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Freight

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[12/12/31]

You sit at home on your couch, perched on the edge of the cushions as your whole body—rigid with what must look like EXCITEMENT—faces the television. Your DAD is standing a few feet behind you in the kitchen, quietly drying plates with a rag, but you don't think he's paying much attention because he, too, has his gaze fixed on the screen. Nearby, your LITTLE SISTER bounces in a plush chair, enthusiastic more because you're supposedly happy than due to any real understanding of the SITUATION about to unfold before the world, broadcast live to homes everywhere. She's only ELEVEN YEARS OLD, after all.

The reporter's usual drone suddenly falters as the camera shifts, and in an instant you're staring at the familiar green grass lawn of English Industries' main laboratory building. You forget all about keeping a neutral face, then, because this is the moment you've been waiting for since the summer's end.

Your name is JOHN EGBERT, and you are NINETEEN YEARS OLD. You've spent the last year and a half at Washington State University, studying pre-med as you steadily pursue your dream of becoming a top-notch doctor. The top-notchiest. The best. Someday, you might even like to have your name signed in gold as the recipient of a Nobel prize—but you know better than anyone that success can't be made without a little (or more) hard work.

Last summer, however, this far-fetched and most likely UNATTAINABLE GOAL became a fraction closer to QUITE POSSIBLY POSSIBLE when you were selected as one of twenty from a pool of over six thousand global applicants to participate in an internship at the world-famous English Industries medical research labs in New York. There, the final testing procedures on a vaccination that could quite possibly RESHAPE THE FIELD OF MEDICINE AS A WHOLE were taking place, and you had your bags packed the day after you received the letter.

Now, as you watch, one of the most highly-respected men in the field of medicine steps into view behind a podium onscreen, and despite your apprehension you can't but grin ever-so-slightly at a few fond memories he brings to mind. His name is DOCTOR SCRATCH, and in addition to being the establishment's co-proprieter he was your personal mentor at the labs. By the look of his perfectly-coifed blonde hair and snappy white suit, you find it hard to imagine that he’s anything other than a middle-aged Hollywood heart-throb, let alone one of the most innovative figureheads of modern science.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen—and, I suppose, a good morning to others," he begins, flashing a dazzling smile to the various cameras and crews nearby. "I'm sure it's no secret what I'm here today to discuss, but, as always, formalities are a must." There's a pause, and his thin lips quirk upwards for a factional second. "Ten years ago, my esteemed colleague and business partner, Lord Caliborn English, immigrated to the United States following the death of a loved one four years prior at the hands of pneumonia, an increasingly-common illness spread through either bacterial or virus strains. While treatment for the condition has been available for nearly a century, there is—there has been—no cure, no vaccination. And countless lives, young and old, have been lost to both unexpected contractions of the illness and the body's inability to handle the infection. Much like the common cold, pneumonia has been a plague for generations, ever-changing, ever-killing.

"But after throwing himself into research and work, Lord English has—after fourteen years—performed what can only be described as a miracle. He, along with our team of highly sought-after medical professionals, has been able to successfully immunize, in a matter of speaking, both test mammals and eventually human patients against the root cause of pneumonia. By feeding small, concentrated doses of a relaxation hormone directed by a specific protein marker into the brain stem—where neurologists have pinpointed the location of cells electrically controlling the functions of the lungs—a person's alveoli can be trained to resist causes of inflammation that lead to pneumonia. And, in testing, it was also discovered that the dose can also help the recipient built a stronger resistance to the root causes of yearly-rotating influenza viruses.

"It is an amazing leap—a permanent solution that could not have been possible without the hard and dedicated work by both our own scientists and those from around the world who flocked to help our research. We are, without a doubt, grateful, and it is thanks to them that I, on behalf of English Industries, can announce with pride that soon every man, woman, and child will be immune to the disease. In mere months, the world will rid of the curse that has tormented humanity for thousands of years. Thank you."

He smiles again as cameras flash, and several reporters rush to the podium hoping to wedge a few questions into his retreat. The Doc is having none of that, though, and he just waves to the crowd before disappearing back into the building. All the while, there's a smooth grin plastered across his face.

Your father laughs, slapping you lightly on the back as he tells you how proud he is, but you just shake your head and return to the kitchen. The dishes won't do themselves.

You try to put up a good front—you really do—but when your family isn't looking your smile falters.


Later that night, you hole up in your old room, having endured continual praises from your father and subtly-proud snark from your sister with as much happy reception as you can. In truth, you are VERY WORRIED, but you have no idea how to explain why. You've decided instead to keep your mouth shut for the time being, because your feelings would most likely make you sound paranoid and tired, two things that might in turn make your family less inclined to trust your judgment.

With a sigh, scrub your blue eyes under the wire-framed glasses you've had since middle school, and swivel lazily in your desk chair. It is nearly Christmas, and you're home for the holidays for the first time since graduating high school. You had hoped the weeks off would be a happy time, and for the most part they really have been! Just... not this evening. You wonder idly if it's possible to make yourself sick by thinking too much, then realize you should probably already know the answer to that question anyway.

There's a ping from your sleeping computer, and the screen lights up as a Pesterchum window opens on your desktop. Although your own Chumhandle is set to idle for good reason, you can't help but feel a little RELIEVED at the interruption.

— carcinoGeneticist [CG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 23:47 —

CG: HEY, SHITSTAIN.

CG: GET YOUR ASS ONLINE.

CG: NOW.

CG: WE NEED TO TALK. LIKE, SERIOUSLY TALK. WE NEED TO DISCUSS A REALLY FUCKING BIG ISSUE, ANDWE NEED TO DO IT UNHINDERED BY THE USUAL SNARKY BULLSHIT YOU, FOR SOME GOD-AWFUL REASON, BELIEVE ADDS ANY KIND OF SUBSTANCE TO ACTUAL REAL CONVERSATION.

CG: FUCK YOU.

CG: I KNOW YOU’RE THERE, JOHN.

EB: hey, karkat!

EB: what are you doing up so late?

EB: wait, that's a bad question.

EB: i don't think you ever sleep :)

CG: I REPEAT: FUCK YOU.

EB: wow, rude! did you message me just to yell?

EB: i'm here!! what did you want to talk about?

Even though you're more than sure you already know where this conversation is about to go, you don't mind letting your best friend take the lead. Once he gets whatever he needs to say off his chest you'll have your chance to speak—but until then he probably won't let you get much of a word in edgewise. It really doesn't bother you, though. Karkat is a good guy once you get around all seven layers of his foul language and standoff-ish attitude.

You've been pals since you met last summer during your time in New York, and the two of you hit it off fairly quickly after realizing you were both entirely out of your element in the EI department you'd been assigned. He isn't aiming to become a medical doctor like you—instead, he's busy studying genetics at a university in Pennsylvania. It's pretty neat, you think.

CG: DON’T PLAY FUCKING STUPID WITH ME, JOHN. I KNOW YOU SAW IT.

EB: wow, that sounds kind of creepy, karkat.

EB: are you stalking me?

EB: should i warn my family that there is an angry midget watching us?

CG: FUCK YOU.

CG: AGAIN.

EB: but, yeah. in all seriousness, i did.

EB: i saw the interview, i mean.

CG: BY THE END OF THE WEEK, EVERY MOTHER-CLUTCHING BRAT UNDER THE AGE OF TWENTY-ONE WILL HAVE GOTTEN THE VACCINE.

CG: WHICH MEANS WE’RE GOING TO HAVE TO AT SOME POINT, TOO.

EB: i know.

EB: the labs are giving it out free to those chain clinic places.

CG: I HEARD THE SHITBAGS DOWN AT THE FDA ARE MAKING IT A SCHOOL REQUIREMENT.

EB: that's not going to be put in place until next year, though.

EB: i think???

EB: wait now i'm not sure.

CG: EITHER WAY WE’VE GOT WHAT SIX MONTHS AT MOST? I’M NOT PUTTING THAT SHIT IN MY SYSTEM.

EB: i know, and neither am i. have you convinced your brother?

CG: YEAH, IT WASN’T THAT HARD.

CG: HE DOESN’T REALLY TRUST ANYTHING FUNDED BY THE GOVERNMENT THESE DAYS.

CG: THAT’S PROBABLY A GOOD THING.

EB: god, i wish my family was as easy as kankri.

EB: my dad keeps saying he's proud to trust something i worked hard on, and my sister doesn't actually have much of a choice if my dad makes a decision.

EB: sigh.

CG: DID YOU TELL THEM WHAT WE SAW?

EB: no.

EB: kind of?

EB: i hinted at it.

EB: sort of ran around the subject.

EB: but i think they got the message.

EB: maybe.

CG: DON'T FUCK WITH ME, JOHN.

CG: CLEARLY THEY NEITHER RECEIVED THE MEMO NOR UNDERSTOOD THE MEANING BEHIND WHAT WAS PROBABLY THE WORST EXCUSE FOR A PROPER EXPLANATION EVER.

EB: i can't just tell them, okay!!

EB: they'll think i'm losing my mind or something.

CG: AS STUPID AS YOU ARE, AND AS DEPRESSINGLY AFFECTIONATE AS YOUR RELATIVES TEND TO BE, I THINK THEY WILL BELIEVE YOU.

CG: WHY WOUDLN'T THEY?

EB: i don't know.

EB: the whole thing was just too surreal, and then there's the fact that i waited this long to say anything. that's kind of suspicious if you ask me!

CG: WHICH I TOLD YOU NOT TO DO, YOU RETARDED LUMP OF QUIVERING BODILY FLUIDS.

EB: in hindsight, it wasn't the best plan.

CG: CLEARLY.

CG: GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER, JOHN.

CG: THIS WHOLE PILE OF FUCK IS GOING TO BLOW UP IN OUR GODDAMN FACES SOON, I CAN FEEL IT.

— carcinoGeneticist [CG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 00:12 —

You sigh and swivel around in your chair a bit, not really sure what to do with yourself. You know what you should do—but you don't. Do it, that is.

Sleep won't come easily tonight, you can tell, so you take your chumhandle off idle and end up chatting with your cousin Jade well into the morning. She and your mutual cousin Jake are coming up to Washington with your grandparents to spend the holiday, and you can't wait to see them. Convincing that part of your family not to get the vaccination wasn't hard, because your grandparents—for all their science and technical knowledge—don't want anything to do with the English name.

That might be a card you can play again, you think.

Your family tree is more like the Whomping Willow than anything, all torn apart and re-stitched by feuds and divorces and untimely deaths. You've been lucky enough to live a relatively stereotypical suburban life with your father and sister, only barely feeling the effects of what your grandma calls the "bad juju" of your mother's side of the family. Your cousins, however, are a different story.

Only when sun begins to peek through the Washington State morning fog and your dad begins rummaging around downstairs do you finally crawl into bed. The best part about nights without sleep, you think, is the knock-out rest that usually comes after. The kind of dreamless black that leaves you both sore and refreshed when afternoon finally rolls around. It never lasts quite as long as you'd like, though. Sometimes you wish you could sleep forever.


[12/22/31]

You don't sit your family down for The Serious Talk until over a week has passed since the Doc's televised press conference. Thus far, you've managed to keep them away from the clinics with some brief bullshit explanation to that you'd rather not accept free doses. Instead, you say, you’d like to fund the company by purchasing the vaccination yourself (or at least letting your insurance pay for it). It doesn't take much convincing to highjack the task of setting up an appointment with your family physician. You don't actually call the office at all.

The holiday is less than four days away, and your cousins should arrive on Christmas Day. It's now or never, because you're half certain your eccentric extended family might make a mess of things with their own opinions and interjections. As much as you love them, your grandparents can be… passionate about certain topics.

Thankfully, your sister is home from school on her winter break, so you only have to wait until your dad gets home from work to gather the two of them up. You meet him in the kitchen, and after a few shouts up the stairwell Jane joins you. They can tell that something is bothering you by the way you don't respond as whole-heartedly as you should to their teasing, and as you fiddle with the remote to your small kitchen TV you try not to think about the fact that you're suddenly the center of their attention. After a moment, you finally manage to mute the volume, and then suddenly you can't stall anymore.

"So. Uh. I think it would be in everyone's best interest if we didn't get the English vaccination. Thing. That I worked on last summer." You speech is stilted, and wow you're nervous.

Your dad blinks, but doesn't get the chance to say anything before your sister cuts in with an incredulous, "Why? That's stupid—I don't want to get sick."

"Yeah, well—you might get even more sick if you take it, so shut up and let me finish. Please," you bite back, sticking your tongue out for maximum maturity points. Dad's eyebrows raise, and he politely asks you to elaborate.Whatever argument you and your sister had been about to drum up is effectively cut off, and after a moment of scrambling for words you continue.

"So. Yeah. There was some stuff that happened last summer that I... didn't exactly mention?" A nervous laugh bubbles its way out of your throat, and you swear your voice hasn't changed pitch that drastically since you were fourteen. "I guess I wasn't really allowed to, because of all the confidentiality papers we had to sign before and after we left, but I trust you guys.” That part isn't exactly true—not really. You'd just needed some excuse explaining why you'd waited so long to start talking. (But your family doesn't have to know that. Nope.) “I think safety's probably a really important thing right now, so it's probably in everyone's best interest that I break a few rules." Your sister snorts, and your father shushes her lightly, urging you to continue.

And you do.

The tale starts short and stilted—boring and pointless. You dance around the important parts and linger too long on the details that don’t matter, but when your family stays quiet—for the most part—as you relay the events from months ago, you start to get lost in your memories and speech slowly becomes easier.

When you first received the letter accepting your internship application as one of twenty selected students, you were beyond ecstatic—who wouldn’t be? True, you were nervous, but the moment you'd read your department placement you’re sure you made a few less-than-manly noises. Your name had been added to the neurobiology roster—not your specialty by any means, but an opportunity too good to pass up—and you were set to work in the testing labs. The testing labs! It was the most hands-on experience someone like you could ever hope to get, working side-by-side with seasoned professionals as they mapped out possible side-effects and made last-minute tweaks to the next big thing in the industry: the EI Vaccine.

The labs, themselves, were laid out like a university campus in middle-of-nowhere upstate New York. Trees, grass, hills, and the occasional stream littered the expansive grounds around each department's building, and as the summer’s live-in help you and your fresh new colleagues were assigned sleeping areas and roommates. You had landed Karkat—the only other intern assigned to the neurobiology sector—as your dorm-buddy, and the two of you had hit it off fairly quickly. By the end of that first day, it was like you'd been friends for years, even if Karkat himself refused to accept it.

Jane interrupts with a sweet comment about how she already knows all this and gosh she has a Christmas bake sale to stock and will you please hurry up. Dad pats her head and you just roll your eyes.

Your internship had lasted nearly the entire summer, but the work was exciting and time had passed quickly. You were offered so much to learn, both about the general field of medicine and the special pleasures of laboratory research, and you couldn’t get enough of it. The facilities were brilliant, the atmosphere was brilliant, the people were brilliant—all working toward the same better future, happier humanity. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity filled with every positive adjective anyone could pull from a Merriam-Webster thesaurus.

Until, of course, it wasn’t.

It happened three days before you were supposed to leave. You and Karkat had taken to staying late in the archive room after finishing your assigned tasks. As interns, you were allowed to stay well passed closing, and you spent hours poring over notes and writings from men and women you had, just months ago, only dreamed of meeting face-to-face. The stores of endless information were like some kind of rad intellectual drug, and your superiors had done more than encourage your interest.

Like the responsible teenagers you were, that night you'd planned to lock up the building before back to your rooms—but you never got the chance. Sometime before twelve, the door had opened and you’d been quickly ushered into the halls by a woman you’d met only once, maybe twice. As far as you knew, she worked in a different sector, and you'd never really had any reason to cross paths. She was young, ordered you to follow in a brusque half-English that suggested she'd been born somewhere on the Asian continent, and barely give you the chance to argue as she began subtly manhandling you through the corridors.

You were so confused neither of you really remember to protest (or at least ask where you were going) until you were already making your way down one of the metal stairwells toward the lower levels of the building. She hadn't responded. Instead, she'd just flashed her badge—a green card that put her office on the same level as the Doc's—and that was that.

You'd only been to the basement once before then. Aside from the programming offices and storage rooms, the place wasn't much more than a concrete cavern lined above with curling fluorescent lights. Thinking back, you realize that should have been the moment it occurred to you that something was wrong—a strange, silent woman leading two unsuspecting interns to their doom? The set up would have been perfect for a cheap horror flick… or a bad porno.

Eventually, the woman stopped in front of a metal-plated door, identical to every other one along the hallway, and swiped her EI-issued identification badge through the card receiver. Without waiting to check to see if either of you were still following, she pushed inside as soon as the lock clicked open.

Halfway down the next hallway, it finally dawned on the both of you that this was definitely a place you were not supposed to be.

For the first few feet, the walk was almost identical to the labs on the upper floors, but as you made your way deeper inside things began to change. The solid, white doors became glass-plated, surrounded by windows—and, before long, entire rooms were visible through clear walls along either side of the corridor. Most were empty.

Some were not.

You saw jungle cats, primates, wild dogs, and massive reptiles under harsh scrutiny by a few sporadic scientists and doctors, but no one you passed questioned your presence. They seemed too wrapped up in what they were doing to care.

The longer you walked, the less frequent the other professionals became, and each room you passed grew steadily emptier and emptier.

Until, of course, they weren’t.

In the blink of an eye, it was like you had stepped out of the lab and into a prison. Glass-plated rooms on either side were occupied by people, one or more, in various states of catatonia. It was penitentiary frozen in time—men, women, and children stood or sat, staring off into space. It was a world-class lobotomy convention.

It was frightening.

But then, every so often, you would pass a cell housing something quite the opposite—a detainee shrieking and screaming and clawing at the glass, eyes wide and thirsty and frantic and inhuman.

The woman had stopped, then, in front of one of these particular rooms, and you watched in silence as the man inside tried again and again to climb the concrete walls, blood streaking down the white-painted bricks as he ripped his nails off against the stone.

Only then did she finally turn to look at you both, unfazed by the chaos as you frozen at the sight of it all. Her stare was hard and silent, daring you to say anything. Daring you to run away, you thought.

Next to each door, there was a small, paper plaque like the ones you could find in any common hospital. But that there were no names listed, only numbers and doses—lists of chemicals and ingredients and oh God what have you walked into you have no idea oh God.

"It didn't take Karkat and me long to figure out where we were after that,” you say, rubbing your eyes tiredly. “I mean, it had all the make of a testing facility, and even though EI is always working on something new everyone was pretty focused on the pneumonia shot. We just—"

Suddenly, movement on the TV behind your father catches your eye, and you falter, scrambling for the remote. You can't help the curse that slips out as you struggle with the volume button, completely ignoring your concerned Dad as he calls your name.

But you don't care, because you're too focused on the Breaking News headline that glares Game-Over-red across the screen. "Shit," you say. "Shit, shit, shit. I have to call Karkat." Without waiting for an answer, you bolt from the room, leaving behind the drone of CNN as an unnaturally-frazzled evening reporter tries to relay the incoming information as quickly as possible.

...ver the past eleven days, more than two-point-six billion people across the globe have received English Industries' revolutionary vaccine, just over two-hundred million of which are United States citizens. Despite that number amounting to only a fraction of the world's estimated eight billion in population, the repercussions are—and will be—significant. As of this evening, there have been over six million reported hospitalizations as a result of what can only be the highly sought-after treatment, and the number is continually growing. If you or a loved one ha...

Your family doesn't follow as you sprint upstairs with the wind on your heels, and you can only assume they're watching unfold what you and your best friend predicted months ago.


It takes a few tries to get Karkat on the phone, but when he finally does answer he somehow manages to sound absurdly calm about the whole thing. You suspect he's had his freak-out already, while you yourself are only now just hitting full-on panic mode. Neither of you can talk long, however, and it doesn't take much to agree on one thing unconditionally: get out.

You've both known for a while that something big—something horrible—has been on the horizon for months, now. You'd never gotten any sort of explanation from the woman, no instructions telling you what to do with what you'd been shown or any real clarification as to what it actually was, so you'd had to come up with your own speculations and theories and worries. None of them had been pretty, all of them sounded like they'd been pulled from the script of some gag-inducing 1950's B-movie.

In the days following your basement-bound adventure, both you and Karkat had retreated out of whatever small spotlight the labs had to offer. It was in your respective best interests to act like nothing had changed, you decided—that nothing was different. Everything on the facility grounds was state-of-the-art, high-tech, top-of-the-line. There was no way they—whoever they might be—didn't have security footage of your entrance into whatever that basement room was. And with your photographs came every sliver of information about your lives, on-record for your initial admission into the internship program.

Only after your flights had safely landed back in your respective areas of residency and several months had passed without incident did you realize your lives probably weren't going to end messily in some random freak accident—the kind meant to keep people quiet.

With that epiphany had come a wave of paranoid what-ifs and questions, and the eventual formulation of a contingency plan. You had neither the ability nor the knowledge stop it—whatever it was—because you'd already waited too long for your stories to be believable. And, of course, you had zero proof that you weren't crazy. But you knew you could at least try to keep yourselves and your families safe when the time came.

After less than fifteen minutes of frantic flailing and shooshing and panicking and virtual papping over the telephone line with Karkat, you make your way back downstairs to the kitchen, much calmer than before. Your dad and sister are still glued to the television. Calling on the cool, confident doctor-face you've spent more hours than you'd like to admit practicing in front of your bathroom mirror, you clap your hands and grin, all teeth, and promptly announce that the three of you are going camping. Starting tomorrow morning. For an as-of-yet-undetermined length of time.

No one questions it.

Some part of you is grateful for the sudden chaos. It makes convincing your family a hell of a lot easier. You know, though, that the countdown you've long-since been denying has already in motion for days. The metaphorical clock is ticking, and you're not really sure you want to know what will happen when the timer hits zero. You are aware, however, that you'd rather not be around to find out the moment it does.

With a quick shout over your shoulder that you'll be back soon, you race out the door and to your car, peeling out of the driveway before the front door to your house has even closed. To take your mind off the panic still half-running through your brain, you call your cousin in hopes of catching her before she boards her plane to the United States. She doesn't pick up. Not wanting to sit in silence, you flick on the radio and shift to one of the national news stations. After just a few minutes of listening as you battle gridlock, you realize that things are falling apart quicker than you had anticipated.

