliity ii2 "ii promii2e no harm," liike yeah, 2o fuckiing rea22uriing, ii 2ure hope the2e wiiggler2s ii'm talkiing two wiill 2uck iit up liike they're on hunger biinge2.

GC: DO YOU PROPOS3 4 QU1D PRO QUO TR4D3, TH3N?>:]

TA: oh yeah, ju2t fuckiing lay iit all out.

TA: but you're probably goiing two 2ay 2omethiing completely mundane and generiic, and then waiit for me two 2piill my 2ecret2 out.

GC: 1 4M P4RT OF TH3 FOLLOW1NG OF THE S1GNL3SS

GC: 1 KNOW YOU KNOW WH4T TH1S ENT41LS

GC: NOW, FOR MY 3ND OF TH3 B4RG41N >:]

TA: ....

TA: okay.

TA: apocalyp2eArii2en.

TA: iif you break your promii2e ii 2wear ii'll be the fiir2t one two 2hred you iinto piiece2.

GC: TH4NK YOU FOR YOUR COOPER4T1V1TY

GC: K33P YOUR 3Y3S UP

gallowsCalibrator [GC] ceased trolling twinArmageddons [TA]

You stand a sizeable distance from KK's hive, the night running cool fingers over the back of your neck.

You're...not exactly sure what Gallows means by that.

And as you head toward the nearest corner market -- inconspicuous enough that they shouldn't give a whiff about your blood color or abilities, just like they do for Karkat -- you can't help but think that that was a warning.

==== 

1 h4v3 b33n consult1ng w1th my 4ssoc14t3s ov3r th3 v14b1l1ty of 34rth 1n our mov3m3nt. Th3y t3ll m3 1t 1s po1ntl3ss; 1t'll s1mply b3 4noth3r colony und3r th3 Cond3sc3's jur1sd1ct1on.

Unfortun4t3ly w3 4r3 1n short supply of 4ny cl41rvoy4nts (4lthough 1 b3l13v3 our v3ry own found3r w4s on3) so 1 h4v3 h4d to m4k3 my own gu3ss3s. Th3r3 1s som3th1ng str4ng3 4bout th3s3 hum4ns -- th3y 4r3 rumor3d to poss3ss gr34t pow3r, 33ri1ly s1m1l4r to H3r 1mp3r1ous Cond3sc3ns1on's own 4b1l1t13s.

1t 1s 4n 1ssu3 th4t 1 4m 3xtr3m3ly w1ll1ng to d3lv3 d33p3r 1nto! Non3th3l3ss, 4s b3f1tt1ng of my du4l l1f3 w1th1n both th3 h1gh3st courts 4nd 4 s3cr3t r3b3ll1on, 1 4m pl1gu3d by dom3st1c 1ssu3s. Qu1t3 r3c3ntly th3 Gr4nd H1ghblood h4s b33n g3tt1ng 4l4rm1ng r3ports of p1racy off of th3 w3st3rn co4st, 4nd 1 4m surm1s1ng th4t 1 w1ll soon b3 4ss1gn3d to 4 c3rt41n t4sk >:]

L4t3ly, how3v3r, 1 h4v3 4lso b33n h4r4ss3d by dr34ms. 1 4m no proph3t, but th3r3's 4lw4ys 4 f1gur3 th4t 4pp34rs b3for3 m3 -- 4 str4ng3r -- who wh1sp3rs to m3 to do c3rt41n th1ngs. I know sh3 m4k3s m3 wr1t3 m3ss4g3s 1n my sl33p 4nd h1d3 th3m com3 d4yl1ght. 1 4m qu1t3 cur1ous to wh4t in4n1ty 1ve b33n

gallowsCalibrator [CG] began trolling apocalypseArisen [AA]

GC: 27º23'26''S, 36º22'14''W

gallowsCalibrator [CG] ceased trolling apocalypseArisen [AA]

AA: thank y0u f0r telling me

====

For very good reasons you avoid the yellowblood sector.

Instincts tell you to drift near the rustblood gutters -- it's where AA is, at least -- but at the last moment your feet steer you toward the bronzeblood area. Maybe it's the warnings Karkat's given you before about how batshit dangerous the gutters are to someone unfamiliar with them, or that something

A voice, maybe?

tells you not to go near her --

You feel out of sync, directed in this completely foreign route you never even laid eyes on, and it makes you uneasy. You want all variables in your life to at least be sensible. You want them filed and packaged; they can be autonomous, sure, but you want to know what's going on behind your back. You hate surprises.

Tonight it's been soft and mellow, the grass enveloping snugly under your feet. You've long shook off the habit of skimming across the grass blades, no matter how unrealistically amazing the mental image is -- there is no concrete, legitimate reason for you to bump up your percent on getting caught.

Shit, you should've brought another pair of glasses. Still, you're reasonably certain no bronzebloods are going to call the drones down for you -- it'd only be attracting more attention to themselves, anyhow. Lowbloods did have a survival instict disguised as camaraderie, after all.

Kudos to you.

As a mess of hives and hovels of metal near you, you run through all the gears in your head. 

Ascension: really not far off. Trolls have escaped it before. They'd have to live as lonely freaks for the rest of their lives, never setting foot on Alternia again, but it's better than being drone-razed ash.

Comparatively.

You and AA could hijack a ship easy enough -- non-helming ones aren't as interstellar, but it'll keep you in orbit for a good deal of sweeps. You could ship-hop for the rest of your miserable lives. You would always have to stay on your toes, watch for the stars, ready for any moment an Imperial ship would ambush you. And if you were caught -- 

Aradia might be helmed. Or she might just be shot in the head and dumped in the sea, like your 

ancestor?

fuck no.

Karkat would be killed on the spot. Or, if the shit the texts are telling you is true, then he's not shying away from Public Enemy #1.

And if you were caught, as a fugitive in space, whatever that'll happen to Aradia and Karkat will be complete, utter mercy compared to what they'd do to you.

There's another option, something whispers to you -- your own mind, not the murmur of staticky voices in the background. It nudges you towards your palmhusk, the teal words sharp and stark and loaded with mystery.

just take it

It's a gamble.

Maybe Gallows is telling the truth. Maybe there's a way for you all to stay on Alternia, and somehow you know they're not lying, not when they just dropped the bomb on you on who they're associated with -- 

But you wouldn't even be able to tell.

Maybe you should ask Aradia --

maybe

fuck, you don't know.

A bitter smile touches the corner of your mouth. All you really want, you think, is to stay cooped up at KK's hive and listen to him fling shit at his movies and go out exploring with AA in crumbled dirt and fill your screens with red and blue code and grugdingly tolerate DV's presence and maybe all of you can just laze under the moonlight, throw away the ideas of blood, of culling and drones, and just listen to Alternia rotate beneath you.

How hard was that to ask for?

And you'll never be able to even touch the experience, and Aradia and Karkat are cast straight to the bottom of the ballot, and it's not because of what they say or how much they throw themselves into the things they love until their eyes blaze like stars, or how much their expressions crack and tear when the days draw closer like some invisible clock, and it has nothing to do with who they are, not a single iota, and all on something they've never even been able to decide. Something no one has the jurisdiction or power to decide. You can shape someone's horns wrong, pull out their teeth, fold their bones like toothpicks -- but you can't change the color of their blood. A trait that is utterly, ultimately irrelevant to any of their decisions, their character, and yet deemed like it's the only thing that matters --

Just sheer fucking color.

And you wonder where Karkat's diatribes come from, because you and Aradia can still toe into the world with a sizeable percentage of surviving -- but he can't, not at all, and it's unfair. It's unfair beyond belief. You wonder if that's how his ancestor felt, perched before a crowd of thousands, trying to drill it in their heads that all this is wrong, no one chooses slavery for others no matter under what gogdamn circumstances are set, and there's no -- fucking -- justification to cut them down on something as uncontrollable as the weather.

You clench your fist to reel in your sparks.

It's wrong.

It's so, so wrong.

If there was a way to demolish this ridiculous hierarchy -- to reduce it to shredded cinders -- you'd take it in an instant. Your ancestor gambled his life and, judging by his status as battery juice and pirate fodder, he completely lost his cards. 

You --

You need to talk to Gallows again.

You have to be sure.

It occurs to you, as you began prowling along the twisted metal lumps generously classified as roofs and walls, that you're not exactly heeding their parting lines.

keep your eyes up

You slow your steps to an absolute halt.

There's the mutter of voices from the ghetto, but something else -- you know there's something else -- something foreign, alien, intrusive lurking around, like a serpent slowly unwinding from a shadowed canopy.

Someone's watching you.

Every hair on your neck rises.

You try to steady your breathing. The bronzebloods might not be eager to rat you out, but you can't risk displaying your psionics at thsi proximity.

You swallow instead, feeling your heart try to claw to your throat, and walk on normally.

You're here for food and nothing else.

It's nothing like the yellowblood sector -- and you've glimpsed the gutters before, but the ghetto here marginally looks better. It's twisty alleys and odd slopings in the middle of the street -- quickly you shamble into the sidelines, trying to imitate bronzeblood movement. You're no expert on bloodguessing a troll, but you'd wager others are certified experts. You jam your hands in your pockets and stare resolutely ahead, trying to shake off that feeling

eyes up

Maybe that was just cloth moving, or rags tossed into a little eddy -- you pass stalls, most of them sleepy with business. A little corner market sign propels your feet forward. Already you're digging your hands deeper into your pocket, groping around for some money --

shit.

Your fingers brush the bottom of your pocket.

You didn't bring any.

That's what Gallows meant, the fucking shitsniffer -- gog, you could die of embarrassment. You could keel over from shame. Rookie mistake, and you're almost an adult.

You have to go back.

You have to go back and see Karkat again, and you're not sure if --

your feet's already carrying you away, away from the bronzebloods, away from the market and food and any chance that you could just make Karkat a little happier, even if it isn't about you.

You should apologize. Or make him apologize to you. You don't give a shit, but you don't think you can handle one more awful second of silence, the way you stare at each other's feet like your faces are a mess.

Your nubby-horned, shit-spewing, fireball of a hivemate. If someone hurt him -- if he got hurt -- you don't think you'll be able to live with yourself. 

It's when you're some distance away from the ghetto, tears lightly staining across your cheeks, that you remember Gallows' message again.

EYES UP

You act on instinct.

Adrenaline flares into rolling, pitch electricity in your chest, rocketing your body upward -- ten, twenty feet in the air, a mess of instincts telling you to quell your lightshow down, another barely preventing your bones cracking from your sudden spike in psionics -- 

The beam misses you by a fraction of an inch.

====

apocalypseArisen [AA] began trolling turntechGodhead [TG]

AA: dave can y0u d0 me a fav0r

TG: sure go right ahead

TG: not because im scared for my life or anything

TG: just put it all out on me

AA: i have t0 g0 s0mewhere s00n

AA: when it happens y0ull have t0 guide karkat

TG: uh

TG: guide him to what

AA: what weve discussed

AA: he trusts y0u f0r s0me reas0n

AA: and y0u did pr0mise t0 keep him 0ut 0f it

TG: i

TG: okay

AA: :)

apocalypseArisen [AA] ceased trolling turntechGodhead [TG]

====

Instantly, you're lashing out your own forcefield, a shimmery blur of faint blue-and-red haze that trembles and wobbles like a water drop -- it's not just one beam, you realize, it's hundreds of white tendrils curling in the air, almost instantly dissipating into pale mist. Each wisp hits your barrier with the force of a boulder; the impact shudders through your bones, your body, like a deep, slow vibration.

Shit.

If you used a bit more of your psionics, maybe you could repel the shots back -- but then you realize you're still a fair distance off the ground, suspended in the air for all to see. The really last thing you need is to be as conspicuous as an alarm signal. 

Your attacker clearly has no such qualms; they're throwing up bolt after bolt, branching out like a shining fan, and the night air hums with sparks. You grit your teeth in pain when your forcefield shudders from a particularly hard blow -- you're not going to last too long, not when pressure mounts in your head, your ears filled with a faint buzz --

Maybe your attacker knows something's up, because the shots cease firing -- now you're just hanging in empty air, your heart hammering wildly as you cling onto your shield, trying to scan the horizon below -- just trees and rough dirt and moonlights slowly beginning to rise, the mix of light and shadow that's the most disorienting time of the night. Cool air whistles by your face hollowly. You suck in steadying breaths, each rattling through your chest all the way to your gut, and wait for the next round.

It doesn't happen.

Shit, okay, there's definitely some sort of waiting game going on here. You don't dare drop your shield -- it's weakening by the second, judging by how there's a low ringing in the back of your mind, but it's your only armor against whatever the fuck your attacker's packing. You don't doubt that those white, elegant beams will vaporize you into billions of tiny specks if they meet their mark.

Jegus christ, you need to think.

Your mind's already alight with a dozen possibilities -- okay. Okay. You've strifed before. You know how to get out of this.

...you realize your strifes with Karkat consist of him trying to deflect your throwing stars. And you failing to even half-wrestle him to the ground.

Damnit.

Each second that ticks by is agonizing -- you're tempted to drop your barrier, just to see if they're still around, but instincts make you hold tight.

Right, what about the time the drones came to your hive and --

That wasn't a strife, that was hit-and-running-the-hell-away.

What about --

you did defeat the seadweller, you muse, but Aradia had been with you. Together, you were unstoppable.

Alone, you were wiggler bait.

Maybe you could call her -- and you quickly squash that thought out of existence because there's absolutely no reason to put her in danger at all, not when bolts that could blast the shit out of your brains are being tossed around as casually as a grub throwing pebbles. You don't even think twice about skipping over Karkat or Dave. Maybe you're not on the best terms with them, but you genuinely have no desire to see them into putty.

One option left, then.

"HEY!" you yell out, cupping your hands. The murmurs are driven out of your thoughts for a moment. "What the fucking hell? What's your game here?"

Make them attack first. Make them be the offensive.

Predictably, no one answers.

"Did you think I was a fucking wiggler or something?" Gog, you would kill yourself for using some of the basest goading-lines you ripped off from KK's actions movies. You deserve to burn in troll hell. "Did you just run away like a coward?"

No answer -- although the silence is thick, tense. You hover in the air, holding your gaze to an empty spot in the grass. In the corner of your eye the trees rustle a little from the wind.

"Coward," you repeat, twisting your face into a sneer. "Too afraid to go against a lowblood, is that it -- "

The beam that knocks into your bubble nearly whitens out your mind -- pain, hot and slippery, envelopes your wrists, your arms, your torso, locking around your heart -- holy shit you can barely breathe -- your barrier's dissolving into fragments, still entrapping the the energy, any moment from shattering --

You drop your barrier 

and rain fucking armageddon.

Like a storm, you're whirling the fragments -- solidifying into spasming bolts of electrified energy -- like you're caught in a cyclone; the air burns acrid and your eyes leak tears of pain. You hurl them all toward the trees, your psionics blazing along the grass like a trail of fire. 

You need to end this fight quickly.

There's a gasp -- quickly you classify the sound; it doesn't have the metal timbre of an adult, but it sounds familiar to something you've heard before -- and a flurry of cloth that looks -- you squint hard, even as you messily lower yourself to land level, your breath hitching uncontrollably --

purple?

You don't cease in your onslaught; you pour your frustration, your urgency, into the whirlwind, the blows slicing a thousand cuts along the trees and grass. You see the figure's arm raise -- there's the glint of horns, so it must be a troll -- in its hands it's holding what looks like 

a needle?

and a web of silvery-white matrix appears, acting like a net against your shards. Their sudden barrier makes pain jolt in your chest, tugging on your stomach -- you don't have enough trollpower to break down their shield, not if you want enough energy to fly back hiveward.

Fuck, what was their deal?

"Asshole," you shout at him for no reason at all. Your brain feels like it's boiling. "What the fuck is your problem -- "

The pink moonlight slides off the branches at the exact angle --

and you've never seen this troll before, you swear on your life, but you'd recognize the features anywhere. 

It's the seadweller -- or what looks like a shrunken-down, bonier version of the adult troll -- and he's wearing

You don't even have time to blink at his apparel before you see the fins flare out --

You have exactly half a second to throw up a psychic block before the blow crashes into your chest, sending you sprawling a billion feet across the grass, your shades knocked straight from your face. It feels like Karkat's just sickled you in every sinew you possess. You don't even have the strength to scream, although your throat burns with the urge to do so -- the pain is intense, hot coals spreading across your ribs and stomach like molten lava, every muscle around your spine locking up to prevent further agony --

what the shit?

"Shit," you hear him mutter over the cacophony in your head. In your periphery the troll's walking over, keeping a safe radius from your prone body. You're still sparking up insanely, red and blue leaping crazily down your arms, burning the grass around you. You can't turn your head. He's prowling closer to you, that stupid needle glowing ominously bright, and you're trying to move, trying to summon a spark -- come on, you can get up, you've fought an adult troll before c'mon c'mon --

He didn't have some sort of overpowered murder wand on him, dipshit, your subconscious chastens at you.

Fuck, you were really going to die.

You should think of someone. Didn't the stupid stories KK had always had them think of their loved ones -- and you're already thinking of Karkat himself, cooped up on his couch, probably still waiting for you to come back hive with shit to eat. You wonder if he'll finally try to breach the glass wall between you, Troll you first -- not knowing your body would be runny paste by the time he grew worried.

Maybe he'll just start crying; the asshole's always been able to tear up at the drop of a hat, bawling out his life story in painful wheezes. Hell, sometimes he just turns to you and clamps onto you like a leech, except he's soft and hard in the right ways and his hair tickles your chin and his little horns dig into your collarbone, because he's compact. Dense in a way that so many things are barely contained in his frame. He's got enough internal power to light up a city.

Maybe you really should've said sorry. If you knew you were going to live at this moment, you think wryly, you'd probably take it back.

You wonder what he'll tell Aradia.

And then your thoughts shift, lingering on curved horns and glimmering ambience and powdered tablets and so many odd nights under the moons, and your heart squeezes even tighter. 

You really wish you could see her again too. Just hold onto her hand, feel how grimy it is, let her talk on and on about the stars in the sky and the shit she's recently unearthed and all the wonders in between. You should've listened to her lectures all these days ago.

Damn, you're going out like a complete wuss.

...and he still hasn't killed you.

In fact -- in fucking fact -- he's got his back turned to you, what the shit, he's talking to someone? (earpiece/finpiece, maybe?) his footsteps hurried -- and you can't move or think clearly but you can still gogdamn hear snippets of his conversation --

" -- think I hit him a little too hard -- "

" -- no, not dead, fuckin' hell I'm not that glubbin stupid -- "

" -- didn't know any other way, okay? The fucker can actually fly, no one's telling me he's being guarded by a glubbin' PSIONIC!"

At the last word your attacker literally pulls at this ugly-ass scarf around his neck and chomps his teeth on the fringe, like he's about to eat it from frustration. The act would make you laugh if you weren't busily hovering on the threshold. His words float around your mind like marbles in an otherwise empty vessel. Your thoughts are loose; uncollected; you realize you might be passing out soon. Your body's not equipped to deal with this bullshit.

" -- wait for reinforcements? He's not fucking going anywhere, I knocked him up fair and square -- " Pause. "Fine, fine, I'll go swipe the handful a' troops near the stupid ghetto. Go over the plans with them. Just to make you happy." 

He's not actually that stupid -- 

no, really, he's going to leave you here, unattended, alone, without even bothering to tie you up --

You tense up, ready to unleash the biggest zap of your life when he turns his back. To your confusion, he's pacing over your way, his wand faintly lighting up. A lattice of silver descends across your torso, the touch surprisingly harmless.

"Hey," the troll says quietly, crouching down near you. "I know you can still hear me. You're still conscious."

Your vision swims in a blur of colors, but you can barely trace out his features -- it's a young seatroll, closer to your age, wearing plain -- if slightly glinting -- clothes that are partially obscured by the blue-patterned scarf, and the sight of that and a mouthful of sharklike teeth and a pair of glasses that shine solidly white stirs a mix of both incredulity and terror in your stomach; you would've flinched if you still had any control over your muscles.

"You'll probably live from that blow," he continues, his voice wobbling a little on his w's and v's. "And I'm not able to touch you, not while you're still buzzin' and sparkin' like an overheated ship. So consider yourself safe from me."

He leans in closer.

"You put up a good fight," and his voice is condescending, the fucking asshole -- you try to snarl at him that you would've beaten the piss out of his fins on any given day, but you were the one that had to hold back your shit and look where that landed you -- why the fuck is he even doing this, what the fuck are you doin --

"Stay nice and tight for me here," he says, brushing off his -- pinstriped -- pants as he stands. You're glad to notice that his clothes are a little singed. Heavy rings glimmer on his fingers. Royalblood, you think woozily, your brains threatening to dribble out of your ears, and he holds himself with the composure of a graceful statue, all controlled movements and precise motions.

He smiles at you.

The next few moments consist of his footsteps receding away quickly, you slowly melting away into a dark haze, but you can't get the image out of your mind -- of a grin of needle teeth and purple-black tongue and the way it stretched from earfin to earfin, almost obscenely, like his jaw would split if he smiled any wider. 

You didn't know you could be this terrified.

Chapter Text

Minutes.

You have minutes left.

Some timekeeper within you, some hidden clock buried among your organs, steadily ticks out second by second, by the slightest angle the moonlight slants over the land, even as you slip into the realm of the dead again. It overlaps with Alternia instead, your surroundings thrown in sudden swathes of exotic hues.

