When you get back Bro and Jake are on the couch with the kids; Bro is busily typing away at whatever crap his boss has given him to do, and Jake has Sol and Karkat snuggled against him watching Simpsons reruns. You give them a nod and go through to the kitchen to get yourself a glass of apple juice, and something about the perfectly ordinary way they're all coexisting makes you smile. Bro looks up long enough to notice, and one corner of his mouth briefly quirks up before returning to its default expressionless line.
The little silent communication reminds you that there was a time when you and Bro lived pretty much alone, with few concerns except your own interests and the limited number of times you actually had to interact with the world. In the last couple of months you've...well, you've changed that. The iris has expanded, the shot is wider. Not all of that is good--you could do without the exponentially expanding number of things to worry about--but looking over at your brother and your adopted kids and your brother's friend (who happens to be a super-convenient babysitter) you think, I would never give this up, never never never.
As the day of your departure on Air Crockercorp approached, Karkat had gotten more and more rambunctious and excitable. You'd told him about the airplane you'll be riding on, and had to go hit up Google after the third repetition of "why," but he'd seemed to be okay with the idea of being in a big metal tube up in the air held up by some squiggly physics equations. Sol may possibly be less so, but on the other hand he has his new toy to distract him from potentially upsetting situations. He's found this app called Miracle Something that plays pretty sounds and shows the kind of graphics that make you think of vintage color monitor demo displays, and it seems to soothe him when he's particularly anxious.
"I ain't good with tiny spaces," Cronus had informed you, "such as, you know, cages or similar, but I think if Doc Z gives me a bunch a very hard drugs I should do okay."
"No drugs for you," you'd said automatically. "Dramamine, maybe."
"Awww. I was hopin for at least a heapin spoonful a Xanaxes. Xanax is practic'ly OTC these days, c'mon, they give that shit out like candy."
"Nope, and I'm gonna tell him you said that. I guarantee you'll get a lecture."
"That's just mean, Dave. You are bein maliciously unkind. Can I at least get the window seat if you won't let me be all pharmacologic'ly advantaged?"
"From what Peixes Prime's people told me, I think we might all get window seats. Quit pestering me, dude, I got to finish packing."
Now, as you stand on the tarmac and look at the bright red jet with its iconic white spoon down the side, you think maybe you could use a handful of Xanax yourself. Karkat has been a terror all morning and finally, finally fell asleep in the taxi on the way to the airport; you're carrying him, which sort of balances out the weight of your bag on your other shoulder. Sol, in his new clothes bought specially for the trip, clutches his iPad to his chest and stares about with enormous mismatched eyes. It's a relief when another taxi pulls up and disgorges Dr. Z, looking incredibly awkward in what appears to be an actual suit, Cronus, skinny and purple and implausible, and Feferi, who is glowing with excitement. Last to arrive are the Harleys.
"I think," says Zahhak, staring up at the plane, "that is the single gaudiest livery I have ever seen on a jet, and I've actually seen one of Trump's repaints. Let's see if they'll let us in."
Someone's already driving a set of airstairs over, and soon enough a lady with teeth that might actually be fluorescing, so white are they, ushers you and your companions into the Gulfstream G650. It is totally unlike any airplane you've ever seen, because it has what appear to be La-Z-Boy recliners instead of airplane seats, plus there's a sort of sideboard with a TV on it, a couch, flower arrangements, and windows big enough to see out of. You would not be surprised to find a jacuzzi in the back.
"All right for some, ain't it?" Cronus says, earfins wide with amazement. You move aside for Bro and Feferi and the others to get past, and set Karkat gently down in one of the beige leather seats. "There gonna be free drinks on this flight or what?" he inquires of the lady. At least he doesn't append a 'doll.'
"Refreshments are complimentary, sir," says Ms. White Teeth, baring them at Cronus in what might be taken as an unconscious threat display. He reciprocates: his aren't glowing like the Arkenstone but they are very, very pointy and also somewhat translucent when looked at up close.
He wins that one. You give White Teeth an apologetic smile-shrug of your own. "Go sit down, Ampora. No arguing with Sol over who gets to sit where."
"Yessir," says Cronus, and tips you a lazy salute. He's obviously enjoying himself to no end. Sol is staring around with those big blank eyes, and you put a hand on his shoulder.
He jumps a little. "Hey, man. Didn't mean to scare you. You okay?"
"Y-yeth. Are we really allowed to be in here?"
"We sure are. I know, it's kinda weirding me out too, I've never been on a plane that looked like a swank hotel room before." There's one of those Edible Arrangements fruit salad thingies on the sideboard by the TV. The lighting is soft and pleasant. "Where do you want to sit?"
"Anywhere," Sol says, shrugging. "Can I have my iPad with me?"