With global health suddenly at mass-risk and every piece of EI-funded medical research under question, transportation and communication systems are at a near stand-still until "trusted" authorities can make an accurate assessment of the vaccination's side effects. Emergency meetings have been called up between world government health authorities in an effort to work together, and thirteen countries have already issued arrest warrants for Lord English and his colleagues.

You can only hope that the rest of your family made it into the country safely—or at least retreated back to your grandparents' isolated island.

Not soon enough, you break out of the interstate bumper-to-bumper traffic and shoot into the local hospital's packed parking lot. As a medical student, you've been spending more and more time here on your days off, volunteering in the free clinic and running errands for the doctors. You haven't come to help, though—no matter how much you want to. There's nothing you can do anymore.

An empty school messenger bag in hand, you run in through the entrance marked EMPLOYEES ONLY, even though you technically don't work in the facility. Now, your only goal is to get in and out without being noticed—because people here know that you worked with the vaccine last summer, and that could cause some major problems. As far as you know none of the interns are being charged with anything yet, but with all the uncertainty circling around the company you're well aware could change at any moment. The halls are busy and crowded, nurses and doctors shuffling half-comatose patients between rooms amid a plethora of stereotypically hospital-grade injuries and illnesses. You're reminded of the cells, and suddenly you feel like you're going to be sick.

You push forward and keep your head down, ignoring the growing urge to throw up or scream or run away or option four: all of the above. No one is paying attention to you, too wrapped up in their own cases as the frantic tension hanging thick over the whole place—over the world—slowly builds.

It doesn't take much time to find what you're looking for. The fifth-floor supply closet is the largest in the building, tucked away in the back of the maternity ward because apparently they could spare the space. The passageways, normally quiet, are almost silent now because whatever extra help usually on-hand has been sent below. You slip inside the large room unnoticed and immediately begin to load up, stuffing rolls of gauze and disinfectants and bags and needles and vials of basic-to-upper-grade medical provisions into your pack. You have no idea how long you'll be gone, but you do know from the stories your grandparents have told that more often than not it pays well to be prepared.

When you've gathered everything you can carry, you slide back out of the room and walk as casually as you can toward the exit. (And by casually, you mean with just enough panic to fit with the flow of the crowd but not so much that you draw unnecessary attention to yourself.) You're twelve steps from freedom when you're spotted. It's the first-floor receptionist—a nice girl you took out to dinner once—and she stands up, toppling over the chair behind her desk. "John!" she shouts, and as heads start turning in your direction you duck behind a tired mother ushering along three kids. Before the girl has the chance to chase you, you're already bolting through the entrance toward your car.

Your next stops are no less chaotic, and soon you've got your trunk packed with bags from the local Safeway, where you stock up on preserved food and fresh-water jugs and anything else you can think of, and the hardware store. You have basic camping equipment stuffed in your garage already, but your family wilderness outings are usually backed moreso by the Harley side of your tree than the Egbert. Now, however, you don't have the luxury of their help, and you can only hope that you pick up everything you'll eventually need. While the grocery store is as jammed as the hospital, you’re lucky enough that no one (else) seems to have reached the emptied-Lowes stage of global panic.

You don't care about cost as you rack up charges on your own card, then your Dad's. Money won't matter where you're going.

You're struggling through a shopping-center parking lot, arms so filled with bags you think you've lost feeling in both hands, when your phone rings and you nearly drop everything in your fumbling haste to find it. Caller ID blinks with a goofy picture of you and your cousin taken in your middle school glory days, and your heart jumps. "Oh my God, Jade!" you breathe, holding your cell in one hand as you try to stuff the last of your bags into the trunk before they hit the ground.

"John?" she sounds frazzled, but otherwise calm. Thank fuck.

"Yeah—who else would it be?"

"No one, sorry! You just sound different, that's all! Have you been running?"

"Yeah, kind of," you laugh, because it suddenly occurs to you how surreal the whole situation is. It's like you've been moving on autopilot for the past few hours, and your cousin's voice is only just now bringing you back to earth. "Where are you? Are you alright? Did Jake and Grandma Harley make it? Are you guys all in the country now?" Soon, you have your car started and you're peeling out onto the road, phone still held tight to your ear.

"So you heard?"

"About the vaccination? Yeah—it's all over the news."

There's a pause and some shuffling on the other end of the line, and when your cousin speaks up again there's something in her tone that you can't quite place. You wonder for a second if you were too quick to feel relieved. "John? You told Grandpa and the rest of us not to get the shot. Did you know this was going to happen?"

Your breath hitches, and you just want her to answer your questions because you still don't know what's going on and you're so worried. But she's avoiding it, you can tell. You two have been so close for so long, you can pick up on things like that. It's frustrating. "No. Yes—maybe? It's a long story." You huff, blasting through a yellow light just as it turns red. "The important thing is that whatever this is, it is happening, and it's happening now, and Jesus, Jade, will just you tell me you’re all okay?"

Jade sighs, and you feel kind of bad for snapping at her but you need to know because now that you're thinking straight, grounded, you can feel your composure slowly slipping away. "...Jake and Grandma landed, but they froze all incoming and outgoing flights just after they unloaded. We're stuck on the mainland."

"Shit," you curse, swerving around some dumbass in a minivan who, for some reason, thinks it's necessary to drive at a snail's-pace in the left lane. "You guys have to get to the States and meet up with us somehow. Or head back to your house. It doesn't matter which—just get out of there and away from people. Let me talk to Grandpa Harley—is he around?"

"Yeah," she replies, and you can tell she's getting a little shaken up by the tone of your voice. You're getting a little shaken up by the tone of your voice.

One static-blur of movement on the line later, your grandfather's low, soothing voice crackles in, uncharacteristically serious when he greets you with the typical, "Hey, old boy—how've you been?"

You don't waste any time explaining what you can, and his focused-yet-gentle questions and replies have you clear-headed by the time you pull back into your driveway. You tell him your plans, and he adds input and advice of his own to help solidify things for you and your Dad and Jane. If there was ever any doubt that you had cool grandparents, it's gone by the time you both hang up with reassurances and well-wishes and proclamations of familial love. You refuse to think about how much it sounds like you're saying goodbye for the last time.

When you get back into your house, you spot your sister in the kitchen first, already busy at work loading up cloth bags with food from your pantry. Behind her glasses, you can tell that her eyes are red and puffy—she's been crying—but her face is set in a firm, determined scowl you know means she's nowhere near ready to give up. A swell of pride wells up in your chest, and you swoop in like the big brother you are (but often fail to be) and gather her into your arms, crushing her in a bear hug. She accidently drops a can of green beans on your foot, but you don't say anything because this is a touching moment, damn it, and you both need this.

For a few moments, you just cling to each other, and you want nothing more than to apologize for things you have—had—no control over. You don't open your mouth, though. Any words still left to say would sound hollow.

The garage door opens just as she asks if all of her friends are going to die, and you're so, so, so grateful when your dad comes inside the house to find you. You don't think you would be able to tell her the truth without crying too.


By the time the three of you sit down to dinner, you're all tense and exhausted, but you and Jane help Dad without complaint. It's the last meal you'll have that's been cooked in the comfort of your own home, you think. Your father doesn't bake for the occasion, and that alone speaks volumes about the situation.

You eat in silence, the only buzzing background noise coming from the television as broadcasters relay the latest details coming in from throughout the country and across the world. Reported cases of sudden catatonia have spread far and wide, but the tell-tale animalistic hysteria you witnessed in the laboratory basement hasn't made itself known yet. You hope that particular stage was a fluke, but at this point you aren't sure of anything.

As you slowly chew what might possibly be the best lasagna you've ever eaten in your life, it occurs to you that your family is completely uprooting themselves without really asking why. They're only slightly more in the dark than you about the finer details of the vaccination (because to be honest you know you don't understand as much as you think you should) so you can't help but wonder if there's some other reason they're willing to drop everything and follow you into the woods. Maybe they think you're now a criminal on the run. It kind of feels like you are, at least.

Whatever their reasons, they haven't stopped trusting you yet. It's a good sign and you're not about to start questioning miracles, so you just keep quiet.

Everyone eventually heads to bed after a close-knit round of dishwashing, but you don't go to sleep—how could you? Your whole world is starting to fall apart, and all you can do is watch as the bricks you built your life on begin to crumble. Only in the darkness of your room, wrapped up in the Ghostbusters comforter you've had since middle school, do you finally let the last of your practiced face slip away and sob. It's not pretty, it's not sweet. It's raw and painful and wet—and you're convinced it would be loud, too, if you hadn't buried yourself so far under your blankets that everything outside the cocoon is muffled and still. After an eternity, the tears stop pouring out of your eyes, but you spend another half-hour-day-month-century trembling, gasping in your sheets. When your chest hurts so bad you can barely breathe, you finally lie still, suffocating under the layers of fabric but too mentally burned out to move.


[12/23/31]

The next morning, it's clear that no one else in your family slept much, either. Your sister is stiff and pensive, and she barely says more than two words to you as you both pile the last few things (a plush animal or four; several blank spiral books and a pack of pens; the box of notes and research on English Industries’ work you've collected over the past few months, kept hidden under your bed) into Dad's car. The man himself tries to put up a good front throughout the whole thing, but you can tell he's just as tense as the rest of you by the fact that his hair is uncharacteristically mussed and he makes no move to tuck in his wrinkled shirt.

After you lock the front door from the inside one last time, you make one last sweep through the house, looking for anything else you might have forgotten. When being thorough turns into badly-hidden stalling, though, you force yourself to head to the garage. It's filled to the ceiling with cardboard boxes of memories, wood and tools from projects started by various relatives over the years, the dismantled remains of your old swingset—everything but the minivan that there's never quite been enough room for.

With a sigh, you set your house alarm and flick the deadbolt on the back door, before turning to open the car-sized entrance to the outside. Jane and your dad are already buckled in and ready to go, waiting on you, but you needed this last moment to say goodbye to the house you've called home for nearly two decades.

Even though it's still early in the morning and the daylight isn't as gut-wrenchingly bright as could be, you still have to squint as the big plastic-metal-whatever doors slowly rise. Something moves out of the corner of your eye, but you can't really tell what it is. You're not too focused on your surroundings anymore, anyway. Your brain has already moved on to the journey ahead.

When the windshield of your car comes into view, you can see your father sitting in the driver's seat, and give him a little wave. He flops a hand back tiredly, and not for the first time do you reg—

Something hits your back without warning, knocking you forward onto the concrete and pressing the air out of your lungs as you fight to catch yourself—just barely. You can't move. There's weight, heavy like led, squirming and writhing on top of you, and suddenly you're working on instinct you weren't even aware you had. You heave yourself up and reach behind you, knocking the thing over your head as you struggle to stand. It lands hard on the ground with the crack! of bone hitting concrete, and only then do you realize that it's a person.

Oh, fuck.

He keeps convulsing, though—flailing and floundering to the side, trying to get away from something that isn't there, and you immediately rush forward, hoping you didn't hurt him. What the hell was he doing in our garage? you think, but you decide quickly that he was probably homeless and scared of the recent global developments and looking for shelter and—

He's still face down where he landed, but when you get close enough he turns his head to you and hisses and holy shit his eyes are yellow and he's lunging what do you do you have to get out of the way and—

You get your legs working enough to jump back just as he leaps toward you off the ground, still spitting and hissing and blinking like he can't quite see right. In seconds, you're pressed back up against one side of the never-ending box tower, and you have to take a second dive to the ground in order to avoid another round of airborne teeth and rage.

You need to defend yourself, but you don't want to hurt him too badly, so you do the first thing that comes to mind when you think self defense—you throw a punch at his face. He falters just long enough for you to get a good look at his contorted, stunned expression, and you feel your stomach drop. At some point, he had stepped back into the shadows of your garage, but the blow you land knocks him back out into the sunlight. You wonder if his skin really is that color, or if the morning clouds are playing tricks on your already-poor vision.

He flinches, hissing again, and launches himself at you again just as you start to sprint toward the car. Your father is still in the front seat, leaning forward over the dash with his fingers white-knuckled on the wheel as he yells something to you.

Your brain finishes processing what he's saying just as something latches onto your ankle and you stumble (but you don't fall you can't fall shit shit shit). The man is back on the floor, arms stretched and one hand gripping your foot. He claws at your pant leg, scratching and scratching and scratching as you try to yank away, dragging him along with you for several agonizing feet. He won't let go, though. You see his other hand reach up, and in the span of less than a moment it becomes clear to you that you won't make it out of this alive if he grabs you with all ten of his too-sharp fingers. No man should be this strong.

You reach out blindly for something—anything—and before you really realize what you've grasped you're swinging a heavy mass of stone and wood down onto the clutching arms with as much force as you can muster. The head of your grandfather's sledgehammer slams on the bones with a sickening crunch, and suddenly you're free and fleeing to the safety of the minivan's passenger seat, tool in hand.

"Fucking go!" you shout, nearly slamming the car door against your foot as you fumble for the remote garage button on your dad's rearview mirror. You click it just in time to see the man struggle to stand again—he's back in the sun, now, and you can see blood (is that blood?) pooling around his feet as it pours from the bone-puncture wounds on his forearms. The machinery is old, and you're convinced it won't shut before he gets out. "Go!"

You glance over at your father to see him staring at you with a look of horrified disbelief (and fear?), but he finally does what you say. Within seconds, you're peeling down the quiet suburban road and screeching onto the highway, heading north. The car is silent save the sound of your heavy breathing and the blood pounding so hard in your ears you're convinced your sister in the back seat can hear it. As the adrenaline fades, though, your brain begins to register the stinging pain in your leg, and you don't have to look to tell that you've got a nasty wound or five where the man—thing—was holding you down. It needs to be treated immediately, so you muster up the energy to ask Jane for the smaller first aid kit you packed with your things.

Your dad speaks up before you have the chance to call back to her, however. "Son...?" He glances over at you, and there's that god-damned look again. You want to curl up and die, but you're too high-strung and stressed to actually do so. "What was—? We should c-call the police, or something. I don't think..." he trails off, clearing his throat while you wait as patiently as you can with your leg practically pouring blood onto his cloth flooring. "Do you think he'll be alright, son?" He doesn't ask what happened, which you're grateful for. You're not quite sure you know.

Just like Jane's question, though, this is one you don't want to answer. He won't be alright—he's gone, whatever that might mean. You never saw someone quite like that in the laboratory, but you know there really isn't any other explanation for what caused it. And you also know that things just got a hell of a lot worse.

Chapter Text

 [12/12/31] 

==> REWIND ELEVEN DAYS

==> BE THE ANGRY GENETICS MAJOR

It's never been a secret that winters in Pennsylvania are icy. That's just a fucking fact—the farther north you go, the more the temperature drops. But only in the year since you trapped yourself hundreds of miles above the temperate zone have you really started to understand what an east coast cold actually means.

It's not chilly, it's not crisp It's so far removed from the moderately warm New Mexican Decembers you've spent home you might as well be on the other side of the world. No, a northeastern holiday season, you've discovered, is something much, much worse. After dark, temperatures drop below single digit measures; thick snow piles up overnight without warning; and the electricity flickers every so often as slush-heavy tree limbs fall over power lines. In short, it's Dante's fucking ninth circle of hell, a god-damned frozen demon wasteland. Even if you wanted to, you couldn't step outside.

As mildly upsetting as the discovery is, though, its blow is softened on your third day of winter break, when you find out for sure that you are, in fact, the last one left in your dorm building. Granted, this revelation takes an hour of running through every hall, Celine Dion's greatest hits belting from your lungs, but the sore throat is worth the satisfaction of complete, confirmed solitude. Every other student has made his or her way home for the four-week study sequester, off to bake caramelized hams and exchange gifts with friends and family alike, and you finally—finally—have a chance to relax.

Your name is KARKAT VANTAS, and you are EIGHTEEN YEARS OLD, just at the cusp of adulthood but already aching for an INDEPENDANCE so far overdue. It's not as though you don't have relatives to join this season—your older brother KANKRI has always done his best to ensure that you're taken care of, despite an upbringing devoid of any traditionally-parental influence. He'd chosen simplicity over complication, serenity over chaos as your primary lifestyle, both as a direct result of your economic standing and his own moral code. From your earliest memories onward, you and your big-hearted guardian have been spending every holiday on the road, travelling throughout familiar desertlands to spread the Vantas brand of seasonal cheer to those less fortunate—long-winded sermons and bad sandwiches included. It's an admirable mission, to be sure, but misguided (though well-intended) charity has always been your brother’s calling, not yours.

You aren't heartless by any means—no. It's not a crime to want something for yourself, whether it be time or silence or a gently-used copy of Left 4 Dead: 3.

The television's droning voices shift, signaling the start of what you've been dreading for months, and you’re effectively pulled from your seasonal musings. You’ve taken it upon yourself to set up camp (the pillow fort you've been sleeping in for the past week is something you're rather proud of, maturity be damned) in the dorm's common room, as it's the only place in the building with working cable. The community Xbox, of course, is an additional welcome perk.

Now, however, a national news station’s telltale reds-whites-and-blues have replaced any sort of mindless entertainment on the screen, and, as you watch, the reporter's peppy spiel falters. She announces a live shift to her colleagues in New York, your least favorite place on earth.

Reluctantly, you uncurl from your cocoon of comforters and pillows just enough to really see the broadcast, but, as soon as your former mentor steps up to the podium, you flip back around to stare at the ceiling. If there's one thing you loathe more than the Empire State, it's the people who live there.

Like every other lucky bastard given the gift of a summer spent working with English Industries, you had been thrilled to receive your acceptance letter all those months ago. Perhaps even more so than most, given your status as a scholarship student—you had nothing to offer the company, you thought, monetarily, intellectually, or otherwise. Why the hell would they pick you? But your brother had, as usual, poked and prodded and congratulated and gushed over the phone like a fluffy mother hen, and—after several heated debates—convinced you to accept the admission despite your inhibitions. It had been something you'd only applied for on a whim, not expecting anything to come of the brief paperwork, and you were honestly a little uncertain about the whole thing. That's not to say you weren't grateful. No, just apprehensive.

Not that you would ever admit it, of course.

But the offer was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—an experience you couldn't refuse even if you really had wanted to—and, with that in mind, your acceptance had been inevitable.

While science had always come easy to you, human interaction presented more of a challenge. You're an eternal third wheel—a professional people-watcher. The referee, but never a player. And, like college, you would be stepping through the EI property gates without an ally.

"...nd countless lives, young and old, have been lost to unexpected contractions of the illness or a body's inability to handle the infection. Much like the common cold, pneumonia has been like a plague for generations, ever-changing, ever-kil..."

You sigh, half tempted to block out the professionally-sculpted words of a man just as fake, but know you can't. This is important. This is life changing. This is globally influential. This is horrible and dangerous and fuck this is wrong why didn't we do something and how is he smiling he—

You scowl, exhaling through your nose as a few calming curses worm their way out from between clenched teeth.

You had met John on your first day in New York, at the orientation luncheon. Bubbly as always, he'd been deep in conversation with a group of students your age when you'd arrived—late, as usual. After receiving your room assignments weeks before arriving, the two of you had casually chatted online more than once, though your conversations never held much substance or lasted long. He would be a tolerable bunkmate, you had decided, so long as he stayed out of your way.

The minute he'd spotted your name tag, however, it was like you were suddenly the most important person in the world. Table discussion forgotten, he'd practically leapt up and tackled you in a crushing hug—literally enveloped your entire body. You were easily two heads shorter, and half as wide. The boy wasn't large, but he had certainly been built well.

Greetings were exchanged, and—after a pause just long enough for you to grunt hello—he had picked back up again, waving his hands as he restarted whatever story you’d walked in on. He didn't seem to mind repeating,  and it wasn’t long before you were adding comments and interjections of your own, providing the snark his tales seemed to lack. He would laugh and tease back in a way that no one had ever done before. For once, someone other than your brother didn't shush your loud voice and profanity-filled metaphors. John was a good kid—the best kid. And, after that, you were inseparable.

"...ermanent solution that could not have been possible without the hard and dedicated work by both our own scientists and those from around the world who flocked to help in our rese..."

As Doc Scratch continues to cheerily enunciate his words in a way that could put to shame any infomercial announcer worth his salt, you slowly feel yourself falling deeper into the fog of perpetual irritation you like to carry with you wherever you go. No matter how many blanket shields you raise, you can still hear his voice, and, eventually, you decide you've had enough. The broadcast is, for sure, momentous, but there's nothing your former mentor will say that you haven't heard before.

Instead of muting the volume, though, you chuck a stray pillow at the screen and growl when the monitor doesn't budge. As unfortunate as a broken TV would be, the destruction might have at least brightened your mood by a fraction.

You settle for a few unintelligible shouts thrown in its general direction, but for some reason that doesn't help much, either.


The rest of your evening is spent in relatively the same position, stillness only broken by few snack-hunting expeditions though the building, and before long you're settled in to watch a recorded HBO loop of Midnight in Paris. You've seen the movie at least a hundred times before, though, so Owen Wilson's perfectly-coifed, blonde hair-swoosh barely holds your attention this runaround. In some pathetic attempt to distract yourself, you crack open your laptop and try fall into the familiar haze of mindless gaming. Predictably, it doesn’t do a thing. 

Your thoughts drift back to what is arguably the most important issue at hand, and soon you find yourself shifting through online news sources to see how everyone else is reacting to the Doc's press conference. Or, so you tell yourself. Really, you just want to read the stupid little comments people post at the bottom of the articles. You swear.

Still, the headlines are more than a little worrying.

Political leaders publicly proclaiming their support, EI representatives seen personally escorting shipments of the immunization across the globe, philanthropic celebrities financially backing deliveries to third world communities. Only in the dark recesses of the internet (forums and blogs and that kind of shit) do you find skeptics and realists. You can't help but send in a few anonymous messages aggressively supporting several outlandish conspiracy theorists, wanting to do something but understanding the need to keep your identity secret. The list of interns was public knowledge, after all.

It's nearly midnight when your Pesterchum account pings, and an active chat window appears onscreen. The two hour time difference between Pennsylvania and New Mexico means that visiting hours for whatever facility your brother has been at today have just ended, and you'd bet your signed copy of Eat, Pray, Love that he wants to talk about the only thing worth discussing this evening—and you don't mean the weather.

Despite the testy personality clash that is your relationship, you can at least say that the two of you care about each other—and (even though you'd rather saw your own hand off than let him know) you're a little glad to hear from Kankri. One-sided conversations with paranoid internet essayists can only get you so far in the way of companionship, and, as much as you'd like to talk with your best friend, you know that he has his own family to worry about at the moment. It's still relatively early in Washington, after all.