A thousand voices cram into your mind, trying to tug you in different directions -- you replay the coordinates in your mind again, searing it into every nerve cell you have. 

27º23'26''S, 36º22'14''W.

They hiss and murmur and occasionally scream in rolling waves, and you know you're flying -- well above the gutters, above the cesspool of dark stench and acrid smoke and malicious eyes -- if anyone glanced up at all, they'd see a spectral among the moonbeams, light as a feather.

Quickly, they're telling you, and you let them lead.

Paths flow like tributaries across the ground. The night's cold -- although it could also be from your foray into the otherside realm -- and you let the seconds tick out, your hair whipping across your face and eyes. You fly as wildly as a blind avian. The cyans and purples shimmer intensely, nearly blotting out your grasp on the real world, but you blink through it furiously.

Seconds.

It could be a trap -- but somehow, you know it isn't. You'd wager that even your mysterious contact wouldn't know either. 

It's a precognition thing, you suppose.

You don't muse on the details. A whip is already uncoiling in your hand, smooth and slippery as polished ice, and you're aware of the pair of needles clipped onto your skirt buckle. They're growing more restless now, forming into temporary shapes to flail at you, rush at you with warnings, their mouths stretched in silent screams.

You're getting closer.

Seconds.

Until what, you truly don't know. And you have no wish to find out.

There's no blood on the grass when you reach the spot -- and you know have, because the colors dissolve in a rush like acrylic swirling down a drain -- but all around it is a landscape of destruction. Trees are scarred with burns, the grass scorched and fried brittle, the smell of smoke and something mildly charred suffocating the air. 

A battlefield.

Seconds.

Your fingers quiver as you lift him into the air -- he's long passed out, blood and saliva drooling out of his mouth. You draw your power in a slow ebb, a rising wave, and he feels like a scrap of wood in your tempest.

You're going to kill -

You're going to hold them, pulverize every fucking organ they had into powders, paint Alternia with their blood --

was this what a highblood rage felt like? The urge to destroy, to decimate, to watch cities burn? This intense, hot pressure under your skin, but it's more than sparks -- it's a tidal wave, a tsunami of emotion with every pulse of blood through your vessels, the air shimmering around you, and all you want is flesh in your hands, the visceral urge to tear them limb by limb --

He's unable to move, you realize, noticing a faint glow of silver threaded around his limbs like a noose. His skin flushes dark grey, the yellow bright and wrong, and for the lack of a better word you'd say he's overheating.

You float up -- higher, higher than ever, higher than all those times Sollux warned you -- height, fall, ground and sky are meaningless. You psychically cradle him like you would with a crumbled skull. You hold his beating heart in your metaphorical hands.

Second.

Figures and shadows are already flitting across the grass -- with dim interest, you pinpoint that they come from the direction of the bronzeblood area, but then you notice one of them pacing around furiously -- fins flared out, the same silvery hue surrounding a stick in his hands --

You want to boil him alive.

"Sollux," you whisper, even when someone begins shouting furiously a million feet below. You're high enough that you feel like you can brush clouds. "Sollux, are you okay?"

The only indication that he's alive is the rise and fall of his chest.

Questions, answers, your simmering rage -- you put it all on the back burner now. He's limp in your grasp. You fly and fly and carry him with you, as gently and firmly as one holding a baby bird, the air a frosty chill settling over your skin. You fly until the moons are distant blurs and your hive's in sight, a little away from the rest of the gutter. Carefully you pick apart the traps set around your window -- the classic whip-needle-lash you've got implemented on its sill -- and float him inside.

He doesn't wake when you lower him gently on your sofa.

====

The road to consciousness is long, and hard, but it's his recovery that saves your life.

You wonder what would have happened if you had followed the finned troll -- the one that, quite vaguely, looked like the seadweller you and Sollux had dueled -- and then you remember the horrible, shining burns on Sollux's sin when you had inspected his limbs. If the blow had been an ounce more powerful, you think, his internal organs would've been razed to bloodied ash.

Maybe you could win. Maybe you could lift the troll up. Lift him by his scarf, hang him in midair -- clog over his gills, let him choke on his dying air -- and sometimes you're so close to following your instincts, the spirits murmuring sweet encouragement like honeyed milk

and then Sollux makes this pathetic whimper, curling up a little on the couch -- he hasn't been conscious since you've brought him here -- and your rage dissolves into something mellower all at once.

You can't leave him here alone.

Hours crawl by -- the moons peak over the sky, green and pink softly cutting into your hive. Despite your friendship, Sollux has rarely visited your hive, and he refuses to tell you where he and Karkat lives.

"KK's orders," he had said with an eye roll.

You drag up a stool and began preparing his stay for the day. Your central room is lacking in space, especially when you pushed around some furniture to make a decent clearing for your tablets. On the occasions he does make the journey over, you've always had a space for him in your hive. You drape a horrendous, fuzzy blanket over his form, dribble a few drops of water into his mouth -- he groans a little but his eyes stay closed -- and you pat his hair a little, too aware of how close it had been. 

Whether he would've died or not wasn't the question. 

So close -- so close to being torn out of your life, fading away into another meaningless casualty --

Your fingers accidentally brush one of his smaller horns and he whines, and the last of your anger simmers into cores of helplessness. He's the one passed out and vulnerable on your couch, yet you're the one feeling trapped here, like you can't bear to move elsewhere. He'll disappear if you take your eyes off of him for even a moment. 

You pat his hair again and relish that he's safe with you. 

turntechGodhead [TG] joined memo planz!!!! :D :D :D

EB: i'm just saying i've been talking to her for a good deal of time! i'm pretty sure i can trust her.

TT: What confuses me is still their continuous denial of recognizing each other's existences.

TT: Whenever I ask GA about your AG, they claim to have no connection with this trollhandle. And you've said that this answer is equivalent to the vice-versa situation.

TT: Yet inexplicably, they are both associated with the same coalition.

TT: I have faith in my contact, but we need to have harder evidence on the honesty of their motives.

GG: i mean mine seems pretty nice!

TT: And is that supposed to act as a threshold for something?

GG: just wanted to throw it out there, no need to get snappy >:(

TG: whats goin on

TG: and why the fuck are we doing this over chat were literally within walking distance of each other

TT: Don't feel like moving.

EB: rose, you realize this is all two-way?

EB: they've got absolutely no reason to trust us either.

TT: So we'll be permanently entrapped in this false equilibrium of cooperation until the metaphorical day of fire and brimstone. Fascinating; we will be sitting ducks out here when they come.

TG: wait rose is that why youve still been putting that magic shit on k*a*rkat

TG: give him a fighting chance or something

GG: wait we still cant say his name even after rose renewing it?

TT: It's a precaution.

TG: i dont think his friends give him some secret moniker or anything

EB: huh.

EB: ok, wait, that makes sense.

EB: it's probably really difficult to track through like a bajillion chats on trollian.

EB: but if they're able to break through roxy's firewall on pesterchum, then they'll be able to

EB: uh.

EB: find out a lot of bad shit, i think?

TG: fucking understatement of the year bro

TT: I find it highly unlikely that there are individuals near Roxy's computing caliber.

TT: And if there is such, I surmise that our nubby-horned companion would be the least of our worries if the Empire manages to pull off such an unfeasible feat.

TT: Nonetheless, back to the original tangent: John and Jade, what have your contacts been compromising for?

EB: some concrete evidence that we're actually an ally of his, i guess.

GG: ac told me some of them think were double agents for the empire :/

TG: haha what the hell

TG: dirk would lose his shit over that oh my god i can imagine his face

TT: Dave, have you procured any information from our local neighbors or your contact so far?

TG: i already told you this shit rose

TG: the crazy psychic chick threatened to disembowel me if i touched a hair of his head

TG: her monorail could give less of a fuck on my existence

TG: and somehow i think both of them know about our ecto padres and madres im not even fucking kidding

TG: but i swear my contact's actually fucking insane cant even reach them half the time and i wouldnt touch them with a ten foot pole

EB: what about k*a*rkat himself? does he trust you now?

TG: um

TG: yo this is some really uncomfortable area were edging to you know

GG: dave, were literally going to be having the fight of our lives right at our doorstep if we dont pull this off correctly!

TG: this actually gives off the manipulative bastard vibes fyi

TT: As opposed to him meeting a gruesome end when Ascension Day arrives?

TT: Out of the many potential affliations that would desire a chance for his influence, ours is preferable from our ability to initiate conversation with our associates.

TT: And they have so far not breached any trusts of privacy in our chat discussions -- quite evident by the conspicuous lack of drones around our settlement.

EB: dave we're actually trying to save his life here too!

TG: man this is messed up as fuck

TG: we should really all sit around some table one day and evaluate that were playing puppetmaster on a dudes actual life

TG: geneva convention style

EB: bro, there hasn't been a switzerland for a long time.

EB: ...

GG: ...

TT: Hmm.

GG: can we talk about the plan again?

====

Slowly, ever so slowly, you return to consciousness.

Your surroundings gradually leak into your senses; first to return is your tactile sense, moulding the ragged, soft lump of couch under your back, a warm something draped over your limbs, cocooning you in dusty warmth. The air is around the same temperature as your miniature burrowing; it must be nearing dawn, you think blearily, trying to blink back your sight.

This isn't your hive.

Cold, awful panic seizes up your insides until you smell a particular scent permeating the air -- it's the smell of earth, of petrichor, of worn stones and brilliant smiles. It's so uniquely Aradia, unmistakable for anyone else, and your heart slows to a reassuring thrum. Gently, you lift the blanket off your legs, noting how cramped and sore your muscles are.

"AA?"

You're still in the same clothes you left your hive in; you feel worn but relatively clean, which means you didn't get doused in sopor -- commodity as it is -- but you did get a thorough wipe. Your memories blink fuzzily, fragmented pieces drifting around your brain, trying to pinpoint why you still feel like boiled ass.

"AA? You okay?"

Her hive is soothing enough to be comfortable; it's around the same size as KK and yours -- all mellow peach-beige tones and artifacts littered across twisty hallways. A mass of hair and curling horns peek out from the cooking block's entryway, grey eyes alight with relief when they land on your frame.

"Sollux -- " and then she's wrapping you in this massive hug, and it's the most natural thing in the world to return her hug, curl your arms around shoulders and plant your palms on the small of her back, feeling her solid, strong presence grounding you in her arms. "Do you feel alright? Are you hurting anywhere?"

"Headache," you mutter. "And a fuckton of questions."

She scoots back a little and smiles -- the massive kind that almost cracks her face in two -- before her eyes dart off to the side.

"AA?"

"...huh," she mutters, absentmindedly staring at a space in the wall. You can almost feel the telltale mild chill of a spirit nearby, although it's barely discernible in your hazed state. "Come on, have a meal with me."

It's plain grubloaf and water on the table, but you bite off a massive chunk off the loaf when you realize how bone-deep starving you are. You felt like you haven't eaten for sweeps. You tear through the slice like a shredder through paper, Aradia all the while sipping at her own glass of water. Her expression has simmered down to a quiet, if slightly off-putting contemplation.

"Don't you have questions?"

You've got millions of them -- nonetheless, you attempt to take your sweet time chewing down the bread. She sips some more water.

"Sollux?

"Why am I here?" Her eyebrow raises a little, and you hastily try to amend your question -- "I didn't mean that like an accusation, but I'd usually tell you if I wanted to come over and visit. And if you wanted me to."

"Do you remember what happened?"

You try to remember -- you were walking to the -- wait, why were you walking to the sector...? Food. Food. You need that. You and Karkat need that. You two had a fight. You went when he didn't because of --

someone had saved your life, not just AA --

shit

someone had tried to attack you, and you remember spiraling white light and the cold ground rushing to your body, and how your shields crumpled like wet paper -- a mouthful of teeth, glasses glinting like coins -- and if they'd press down a little harder, if some sadist nerve lit up -- 

you'd be dead. You'd be fucking gone from the planet.

"Sollux!" Aradia cries out, reaching for you, even as you jump straight up from the chair -- your mind's seized in this dumb, electrifying panic -- because words are reeling back to you in concussive flows, sparks popping from your horns, and you're remembering 

he's being guarded by a glubbin psionic

"Karkat," you gasp, and Aradia's eyes widen -- "they're, someone, they're, I'm fucking collateral, they're looking for -- "

"Hey, hey, calm down." Aradia squeezes your shoulder, her fingers shaking a little. "I saw some of your attackers when I retrieved you. Take a deep breath. Relax. What's this about Karkat?"

"Someone's searching for him," you gasp out, trying to control your breathing. "And it's because I've been a paranoid selfish fuck, all those times he went out into the quarter -- listen, AA, he doesn't stand half a stupid chance against killers, he's got his stupid little sickle and a smartmouth foghorn voice and if he gets killed -- if he -- "

"Sollux -- "

"I should've stayed back at hive with him," you say, hearing the words slosh frantically around your brain. "How the fuck do they even -- I encrypted all our comms, there's no way they should be interested in anything about him -- other than that he's hemoanonymous -- and you saved me, thank you, fucking thank you, but they'll know -- they'll -- "

If they knew where you and Karkat lived --

if --

but they didn't, because they made the effort to -- and then the rest of fishdick's words are falling into neat pieces, because he's not trying to kill you, not trying to chew you up into pieces --

he was trying to track --

"SOLLUX!"

You'd recognize the sweep of white energy anywhere, and it's only by Aradia psychically slamming both of you to the ground that you're able to -- possibly -- see another night.

It doesn't outright destroy the hive; and in moments you realize a rust-toned haze filling the room, diluting the worst of the attack into spazzing glimmers, mindlessly filtering into nothing -- besides you, Aradia's eyes mildly gleam silvery and rust, the strange blend of colors throwing shadows across her face.

"AA -- "

"FUCK!" Someone shouts from outside, and suddenly a dozen footsteps are pounding outside the hive door, like a whole squadron trying to fit through one fucking gap -- and you two definitely could take them out, but if they're being backed up by wand-murder-happy psychopath here --

Aradia's smile is almost bitter, but it's there,

The door bursts open, cheap wood splintering at the edges, and 

out of fucking nowhere, a knife swings downward, and the intruding -- troll? -- screams in guttural pain, blue-green blood spiiling across the carpet. There's the tang of wires pulling taut and a whip cracks down, slicing the air itself into perfect halves, and more droplets spray --

"Run," Aradia hisses, and you don't need to be told twice.

Already, you're working in sync -- she's shattering cutlery into splinters, you're hurling them towards the door, the windows -- all of a sudden there's silhouettes everywhere, but Aradia must've laid out at least a fucking hundred traps because the air's rife with needles and knives and whips -- but there's one window untainted, and you're trying to block off the other entryways, shoving furniture toward the doors --

A coil of energy tightens around your throat -- not cutting off your air, exactly -- but its intent is clear. Aradia freezes dead in her tracks.

Holy shit.

"Stop," an unfamiliar voice calls out, and it's clear and blithe, as bright as the growing sunrise. "This is getting ridiculous."

You can't move, not with terrible heat pulsing at your neck -- but Aradia inches forward slowly, her steps silent.

"This is a waste of time and resources," the voice continues, still borderline cheerful. "Both of you, come out. Surrender. And we'll let you live."

Like hell we will, you want to holler back, but then you realize Aradia's almost eye-level with the sill -- a thin, nearly transparent needle floating in her arm, the air around her shimmering ever so slightly --

"Or," the voice says, "we'll crush whoever's throat we're holding."

And Aradia leaps up, streaking the needle out of the window, following the sound of their voice --

there's a surprised gasp from outside, and then the energy around your neck drags you forward, your toes skimming across the floorboards. You and Aradia are literally squashed besides each other at the window, but one of you's the hostage and the other's the holder -- 

You follow the rusty trail of Aradia's psychics to their culprit.

The needle, as thin as a lock of hair, almost gently rests against one of the trolls' neck. The troll besides her is the seadweller that attacked you, still decked in his ridiculous outfit, his wand glowing faintly. Your throat's still caught in his death-lock. His gaze is emotionless as it slides onto yours.

The troll Aradia's got hostage never flinches or moves. She's -- she's the same height and age as the violet seadweller, carrying herself with the same ruthless dignity, a sea of ink-black hair rippling to her legs. Shining horns thrust outward, a heavy dress spilling to her bare feet, bangles and necklaces looping around her wrists and ankles and neck. Wavering, pink-purple fins pulse at the sides of her head.

Seadweller.

And surrounding them are dozens and dozens of trolls -- highblood trolls, you realize, catching glimpses of blue and purple and dark green -- some midbloods thrown in the lot -- no lowbloods.

Nothing lower than emerald. 

And for an ephemeral moment, you four stand at the brink of dawn -- Aradia's needle resting on the female seadweller's neck, the male seadweller's energy tight around yours, the silence heavy and tense as a noose.

Chapter Text

carcinoGeneticist [CG] began trolling apocalypseArisen [AA]

CG: HEY

CG: I'M...KIND OF SURPRISED I DIDN'T THINK TO ASK YOU SOONER.

CG: BUT YOU PROBABLY KNOW WHAT I'M ABOUT TO SAY ANYWAY.

CG: YEAH, HAVE A GOOD LAUGH ABOUT IT, IT'S ABOUT YOUR PAINFULLY OBVIOUS PALEMATE HERE.

CG: HE HASN'T BEEN BACK FOR A WHOLE DAY NOW. I EVEN SENT HIM A FEW MESSAGES -- WHICH WAS THE EPITOME OF UNCOMFORTABLENESS, LET ME FUCKING TELL YOU -- BUT HE HASN'T SAID JACK SHIT BACK.

CG: I KNOW HE CAN'T BREATHE WITHOUT HIS STUPID PALMHUSK; HE DEFINITELY SHOULD'VE SEEN IT. OR HEARD ITS NOTIFICATIONS.

CG: UNLESS HE IGNORED IT OR SOMETHING.

CG: I'M JUST

CG: ...

CG: YEAH, I'M FUCKING WORRIED ABOUT HIM, LET ME THROW AWAY THE LAST OF MY DIGNITY AND STOMP IT WITH A METAL-ARMORED BOOT. FUCK ANY SENSE OF PERSONAL PRIDE RIGHT DOWN THE DRAIN.

CG: DO YOU KNOW WHERE HE IS?

CG: I'M GUESSING HE'S PROBABLY AT YOUR HIVE.

CG: NO, REALLY, THAT'S GREAT TO HEAR THAT HE'S THERE EVEN THOUGH HE WAS SUPPOSED TO PURCHASE SOME SUPPLIES FOR OUR HIVE. AND I REALLY GUESS HE COULD'VE TOLD ME.

CG: HE'D PROBABLY WANT TO STARVE ME TO DEATH.

CG: UH, HAS HE SAID ANYTHING TO YOU LATELY?

CG: ANYTHING ABOUT OUR...

CG: FIGHT.

CG: LET'S JUST CALL IT THAT.

CG: WHICH INVOLVED HIM PRETTY MUCH REMINDING ME THAT I'M DOOMED TO HAVE MY HEAD PARADED ON A STICK BECAUSE OF MY FUCKING PIECE-OF-SHIT SOCIETAL STATUS, OR HOW I CALLED HIM A LIVING INTERNAL HARVESTOR FOR ELECTRICAL SUPPLY?

CG: HE PROBABLY NEEDED A ROULETTE SPINNER TO CHOOSE WHO TO BLAME! IT'LL EITHER BE "KAY KAY" FOR INCONCEIVABLY BEING THE SHITTIEST, MOST DISGUSTING HIVEMATE EVER TO BREATHE ALTERNIA'S FINE DOOZY AIR, OR IT'LL BE "HIMTHELF" FOR HAVING THE COMPLETELY UNREASONABLE TEMERITY TO CRAWL OUT OF THE CAVERNS DURING BIRTH! I'M BEYOND FUCKING HYPED FOR WHAT HE WANTS TO LAY ON.

CG: FUCK, I NEVER MEANT TO CALL HIM A BATTERY.

CG: OR, I MEAN, MAYBE I DID AT THAT TIME, BUT I REALLY NEVER MEANT IT THE WAY IT WAS MEANT.

CG: I'D RATHER DIE THAN LET THE EMPIRE HAVE THEIR FILTHY HANDS ON HIM, OKAY??

CG: WE'VE NEVER GONE THIS LONG WITHOUT TALKING, AND DAVE'S BEEN ADVISING ME TO TRY REACHING OUT -- BUT I'M A GOGDAMN COWARD. I DON'T EVEN KNOW WHERE I'M GETTING THE COURAGE TO TALK TO YOU.

CG: IF HE WAKES UP, CAN YOU TELL HIM...

CG: CAN YOU TELL HIM I'M SORRY?

CG: I DON'T EVEN GIVE A SHIT WHOSE FAULT IT WAS OR WHO SHOULD BE APOLOGIZING! I MISS HIM. I MISS TALKING TO MY BEST FRIEND.

CG: AT LEAST TALK OUT ALL THIS INANITY WE SAID TO EACH OTHER. THAT'S WHAT HE EVEN WANTED IN THE FIRST PLACE.

CG: AND IF HE WANTS TO KEEP HIS SECRETS, HE SHOULD JUST LET ME KNOW NEXT TIME. IT'S NONE OF MY BUSINESS ANYWAY, APPARENTLY.

CG: BUT CAN YOU JUST PLEASE TELL HIM THAT I'M SO FUCKING SORRY FOR SAYING WHAT I SAID? I NEVER WANT TO SEE HIM HURT.

CG: EVER.