"Yup, although they're gonna ask you to turn it off for a little while when we take off." You watch as he clambers into one of the seats--near the back, the closest thing to a corner he can find--and curls up with his toy. Bro settles next to him, and you can see the unconscious relaxation in Sol, the way he hunches just a little less, with someone he knows and trusts right there.
It takes the bunch of you a little while to settle in (and Karkat objects to seatbelts; you finally get him to stop throwing a fit by sitting next to him and rubbing his horns) but eventually the doors are sealed and the engines' whine ramps up as you taxi to the runway. You haven't flown since you were really little, and you'd forgotten how straight-up weird it feels when that big flat palm of inertia presses you back against your seat and the world falls away under you smooth and fast, faster than you expect. The Gulfstream is the closest thing to quiet you can imagine a plane being, but the engines behind you obviously know what they're doing.
Glancing over your shoulder you can see that Bro has his arm around Sol, who is pressing his face tightly into Bro's shirt. Karkat, protestations forgotten, is staring out the window with a poleaxed expression. "--You okay, kid?"
"I flying," Karkat says. He's got his nose and hands squashed against the window. "Flying, Dave!"
"Yup, that's what you're doing all right," you say, ruffling his curls. When the seatbelt chime goes you unfasten his, and aren't surprised when he immediately scampers across the aisle and into Cronus's lap to stare out his window and make sure that side is flying as well. Cronus winces at the enthusiastic nature of the scramble, but doesn't object.
You look aft again. Okay, good. Sol has uncurled himself and is just leaning against Bro, who gives you a thumbs-up when he sees you're peering back at them. After another couple of minutes the Miracle Thing...Modus?...starts up its chimes.
You sleep on the plane. The hum of the engines and the ridiculous comfort of your seat, plus a beer (in a Crockercorp-branded glass, but you think it's regular old Coors), contrive to send you off into a pleasant and much deeper sleep than any you've had for a few days. You're vaguely aware of some activity nearby, but nobody shrieks for you and honestly you think there's enough responsible adults on the damn plane that someone else can handle the situation for once.
After a while you dream: that scene in the courtroom, your old friend collapsing, the little blue blur of Vriska Serket and the uproar that rises to obscure the action. It's oddly not upsetting. You know that John Egbert is doing just fine--you know, because you hesitantly googled him--and once the official talks are over you are going to find him and sit down with him and have a long, long conversation. And maybe get wasted and play Bond. And at some point you are going to hug him very fucking hard, because you saw in the videos how he looked at that little girl, and how much it must have taken out of him when she was killed. He looks like Jade, like Jake, in the videos, only he has blue eyes and seems a lot older than you know he is. He looks like his dad.
In your sleep John smiles at you. The teeth haven't been fixed, which you're oddly glad about: they're so quintessentially Egbertian. (The T in Egbertian is soft, like shh.) "Hey, Dave," he's saying, and then someone is shaking you gently, and you open your eyes and find yourself looking into Jade's face instead. "Muh?"
"Wake up, we're gonna land in like ten minutes."
"You couldn't let me sleep through that?" you complain, and she grins.
"You slept most of the way. Besides, Karkat wants you."
That wakes you up the rest of the way, and you look around. Instead of being buckled into the seat beside you, Karkat's...uh...sitting in Cronus's lap, looking kind of bedraggled, clinging to his purple shirt with little fingers. Jake and Bro have Sollux between them now, at the back of the plane, and Equius appears to be dozing; Feferi is watching you and Jade. "What...is he okay?" Fuck, what did you sleep through?
"He's fine, he just got a little overexcited. And ate most of the fruit tray. And barfed. --No, seriously, he's okay, Dave, don't worry." Her voice is a little louder, and Cronus looks up at the pair of you, his earfins perking in relief to see you awake.
"Fuck, finally, Sleepin Beauty," he says. "Thought you were gonna snore the plane to bits. There, see, kiddo, I told you, everythin is totally cool," he adds to Karkat, who blinks and then holds out his little arms across the aisle. Jade scoops him off of Cronus and plunks him in your lap instead, and he scrambles to cling to your neck and bury his face against you.
"Why didn't you guys wake me up?" you ask, rubbing Karkat's back. "Poor old Karkles, I'm sorry, that sucks. And I don't snore."
"You do too," Cronus says, looking glumly down at his wrinkled shirt.
Karkat squirms and clings tighter, his voice muffled in your shoulder. "Mister Purple said he hurls alla time."
Cronus shrugs at your raised eyebrow. "What? I do. I got him cleaned up, no big deal. I figured you maybe had enough a dealin with all our crisises for a while, Strider."
You look up at Jade, and she looks at you, and you hide a smile by nuzzling Karkat's messy hair. "Thanks, man. Appreciate it."
Out of the corner of your eye you can see the earfins rise.