— clericalCruciverbalist [CC] began pestering carcinoGeneticist [CG] at 23:32 — 

CC: G99d evening, little 6rother.

CC: I h9pe y9u're d9ing well en9ugh 9n y9ur 9wn, this year. As I predicted, y9u have 6een s9rely missed by 69th myself and the Sacred Heart staff. Several l9ng-term Carpenter Shelter residents n9ted y9ur a6sence, as well.

CC: Assuming y9u haven't starved 9r fr9zen t9 death, my 9ffer 9f missi9nary c9mpani9nship still stands. Y9u kn9w y9u'll always 6e welc9med with 9pen arms, regardless 9f y9ur attitude.

CG: HOW ABOUT NO.

CC: I've 6een keeping an eye 9n the wea

CC: It's rude t9 interrupt, Karkat. Y9u c9uld see the little ic9n alerting y9u t9 the fact that I was still typing.

You sigh, trailing off into a groan of frustration for added dramatic effect, and scrub your face, waiting for Kankri to finish his original thought. Normally, you'd barge through and cut him off mid-ramble, but you don't have the energy tonight. Banter with your brother involves more brain power than any other sibling rivalry you've ever encountered, which something you're both impressed and horrified by. Still, you can't help but reap a fraction of comfort from the obnoxious, ripe-tomato text.

CC: I've 6een keeping an eye 9n the weather there, and it l99ks like y9u'll be experiencing an9ther wave 9f fr9zen rain within the next few days. I h9pe y9u've st9cked up 9n supplies, as it's likely the m9re experienced residents 9f y9ur area will have already started t9 prepare f9r the inevita6le l9ck-in.

CC: I w9uld als9 like t9 take this time t9 remind y9u that, in the likely case y9u are 6arricaded within y9ur 6uilding by extreme mete9r9l9gical phen9mena, take-9ut and delivery f99d 9pti9ns will n9t 6e available t9 y9u. And that scurvy is a very real possi6ility given b9uts 9f l9ng-term is9lati9n, regardless 9f l9cation 9r ec9n9mic sta6ility.

CG: AND I WOULD ALSO LIKE TO PAUSE A MOMENT AND EMPASIZE MY LEGAL STATUS AS AN INDEPENDENT POST-CHILD CAPABLE OF PERFECTLY ADEQUATE SELF-CARE.

CG: CLEARLY, I AM NOT LYING LIFELESS IN A HEAPING PILE OF MY OWN FLY-GATHERING FILTH, NOR HAVE I DIED FROM A LACK OF BODILY-REQUIRED CORE SUBSTANCES.

CG: I AM DOING FINE WITHOUT YOU.

CC: I can't help 6ut n9tice that y9u didn't use the term "adult" t9 descri6e y9urself. Perhaps y9u've finally ackn9wledged the fact that y9u lack the maturity t9 survive as a fully-gr9wn man in t9day's m9dern w9rld.

CC: In addition, the legal caps set 9n 9ne's ad9lescence mean n9thing in this 9r any 9ther c9ntext, as I kn9w y9u're quite aware. We've 6een 9ver this several times 6ef9re—s9ciety is a 6rutal place, and, f9r it's many faults and dangers, it is s9mething 9ne can only enter when truly ready.

CC: That is t9 say, whether 9ne has reached the eighteenth year mark, 9r n9t.

CG: YES, WE HAVE BEEN OVER THIS.

CG: WE HAVE BEEN SO OVER THIS, I'M MORE THAN POSITIVE GRAVITY HAS CEASED FUNCTIONING

CG: AND OUR OXYGEN-DEPRIVED, LIMP MEAT SACKS HAVE GONE CAREENING OUT OF ORBIT AND INTO SPACE.

CG: ALSO, I’M GOING IGNORE YOUR BLATANT VERBAL ATTACKS ON MY PERSON.

CC: I’m 9nly l99king 9ut f9r y9u, Karkat.

CG: THIS EXCHANGE OF USELESS SENTENCES IS, AS USUAL, A POINTLESS ATROCITY. AND, ALSO AS USUAL, THAT IS LARGELY YOUR FAULT.

CG: WHAT THE HELL DID YOU MESSAGE ME FOR IN THE FIRST PLACE? I CAN'T BELIEVE IT WAS TO COMPLAIN ABOUT HOW MANY MONTHS I'VE BEEN ALIVE OR HOW MUCH YOU YEARN FOR MY PHYSICAL PRESENCE.

CG: I EXPECT MORE FROM YOU, KANKRI.

CC: Just as I expect m9re from y9u, little br9ther. Y9ur days 9f relative s9litude have n9t mell9wed y9ur temper, I see. That said, I have n9 intenti9n 9f lamenting y9ur age, simply y9ur level of civilized s9phisticati9n. Alth9ugh, I will deign t9 admit that 9ur traditi9nal h9liday dinner will 6e rather quiet this year.

CC: At the very least, y9u pr9vide m9re entertainment than m9st 9f the 9therwise mentally and physically unsta6le patr9ns y9u and I have enc9untered 9n our vari9us j9urneys.

CG: FOR ONCE, I WILL BE THE BIGGER PERSON HERE AND ADMIT THAT I'M UNSURE WHETHER OR NOT I WAS JUST LUMPED INTO THE SAME CATEGORY AS THE CRAZY PEOPLE YOU SPEND YOUR TIME WITH AND THEREBY INSULTED A SECOND TIME THIS EVENING.

CC: Y9ur insensitivity t9ward the medically-risky c9ntinues t9 ast9und me, little 6r9ther. "Crazy" is a 6rash, 6iased term, the use 9f which is n9t c9nd9ned in any sta6le, egalitarian s9ciety.

CG: OH MY GOD KANKRI WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?

CG: YOUR VERY PRESENCE IS SLOWLY GIVING RISE TO AN AGONY THAT WILL SOON COMPLETELY CONSUME MY BRAIN.

CG: MAYBE THAT'S WHAT WILL FINALLY DO ME IN.

CG: WHAT A PAINFUL END THAT WILL BE.

CG: RUINATION BY LECTURE.

CG: YOU ARE ACTUALLY GOING TO ANNOY ME TO DEATH WITH YOUR WORDS. IT WILL HAPPEN.

CC: In truth, I was merely c9ncerned f9r y9ur current psych9l9gical state of 6eing. I am n9t s9 far rem9ved as to have missed y9ur scientific counsell9r's 6r9adcast, and, judging 6y y9ur actions 9ver the past several m9nths as a wh9le, am m9re than aware that he—al9ng with the c9mpany with which he ass9ciates—sets y9u quite 9n edge.

CC: And, 6efore y9u 9nce again interject with a series 9f rude, superflu9us gray letters, I can assure y9u that there is n9 need t9 reiterate the tale y9u relayed t9 me bef9re setting 9ff t9 the University. N9 further c9nvincing is currently—if ever—needed.

CC: As previ9usly stated, I d9 n9t believe y9u, but I d9 n9t d9u6t y9u, either.

CG: AND I STILL DON'T HAVE A FUCKING CLUE WHAT THAT MEANS, BUT, AS LONG AS YOU'RE WILLING TO STEP OFF YOUR TALL HOOFBEAST FOR A SECOND AND TRUST ME, I'M NOT REALLY GOING TO QUESTION IT.

CG: THAT DOESN'T MEAN I CAN'T HOPE YOU BREAK YOUR ARM OR SOMETHING WHEN YOU HIT THE GROUND, THOUGH.

CC: Despite 9ur differences, Karkat, we are family, and there are several 9ft-welc9med perks that ride 9n the coattails of this genetic relati9nship—9ne, 9f c9urse, falling int9 the particular categ9ry 9f mutual c9nfidence. Y9u have never 6een 9ne t9 lie, and, as much as y9ur st9ry resem6les a scene cut from s9me particularly terrible h9rr9r film, I cann9t help 6ut realize that there is g99d reas9n behind y9ur acti9ns.

CC: I will als9, h9wever, c9ncede t9 the p9int that y9ur f9rmer empl9yer's cl9se relati9nship with several untrustw9rthy g9vernment 9fficials makes me m9re than a 6it uneasy.

CG: BY SEVERAL YOU MEAN ALL, RIGHT?

CC: ...Current legislati9n has fallen 6y the wayside, I'm afraid.

CG: IF YOU HAD BEEN BORN SEVERAL GENERATIONS AGO, I AM MORE THAN CERTAIN YOU WOULD HAVE BEEN A MEMBER OF THOSE STUPID FLOWER CULTS THEY TEACH ABOUT IN HISTORY CLASSES.

CG: DOWN WITH THE HYPOTHETICAL LARGE-PICTURE MALE, AND ALL OF THAT.

CC: If y9u're implying I w9uld participate als9 in a hefty lack 9f self-gr99ming al9ngside mass hallucin9genic su6stance use, perhaps it is time we retraced the steps in 9ur familial 69nds and revisited every life experience we've ever shared. Ever.

CG: YOU COULD HAVE JUST WRITTEN "NO".

CC: A mere tw9-letter w9rd cann9t fully express the level 9f disdain I h9ld f9r y9ur 6aseless assumpti9ns and factless insinuati9ns regarding my—9r any—pers9n, speculative 9r 9therwise.

CG: "DO NOT JUDGE ME".

CC: Are y9u attempting t9 consolidate my 9therwise l9quaci9us statements? While brevity may be the s9ul of wit, little 6r9ther, there is n9thing even rem9tely amusing a69ut the em9ti9nal states of y9ur c9mpani9ns. Respect t9ward 9thers sh9uld, as always, remain y9ur t9p pri9rity when interacting s9cially. Y9ur insensitivity is ast9unding.

CG: I GIVE UP.

CG: TO REVISIT THE ACTUAL POINT OF THIS LONG-WINDED AND UNNECESSARILY RIDICULOUS VERBAL EXCHANGE, MY EMOTIONAL STATUS IS THE EQUIVALENT OF A SICKENINGLY MEDIOCRE ONE-HUNDRED-AND-SEVENTEEN CHARACTER STATEMENT POSTED ONLINE BY AN OTHERWISE-UNSOCIAL TEENAGER.

CG: IT IS LIKE THE SMARTLY-PRESSED COLLAR OF A CRISP FORMAL DRESS JACKET, WORN BY SOME FAMOUS AND DASHINGLY HANDSOME INDIVIDUAL TO A FANCY SOIREE ALONGSIDE OTHER, EQUALLY ATTRACTIVE PERSONS.

CG: IN SHORT, I AM FINE.

CC: Ign9ring the 96vi9us fact that y9ur extensive metaph9rical use attaches tw9 widely-differing c9nn9tati9ns t9 the w9rd y9u've ch9sen t9 descri6e, I am at least s9mewhat warmed t9 hear that y9u are alright. Regardless, my fears have n9t 6een c9mpletely assuaged.

CC: Simply kn9w that I am and always will be n9thing m9re than a click away, sh9uld y9u need c9nversation.

CC: F9r n9w, it is late here—and even m9res9 in y9ur area 9f the c9untry. G99dnight, little 6r9ther.

— clericalCruciverbalist [CC] ceased pestering carcinoGeneticist [CG] at 1:02 — 

CG: YEAH. GO TO FUCKING SLEEP. I HOPE YOUR SUBCONSCIOUS IS MILDLY ENTERTAINING.

— carcinoGeneticist [CG] disconnected at 1:02 — 

As always with your overly-verbose sibling, the conversation blasts through hours you could have spent numbly surfing the internet, much to your eternal exasperation. In the background, the single-movie marathon still plays on its endless loop, and you spend a solid fifteen minutes debating whether or not you should risk the chilly (room temperature) air to turn it off or stay wrapped in your fort. Somehow, in your flipping and settling, the remote has managed to slip out of reach. You never actually come to a decision before dozing off, and the film stays on.

Sleep, however, only lasts an hour or two—and, before you really realize that's happening, your own panicked whimpers jolt you awake. The nightmare is fleeting and fuzzy, already fading fast as you struggle against the blankets to breathe, but an imaginary flash of gray behind your eyes is enough to make your chest hitch.

"...at's what war does to men. And there's nothing fine and noble about dying in the mud unless you die gracefully. And th..."

The last thing you think before flicking off the television is a rousing fuck you, Hemingway, and you're suddenly plunged into darkness.

For most, self-imposed blindness would seem an almost ludicrous post-terror coping mechanism, but you've always felt at home in the night. Like your empty building, there's a comfort in the peaceful solitude lightlessness offers. It’s an assurance that your nightmares are simply that—nightmares—because nothing ever actually reaches out from the proverbial closet to get you. When the fluorescents are on, there are plenty of places for monsters to hide, but under the cover of darkness they have every opportunity to attack. You're trusting reality to confirm something you already know to be true, and—just as it has for years—it comes through for you.

Tonight, yet again, you are safe from invisible monsters.

When your heartbeat finally slows, you scoot back around to your laptop and open it, squinting at the sudden glow. Your chat window is still logged in, and you can see John's name in the list of idle Chums—a quick glance at your clock tells you it's just before midnight in his time zone. Perfect. You've been waiting to talk with him for hours, and—even if he doesn't reply—you'll feel infinitely better after at least an attempt at communication. There are a few important things you need to discuss with your partner in crime, not the least of which was brought to the forefront of your mind by Kankri's rambling.

—  carcinoGeneticist [CG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 2:47 — 

CG: HEY, DUMBASS.

CG: GET YOUR ASS ONLINE.

CG: NOW.

CG: WE NEED TO TALK. LIKE, SERIOUSLY TALK. WE NEED TO DISCUSS A REALLY FUCKING BIG ISSUE, AND WE NEED TO DO IT UNHINDERED BY THE USUAL SNARKY BULLSHIT YOU SOMEHOW BELIEVE ACTUALLY CONTRIBUTES TO ACTUAL REAL CONVERSATION.

CG: FUCK YOU.

CG: I KNOW YOU’RE THERE, JOHN.

EB: hey, karkat!

EB: what are you doing up so late?

EB: wait, that's a bad question.

EB: i don't think you ever sleep :)

As the conversation progresses, however, you find yourself more on edge than before. Thus far, you've done your best to stay relatively calm about the whole thing, but now—trapped once again in the familiar cycle of insomnia and post-nightmare jitters—you feel yourself start to panic. Snarling screams and razor-blade teeth—is that the fate of every happy-go-lucky vaccination victim across the world? Men, women, children. Your classmates, your brother's homeless charges, the little Italian family who owns the bakery three blocks from Denny's.

Everyone.

You don't sleep for another thirty-odd hours, at which point your subconscious is too exhausted to bother with fear-inspiring visions and you miss an entire day.


[12/22/31]

Just a week later, your nightmares come to life.

As Kankri (and various other, more credible meteorological resources) had predicted, it starts to snow not long after the Doc's press conference, and the barrage doesn't stopped until your building’s main door is almost entirely blocked off. Local radio stations call the ordeal a second Snowmageddon, and you have long since begun questioning whether or not it really is a kind of apocalypse. God damn it, the earth should never be this cold.

Eventually, though, a growing need for food drives you into the outside world for the first time in weeks. You're down to nothing more than a half-empty box of goldfish and a suspicious package of raisins found on your second day of solitude—hardly enough to live on. Thanks to your own neglect (and lack of a proper shovel), the dorm's entrance really is sealed shut, barricaded by three feet of frozen-over slush, and you're forced to climb through a first floor window as a means of escape. A thick layer of ice ensures that you don't sink too far into the too-white mess, and soon you're loping along in twelve layers of clothing toward the small college town just outside the campus grounds.

As expected, everything is relatively quiet. Those who hadn't bothered traveling home for the season have locked themselves indoors for the last few pre-Christmas days, both on and off University property,  and though the sidewalks and streets have been plowed, almost no one is out. Unfortunately, this also means that most stores are closed, but you're lucky enough to find a small twenty-four-hour one-stop-shop with enough gumption to stay open despite the weather.

You get a surprised eyebrow-raise from a girl watching TV at the register, and glare in response, shoving both mittened hands in your pockets. You need to make the trip quick—get what you need and get out before you start overheating in the many layers of clothing necessary to brave frozen tundra. Or a December in Pennsylvania. To you, there's not much of a difference.

It doesn't take long to gather survival necessities (pre-packaged microwavable dinners, a tin of peanuts, and two tubs of chocolate ice cream) and, in record time, you're standing at the counter. You can hear your pillow fort calling from just over a mile away, and you're eager to return to sanctuary.

So eager, in fact, that you nearly miss the misplaced gasp of disbelief from the only other person you've encountered in weeks. When she drops your can of nuts, you zone back in on reality, fully intending to rant about customer service and respect for property, but the words die in your throat as you take in her expression. Sheer, unbridled shock—and it's not directed at you.

"What?" You hiss, but she jerks her head with wide eyes and motions you around the counter, not taking her gaze away from the dinky little television screen. By the time you move to where you can see the broadcast, she’s turned the volume higher and started muttering to herself.

"Oh my God, my parents. My sister. Oh, fuck. Fuck. Me. Shit."

...is evening, there have been over six million reported hospitalizations as a result of what can only be the highly sought-after treatment, and the number is continually growi...

Fuck, indeed.

Before you're fully aware of what’s happening, you've pulled your cell phone out and are dialing. When your brother answers, you realize you must have called him, and—when you hear a similar sound at your side—figure the lonely register girl must be doing the same with her family. 

"Kanrki. Kankri, are you watching this?"

"I am, indeed. All I can do is apologize, little brother. I more than believe your story now."

"Forget that, Kankri," your voice cracks up an octave, and you can feel the panic setting in. "It's happening. It's happening. Which means everything else is going to happen, too. You're in fucking prime territory—free clinics galore down there, and everyone willing to do what they can to survive. Fuck, Kankri. Fu—" as brilliant as your intellect is, your brain starts failing and you hear yourself devolve into a stream of incoherent cursing.

You're not sure if you called your brother for comfort or out of a subconscious realization that he is in easily ten-times the danger you are if things start to escalate more than they already have, but you're beyond reasoning at this point. You're paralyzed, staring at the screen as footage of crowded hospitals and deserted workplaces flash by, and all you can think is I'm such a coward why didn't I say anything we're all going to die it's happening this is it I could have warned everyone ho—

"Karkat!" Your brother's shout through the phone line grounds you, and you realize then that you've started talking aloud. He never yells, so you know that he's probably just as on-edge as you are—but managing infinitely better at some semblance of calm. "I've had the feeling something like this was going to happen for a few days now, actually. We have had more than our fair share of collapses in the shelters."

"Why didn't you tell me?" you hiss.

"Are you listening to yourself? Hysteria solves nothing—it will only lead to more trouble, and, at the moment, that is precisely what we do not need." The statement manages to pull your racing mind back, and you can't help but begrudgingly admire your brother in that moment. "You were the one who predicted this—you and that John fellow. More than I, you should be level-headed about the situation."

"Right. And I am. You're just projecting your own panic on me." Lies, and you both know it, but Kankri doesn't comment.

"Regardless," he hums, and you can hear even through the phone how on-edge it sounds, now, "you've explained to me more than once that you both drew out a contingency plan should an event like this occur." 

"The campsite."

"Precisely." Suddenly, there's a crash on the other end of the line, and you hear someone shout in the background. Kankri's voice, however, remains shockingly steady. You wonder, then, how much has been going on that you haven't been aware of in your isolation. "Call your friend once you've calmed down, and decide what you're going to do. I will, of course, default to your preferred course of action on these matters. Be safe, little brother."

He hangs up without waiting for your goodbye.

Numbly, you lock your phone and glance around, trying your hardest to control the gasps you belatedly realize are your own breaths. The shop is empty, now, so you assume the clerk has either left completely or holed herself up in the back to panic. You don’t particularly care either way.

Within seconds, though, your cell is buzzing again, and when you take a closer look at the screen you see that you've missed three calls from John over the course of your previous conversation. Before the last ring, though, you steel your nerves and press accept.

"John."

"Karkat, oh God, Karkat. Are you watching the news? Did you see this? Shit, Karkat I—"

Suddenly, you want to laugh as some horribly-detached part of your brain realizes that, no matter what, everyone freaks out in relatively the same way. Maybe you're finally losing your mind. "Chill the fuck out, John," you bite, sounding impressively confident despite what you're really feeling. "Shut up—shoosh—and listen, because, now that this whole clusterfuck has gone national, things are going to be a hell of a lot harder. Heaps more difficult. Problematic like a pubescent teenager's lunchtime boner."

There's a pause, and you don't realize you're holding your breath until John lets out a strained laugh and you finally exhale. "Whoa, dude—I so did not need that mental image."

"Fuck you, I'm being serious. We need to get our shit together. All of it."

"...Yeah, okay," he forces out, and it takes you a moment to realize that you're doing for him what Kankri just managed for you. Suddenly, you're more focused than before—you have a mission.

"Unless the moment of brilliant intellectual triumph has slipped from your self-centered, junk-packed frontal lobe, I'm going to ask you now to recall several previous conversations that have suddenly become more than slightly relevant to the current, critical situation. Remember the strategies, John, and the exquisitely cunning mastermind behind them."

"Technically, most of it was my idea, anyway."

"Good, so you know what I'm talking about, then. You're not completely hopeless." You want to grin, because the emotional hole left by your frenzied terror is slowly filling up with confidence and determination. Coward though you are, you're going to survive, damn it. You don't even bother arguing against your best friend's (unfortunately true) jab.

"But we didn't plan on you being so far away, Karkat. You're still going to get here somehow, right? I mean, it might be kind of late to get a flight or something, but you have your car."

You don't bother mentioning that your crappy little four-door is currently blockaded on all sides by three feet of snow, and simply reply, "Yeah, as much as it's going to agonizingly rip me apart, atom by atom, to see your ass-ugly face again, we're going to ride this mess out together, just like we said. Who knows how many ignorant fuck-ups took the god damn free needles? And this shit's far from anywhere near over."

"...I should go tell my family, then," he sighs—no longer hyperventilating—and you congratulate yourself on a job well done.

"You do that."

"See you in a couple of days, Karkat. I mean it." You roughly translate that to get your ass here so I can stop worrying, and ready a scathing comeback just as he continues. "And stay out of trouble."

He sounds so sincere that you can't do more than growl out a, "Yeah, you too, fuckwad," and hang up.