CG: I AM WILLING TO KISS THE EMPRESS'S TOES IF YOU JUST PASS ALONG THE MESSAGE. I'LL DO ANYTHING SHORT OF NOT TALKING TO HIM AGAIN.

CG: BUT IF THAT'S WHAT HE REALLY WANTS, I MEAN...

CG: I CAN RESPECT THAT.

CG: I COULD PROBABLY FEEL THE SAME.

CG: AND I KNOW YOU HAVE SOME SORT OF ENDGAME FOR ASCENSION, WHICH HAS THE DEFINITE POSSIBILITY OF OUR BODIES BEING THE HOT TOPIC ON ALTERNIA'S FRESH NEW LOWBLOOD DIET.

CG: I DON'T KNOW IF WHATEVER HE'S WORKING ON WITH YOU HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH THAT. BUT I'M TRUSTING HIM.

CG: HELL, I KIND OF ALMOST TRUST YOU.

CG: IF SOLLUX THINKS YOU'RE DECENT, THEN I'LL BEGRUDGINGLY MARK YOU DOWN FOR THAT HONOUR.

CG: CAN YOU TELL HIM ALL OF THIS?

CG: PLEASE?

CG: I DON'T WANT TO LOSE HIM.

CG: ...

CG: ARADIA, ARE YOU EVEN THERE?

CG: ARADIA?

CG: FUCK, ARE YOU AWAY FROM YOUR HUSKTOP RIGHT NOW? YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME.

CG: IS THERE ANYONE NEAR THE SCREEN AT THIS MOMENT?

CG: I WILL LITERALLY BRAVE CULLING AND DEATH THREATS TO MARCH OVER TO YOUR HIVE IF I HAVE TO. SOLLUX'S TOLD ME THE COORDINATES BEFORE.

CG: I'M NOT SCARED, YOU KNOW.

CG: ...

CG: OKAY, I'VE WAITED NEARLY FIVE MINUTES FOR A RESPONSE, WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON OVER THERE?

CG: IT CLEARLY SHOWS YOU'RE ACTIVE.

CG: AND THAT YOU'VE READ THIS.

CG: UM.

CG: AM I SUPPOSED TO BE SEEING SOMETHING?

apocalypseArisen [AA] ceased trolling carcinoGeneticist [CG]

twinArmageddons [AA] began trolling carcinoGeneticist [CG]

CG: SOLLUX???!

CG: WAIT, SHIT, DID YOU READ THE MESSAGES I SENT YOU?

CG: OR WHAT I TOLD ARADIA?

CG: YOU'RE RIGHT; WE SHOULD'VE TALKED ABOUT THIS INSTEAD OF ME FLIPPING MY SHIT OVER IT. IT'S THE WORST POSSIBLE TIMING TO PICK A FIGHT.

CG: ...

CG: GREAT, SEVERAL MORE MINUTES JUST FLEW BY LIKE NOBODY'S BUSINESS.

CG: WHAT THE HELL, I'M NOT FUCKING KIDDING AROUND.

CG: WHAT THE SHIT IS EVEN GOING ON HERE?

CG: ON THE CHANCE OF SOUNDING LIKE A DESPERATE ASSHOLE: YOU'RE COMING BACK, AREN'T YOU?

twinArmageddons [AA] ceased trolling carcinoGeneticist [CG]

CG: ...

CG: SOLLUX? HELLO?

Already your fingers are burning with the itch to release a hailstorm of words, a cacophony of screamed insults and scathing remarks regarding his trollsculinity and horn size and how Sollux, the twinned-shit nooksucker, can eat your ass if he's just going to dump you here alone in the hive --

and why wouldn't he?

You stare at the blank spaces for a hard, long moment. It's an old trick you two used to play whenever you had to blow off some steam; bait each other with long silences, test who holds out their patience the longest before pirouetting off the fucking handle. You haven't done that in perigees.

He still hasn't responded.

Shit, you really did fuck up that bad.

And worse, if he had been trying to solve the problem of Ascension -- it's like taking everything ever given to you and throwing it back in his face, because you have the inability to process through what things should be spoken out in the air.

You gave him a place to live, an insidious voice whispers in your mind, but you wrestle the thought away.

A deep fear worms into your brain -- what if Sollux was planning to abandon you on Ascension? He and Aradia would have a much higher chance of surviving by themselves without any dead weight dragging them behind.

He wouldn't do that, wouldn't he? He wouldn't use you and live with you and leave you to die.

...right?

So to recap:

you're utterly alone in your hive. 

You're in a nebulous situation about your survival for Ascension.

And the only solution, besides curling up on the couch to stare glassily at the TV, is to wait.

...Fuck.

twinArmageddons [TA] began trolling ca@@%2rci...,/.,no~~!!!Ge**#ne⚬ticist [CG]

twinArmageddons [TA] began trolling ca@^^^^%2rci...,/.,no~~!!!Ge**#ne⚬ticist [CG]

twinArmageddons [TA] began trolling c****%2rci...,/.,no~~!!!Ge**#ne⚬ti⚕︎cist [CG]

twinArmageddons [TA] began trolling USER UNABLE TO BE REACHED

twinArmageddons [TA] ceased trolling USER UNABLE TO BE REACHED

====

turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering carcinoGeneticist [CG]

TG: hey

CG: ...HEY.

CG: HOW'S IT GOING?

TG: nothing much

TG: how are you doing and everything

CG: I'M FINE. I'M PERFECTLY FINE.

CG: THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO REASON FOR ME TO BE WORRIED, OR SICKENED, OR COMPLETELY FUCKING ANXIOUS. NO REASON WHATSOEVER.

CG: I'VE NEVER FELT SO LIGHT AND FREE OF BURDEN BEFORE.

TG: are you two still bitter about the fight

CG: ...THE FUCK?

CG: NO. I MEAN, PROBABLY IN DIFFERENT CIRCUMSTANCES YEAH, BUT THAT'S GENUINELY NOT THE BIGGEST PROBLEM RIGHT NOW.

TG: ookay

TG: cause i was wondering if i could

TG: like

TG: talk to your hivebuddy for a sec

TG: he hasnt been answering my pesters

CG: WHY DO YOU NEED TO TALK TO HIM?

TG: its a sweet sweet surprise karkles

CG: DON'T CALL ME THAT, JEGUS.

CG: I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU COULD ACTUALLY TALK ABOUT WITH A PRICK LIKE HIM, BUT HE ISN'T

CG: ...

TG: ...hes not there?

CG: FUCK.

CG: I MEAN.

CG: TECHNICALLY, IT'S A POSSIBILITY HE MIGHT NOT EXACTLY BE IN PHYSICAL PROXIMITY OF THE HIVE OF THIS MOMENT.

CG: OR FOR THE PAST FEW MOMENTS.CG: OR MAYBE EVEN FOR THE PAST FEW NIGHTS.

CG: BUT WHO KNOWS? IT'S COMPLETELY HYPOTHETICAL HOGWASH. AND I'M NOT SCARED OUT OF MY SHIT FOR HIM, BECAUSE THAT'S A TOTALLY UNREASONABLE RESPONSE TO SOMEONE MISSING THAT'S BEEN LIVING IN MY HIVE FOR A FAIR AMOUNT OF TIME.

TG: how long has he been out

CG: THE HELL I'M TELLING YOU, STRIDER.

TG: karkat look

TG: i

TG: um

TG: do you want to hang out a bit

CG: ...WHAT.

TG: like the little thing we had before on the seaside

TG: but maybe we can go somewhere else less likely to end up as shish kabob

TG: like

TG: theres some stuff i need to tell you

TG: but i also just want to talk to you a little

TG: if thats okay with you

CG: ...

CG: YEAH.

CG: YEAH, OKAY.

====

Something's amiss.

You can't pinpoint it -- as you once again slip your sickle into your belt, tug on your best sweater -- but it makes you pause at the hive entryway, and already you're plunging back into nostalgic lane. The air smells musty. It smells musty and dry and unused, like there should be someone else breathing here, someone else waking up in the recuperacoon with you.

How tired are you? You've slept -- the moons and sun shift and blur in the sky -- but if you did, then you sure as hell don't feel like it. Your bones feel like they've been sewn together with rusty needles. You haven't practiced with your sickle for a while. it sags its weight on your belt, the flat scraping softly against the back of your leg. Your horns pulse dully with exhausted pain, sending tremors down to the bottom of your skull.

Already you're threading your way down the dirt path, and some stupid instinct of yours makees you glimpse down the trail for footprints -- before you remind yourself that Sollux's a psionic, his useless ass takes preference in the stupid art of hovering, and he hasn't been fully out of the hivesquare in perigees and then you just let him go like the stubborn, spoiled wriggler you are --

"FUCK!" you shout suddenly. You're a fucking genius in every way of idiocy possible. You press the heels of your hands hard into your eyes, trying to stem down the sudden pressure in your chest. "Fuck, I -- I'm fucking stupid, of course you don't know anything, you bulgesucking shit -- "

You should've gone with him. 

You should've fucking gone with him.

You mash your teeth together and continue plodding your way down the knoll. It feels like forever since you've been properly out, under the gaping sky and iridescent moons -- but now, at a rosy, almost burnt-out dusk, you're only aware of how small you are. Insignificant. A modicum of dust floating.

Just like the old days, you remind yourself, but back then you had your lusus -- and even when you didn't, you were already settling into a life of solitude, and then you had to meet him and crave companionship like a dying troll for water and then he's gone again, and everything's back to square one, but you can't just be reset and put back in place. You've gotten used to him. You've gotten soft.

Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.

Dave's waiting for you back at your usual meeting place, the small network of roads bending into a loopy spiral. He's wearing some variant of red and white again, and for some reason your heart still jumps at the sight of his stupid shades and his relaxed posture, like he's just woken up. He's currently perched on top of a boulder.

"Hey."

"Karkat," he greets you, not even startled at the sound of your footsteps. "What's up."

It's not like you haven't seen each other for decades, but there's something implicitly weird about this situation. The easy, casual cadence of his voice is gone, and you can feel hints of his native language buzzing through -- it reminds you of something clipped and unsteady, like a drink glass about to teeter from the edge. He's tense. Automatically your eyes flick over to his shoulders, spotting the teltale sight of his sword strapped to his back.

"Hey," you repeat again, because you fly high on the roster of intelligence. "I mean. Y-Yeah. Did you want...to talk to me about something? Or anything?"

He doesn't answer immediately, staring in the vicinity of your toes.

"Dave?"

"Nothing," the human cuts you off suspiciously quickly. "I'm just -- huh. I don't know how to phrase it to you."

"You wanted to ask me something?"

"Well, yeah."

"And it had to be done in person."

"Definitely." He's twisting his hands in his lap, his mouth tight. Normally you wouldn't mind at all of sitting next to him, filling up the other half of the boulder, letting his slender, whiplike frame press into your own. Tonight, however, some deep knot of tension makes you rock back and forth on your toes, hyperaware of how he's breathing -- quick, light, like his heart's overheating -- how he's sitting at the very edge of the stone, poised to --

To do what?

"Karkat," he's saying, and you jerk yourself out of your observations. "are you -- why isn't Captor with you?"

"I told you, I don't have a fucking clue where's he been -- "

"Does he protect you or something?" He cuts you off before you can unleash your tsunami of shitfit at him. "Like, he and his monorail aren't slouches in dealing shit out. I've got firsthand experience. But he's not with you right now?"

"...yes."

"So you're completely alone in your hive."

Something sharp and sour surges in the back of your throat, and you shift your gaze away from Dave's aviators to a clump of brittle grass. "What are you trying to say here?"

"I'm not trying to threaten you," he replies, and you want to yell bullshit at him, the way his body's wound up tighter than a compressed spring, but he's still speaking -- "but you're -- I mean -- wouldn't you want to move somewhere else? Somewhere with more people?"

I can't, you want to scream at him. Use your brain, Strider, anyone sees my blood and I'm fucking cullbait, I'm happy-go-lucky before they even have to draw their cutters out. I'm fucking screwed into the ground. He doesn't know how fucked up you are inside.

He can't know.

"I can't," you say. Your voice sounds like glass shattering into a thousand fragments. "I -- I genuinely can't, Dave, I physically am unwilling to move a fucking square foot away from my hive -- you don't need to worry about me. I can take care of myself."

"Me worrying, huh?" Dave rubs at his face like he's won a marathon for staying awake the longest. "Yeah. That's definitely the main game here. For sure."

"If you're going to be such a wimp about it -- "

He's laughing, you realize, in this high, sharp manner that reminds you of a lamp cracking, or a light fizzing out. He curls in on himself like a bundle of wires, thin and tight and shaking, and it sounds less like mirth and more like he's trying to clear something from his lungs, ripping out pond scum from the depths of his throat. 

"Fuck," he's saying, and then he leaps onto his feet -- and for one terrible, blinding moment you think he's going to cut you in half with his katana -- but he's just raking his hand through his hair, pulling on clumps like he's about to crack into pieces. You're swept by this awful sense of being blind, of being dropped unceremoniously into deepening shadows, and the one constant in your life -- who threw you onto the ground like a sack of trash -- is gone, vanished, maybe even dead. He might be dead. And you would never, ever know until the last traces of your life.

Dave's full-on pacing now. "Karkat -- you -- hell, I don't even know, but you're -- you just came out here to talk, right? 'Cause I asked?"

You frown at his words. "Why the hell else would I come out to see you?"

"ShitfuckingsHIT!" His last syllable rockets up into a hoarse yell, and you're -- strangely, you're not scared. You've never seen Dave angry before, and you wonder what would happen if he truly lost all restraint on his emotions. He would be an absolute demon, you realize, staring at the sharp edge of his sword. He's full of some hazy, omnipotent power crackling along each fiber and thread of nerves, but you're not afraid.

He's not kicking or stamping at the ground, like you would if someone pissed you off. He's standing there, almost completely still, half-turned to you. The moonlight catches the fringes of his clothes.

You're sick of this.

"Can you tell me what's going on?" You don't even sound like yourself. Your voice is almost guttural, rocks colliding to the bottom of a well, your words slurred from exhaustion. "Can any of you fuck just -- for one, miserable second of your life -- tell me what the hell's about to happen?" Every person you know, it seems, has some stupid, fucking stupid bag of daggers posed right at your back, a steaming mass of secrets and subterfuge and you can't even -- not a word is passed to your ear, because you're somehow not worthy of even an iota of information. A fucking grain of it. "Or is that too gogdamn difficult?"

Privacy, some voice chides at you, you numbfuck, you already lost a friend because you couldn't keep your mouth shut. Hold it in.

You suck in a hard, deep breath, ready to reorganize your words, but Dave beats you to it.

"Can't, dude," and it's the same thing Sollux says to you, but now it's amplified -- it's not just one friend pulling the blinds over your eyes, it's also your fri -- cru -- whatever. Someone who still means plenty to you. But he's already moving away, his feet blurs across the ground, and you're left standing there like the greatest moron ever dropped onto the planet.

turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering memo planz!!!! :D :D :D

TG: mission failed you fuckers

TG: i cant do it

TT: Dave...

TG: you know why i even had a chance at it

TG: because he fucking trusts me

TG: he walks straight outta his hive because i asked him to

GG: im sure you asked it friendly enough!

TG: no

TG: no i goddamn didnt

TG: hes ripe for the taking compadres theres no one thats got his fuckin back at this moment

EB: dave, are you saying...?

TG: im not doing it this way

TT: Dave, please don't act rashly.

TG: not gunna

TG: im just going to ask none of you to stop me

turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering memo planz!!!! :D :D :D

EB: rose...

EB: are you able to see what's going to happen?

GG: should we...stop him??

TT: ...

TT: We're going to need a rather drastic change of plans.

====

turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering %%*!83o&**98i3;;;'}}}~~``\\<,

TG: i cant believe i have to find your new account every single goddamn time i want to talk to you

TG: but

TG: anyways

TG: so

TG: remember that plan c we swore we werent going to use

==== 

There's a few things on your checklist for today:

a) don't get killed.

Check. Not a thing you've been concerned about when Sollux was around -- because discriminating someone by blood color in public humiliation is one thing, and definitely still a thing, but on the other hand the summit of stupidity is pissing off a psionic. That's another thing you've checked off, incidentally, and once again you have to resist the urge to mash your face into the keyboard.

b) check supplies

Despite your bemoanings to Aradia, you still have a decent supply of foodstuffs in the pantry. And with Sollux out of the hive, there's technically more that could be endowed to you. Pure statistics.

Benefits of your best friend shimmying out.

c) clean the hive?

Nah. Waste of time.

d) try not to check Sollux's laptop again, because if there's one lesson you've learned it's that sniffing around in someone's private shit has the same effect as desecrating their recuperacoon. You have empirical evidence to back you up.

You fail miserably at the last step.

Then again, your curiosity turns out to be moot -- you slowly fold open his husktop, your heart rattling away crazily, but there's only the B.S.O.D greeting you when you finally muster the courage to fling it wide open.

And the implicit knowledge that sight delivers you -- that he knew you were going to snoop around, succumb to your desire, and maybe a thousand miles away he'd rather destroy the thing first than let you see it -- sinks in your stomach like a satchel of rocks.

And then your palmhusk vibrates -- and the chance that it's Sollux, that it's that lispy nerdfueled asshole messaging you, wanting to talk to you, maybe say sorry...(and a proper one, not whatever silence bullshit he was trying to pull)? you don't care for that, not as much as you want to see that stupid yellow color rippling across the screen again -- that chance rises, dilates, and drops down to the same numerical probability of you being a fuchsiablood.

gallowsCalibrator [GC] began pestering carcinoGeneticist [CG]

GC: H3Y

Chapter Text

You manage not to fling the device into a fucking black hole or something -- how the shit did they even get your...?

CG: WHAT. THE. ACTUAL. HELL.

CG: SHOULD I EVEN BOTHER ASKING WHO YOU ARE? YOU'VE GOT MY HANDLE, WHICH MEANS YOU'VE EITHER SCOURED THROUGH THE DATABASES LIKE A JANITOR ON SPONGE SKATES THROUGH THE HALLWAYS, AND THAT MEANS YOU PRETTY MUCH KNOW EVERY POSSIBLE DETAIL ABOUT ME AND I'M SO FUCKED I COULD IMPLODE MYSELF IN MY OWN ABDOMEN AND COME TO LIFE REBIRTHED ON THIS SHITTY DISCOUNT COUCH I'M SITTING IN.

CG: ANOTHER POSSIBILITY: SOMEONE I KNOW GAVE YOU MY TROLLHANDLE.

CG: WHO GOGDAMN DID IT.

GC: WOW

GC: YOUR3 MUCH MOR3 D1FF3R3NT TH4N I 3XP3CT3D

CG: THE BLOCKING FUNCTION HAS JUST BEEN FUCKING PROMOTED, NOOKLICKER.

GC: W41T!!!!

Your hands are trembling -- when they'd start shaking so fucking hard, your fingernails dragging roughly across the device -- okay. Okay. Stay calm. If they know you, and they're not already threatening you with blackmail or culling, then it's not at the end of the world.

Yet.

GC: YOULL B3 SURPR1S3D BY HOW M4NY TH1NGS 4R3 GO1NG ON, YOU LOUDMOUTH

GC: BUT 1LL B3 G3N3ROUS TO YOU 4ND C1T3 ON3 OF MY SOURC3S

GC: W41T FOR 1T...

GC: ...

GC: ...

GC: ...

GC: NOT T3LL1NG YOU! >;]

CG: NOT FUCKING FUNNY.

GC: SUCH 4 P4RTY POOP3R

CG: I'M NOT. FUCKING. KIDDING AROUND.

CG: I'M ABOUT TO GO INSANE. YOU POSSE OF COMPLETE WACKOS HAVE LITERALLY PERSUADED ME TO JOIN MY LOWBLOODED BRETHEN IN HOPEFULLY DROWNING IN SOPOR SLIME, UNLESS YOU'VE SOMEHOW GOT A BACKUP DRONE IN YOUR SLEEVE.

CG: I WILL FUCKING TRY THE SOPOR THING I MENTIONED ABOVE, YOU KNOW. NOTHING IS FUCKING STOPPING ME.

CG: WHAT'S IN FOR YOU? MY DEAD BODY? MY HIVE? WHAT THE SHIT DO YOU WANT?

GC: 1NT3R3ST1NG

CG: INTERESTING ***WHAT***, YOU BULGEWHIFFER?

GC: 1NT3R3ST1NG 1N TH4T TH3R3 4R3 S3V3R4L OF US TRY1NG TO S4V3 YOUR L1F3 4T TH1S V3RY MOM3NT

CG: FROM WHAT? FUCKING PSYCHOS LIKE YOU?

GC: 4R3 YOU R34LLY PL4Y1NG TH1S M1ND G4M3 R1GHT NOW?

GC: YOU 4R3 GO1NG TO B3 !N T3RR1BL3 TROUBLE SOON

GC: 4ND 1 C4NT G1V3 YOU 4LL TH3 D3T41LS

GC: BUT YOU H4V3 TO TRUST M3

CG: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

CG: WHAT WAS THAT? THAT WAS JUST ME FUCKING PISSING MYSELF IN LAUGHTER BECAUSE YOU'LL PRY ANY ***TRUST*** FROM MY COLD, DEAD HANDS.

GC: 4 POSS1B1L1TY TH4T GROWS 34CH P4SS1NG S3COND, MR CR4BBY!

CG: ARE YOU ACTUALLY FUCKING AROUND WITH ME.

CG: I.

CG: FUCKING.

CG: HATE YOU.