C. Fef is taller than your Feferi, with a vast cloud of dark hair and a magenta suit that probably cost as much as Bro's car--but the smile is the same; the smile is kind. She meets you in person as you all clamber down the airstairs, stiff after hours of immobility. "I didn't bring an enormous welcoming party, I thought you'd be tired after the flight, I know I’d be, all the way from the East Coast. But I did want to be here to meet you! And thank you all again for coming. It’s such an honor!" Most of this is directed at Equius--and then your Feferi squeezes past and flings herself at her sister in a typically unrestrained hug. They spin in an almost neat circle, giggling at one another, two pretty mirrors. It breaks the solemnity of the mood, and introductions go well. While she has to crouch to meet them, she is grave but not patronizing when she shakes Sollux's hand, and is obviously impressed when he (prompted) shows her some of the things he's been doing with the iPad she sent; she is just as obviously charmed when Karkat shakes her finger. He's still not really at his best, and you want to get him to the hotel and locate some pink medicine and maybe read him a bunch of stories.
Cronus has been hanging back throughout the introductions, and finally you look at him sternly and nod: get it over with. He shuffles forward and extends a newly-manicured hand toward C. Fef, eyes fixed firmly on the tarmac between them. She catches her breath sharply enough that he looks up, and then takes his hand in both of hers. "Hello, Cronus. It's so good to see you!"
He mumbles something like "you too, miss."
Eventually she can’t take it and just engulfs him in a Peixes-patented hug.
"I barely recognized you! You look so--you look good. Eridan is so excited, you've no idea!"
He does that sort of hunching thing where he's trying to be less present, and you wonder just what his history here has been like. Bro catches your expression, and scoops Sollux up to balance on a hip. "We all are, Ms. Peixes. It's real good of you to do this, for all of us."
It's enough to break the moment, and she nods. "Well! Your suites at the hotel are ready, if you'll follow me?" The limos, thank God, are not in fact pink, or red with big white spoons on them: they're inoffensive black, and there are two of them. You and Karkat and Cronus and Jade climb into one, and...welp, okay, C. Fef will be riding with you, looks like. She sits down next to you and Karkat as the chauffeur closes the door, and gives you a smile that--despite your weariness and general worry--makes you feel warm all over.
She pulls out her phone, and shows you pictures of the people you'll be meeting at the big get-together in the morning. You exclaim softly over muscular Eridan Ampora, who...looks a hell of a lot like Cronus, plus a violet streak in his hair and minus the air of generally having been rolled over the waterfalls of life in a barrel; but it's not till she moves on to the next picture that you really stare. "--John?"
C. Fef grins at you. It's the same infectious grin as Feferi's and yet it's different, the shape of her mouth is subtly sharper, there are the beginnings of tiny faint smile-lines at the corners of her eyes. "A surprise," she says. "A nice one, I hope?"
"Fuck yeah," you say, and look sheepish. "Uh. I mean, yes. Absolutely. I was...just wondering how he was doing, you know? Man, it's been forever."
"John is one of the pioneers of the movement out here," she tells you. "His work has been invaluable, and so full of joy."
"Who's John?" Karkat wants to know. He's still curled up on your lap.
"An old friend of mine, kid. A very old friend."
You are not surprised to find that the suites C. Fef has reserved for the whole tribe of you are ludicrously fancy. You are also totally unable to prevent yourself from jumping on the beds, which is a Bad Example as evidenced by the fact that Sol and Karkat immediately also start bouncing.
Catching Karkat before he can make himself sick again, you sit on the edge of the bed and pet his horns until he quits whining that he wants to bounce and just purrs instead. Bro flops down on the other bed, takes off his shades, and rubs at his face. "Our Peixes and Dr. Z are sharing a room. Guess it's official."
"Oh boy, we have whirlwind workplace romance as well as all this other drama!" You stroke a thumb down the little curve of Karkat's left horn. "Do we have to do sociable shit tonight or can we just, like, order room service and crash?"
"My vote's on room service," Bro says, but just then there's a knock and the door opens slightly to reveal Jade. "Sup?"
"Playing musical-hotel-rooms," she says, somewhere between fond and exasperated. "Guess who wants to room with you, Dave Strider."
You sigh. Sol climbs onto the other bed and looks thoughtful. "So where's Bro gonna sleep?"
"Jake said he's okay with him sharing the room. So I'm the odd one out. Right now Cronus and Karkat and Sol are next door to you guys--"
"Wanna stay with Dave," Karkat says into your shirt. He's got a death-grip on you. Okay, you kind of understand, he's little and he's just had an astonishing experience of flying on a great big jet and his stomach probably doesn't feel all that good and everything here is new and maybe kind of terrifying. You can dig it.
"Well...fuck, Jade, I dunno, what do you want to do?"
"It'th okay," Sollux says, unexpectedly. "I mean, if Jade wantth to share nectht door with me. I don't mind."
"Yeah?" All three of you look at him.
"Thure. Jade'th cool."