 

When the register-girl doesn't reappear, you text your brother and take matters into your own hands, bagging everything you can carry. Canned vegetables to replace your frozen meals, three additional tins of nuts, and an entire cooler filled with water bottles are among your most notable purchases—as well as more pre-packaged food than you would otherwise know what to do with. You don't actually bother tallying up the total cost of it all, choosing instead to leave behind all the cash in your pockets (which, admittedly, isn't much) and your phone number scrawled on the back of a gum wrapper. On the other side, you write CALL FOR COMPENSATION IF NECESSARY, and load up everything in double bags and the ice box, grabbing a snow shovel from the hardware section on your way out.

The walk back is significantly longer than you remember it being on your way into town, and, by the time you stop outside your dorm window, you've lost feeling in half of your entire body. The rolling ice box you pilfered weighs you down more than anything, as you quickly discover the wheels are useless across solidified slush, but—realizing you wouldn't have been able to otherwise carry your load—you power through.

It takes your lifeless fingers more than a few tries to pry open the building’s impromptu door, and you can't help but put your whole being into a sigh of relief as the wave of welcoming warmth hits you from inside. Peace doesn't last long, however, and soon you find yourself venturing back into the wilderness, shovel in hand.

The parking lot is a mess.

Actually, that's a lie—half of it is pristine. Not a single footprint, not a single path. Just a wide-open concrete flatland covered completely by a three-foot-thick layer of pain and sadness. The rest, however, looks like it's been plowed though at least twice, despite the residual coating of white. Black-tinted snowdrifts line the edge around a particularly depressing area, half-blocking off the vehicles still parked. Your car is one of the few left—a number you can count on one hand—and you're unfortunately antisocial enough to have parked in the very god damn back of the lot, where the snow is just as brilliantly-gleaming as ever.

Even if you weren't standing foot-level with your driver's side window, digging through everything would take days. You need a new plan.

Nothing comes to mind.

Without much else to do, you clear off a spot on the roof of your crappy four-door and sit, pulling out your phone. The boundless wonders of the internet, you hope, will give you some answers—and, though it's not exactly what you're looking for, you end up reading through several poorly written How To articles on the topic of unburying cars from frozen shit-piles. As it turns out, you only need to clear parts of the ice-covered ground, and your engine will do the rest. A novel concept. Suddenly, you want to hit your head against something solid—but a little voice in the back of your brain reminds you that you grew up in a freaking desert. You have an excuse for being blatantly oblivious.

Regardless, you aren't built for hard labor. Indoor work is more your style, and your body certainly shows it. By the time the sun begins to set, you've only barely started to make some semblance of real progress on the rather impressive drifts, and you're forced to retreat before the temperatures drop further. Your dorm building is cozy and welcoming, and, after a sadly-lacking meal of ravioli straight from the can, you check your messages (still no word from the convenience store, thank goodness). An hour later, you curl into your fort for a fitful, exhausted sleep.


[12/23/31] 

You wake up just after dawn, stiff and hot and sore. Every muscle in your body screams at even the slightest movement, but can’t do a thing other than swallow too many Advil tablets and power through the pain. A few minutes are spared to catch up on the world news you missed while shoveling snow, and suddenly your mission seems that more urgent. Air transportation has been almost completely shut down, so you'll have to work fast before roadways follow suit—or, at least, the major highways.

When eight-thirty AM rolls around, you're already back outside, struggling to finish the work you started the day before. The early morning frozen dew doesn't do a thing to help matters along, but by late afternoon you're exhausted and accomplished. Praise the fucking Lord. Soon, you've showered and packed and warmed up the vehicle, and are finally ready to be on your way.

You don't bother taking down the fort.

Just as you're getting buckle in to leave, your cell buzzes, and you pray it's not the shop owner you practically robbed the day before. Much to your full-bodied relief, it's only John, letting you know that he and his family have made it to your agreed-upon place of sanctuary. You let him know you're on your way.

You don't have to ask him for the address of the campsite, because it doesn't have one—and you both managed to figure out the relative latitude and longitude coordinates months ago. Those, of course, are plugged into your phone's GPS, and you finally pedal-to-the-metal it off campus with little to no fanfare. (It’s a little disappointing, really. Anticlimactic.)

The drive is long and tedious, but you knew that would be the case from the start. According to satellites overhead, you’ll arrive in Washington after three days on the road, given minimal breaks and barely-legal speeds—two, if you don't sleep; although that number rises again after you decide to travel only by back routes. On the main interstates, you run the risk of traveling alongside vaccination victims—and, should they suddenly decide to succumb to catatonia while driving, you could get yourself killed before making it even halfway across the country.

Also, you can drive as fast as you want through the mountains.

The journey, however, does give you time to think, and—by the time your fuel light begins to flash for the first time—you've already gone through every possible worst-case scenario surrounding what will be your new home. Twice.

When you and John had first begun developing your contingency plan all those months ago, the whole scheme had started as a paranoia-fueled joke. A ha-ha, we're now potential targets for a shady, government-funded organization with a questionable agenda; maybe we should go live in the woods and hide kind of thing. But, after actually pausing long enough to give the idea some thought, you had both agreed some kind of backup strategy would be helpful to have. That was around the same time you realized things were infinitely bigger than just the two of you—a pair of scruffy, teenaged interns who had seen too much and couldn't do a thing about it. At the very least, you'd put your families in danger, and the vaccination had a guaranteed global release.

Hell, by the time you both arrive on scene, it had already passed the press-released testing stages with reportedly positive results. There was a reason people hadn't heard of the basement lab and its contents. Shit would, inevitably, hit the fan, and you both knew you didn't want to be around when it did.

In your defense, you'd stuck pretty firmly to an isolated-cruise-ship-off-the-West-Coast idea. It had all the fixings of a great stronghold, but John had insisted that the location was far too challenging for others to reach. You had responded with a curt that's the point, dumbass, but your best friend had, as usual, stayed firm. The mountains, he defended, were a better option. Somewhere cold—making survival difficult for the inexperienced and thereby upping your chances of staying hidden—and inconspicuous. Just another spot in the middle of nowhere, he said.

Somewhere like the random, probably-illegal log cabin his grandfather had built in a national park so far north parts of it crossed into freaking Canada.

You'd never been camping before—the "sleepovers" spent in Kankri's car while on the road don't count, you decide, as you're now old enough to realize they were his way of making you comfortable when he couldn't afford a hotel—but John had made the whole thing sound so damn appealing (and practical) that you couldn't help but agree. The rest of your arrangements were built on that foundation over the subsequent weeks, and you compiled lists of important items, methods of transportation, locations, medical information. The whole nine yards. It was like you were hunkering down for a nuclear war, you had joked—but, now, you aren't sure just how far that was from the truth. There are still too many unknowns.

You make it halfway through Illinois before your vision starts to blur in the early morning darkness, and you fall asleep locked in an empty Walmart parking lot.


 

[12/25/31]

The next several days are relatively uneventful, the endless expanse of green-lined back roads broken only every few hundred miles by an occasional bathroom break. Your supply stash multiplies exponentially along the way with various rest station purchases, but, as you move farther west, the few marks of civilization that you do pass become emptier and emptier. Kankri texts you on Christmas Eve, letting you know that he's managed to rendezvous with the Egberts, and John calls a few times to relay updates on the global situation. Keeping track of local FM radio stations while driving cross-country is nearly impossible, you discover, as broadcasts fade in and out as you pass through wavelength ranges at top speed.

You celebrate Christmas on the road, and treat yourself to a tub of ice cream stolen from yet another deserted Stop-And-Go! mini-mart just a few hours away from your destination.

Or so you plan to, at least.

The fuel station is, like every other stop for the past four hundred miles, empty and dark when you pull in. Over the last forty-eight hours, you've come to truly appreciate the wonders of self-use gas pumps, and keeping your car on the go has been relatively easy thus far.

According to your best friend, the media is in a full-blown panic as government officials scramble to figure out some relatively reasonable course of action. World leaders, apparently, weren't above the vaccination, either, and twelve countries have almost completely collapsed into anarchy as nearly all authority succumbs to catatonia. Or worse. Citizens of everywhere have been advised to stay indoors for their own protection, but that doesn't stop closed hospitals from flooding with untreatable patients, or keep teenage rogues away from unguarded electronics stores. The quieter parts of the world, however, remain still as their small town residents hole up with family for what might be their last days of coherency.

When John tells you of his encounter with the man you've come to call "phase two" of the vaccination side effects, you have to pull over and heave on the side of the road. Suddenly, everything seems like a dream—like you’re living a horrible video game or starring in some emotionally-traumatizing HBO series. It was really happening. All of it. All of it.

You take extra care to avoid human contact after that.

Halfway from the silent store with a partially-melted tub of Rocky Road Chip in hand, however, you're struck with the realization that even the best laid plans can go awry—because the left rear door of your car was definitely closed when you left. And, unless you're suddenly having some sort of psychedelic out-of-body-experience, that is definitely not you rummaging through the hard-earned hoard in your back seat.

"What the hell?" You yell before you have time to really think the situation through. "Get the fuck out of my stuff!"

The assumption you're being robbed isn't a far-fetched one, really. The world is full of crummy scum who’ll always be willing to take advantage of chaos, no matter the suffering or what advice is given to save their own skins. From what you've heard, middle class urban areas are starting to look like Krystalnaught Germany as those looking to make a few extra bucks profit from the national house-arrest mandate.

You see the shape in your car freeze, and, for some reason, you feel like the world is holding its breath.

Two yellow lights suddenly appear in the window, and it's a moment before you realize that they're eyes—but your second of hesitation is all it takes for everything to fall apart.

In an instant, the car door has been ripped off its hinges from the inside, and something leaps out, hitting the gas pump in its attempt to reach you faster. Your body goes into overdrive, working on instincts you're not sure you really have, and—before you know it—you're running, running, running in the opposite direction. Reentering the mini-mart would be suicidal, your brain tells you—you've got no way to barricade the broken-glass walls—and that thing is currently between you and your car. The only choice you’re left with is to make a break for the tree-line and hope you don't die.

You really, really hope you don't die.

A wet, inhuman snarl echoes off the gas station's metal overhang, and your legs start pumping faster than they've ever moved before.


 

You run until your feet go numb—until you lose feeling in your entire lower body—but only when you start to hear the panic-fueled rhythm of blood pumping through your ears do you finally slow down. The ice cream, still clutched in your iron grip, has long since liquefied, and your hands and clothes are covered in the sticky, half-stiff mess. The package is crushed— you know you can't carry it with you forever, but you can't bring yourself to toss it aside just yet. All of your food is however-many miles behind you, and you're now stuck in the middle of the woods. You'll have to take what you can get.

After a while, you realize the only sounds you can hear are your own footsteps and the chirping animal noises you've come to associate with wildlife thanks to pre-recorded zoo intercoms. The thing, thank God, has stopped following you—or didn't pursue in the first place. You don't particularly care, so long as it's not near you now.

More than anything, you want to curl up and call your brother—or your best friend—but you know you can't. Not now. The sun has already started to set, and, soon it will be dark. Even if drug-induced humanoid monsters aren't on your tail, there are plenty of other things to hunt you alone in these northwestern woods. You need to find shelter as soon as possible. 

You don't.

Well, you do find a place to crash, but it's not until much, much later—long after the moon has risen halfway into the sky and you've lost the ability to see more than two feet in front of you.

Sanctuary comes first in the form of a clearing. A wide, wide, wide open space where the starlight actually has a chance to do its job and brighten the night just a fraction. It takes you a moment to realize that the plain isn't just any clearing, but a pasture, and holy shit that rock just moved no it's a cow shit don't eat me fuck wait wait cows are vegetarians. You decide to ignore the large, barely-moving beasts and scamper through as quickly as possible. One thing is for sure, though—where there is livestock, there is civilization; and where there is civilization, there is shelter.

The obvious downside, of course, being that civilization also means people, but you're too burned out and in pain to dwell on that unfortunate fact.

After an award-winning scamper across the field, you're sure to stay along the forest line without actually re-entering the woods. Though you can't see well, visibility in a never-ending string of manmade flatlands is infinitely better than under the canopy of evergreens, which is at least something. Few of the animals pay you any mind, so you're free to move about as you'd like, and it's not long before you come across a free-standing barn and silo. The whole thing looks so stereotypically picturesque you want to weep.

Rather than cry, though, you slip inside the already-open wooden barn doors and glance around. The place is old, but not so old that it isn't still in use. Haphazard tacks of hay bales line one wall alongside a few plastic tubs of grain, and there are three or four massive John Deer machines you're sure will look just as terrifying in the daylight. There must be more than just animals on the property, you decide.

Just as expected of any self-respecting barn, the building has a straw-piled loft running around the perimeter of what would otherwise be its second story, and, within moments, you've scaled the ladder. The night is made infinitely colder by the sweat on your skin and your clothes are now uncomfortably crunchy, but, the moment your body hits the nature-made Cloud Nine, you’re dead to the world.


 

[12/26/31]

Sleep is fitful, and you wake up feeling worse than you did the evening before, much to your complete and utter dismay. When you eventually do begin to move, you peek outside one of the open, upper windows and take stock of your surroundings in daylight. In that direction, at least—the one you had been walking toward—there is no sign of the property's family home. For now—and hopefully until you make it to the campsite—you're alone.

That in mind, you pull out your phone. Thankfully, it managed to survive the entire ordeal, though the screen is more than a little caked with solidified ice cream gunk. You see immediately that you've missed a few calls from the people keeping tabs on your whereabouts, and your GPS is still running. Before you slipped out to the mini-mart, the little device had been plugged into your stereo, and—at the start of your mad dash—had likely been charged all the way. Now, however, you've got a little over three-fourths of your battery left, and no way to know how long that will last. Your mission suddenly levels-up seven urgency points, and you decide the faster you can meet up with the Egberts and your brother, the better.

Previously, you had been just a few hours out from your designated safe house—barely a hundred and fifty miles left out of three-fucking-thousand. You suppose that’s something to be thankful for—a ridiculously lucky plot twist in the script that is your life—yet you still can't help but feel so damn annoyed at everything, regardless of whatever unfortunate blessings you've been dealt. There's straw in your hair, you have to pee, and enough bugs to populate an island have been attracted to the sweet scent of your Rocky Road cologne.

carcinoGeneticist [CG] RIGHT NOW opened private bulletin board FUCK YOU, SANTA 

carcinoGeneticist [CG] RIGHT NOW opened memo on board FUCK YOU, SANTA

CG: OKAY, BEFORE ANYONE SAYS ANYTHING I'M JUST GOING TO LAY DOWN THE RULE RIGHT NOW THAT NO ONE CAN RESPOND.

CG: I'M TRYING TO CONSERVE BATTERY LIFE ON MY PIECE-OF-SHIT CELL PHONE

CG: AND IF I TAKE THE TIME TO CALL EVERYONE OR ANSWER EVERY REPLY YOU DUMBASSES FEEL THE NEED TO ADD

CG: I'M GOING TO WASTE ALL OF MY POWER AND PROBABLY DIE ALONE IN THE WOODS SOMEWHERE.

CG: SO, HERE'S THE DEAL

CG: I'M WALKING THE REST OF THE WAY.

ectoBiologist [EB] RIGHT NOW responded to memo

EB: youre walking??

EB: karkat thats a stupid idea

CG: OH MY GOD EGBERT WHAT DID I JUST SAY

EB: we still have my dads car

EB: and your brothers car

EB: if something happened well come get you

You consider that for a moment, and suddenly feel very stupid—which only makes you angrier.

CG: YEAH, WELL, AT THIS VERY MOMENT IN THE RAGING SHITSTORM THAT IS MY VERY EXISTENCE

CG: THAT'S PROBABLY DEFINITELY VERY IMPOSSIBLE,

CG: CONSIDERING THE FACT THAT I'M IN THE MIDDLE OF FUCKING NOWHERE.

CG: YOU CAN'T DRIVE INTO THE WOODS, DUMBASS. OR ON FARMS. THAT'S STUPID.

clericalCruciverbalist [CC] RIGHT NOW responded to memo

CC: Then I w9uld advise that y9u re9rient y9urself via electr9nic p9siti9ning and make y9ur way t9ward the nearest easily-accessible r9adway. I will leave immediately t9 rendezv9us with y9u at 9r near an agreed-up9n l9cati9n.

EB: yeah i agree

EB: just worry about getting to somewhere we can reach you

EB: dont try braving the mountains or anything if you dont have to

CG: FINE. WHATEVER.

CG: JUST GET YOUR ASSES HERE YESTERDAY.

CC: May I ask what happened? Y9u can, at times, be quite ign9rant f9r a member of my genep99l, but I w9uld never g9 s9 far as t9 assume y9u w9uld intenti9nally je9pardize y9ur 9wn chances f9r survival.

CG: THE JOLLY FAT MAN'S HOLIDAY PACKAGE LABELED "TO: KARKAT" HAD SHARP TEETH.

CG: I PULLED THE DELICATELY-WRAPPED BOW OFF THAT SUCKER AND IT TRIED TO FUCKING EAT ME.

CG: ANYWAY, I TOLD YOU MORONS NOT TO ADD YOUR OWN COMMENTS.

CG banned EB from responding to memo

CG banned CC from responding to memo

CG: THERE.

CG: NOW, I'M GOING TO SEND YOUR ARMOR-LADEN, SHINY ASSES A SCREENSHOT OF THIS STUPID GPS

CG: BECAUSE I HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO COHERENTLY ACCURATE METHOD OF DESCRIBING WHERE I AM.

CG: THE LAT AND LONG NUMBERS ARE ON THERE, TOO.

CG posted file "IMG_1621.jpg" to memo

CG: SEE YOU IN A FEW HOURS, YOU PAIR OF INSIPID DOUCEBAGS.

carcinoGeneticist [CG] closed memo.

You feel insanely refreshed after cursing out your loved ones, and, energy somewhat renewed, take the brief respite of elation as an opportunity to stand. After an indulgent moment of insect genocide, you descend once again from the loft to gather your bearings.

According to your cell phone, you will have to cross back through the forest. In your fleet-footed escape the night before, you crossed a dozen or so miles west, but didn't actually succeed in getting much closer to your final destination. Today, you'll have to start heading upward, toward the nearest mountain road. By car, the task wouldn't be so daunting—but, on foot, the trip will easily take you a few hours, and you still haven't had anything to eat. Regardless of time or energy level, though, you'll be wandering through the wilderness unprotected—which is more than a little worrying.

Thankfully, in that particular department, your options are far from limited at the moment. In the sunlight, you can see the entirety of the barn's interior—and the deadly-looking equipment scattered throughout. Hoes, rakes, spades, a few bundles of metal piping, an axe, and three particularly-lethal shovels lie at your fingertips, and those are only the manual tools you can see. For the sake of speed, though, you'll have to travel light, so many of the larger, mechanical contraptions immediately fall off your list of practical defenses.

Like any sensible young man about to face miles of unknown danger, you make a beeline for the axe. Sharp, sturdy, and mobile, it's the go-to choice for a weap—

The moment you grip the handle, you’re slapped in the face with the disappointing realization that this is not going to work. It's a hefty piece of shit, and you've never been to a gym in your life. With that in hand, running would be a near impossibility, and you'll likely not get very far before you have to abandon it altogether. You're a scientist, for Christ's sake—not a lumberjack.

You brood for a moment, and take stock of your other options before your periphery is unpleasantly blinded as the sun hits something just outside your vision. It's small and metal, burrowed in a pile of half-separated grain stalks. On further inspection, though, you can't help but grin. Fucking perfect. It's like a terrible sign from heaven—or hell, really, since grim reapers are generally known to do their dirty work with this kind of thing. You grip the scythe’s handle and swing it around for good measure.

Fuck yeah. This will do nicely.

Suddenly, you feel a rush of confidence—you can fucking do this shit. It's daylight, and, from what you've read, most of the mountain's worst predators are nocturnal. It'll be just like a hike. Some horribly-cliché trip out with your buddies, you think, glossing over the fact that you'll be completely alone in an unfamiliar state, miles away from any real civilization. Most guys your age were Boy Scouts as kids; you'll just be starting late, that's all. Nothing to worry about.

That in mind, you pull out your phone and start walking.

 

 

Chapter Text


[12/26/31]

Your journey is slow-going and long, even with your cell phone's GPS to guide you. Despite the sun’s wonderful spot more than halfway into the sky, the world is still cold as fuck, and you decide that having a best friend from Washington was a very, very stupid idea. Or, at least, the two of you should have chosen somewhere Southern for your hideout—the New Mexican deserts are pretty isolated, and it might make a little more sense to hunker down in plain sight.

Ignoring the fact that you would probably die, of course.

Thoughts of the dry, burning oven of your home state keep your mind, for the time being, off the fact that that you can't feel your lower limbs—likely the main reason your feet have decided to move so god damn sluggishly—but the tricky, self-imposed mind games don't last long. Your imagination only seems to make it even more painfully obvious how utterly freezing you are at the moment.

To keep out of sight as you walk, you stay by the pastures' edges between flatlands, moving in and out of the small wooded sections that separate fields along the way. You aren't sure whether or not you're still on the same property, but you do know that you've seen more than enough livestock to last a lifetime. Still, even if several unpleasently-aggresive steers have noticed you, you've managed to stay well-enough out of sight for the most part. Thus far, no family homes have popped up, and—hopefully—things will stay that way. Still, that doesn't mean much here in farm country, you think. Eventually, someone is going to have to emerge from the wild, cornfield abyss and tend to these shitty four-legged creatures. You can't do much but hope you're long gone by then.

No matter how much your aching stomach disagrees.

The longer you walk, the dizzier you become. You've never been one to eat much, oftentimes getting lost in your work and simply forgetting, so mild hunger isn't really a foreign feeling for you. On the other hand, however, the most exercise get in your life is walking across campus on a busy day, so you're fairly sure your body is going into a calorie-burning panic mode. All at once, you’re very, very grateful that your brother had enough sense to keep you fed back home. You hadn't been the wealthiest pair, but he had always made sure he took care of you. When you were younger, you’d gone to school with kids who could only get food from those shitty government-funded programs and could only eat during the week. You know you might have very easily joined them, had Kankri not made the sacrifices he did for your sake.

That train of thought distracts you long enough to realize that this particular patch of woods is more than a little longer than the past few you’ve wandered through, and you glance down at your phone. It doesn't show property lines, though, so you switch the screen briefly to satellite-imaging mode and see that you've reached the end of this week's episode of Washington Farm Showcase. The two-road intersection you're supposed to meet John and your brother on is still miles away. If possible, the temperature has dropped ten degrees in the shade, but the trees make up for their misgivings by protecting you from the wind. Not for the first time, you regret not grabbing a thicker coat before you left to raid the gas station.