CG: I ACTUALLY FUCKING LOATHE YOU SO MUCH.

GC: S1GHHHHH

GC: 1V3 T4LK3D W1TH YOUR H1V3M4T3 B3FOR3

What.

CG: WHAT.

GC: 1 KNOW WHO YOU 4R3

GC: SO DO3S YOUR H1V3M4T3 4ND H1S LOV3LY FR13ND

GC: 1 TH1NK YOUR3 TH3 ONLY ON3 WHO DO3SNT

CG: BACK THE FUCK UP, WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY HERE?

CG: WHAT ABOUT MY HIVEMATE?

CG: DO YOU KNOW WHERE HE IS? IS HE IN DANGER?

GC: 1 DONT KNOW

GC: BUT YOU W1LL B3 SOON

CG: AND WHY THE FUCK SHOULD I BELIEVE YOU?

GC: WHY DO 1 3V3N H4V3 TO GO THROUGH TH1S CYCL3 4G41N

GC: YOUR BLOOD COLOR

GC: YOUR

GC: FUCK1NG

GC: BLOOD COLOR

GC: 1S TH4T 3NOUGH R34SON FOR YOU?

You're not aware of backing away from your palmhusk until a table edge bumps into your legs. The troll's still typing, more teal rolling onto your screen, and her words are branded in your mind --

Y O U R B L O O D C O L O R

They know. 

They know.

There's only one person in your entire life that knows, and Sollux wouldn't tell a stranger your most dangerous secret...

Wouldn't he?

Wasn't he going to tell Aradia?

Maybe Aradia would've given less a shit. But this troll clearly does -- and they're still talking, and you wonder if you should go back to your palmhusk, tell them it's a complete utter fucking lie, that they're shooting shit blindfolded. Some reflex propels you back to the device, your fingers already wrapping around the cover --

you missed your chance.

If you wanted any deniability at all, you should've shot them down the first chance their words ever were typed. You should've straight-up flung barriers, erected walls, crush down their accusations, demean and villify them until they're a puddle of lies.

Instead -- because you hesitated, you coward -- they know they've struck truth somewhere.

Okay. Okay. Take a deep breath. They're not right outside your hive right now, there's no drones pounding on the doors. It's fine. So far. Completely cool.

They weren't threatening you -- at least, not directly. They were trying to tell you you were in danger. To add credibility, they claimed they spoke with Sollux.

Who is currently missing.

Not fucking suspicious at all.

So much of your personal cache revolves around your hivemate -- he could've given them your name. Your trollhandle. Your blood color. He could've told them exactly where you live, who you interact with, what you do down to a daily minute business --

He wouldn't do that, you repeat to yourself. He wouldn't. You have to trust him on this.

You wouldn't know what to do if he did.

CG: MY HIVEMATE DIDN'T GIVE YOU MY TROLLHANDLE, DID HE.

GC: NOP3

GC: 4ND 1T W4SNT H1S FR13ND 31TH3R

CG: ...

Maybe it's marginally better that it wasn't Sollux, or Aradia. At least they were trolls. At least they knew the implications of blood.

It doesn't make you feel better.

CG: HOW DOES HE KNOW?

GC: HMM?

CG: HOW DID HE KNOW ABOUT MY BLOOD? DID HE TELL YOU THAT?

GC: H3 ONLY G4V3 M3 YOUR TROLLH4NDL3

GC: 4ND 1 C4NT T3LL YOU HOW 1 KNOW 4BOUT YOUR BLOOD

GC: 1TS CL4SS1F13D 1NFORM4T1ON

CG: I...

CG: ...

CG: WHY ARE YOU CONTACTING ME?

GC: TON1GHT YOU WONT B3 S4F3

GC: 1 DONT KNOW WH4TS GO1NG TO H4PP3N

GC: 4ND W1THOUT YOUR FR13ND YOU W1LL B3 3XTR3M3LY VULN3R4BL3!

CG: IS SOMEONE GOING TO ATTACK ME?

GC: TH4TS WH4T 1M WOND3R1NG

CG: AM I SUPPOSED TO BE JUST STAY IN MY HIVE LIKE FRESHLY PICKLED CULLBAIT?

GC: ST4Y TH3R3 UNT1L W3 T3LL YOU OTH3RW1S3

CG: ...

CG: ARE YOU FROM THE EMPIRE?

GC: H4H4H4H4H4H4H4H4

GC: D1D YOU RE4LLY JUST 4SK TH4T QU3ST1ON

CG: I WAS JUST CHECKING; GEEZ. NO NEED TO FLIP YOUR SHIT OVER IT.

GC: YOUR3 PR3C1OUS

GC: YOU WOULD B3 D34D 4LR34DY 1F 1 W4S

GC: K33P YOUR BL4D3 SH4RP

gallowsCalibrator [GC] ceased pestering carcinoGeneticist [CG]

Before she's even signed off you're already off your couch, headed to your room where your favorite sickle hangs. It's ostentatious enough -- some pink-and-green monstrosity sharply curving to a fine point -- but it fits in your hand like a glove. It's the first -- and only -- weapon your lusus ever gave to you.

You wish he was still here.

You suck in a deep breath, trying to organize the thoughts whirling around in your head -- okay. Alright. So if she's lying, then you wasted your time grabbing your sickle and whatever shit you'd like to pack -- somehow you're guessing this is probably a one-way trip -- and it'll be fucking embarrassing to unload them later. And technically -- technically -- if anyone showed up to your front step they'd have no interest in you. You're decked out in drab grey. You haven't Ascended to full maturity yet.

Ascension.

You've always imagined it'd be you and Sollux and Aradia, standing in front of some scrappy space vessel. Her eyes would be pooled with rust-red and the worst of her powers would fizzle and crackle; his eyes would remain the same, his psionics flashier -- and you, with your color condemning every breath you took, you'd be dead without them. You'd be a goner.

And they're not here.

You never felt so lost in your life.

It's been a long-instilled habit of yours to stay as far away as you can from the window; tonight, however, you decide to make an exception. You creep to the sill and watch the moons glow in the sky. If you cock your head the right way -- ignore the dim glimmers of the lowblood quarters, shut out the sight of the sea from your memory -- you can almost pretend your world' peaceful. Beautiful. Undisturbed.

Pipe. Fucking, Dreams.

You wonder what the danger's going to come in the form of -- if it isn't the Empire (and you can't imagine GC giving you an out if there's Imperial Drones hauling on your ass) then it's...you're griping for straws here. Maybe it's some hemophobic highbloods finally deciding to use their single brain cells to eat you alive?

They would've done so already, even if Sollux was here. They would've done so before he even came to live here.

Whoever's about to attack you, they're waiting for something. Waiting for you to do --

To do what?

What could you have possibly done to set off their alarm? There's been nothing incriminating done these past days to --

Wait, fuck.

seadweller incident

the translations

sollux actually leaving the fucking hive for once

when he's still helmsbait

shit

The seadweller, the one Aradia and Sollux completely pummeled to the ground -- did he recognize you? Did he see your face?

Dave was running with you, so he must've seen you affliated with a human.

You push thoughts of Dave out of your head.

He recognized Sollux -- kind of? -- loud and clear. He called him by some other name.

But they were pirates --

So they wouldn't have loyalty to the Empire. Or, at least, not enough of it to send drones after Sollux. If they could even track him down in the databases.

But that doesn't mean they wouldn't have attacked him -- if they knew where to look. We weren't that far from our hive when the three of them fought --

And Sollux goes missing the ONE TIME he steps out of the hive.

You have a cold, sick dread swelling in your stomach.

He might be in the seadweller's hands.

And if he fled to Aradia's hive first, then she would've been taken too. That's why neither are responding to Trollian.

They might be

No, NO, they wouldn't be. They can't be. Only the stupidest troll would cut their throats and dump them in a ditch somewhere; they're still helmsbait. Still useful.

Maybe the seadweller was looking for a replacement.

Horror paralyzes you where you stand.

You're alone here. You're so fucking alone -- and you can't even run to the humans for help, not when Dave fucking Strider hands out your trollhandle like it's Twelfth Perigee's Eve, you can't trust him, you can't gogdamn trust him

or maybe this whole thing is a massive joke; maybe Sollux really just sold you out, and he and Aradia are laughing it off in a pub somewhere

Fuck

I can't

Not the Empire. Not the empire. That's your mantra pounding in your head --

How long do you even have, anyway?

Maybe you should ask.

if they knew they would've told you, you useless fucking freak. You're almost eight sweeps and you still depend on others like some codependent wiggler. You're fucked up. You're fucked up and completely, absolutely, worthless.

"Damnit," you mutter. A chill has crept up your fingers -- it's probably from the temperature dropping outside, you surmise. Nonetheless, your grip on your sickle tightens. You're not bullshitting yourself; if it really was the drones, or some rabid highbloods, you're fucking toast.

All you can hope for, you think, is for someone to save you before they come.

useless.

No one's on your lawnring outside. You press your face closer to the window; it's almost completely dark, but you're not deep enough in shadow for your night-vision to be fully effective. Maybe you should turn off the hive lights while you're at it.

The world plunges into sharper acuity as you flick the switch; your eyes twitch a little in their sockets, adjusting to the steepled shadows, the corners of the living room dark as bruises. The moons glower down at you like eyes. You press your ear to the pane; there's absolutely no sound. Nothing but wind skimming over grass. No footsteps. No voices.

Deep, painful fear rattles in your chest.

Just one lapse of your senses -- it only takes one -- and you'd never see them coming. You could open up your front door and they'd greet you with a blade right through your gut. You'd think it was the wind brushing against the hive, and it's ropes slithering across the ground, ropes to loop you up and tie you up like a pig and haul you to somewhere where you'd never see the surface again -- fuck, what if they wanted to keep you alive -- all they have to do is cut you, just once, and it'll be like your ancestor, the same ancestor with his wrists burned to fucking cinders --

Your sickle clatters onto the floor. In the silence it's inhumanely loud, like a gunshot right next to your ear. You don't even realize you're on your knees until the impact of cold ground shudders up your legs. A terrible, blistering pain gnaws in your stomach, like some monster trying to eat your intestines alive, chewing and tearing each segment of gut into shreds.

"Fuck," you whisper, trying to clamp down your sounds by biting your lip -- your hands are sweaty, plastered against the ground, your fingernails leaving scores on the floorboards. A million drums beat out slow, sonorous concussive rhythms in your skull. The pain twists your spine, your muscles clamping and squeezing around bone, your skin doused in scalding acid --

"Nnnghhhhhh -- shit -- "

There's something screaming in the background -- not you, you realize with relief, not when you're practically biting down on your sleeve to shut yourself up -- no, wait, it's just -- your mind blurs for a fucking solid ten seconds, you can't identify those sounds -- whatever. Whatever the hell ever. It's nothing that amounts to the agony searing through each fiber of your muscles; you wonder if it's what your ancestor felt, having skin scraped off him by inches.

One last tremor of pain rocks through your frame -- and for a moment you'd think you'll really die from it, that it's possible to die from pain, ooze right in a puddle of sick and blood -- there's ten kinds of fluid smearing your face, sweat and tears and Gog knew what else -- you blink, drops flicking from your lashes, and let the world slowly come back to you.

Ping.

Ping.

Ping.

Ping.

Ping.

Someone's been pestering you nonstop for the past minute --

TG: FUCK

TG: KARKAT FUCKING RUN

TG: GET THE FUCK OUT OF YOUR HIVE

Chapter Text

Some instinct throws you forward, and you're already slipping your sickle into your belt -- don't fucking notice how much your hands are shaking -- Dave's words bleed raw and terrifying in the edge of your vision, and the pings rattle off like bullets inside your brain --

Fuck.

What else could you bring along...right. Okay. Husktop. It adds a little more weight than necessary to your bag, but you'd rather not give up your wiggling day gift from --

and before your mind catches up your hands are stuffing the thing deep into the bag's recesses, and then you're stalking over to Sollux's room -- because it's all empty and sour and you miss him, gogdammnit, no matter what the hell's ever going to happen -- and you're scooping up his husktop, all smudged on its sides from how long he grips it, and for a moment you smell unwashed skin and oily hair and stale honey.

If he ever wants his husktop back, he's going to have to meet you face-to-face to do it.

And then thoughts of Sollux abruptly pop out of your mind, because you hear it -- the sound of footsteps, quiet and soft in the grass, like a whip dragged over the dirt. Sibilant, almost. The volume increases slowly, and you've -- 

your heart's practically slamming against your ribs, your hands shaking and sweating and 

oh fuck

There's silhouettes on your lawnring, barely discernible even under the moonlight -- and they're moving like ink spilled across the paper, like liquid trickling down the stream, the way they move up the knoll in motions as graceful as a snake about to strike; it's the kind of movement you'd swallow up on your action films, something unreplicable in your awkward gait or Sollux's spazzed-out manuevering, the way they move like...

like...

Those aren't trolls your age, you realize with cold, sick horror as they trail closer to your front door. 

They're full-blown adults.

Your muscles ache and burn as you twist violently to your hive's back door, all the blood flooding down to your legs -- you're sore all over, like you've been put through your personal meat blender. You can't even recall the last time you've moved so fast; but this time there's no Dave to spirit you away, no Sollux or Aradia to cover your back, no anyone --

you have to 

The night air slaps at you like the blunt edge of a blade; the stars above are dizzyingly clear, cold, cogent eyes pinning you down with pure malice. The grass slicks wet and slippery against your pants. You're half-tumbling, half-sprinting down the knoll, the world blurring into shadows of green and pink and glaucous and silver, your nerves sparking with tension --you have seconds to run. They'll notice the hive's vacant, they'll see your footsteps pressed in the mud --

This is how you're going to end, you think, and you feel some crazy, insane urge to start laughing, keep laughing until you threw up all your guts. There's trolls hot on your heels and your friends maybe even dead and all you can think about is how utterly doomed you are, how you're starting to comprehend what the hell just happened to you, how they'll smear you into the ground without a second thought. You're running desperately, wildly, like an animal pent up only on rage and wasted muscle; you're running off of pure neuron fuel. You won't make it.

You won't make it.

And all because of your blood. That's why there's so many of them and just one of you, sprinting along Alternia's landscape like it'll even save you --

you don't even know where you're headed to. The moons are blurry, trembling in your gaze; you don't think you have the mindset to even navigate back to your hive if you wanted to. There could be hundreds waiting to tear you apart. 

Maybe you shouldn't even try fighting.

TG: just dont slow down okay well save you

TG: goddamnit please dont give up

TG: just run okay

gallowsCalibrator [GC] began trolling carcinoGeneticist [CG]

GC: H34D TO TH3 FOR3ST

GC: DONT LOOK B4CK, OK4Y? DONT GOGD4MN LOOK B4CK

GC: W3LL F1ND YOU

GC: ...

GC: 1 B3L13V3 1N YOU

Teal and red, both begging you to -- to what? Survive? You're not pulling off some grand escape on the night the moons glow like stars, you're meeting your end in some cold, dead forest somewhere, probably tripping over some stupid rock, a culling pitchfork ramming right into your lungs, and then Alternia'll swallow you up and you'll be nothing but decomposed paste and rotting nutrients.

I believe in you.

Dave believed in you. Dave, who wasn't even a troll, who knew more than he ever let on, who accompanied you on a seaside foray and almost kissed you under the moon and fled with you on the most epic of getaways from some mind-fried seadweller, whose friendship came to you in pieces and bits until it coagulated into him pleading for you to stay alive, please, he never ever wanted to see you hurt --

The tealblood believed in you. They've never laid eyes on you, heard you speak, know what you're like, and they don't want to see your blood on the grass. Maybe it's for some unseeing purpose, some endgame you'll never predict, but they're concerned for you. They're rooting for you.

Aradia. She's moulded from vagueness, from ambiguity, she's creepy and eccentric and she tried to kill to protect you. She was willing to take you off-world from a planet that wanted to swallow you alive.

Sollux --

You don't even have to think for him. 

Instead, you remember his thin hand holding yours as the sun rose, hair still frizzled and staticky from his powers, Aradia and Dave retreating into distant specks on the horizon. His hand is slightly cooler than yours, laced tightly with your fingers.

How many are hunting you?

Ten?

Fifty?

Maybe a hundred. Maybe a thousand.

The land is meaningless to you. It's made up of its primal components, just stone and grass and wood and the planet's mouth lapping greedily below -- moisture in the air, moonlight along the leaves, irrelevant to your stride. If you run fast enough the entrapment of moss becomes meaningless. 

Footsteps.

You'll die alone, unknowingly, if you're caught. 

It's easy to break down the world into its independent pieces. All living things pulse with air, with blood, like the way you can pick out scents from a tray of food. You're aware you're out of your fucking mind --

You let your mind go.

Your mind is a universal gift, the way rain falls downward and the sky splits to reveal stars, aimless and effortless as holding your sickle. Everything beats in tandem. Dave's heart beats so different from yours, through so many networks and filaments from coarseness to silk weavings, and Aradia's wrapped in syrupy, sticky sweetness like the deathtraps of nectar, and Sollux's strums like a string freshly struck, life pounding into electrical conductions through every droplet of fluid. 

Temperature is obsolete. You could be chilled to an icicle or melted into viscous puddle -- and it's utterly, utterly obsolete, disposed of, thrown to the gutters. You're out of your skin. Motion is different for you, and you're a compass pointing eight ways -- wind must touch your face for your nerves to flicker to life, but you know those that are at your heels --

It's plain, undiluted hilarity.

And under the pink and green of firmament you shudder to life -- because you've been traipsing around your core for your whole life, condensing your choices into a box mere feet tall -- but when you stretch out your hand, still gripping your sickle, all you see is your own blood, and it shines like polished ruby.

You're perfect when you're like this.

You're perfect when you map out the veins and roads of your blood, of other's blood -- and they burst into the copse, swinging weaponry wildly like it's an afterday party, and there's so many of them, so many -- and casually you sling your bag off into a mess of bushes, adjusting your position ever so slightly.

You can barely breathe when you point your sickle at them.

Grief. 

Your mouth shapes these words with all of your willpower.

You wonder how you look to them -- an adult, because you made it to that phase against all odds, even if it wasn't Ascension Day, you made it to a time marker you thought you'd never lay eyes on. You must look utterly pathetic, barely on adulthood, your bones and muscles still squeezed in a frame a thousand times small. You must look contemptible, facing down the irises of purple eyes as they stare down at you, heartless in their scrutiny.

Grief, you say louder, and maybe they're -- maybe they're seeing how red your eyes are, red like nothing existent, like a warning flag unfurled in the sky for all to see. They've never seen its hue. Your eyes are bright, damning crimson and there's little cuts and slashes along your arms where branches raked them, and to them you're sewn out of red fleshy pieces, to be broken and torn apart like paper. A chew toy.

Bring it on, you say.

You don't wait for their answer. You hear their affirmations anyway, the way their hearts heat up in rocking, stuttering pulses, because --

you must look insane.

The first troll wields an axe, the double-edged kind that would split through your skull like a knife through cheese if she ever connected it evenly to your head. From here on it's almost mechanical; you reach out to her, almost in prayer, like you're about to beg. You can taste her life on the tip of your tongue; it's sharp, acrid, like acid burnt through silver. It's alive.

And when she's a hair's breadth from you, you reach to touch her heart. You run your finger down its clenching, shivering muscle, letting it wilt in your mind, and the axe misses you by a complete metre. You grasp it, holding it like a baby bird, and you barely notice when she --

when she

crumples.

Just like that.

You seal off every aorta, every vein and artery and vessel until her blood's pinched in bubbles, in pockets, until it's not going anywhere at all. You seal it off the same way you used to wipe your countertop when you and Sollux spilled too much food on its surface. It's almost relaxing.

Not enjoyable, just relaxing.

She's an adult. She's nearly two heads taller than you. She's at your feet, her body bent and twisted like a puppet, and you're --

You're shaking; you're shaking hard enough that the blood from your cuts pours like wine, and the world swirls around you in a spectrum of colors -- they're backing away now, even as you crouch in sharp, hot agony that rackets up your spine, even as crimson leaks into the air like fresh sea mist. Loops and loops of vermillion curl to the treetops, spiraling to the stars, pouring out of you in flushed, deep waves. You're a gogdamn beacon for miles if anyone dared to look.

They're fleeing from you. From someone castes and castes lower, someone barely half their height and size. 

You killed someone with the same apathy as cleaning a piece of cloth.

And when the weight of your actions crash down on you, settling into every bone and joint, you're falling onto your knees in a mess of damp leaves -- she's facedown in a puddle of blue-purple blood, spots staining all over your shoes, the ground already bubbling and trying to absorb her skin, her fluids glistening on the tip of your sickle -- sick, paralyzing terror curdles in your stomach, your chest, and all you hear are footsteps tracing closer --

they're here to kill you.

And you'd deserve it.

====

Day something, of arbitrary something, and you'd and AA would start playing Go Fish as silent defiance if it wasn't the off-probability that the fish douche would try to strangle you again. Also, if you had Go Fish cards. You don't and it's not a commodity you'd ask from your besiegers.

Siege.

Never in your life, you think, did you think you'd end up in a situation like this.

This evening you decide to dedicate yourself to troll-watching. The violetblood left a slight imprint of his bizarre energy shit on your skin, encircling the base of your neck like a necklace, and you know for sure that Aradia has a similar deathgrip on the fuchsiablood. It's the only reason you're alive at this moment. You'd be happy to just release your powers and bomb their camp from ten miles away, but Aradia glares at you with such fury that you immediately clam up on the suggestion.