You are way too tired to be playing Morality Police about little kids and grown women as roommates. "Bro?"
"I can switch, sure." He says it just a little too fast. Oh darn, he gets time alone in a room with Jake Harley and a fantastic bed?
"You're a prince among men, dude," you tell him, and he flips you off.
It's almost like the early days, when Karkat was so tiny and you'd been worried about him all the time: he clings to you and refuses to be unpeeled to let you eat room-service (on the house, C. Fef had assured you all) so you have to try and maneuver knife and fork and the best steak of your life with him attached to you like a growth. It's still the best steak of your life, and when you're nearly done he consents to nibbling a very little bit of it, and promptly decides he is hungry after all. He gets the rest of your potatoes, too, and you let him have a little of your chocolate mousse.
Cronus is very quiet, just watching whatever movie's on TV, picking at his own dinner. "You gotta eat, dude," you tell him.
"Not all that hungry."
"Eat it anyway. Keep up your strength for the morrow."
"Fuck off, Strider."
"Hey, easy with the language in front of teeny-weeny ears, yo."
He takes in a breath as if he's about to retort, but just wriggles further back against the pillows and pushes rice round his plate. You resolve to have words with him just as soon as you can get Karkat to go to sleep (the extra pillows from both beds more than suffice for a pile more luxurious than he's ever known).
As it happens, you don't get a chance: he disappears into the bathroom for a very long time, long enough that you're about to go bang on the door and ask questions, but then you hear the shower running. Karkat is drooping in your arms and you let Cronus use up a decent fraction of the hotel's hot water while you sing Karkles the chorus to Sonne a couple times, and get him settled in his palatial pillow-heap. Sie ist der hellste Stern von allen, und wird nicht vom Himmel fallen...
Eventually Cronus emerges, damp and looking rather washed-out, wearing pajamas. You stay up long enough to make sure Karkat is really asleep, and then go brush your teeth and crawl wearily under the covers.
It's three A.M. when your finely tuned bullshit radar, or possibly movement in the room, wakes you. The other bed is empty, the sliding doors to the balcony are closed, but it's bright enough with moonlight outside for you to clearly see Ampora leaning on the railing with a cigarette in his fingers, shoulders hunched like folded wings. He's glowing. God damn it, you think, and get out of bed, careful not to wake Karkat.
"The hell do you think you're doing?" you hiss, closing the door behind you. He jumps, and starts to cough, and you have to thump him on the back to help him get it under control. "Where did you even get that?"
"Bummed it offa someone." He leans heavily on the balcony, head drooping. Smoke curls gently up through the sides of his shirt, and you are reminded of the first time you met him, in Dr. Z's office. "'S a fuckin menthol. I hate menthols."
You twitch it out of his hand and toss the smouldering butt over the balcony, a tiny red eye diminishing in the night. "Cronus, seriously, what the fuck?"
"I'm scared, okay? I'm fuckin petrified. Needed somethin for my nerves." He's still doing that hunching thing, the one you really dislike. You put your arm around his shoulders, and he stays stiff and awkward for a long moment before clinging to you hard enough to hurt.
"...oof, jesus, ease up on the ribs, man," you manage, and he does stop squeezing you quite so hard, but he isn't letting go. You hug him back. "What're you scared of?"
"Everythin." His voice is muffled in your shoulder. "Seein the others. I didn't exactly cover myself with glory last time these assholes saw me. An'....Eridan. Fuck, he must be growin up. All...not a complete an utter fuckup."
"I dunno about that, the picture I saw looked like a dude who needed to be told blue stripy scarves don't go with purple sweaters," you tell him, and are rewarded with a little sniffly laugh. "C. Fef said he was looking forward to seeing you. And you're all stylin' now anyway, right? New clothes, new hair, kind of newish attitude."
"It won't work. They're gonna just...see through alla that shit an look at me."
"Yeah, they are." You run a thumb down one of his horns. "That is exactly what they're gonna do. So chill out, Ampora. There's something there worth seeing."
He looks at you, searchingly. The violet spangles of his bioluminescence are very bright. He is totally, completely alien, and yet you know him. You hold his gaze steadily, and after what feels like a whole goddamn minute he just looks down and nods slightly. "Okay."
"Good. Go back to bed, it's butts o'clock and we gotta be sociable tomorrow."
In the morning Karkat wakes you, jumping up and down on the bed and going "Dave Dave Dave Dave" until you groan and open your eyes and wish you could fold time round you to get a couple more hours of sleep. "I'm up, I'm up, kid, quit it with the acrobatics." Cronus is...already up, apparently: his bed is empty and you can hear the shower running. Huh. You really hope he's gonna be okay, today, but lacking handfuls of Xanax there's not a fuckton you can do for the guy.
Jade knocks on the door. "Dave? I got coffee from room service."
"Come the hell in, in that case." You scrub at your face with both hands and look up at her in wordless gratitude: the Lady with the Latte. "You guys sleep all right?"