At the speed of paint drying, you cross miles of underbrush and vines and trees, fielding the occasional text from either Kankri or John as they check your progress. From what they've said, you're a three or four hour drive out from the campsite—not a distance you could have easily walked. You don't respond much, though, because your battery ticks closer to dead with every passing step. Without your GPS to guide you, you would be royally fucked, so you’re being more than a little cautious.

When an alert buzzes, warning that you've dropped below twenty percent of your total phone life, you make an executive decision to change course and meet up with the road earlier. It will take you longer to get to the intersection and you run the risk of being seen, but, if you lose your map in the middle of the woods, there's an almost guarantee that you'll get lost and freeze to death. Even now, you're pretty sure frostbite, and—if the sweltering heat in the center of your chest is anything to go by—the beginnings of hypothermia aren’t too far off on the horizon.

So, you backtrack, and emerge from the frozen foliage twenty minutes later onto a deserted, crumbling highway. It's one of those hardly-used routes that don't even have any painted lines, because it's only wide enough for a car and a half. The most traffic it probably gets is the occasional tractor or loose cow, which, under different circumstances, you might find really fucking funny.

Right now, though, you can't bring yourself to care.

The pavement, at least, is easier to walk on, and your pace picks up slightly. Without branches and roots to fight off, your leg muscles get a much needed break. Thankfully, you've only had to use the scythe once or twice to get yourself untangled from the underbrush—something that you could have done easily without the blade, had you been less exhausted—but the trek isn't over yet. Your hands, however, have long-since gone numb, and you can't help but switch the hand carrying it, swapping out your phone. Fuck, your fingernails are blue.

Without the rustle of your footsteps across the woodland floor, the world suddenly seems eerily silent. It's the dead of winter, so all sensible birds have turned-tail and flown south for a few months. Most of the larger animals, too, have likely hunkered down for hibernation. Despite the fact that there are bound to be a few small creatures, though, you've yet to see one. Heard them? Yes, from time to time. Rustling here, branch-snapping there. It set you completely on edge at first—you almost impaled yourself on a particularly nasty, low-hanging branch in your haste to run at one point—but you've since calmed down considerably. You think the cold seeping into your bones and slowing your brain processes is to blame for that, though.

Later, you'll also use this as your excuse for not noticing the growls until you’re being pulled to the pavement.


==> BE THE PARANOID MEDICAL STUDENT

Your name is JOHN EGBERT, as previously established, and you are VERY WORRIED. It's been just over an hour since you last heard from your best friend, despite the number of increasingly-panicked messages you've sent his way. Kankri, from the driver's seat of his ancient SUV, has assured you repeatedly that his brother is likely just trying to conserve power by not responding (or being a jerk), but you're not convinced. He looks anxious, too—you can tell by the way he's gripping the steering wheel, and the fact that your already-absurd speeds have increased just the slightest.

You're close, now—really, really close to the place Karkat had sent you. Part of you wants him to be there already when you arrive, so you can just scoop him into the back and turn around, but the other half doesn't want him standing in the cold that long. You know he's not used to it—you know he hates it.

You really hope he’s alright.

To distract yourself from thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong, you pull out your phone and text your cousin.

JOHN: hey jade! i know it's early where you are but i just wanted to see how you were doing.

JOHN: well, i don't actually know how early it is because i don't really know where you are.

JOHN: either way though it's earlier there than it is here.

JADE: hi john!!!

JADE: and dont worry were back on the island for now. i dont think were staying for long though. :(

JOHN: what why? that's stupid. you guys need to stay there where it's safe.

JADE: i think grandpa is worried about you guys

JADE: he still wants to go to washington even though they closed all the airports and stuff

JOHN: tell him no!! tell him i told you guys to stay put!! the last time we talked he made it sound like you guys were going to wait at home.

JOHN: things are way worse than you think and they're not going to get any better!

JADE: wait at home until what john??? i agree with grandpa on this one

JADE: you just said things were really bad and i know WE can make it through anything but the question here is can you???

JADE: i dont want to sit here with grandma and grandpa and jake in our big house with everything nice and warm while you and jane and your dad are stuck in that stupid cabin in the middle of nowhere while a bunch of bad things happen!! >:(

JOHN: we'll be fine jade. don't worry!! it'll just be like a big vacation or something.

JOHN: my friend and his brother are here too so it's not even just the three of us anymore.

JOHN: or well i'm actually going to pick up karkat right now so i guess just his brother is with us at the moment.

JADE: all the more reason for us to come up john!!! can you really take care of five people in that house forever??

JADE: the answer is no

JOHN: geez jade thanks for the vote of confidence i feel so much better now.

JOHN: also it’s not going to be forever!

JADE: im being serious!!! youre going to run out of food or someone is going to get hurt or youre going to get attacked by a bear and die!!!

JOHN: jade all of the bears are sleeping now. it's the middle of december.

JADE: thats not the point!! >:(

JOHN: and we will be just fine if someone gets hurt because in case you forgot i am studying to be a doctor.

JADE: >:((((((((

JADE: do you see how frustrated with you i am john?? do you see it? and dont think i didnt notice how you stupidly avoided my VERY TRUE comment about food

JOHN: we'll be fine jade gosh! i'm going to call grandpa now and talk to him though.

JOHN: we agreed that he would keep you guys out of trouble!!

JADE: john that is very stupid and you should not do that because we can handle trouble 50000% better than you can

JOHN: wow i really don't need this to turn into another lecture about how boring my life is compared to yours, miss adventure queen.

JADE: but its true!!! what if you run out of food though seriously???

JADE: you said you cant go back into the city and i just want to let you know that the grocery store is probably in the city!

JADE: are you going to know how to hunt or keep warm when it snows (because you are in washington and it will probably definitely snow soon if it hasnt already) or any of that important stuff??

JADE: DO YOU EVEN KNOW HOW TO START A FIRE WITHOUT MATCHES??

JOHN: yes i do oh my gosh jade shhhhhhh

JOHN: i'm still going to call grandpa though even if you have some valid points.

JOHN: and i might be a little worried now because i guess i didn't think that far ahead.

JOHN: we really don't know how long we're going to be here and there are a lot of things that could go wrong.

JADE: im glad youre finally seeing it my way!!

JOHN: i'm not saying you should come though!! because you definitely shouldn't. that would be really stupid.

You're halfway through typing another message when you feel Kankri slam on the breaks, cursing uncharacteristically all the while. Your weight, already instinctively counterbalanced to go with the winding mountain road turns, shifts without warning, and you hit the dashboard with twice the force you would have otherwise. Thank God for seatbelts, you think, because—otherwise—your head might be through the windshield right about now. Your phone, however, is not so lucky, and the screen goes black when it flies from your hand and slams against the glove compartment.

"What the hell, Kankri?" You wail, fumbling with the buckle. It's gone into safety-mode, and you're having trouble breathing as it presses you back against the seat. There will definitely be bruises all over your chest later. Kankri doesn't answer, though—his eyes are fixed on something in the road ahead of you, so you glance up

and immediately want to vomit.

You've been training in pre-med for a year and a half, now, and worked at the local hospital for even longer. Since your sophomore year summer, you've seen more car crash and street violence and freak accident victims than you can count, and you had to get used to the sight of blood and gore fairly quickly to be of any use to anyone in the professional field.

This, though—this looks like someone took a scene from some horrible slasher film and made stuck it in reality.

Burgundy sludge pools on the concrete under slashed, crumpled corpses and stray limbs. It's darker in some places—almost black—and lighter in others, a deep red that reminds you of the quarterly clinic blood drives, smeared in streaks and drips even where there are no bodies.

Holy shit those are people oh my god what happened here are they okay are—

Kankri throws open the driver-side door to retch, and, when he does, you're hit with a wave of the smell.

It takes all of your willpower not to empty your stomach right then and there, but you still find yourself gagging. The mess is still a few dozen feet away, but, from what you can see, the carnage is fairly isolated, centered around a green pickup pulled off to the side of the road. The car looks like it had come from the opposite direction, so it's facing you. The driver and passenger seats look empty.

You hear Kankri's heaves taper off into wet coughs, and know that he's just about finished. Good. You want to get out of here, because if there's a Scream-grade serial killer roaming out here, you want to find Karkat before he or she does. Everything is still shiny and liquid, so you know this didn't happen long ago.

But should you call the police? Would they even answer? Should you go and check to see if there are any survivors? You're a doctor, damn it! Or, at least, training to be one. It's your duty to tend to the wounded!

Maybe you're going into shock, you think, because for some reason you can still think rationally. Which should not be a thing that is happening.

"Oh my God," Kankri mutters next to you, slumping against the steering wheel. You wonder if he's going to be sick again—he couldn't drive if that were the case. Is that the case? Do you have to drive? You really don’t want to drive, because that would mean getting out of the car to switch seats and you'd have to walk near it and possibly step in some of it and oh my God no no no no not okay nononono—

You feel your chest seize up and ah, yes—there's that lovely feeling of sheer, unadulterated panic you've become quite friendly with over the past six months.

Out of the corner of your eye, there’s movement, and you want to scream, thinking it's the guy who did this. Or gal. (You know from experience that girls can be really fucking scary when they want to be). It shifts again, though, and you focus on the inside of the pickup—it's one of those four-door models, you notice. There's something between the two front seats, though, flapping back and forth. Waving?

It's a hand.

Someone is still alive.

In a whirlwind, split-second decision, you grit your teeth and pry open the door, ignoring Kankri's yelped protests. With the way the world is now, there's no telling when—or even if—help will arrive in the case you decide to call the local authorities. The area is large, too, and sparsely populated—there likely aren't rescue squads stationed less than fifty miles away in any direction. You just really, really hope that whoever is in the car isn't the person who might possibly want to kill you.

You jog a little, trying your hardest not to stop and hurl, but, as you get closer, you notice something very, very wrong.

At first, you think it’s the light—the sun has been behind some particularly hefty clouds for a while, now, to the point where the world is dim and you're afraid it might rain. But, as you approach, you realize that even shade couldn't make skin look that ashen. That gray.

You pass a mangled man lying on his back, and see black sludge, like blood, leaking out of a rip in his stomach and dripping from his mouth—his mouth filled with two rows of pointed fucking teeth.

For a moment, your heart stops, and you break into a sprint.

Whoever is in the car was ambushed by these things like you were, back home. Things, you think, because they don’t really even look like people anymore. Maybe they were campers at one point, and found their way to the road after they went nuts. There are a ton of them, though—your brain counts at least six different heads. But the point is that the person still in the pickup survived this shitty mess. And maybe even caused all the damage.

You really don't want to think about how, though.

Your sneakers slip a little on the slick concrete when you finally reach the driver's side passenger door and yank on the handle. It doesn't give, though, and you realize just in time to see the hand from earlier appear in the window and fumble with the little tab on the sill that it's locked. Small fingers pull up the bar and your heart jumps when they disappear, leaving dark streaks on the glass.

Someone inside pushes just as you pull, so you end up stumbling a bit at how easily it swings open. You don't hit the ground, though, because the same hand you've been following like a white rabbit for the past five minutes grabs the front of your shirt and yanks you up, caking your shirt with some kind of horrible, half-congealed burgundy smudge.

"Help him," you hear a hoarse voice plead before you have time to properly gather your bearings, and you glance up, locking eyes with a girl barely your age. She has short-cropped, dark hair that's matted down to her forehead with the same shit sticking on her fingers, and her wide, olive eyes are leaking tears that you don't think she realizes she's shedding. You're caught off guard by how tiny she looks, wedged on the floor in that cramped space between the back of the driver's seat and the extra passenger spots. "Help him," she repeats, more forcefully this time, and she shakes you a bit by the collar to get your attention.

Only then to you take a good, hard look at all of her—clothes torn, covered in blood and who knows what else, and curled over the too-still body of your best friend.


It takes more than a little coaxing to get her out of the car, and, when she finally manages to slide out, her legs buckle. You're quick to catch her before she hits the ground, though, returning the favor from earlier and easing her down. You call for Kankri, then, and turn back to the body still sprawled on the floor.

You can see right away that Karkat is too big for the space he's been shoved in, and you hope the strange angles of his legs don't cause any severe damage. As carefully as you can, you climb further in and pull him up onto the back seats, spreading him flat before you take a firm grip under his arms and slide out. You remember him being thin when you last met up, all those months ago, but you think he's gotten even skinnier since then. He weighs next to nothing, and you wonder if he's been taking proper care of himself.

There's a strangled yelp behind you, and you turn to catch sight of Kankri kneeling next to the girl on the ground, staring up at his brother with the most horrified expression you think you've ever seen a person wear—and you've worked in the ER before, so you have more than a few instances tucked away for reference.

As gently as you can, you sweep your hand under Karkat's legs before he flops bodily out of the vehicle, and carry him out to a cleaner area of the pavement. The girl scrambles after you, stumbling a bit, and that breaks Kankri out of his stupor. Within seconds, they're both beside you, each supporting the other, as you press your fingers against Karkat's wrist and attempt to find a pulse (because shit you can't feel him breathing).

There's nothing.

Fuck.

Immediately, you press your head to his chest and relocate your fingers to his neck, hoping, hoping, hoping you were just missing it in your nervousness. Your hands are shaking, after all—you could have made a mistake.

Apparently, you did.

It's faint—so freaking light—but you can feel the barely-there beat against your hand and holy shit you could just cry.

But you don't, because tears won't help anyone. You let out a sagging sigh of relief, and will away all of your worry and emotions with it. You can't be John, now. You have to be Mr. Egbert, head volunteer in the Edgewood Community Hospital Trauma Center—cool, calm, and collected under pressure. You have to be the man you've been practicing in front of the mirror, because, if you aren't, you'll lose someone very important to you.

"Kankri," you don't look up, choosing instead to start ripping at the holes already torn in Karkat's t-shirt. "Get me the first aid kit and as many bottles of water as you can carry from your car." Whether he responds or not, you don't know, because you've already focused your attention back on the body in front of you.

It takes longer than you had anticipated to get his top off, both because of the lack of buttons and the fact that most of the blood soaked through it has begun to harden, fusing the fabric to his skin. Eventually, you settle for cutting through it with the pocketknife your dad gave you before you left, and slice through the seams of both it and his jeans as you try not to think about how much liquid life is coating everything—including, now, yourself.

Mostly-naked, you're able to get a good look at his wounds. You know you'll have to be quick, because the temperature is rapidly dropping and you can already feel that Karkat is freezing cold. The drive back to the cabin is too long to simply load him up without cleaning the extensive injuries you can now see, though. Shit, it looks like he's been attacked by a wild animal.

Glancing around, you realize that assumption is probably not far off.

His torso and sides are littered with scratches deep enough to make you say a little prayer to every deity you can think of—realistic or otherwise—that he has no internal damage. The claw marks (because oh fuck you can't think of anything else that would make that happen) continue all the way down his legs on either side, but the front of his body seems to have missed the brunt of the damage. Your friend's back, however, is a completely different story—it's shredded, to the point where you're nearly positive you can see the white bones of his ribs and shoulders every so often. Here and there, you also spot rings of unnaturally deep puncture-mark-surrounded tears, and you've helped your extended family bring home big game enough to recognize bite marks when you see them.

Because his back is the worst, you do your best to gently turn him on his front so you can have easy access to the damage. It's right about then that you hear Kankri return, if only by the sound of his gasps and wet curses. He might be crying, but that's not really your concern at the moment. The medical kit does, however, appear in your peripheral vision, along with the water, and you're quick to grab the second. Your current environment is much less than ideal, but you have to clean the wounds now. Already, infection might be setting in, and there's an actual guarantee that will happen if you wait until you've returned to the cabin to do it.

Carefully, you open a few bottles and pour them over the Karkat’s back, washing off the blood and dirt and sweat and whatever else he's caked with. You're short any sort of towel or rag, so you end up taking off your hoodie and using that to soak up what you can't get with the just water. You repeat the process for any other spots you can get to, and end up going through almost an entire case of Deer Park in the process.

Meanwhile, you wave Kankri to attention and tell him to check the girl for injuries, too. She has a few scratches, you discover, but they're nothing on the scale of Karkat's wounds. Soon enough, she's bandaged up and watching intently, while your friend's brother hovers and frets and just generally makes you nervous.

Through it all, Karkat doesn't so much as stir—not even when you pour half a bottle of hydrogen peroxide disinfectant across his back, which, in theory, should hurt like a bitch—and that worries you more than anything. He'll need stitches—hundreds of stitches—but you don't have the material for that at the moment. The only thing you can do is wrap him up in gauze, though that, in itself, becomes something of a problem. First aid kits aren't meant to handle full-body trauma, and you had already taken some of the supplies to help the girl. You do what you can, though, and pull off your own t-shirt to cut strips of it for the rest. Kankri offers his, but you shake your head—he's wearing a thick wool sweater, and the fibers would only stick to and irritate the damage.

Over an hour after you find the pair, you're finally ready to head back to the campsite, and you situate your best friend in the back seat under a mound of blankets to keep him warm. Wetting him down in below-freezing temperatures was probably one of the worst things you could have done to his already-freezing body, but you didn't have much choice. The girl slides in next to him after gathering some things from her car, and promises to keep him tightly wrapped during the journey.

No one says anything, so you try to ignore the churning in your stomach as Kankri turns the car around, the whole thing jolting when he plows over something.


The drive continues on like that, tense and silent, before the girl finally speaks up. Her voice is still raspy and shallow, and you make a mental note to check her throat for damage when you finally stop. "Thank you."

You shake your head, "Nah, thank you. I don't really know what happened, but, I do know Karkat. He probably got himself into some kind of stupid trouble before you swooped in. We didn't think there’d be anyone out here for miles, though—and, judging by those battle scars he’ll be strutting around later, he was the first one to get involved with those freaks." It occurs to you, then, that you have a stranger in the car, and you decided days ago to avoid those. You have no idea whether or not she had taken the vaccine while it was available, and bringing her back to camp could prove a huge risk if she goes postal at some point in time. You turn around quickly, then, and look her dead in the eyes. She had been about to say something, but her petite mouth snaps shut immediately. "Did you ever get that English thing they were passing out up until a few days ago? The pneumonia injection?"

After a beat of hesitation, she slowly nods, and you curse.

"I'm going to die, right?" she asks a little too calmly for your liking, and, at the sound of her slight slur, you make a second mental memo to check her over for a concussion later, too. "I'm not stupid—I watch the news and stuff. They're saying that most of the people who got it start going crazy... or something."

"Technically, that isn't dying," you reply quietly.

"Yeah, but those people that were all over him—trying to eat him or something—” she gestures to Karkat, “they're what happens if you get it, right? That's what I'm going to turn into at some point?"

Instead of answering her, though, you latch on to that tidbit of information and try to change the subject. You don't know what you're going to do, now, though, because things have suddenly gotten a bit more complicated. You need time to think. "What happened, exactly...?" Oh, you don't know her name, either. "I'm John, by the way. And this is Kankri, Karkat's brother."

Her eyebrows shoot up at that, but she nods again, "My name's Nepeta. I guess you're the people he was waiting for, then?"

"He told you?"

"No," she shakes her head, "before he passed out, he just kept saying that we couldn't leave and showing me this picture on his phone. Couldn't think of any other reason he'd want to stick around, so I guess it makes sense that you guys showed up."

"Maybe you should start at the beginning? We were actually supposed to pick him up, like, a couple of miles farther down the road. I don't know what he was going this far back."

Nepeta shrugs. "There's not really much to tell," and she curls up, then, wrapping her arms around her legs with a shake of her head. "I was driving down this way to meet my sister, and all of a sudden I turn that stupid corner and see this group of people all gathered on the side of the road, kneelin' down over something. I thought they might've needed help or something, you know? So I pulled over and rolled my window down and wham, they start yanking me through my window an—" without warning, she breaks into a fit of coughing, and covers her mouth with the sleeve of her jacket. You can't help but notice the stain left behind when she pulls it away, but some part of your mind argues that she's covered in dirt, so the black liquid might have already been on the fabric beforehand. Blood can't be that color, after all.

"You alright?"

"Yeah, fine." She doesn't elaborate further, and, instead, continues. "Anyway, yeah—they were all crowded around this kid," she gestures again to Karkat, "and trying to get me, too, so I figured I could always plead self-defense in court."

There’s a pause, then, before Kankri speaks up, eyes wide in the rear-view mirror. "You did all that?"

She doesn't look happy, though, as she nods. "'M small, but my sister taught me how to handle myself."

"Most people would take that statement and assume you mean a few years of tae-kwon-do in middle school, not... whatever that was," you reply quietly.

She snorts, which starts another brief coughing spell, and you wait as patiently as you can for her to continue. "M’ full name's Nepeta Leijon, s—"

"Like the big cat lady who used to be on Animal Planet?"

"Yeah," she smiles for the first time since you've seen her, and, even though it's not much more than a tired little upturn of her lips, you can't help but think she looks kind of cute when she does it. She reminds you of Jane, even though she’s probably your age. "Something like that."

There's another bout of silence after that, and you take the time to process past the fact that you've got the sister of a celebrity in your friend's car—or, rather, an ex-celebrity. Meulin Leijon fell off the television map after an accident that left her deaf, but you're sure more than a few people from your generation remember sitting for episodes of her nature show. Saturday mornings were always more interesting when you could eat your cereal and watch a petite young woman wrestle tigers to the ground.


The drive back takes considerably longer than it did coming the other way, but you can't tell if that's because you're so high-strung or Kankri has decided to drive extremely slowly. Likely, it's the former, which annoys you more than a little—but you can't relax! Not yet. Not for a while, really, if ever.

Three and a half hours pass uneventfully, and you find yourself phasing in and out of a dazed consciousness as you struggle to stay awake. Whenever you do slip into sleep, though, it's fitful and restless, and you find yourself waking even more tired than you were before. In the backseat, you see Nepeta struggling with a similar problem, constantly shifting and dozing, unable to stay asleep for long before her clogged lungs decide to jolt her up.

Now, you see that she has pulled one of the blankets wrapped around Karkat, tucking her bare feet underneath it with him. She must be cold, you decide, so you turn up the heat a little bit. When you look back a few minutes later, though, you see that she's broken out in a sweat—not a good sign. As you watch, her eyelids scrunch and she hacks again. And again. And again. And again.

And again and again and again and—

She sits up, curling in on herself as she starts gasping, gasping, gasping, unable to get any air into her chest as coughs continue to wrack her tiny frame.