And there's another reason that you aren't considering immediately trying to fry fish-douche from the inside out either.

"Still can't reach him," Aradia mutters as she joins you at the window. All of the trolls outside Aradia's hive, you note interestingly, haven't reached Ascension yet -- and thoughts of Ascension immediately drag you back to your hive, where your own hivemate must be shitting his pants by now.

"Fuck," you mumble back. You can only pray that the firewall you installed around his account stays solid. Even you, extraordinaire hacker and computer expertise, can't do much with just a shitty palmhusk.

"I can try again -- "

"It's not going to work, AA. Not while he's alive." You nod towards Fish Douche, currently leaning against a tree. The wand of his wasn't just adept at stringing you up like a trussed pig; it also had the ability to interfere with electrostatic signals, which included the aforementioned piece-of-shit palmhusk. Even Aradia's husktop can't pull off a signal. 

You watch him and the fuchsiablood convene at the tree. They talk in low buzzes, Fish Douche's eyes widening almost comedically -- before narrowing into dangerous slits. Dread stirs in your stomach

"Sollux?"

You watch him lick his lips like he's receiving a new toy. There's a small smile playing around the fuchsiablood's mouth as well; the casual, psychotic kind you'd deal out right before swallowing someone whole. They disengage and began walking to where you and Aradia stand. Both stand quietly feet below you, gazing up at your faces.

"Did you want something?" Aradia asks, her voice almost cordial.

"For you to remove this nice needle you have at my throat."

"Quid pro quo here." Aradia cocks her head to you. "Look, whatever you're looking for -- by now you definitely know we don't have it, and you're not walking away alive without leaving us untouched. Just let us go."

"Nope."

"Your funeral," Aradia grumbles. Fish Douche, however, continues to stare up at you with an unnerving grin; you never realized how much sharp teeth seadwellers had, and you're not exactly happy to have your headcount verified either.

"Hey." He jabs at you, scarf batting against his forearm. "You. Yellowblood. I need to ask you somethin'."

"Or what, you'll crush my throat?"

"Maybe," he says, and Aradia tenses by your side. "Or maybe, I just want to confirm something. Is all."

"Really."

"You know the name Karkat Vantas?"

Every ounce of blood freezes in you like ice.

"That's the name of your friend, isn't it?" And there's his smile, his fucking smile, terrifying and bleeding even as his eyes glitter at you like black stars.  He tastes the name slowly in his mouth, lolling out the syllables in a lazy, almost wavery, drawl. "Kar -- Kat -- Van -- Tas. It's a nice name, don't you think?"

"What are you fucking trying to say here?" you snarl at him, and you barely feel the cold edge of the windowsill press against your palms. Besides you, Aradia stirs warningly, her hair shifting near her shoulders.

"You're not stupid, pissblood. You know what I'm telling you."

Maybe you can stall this out. Maybe you can -- fuck, you don't even know -- if he's saying what you think he's really saying...if he really --

Fuck, it's going to be all your gogdamn fault if he gets hurt.

"I have the brain cells of a seadweller today," you hiss down at him, taking in some small satisfaction from watching him glare, "so why don't you elaborate a bit? Maybe you'll run out of air by talking."

"Not how my gills work, you stupid -- "

"Hit a nerve somewhere? Bet people back in your home told you to shut the fuck up every time you opened the dental horror of your mouth."

He looks back at you almost blankly, a lazy grin playing around his lips.

Shit. You can feel your bravado shriveling up and dying like a fungus, too aware of how his gaze is lingering on your trembling fingers and the sparks lacing up and down your horns -- how you're lisping to the point of spitting, globs of pale-yellow fleck dissipating into the night. He knows you're trying to call his bluff. He knows you're trying to bait him in, distract him from his motives.

And judging by the growing smugness on his face, it's completely ineffective.

"Do you really want me to prove it?"

Before you can even say no, he rattles it off in as bored of a tone as possible. "He's got bright red blood;"

"Sollux, don't you gogdamn dare -- " and dimly you're aware that it's Aradia grabbing you by your shoulders even as you lunge forward, silvery-red power shuddering through her veins and grappling your wrists, your legs, sparks popping wildly from your horns. All you can see is Karkat hunched down on the floor, crying softly, cradling his hand and holding it to his chest and how you had to hold him all night and whisper to him furiously that you're not going to fucking cull him because he's got weird blood, who the fuck cares, you're his fucking friend and you'd rather die than see him harmed, and you'll stand by your pledge to your culling days even if you've fought and you've lied and he spat on your future and he might be injured now, bleeding in some dark, dank cell because you didn't tell him what he deserved to know, because you're too much of a coward and a paranoid asshole and you can't live with yourself if you hurt him even by accident and you fucked up and already done that -- you fucking waste of space --

"Don't," Aradia whispers, her grip steel on your arms. She's got you in an awkward pseudo-headlock, partially twisting your arm behind your spine, one palm pressing down between your horns, warm fingers clamping on your forehead. "Don't you dare. Don't you dare try to risk your life, ever. We'll be okay. We'll be fucking okay -- "

it's going to be okay

And all around you the room shifts -- blurs -- like a picture trying to readjust, cold bitter rasps sliding across your skin and ruffling your clothes and the walls pulse a faint cyan, and when you look over at Aradia it's only tarnished silver pooling in her irises, rust and grey mixing into this beautiful, horrible image that would be seared in your mind forever, her horns glistering like gossamer spirals, her face calm and hollow.

====

One month, one week, two days before Ascension -- for the first time in your life -- you willingly deprive yourself of your only defenses.

Twenty hours, 12 minutes, 36 seconds into the night you let the dress-and-bangle-happy seadweller press suppressor patches into your neck, the recoil of your psychics being forced back into your bones and blood rendering your knees weak, your breaths weak and fluttery in your lungs. Besides you, Sollux doesn't say a word even when the other seadweller condescendingly pats him on the cheek after patching on the suppressor. 

It's a simple enough deal: come along, or more of Karkat's blood gets spilled on the planet.

You've never seen Sollux move with such alacrity before -- all the fight goes out of him at once, like a punctured balloon, and a doubt nags at you that this might not be the best of ideas -- surely you'd need some proof, some evidence -- but you can't leave him alone in front of highbloods. He'd get himself killed for giving lip. 

Sometimes you curse at your fondness for him.

The sun begins burning low, reds and oranges once again dissolving into blue-purples -- the color of royal blood -- and you'd laugh at the scene a little, point out its inherent irony to Sollux, if you weren't so worried about getting your throat torn apart. Without your powers, your only abilities lie in passable trollhandling of a whip. Which you don't have on you. Sollux is even worse; as a goldblood he should -- on average -- be stronger than you, but you doubt he could lift a chair without passing out.

They've still forgotten one of your abilities, though.

Maybe you can't hurl boulders into the air or puncture their insides with your needles, but as you trudge in straight lines after the seadwellers -- the female in front, the male jabbing the glowing wand at Sollux every now and then -- you permit yourself the smallest of smiles at the ace card you still have up your sleeve. 

Spirits shift before and after you, restless as a nest of cobras.

====

"He's pretty much out cold here -- you can't just drag him along the ground!"

"I'm not lifting him up!"

"Look you can carry the shoulders, I'll just get the legs -- " 

"I'm not getting blood all over my clothes, you idiot! The bag's perfectly fine with me."

There's a sharp smacking sound, and you feel like you've been plugged with drugs -- your senses pulse slowly back into you, blood settling back into its rightful vessels, your brain trying to reorient itself with the direction of gravity --

You must've made a sound, some broken, pained moan spilling from your lips, because the steps halt in their tracks.

"He's awake," one of the voices breathe.

"Yeah no shit, you got a contigency plan if he goes full red tide again? Decides we're like his personal drinking keg?"

"He's not a Rainbow Drinker, Jegus." Someone's dragging you across moist, soft ground. Someone's got their arms looped around your shoulders, thin and bony against your back and chest, and all you can say is --

"Sollux," you murmur, trying to wrap yourself around the troll even tighter. They're too cool, their skin almost chilled, but you can pretend it's him, it's him holding you so close and practically breathing into your hair, his mouth inches from your ear. Your heartbeat pounds sick and wrong in your ears.

"Who the fuck is Sollux?" the voice behind you sneers. "His boyfriend or something?"

You're too tired to even feel fear or disgust.

"Hush," the troll carrying you snaps. The one behind you sighs, and finally they hoist you into a carried position -- your legs feel the briefest relief of not being dragged over solid ground before you feel your muscles straining in your new position. Slowly, painfully, you squeeze open your eyes.

Two sets of eyes stare down at you.

"Holy shit, it's red," the one carrying your shoulder chokes out -- they're female, you realize dully, with a sprawl of black hair cascading past her shoulders. One of her eyes seems to be fragmented into split pupils, both eyes rimmed with dark blue. Her fangs are awfully close to your face. "Jegus, you weren't kidding around in your creepy little prophecies -- "

"They're not creepy," the other one bites out. They're also female; scruffy, choppy hair frame a thin face, emphasized even thinner by the huge pair of curved red shades perched on her nose. Both carry you like you're a sack of food. You stare at the bespectacled one, focusingon the glossy, red sheen of their lenses.

"...Teal," you murmur slowly, your eyes flickering to her sign's color on her shirt.

You should know that color from somewhere.

"Yeah," she whispers, this strange smile breaking across her lips, stretching her mouth to impossible extents. "That's me. I'm the teal one."

"I don't..."

"We're almost there," she murmurs to you, and dimly you're aware that the ground's sloping downward; the cool surface of what appears to be a tunnel curves over your heads. "We're almost there, Karkat, don't worry. They're all waiting for you."

"...who?" you mumble mindlessly, even as the blueblood chuckles behind you.

"You'll see," the tealblood answers, and her voice is almost kind. "I promise you will."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"You wrote this."

"Yes."

"You took precious time out of your life, sat down on a stone somewhere, and wrote this."

"I'll live with the burden," you say, smiling slightly at him. The sun's just at the right angle where it doesn't burn off your skin but instead sheds a pleasant, soft warmth over your horns and hair. You can see Porrim in the distance cleaning the bar of her chainsaw, lips pursed in frustration. The surrounding glade ripples and rustles with mellow life.

In times like these, you concede, Kankri might be on the right track somewhere.

"Meulin?"

You jolt back your attention to the tablets stacked in your lap. Mituna's trying to levitate them into his hands, red and blue sparks frazzling on the edges, but you hold firm onto them. You'll part with them over your dead body. "I like writing his speeches."

"But they're so boring!"

"So is your -- whatever -- " you gesture to the corresponding tablet on his knees, where for the past half an hour he's been scratching in bizarre symbols and numbers like some sort of secret spy code. Out of the four of you, you're the only one that's ever bothered to write down Kankri's sermons. "Besides, no one can even read what you're jotting down! Is it like another language?"

"I don't think so...?" He scratches one of his longer horns. "I don't know, it kind of came to me in a -- uh -- " He pantomimes his hands vaguely. "A dream? Maybe?"

"You dreamed about code."

He rocks back on his heels and scrunches up his face. "No, I didn't randomly dream of some glowy numbers and symbols. It's -- okay," he twists his fingers in frustration, " -- so I was trapped in this dark shadowy room, and I was looking over someone's shoulder, someone was tapping out all this -- " he gestures to his tablet -- "on a screen...and I'm not sure why I wanted to remember it. It felt important."

"Who was this person?"

"That's the weirdest thing," Mituna whispers conspirationally, his double fangs poking out of his lips. "I couldn't see their face, but they had the same horns as me. These double zingers." He rubs at them for emphasis. You groan at the use of his word, and he snickers nasally. "But yeah, they  had these four horns and...that's all I remember seeing of them."

"Did you two talk in your dream?"

"Nah."

You write down him detailing the dream anyway, even if it leaves you more confused than satisfied. You've been on a dream-diary streak lately; yesterday Porrim just confessed to envisioning herself flying through space, dress and all. The mental image had made you spit out your water back into your canteen. Kankri hasn't fessed up anything yet, but you don't expect him to -- knowing him, he's probably drooling over the sight of a thousand trolls being inexplicably liberated and somehow floating in the air. Or something like that.

There's been weirder dreams, for starters.

"What's going on here?" Porrim's finally finished with wiping down her chainsaw and now cups it under one arm, the other smoothing out the folds of her dress. Too many times you and Mituna have heard Kankri throw barbs at the heavy, jade-lined fabric, insisting it was probably more irksome to wear than rags turned inside out. Porrim had swatted him on the head for that. "Are you still doing the dream therapy, Meulin?"

"I'm just recording it for future reading," you reply.

"Right. That's a normal thing to do." Nonetheless, Porrim seats herself -- all graceful and elegant -- before your perch on a boulder, her face brightly illuminated in the shadows. "And Mituna, what are you working on?"

"Socks."

"Your lack of them?"

Mituna wiggles his unnaturally dexterous toes for emphasis. "Yup."

You push at his shoulder. "He's busy trying to decipher some bizarro dream-code that he claims his pseudo-clone gave to him." 

Porrim's eyebrows could almost disappear into her hairline, but she does scoot a bit forward to glimpse at Mituna's writings -- his handwriting is absolutely awful, nothing like your fine, clean strokes, but it's still relatively legible. Porrim takes her sweet time reading over numbers and symbols before her eyes glaze over.

"I give up. I have no clue at what I'm supposed to be looking at."

"Maybe we can ask KK," Mituna suggests.

"And why would you think he'd know?"

"He knows a bunch of stuff he's not supposed to." Mituna's voice drops to a low whisper. "Remember a perigee ago, when we were at the market, and he said he -- uh, I'm not sure -- smelled the bluebloods? Like -- " Mituna makes a rather crass gesture -- "smelled it? What the fuck? How do you smell some crazy different shit?"

"He just has a good eye for it," you finally chip in. The memory is strange; it involved the four of you being jostled by a crowd of greenbloods as you tried to purchase stale produce, and then Kankri had paused in the midst of reaching for grubloaves, his eyes only glimmering the faintest scarlet as he turned his head. It was downright unnerving, the way he had -- casually -- gestured to the square's corner, to the three slim, tall figures leaning against the walls, almost completely consumed by shadow. The departure from the plaza had been swift and punctual.

"Blood has different tastes," Porrim finally says. You internally gag a little.

The three of you fall into amicable silence; with Kankri here, you're naturally submerged into conversation, into spiraling tangents and dense persuasion that lasts for hours, with pretty much him talking circles around the rest of you. He talks about practically everything these days; the hemospectrum, naturally, but also the monarchy hierarchy, the inhumane use of helming, the oppression of jadebloods within jadeblood servitude to the caverns, why inter-galatic warfare isn't sustainable for the adult troll population especially if the Mother Grub's setting out grubs with dysfunctional Ascension dates, the laughsassins' unethical terror policies -- and at this point Mituna pretends to doze, and Porrim hides a polite yawn, and you listen with an open ear.

With him absent, though, you let yourself immerse into the scenery. Already violets and indigos creep into the sky, the sun still flushed with auric, and a cool zephyr wafts at your clothes. It's picturesque, almost. You slide yourself down to slump against the stone, Mituna lazily sprawls over the grass, and Porrim -- never breaking character -- seats herself primly, watching the trees shift and murmur from the breeze.

"Hey -- "

"Jegus FUCKING GOG -- " Mituna lets out a bloodcurdling screech before realizing it's Kankri that's nudging at his leg. "KK, I swear every time I think it's some highblood asshole sneaking up on us -- "

"I literally just nudged you with my toe; think that sounds like a you problem -- "

You sigh and take Kankri's hand before he can continue. Within moments you're leaning on each other, you resting your arms on his shoulders, savoring his warm, concentrated heat that seems to ripple from his shoulders. Even his tattered cloak smells like fresh grass.

"You know Mituna doesn't like jump scares," you admonish him.

Kankri lets out a sigh. "Fine. Mituna, I deeply apologize for scaring your pansy, skinny stick you call a body like that. Look how sorry I am."

"Fu -- " Mituna quiets a little as Porrim draws up to her full height. " -- ughhhhhhfuck you. Seriously."

Porrim lightly swats him on the head. Kankri's smirk is hauntingly tragic in its short lifespan before she swipes him across the horns as well.

"You two give me a hard time believing you're thirteen sweeps old," she grumbles out. "But anyways, Kankri -- what were you up to?"

"I told you I went mediating."

"You couldn't have done it with us nearby?"

"I didn't want to disturb you all," he mumbles. At that, Mituna's annoyance drops into worry, and you feel concern bubbling cold and dreadful in your stomach. You hold him tighter in your arms. Unconsciously, Porrim's hand drifts to her chainsaw.

"What do you mean?"

"I -- " and here he draws in breath, all amusement from his face gone -- "I saw a vision. Of..."

You all wait quietly.

"Bloodshed," he finally murmurs. "There's blood -- of all colors -- everywhere on the ground, and everyone's screaming and it's absolute warfare. No mercy anywhere." He kicks at the grass a little. 

"Of war?" Porrim asks softly.

"Of massacre. But -- " and here he frowns, absentmindedly stroking at your wrist -- "but it's not one I expected to see. Not that it makes it better. But it wasn't your usual troupe of coldbloods hunting down warmbloods."

"Reversed?" Mituna questions.

"I don't know. All I know was that it was -- terrifying, really. Complete, utter pandemonium." Kankri fumbles with his words for a bit. "I saw," he continues, smoothing his lap with his free hand. "I saw symbols in the air. And there were trolls doing things that shouldn't be physically possible, and there -- others as well -- just killing, left and right, " He slumps his head into his hands. 

"I don't know what to think of it," he murmurs. "But I don't think it ended well."

Without thinking, you're wrapping yourself tightly around him -- Porrim sighs, and Mituna makes a choking motion, but you feel him relax his weight into you as he reciprocates your embrace.

"Maybe it's not a real scene," you tell him. "Maybe it's supposed to signify something -- that we're going to win our revolution one day."

"Really, Meulin."

"Really," you say, letting yourself smile weakly. You hate it when his conscious crumbles like this, struggling to maintain a steadfast grip on reality and logistics and hard facts, even when he's about to drown into his own nihilism, and it's times like these that you want to tell him that you would've been culled if he never arrived in your life, that Porrim and Mituna would've been left slaves in their cemented blood statuses, that he's worth more than just some savior or hero -- he's your lover, your leader.

Your friend.

Kankri raises his head a little and gives you a smile -- the kind that's barely there, soft and ephemeral at the corner of his lips -- and you don't have to think twice: you lean in, let your mouths brush each other. Mituna gags in exaggeration and you can hear Porrim's palm smacking into her forehead. Kissing him isn't like electricity or ice or roaring fires; it's a seeping warmth that settles deep in your bones, your heart beating desperately to the bottomless well of pity, the way he's so strong and yet so fragile, this porcelain bird ready to be torn to fragments at the slightest touch -- and yet inside, he's steel and iron.

"It's better than you think," you whisper to him, letting your foreheads rest on each other.

He holds your shoulders gently, his thumbs tracing lazy circles across your collarbones. At this angle of light his eyes are luminous pools, and you feel yourself being lost into them just like the first time you ever saw him -- dragged down into this maelstrom of anger and raw grief and fluttering, trembling hope, the one deviation that staunchly refused to be smothered. And that, you think ruefully, is what makes him glow in your eyes.

====

Daytime finds all of you cooped up in a cave that you've scouted out just hours ago. Outside the heat's already blurring the rocks into hazy outlines, dew and mist vaporized into vibrating streaks of color as the grass curls into dried burgundy blades. Mituna and Porrim have just eaten -- today's catch's bones still littered all over the stone floor, blood drained down to the last drop -- and currently are conversing quietly in the corner, their respective sparks and skin glowing in the shadows. You and Kankri lay huddled on the cot, your head resting against his chest.

"Meulin," he mumbles.

"Hey." Casually you stroke at his horn, feeling its rounded shape heat up under your fingertips. He purrs softly, returning the favor on your right one, letting callused fingers slip into your mane of hair. "You should be sleeping, Kankri."

"They're not," he says with a tired gesture to the other two. He and Mituna had spent the whole morning trying to figure out the code the latter scrawled down, before Kankri had tried to write his own modifications to the tablet -- the code was incomprehensible before, but now it was practically illegible. They had bickered like wrigglers for a good half hour before Porrim threatened to shave them both bald come sundown. 

You shift more comfortably in his arms.

"Hey," you say when you see his eyes still refusing to open. "Hey. Kankri. Is something wrong?"

"No -- "

You frown a little.

"Yeah," he amends, finally cracking one eye open. The slit of crimson visible never ceases to fill you with a heady cloud of happiness. "But can you..."

"Hm?"

"Can you promise not to tell them -- " he tilts his head a little -- "unless you have to? I don't want them to worry about me."

"But I can?" you tease him. He responds by pecking at your mouth.

"I didn't tell you everything I saw in my vision," he says softly.

Some internal alarm is set off in the bowels of your stomach, and this mortifying, sick waves of fear roil through your veins like hot bubbling gas. You don't even notice how hard you're holding him until he lets out a hiss of pain, and you relax your grip.

"Kankri -- "

"I saw you all fighting," he continues on, his voice catching. "Not the whole of you -- everything was moving too fast -- but I see Mituna's sparks and your claws and hair and Porrim's gog-awful chainsaw, and..."

"And?" you prompt, your curiosity morbid and sour in your chest.

He closes his eyes.

"Saw my blood all over the ground," he says, almost sighing, like it's a weight off his chest. "This bright, horrible red -- it's stained everywhere. It's all over the dirt. It's all over their weapons."