"I had this weird dream that I was being slowly buried in a big warm cloud," Jade says, and sits on the side of your bed, fielding a ballistic Karkat as he flings himself at her. "Then I realized it was just the bed. I could really get used to beds like this."
"Seriously." You take a swig of coffee, burn your mouth, and swear. "Anyone know what we're...actually scheduled to be doing today?"
"C. Fef sent an email," she says. "We don't have to be anywhere for a little while, but she's got brunch ordered. I bet there's gonna be mimosas."
"Mimosas?" Karkat wants to know. He's wrapped himself up in Jade's hair and is sitting on her lap like a small nubby-horned gnome. You reach out and tickle a foot; he squirms, giggling.
"Excuses for people to drink champagne in the morning," you tell him. "I could go for one myself. How's Sol?"
"He's good, he's apparently...can you even play Minecraft on an iPad?" She looks fondly down at Karkat. "Engrossed, anyhow. What about Cronus?"
"Making himself beautiful," you say, nodding at the bathroom. "Seems to take a while. He's a bit...apprehensive."
"Don't blame him." Jade gives Karkat a last cuddle and plops him on your lap. "I would be, too. Hell, I kind of am. This all...snowballed, didn't it?"
"Really did." You remember sitting in the back of Zahhak's car again, on the way back from Sol's ex-owner's place, thinking: god, what have we started, where will this end, what are we doing?
"Snowball," Karkat says, and reaches for your coffee. You fend him off gently. "Dave, we meet people today?"
"Yup. Cronus's...cousin, I guess, and my friend John, and some other people. They want to talk about how to help trolls."
"Take us home," he says, as if this is obvious. "You an' Bro did."
"Yeah, but then what? I mean, you guys gotta...like, go to school. See doctors instead of vets. Not have to be...fuck, licensed. Not be pets."
Karkat doesn't seem bothered. "You fix it," he says. "Dave fix things."
"Dave is out of his depth on this one." You give Jade a helpless look. She leans over and ruffles Karkat's hair.
"Dave and his friends will fix it," she tells him. "All of us. Together."
"I tell how."
Your eyes meet Jade's. "You will?"
"I tell." Karkat seems to be satisfied with that somewhat enigmatic pronunciation, and settles back on your lap with the air of somebody who has sorted things out.
"...Well, okay then," Jade says through a smile like sunlight. "Guess we're pretty much set. I gotta go make sure the others are awake, Dave."
"Bang real hard on Bro's door."
"Way ahead of you." She gets up, and you put an arm round Karkat and drink your coffee and wonder, not for the first time, what is going on inside that little curly head.
There are, in fact, mimosas. There is everything you could possibly imagine for brunch, and some stuff you can't even identify. This is going rather better than you had anticipated. For one thing, John's there.
He looks...like his dad, yeah, like he had in your dream, but still the same derpy-intense smile, the same blue eyes, the same goddamn teeth you remember from when you were kids. Teeth like Jade’s, big and awkward. He has a couple of little trolls herded about his ankles, and that should be amazing, but it isn't; it's just right. Jade gets the first hug, it’s strong enough to lift him off his feet, and then Jade gets the babies, and then you and John are face-to-face for the first time in ages.
"Dude," you say, smooth as ever. "Long time no see."
"Dave," and he's beaming, and you take off your sunglasses and you meet his eyes properly and then he's hugging you and you're hugging him and the years fall away like leaves in autumn, and everything is suddenly better.
He introduces you to his little charges, and then you introduce him to Karkat, and John's face just lights up. "You know the story, right?" you ask.
“Yeah, Jade told me everything.” He crouches to meet him, hands cupping his knees. “Hey there, little man! I’m John.”
Karkat gives him a considering look, and then grins. "Hi, John." You feel absurdly relieved, as if John's passed some kind of test.
He grins first at Karkat, and then at you as he scoops the little troll into both arms to sit on his scrawny hip.
“So you’re Karkat! Jade’s told me a lot about you. How do you like California? Is it hot? I think it’s too hot. Washington’s cooler, you should come sometime.”
John lifts his chin to you, bushy eyebrows near lifting off his face. Karkat looks around the hotel meeting room, or whatever it is, where the long table has been laid out for brunch, and thoughtfully tugs on a curl. "Squishy," he says at last. You have to smile.
"The beds, man. Seriously, these beds are fucking incredible. He was bouncing all over the place." You aren't saying are you okay. Probably he knows that you aren't saying it.
“Oh man, I know. I went to bed last night and woke up as base camp of kid mountain.”
Maybe John’s not as oblivious as you think. He sets Karkat back down, squeezes his tiny grey hand.
“Hey, Karkat, you should go meet my kids--they’d be thrilled to meet you. They’re hanging out by the chocolate fountain.”