"Kankri—Kankri, pull over now." You hiss, and you're already unbuckling your seat belt and climbing over the middle compartment to sit next to her. "Calm down, Nepeta. Hold on," you say, putting one hand on her shoulder and the other on her back, patting gently. Her futile breathes ease up again, and she breaks into another fit of barking wheezes. You take the hand on her back and pound hard, twice, and you hear her throat gurgle and crack just in time to open the car door and twist her body outward. Suddenly, a black sludge you weren't expecting comes dribbling out of her mouth, pouring through her teeth and puddling on the still-barely-moving pavement below. You pull her hair back as she heaves, slowly coming to the realization that whatever control you thought you had over the situation is quickly fading away.

Because in the sunlight, you can see that Nepeta's skin isn't so tan anymore.

It's not gray yet, really, but you've never seen anyone look quite so ashen before.

In that moment, you become very, very frightened.

"Is she okay?" You hear Kankri ask, but you don't answer.

After a few minutes, the girl's lungs have emptied enough, and she stops choking up the freaky, unidentifiable substance you'd seen ooze out of the massacred bodies a hundred miles back. You sit with her for another moment, rubbing her back and helping her sip water, trying not to think about it. About anything. But as you're climbing back into your seat, she looks you dead in the eyes and you feel your breath catch—because you swear her whites are seem a little darker. A little more... yellow.

"John?" she says, and it's so quiet you can barely hear it. "John, I really do think I'm dying.” Kankri’s breath hitches. “Can you do me a favor?" Stiffly, you nod, because there's not much else you can do, no matter how much you want to be able to save her. At least she knows what's going on—at least you don't have to tell her. She's being awfully calm about the whole thing, though, which you can't help but admire. "Can you get in touch with my sister somehow? And tell her all that cheesy stuff you're supposed to tell the people you love before you go up to heaven?" You know the broken smile you give her is small, but it's completely genuine. And sad.

You hate sad smiles. They feel wrong.

She seems satisfied, though, and closes her eyes again. There's not long left of the drive, but, as everyone lapses into silence again, you can't help but force your mind to wander elsewhere.

Despite everything you know about the English drug, you haven't found any sort of practical way to reverse its effects. The information you've been able to gather over the past few months is scarce and biased, mostly because the kinds of things you were looking for weren't open for public consumption. But the information you do have is straight from the source, you're lucky enough to admit. All of those late nights spent browsing through the EI record labs after-hours paid off in more ways than you could have imagined, and, when it was all said and done, you ended up with more than just a few top-notch study guides for school.

Like any other vaccination, the chemical compounds are administered directly into the bloodstream though an injection. Unlike them, however, the stuff will then find its way into the brain and, from there, directly target the lungs. Beyond what you handled yourself, though, you feel like you know too much and not enough—most of what you know seems irrelevant, because you've been questioning the truth behind everything you hear for months. Even now, you're learning new things, but you aren't sure where the puzzle pieces fit into the grand scheme of what’s happening.

From what you’ve seen, though, the blood is the root cause of this whole problem. Both the black sludge that’s somehow finding its way through Nepeta's body, and the red stuff that flows through your veins. That is the shit that's going first—or, at least, it’s the first visible sign that you can tell. You're not naive enough to think a good-ol'-fashioned colonial bleed-out is the answer, but, at this point, it’s not worth it to overlook anything.

Nepeta, however, is an anomaly. And that's more than a little worrying. Every other case you've followed over the past few days has been the same: patient gets vaccine, falls into coma, and wakes up a razor-blade-toothed mess. The girl in the backseat, though, has been as active as ever, and completely unaffected until earlier this afternoon—at which point the side effects started rapidly setting in. You wonder, then, if some part of the formula behaves like AIDS, because she spent more than enough time getting the bodily fluids of the fallen smeared into her open wounds.

And so did Karkat, for that matter.

Shit.

Shit, shit, shit, shit.

Shit.

You don't want to jump to any conclusions, but you've got enough knowledge and experience under your belt to realize that you just might be royally fucked. By the end of the day, you could quite possibly have two raging monsters in your care. Two raging monsters that you have no idea how to help—two raging monsters that you might have to kill. Suddenly, for the umpteenth time since you woke up, you feel sick—because, when you turn around to stare down the head of black hair you can barely see poking up out of the mound of blankets, you wonder if you're imagining the dollops of black dripping out from between his lips

The car slows, and, when you glance out the window, you sag with relief—Kankri's pulling off the main road, onto the trail. There are no streets that lead up to your cabin, but over the years your many visits have pounded a path into the underbrush that your grandfather cleared years before you were born. You're getting close, now.

There's a cough from the back seat that isn't Nepeta's, but, when you glance in the mirror, you see that Karkat is still relatively out of it. He hasn't woken up, but he's slowly stirring. You're not sure how you feel about that.

When Kankri's stupid car pulls up outside of the little one-room, studio-style structure you're currently calling home, the rest of your family is waiting outside, ready with smiles and hugs for someone they've never met. It's evening, now, so you're fairly sure there's dinner waiting inside, as well. You can't relax yet, though—you still have to finish treating Karkat’s wounds, and check over Nepeta one more time. Even if they're going to lose their minds soon, one of them is still your best friend, and the other saved (or tried to) his life—you owe her. So you wave to your dad when the car stops and hop out, opening the back door to start untangling Karkat from his nest. Thankfully, he seems to have warmed up, from what you can tell—but as you slowly reveal more of his skin you want to run, run, run far away.

Because while Nepeta's body is only slightly tinted, you can see, now, that Karkat is a full-on slate. In the darkness of the car, it had been hard to tell against his usual deep tan, but now you can see that he's fading faster than you had anticipated—especially considering the fact that he hadn’t gotten the vaccine in the first place.

Your brain shuts down again, and you start moving on autopilot as you scoop him up and turn around. Dad, who had been on his way toward you (you can practically hear the question about your sparse state of dress on his lips) freezes, but you don't say anything as you nod in his direction and continue inside. Nepeta and Kankri trail in after you as you lay Karkat on the small sofa and set to work, unwrapping his makeshift bandages. They're blood-soaked and heavy, but none of it is red.

"I'm going to need some water—warm water," you say to no one in particular. "And a towel or something." The messenger bag full of hospital-pilfered supplies is in one of the cabinets, so you pull that out and start rummaging for a needle and thread. It's going to be a long evening.


It takes an eternity to sew up all of his wounds, and, in that time, Nepeta throws up twice before passing out just as you finish checking her over, too. The situation is explained as best it can be, and, now, you're sitting around the dinner table with your fingers wrapped around a much-needed mug of coffee. You've never been more thankful for your grandpa and the generator he hooked up to the cabin when you were ten.

Jane has long-since fallen asleep, and you're left discussing what to do with your dad and Kankri—the latter of whom looks even more on-edge than you are. You suppose that's understandable, though. His brother—his only family—is dying. Probably will die.

"And there's—" his voice breaks, cracking with unshed tears. "There is not a thing you can do to assist him? To prolong... whatever it is that might be happening within his body?"

"You're asking me to stall the stuff running through his system?" You reply, sighing. "I don't even know where to star—"

Kankri cuts you off, slamming a palm on the table so hard your glasses shake. "I know you both had hands in that laboratory for months, John. Months. And there's nothing you can glean from that knowledge to help even in the slightest?" You don't think he's even listening to you anymore. "Do you care about him at all?"

"That's bullshit, Kankri, and you know it—he's my best friend," Your shout back. "We went through some heavy stuff together, alright? So don't you dare tell me I don't care. You wouldn't even be here if I didn't care." He glares at you from across the table, and you can't believe that this is the well-meaning, prim young man Karkat always talks about. He looks tired and sad and pissed, and you're pretty sure you look the same.

Dad speaks up, then, bless his gentlemanly heart. "Boys, going at each other's throats won’t solve a thing, no matter how cathartic the experience might be. Calm down and act like mature adults for once—we are not Neanderthals here." His voice is tense, too, though. You wish you didn't have to put him through so much stress.

Neither of you sit down, though, so you take a deep breath and talk on your feet. "I have a theory, okay? A theory on how to fix it. But there's poison going through his system, Kankri. That's bound to have some effects—and we've waited so long as it is. I don't even know if it'll work anymore."

"Then why did you wait this long?" He glares, arms shaking.

"Because I could kill him doing it! I don't have the right tools and it's really unsafe and—"

"He's dying, John! You said it yourself! Any risk is worth it at this point, if there's even the slightest chance of making this better!"

A cough catches your attention, and all three of your heads snap over to see Nepeta sitting up from her nest on the floor, watching you with wide, yellow-tinted eyes. Once she sees that she has your attention, though, something in her gaze changes, and she takes a deep, shuddering breath. "You don't know if it'll work, right? Whatever this is? So try it on me, first. If I die, I die. That’s it. If I don't, though, you can save him, too."

There's a heavy pause in the room, but Kankri makes the decision before you can say anything else.


Your brilliant plan is, in fact, good-ol'-fashioned colonial-era bleeding-out. Leeching, it's called. The practice is still used, you know, but only under very sterile, controlled conditions. It's dangerous—it's taken more lives than it's helped—but there is some truth to it. The whole thing works by the same principle as sucking out snake venom, but on a larger scale. You're short a few pond suckers, though, so you'll have to make do with gravity and a few needles.

Nepeta is relatively calm about the whole thing, perky and chatting with your family (and herself) as you move around, sterilizing the tubed chord from one of the blood bags you pilfered from the hospital. As you learn more about her, you discover that she's actually pretty sweet and bubbly, despite how serious she's been up to this point. You suppose that's what happens when someone goes through a traumatizing experience, though—something, for instance, like siege from a horde of possessed humanoid monsters.

She tells you about her sister, and how she grew up on the road, travelling around the world with her as she recorded for her show. About Meulin's accident—a car crash, she says, caused by her sister's boyfriend and his driving-while-stoned tendencies—and the abrupt shift to a normal life they were forced into. About their yearly camping trips, like the one she had been heading to when she found Karkat, and her own boring life. She chats and chitters even after you've started pumping the black mess from her veins, only slowing down when she starts to feel a little dizzy from the blood loss. There's no end to the tar-like mess, though, so you pause, asking her if she wants to keep going. She says yeah, mumbling that maybe it would help if there was something to push out the "yucky stuff" and fill her up so she doesn't end up looking like a raisin.

You have no idea what she's talking about, and, when you check her pupils, see that they're almost entirely black, dilated like a cat's. Her coherency is slipping.

But something suddenly clicks, and you have an idea. The reason blood-letting failed so horribly in the old days was because it was a one-way process. Shit comes out, but nothing ever goes back in to replenish what's been lost. A transfusion, you think—a transfusion is what needs to happen.

After a bit of coaxing, though, you find out that she doesn't know her blood type, so you start rummaging for the bag she brought from her car, still parked a hundred and fifty miles away. There's a large possibility her ID might have the information you need, and—

Holy fuck, what is that?

The black-coated, curved blade clatters onto the wooden cabin floor when you drop it, having sliced your hand on the sharp edge. Immediately, you flick into panic mode, and start sucking on the wound, spitting your blood into the sink. After a few tense minutes you decide you're probably fine, and turn back around. "Why, exactly, do you have farming tools in your duffle?"

"'S Karkat's," Nepeta slurs, giggling tiredly. If the situation were different, you might think she was drunk. "He looked all fierce 'nd stuff ssslingin' it around, choppin' off hands."

You decide to leave it on the floor, and scoot it under the couch with your shoe.

As it turns out, your dad is a match for Nepeta's blood type, and he agrees to do what he can. The process is long and tedious, though, and you end up with not one but two woozy patients by the end of it. But oh, man, does it pay off.

Eventually, the black grossness pumping out of the girl's system starts lightening in color, right up until it’s completely red again. Only then do you stop, and Nepeta smiles at you before passing out.

You try to curb your excitement at the discovery, and Kankri agrees to do the same thing for his brother, without hesitation, even though you're a match for his blood type, as well. You set up a new feed and get to work. If anything, Karkat's blood is thicker than Nepeta's, though, and you're already wary enough with the fact that he's lost so much from his shredded skin. He still hasn't woken up or made any sort of sound aside from a few sparse coughs, but his body is tense and you can see his fingers digging into the fabric of the blankets wrapped around him. Yet, much to your all-consuming relief, things go relatively smoothly for the first few minutes.

Before all hell breaks loose.

It starts with a coughing fit, not unlike any of the one he's suffered before, but when it doesn't stop you start to get worried. Like always, you prop him up, but the jostling jerks are threatening to pull the needle out of his arm and you can't have that. Thinking quickly, you use one hand to press his shoulder back against the cushions and your other to wrap some sticky medical tape over the extraction site, hoping it will hold—when there's suddenly something growling low into your ear.

You glance up, and his eyes are open.

His teeth are bared.

He's snarling at you.

And you realize then that you probably should have worked on him, first, because he's so much farther gone than Nepeta.

One of Karkat's hands reaches up faster than lightening, and, before you know how to react, he has you by the collarbone and is slamming you onto the couch next to him as he struggles against his blanket tangle. There's a moment then when his hold loosens, and you take the opportunity to spring into action, pinning him down, instead. You're easily twice his size, so holding him shouldn't be hard—but, for some reason, it is. You think back to the man in your garage and how he gripped you tighter than anyone you've ever met, and realize that things have suddenly gotten much, much worse.

Thankfully, though, even when he's on a tripped-out monster high, you're still much stronger than him, and you make a mental note to thank your dad for all the boxing and wrestling classes he signed you up for at Grandpa Harley's insistence. There's still a lot of thrashing going on below you, though, so you keep him straddled and secure as best you can.

Kankri is still sitting cross-legged on the floor, connected by the transfusion tube, but looking pale and scared and determined all the while. There's a glass of orange juice by his side that you know your dad must have brought over at some point, and, when you look around, you see that Jane has woken up and is clinging to your father tightly.

You knew this was a possibility, but you're not giving up now. Not when you're so close.

It feels like years before Karkat starts to calm down, drained by the blood loss and exhaustion and the chaos raging in his body, and you, yourself, have lost feeling in your hands and legs by the time he finally passes out. By then, the blood bags have turned an awful, blackish-brown, and you know you’re making progress. The whole thing is taking longer than you would have liked, though, and you’re fully aware that Kankri is going to need a break soon—else you'll be faced with an entirely different problem than the matter at hand. You can't stop now, though, because there's no telling when Karkat will wake up again. Instead, you decide to do something incredibly stupid, risky, and most likely fatal.

You unhook Kankri, clean out another tube—you've got four, thank goodness, so you'll still have one left after this mess—and press a needle into your own arm. Kankri doesn't argue, even though he looks worried. You think he's probably too exhausted to. Instead, he weakly pats you on the back and welcomes you to the family, before waiting just long enough for you to patch up the puncture spot on his arm and flopping on the bed next to Nepeta. Your dad is out for the count, too, curled up in a chair with your little sister, so you take the opportunity to relish in the silence and redo the stitches your best friend split open in his outburst. Eventually, you’ll have to text your cousin and explain why you left her hanging what feels like a lifetime ago, but, by the time you’re finished and Karkat’s blood runs clear, you’re too exhausted to remember.


[12/29/31]

Karkat doesn't wake up for another three days, and, in that time, you manage to piece together a few things with your new, first-hand information on the virus—yes, the virus, because that's what you decide it is. While the vaccine might have planted the seeds of this mess, whatever "stage two" is can be easily passed from one person to the next, with permanent after-effects. Nepeta's skin doesn't start to fade back—or show any signs of doing so—and her eyes stay yellow (which make the world too bright, she says). You decide that would explain Garage Man's aversion to the morning sunlight. Her nails, too, have hardened considerably—and, when, she freaks out one morning, convinced there's a stray cat outside the cabin, you realize there might be a few more internal changes, as well.

Because you find the cat two miles away, mid-meal at the end of the path as it rips apart a screaming bunny.

All in all, though, the girl becomes a welcome addition to your strange little refugee group. You discover that she knows how to hunt a little too late to convince your grandparents that you can survive fine on your own, though, and spend an hour yelling over the phone with both your cousin and Grandpa about how they need to stay put. Once again, they don't listen, and the day after you return to the cabin with the wounded pair they set sail from Harley Island toward Florida.

Just as you're beginning to worry that Karkat might have slipped into a coma after his ordeal, though, your fears and prayers are answered. You're in the cabin alone a few days ever everything has settled down, your dad and Jane having gone out in search of firewood while Nepeta and Kankri set off earlier that morning, back toward her car to see if there's anything else they could salvage from her supplies. She had been heading toward a campsite, after all—there were bound to be more than a few useful things in her truck bed. There's no television or wi-fi in the little house, but you have your phone to access the outside world, which proves both frustrating and helpful at the same time. Annoying, of course, because the screen is so tiny—but the lack of pop-ups and ads is incredibly nice.

You're so wrapped up in reading an article on the recent collapse of the European Union, though, that you barely notice the muffled groan from the sofa where you're best friend is still stationed. He's been bathed and re-bandaged multiple times, so, more than anything, he looks like he's just sleeping. Which is nice, because you really don't want to think about what got him there.

You do, however, hear the slurred, gruff stream of curses that emerge after a while, and, in an instant, you're at his side, trying to gauge whether or not he's going to attack you again. There have been a few scary moments over the past few days, but nothing as serious as when you first brought him home. "Karkat...?"

"F-u-ck," he moans—or, at least, you think he does. You can't really tell what he's trying to say, but at least he isn't trying to rip out your throat! Progress.

"Can you hear me?" There's a really long pause that makes you worried, so you busy yourself with closing all of the blinds and turning off the lights, just to give your body something to do. If Nepeta has trouble with bright things, Karkat will only be worse, and, if he actually is coming to, you don't want to permanently blind him or something. When you return to his side, you see that he's slung an arm over his eyes, and you think you've made the right choice. "You there, Karkat?"

"Holy shiiit, John," he draws out slowly. "I'm definitely dead."

"Wow, I really hope not," you reply with a high-pitched, crazy laugh of liberation (because wow for a while there you never thought you'd hear him speak again). "That'd be a serious blow to my doctor-y pride if you were."

He snorts, and you notice that he doesn't cough afterwards. A good sign. "Oh, fuck—some dumbass college kid tried to fix me up. Now I know I'm dead." You laugh again (because what else can you say?) and he flinches. "Lower your fucking noise level, John—and stop sucking all the oxygen and shit from the room. I can hear you processing carbon dioxide from here."

"Sorry," you whisper, and he visibly relaxes, sagging back into the blankets after a moment. There's another moment of silence and stillness, before you realize he's fallen back asleep.

You sit back down on the floor in a relieved daze, and see the article is still up on your phone, announcing the most recent body count in Europe. By the time you realize you've started crying, you aren't sure what the tears are for anymore.

Chapter Text


[1/7/32]

The next week passes fairly quickly, as most of your time is split between taking care of Jane and keeping everyone else relatively happy. Your dad does well enough handling order within the cabin, but anywhere outside is fair territory for scuffles, shouting matches, and the occasional dramatic exit. It takes several days for Karkat to physically recover from his near encounter with death, and, in the meantime, you’re forced to watch as he attempts to adjust to the changes in his body. Some part of you wants to lie and say that he's doing fine, but you know you can't. In reality, he's well on his way to spiraling down into that realm of mental upset you're not qualified to handle at all, and you don't think you will ever be able to truly express how grateful you are for Nepeta. Though Kankri tries hard to show his brother he still loves him, there's a new, physical rift between the two that they’ll never be able to ignore. The little cat-lover always seems to be right there to distract Karkat when his thoughts wander a little too much into forbidden territory.

You make a point to lock up the only mirror in the cabin, unscrewing it from the bathroom wall and bolting it instead onto the inside of the useless closet's door. No one complains—not even Jane. And, in that moment, you're suddenly struck by how much she has matured since you left home.

As the days go by, though, you hole yourself farther and farther up, until the little four-chair table is littered permanently with the contents of your file box—the one you'd dug out from underneath your bed at the last minute before leaving home. Over the past few months, everything you've accumulated on English Industries and its world-famous staff—both from the labs, themselves, and other somewhat-reliable sources—has found its way into various pockets and folders, tucked in and sealed tight.

When you'd started to collect things, it hadn't been for any other reason than to have an extra one-up on your classmates in pre- and medical school. After you returned home, the task took on a different tone, but it wasn't for any other reason than to put your own mind at ease. The whole thing had been a mostly-purposeless endeavor—a way to pass time—because you had been completely sure that you and your family were safe from the things in those glass cages.

Now, though, you dive back into your research with a renewed fervor, scouring pages and pages of notes, lost in the haze of false optimism that you—by some miracle—can find something to help your friend. You're trapped in the middle of the Washington wilderness, technology-locked with no real equipment and an internet connection slower then molasses, but you press forward, hoping, hoping, hoping there's something. Anything. At the very least, knowledge is power—even if you have no way to actually use that knowledge just yet.

The New Year slides in much in the same way Christmas passed, somber and quiet with the addition of a few more people. There is no sparkled ball to watch on the TV, because the cities are in chaos and stupid traditions like that are the least of anyone's worries now. Your father and Jane pitch in to make some kind of sweet flatbread, because you don't have the ingredients to make a real cake, and palpable tension in the air hangs heavy like a ticking time-bomb, ready to explode.

And it does, just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, at the hands of some off-hand sentence Kankri says without thinking. Things escalate quickly after that, and, before you know it, Karkat is yelling, shouting at the top of his lungs what's the point and we don't have any life to go back to and why are we even celebrating something like this before the wooden door slams and he's gone. Nepeta follows after a few minutes, and Kankri falls sleeps on the hole-filled screened porch hours later, still waiting for them to come home when the sun comes up.

In the face of it all, Jane becomes the mother-figure none of you ever had, reversing your roles. At eleven years old (going on thirty), she plays good cop to the bad cop your father eventually becomes, smoothing over the aftermaths of arguments between the Vantas brothers and offering a shoulder to cry on for whoever might need it. Nepeta confides in her as a friend, and she is the only one who bothers to set meals and coffee on top of your papers whenever you forget to take care of yourself, lost as you are in your work. Before long, Dad is too busy making sure the boys don't kill each other to watch out for you much anymore, and you know he shouldn't have to worry about you in the first place. He raised you well, after all.