He hugs you fiercely, passionately, like you're the only anchor he possesses in this world.

"I'm a dead man," he whispers into your shoulder, and for once you have no words to fill in the silence. You listen to his heart beating -- slowly, sonorously, like a great bell -- pounding in your eardrums, fraught with the knowledge that it'll be stopping -- and if not soon, then inevitably sometime.  

 

 

Chapter Text

"I'm finally glad we're able to meet face-to-face with each other," John's deadpanning as you hurriedly flashstep around the room, scraping through the walls and drawers for all possible weaponry that's even potentially usable. He's lounging a few steps from you, one hand casually tucked in his pants pocket, the other wrapped around the hilt of his absurd hammer. "It's not like we live literally a minute from each other. We're definitely forced to depend on online chat services instead."

"Egbert, I swear -- " Okay, your weapon cache should be fine. Your favorite sword's a little rusty from overuse, but it still makes an acceptable slashing sound when you make a few faux uppercuts. "Alright. Rose -- Jesus, do you know where the hell's Lalonde at -- "

"Here," a voice floats from downstairs. You and John both peek over the landing rail -- in all honesty, your home's probably the size of Dirk's apartment back home, if half of the size had been spliced into some faux second landing. The ground floor's covered in all sorts of shit, from your half-assed sketches to the turntables you built in hyperspace to an array of shitty, shattered swords littered all over the rug. A crooked, wobbly spiral staircase leads up to the second story; it doesn't even span across the ground level completely, so it provides you with a nice, clear view of the messy space you call home at the moment.

You catch Rose's pale hair and Jade's impressive mane of locks emerging as they walk up the steps, and even from your vantage point you can see the biggest fucking gun ever strapped to Harley's back. For once, Rose has ditched the obnoxious orange sari, although you suspect she's hoarded it somewhere in the bag slung across her torso. Slung on a knotted rope belt is a pair of needle-like wands, slender and elegant in their shape, each just barely over a foot long.

"DId none of them see you coming over?" John asks.

"There's nothing they can do about it if they did." Jade unslings her rifle and checks its components -- her hands are a blur as they flit across the trigger, the stock, the action -- dark and heavy and powerful in her hands. "Speaking of which -- Dave, are you sure they're trolls sent from -- "

Rose makes a swift, perfunctory gesture at her throat. All four of you fall silent at once, quickly shuffling and crouching to the walls adjacent the windows.

Slowly -- so goddamn slowly, like you're crawling over hot pins and needles -- you peek your head the barest inch over the sill.

It's still a fucking chore for your vision to adjust to the dark, but your shades do the courtesy for you; your house is on the high point of your four-person neighborhood, and you're able to glimpse down the gentle rolling slope and catch a glimpse of...

"Fuck," you breathe quietly, slumping heavily back down again. "Okay. Okay. I counted at least twenty, and something's tellin' me all of them are fucking grown adults and not any batch of half-assed teenagers we're used to dealing with."

"Twenty trolls?" You have to slap at John's arm for him to pitch down his voice again. "Wait, what the fuck, then how many are at Karkat's hive right now -- "

"I don't know," you whisper. Regret and pain flare up inside your stomach in bitter, hot piercings, driving needles into your lungs, and you imagine Karkat being surrounded by thirty -- forty -- trolls, all ready to cut him up into bloody raw pieces and ship him straight back to the Empress. The mere thought of it makes you want to ram your sword into something. Preferably someone's armored stomach.

"Can't you just contact him again?"

"I did, Harley, I don't know if that's fucking enough." He had seconds after the warning you frantically fired off at him, just moments when both Rose and GC's visions intersected and they told you what they saw -- enemies encircling Karkat's hive, a completely alone Karkat with no fucking overpowered hivemate or psychic backup, no warning of what was coming, utterly helpless and frightened and terrified out of his wits. He's all in GC's hands now. There's nothing you can do here, miles and miles away from his hive, and especially not when scores of trolls are outside your house and watching your every move like a lion marking its prey.

...You don't even know if he's alive now.

You should ask. You should ask GC, ask if they've met up yet -- if GC's stupid, ingenuous, last-minute plan finally amounted to anything -- and you find your fingers tapping hesitantly against your pocket where your phone is situated, because -- because you can't. GC wouldn't even outright say if he's dead, just maybe a sorry, an apology, they tried their best, and you'd fucking crumble. You know you would; you would just collapse on the floor right in front of your friends and stay there until Alternia swallowed you whole. You'd be the last person he ever spoke to physically. 

You wish he had gone with you.

You wish you could've just taken him, like an unruly bag of groceries, but he --

he trusts you too much.

Stupid. So fucking stupid.

"We have to get their base, regardless," Rose says in absence of your response, interrupting your thoughts. "The only reason they haven't attacked us yet is because -- "

"They think we know where Karkat is," John finishes, eyes widening. "They think we can lead them to him."

"But aren't they already after him?"

"Not this group." Jade gestures to the outside. "They don't know what's happening with their pals at Karkat's hive. They don't have people like Rose or Dave's buddy to tell them."

Rose's smile is tremulous.

"But once they do -- " Jade's fingers fidget on the scope of her rifle -- "they'll come after us immediately, since there's no point in leaving us alone -- especially after we've seen them threatening us."

"Wait, wait," and you clamp down the urge to jump indignantly to your feet -- "but I thought we were protected by Dirk's compromise with the Batterwitch, bullshit as it is -- "

"And who the fuck's going to be telling him we're dead meat? The Condesce? He might not even know we're dead until the next time he can reach us!" John's voice borderlines on frenzied panic, his knuckles arrhythmically knocking against the ground. 

" Whoa, okay, Egbert, pipe the hell down -- "

"I don't even get what we're fighting for," John continues, struggling to control his volume. "Yeah, we came a long way here to --do what, exactly? Fight her? Kill her? With just the four of us...? Dave, no offense, but what the hell was your brother thinking? And the cult -- " His mouth flattens in controlled anger. "They've barely said anything, just being completely fucking confusing and not willing to tell us an ounce of important crap! How are we even supposed to reach them reliably, let alone trust them?!"

"Don't blame me, dumbass!" you whisper harshly, anger squeezing your fist around your sword. "Jane was in it too -- hell, all of them were in it, how the fuck am I supposed to know what was ticking in their brain cells?" 

"Yeah, yeah, okay, let's play the blame game because currently we're sitting DUCKS out here -- !"

"HEY, CUT IT OUT!!"

And damn, that's Jade yelling, and both you and John's mouths shut like mousetraps. Guilt flickers in your chest -- it's not the right time to be arguing, no matter how pressing the issue is. You're surprised no troll has barreled through your window yet from the sheer volume of sound. Jade honestly looks like she's about to shoot both of you, and honestly you wouldn't blame her.

"Jade -- "

"John, you speak one more fucking word and I'll blow off your head."

This time John's mouth clamps firmly shut.

"Okay." Jade sucks in a huge breath, her cheeks flushed bright with anger, still holding that scary piece-of-shit gun in her arms. "Okay. Okay. What the actual heck's our game plan."

Rose shoots both of you a look, daring for you to speak.

"We will meet up with the Sufferer's cult," she says slowly, tasting the words in her mouth. "If they are currently trying to safely extract Karkat from his predicament, then we have to gamble that they are willing to provide us assistance as well. It was our action, after all -- " she lightly taps her own shoulder for emphasis -- "that prevented him from being discovered by the Empire for so long. Yet it is no longer safe for us remain here, not when my ability has expired on him."

"But we can't contact GC for help, not if they're helping Karkat at this moment -- "

"AG's out of commission too," John mumbles, even as Jade's glance at him promises swift, vengeful murder. "I would've told you earlier, but I didn't know this is how our plans are boiling down to...but AG and GC are both onto Karkat's business."

You all stare at him.

"You guys seriously believed GC was going to single-handedly pull off a rescue mission and stroll out alive," he finishes flatly. "Against -- oh, I don't know, let me pitch out this guess -- more than a dozen armed trolls?"

Seeing John's been granted the amnesty to speak, you decide to jump into conversation: "So it's either AC or GA left open to us, then."

"Pretty much, yeah." Jade shifts from where she's standing.

"Then which one is it going to be? Or are we roping both of them in -- ?"

"We need to establish a meeting spot with them, then," Jade says, hurriedly pulling out her phone.

"And that's not a thing you guys thought of before you left your houses, I fucking swear -- "

"We were more concerned with our own weaponry," Rose states flatly.

"But it's not gonna goddamn matter if we don't even know where the hell to go!"

"They're not going to risk sending us coordinates," Jade says adamantly, still tapping away at her phone. "Because if it's really the Empress' trolls waiting right outside, like we're supposed to be gift-wrapped bloody pieces delivered straight to her lap, then they're -- she's -- watching our every fucking move. We can't mess up here. We can't." At the last syllable her voice cracks a little, and suddenly you're plunged into the reminder that -- that you're not seasoned soldiers, no matter how much you trained getting here and the abilities that thrum deep under your skin, because you're still goddamn --

not kids.

You're not a kid anymore, and it's Dirk saying that, trying to communicate it to you as clearly as possible through the grainy viewport, his face streaked with blood that isn't his own -- you gotta kill, dude. You're not welcome there.

And whose fucking fault is that -- 

but it's not his, it's not his fucking fault, and so here you are.

Desperate.

John's suggestion, frankly, catches you off-guard.

"They could go and retrieve us."

"Yes, because they would risk any more of their members than necessary to brave a highly-matured adult squadron." Rose's eyebrows almost disappear into her hairline. "John, I thought you'd be a little sharper on your toes."

"I mean, there wouldn't be any risk -- " John struggles with his words, and each syllable's laced with regret as it tumbles from his lips -- "if none of them remain, I mean. Just saying."

"So what, drive them away from here?"

John shakes his head slowly. "You know what I'm trying to hint at, Dave."

You do know.

And it bubbles in you uneasily, because technically you have every right to mow them down, to inflict violence back, because they'd do it to you in a matter of heartbeats. It's not an issue about higher versus lower morality, or even basic ethics, or who has the "right" to do what to who else just because the situation's been forced upon -- it's a military scenario and you'd choose your friends living over them dying on the trolls' blades any day. 

But it doesn't mean you have to be at ease with it.

"Egderp, you're seriously not suggesting what I think you're suggesting."

"I'm fucked up," he mutters, staring down at his hammer. All three of you crowd around him in alarm. "I'm so fucked up. What, you think I want to kill trolls just to save my own skin? But what the hell else are we expecting out of here? There's not going to be diplomacy. There's no compromise we can possibly reach here."

"But if we commence the attack, it invalidates the truce -- "

"The Condesce would break it anyway," you speak slowly, piecing together your thoughts into something adequately coherent. "She's not going to expect us to sit still, so she'll make the first move on Dirk and Roxy and the others back on Earth."

"Then shouldn't we warn them, at least?"

"We don't have time to." You're already sweeping up your sword, letting the light glint sharply off the edge.

You're not ready for this life.

You don't think you ever will be.

But you can't fight fate.

"I've never used my ability to kill someone before," Rose mutters softly.

"Lalonde, you literally hacked out that troll dude's corpse into itty-bitty shreds and then scarecrow stuffed him -- "

"He was trespassing into my house." Rose picks up her needles with trembling hands; you wouldn't even have noticed the faint tremors if you hadn't been cooped up with her for almost a decade of interstellar travel. "We don't know how our capabilities will impact the trolls. We don't know our limits or what we'll even leave behind."

Jade sighs a little, almost sadly. "We have to use them someday, Rose. That's the first and last thing Jake drilled into my head before -- " she makes a flying-away, whoosh gesture.

"I know."

"For the greater good," you hear John whisper. His hands tighten minutely on the handle of his hammer, his knuckles whitening.

All four of you creep to the window again.

It's pure, black night now, heavy shadows draping over every corner and edge of the settlement like a toppled bottle of ink over fresh parchment. It's a terrible choice, really, to attack -- in the middle of the fucking night -- against specifically nocturnal organisms, but you can't afford to wait any longer. You don't have the time available left to you. You're being given handfuls of minutes and seconds and their steadily shortening increments, and they're not expecting you to make the first move -- and that sounds like their loss. Really.

You four weren't the ones in danger here, after all.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Even as someone as stupid as Kyaris knows that the hives aren't fucking empty just because the lights are turned off and he can't actively spot silhouettes moving within, but you still find him encroaching closer and closer to the one that looks like a tower (if a tower was some stumpy, castle-looking structure that gave off the impression it was going to collapse at any moment). He's not even playing the secretive card right; you grab him by his elbow and haul, hard, before his pan gets overrriden to straight-up knock on the door.

"What the fuck are you doing?"

It's like you slapped intelligence back into his head. "I'm -- " he stammers, cyan eyes flicking back and forth between you and the hive's front entrance. "Thought we're supposed to -- I don't know -- go kill them?"

"Kill them," you repeat dumbfoundedly.

"Or drag 'em back to the Capital, I dunno." He taps at his gun nervously. "Look, I don't think I received the commander's order too clearly -- "

"Our job here," you sneer at him in a low voice, shaking him in your grip, "is to beat their fucking shit up until they can't even walk, and then give 'em straight to His Excellency. He'll know what the hell to do with them."

"Like kill them? Then why can't we carry out that job?"

"Jegus, I don't fucking know." You release him, watching him stumble back a few steps in confusion. "But for right now we're staying still on our asses until Squad A comes in with intel about the mutantblood. They're the ones holding the ropes here."

"Whatever, Reyira," he grumbles.

What a fucking tease. Sometimes you wonder if you'll ever enter a blackrom with him -- you get on his nerves enough, he definitely gets on your nerves too many times to count -- but he's also fairly reliable with his weapons when he actually puts his thoughts to it. Maybe you'll prod at him a little after this whole extraction operation's done over. 

The commander, on the other hand, you just straight-up platonically loathe with every fiber of your being. She's currently standing near the stuffed troll corpse at the settlement's fringe, not exactly staring at a specific location. 

"Commander," you say as neutrally as possible.

"Soldier."

You make this quick. "When the fuck are we going to dive in?"

If anyone else mouthed off to her like that -- and to an indigoblood, no less -- she would've vivisected them in seconds. But you're the best with your scimitars here and the worst she can do to you is give you a venemous scowl, which she's currently doing. "We can't just stroll in and blow stuff up, soldier."

"Yeah...I think we can."

"Let me think." She taps her finger on her chin, pretending to gaze off at the moons. "Wait, no, I'm the commander here, and we're under explicit orders not to act until the other group's got the mutantblood's in sight. So shut up and stay down until I say otherwise."

Gog, what an asshole. You're about to open your mouth and say otherwise when the softest of beeps resonate from the commander's pocket. She doesn't hesitate; she's already pulling out her palmhusk, and even you can see the message on her screen --

UNDERWAY

"Shit," the commander mutters, and then, louder, "Hey, you, run off to the east corner and tell them to prepare operati -- "

A sudden cold, high scream tears through the air, and both of you whirl around to find Kyaris crumpling on the ground, cyan blood spurting across the grass. 

What the fuck.

The attack comes from out of nowhere -- one moment you're still trying to absorb in the sight of Kyaris dying on the ground, some innate part of you reaching for him, to tell him it'll be okay -- and the next moment a light flares in the sky with the intensity of the sun, making everyone around you flinch from the sight. There's a distincitve pow-pow-pow! sound, and it's gunfire, cracking across the squadron, but no bullet moves that fast, shimmering and edged with green as it tears through armor and uniforms like paper --

"Commander," you shout, fear gripping your chest, and your scimitars leap in your hands -- "commander, what do we -- "

She collapses face-first at your feet. 

Standing behind her is -- not a troll, and you knew these 'humans' were different species but -- what the actual hell -- it's already moving, their sword stained with indigo and 

cyan

The fucker killed Kyaris. 

Your lips are already baring in a snarl -- you lunge at him, swinging both of your scimitars down in a blow so powerful it'd sever off its arms clean if they connected -- but its blade snaps up to meet yours, sparks flying from the edges. It's fast. Red and white blur as it attacks you from every angle, blade pivoting and twisting under your blows, quick and deadly as it knocks into your face, your chest, your stomach. Already your muscles are straining -- holy damn, it's stepping around you like you're just a fuckin' toy, and for the first time you feel the cold panic of someone about to lose. You can't keep this up, at any rate. You need to call in backup --

A blade erupts from your chest.

It's still standing in front of you, its silhouette wavering, even as someone else walks from behind you -- and it's the same individual, there's fucking two -- no, three, four -- of them, just cluttering your space, and you barely feel your fingers anymore. Your blood drips cold and dark into your uniform. 

The pain will come later, you rationalize, but it's getting harder and harder to breathe. You feel like your lungs are being squashed slowly, pressed under this great weight, and then the being in front of you is swinging its sword at your neck and behind its

shades?

you can see its eyes glowing, like a demonic luminescent lamp --

====

Instinct tells you to grab your moirail and run, but he's already leaping back into the fray -- the main thick of it is surrounded by a handful of the red-clothed human. The clones work like lightning; flickering and striking out with the speed and power of bullets, and at this rate your squadron's going to be decimated if they don't get onto their feet in time.

"Pajker," you whisper in his ear, "Pajker, we're -- we're going to be gogdamn toast if we wander in there. Cover for me, okay?"

"Gotchu."

You're not much of a melee, but your axe relies on pure, raw strength. One hit and it should knock the human's brains out. Briefly you wonder where the three other humans went -- are they still cooped up in their hive, hoping the red one would take care of things -- but there's only five of it, powerful as it is, and there's scores of you --

"MANZER -- !"

You barely have time to reach before a strong gust of wind knocks you ass-over-face, sending you sprawling on the grass. Blades ring and clash in the night. You jump to your feet, frantically scanning the area for your attacker -- 

"DUDE -- " that's still Pajker screaming, and you hear his shots tear close to you, just inches away -- "BEHIND YOU -- "

The gust is strong -- the impact makes you almost collapse a second time, and then someone's swinging at your face with a 

hammer?

You barely dodge it by millimeters. Your muscles lash out in surprise; the head of your axe catches the hammer, but the person is undeterred and pounds away, like it's trying to splinter the damn metal into halves. Each blow makes you feel like your ears are being shredded into pieces. You rush at it and of course it's another fucking human, their pasty skin and weird eye color making your own eyes hurt from dissonance --

Blam -- blam --

Pajker fires away like a hellhound, bullets tearing up the grass and dirt even as you continue to trade blows with the hammer-human. It's not as fast as the red one; you can actually track its motions through the air, but each strike makes your bones shudder from tension. It's hitting harder now, faster, and it's --

it's rising --

Wind's swirling around like some miniature whirlwind, sharp gusts tearing sharply at your face, and it's -- it's levitating, okay, what the fuck, and even Pajker's bullets aren't making through the storm -- it's holding up its hands and to your sick horror the fingers are glowing blue --

"Fuck," you gasp, pain catching up with your reflexes even as you try to stumble away, "Pajker -- PAJKER -- stop, stop fucking firing -- "

It unleashes with a guttural shout.

Bullets fly out with lethal velocity, and you hear screams from your comrades, Pajker's own metal tearing through nerves and spine and flesh, and then you hear --

"...oh."

Your moirail's already falling to the ground, numbly staring at the glaucous blood spilling over his cupped hands, and you're reaching for him, something frigid and heavy rattling inside your heart as he paws weakly for his fallen gun, still trying to fight, still trying to win --

You don't see the hammer at all.

====

You can't do anything about Manzer. You've seen him train before, seen how he whirls around that ugly axe like it's the next best thing, and if he can't even put up a fight against the windy human then your best bet is to...

okay, okay, calm down. There's still more of you than of them and so far you've only counted two on the battlefield -- when did it become a battlefield, it was supposed to be an ambush -- the other two are still unaccounted for. Maybe they don't have the same melee martial capability. 

"Colzek," you whisper, motioning the ceruleanblood over, "we'll take the other two hostages then. Demand them to stand down. We'll explore the hives first."

"Sounds fair," Colzek whispers back.

You quickly rope in Hyashi as well -- she's good with search missions, especially at weeding out annoying little buggers from their nooks and crannies -- and you press yourself to the walls of the hives, the background filled with the sounds of blades clashing and guns firing. The green-tinged bullets came from somewhere, you reason, but you highly doubt they've got sharpshooters trained full-time on the landscape, or else they'd use it more.

"At your ten," Hyashi mutters.

There's a figure crouching on the grass, just submerged in the porch's shadow. It's a human something, idly tracing a shape in the dirt, and you wonder if you stumbled on the runt of the litter. Wouldn't be the first time that happened.

"Get 'em," you hiss at Colzek.

Thing about blueblood psychics is that it's not as flashy or show-off as pissbloods, but it's no less compelling -- within seconds he's got the human silently walking over to you, like a marionette, all jerky and twitching limbs, and in the dim glow you can see them...

the hell?

"Hyashi, what's up with its skin?"

"Hmm?"

"It's all grey." Not grey like your own membrane, but more of an ashen, sooty grey, like the remnants of dying embers. Its eyes are peculiar too -- it's gleaming bright white, like white is spilling from the corneas, and you realize it's got a needle in each hand.

A needle versus the three of you. You'd laugh if it didn't begin shaking, mouth trembling and blunt teeth worrying into its lip -- its hair, as pale-papery-white as the red human, beginning to stir restlessly around its face -- and -- 

"What the fuck," Hyashi says, half-awe, half-dread.