For a moment your foundling looks uncharacteristically shy, and then glances up at you; you still don't have your shades on, and it's bright enough in the room for you to catch that weird red glint again in his eyes. It's unnerving, and it's also slightly cool. Whatever he sees in your face seems to meet with his approval, and he trots off to meet the only other little trolls, other than Sollux, he's probably ever seen.
“By evening they’ll have plotted a way to overthrow half the government,” John muses, crossing his arms as if to alleviate the sense of emptiness without a child in them.
“Dave, how are you? I mean. Wow. You’re shorter than I thought.”
At least he still didn’t have tact.
You have to laugh. "You're taller than I thought. Fuck, how long has it even been, man? I didn't even know you had a sister until Jade mentioned you. The Harley-Egberts are all over the fucking place." You're skirting around the question, and you know it. How are you? You're completely unsure of the foundations of your whole outlook, is how. "This shit is...it's like..."
Bro had told you about synchronicity, hadn't he? Or had that been Zahhak? Coincidences piling up on coincidences. That you and your childhood buddy should both find yourselves caring for trolls, at the same time, on opposite sides of the country; that things could, possibly, change. That you might have somehow been meant to walk that particular route back from the club, in the rainy dark. "It's weird," you finish, lamely.
“Yeah, we seem to be everywhere.” John catches on to what you mean. “Oh... Yeah. It’s not what I expected either.”
He doesn’t quite look at you, eyes trained on his little charges, who have all welcomed Karkat into the fold of whispering and giggling.
You watch them too, for a moment, and then turn back to your old friend. "Dude. Uh. You. Are you okay? I...saw that video. The, uh. The courtroom." Fuck it, you've gone through too much to dance around this shit now.
“Aw, man, Dave, you saw that?” He grimaces. “I thought they finally figured out it violated terms of service or something. I’m sorry you had to see that.” As if actually experiencing it was somehow not as fucking terrible. He rolls back one sleeve to display the marks, two little puncture wounds, now long healed over.
“She left quite a mark on me, didn’t she?” He laughs sadly. “In more ways than one. Than I’ll probably ever know, really. I wish you could have met her! She would’ve liked you, I think.”
"I dunno, man. Seemed to me like she was a one-dude troll. Fuck, that came out wrong." You rub at your face. "But...she got you into this, huh. I don't...even know what the hell we're doing, John. I never did. I just...like, you know, someone hands you a spinning plate and you don't ask where to put it down, you just...keep it spinning the best you can?" Not one of your better analogies. "Can I have a mimosa?"
Down the room, you can tell that Cronus and Eridan Ampora are finding it somewhat awkward to encounter one another. You resolutely look away from them. Cronus can deal with his own shit. This is yours.
“I don’t think any of us really know what we’re doing, you know?” He shrugs with one shoulder. “I mean, I definitely didn’t. I signed up for puppies and stuff and--well. It’s not what I meant to have happen. But I think it was better.”
He tightens a hand over the old scar.
“I think it was better, despite everything. Maybe because of everything. I was... Lucky. I was really lucky. I think you are, too. Who are we to say?”
"Word to that, man." You bite your lip for a moment, and then you see the younger--if taller--Ampora fling his arms around Cronus and hug him tight enough to elicit a squawk, and then you just grin. "Dude. John. It is so stupidly good to see you. And...yeah. I think we both were, and are."
Fuck it, who cares if anyone's watching. You pull your old friend into another hug: he's warm, human, he smells good, you can feel his heart beating close to yours. It's something you haven't really paid attention to, all those times you hugged Bro or Jade or whoever. But it's...undeniably nice, just to hold and be held.
You let go before it gets really awkward.
Or you would, if he hadn’t gotten his wristwatch caught on the back of your shirt. “Ugh. Fuck...shit. Hold on.”
If there is anyone destined to spoil the Hallmark card moments of life it's probably John Egbert. Both Feferis seem pleased enough, smiling smug, identical smiles like a pair of Cheshire cats. The older Peixes gazes on the Amporas fondly, with a sigh capable of mussing even the most sprayed of hair. She breaks from her sister to herd the children. Enough hugging, time for food.
Feeding a bunch of grown-up people is difficult enough, let alone two armfuls of kids. John has already rolled up his other sleeve, ready to corral the fuck out of these kids like a champion cattleherd.
Okay, you have to laugh at that, and while you're laughing you're being organized. There are...wow. There are eggs in at least three different configurations, and sausage with named parts of animal, and bacon and mushrooms and hash browns and pancakes and cereal and if you're Sollux, a toasted bagel with ridiculous amounts of honey. And mimosas. You are grateful for those, in particular. There's not enough active ingredient in them to actually do much other than mellow out your caffeine buzz from the early-morning room service brew, but it's still welcome, specially when you have another one.