Three days into the New Year, Nepeta decides to look for her sister. Meulin had supposedly set up camp farther north, where Nepeta had been headed when she found Karkat, but all attempts to contact her via cell phone go unanswered after the first day. Nepeta maintains a positive attitude, convinced that Meulin’s battery had simply died days ago, but you can't help the sinking feeling in your gut. Meulin is deaf, and, no matter what other skills her past career might’ve given her, that is a major handicap for prey to have—which, you've decided, you all essentially are.

Nepeta takes Karkat with her when she goes, which surprises the rest of you, but you figure he would do nothing but mope around the campsite for the few days she planned for the trip, anyway, so no one makes a fuss. It occurs to you, then, just how much your relationship has shifted. Much like with his brother, the two of you don't quite see eye to eye on things these days. He was—is—your best friend, but you can’t quite relate to him on the same level you used to. Already, he has started to drift away—and you've pushed him there, you realize, with how much time you've spent locked away, pouring over your research. That kind-of horrible epiphany lights a fire under you, though, and you throw yourself twice as hard into your work, scouring through news articles and medical forums and sketchy blog sites in search of anything you might’ve missed—anything that could possibly help him. Help Nepeta. Help you all.

The pair takes your dad with them, as well, so that they’ll have a "normal-looking representative" for Meulin, as Nepeta had put it, to assure her that they don’t mean any harm. The trip is slated to last a week at most—but when they return just the next morning, you don't have to ask what they find at Meulin's campsite.

You can guess by the look in Nepeta's eyes.

The following few days are spent in respectful silence, and even the Vantas brothers make an effort to keep their bickering to a minimum. Already, you all have begun to consider yourselves as something of a strange, mismatched family, but this death solidifies the feeling. Even if it's not quite medical truth, you became Karkat’s blood-brother the moment you stuck the needle in your arm, and Nepeta stepped in as a second sister in much the same way—the six of you will never again be anything less than a strange little clan of kindred spirits.

Now, as you sit on the screened in porch and watch the orange sunrise, you can't help but wonder if things will ever be different. The outside world is slowly falling apart while you and yours attempt to survive peacefully, blissfully in ignorance, tucked away from the chaos by trees and rocks and mountains and space. From what you've been able to read on your phone, you’re not the only ones to have been hit by the waves of Stage Two Infected suddenly crawling out of the cracks in the world—but you are, thus far, the only ones who actually bothered to prepare for them. Not that you knew what you were preparing for at the time, of course.

Most of the formal news stations officially went offline four days ago, but that hasn't stopped wannabe journalists and investigative bloggers from posting uncut reports of what is going on in the world. From what you've been able to gather, by the time comatose vaccination victims had begun waking up, hospitals were already beyond filled past capacity, and all it took was one gray monster per building to wreak havoc on the nearly-thousand people inside each. Entire towns were wiped off the map overnight. The disease spread like wildfire, taking over whole populations like some kind of sick, reverse Pay It Forward. There's a good chance that most of your college friends are dead, and a quick Google search confirms what you already know—that everyone at the old Edgewood Community Hospital by your house is gone, too.

You flick off your phone, closing the same first-hand account of a diligent reporter succumbing to the side effects that you've managed to read thrice through in the past hour, and heave a long, heavy sigh. The sky is on fire, bursting with enough colors to fill a tinted rainbow, and, for a moment, think the forest might erupt alike some misplaced volcano. It worries you that the idea doesn't scare you as much as it once might have—you're too tired, now—too exhausted and sad and you just want everything to go back to the way it was all those forevers ago. You've been here at the cabin with your family for fifteen days, now, but it already seems like an eternity has passed.

You can't remember the last time you properly smiled. Or laughed. Or pulled a prank or cracked a joke or—

A familiar ping echoes through the early-morning stillness, and it takes you a moment to realize that the sound came from the phone in your hand. You don't have to guess who's trying to contact you, though—there are only a few people left around to do it. The global population is dwindling exponentially with each passing day.

JADE: hey john oh my gosh we are soooo close!!!! we should be up by north carolina in a few days which is really exciting!!!

JADE: i havent been back to the old house in forever!! i know we are not staying there long because we are coming to see you as soon as we land but i still think it will be really great even if it is just for a few hours!!!!

By now, you've come to begrudgingly accept the fact that your extended family is dead-set on risking their lives to come see your makeshift little group. After leaving your grandparents' island by boat on Christmas Day, the four of them have held a steady course toward domestic waters, heading first toward the Florida coasts and subsequently working upwards. There's an old waterfront home Grandpa Harley built when he was younger—the same place he took your grandmother for their honeymoon, so the story goes—in Croatan, North Carolina, though, where they plan to touch down. From then on, the journey your way will be one taken over land, and that’s the part you're most worried about.

Because they've been water-locked for the past few weeks, Jade and the rest have no idea what they'll be facing when they finally reach dry soil. You’ve kept on their case about reading the new reports, and you, yourself, have done your best to keep them updated on the world's happenings—but the devastation is something that has to be seen.

JADE: john are you ignoring me??? >:(

JADE: no wait oh my gosh it is really early in washington right now!! if you are reading this go back to sleep right away mister because you always seem so tired when i talk to you so you need all of the rest you can get okay?? so go sleep!!!!

JOHN: jaaade even if i had been asleep i would totally be awake by now, so you aren't allowed to scold me for being up.

JADE: john!!!

JOHN: jade!!!

JADE: joooohn!!!!!!

JOHN: jaaaade!!!!

JADE: okay i am going to be the mature one here and stop all this silliness!! also oh my gosh john you need to take better care of yourself

JOHN: i am definitely two years older than you so that definitely makes me more of an adult than you. also i take care of myself just fine thank you very much!

JADE: age has nothing to do with that!! it is just a stupid number that nobody important cares about.

JADE: and i have sources that have been telling me that you are a liar and you are NOT taking care of yourself!!!!! when i see you i am going to hit you john maybe that will get your brain to start working right again >:(((

JOHN: you've been talking to jane haven't you? ugh she is such a traitor! whatever she’s been telling you is probably really exaggerated so don't even bother okay?

You know your sister means well—you really do—and you aren't mad at her for confiding in your cousin. On the contrary, you're mad at yourself. You're the older sibling. You're her older brother, and you're supposed to be the one protecting her from the evils and dangers and sadnesses of the world. You're supposed to tuck her in and drive her to birthday parties and beat up bullies and threaten every boy she will ever bring home. She is eleven—too young to watch the world end, because there's so much life she has left to live. So much she has left to experience. So much that she'll never get to experience—not anymore, at least.

You're not naive enough to think that things will get back to normal someday. Even if a miracle cure does suddenly surface, too many lives have already been lost. Countries have fallen. Social institutions have collapsed. It's only been a few weeks since you, Jane, and your Dad stood in the kitchen and watched that first breaking news report, but you already know that something like this can’t be easily reversed. How stupid you and Karkat were to think that this—this whole thing was something you could hide away from, holed up in a cabin for a few months. That it would be something you could wait out. This is bigger—so, so, so much bigger than you could ever have imagined.

It's terrifying, because you suddenly feel like there's a weight on your back that you’re not ready to carry—not strong enough to lift.

JADE: so what if i have been talking to jane!! she is worried and that means that i have good reason to worry too!!

JADE: you need to snap out of whatever funk you have managed to bury yourself in and wake up!!! i know you are upset about your friends and what happened but you are only making things worse by moping around okay???

JADE: i know for a fact that you are not the only one having a hard time!!!!

A few moments pass as you just sort of sit and stare at your phone without actually typing anything in response—because what can you say? You know she's right—fuck, you know she's right, and that somehow makes you feel even shittier. Your friendships are falling apart and your family is straining to stay together, and all you've been doing is sitting around, feeling sorry for yourself. You've been arrogant, thinking you could come up with some kind of solution in a matter of days, even with all the new information circulating. People with years more experience and twice the amount of equipment are bound to be working on something—anything—because there’s no way they wouldn’t be. You have your own people to worry about, to focus on—someone else can deal with the rest of the world.

You send one last response to your cousin before re-locking your phone. You've missed the end of the sunrise, you realize, and the forest is ten times brighter than the last time you glanced up. Nepeta and Karkat, now both relatively averse to the daily brightness, will be heading to sleep in their light-proof blanket fort after the brief breakfast-for-you-dinner-for-them ritual you’ve established since they arrived. It's the only meal you all share together anymore, and you've skipped the last few in favor of catching society's few-remaining early-morning news reports.

Just before the cabin door creaks closed, you decide to leave your phone outside. An entire day spent without the tiny screen to distract your attention will do a world of good, you think. You’ll be able to focus on other things, for once.

That night, after an afternoon of stereotypically-sappy family bonding, you scroll through the newest headlines and decide you'll never go without it again.


==> BE THE BORED JUNGLE GIRL

Bored? You're not bored! You're never bored, because your life is just way too exciting to waste time on anything stupid like that!

Or, at least, it normally is. Right now, though, your ETERNAL OPTIMISM is wearing more than just a little bit thin. You don't mind sailing—you really, really don't! But you're rarely trapped at sea for longer than twenty-four hours, forty-eight at most.

Now, it's been a day under TWO WEEKS, and you've long-since run out of things to do.

Your name is JADE HARLEY, and you are SEVENTEEN YEARS OLD. Sea-spray brushes your fingertips as you stretch out over the side of your Grandpa's thirty-six-foot Pearson, the Blue Lady, reaching, reaching, reaching toward the ocean. Your trip has been relatively smooth so far, but you'll soon be entering particularly-chilly East Coast waters and that luck is going to run out, you just know it. At least in terms of nice weather. You've lived all over the world—all over the world—but you've always been partial to the warmer climates of tropical regions.

Washington is special, though. There's something about that cold that just feels like home to you.

You like to think of your life as one big adventure, constantly on the move, meeting new people at every turn. The way you're living now? Yeah, no one on the planet would hesitate to slap an Indiana Jones movie title over a scripted, condensed version of the stuff you've experienced. It's in your blood, Grandma tells you—a love of excitement and the resistance to being tied down. As your mother's mother, you don't doubt her—and, from what you do remember of your parents, the statement rings true.

"Jade, darling! Dinner!" A voice hollers up from the boat’s cockpit, but you barely get the chance to turn around before— "My goodness, child! You know you're not supposed to go hanging off that thing! Really, dear. You're going to fall overboard and freeze to death."

Between the sail sheets, you can see the white, frizzy mane of your grandmother's hair framing the same face you know you'll be wearing in forty years. The two of you are so much like cross-generational twins it's nearly hysterical, and even your grandfather has sworn that you look every bit the spitting image of Grandma in her youth. It's nice to know you'll be pretty when you grow up, you think, because your grandmother is wild and fierce and beautiful and everything you've ever wanted to be.

You're halfway across the deck, though, when a decidedly-European whine sounds up from below, and you can't help but roll your eyes. "Jade! Jade, I'm hungry and you're takin' so long and Grandpa says we can't eat 'til you're down with us so would you please hurry up!"

Grandma chuckles fondly, but you just scowl—because you're still so bored, and a bored Jade is a very, very unhappy one. Bothering your silly little TEN YEAR OLD cousin JAKE ENGLISH will probably give you a good thirty seconds of entertainment, so you seize the opportunity and halve your pace, practically crawling over the winches and rope-anchors and vents. There are windows on the walkway, and you know he can see you when his pitiful keening starts up again.

Your moment of satisfaction is short-lived, though, because your grandma is still waiting and, quite frankly, you are hungry—but it’s very much worth it.


Halfway through your second hot dog and just before a food fight erupts between you and Jake, your phone rings from the small room you and your cousin have share. That, in itself, is unusual—you don't keep in contact with many people over anything but the internet, because most of your friends—the people you've met on your travels—live spread out around the world. Anyone who would be calling you is sitting nearby, and the only people not around know that satellite reception is spotty-at-best when you're not on land.

Suddenly, you're worried.

Within moments, you've climbed under the table—it folds up, so when meal times come your family sets it out in the middle of the only open path below deck—and are scrambling to remember where you left it. By the time you manage to get the little thing into your hand, you're fairly sure it's on the last ring, so you don't even bother checking caller ID. Really, you don't have to.

"John?"

"Oh, Jade—Good. I thought you weren't going to pick up." It's your cousin, alright, but he sounds on edge. You haven't heard his voice in days, but you know him just as much as you know Jake—you're more than qualified to judge if something is wrong.

"You know you're not supposed to call, John—and we just talked this morning! You could have just texted me again, you know." Three heads are watching you through the doorway, still seated, and you see your grandpa raise his eyebrows. All you can do is shrug, though.

"Yeah, yeah—I know. But... shit, Jade. I know you don't really have good internet reception where you are, and I di—" the signal cuts off, and you want to scream because John sounds really, really upset and you're suddenly really, really worried. The last time he called you, his best friend had nearly bled out in his arms hours before. As a general rule, phone calls from four thousand miles away aren't good.

"John? Are you there? Can you hear me?"

"—ah, I'm here. Uh, what's the last part you got of that?"

You shake your head, even though you know he can't see you. "Doesn't matter—what's the reason we're talking? The point, I mean? If you get the important stuff out, we won't have to go crazy if I lose you."

There's a pause, and you're just about to glance at the screen to see if the call really did drop when your cousin's quiet voice crackles back to life.

"It's Jake's dad, Jade—He's dead."


You're not really sure what you feel, so when John starts going off on some long-winded explanation you just sort of hand the phone off to your grandpa and crawl back above deck. You need time to think, because the sensation of both wanting to punch something and throw a party all at the same time isn't exactly a comfortable one.

You settle for perching on the jib winch, right on the very tip of the bow, where you can let your bare feet dangle through the railing and watch an unbroken, endless expanse of ocean burn under the glare of the sun. It's your favorite spot—you could sit there for hours and just think, which is exactly what you need right now.

There are few people in the world you think you could ever really hate. It's a list you can, at the moment, count on one hand. And right at the top—though you'll never tell your youngest cousin—sits Jake's father: Lord Caliborn English. What he remembers about your Uncle English and what you remember, though, are probably two entirely different storylines. Neither of you have seen him in years, and you absolutely prefer it that way.

Your grandmother has warned you more than once about what she calls the Harley Family Bad Juju—the repeating pattern of bad luck that’s been plaguing your family since you were just a tiny, tiny little baby. What began with the death of John's mother when Jane was born swept through every aspect of your lives, stealing both your parents in a plane crash you were lucky to survive and subsequently displacing you from any kind of real home at age seven. Jake's family was nice enough to take you in part-time for a while—you had been on your way to visit them when it happened, anyway—but, after two years spent shuffling between your Uncle Egbert's Washington home and the English family villa in Britain, you were finally carted off to a semi-permanent residence with the twin brother you never had—John.

During the months you were an aggravation in his household, though, your Uncle English got himself a pretty mistress and ran off to the United States, leaving your Aunt to care for one screaming toddler and a mountain of divorce paperwork. There wasn't any room for you in England anymore, and the abandonment sent your grandparents' last living child—Jake’s mom—into a downward spiral of alcohol and depression medication.

There isn't a doubt in your mind that Grandpa Harley and Grandma would take Jake off her hands, just like they did you from Uncle Egbert when caring for three children became too much for a single father (though you know he fought to keep you, which warms you up from tip to toe). But your Aunt English won't legally let her son go. The three of you have had to settle with whisking him away for your supervised trips and travels, keeping him happy when you can.

Your Uncle English—he stole your cousin's life when he broke your aunt’s heart, and you can't forgive him for that. Not one bit. You hate him. Hate, hate, hate. He was a child trapped in a grown man's body with a temper too big to handle and a mind far too smart for how immature he was. Everything he touched grew ugly and wilted away—and your grandparents hardly questioned John's insistence about that stupid vaccine, just because it was his handiwork. He was god-awful and mean and you'd spend your life trapped on this stupid little boat just for the opportunity to punch him in the face.

So why do you feel so sad?


When you finally get the energy to wander back below deck, the sun has long-since set and your bare toes are beginning to turn blue. The boat is quiet and dark, and, as you head toward the stern, you see that the anchor has already been dropped for the night. In the cabin, though, there's a soft light, so you know that not everyone has turned in. Underneath the open hatch, your grandmother smiles sadly up at you from where she's sitting, wrapped up in blankets on a bench-turned-bed with your cousin in her arms as she runs her fingers through his unruly hair. He, at least, is asleep, but his eyes are red-rimmed and puffy. Your anger flares.

Your invincible Grandma suddenly looks tired, and you're smacked in the face by the fact that she's getting older. That thought alone is more frightening than every desert you've traveled, every storm you've weathered, every animal you've hunted.

Before you have the chance to get too lost in your thoughts, though, you hear Grandpa Harley clear his throat from where he’s standing just inside the bedroom door. He raises his eyebrows, and, just like that, your temper deflates. You're left feeling empty, completely burned out. It doesn't take long for you to regret ignoring John's explanation, because you realize, then, that you're completely out of the loop. Still.

You don't bother saying anything, though—instead, you shuffle toward him, right into his open arms. The table has been folded up and dinner packed away, though you doubt anyone actually bothered finishing the food after your escape.

As soon as your grandfather envelopes you in one of his monstrous, warm hugs, though, you sort of forget for a moment that you're supposed to be upset. He radiates strength and tranquility, and you just want to curl up in his lap and sleep forever. He's always been like that—the big grizzly-bear protector of your family. Gently, he scoots you into the room without letting go, and the door clicks closed behind you both. The silence that follows is heavy.

Eventually, your curiosity gets the better of you, and you can't help but mumble a quiet, "What did John say?" into the fabric of his shirt.

Grandpa Harley hums, thinking, and you can feel the deep sound reverberate through his chest, right into your bones. His accent, thick like Jake's but laced with the hundred inflections he's picked up from speaking so many different languages, rumbles in the quiet. "When people get scared, gem, they tend to lose sight of what they're doin'. They'll make bad decisions, and people will get hurt—when they're feelin' trapped, humans aren't much different from lions."

"I know, Grandpa."

He chuckles tiredly, and you feel him nod. "Yes, I suppose you do." There's a pause, then, and you have to nudge him with your forehead to get him to continue. "Your cousin said that no one has much of an idea ‘bout what really went on—just that there was some kind of explosion at the facilities Caliborn has been usin’ to run his research. The same place John spent this past summer."

Your head tilts up, and you squint at your grandfather's face above the rims of your glasses. The creases in his skin are noticeable for the first time in quite a while, and, like the bags under your grandmother's eyes, they worry you. "And nobody knows what caused it or anything?"

"People we're gettin' fed up with how little progress authorities were makin' on findin' a solution to what's happenin' in the world, so a group of them took matters into their own hands. No one's quite sure how they managed to make their way into the buildin’, itself, or what they were plannin’ to do—but they somehow set off an IED and leveled the whole place."

"I thought no one knew where Uncle English was? Like, people have been looking for him for weeks, right? Wouldn't someone have found him if he’d been in the one place everyone looked?"

"The blast opened up some kind of underground installation—the body count from down there was twice the entire hired staff, and they're still findin' more under the chaos. Identifications have been made on some, though. Missin' persons and runaways, right up next to some of the greatest minds in science—that Scratch fellow and Caliborn, included, they’re sure. Well, they'd better damn-well be sure, at least. There was somethin' goin' on down there that no one but a few people knew about."

Part of you is a morbidly curious, a little intrigued by the fact that something so sci-fi had actually happened. And on the other hand, you're angry—how had no one found it beforehand? Weren't policemen trained to sweep thoroughly during a manhunt?

Before you have the chance to ask, though, your grandfather is continuing, telling you that most of the bodies found were already well-affected by the thing that's been sweeping throughout the world, and almost everyone found was already dead long before the blast went off. That, in addition to losing the two strongest leads to fixing what's going wrong—Scratch and your uncle—most of the records left were destroyed inside with the building. And that your cousin—your wonderful, blue-eyed cousin John—already knew about everything there.

Later that night, you text him, and your conversation is more than a little strongly worded. You would rather call and yell at him, but service is still shitty so you have to settle for typing with caps-lock turned on. The exchange ends with accusations flying—why didn't he tell you? Didn't he trust you? How could he have known something like that and not said anything?—and you two don't speak again for several days.


[1/9/32]

On Friday, the Blue Lady finally touches down in Croatan. The area is wooded, cut off from most everything else just like the day it was first settled, and you're fairly sure it had been a national park at some point years ago. There are only a few houses, all large and spread out from one another, and you can't decide whether the general population’s reluctance to live in the area is thanks to high real estate prices, strict building regulations, or the fact that the original Roanoke settlement had disappeared without a trace in the late sixteenth century. While Jake is a little apprehensive about the superstitions surrounding the whole place, you think it’s all hysterical. As if anything could get the drop on your family! Hah!

All in all, though, you're practically jumping up and down, so freaking happy to be back on land after over two weeks at sea. Even when you nearly throw up on the dock because you've gotten a bit too used to your sea legs, you willingly do so with a smile, patting Jake's back like the good not-big-sister you are as he empties his stomach into the bay. This is the worst part about landing, and it'll be at least a few hours before you get back your stationary bearings. Ugh.

The two of you end up sitting on the docks for most of the evening as your grandparents unpack, watching for fish you know you won't see and talking about dumb things. He's nervous about the trip up to Washington, you know—in a fit of frustration after your argument with John, you had shouted at him everything that could possibly go wrong along the way. It wasn't exactly your finest moment, and you'd both ended up on the floor in tears, clinging to each other as he yelled about not wanting to die. You've tried your best to keep him close and happy since then, because, now that you're on land, things are about to get really complicated really fast.

Even though you've taught him how to fire a gun and fight with his fists, he's only ten, and you don't know what you'd do without him. For all the quarreling and teasing and poking and prodding you do, you love Jake, and you don't want to lose any more family. Ever.

Eventually, you both start splashing each other with the water below your feet, but holy shit it's January and you're really, really freaking cold after just a few minutes. Jake starts shivering halfway up the path to your house, so you end up carrying his frozen butt the rest of the way. Even though he's ten years old and perfectly capable of walking, himself, you don't really mind. He clings to you, you cling to him, and you just sort of stay wrapped up in each other for the rest of the evening—even as you help him out of his wet clothes, smother him in a warm, fuzzy blanket, and set him in front of the fireplace one of your grandparents must have lit while you were outside. It's late, now. You didn't stay out long enough to see the sunset, but the clouded sky is plenty visible through the big floor-to-ceiling windows you've always especially loved about this house.

"Hey, Jade?" His voice is a little muffled, because he's pulled the blanket completely over his head for some reason. He's just a lump of wool, pressed right up against your side. At least his shivering has stopped.

"Yeah?"