The thing's rising. Not like the way the blue human's levitating, like some external force is buoying up against the power of gravity, but it's rising higher and higher like each matrix and fiber of muscle doesn't give a damn about physics, some inner, fucked-up fuel radiating from its frame in dark, heavy waves. Black-grey coils ripple from its skin, and you swear the temperature plunges around you to a deathly chill.

"Colzek, what the hell are you doing -- "

"I'm not fucking doing anything!" he spits, his eyes straining and bugging as he tries to rein in control, and you know what's going to happen before it does. Your heart pounds slowly, dully, blood sluggishly trying to reconnect with your pan, and you watch Colzek gasp and stutter and fumble --

Blood leaks from his lips, and it's over. He's dead before his body even hits the ground.

"SHIT!" Hyashi's already tugging out her scythe and in one swift, smooth motion she's whirling the blade straight at the human's stomach, hoping to gut it like a fish -- but she's only attacking shadow. Shadows hang everywhere, curling and writhing as it blots out the sky, and from your angle you can't even see the moons.

I'm going to die here.

You've never felt so scared before. Not when you stumbled on your lusus rotting away in the corner of your hive, not when you found Zekdah's broken horn littered all over your porch, not when you knocked down the apartment door along with the drones and the psionic inside damn near throws you out the window before flying away, and you're clinging onto the ruins -- because then and there you knew your odds. You knew your chances. You knew how the outcome was going to unfold.

But here --

it's not there for you to attack, not when the ground rolls and pulses underneath you like a bubbling wave, not when you can still see Colzek sprawled on the ground, his hand curled in a twisted claw -- black light, and those two terms don't make a flicker of gogdamn sense in your head but it's true. You can see your surroundings.

But you're not supposed to.

"Hiyashi -- " your voice catches in your throat; you sound so pathetic, so scared, like you're a fucking wiggler again and listening to Zekdah's screams outside the door as the purplebloods chewed him into pieces. You found the rest of her in the back lawnring later. "Hiyashi, gogdamn it, can you hear me? Where the fuck are you?!"

Something beats inside your skull. It starts off as a soft tap, a gentle reminding, and then -- all at once -- it's accelerating into this sickening, pulsating rhythm like a spiked fist hitting the soft, pulpy flesh of skin, beating it into pulverized fruit. You haven't had daymares over Zekdah for a long time, and yet here you are -- in the middle of an attack -- and all you're hearing is her pleads, her sobs, gradually fading into --

into --

Cold, clammy wetness envelopes around your neck. You can barely see anything now; tears, fat and acidic and burning, drip down your face, and you feel like your innards are going to combust into a thousand fragments. You're being torn from the inside out. Distantly you're aware you're sobbing, your weapon long discarded, and something's being done to you -- ribs snapped like toothpicks, lungs shriveling like decaying fruit -- and agony will come later, but not when you're kneeling, kneeling in your own splash of blood, listening to your heart tick and tock and stutter, and you don't hear its last pulse at all.

====

Wow. Damn. The needle-bearing human -- the one's that currently floating above the roofs, shadows twisting around it like agitated serpents -- it just fucking took out three soldiers at once and it's not slowing down at all. And it's relentless; already it's moving to join the red and blue human, wind battering against the hives and stripping down your kin of all possible shelter. It's going to be a losing battle. The humans not completely unscathed either -- already a few clones litter on the dirt, broken and bleeding, and you've long absorbed in the shock that their blood is the same pulsing, vivid crimson  as the supposed mutantblood -- but there's still a few copies zipping around, their swords covered in so many shades of blood it makes you sick. The grey-skinned human's letting light twist around its fingertips like it's wiggler's play, letting the shadows flicker wrong and distorted along the walls.

You can't go up against them alone.

"Terdai," Gelnin whispers at you, tugging at your sleeve. "Don't even think about it. We don't have a fuck-all chance."

"I'm not going to let them mow down my friends like it's Twelvth Perigee's Eve rave."

"I didn't say that." Gelnin jerks her head to the hive yet untouched from the battle -- a few flare marks streak up its walls, but other than that it remains in passable shape. "I noticed the humans aren't touching on that hive. That must be where the last one is."

"But that's the one that's shooting away -- "

"It won't notice us if we're careful. Come on."

With practiced tread you sneak amongst the ruins. So many bodies are strewn over the ground, the thick, sharp scents of blood filthy and degrading in the air, shades of green and blue liberally dousing the grass. The ground's greedy; bubbling, suctioning, already wrapping its invisible feelers around the corpses, licking away sloppily at their blood. You can't look. You can't. You're afraid you'll cry and break down right there, right now, letting your tears join the earth, and it's only Gelnin at your side that keeps you steady.

"We get the last human, and we'll make 'em pay," she whispers to you. The rawness in her voice sends shivers down your spine.

"Yeah," you whisper back.

Your curiosity about the hive manages to push down your dread, if only for a while. It's not made by the carpenter drones; in fact, it'se rather compact, almost blocklike, with a few curves and rounded edges near the corners. This one is peculiar; it's the second-tallest hive (the tower one was knocked over by the blue human) but its lower half is just a framework of metal and structural components. A single apartment rests on its top. Honestly, it does remind you of the communal hivestems the lowbloods muck up in, although the apartment is probably a bit larger, considering there's only one human living there. The other hives all have their own anomalies; one's just cubelike with slanted roofs, one's flat and wide and has a little miniature creek bubbling through the outer walls, and the one with the now-missing tower is just...plain bizarre.

If you get out of this mess, you swear to pay more attention to the practically-demolished hives.

A single set of stairs winds up to the apartment on the top. For a moment you wonder why the other three aren't guarding it -- especially if the last human's inside -- but a quick glance shows the battlefield still has more of your soldiers up and fighting. Maybe your side can win.

You just have to get up there --

"Hurry up," Gelnin hisses, her horns shining oddly in the light. She nudges at you a little.

"Okay, Jegus, I'm goin'." You're already unstrapping your speargun, Gelnin behind you slipping on her brass knuckles. You must've pilfered the weapon off some dead seadweller; you and Gelnin had wandered amongst the sea ruins, scraping up sea stars and shellfish and drying sand, the sun barely touching the dawn. You walk up and up and up and up and Gelnin follows you mere steps behind, both of your frames tense as taut wire. You'll have to act first, whatever the hell it is you're going to find.

A small door opens up to the apartment within.

There's a single silhouette perched at the windowsill -- the human -- currently glancing over the battlefield with some form of firearm in its hands. It doesn't appear to have noticed the two of you yet. The room's dank and messy, smelling of stale filth, and out of the corner of the eye you can see Gelnin wrinkling her face in distaste. 

Slowly -- so gogdamn slowly -- you aim the speargun at its leg. The blow should cripple it, not instantly-kill, and Gelnin'll have to confiscate the gun --

Bam.

"Terdai," Gelnin mutters, and that's the only warning you get before she topples over face-first into your arms. Turquoise blood pools from her uniform, and you realize that bullets are shredded into her skin, her flesh, turquoise strips of muscle visible under her clothes. She trembles violently in your arms, and all you're registering is that she's dying, even when no one shot at her, and you're so -- fucking -- stupid, you should've watched for her, you should've 

you should've

You don't hesitate.

The gun goes off loudly in your hands. You don't even care if it kills the human; you just know they killed Gelnin, right in front of you, and nothing aches in you more than seeing their corpse join her onto the floor. The spear's gone in a blur, the human slightly turning around, not even surprised -- 

thwack

Something sharp and cold pierces deep into your back, puncturing through flesh and spine and bone, and you feel the sharpened tip ripping its way to the front of your abdomen.

Your own spear.

It's serrated at the edges, peeling away at your organs in the most painful way possible, and all you can see is your azure blood streaming down in bubbling trickles on the ground. Your limbs are shaking like you've been electrified. The human still stands at the window, occasionally firing a bout of bullets, and with a spike of horror you realize how it managed to get both of you --

the bullets fly and disappear in a burst of green tendrils --

it's teleporting them. It's redirecting the bullets all over the battlefield with ease, scarring your comrades with stray bullets through the eyes, through the skulls, like it's playing a simple game of grubchess. Moving the pieces around like it's nothing.

Your fingers scrabble uselessly at your wound -- you've inhaled enough sopor before the battle to dull the sensations of pain, but you can feel the cold beginnings crawl up your nerves and into your mind. The air's freezing around you. Ice is sealing you up, oozing inch by inch over your skin, suffocating you. Strangling you.

The whole time, the human never turns around, and from your position you can see its eyes shining a little like polished mirrors.

It's just a game to them.

And you, for a lack of a better term, had utterly lost.

====

"Jesus Christ -- "

"Okay, wait, stop, I think -- "

"Holy fuck that's a lot of blood, what the hell did you do to them?"

"I -- "

And then it comes at you all at once.

You collapse almost-dramatically, like you're in a shitty romcom film, except there's nothing glamorous or surreal about it because it's real. You're kneeling in this huge, unsightly puddle of blood and torn flesh and there's just -- there's stuff everywhere, visceral and organic and bloated with blood and you never wanted to see it, ever, horns broken and bones splintered and puply, mashed organs -- it smells, the air's fucking saturated with it, and you have so much gunk on your clothes you can't even determine the fabric's original color.

"Dave, breathe."

Just like that, your mind reassembles.

Lucidity rushes into you like a tsunami. Your sword's heavy in your hands; your sword, the one you just killed...you don't even know. Tens? Dozens? Hundreds?

You've killed.

It's not an entirely foreign concept. You came here with a weapon in your hands, and even with what Karkat's hatchmate's friend said you still have glimpsed what Alternia's like. It's centered around power. Might. Martial ability.

Violence.

You see the bodies crumpled all around you, and you know you'll be having nightmares of this scene for the rest of your life.

"Fuck," you whisper, and you realize slowly your sword's still embedded in a corpse. Indigo blood drenches it all the way to the hilt. You never meant to kill --

you fucking, filthy liar, of course you did. You're a murderer.

And here that's the only way to survive.

Footsteps are surrounding you. It's John kneeling before you, his whole attire soaked in blood, and you think you see bits of brain and bone smeared all over his hammer's face. Then it's Jade crouching too, the hem of her dress splattered in green-blue hues, her face smeared with the same fluid, and Rose --

She's back to normal.

All of you are back to normal.

"We just went full murder mode, huh," Jade mutters. 

You flex your hand and let it curl into a fist. You doubt you can even use your ability after this -- letting yourself fragment into millions and millions of branches, cutting off your threads in a split-second decision. John probably can't even conjure up the lightest tap of winds. Rose won't be levitating and going full-psycho on anyone. Jade probably can't teleport a speck of dust five inches. If another squadron of trolls showed up, this time -- truly -- you'll all be slaughtered before you can even blink.

But there's no threat left alive to you.

"We can't stay here," Rose finally says. "We bought ourselves time, but soon she'll send even more after us. And I highly doubt we'll be able to -- " she trails off, her voice wavering.

Do 'that' again. The words are unspoken, but you can see her meaning as she gazes around the carnage.

You four did all that singlehandedly.

That's why Dirk thinks we have a chance against this place. He knew what kind of...

monsters --  and you flinch from the word, but that's what you all are, isn't it --

we are.

Both Rose and Jade have their phones out now; by some sheer, goddamn miracle they didn't fall out their pockets and smash into a thousand pieces during the battle. You and John scoot closer to them, trying to read what they're typing. Their fingers smear trails of blood on the screen

AC: :33 < i don't believe you

AC: :33 < youve never b33n clear with us on any of your plans, and theres no pawsible way you managed to kill

AC: :33 < ...

GG: im not sure how much trolls were there

GG: but im not lying

 

 

GA: I Dont Believe You

TT: I'm not too familiar with the issue here.

TT: You've secured him by now, haven't you?

GA: ...

GA: Yes

TT: Then I don't see the problem.

TT: We'll need your guidance if you want us to join you. We'll be at 27º32'22" S, 5º41'44" W.

TT: Don't take your time.

GA: I

GA: ...

GA: Alright

GA: We Will Be There

Chapter Text

TA: man JEGU2 CHRII2T ii2 he annoyiing.

TA: liike, everytiime ii even try two glance out2iide ii ju2t 2ee hiim 2truttiing around liike 2ome gloriifiied peacock.

TA: he'2 2o confiident we won't blow up thii2 place along wiith hiim.

TA: AA doe2n't want u2 two, though.

TA: ii mean, ii would.

TA: they're huntiing for you too.

TA: ii....

TA: ii hope you're okay riight now.

TA: ii'm goiing two be a22umiing you're 2tiill aliive, at any poiint.

TA: iif you 2croll up you'll probably 2ee the biig heap of 2hiitty 2orriie2 ii me22aged you.

TA: not that iit'2 goiing two reach you.

TA: 2tupiid fii2h priick and hii2 2tupiid fuch2iia friiend.

TA: yup, we're iin the honored po2iitiion of haviing our a22e2 2ought out by 2EADWELLER2 THEM2ELVE2.

TA: fuck.

TA: ....

TA: okay, what the fuck, they're driiftiing clo2er to u2.

TA: probably goiing two 2piit out 2ome vague death threat2 agaiin iif we don't 2urrender.

TA: what the fuck ever.

TA: 2o.

TA: uh.

TA: dunno what ii wa2 tryiing to 2ay here.

TA: ju2t....

TA: hope you're okay, dude

TA: AA 2end2 her regard2 too.

TA: gotta go.

twinArmageddons [TA] has ceased trolling c#$$^7ffghG()+3355

twinArmageddons [TA] has began trolling c#$$^7ffghG()+3355

TA: love you.

twinArmageddons [TA] has ceased trolling c#$$^7ffghG()+3355

"They're not sleepin'," your moirail says besides you.

It's Night Two of an endless march, one where you decide to take the side land routes towards the sea instead of the subgrub's main ones. Guerilla warfare is certainly admirable, but you don't fancy having your troops and your catch being picked off upon by lowblood -- no, sorry, warmblood -- snipers. Currently, however, the sun's began to rise, and you've all settled up camp in the ruins of an ochreblood hive. You've been staring at its architecture for hours, noting its disparity with you and Eridan's hives underwater. It's smaller, for one, cramped and condensed into barely breathable space, and the remnants of its walls slope inward almost claustrophobically. 

"Which one?"

"Hm?"

"Which one's not."

"Er -- " Eridan makes a thumbing gesture, casually poking his finger towards the curly-horned troll. The rustblood. Both of the -- moirails? what else could they be -- are hunched in the corner, the goldblooded one slumped on the ground, the rustblood curled up besides him. You should probably learn their names, anyhow, if you're going to reel them in to your side of the story.

"Why isn't she sleeping?"

"Probably thinks we're gonna cut one of their throats or somethin'." Eridan's actually 'probably' thinking of that, you think glumly. Curbing your own moirail's murdeous urges is an activity that's just naturally ingrained into your life. 

"No."

"No what?"

"Don't you dare, Eridan."

"Just one a them -- "

"No."

He rolls his eyes at you. You continue to stare at the rustblood -- by all appearances she's relaxed, vulnerable, the suppressor patch planted stark and sickly against her neck. The fact that she's watching you through one eyelid somehow makes you want to lean in a little closer, see how much a threat you can pose until she gives up the facade entirely. Still, you're not a natural sadist: you'll root her out the simple way.

"Rustblood," you tell her, observing her body for any twitches. To her credit, she doesn't even move a millimeter. "Rustblood, I'm going to cull your moirail if you keep pretending to sleep."

Faster than you can blink she's sitting upright, her hands already curled into fists, but her viciousness quickly stalls out at the sight of Eridan resting a hand on his rifle, you gently rubbing away at a trident prong. 

Checkmate.

"Nice snooze you're having, yes?"

"He's not my moirail," the rustblood spits out. Even with the suppressor you can detect a ripple in the air, something sharp and cold and beautiful stirring the ruins all around you like a string plucked. You remember how she held a needle to your throat, how she crackled with silvery-rust power like a storm about to unleash its full fury.

Really, these two are two of their kind.

"Don't care." You gesture her over. "Don't wake him up. We've got somefin to talk to you about."

She shuffles over slowly. She's nearing Ascension, you realize blearily, the tinges of rust already visibly seeping into her irises. Around you and Eridan's age, then. Perfect. It's definitely easier to explain this mess to her if you're on an equal playing field.

"Did you want something?" she asks, completely afraid that she's within poking distance if you felt the urge. Which you don't, you guess, and maybe she's picked up on that, because she's falling back into the apathetic/flat/emotionless getup she's got going. From your angle here you can't even tell if she's wholeheartedly listening to you.

"Just wanted to talk a bit."

"And you can't do that while both of us are awake, apparently."

"He'll fill in the missing blanks for your friend," you say, tilting your head towards your moirail. "But no, I don't want two of you bearing down on me at the same time, that's exhausting. I just want to, you know -- " you gesture your surroundings with a flick of your hand -- "help you understand the environment a little. See what we're trying to get at."

The rustblood stares at you blankly.

"You realize," she says quietly, "that we're only coming along because we're hostages."

You wrinkle your face at that. "That's not the situation I'd wanna keep you in, per say. I don't want to flush flotsam potential down the glubbing drain."

"So you want to use us as your psychic living weapons." Her eyes seem to burn into you, and the intensity makes you flinch a little. "What, am I not wrong? You're going to aim us at some brownblood dwelling, tell us to burn its shit down, if we don't you'll kill Karkat and all -- and why the hell are you even interested in him?"

Does she not know about...? You look at her curiously, but it's still the same, impenetrable cold aggression that radiates around her like a stone wall. She's not Karkat's hivemate, at any rate; that dubious honor is currently taken up by the goldblood passed out cold. Still, if she doesn't have an answer to her own question, there's no reason you have to provide her with one. Yet.

"No reason," you reply instead, smooth as sea foam. "But as to your other clam -- no, you're not here as weapons. You don't think we've already got our own set of power-lifters glubbing around? I'd rather not have a weapon than one that's liable to turn on me the moment they've got that chance."

"Yeah, so these patches must be for decoration." She points at her own; you can see its edges are rubbed raw from the unseen amount of times she's tried tearing it off. "Why don't you just let us go, if we don't have any use to you?"

"When the shell did I say that?"

"Don't give a fuck. Seriously, then -- why are you keeping us around?"

You're warmbloods, you want to say. You're powerful as hell. If I don't get ahold of you first, some other group will, and then I've lost all the advantages I have. This sort of good shit doesn't just fall into your lap on a daily basis, and you're determined to hold onto the chance for as long as you can. "Reasons," you simply respond, like it's the universal answer to everything. 

She raises an eyebrow.

"I was trying to get some sleep, you know."

"You were faking it."

"Semantics." She jerks her chin over to where her not-moirail lies. "Can I leave now? Or do I need some special permission, your highness?"

Shock stiffens your spine -- you weren't sure if she knew who you were or not, but you expected she hadn't, based on how she treated you when you were her temporary hostage -- if she knew, she would've realized how valuable you were, how much power -- at the moment -- she wielded --

annnd your silence is stretching a little long here. The rustblood's brows furrow, like she's trying to mentally solve a problem, and you shift your gaze to the ground instead.

"Shore. Go ahead." Never let it be said that you weren't bursting with compassion for trolls lower on the spectrum than you. She gives you one last weird look, like she's somehow got you all figured out from fin to feet, and then shuffles back to the goldblood's side.

You watch her relax into a neutral atmosphere, and then realize you forgot to ask for her name.

Again.

Whoops.

====

Consciousness is a long time in coming. Your senses flicker bit by bit back into your body -- you register touch first, the feeling of something -- not hard, exactly, not like you're lying on pure stone -- but it's not all feathers and pillows either. Whatever it is you're supine on, its fabric pricks a little at your elbows and neck, but mostly it feels like roughened down. Sort of like the carpet you've got back in your hive.

Smell, then; nothing remarkable. It's not the metallic scents of blood, not the sharp, raw edge of foliage and copses blanketing you. You feel vulnerable like this, barely able to discern your surroundings. A rush of something pulses in your eardrums like the sound of running water, and it takes you several long seconds to process it as people talking.

"Jegus, I thought you said he'd be awake!"

"I swore he was; I saw his eyelids twitch -- "

"He could just be dreaming."

"The hell would he be dreaming about? Look," and then something sharp prods into your arm, and your muscles reflexively twitch -- "see, I told you!"

You open your eyes.

Immediately you want to shut them again -- the action already has your head pounding, your brain struggling to comprehend the blur of colors and faces leaning over you, trying to pinpoint your location relative to others -- but before you can pretend you're unconscious again, something pokes you on the cheek. Hard.

Damn it.

"He's awake!" someone yells, their voice shrill and piercing, and all the liquids inside your head feel like they vibrate from sheer volume. The world above swirls and mixes and makes you suspended upside-down. "Okay, no -- hey, hands off, don't get so fucking close to him -- he's still delicate! We don't even know if he can hear us!" Someone shuffles something, and there's quiet, tense voices bouncing around the room, and the shrill voice is firing off again -- "yeah, yeah, now get out -- I'll take care of him, Jegus, know some privacy for once -- "

You cough.

Your vision begins sharpening. A silhouette wavers in front of you, passing in and out of focus, but you lock onto the red, glassy shades --

"You," you croak, remembering her hands grasped under your legs, her words pounding in your head.

"Me," she agrees. There's none of the solemnness she previously had while carrying you; instead, she's practically gleeful, a razor-sharp smile contorting her face to exaggerated degrees. With more light in the 

room? cavern?

you're able to get a better look at her. Still the same thin face, the teal sign still stamped on her shirt -- conical horns emerging from scruffy hair. Still a wiggler.