Over the meal you talk to C. Fef. Eridan is sitting opposite you, on her other side, and you can't help studying him between bites. He really does look like what Cronus might have been with a hell of a lot more square meals and fewer nights on the street, and the purple lock suits him--although honestly you would advise him to ditch the hipster scarf. You would have advised Cronus to do the same, but you think probably wild horses could not part him and his faintly iridescent dark-purple jacket from his batik neckwear. Eridan looks...honestly, seriously, straight-up glad to see Cronus, especially an ambulatory and not obviously expiring Cronus. It's interesting. You vow to pay more attention to it later. After the talking.
The whole thing is really a study in siblings. Both Peixes girls hold their forks the same way, their pinky delicately balancing the end. The English-Harley team all have the same hilarious way of eating like rampant puppies, though John’s youngest needs help coaxing to be fed. He’s patient, and pleased with his charge when she manages a few bites. The chatter is joyful, punctuated with laughter. From time to time, Eridan and C. Fef bump their knuckles together, twine their fingers.
Karkat is sitting between Bro and Eridan, and is being guided to make his own crepes with the stack of pancakes on his plate and the heap of fruit and similar on the plate beside it: he's approaching the task like an engineer appraising a tricky dam build. Your Feferi and Dr. Z are looking stupidly across the table at one another, and Jade and Jake are entertaining John and John's kids.
The little gestures between Eridan and C. Fef don't pass you by, and you blink for a moment before thinking: ok, why the fuck not? Cronus must....kind of really extra-crazy-super-envy his cousin for that one, but Cronus could maybe learn from his example--it ain't impossible for a troll to actually achieve redrom with a human.
You fill up on the kind of stuff you never get at home--smoked salmon, crazy-good sausages, amazing butter on bread that has all this birdseed shit in it--and just let the experience wash over you.
Later, an hour, maybe two hours later, you're sitting on what the hotel is pleased to call a Chaise Lounge in your raggedy-ass bathing suit, watching Jade and Jake in the hot tub with the kids. They squeal at the temperature before sort of going all floppy and demanding to be cuddled, and then get fussy again and need to be taken by Bro into the kiddie pool just steps away.
Karkat has made friends--or perhaps commandeered--the other troll kids, other than Sollux, who's staying in the shade and watching. They seem to do what he says, at least. You watch him marshalling his tiny force to swarm Mount Jake and demand strawberries from the tray of fresh fruit on the lounge-side tables. John's beside you, his glasses not all that different from the coke-bottle squares he wore back in the day.
He’s trying his best not to eyeball the Peixes, who look as if they were born to wander off swimsuit advertisements. The Amporas are doing their best to not notice them either, hunkered down and fiddling with each others’ clothes; you're reminded of birds preening each other. From time to time they link fingers, bonk foreheads together, lock horns. Meanwhile, both Peixes observe Doctor Z doing goddamn laps in a wetsuit that would please most Olympians. The elder Feferi seems to be congratulating the younger on his glutes.
“Like. Okay. Is he for real? The doctor? I mean, I think a thousand Vanity Fair photographers just died of yearning.”
"Oh, he's real." Feferi grins at her sister. "Believe me. I know, he looks like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, but if you actually get to know him he has the rudiments of a sense of humor! And he's really, really, really good with kids. And animals."
Beyond them, Dr. Zahhak emerges from the pool, a romance-novel cover artist's magnum opus, and flips back the heavy mass of his wet hair exactly like--it has to be said--the Little Mermaid. He pads over to the tables, dripping absently, and brings a tray of fruit over to the sisters. Because it's California, and he isn't at work, and he's in love, and dammit, he can do silly things once in a very long while.
Eridan is apparently not to be outdone. He flares his fins, tosses aside his dainty robe in a dramatic fashion and dives equally dramatically into the pool, his fins glistening. This proves to be a terrible idea, as in the next moment he’s scrabbling at the side and trying to get out, coughing and looking far more like a soaked rat than a handsome seatroll. Presumably gills and chlorine aren't the best of friends. He creeps back to Cronus, grumbling and muttering to himself.
John does his best not to laugh, itching idly at the tattoo on his chest. It’d be tacky if you didn’t know it was so damn sentimental to him.
“So, uh,” he begins, but then just leaves it there.
You also try not to laugh, but appreciate the tiny little flicker of a smile on Cronus's face before he wraps his cousin in a towel and rubs his back. He isn't hunching. His earfins are as high as you've ever seen them, and he...pff, yeah, he's sparkling, a little, in the sun. You don't think you need to worry about Cronus, not right now.
"Yeah," you say, turning all your attention back to John. "Uh. It's. I don't know what's gonna happen next, man, and I think we're here to find that out, but...I don't even know where to start." In the hot tub, Karkat has succeeded in bending Jake to his will, and is making him be a giant shark while everyone else, including Jade, pretends to be mermaids or fellow pirates.