The smile keeps drawing you back, though. It's a smile of someone that swallows a dozen knives and looks fucking proud of it.

"I -- " the decision to sit up ranks highly among your worst so far, because pain races up your spine and flares into every limb like an electrical socket. You resign to letting yourself slump down again. Your hands and feet feel rubbery, like it's lost all of its bone density, and clamminess dews uncomfortably across your skin. Your breathing is deep and slow in your ears. "I don't -- what -- "

"Woah, woah, chill down," and her hands are cupping your jaw, the touch surprisingly light. Her fingers part your lips and then water's pouring over your tongue, the sudden flow making you choke. She lets up on the water, waiting until you coughed out the last of the drops, and then trickles a steadier, more manageable amount. You didn't realize it until she gave you water but you're beyond dehydrated. Your lips are as cracked and parched as sandpaper.

"Feeling better?"

"Yeah," you whisper, hating how your voice catches in your throat. There must've been other trolls around, witnessing how weak you are, all unmoving and defenseless, curled up like a newborn grub. You try to move again, but the tealblood's hand clamps down firmly on your shoulder, keeping you down.

"You're not in great shape, pal," she says, not letting up even as you uselessly struggle against her grip, "so stay down until I say otherwise."

"Where -- " a billion questions pulse in your mind, making your skull throb, but you can't place one on your tongue just yet. "Where am I?"

She doesn't answer you right away. From your limited vantage point you try to absorb in the surroundings -- it looks like normal, concrete walls, although the ceiling is far higher than a typical room. Almost twice as tall. You spot weapons hanging on the walls -- a cutlass, a shortsword, some kind of lance -- all grey and lacking any indication of hemocaste. There's no visible windows. You could've been unconscious for hours or days or a full damn week, and you'd have no way of telling.

"What do you remember?"

Memories slowly trickle into your brain like filtered sewage.

You remember running, that's for starters. You remember tearing across Alternia like you're about to plummet head-first, the stars and moons above crunching into sickening spirals. You remember teal and red flaring across your screen, you remember ripping and cracking into adulthood like an egg shattered and stomped upon. You're an adult. You're a fucking adult. You're the same height and you have the same horns and now your eyes are damning red, like Dave's red --

Dave

Him. Him and the teal troll in front of you. Both were in -- what? Cooperation? Collusion? One tearing out orders to you like eating through jagged paper and the other one being your...

friend

More than a friend, your brain subconsciously corrects you, making you both wince and flush at the feeling. 

...he was working behind my back.

So did Sollux. So did Aradia. And you didn't give up on them either.

All of them tried to save you, too. GIve them a little credit.

You clench your jaw tightly.

...I'll give them credit if I see them face-to-face again. You have to. You don't know where they are, you don't know if they know where you are, and you have to hope they're alive. That they're safe.

But for now, you have to deal with your current predicament. 

"...I remember you," you say slowly, watching her face for any reaction. The grin's gone; in its place is a stone-like blankness, rivaling Dave in its stoicism, and she's lightly resting on the balls of her feet. 

"Oh?"

"You said you knew my blood color."

"I did, huh." She doesn't move a muscle at all, just keeps staring at you with those creepy glasses, and you'll be damned if you're the first to break away your stare. 

"So why -- " you struggle for words, wresting around your brain to milk every possible detail that's stockpiled over the past weeks. She's the one that talked to Sollux. And if Sollux didn't tell her your situation, yet still continued to communicate with her --

The translations. You feel every nerve in your mind short-circuit.

Fuck.

That's the spitting reason why Sollux never told you of her, either -- not if it had any shit to do with what's apparently his dead-ass ancestor and your dead ancestor and...Gog, there was so much crap to keep track of, but you've only glimpsed a fraction of it and you can't go off of any conclusions on that, not unless you have more of those texts --

"What's your name?" you ask the troll, as calmly as humanely possible.

"Why?"

"What do you mean, why -- what the hell do you want me to call you? Tealblood? Deranged eyewear? I need to -- I need to look for something -- " and this time you do manage to sit yourself up, even if it feels like psionics wrenched your spine every way. You're already trying to stand, black spots blooming across your vision like spreading ink puddles, and the pain in your muscles flare and then dull into a steady throbbing. You'll face hell in a few hours, you're sure.

"Woah, hey, sit the hell back down."

"I'm not fucking going to lie there like a GOGDAMN GRUB for the rest of my life, you psycho -- " she flinches a little, and you bite your tongue. "Look, okay, I mean -- thanks. Thanks for giving me water and apparently taking care of me and, uh, saving me. But I don't know what's happening, I don't have a freaking clue, and it's all in -- I mean, like, damn, I can't access it all but it's all in my bag -- " you suck in a deep breath, your lungs tight and cramped. "Where's my bag. Where'd you put my bag."

A smile twists at her lips.

"Terezi." She offers you her arm, the other hand stretching out towards a 

cane?

leaning against the wall --

"You can call me future Legislacerator Pyrope, if you wish," she says through a mouthful of teeth, and she's blind. She's scraping the cane around the floor with practiced ease, yanking you to her side -- she's practically your height, you realize in a haze of shock and befuddlement -- and then she nods at you to open the door. 

"You'll have to follow me afterwards," she says, the damn smile never dropping. "And try not to freak out, okay?"

Instinctively your hands drift to your belt -- well, duh, of course you're unarmed, they'd be the stupidest trolls to ever grace Alternia if they hadn't disarmed you -- but you still miss the familiar weight of your sickle. You grasp the doorknob and try to calm down your speeding heart. Nothing's hurt you so far. You made it to adulthood. This should be nothing compared to that.

"Go on."

You bite back the urge to snarl at her, and swing open the door.

Chapter Text

The seadwellers aren't stupid, unfortunately; they actually personally guard you instead of passing you two off like parcels to some perpetually dozy guard. It means that even in full daytime -- where all of you find yourself cramped up in a cave over a meadow -- they're still up, pinning you to the spot with fuchsia and violet gazes, respectively.

Currently, though, they're busy talking to each other in hushed voices. Very hazily you've identified both of them through their tense murmurs -- the violetblood's name is Eridan, and the fuchsia is Feferi, although you're not exactly one hundred percent sure -- and they're sitting cross-legged, weapons slung over their laps in convenient access. Eridan's gesticulating almost violently, rings flashing in the air as he makes a jabbing motion toward his own throat, and you're not that much of a dumbass to figure out what he's aiming for.

Kill them. Leave their bodies for Alternia to swallow.

Feferi acts as your guardian, you suppose, but by the way she vigorously shakes her head and points to her sternum -- taps at where her heart lies under, makes a slicing motion -- doesn't comfort you either.

Instead, you focus on a more heartening matter.

"AA?"

She's somewhere around in the cave. You can feel Feferi's gaze snap to you as you shuffle away, relaxing when she realizes you're not trying to scoot your way to freedom via the cave's entrance, and you find AA at the far corner. The walls are old and striated; dust crumbles a little as you brush your fingertips, trying to stir up the knot of electricity that's just always there in the depths of your gut, waiting to be stoked, but each effort leaves waves of exhaustion pounding into a headache and you desist.

"Aradia."

"Sollux." She sounds sleepy, but you know better. She's sitting at a half-open angle, one eye fixated on the seadwellers while the other roams across the walls. "Hey. Take a look at this."

She jabs a thumb at what looks like something carved in the wall messily:

3nvision

Your blood freezes. 

"Is that...?"

"That's -- that's her handwriting," she whispers to you, letting her fingers lightly brush across the lettering. "It's the same quirk, same handwriting -- "

It feels like perigees since you've last laid eyes on the translations. Nights and nights flit pass you in a blur of memories -- you and Aradia flying out to the temple, Karkat and Dave by the seaside, Karkat lunging for your throat, teal words rippling down your palmhusk screen, Aradia picking up your battered body like it was a feather --

"Was this before or after the -- "

"Before or after what?"

Crap, wait, you never told her about the redblood troll's...well, execution. You were going to, you reason, but then you would've revealed Karkat's blood color to her as well. Then again, these two assholes of seadwellers already knew. There was no harm in telling her.

Dumbass, the reason you're not at hive right now is because you almost told someone.

"Nothing." You stare down at your claws. You've always cut them short so that they'd be less of a pain in the ass for when you type, but now they're starting to grow back again in jagged curves. "But if we found her writings in that temple, then -- I don't know -- why would she write stuff on the walls here?"

"She must've passed by here, then."

"But we were able to recognize her quirk right away. Why would she write down something that would've exposed her to anyone that knew her -- "

"Then this is a place she trusted," Aradia muses softly.

"This place?"

"Yeah."

"But not enough that she wrote in her own tablets instead."

"They're transportable, Sollux. The cave walls are not."

You flush at your own idiocy. "Okay, but -- " you try to remember who else traveled with her. Your dead ancestor. Karkat's dead ancestor. Some jadeblood named the Dolorosa. Their handwriting quirks were in your half of the translations, not hers, though.

"Who wrote your half of the translations?" you whisper to her. Glancing out of the corner of your eye, you can see Eridan trying to observe you in the same way without drawing in attention. You  have to push down the urge to smirk. Still, there's no point in raising any cause for suspicion.

"A tealblood legislacerator."

"Tealblood?"

"Yeah, I'm pretty surprised too. The rebellion -- or its ideals, anyhow -- somehow got support from the higher castes." Aradia squints at the words again. "And it's written after the oliveblood's recordings. Apparently she was involved in continuing the rebellion, and -- like I told you -- " both of you hold your breaths for a moment, trying to piece together your thoughts -- "she mentioned the Condesce confronted the humans. Or their planet, at the very least."

"That's why you didn't trust DV?"

"He and the humans are not here for diplomacy, Sollux. But -- " and here she holds up a finger -- "I'm not saying he's untrustworthy. I don't know. I've been thinking about it, and he could've harmed us at any time, or fled that night when the seadweller chased him and Karkat, or...anything, really."

"What's that have to do with the translations?"

"Their surnames are the same." The realizations click slow and dreadful in your mind as you turn towards each other. 

"But you said the tealblood's records were written right after the oliveblood's."

"And that was several hundred sweeps ago."

So the Condesce had attempted to invade the humans' planet hundreds of sweeps ago -- and yet, it was only until recently when four of them decided to take up residence on Alternia. 

"AA, when did the humans arrive?" And why didn't anyone kill them? Maybe not the Condesce personally herself, especially if she was out in space all the damn time, but one would expect several laughsassins or subjuggulators to strike out at their hives by this point.

"I...I'm not sure."

Karkat would know, you realize. His hive was the one closest to their settlement; maybe they had been attacked more than the scarecrow example before. You wonder if Dave ever told Karkat or anything, and for a hot, tense moment anger unconsciously bubbles into your head. You can't dissect the sudden rush of feelings in your throat; there's bitterness, deep and burnt, and there's this sudden swell of desperation that has wetness prickle at your eyes. You can't pinpoint what you're longing for. 

"Sollux?"

"Nothing." You resist the urge to paw away at your eyes. "I'm just...I don't know, trying to wrap my head around all of this bullshit. This has nothing to do with us and yet -- " you make a rude gesture to your surroundings -- "here we are. Caught in the middle of fucking nowhere."

Aradia slowly turns to gaze at you.

"Did you know how I ever managed to find you?"

"What do you mean, find me?"

"When you were attacked by the violetblood." She doesn't need to gesture at the said troll crouching mere metres from you. 

You...pause at that.

You never really wondered. So much things happened in that interval of time, from waking up to getting attacked by the same troll to being dragged to the -- wherever Feferi and Eridan are carting you off to. You open your mouth uselessly.

"A tealblood trolled me. Gave me the coordinates at where you laid at." Aradia's smile is almost bitter. "Else you would've died there -- or worse, be alone when he came back for you."

You're speechless; shock, gratitude, this warm rush of relief and affection struggling against the knee-kick reflex of fear that you had been so close, so close to being utterly alone -- and you hug her gently, not giving a whit about the seadwellers or the other trolls that might've been watching nearby. She returns your embrace tightly, palms flattening against your shoulderblades.

"We'll make through this together," she mumbles to you, her hair brushing across the nape of your neck. An old echoing voice rings in your mind, like a bell cloistered deep in a maze of rooms, but you choose to focus on her warmth instead. 

====

You expected a mess of hallways, or maybe some sort of training barracks, but not a --

chasm.

Outside the room where Terezi gave you water, a landing juts from the door, bracketed by a railing that reaches up to your ribcage. The same landing rings around a colossal, circular room, the ceiling above domed, curve stone. The walls are sloped stone streaked with glimmers of sand-hues and silver and glints of bright quartz.

You're underground.

You tentatively peek over the railing, and --

"Hey, watch it!" Terezi catches you when you stumble back, and you can feel the sharpness of her joints dig into your back. "Chill down, Vantas. It's just a big room."

"I'm not fucking afraid of that!" you spit out, because the image still pounds in your eyes -- over that railing is a pit, like a priceless carved bowl's bottom, and there's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of trolls squeezed down there, the room vibrating with conversation. They must've seen you. They must've seen you and your red eyes when Terezi and the other troll dragged you in like a sack of potatoes, your disgusting mutant self, and all you can do is shrink away like a wiggler. 

You cough violently, suddenly wishing you had more of the water with you. You pound away at your chest. Terezi continues to hold you, her muscles rigid and firm despite how intensely you're shaking in her grip. She clamps down until you suck in breaths deeply, letting damp air flush out your lungs into something bearable.

"You good now?"

"Yeah," you whisper hoarsely.

"Great." She abruptly releases you, and you barely manage to avoid stumbling a second time. "Round one was pathetic. You're not going to collapse every time you see more trolls than the number of your fingers, correct?"

"I'll...I'll work on that."

"Lovely spirit! Let's try this again." This time she seizes your elbow and practically drags you to the railing, and no one's forcing your head to look down or prying open your eyelids but you do so anyway, the instantaneous reflex of fear kicking you into your guts like an iron kettle.

The scene beneath you reminds you of the barracks you've seen in your movies. It's a mess of desks and sheets and papers, trolls of all sizes milling about as they navigate past object after object. It's more spacious than you initially thought -- there's enough room that sparring rings are set up, and several pairs of trolls are busy clacking away at each other with blades and knives. Dozens of doorways ring around the room, presumably branching off into their own hallways and corridors. You find the light sources soon enough; a ring of flickering steel-and-glass torches bracket around the circumference of the room, their glows wavering and steadying periodically. The place is massive. Not just in sheer scale, but the amount of life that throbs here -- voices spilling over one another, footsteps ringing off the walls, papers shuffled and metal banging and the occasionall shrill peal of laughter -- it's almost incredible, really, if you didn't feel so sick in your head.

"That's -- that's a lot of people."

Terezi eases her grip on your elbow but doesn't release. "You don't say. You want to know how long it took to build this up?"

Build what up? Even you have to admit you're impressed, if not outright daunted, but...there's no reason why you're still here. Terezi has something to do with Sollux, and almost everything to do with Dave, but you're not sure why it has to include you. Your blood is an issue here, yet you're still alive.

You need answers, damnit.

"Okay," you mutter, more to yourself than to her. "Okay. I get it. I get your fucking message. There's a lot of trolls down there and I -- I don't even know what this has to do with me, and I don't want to guess it out. I just want my bag."

"You want your bag."

"That's exactly what I said."

"And once you get it...what are you going to do with it? What do you think you'll get out of it that we can't?"

Your blood chills at her words.

If they went through even a fraction of what Sollux had on his husktop...

"Come along," she says, tightening her grip once more, and you let the blind troll lead you across the landing. Fear pulses in you in cold, throbbing ripples, making your tongue stick to your mouth in nervousness. "I'm not going to hurt you."

"Bullshit." You're surprised your voice doesn't shake.

Terezi turns to you then, and her smile sends a jolt down to your fucking bones. "I'll get you to your bag," she says almost casually, even as you feel her nails lightly prick your skin, "but we're going to see some trolls first. Well, you are, at least. And you're going to have a little talk with them, okay?"

And before you can even offer up a half-assed reply, she's dragging you off toward the stairs.

====

Surprisingly, tonight's a rather sedentary one -- apparently a tag team of bronzebloods hit the edge of Feferi's forces, killing two bluebloods and wounding a greenblood. It's blatantly amusing to watch Feferi and Eridan struggle whether to hunt down the attackers or continue to guard you, even though both of you are as helpless as crippled lambs. A compromise is reached -- Eridan gets free rein to chase after them with his stupid needle-wand, and a deep throb of grief hits you in your heart when you realize what the bronzebloods are going to coming up against. He'll tear them to shreds. He was showing mercy to you before, and now he wouldn't be showing any at all.

Aradia also shares the sentiment; her hands clench in rage as she watches the violetblood dart out of the cave, scarf trailing after him, and for a moment you swear you can smell petrichor and old stones. Feferi sits serenely at the cave entrance, eyes large and almost innocuous under the moonlight, the only sign of impatience being a twist of her lips downward. She and AA stare at each other until your friend breaks off the gaze and ushers you off to the corner.

"Hey," you say cautiously, "did you want to talk about...about, uh, anything? At all?"

"She's not going to kill us," Aradia whispers back at you. "Go to sleep, okay? We'll need as much energy as possible."

"What, are you planning something -- "

"Shh!" Thankfully Feferi doesn't react or twitch at all. "I'm...thinking through things. That's all."

"Really."

"Go to sleep, Sollux." You blush a little from the fondness in her voice. "Something tells me we'll be fine tonight."

You trust her. You trust her wholeheartedly, even stuck in this nightmarish hell, and you let sleep relax your mind.

only to wake seconds on the cave floor --

but you're not, it's not the same cave, but it is because it's the same shape and yet the stones are a different color, a different blemish, and the air's so -- so cold. It's freezing. Ice crawls over your skin and your nails and your breath mists up, and it's as dry and cold as a dusty tomb. The night's dark, like someone upended a pail of ink across the sky, and at this angle you don't think you can even see the moons.

What the fuck.

You're barely aware of your body moving -- dimly you recognize that it's still under your control -- but you feel so disassociated from all its senses. You're seeing things and feeling things and hearing your breathing whistle empty and hollow, but you can't perceive them, like some great filter's being applied to every open nerve. You're wandering through fog, even if there is none, and the mists curl and clear away on a figure slumped on the ground --

Okay, seriously, what the actual fuck.

Even as your brain struggles to comprehend the image you're already moving, powered by the instinct of living with him for a whole sweep and knowing him as familiarly as the back of your hand. You'd recognize him from anywhere.

"Karkat?"

The figure doesn't stir.

This must be a dream. This must be some crazy, deranged dream born from your sickest fantasies, because you're at least a million miles from the hive and there's no possible way he ended up here. It's his horns, though; the bright nubs lost in a tangle of hair, the way even in -- sleep? unconsciousness? -- his frame is taut with boiling tension, like a wire about to snap.

"Hey, KK," you whisper, shaking at his shoulder, and you're -- it's your hand, right? It's your hand, down to the same ragged nails that's starting to grow back. But you're not supposed to do this.

You're not supposed to do --

The troll opens his eyes.

Red. Pools of red, not embers or rust or any diluted hue, but pure, glowing red, like the most polished gemstones ever to dot the planet. His eyes are impossibly large and luminous and the rest of the cave slinks away into shadows as he stares at you, his lips parted slightly, and he looks just like Karkat and yet very much not so, down to the thick hair curling around his ears and his muscles of his face are all structured wrong; they're heavier and denser, his hands are pallid with sickle calluses, the teeth have sharpened to legitimate, if still-small fangs, horns rounder and more compact --

"Mituna?"

That's not Karkat's voice. 

You stagger away from him so quickly you almost stumble over your own feet. He's slowly shifting onto his feet, and how could you be so stupid -- there's no way in hell this is Karkat in any way, not unless your hivemate shot up several extra heads and he's a grown adult, still keeping his gaze pinned to yours, large hands flexing and curling around empty air. 

"Who the hell are you?" he whispers. "You're not Mituna."

Mituna. Mituna. You know that name, and your mind's already assembling to string together the answer for you, to why this adult troll's specifically calling out his name to you -- but now cold, dark panic rises uncontrollably in your throat. He'll kill you. This Karkat-lookalike will kill you. He's already moving closer, limbs tight with nervous energy, and his shadow looms over you.

"You're dead," you snarl at him, half-crazed with fear. You don't even know if your psionics can work here, in a cave you didn't fall asleep in, in a world completely separated from Alternia. You need to get out of here. "You're already fucking dead, you know that? They flogged you and burned you and tortured you, and you're -- you're supposed to be dead."

He doesn't react in surprise or anger. He stands there, his face as impassive as a stone wall, and the ground shifts under your feet. You feel like the whole world's tilting in a turbulent, boiling mess where you stand. Desperation claws in your throat, like you're struggling to breathe, but he doesn't -- he doesn't do anything at all. Doesn't attack you or demand to know what the hell you're spouting out of your mouth.

You barely hear his response as the world dissolves around you, stone blurring into fragments and shards and coalescing into stone again, but one weathered and ancient like layers of paint dried over. The night air strikes your face first, and then the heat of someone warm curled near you, spiral horns pressing into your shoulder, and you wake with the intensity of a fish being yanked up by a fishhook. The air's already cooling, clamminess dewing over your hands. His words -- softly murmured, like he was afraid something would happen if he spoke it louder -- given to you like an heirloom to be trusted -- 

I know.