“Maybe there isn’t any specific way to start?” John says, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “Maybe we just keep going--because if there’s a start, there’s an end. And maybe things like this don’t just end.”
It’s unbelievably, unflinchingly corny, but, then again, so is John.
The thing about corn, you have gathered over the past months, is that corn is relative. And while what he just said is Hallmark-level corny, it's also true.
"Kinda want to believe that, dude. When I found Karkles...I...I didn't even, you know, think. Just acted. I don't know why I walked down that particular alley that particular night, I just did. And from then on I don't know how much choice I even had in what ended up happening. And if there's that much force behind something--force enough to make a meeting like this happen...well, uh. Fuck. Guess I'ma have to just go along with it."
You watch the troll you'd scooped out of a box months ago imperiously commanding Jake Harley to turn hard a-starboard. You didn't teach him that. Probably Bro didn't teach him that. It was Jake, or the TV, or Sol's iPad. You didn't teach him...half the shit he knows, and still when you watch him happily whacking Jake's head with his palms and demanding to go faster, go faster, you think back to that one weird night where his eyes had glinted and he'd told you to fix Mister Purple, and he had been right.
"John," you say. "What about trolls with powers we don't know about?"
“They told me Vriska had mind powers too.” It's the first time he's said her name. “Something about possessing people? I never saw it. And then the little one’s psionics...I had one that seemed to know the future for a while.”
He rests his chin on his other hand.
“But really, I think it’s mostly bullshit. I mean, psionics, no, but. But they’re kids all the same, Dave. I don’t care what fucking powers they have. Geez, though, think. Soon they’ll all be miles ahead of us. It’s awesome.”
A wry, fond smile. But there’s sadness behind his eyes, and it’s all too easy to guess what’s going on behind those thick frames. Things the girl he cared about wouldn’t have. But he doesn’t seem to dwell on it, and scoots his pool-chair over with an unholy squeak.
“But, y'know, I don’t really mind them owning our asses all over.”
"Pff." You smile, even though it's against the Strider Code, your mouth curling up despite yourself. "Me either. I think maybe they're owed a couple good old-fashioned ownings. Sol....shit, I mean, he could read when he came to us, but he's doing things with that iPad Bro and I don't even get, and Karkat's been all extra weirdly omniscient recently. I just. I want to. Not screw them up?"
He laughs at you, but it’s not unkind. “Dave, you’re not screwing them up. They’re fine. They’re here! They’re happy, healthy, they’re alive, Dave!”
“They all have a great future, and so do we. We have to learn. From what I was taught learning does involve fucking up a bit.”
From what you were taught, learning involved rooftop strifing and home-made sutures, but you guess maybe it comes to the same thing. "Yeah. Yeah, you're right. But, like. Your people here, and us on the other coast. We have to, like. Present a unified front." Your childhood friend's eyes are extremely blue, and you can't help seeing again that awful fucking video. "Team Egbert-Strider, right?" You reach for his hand.
Instead of a handshake, he curls his hand into a little fist, bumping your knuckles together. “Team Trolls! Eh, that sounds like a really bad college team.”
"It really does." You duck, snickering, and bonk your knuckles and his again. "Whatever. We got game, right? C. Fef didn't fly us across the damn country for nothing." You're not sure what the deal is with jet lag on this journey, but you're feeling uncharacteristically mellow and relaxed, possibly because a whole lot of other people are watching your kids for you. "John?"
“What up?” he cheeps.
"Is it, like, okay, that I don't know what the flying fuck I'm doing?" you ask, and shut your eyes behind your shades. "Cause I don't. I was hoping you did, so you could tell me. But...I guess...we haven't messed shit up too bad so far. Maybe that's a good sign."
Karkat is showing two of John's kids how to...shit, he's showing them a basic Bonetti defense with a butter knife from the sideboard, what the hell, you are about to lurch off your incredibly comfortable chaise-longue and take it away from him, but maybe this is the kind of thing a parent, or guardian, needs to let happen.
John takes note of the shenanigans, and gestures for his youngest to come to him. She’s a little violet, like Eridan, and wastes no time toddling over and climbing into his lap. He welcomes her, shelters her head with his hands. He speaks over her bowed horns, humor in his voice.
“I don’t think anyone’s ever known what they’re doing beyond loving them, letting them be loved, an’ letting them love others, I guess.”
A little way away, Eridan and Cronus both have their feet in the water, speaking low. The elder Feferi swims to her troll like a rippling sea serpent, tugging on his ankle. Dr. Z has your Feferi curled in the crook of his arm. You look back at Karkat, sturdy and real and undeniable, and wonder again where all this will end up taking you. How much is, inevitably, going to come to rest on your kid's small shoulders. You can't fix the world, but maybe--with help, and luck, and saving laughter--you can try to make it better.
"I tell how," he'd said, this morning. That red glint in the depths of his eyes. "I tell."
You think you believe him.