Jake doesn't say anything after that, though, and you start to get a little worried. Pulling at the corners of his soft little shell, you peek in, just to make sure he hasn't accidently suffocated or something—and immediately pull him into your lap. He doesn't really fit, but you curl around him anyway, squeezing him tight. Black hair messy, glasses askew, he looks wide-eyed and adorable and sad, and you wonder what you did in a past life to deserve this—what was so bad that everyone around you has to suffer so much. "Don't worry, okay?" You say, giggling. It sounds empty to you, but he relaxes anyway. "Things are going to be fine. The world's a just kind of a little messed up right now, but we were born sturdy, you know? So stop worrying!"

He nods, still too stiff for your liking, and you shake him a bit, hoping he'll grace you with a grin. His smiles are all teeth and squinty-eyes and beaming, and you love them—even though you'll never tell him. "Golly, I hope Jane's alright. And John, too."

"They're tough as bullets, too, so I know they’re fine. Jane's got John looking after her, and he won't let anything bad happen. They've got Uncle Egbert with them, too, and some of John's friends." Suddenly, you feel a little guilty for cutting off your cousin. He's tried to text you, but you haven't responded—he knows you're all fine, though, because Jane and Jake have been chatting back and forth for most of the journey. Your drama didn't affect them much, thank goodness.

"Yeah, I suppose you're right. 'M frettin' too much."

"Of course I'm right, dumb-butt. I'm always right."

"That's hogswallop, and you know it."

"Hogswallop? There's no way that's a real word."

"It is too. Grandpa Harley says it."

"So you're going to start saying it now, just because he does?"

"I think it's just dandy, Jade! It's a dandy word."

Rather than grace him with a response, you just sort of shove him and roll your eyes. Later, when your Grandma comes to find you both for dinner, she walks in on one of the most epic pillow fights ever to grace the battlefields of North America. Because Harley-English bedding battles are legendary, and, just for a while, you manage to forget about everything.


[1/12/31]

You spend one night in a real bed, before you have to pack up and head out again the next morning. The car is filled with clothes and food and camping supplies and guns and lots of ammunition, and the next three days are a blur of highway scenery passing by your window at ninety miles an hour. By John’s advice—after just a few hours on the road, you get so bored that you decide to call a temporary truce and start talking to him again—your grandparents take care to keep your miniature tank of a truck away from populated areas, but what you do see when during bathroom breaks and gas stops is frightening.

It occurs to you you rather early on that you may have been subconsciously doubtful of everything that had happened—was happening.

Yes, you'd been in the airport when flights had shut down. You'd witnessed the chaos, the noise, the confusion. You'd been in the middle of it all—but that was weeks ago, before the worst parts of the madness had swept through and torn everything up. Everything.

Now, though, the world is silent.

It's been three days since you landed, three weeks since you left the mainland, just off the coast of your own island—and you haven't seen any living soul apart from your family. Pullovers are littered with broken glass, 7-Elevens lined with empty shelves, and blood on the door of a Wal-Mart in Colorado. Still, though, you don't come across anyone—normal or otherwise. It's both worrying and aggravating, but, despite the fact that you're pretty sure most of the danger has passed, you don't complain when your Grandpa shuffles everyone through each stop as quickly as possible. All of creation is quiet and boring and empty and oddly peaceful.

Until, that is, you're halfway through Washington, just a few hours from your final destination. That’s when things start to go really, really wrong.

I-2 is, perhaps, the dreariest of all cross-country roadways—especially in January. Lined the entire way on either side with nothing but rocks and trees, it stretches throughout the whole of Washington, branching off into little highways every now and then without actually ever coming to an end. There are almost no Exits. None. Because, with the exception of one city right on the Washington-Montana border, it cuts through more national parks than you can count on both hands. Huzzah.

In your dead-set pace straight for the Egberts' cabin, though, you forget to take this particular piece of information into account—right alongside the fact that, oh gosh, cars need gas. You're the one behind the wheel when you realize the mistake, your grandparents both napping fitfully in the back, worn out from days of driving. Jake is in the passenger seat next to you, legs propped up on the dashboard as he doodles in the grid-paper notebook you’ve never seen him go anywhere without. He's not an artist by any means, but, then again, his drawings are more technical than aesthetic. Rockets and silly inventions and algebra puzzles; it's impressive for a ten-year-old, but, considering who his father is—was—you realize that your cousin's suppressed genius should never have come as a surprise to you. Even though you're not sure the talent matters much anymore, some part of you is still convinced that he'll grow up to change the world—but only, of course, if he learns to focus and actually finish one of his projects.

Now, you toss Jake your phone without taking your eyes off the road. He starts to whine, but y a quick, "Check the GPS—see where the next gas station is," cuts him off. Your tone sounds tired, even to you, so you glance over and smile, tacking on a quick please-and-thank-you for good measure.

"Ninety-one miles," he says. "It's sayin' we're just under two hours away. That's, uh, a bit far, yeah?"

You shake your head, though—it's not too bad, just not ideal. You've still got enough fuel left to get you that far at most, but, what with the rate you're going, you'll run out as soon as you get to the campsite—essentially demoting your car to a useless metal box for the time being. "Where is it, though?" If you go the extra distance, you might be able to—

"...Seattle?"

Oh. Well.

Silence passes for few moments as you mull over your options, even going so far as to consider waking your grandparents for a quick family meeting. As of yet, though, you haven't seen anything even remotely dangerous—but it's been quite some time since you ventured into a city so populated, and, from what John and Jane have been relaying to you over the past few weeks, you have plenty of reason to be on guard. Perhaps if you aim for the outskirts...? Sure, it'll tack a few extra hours onto to the trip—Seattle is the same distance westward as the campground is north, so you'll have to drive past where you’re headed—but, in the end, you'll have a full tank of gas and possibly a few more supplies to show for your trouble. And, already, you're making great time. By driving almost twice the legal speed limit the entire way, you've been able to chop a solid chunk of time off the whole journey. If you head toward the city and loop back later, you'll arrive just before you would have had you moved at a more reasonable pace.

You make the executive decision to keep driving, bypassing the exit that would have taken you to the cabin, and head straight for the city.

For the rest of your life, you will regret it.


By the time the Seattle skyline breaks into view over the trees, your grandparents have awoken. At first, Grandpa Harley was a bit annoyed with you for changing course without asking, but Grandma defends your reasoning—and no one has ever won an argument against her, especially family.

A plan is formulated, and you all decide to make the most of your time in semi-civilization—because you're not sure when you'll get the chance again in the near future. Gasoline is your first priority, of course, but grocery stores and corner market are a close second. From what you've been able to gather from the Egberts, no one has made any attempt to go searching for restock supplies, and you all know that they've been trapped in the cabin since the day you set out from Harley Island. They’re bound to be running low on more than a few essentials by now. You resolve to split into two groups, head in opposite directions, and reconvene after a quick scout of the area. From there, you'll take the car to whatever you find and load up.

Just like every other place you've come across over the past few days, Seattle is a desert-town. You find it hard to believe that the area is one of the country’s busiest cities, but you suppose death and evacuation really can chop a significant portion off the population. There are no car horns, no yelling pedestrians, no ringing cell phones. No movement. Nothing. The streets are just cold and barren and eerie. You don't like it, because it's just too goddamn quiet. The whole thing is more than a little unsettling.

The first gas station you come across has no power, so you're forced to drive farther in, hoping that’s not the case for every place you come across. Your best bet ends up being one of those combination pump and mechanic joints, so Grandpa Harley tasks you and Jake with the important job of finding a few empty gas cans. It doesn't take as long as it should to break into the garage, because most of the locks have already been broken—but your worry is soon forgotten as you root around the overturned tool dressers and work tables. Meanwhile, your grandparents begin unloading the necessary essentials for a scouting operation on foot: your guns.

You can never be too careful, after all.

Three bright red gas cans are found, and Grandma volunteers to stay behind, filling everything up while the rest of you fan out. Jake ends up with you, because your grandfather will be able to make more progress on his own without having to worry about the youngest of your bunch—and the two of you head south after a quick hug goodbye, three firearms and enough bullets to take out a small army all at your disposal.

As you both walk, your footsteps echo on the cold concrete, but the sound is muffled through ear-flapped hats that don’t do much to guard against the winter. The scenery, itself, doesn’t have anything particularly exciting to offer—it’s just block after block of abandoned restaurants and townhouses, only some of which are smashed open. Eventually, you and Jake get bored enough to start skip-racing, silently challenging one another as you try to jump over every crack in the sidewalk without missing a step. You stop, though, when his phone buzzes. After that, it becomes your job to make sure he doesn't run into anything while he tries to multi-task, texting and walking at the same time. By process of elimination, you figure he's talking to Jane, but you steal his phone anyway in an effort to break the endless monotony of your mission. So far, you haven't found what you're looking for, so you might as well have some fun while you're out. You'll have to turn back soon, anyway.

"Dag nab it, Jade! Give it here!" Jake yelps, flailing a bit as he turns around to face you.

You're too quick, though—not to mention a good foot-and-a-half taller than your little not-brother. "Nope!" You laugh, dancing away from his grip as the rifle strap slung around over your shoulder rubs right up against your neck. "I don't feel like it."

"Jade!"

Soon, you’re chasing each other through the streets, running and laughing and yelling a bit more than you ought to be. But the silence is so thick—so heavy—you just can't help but want to bust it open. Along the way, you manage to catch glances at the screen of Jake's phone, but you don't ever take the time to actually read through his conversation.

"All that sitting in the car made you slow, Jake!"

"You've just got longer legs than me! You're not bein' fair, you dirty cheater!"

"Cheating implies effort, dummy, and I'm pretty much just jogging at this point!"

"Get back here 'nd fight me like a proper gent!"

"I'm a girl, Jake!"

"Well, you could've fooled me!"

"Anyone could fool you!"

"Oh, for frigs flipping sake!"

"What does that even mea—" You stumble, retort dying mid-word as a new sound shatters through the still air. It's a ways off, back the direction you came, but you can hear it loud and clear all the same. For a moment, you're not sure what's happening, or what it is—it's been a while since you heard anything like it. But, once it does click, you take off sprinting toward the gas station, Jake in tow.

Because car horns shouldn’t be going off if there’s no traffic for miles.


You're still three or four blocks away when you hear the first gunshot, and, the moment you do, you will your legs to pump faster. Jake is at your side—you've got him by the wrist, tugging him along as you run, and you can hear him asking what wrong, what's happening? You don't have an answer, though, because you haven’t got a clue, either.

As you get closer, shouts come into focus, along with some other sounds you still can't quite make out. If you didn't know better, you might think there were wild animals brawling it out back where you left Grandma, but you're in the middle of a freaking city so that can't possibly be righ—

When you round the last corner, you freeze, yanking Jake back as fast as you can, and it takes all of your strength to keep him from falling as the momentum of your sprint keeps him moving forward.

Over the past few weeks, you and John have had countless conversations about what he and his friend are calling Stage Two Infected. He's told you about them—about their appearance and what he can tell of their abilities from the information he's been able to gather—and he's even sent you a picture of the two affected people now living with him. Karkat and Nepeta, you think their names are. You had been shocked at first, of course, but Nepeta had been laughing in the photo, hanging off the grumpy-looking teenager and looking every bit like a normal girl—with a few physical changes, of course. After that, it hadn't seemed like much of a big deal, because they'd both looked so human that their grey skin and yellow eyes and mismatched teeth could have been passed off as bad lighting, nothing more.

But these people—these things—look nothing like the two friends in that picture.

Fingers arched, they're lunging like cats with claws bared, snarling and spitting and hissing and growling. Grey lips, dark with what you hope is a natural tint and not something else, curl up over fangs of varying length, all beneath pupils so dilated you can see them from where you're standing. You don't have time to count how many there are, because they're all moving so fast, scaling the metal pumps like they're nothing and crouching on the hood of your car and just sort of running around and—

There's another gunshot, and you see one go flying backwards. It hits a closed garage door, but doesn't stay down long—and only then do you see your Grandma. She had been taking cover behind one of the pumps, you see, and you feel your chest swell with pride at what a picture she makes, white hair just as wild as yours, blowing in the wind as she cocks the barrel of her rifle and fires again, this time at a different monster.

The moment of triumph is short-lived, though, because everything suddenly starts moving at the speed of lightening and there are so many and she's just one woman and "Grandma, look out!" but it's too late and—

BLAM!

Blood and brains explode just behind your grandmother's head as the third creature takes a shotgun blast to the skull, seconds before it hits. In the distance, you can see Grandpa Harley running at full speed toward the chaos, and you breathe a sigh of relief. The grey things don't even pause at the loss of their comrade, though—they just keep lunging, lunging, lunging for your grandmother, barely giving her time to aim or reload or anything. And the shout—though you're not sure whether it came from you or Jake—manages to draw the attention of some toward the two of you, too.

A few of them break off from the pack, and you don't have time to really listen to your grandparents' combined warning yells before you're cocking your own rifle, firing three near-consecutive shots. You only manage to land one hit, though, because god damn it they're fast—and it doesn't even slow the thing down. Out of the corner of your eye, you see something glint, and four more bullet cracks let you know that Jake has drawn the twin pistols you gave him for his birthday last year. They're big and awkward in the hands of a ten year old, and he isn't the best at handling them quite yet—but he manages to put at least one round in the lower leg of an approaching humanoid beast. You reload as it stumbles, and then aim for the same spot.

Soon, it's falling to the ground, unable to run properly with only one foot.

You take the opportunity of its momentary falter (because you've got the feeling it won't stay down long) to grab Jake's hand and sprint, powering toward the car where your Grandpa and Grandma are fighting tooth and nail like the heroes from your bedtime stories. If there's one thing you've learned over years of watching predators and prey of every species fight to the death in real time, it's that there’s power in numbers—and that concentrated groups generally win. There doesn't seem to be much organization within the hoard of grey things, so you bet on the fact that they're all acting independently, instinctually, without any real hierarchy—if so, your family has a chance, despite the horrible disadvantage of only having a few players on your team.

Within seconds, you're pressed up with your grandparents, back against the car as the four of you fire round after round after round after round—reload—and fire again.

"Shit!" Suddenly, there's a clatter at your side, and you whip around just in time to see one of Jake's pistols hit the asphalt. He's still got his second gripped tight, but the clip he has a white-knuckled hold around tells you he had been trying to restock his bullets just before—

You don't think, just raise the barrel of your rifle and wham!, shove its muzzle right between the eyes of a creature, pulling the trigger just as it gets too close.

"Jake, are you alright?" You hear Grandpa call, but you're too busy providing cover fire for your cousin as he fumbles for his fallen weapon to actually turn and look.

What happens next passes in a blur of red and sound and pain.

From behind you—from the roof of your fucking car—you hear an unfamiliar voice snarl something along the lines of, "Holy fuck!" And you whip around, poised to shoot because there's another grey thing up there and how did he get around there without you seeing and—

"Jade!"

Jake's scream is so terrified that you can't do anything but jerk back, right in time to see another monster hurtle at you from the direction you'd been facing just moments before. He hasn’t moved from his crouch on the ground, and your body is still tilted upward, faced toward at the talking one. You don't have enough time to turn and plant your feet and aim and shoot and reload and repeat and—you just don't have enough time.

So you do the only thing you can and lunge, letting your weapon go and wrapping yourself around Jake's little body just as the other thing leaps up, too.

You hear a chorus of yelling, clench your eyes shut, and hold on tight as it slams into your back.

Chapter Text

[1/12/32]

==> REWIND SIX HOURS

==> BE THE PISSED-OFF FREAK OF NATURE

The forest itself is quiet. It's the dead of winter, twelve days after that raging catastrophe your (new, expanded) family has the nerve to call a "happy" New Year, and any animal worth its weight in salt has found a warmer place to sleep. Maybe you should, too, you think—but, then again, you’re not an animal. Or are you? You’re not sure anymore.

In less than an hour, the sun will peek its stupid, ugly mug over the horizon, and you don't want to be around when that happens. Over the past few weeks, nighttime has become your friend and the daylight your enemy. Or, rather, an annoyance you've made into an enemy.

Your name is still KARKAT VANTAS, but part of you is certain that's the only thing about you that hasn't changed. And it's the one thing you will never, ever let go. You think you can hear Shakespeare on the breeze—what's in a name? That we call a rose by any other name might still smell as sweet—but you wave it away and shut it up as harshly as you can. Because you're not a rose. There's nothing sweet about you. There never was, really, but now even less so.

Absently, you run your tongue over the mismatched teeth lining your gums, listening hard to the forest's silence in hopes you'll hear Nepeta approach soon. She hunts at night, determined to feed the lot of you a hearty protein diet, because you ate the last of the lunch meat ages ago. There isn’t much to find, unfortunately.

One of your top molars wiggles at the touch, and you can't help but sigh. Great. Another one. It'll be gone in a few days, just like half of its neighbors, and you know—eventually—the rest will follow suit. They’ve got to make room for the razor replacements you've already started to grow in, after all. Last fall, you'd spent hours on the phone with John, tossing out speculations about the laboratory Infected and their wolf-toothed smiles, but now you don't have to wonder anymore.

You must make quite a sight, you think—half of your chompers sharp like crocodile’s where they’ve pushed in again, the other few still… normal. Jane keeps saying you look like a really stupid shark, but you wouldn’t know. All of the dental re-working started happening after they'd taken down the mirror, and you haven't made much of an effort to go seek it out to look. You know you won't like what you'll see— it'll just make you hate yourself more. And, though you're not really sure that's possible, you don't want to take the chance.

In the darkness, you can't tell the color of the skin pulled tight across your bones. You can pretend, for a moment, that it's still the deep tan of your Mexican lineage—that it's still the same color as your brother's. Seeing him hurts, now, sometimes—like a knife to the chest, because he’s too similar to the reflection you’ll never make again. He still looks like Kankri, sure—taller, with broader shoulders and messier hair—but he also looks like everything you were. Human.

Even your skinny physique, once the most obvious evidence of your nonexistent athletic prowess, is deceptive now. You've got muscles you shouldn't, hidden underneath skin that isn't yours.

You hate it.

Half a lifetime of pointless contemplation later, you hear Nepeta crashing through the trees and underbrush, making her way back toward you. She only does that when she's frustrated—when she’s lost a kill—so you know today's meals won't be much more than a few cans of preserved vegetables and whatever Mr. Egbert can whip up split between the six of you. At night, the two of you go out, and during the day, Jane and her father cook what you find, leaving portions aside for you and Nepeta to eat after they've gone to bed. Or, at least, Nepeta hunts. You don't know how, and, quite frankly you're not too keen on learning. It reminds you just how inhuman you are. The ultimate predator, built to fight things you hope you'll never have the pleasure of meeting.

When she stomps into the clearing you've been holed up in for the past few hours, you can see her well enough in the darkness. Better than you would have before, at least. Once she called your newfound pseudo-night vision a tactical advantage, but you disagree; you think it's weird.

At times like these, though, you find you don't really mind it. When you're alone with her in the quiet of nature, you like to be able to see her in the element she grew up loving. She looks so happy, so content, so excited to be alive when she runs through the trees or lies in the grass or just sort of sits and stares up at the stars. You can pretend in the darkness that neither of you are freaks. She doesn't seem to mind being an anomaly though, and that’s a curious thing. You wonder what you missed during the three days you were out cold at the very beginning of your friendship, because no one should be so at ease with such a drastic change.

Your brain registers then that you're on the receiving end of a particularly nasty glare. As expected from her grand, noisy, unhappy entrance, Nepeta's hands are empty and she's blood-free.

"No luck?" You ask, and you can see her eyes roll even in the darkness. Green, with yellow at the edges—but still so bright.

She shakes her head and huffs, cheeks puffing out in a pout that makes her look twelve, not seventeen. "It got away!" Wow, whining. Very mature.

You snort back a laugh, because the situation suddenly seems really, really absurd.

"Yeah, well, maybe you'll get to rip some stupid animal's throat out tomorrow night," you say, standing up to meet her as she approaches. She nudges your side and loops an arm through yours, face suddenly beaming again as she thinks up a new attack plan for the next round of this painful routine. Right then and there, you decide you never want to get on her bad side—you'd hate to see what she looks like when she's angry, what with how filled with glee she is by the natural power-play for survival of predators and prey. You wonder how many times she and her sister did this—camped out in the Amazon or spent weeks on the African savannahs. Your life suddenly seems very boring in comparison.

Nepeta hums, grinning as she begins to pull you along, back toward the Egbert’s cabin. "Maybe, maybe not. I hope so, though!"

"You're fucking terrifying, you know that?"

"And you're so grumpy! You should come with me sometime. I bet you get so bored when you sit there all by yourself for hours."

It's not dull, you think. But you do end up having just a little too much time alone with your thoughts. Rather than answer though, you shake your head, and before long Nepeta is chattering away. She goes about whatever animal she had been chasing and how it had slipped through her cunning claws (you curl your hands into fists at that, and feel your too-thick nails dig into your palms—claws indeed) for the rest of your walk.

It doesn't take long to reach the campground, and as you approach you both quiet. The others—the humans, your brain supplies—should still be asleep, curled up like you wish you were. It wouldn't be fair to wake them, because they take such great care in staying quiet while you and Nepeta rest during the day. The moment you break through the trees, though, you're greeted by a sight you don't expect. Seated on the small, screened in porch is John, barely lit by the graying sky and the LCD light of his cell phone screen. He hasn't been up this early in a while—not since the day you caught word of the EI Labs explosion. Something settles in your gut, and you suddenly get the feeling that you should be worried.

He doesn't hear you approach until you're right up next to the screened in door, but you're not sure whether it’s because of his horrible hearing—his normal hearing—or the fact that you're suddenly inclined to stalk him silently like some kind of humanoid cat. But the moment he does pick up on your presence, his head whips around, eyes wide for just the faction of a second with... surprise? Fear? You tell yourself no, not that, and bite down an angry comment.

"Karkat?"

"No, it's the fucking plumber." You see him visibly relax, and decide that he'd just been afraid of the dark and what else might be lurking in it—not you, specifically. Or, at least, that's what you tell yourself.

He giggles, but it's breathy and strained and forced and tired. You don't like it. "Oh? Well, good—because we've been having some trouble with the pipes."

You sigh. "Why are you out here, John?" Nepeta swats at your arm for being so abrupt, but, as you watch, your best friend—is he still your best friend?—sags a little, dropping back down into the chair he'd been sitting in before hearing your arrival. He's done a lot of that lately, you realize. Sagging and sighing and just sort of generally being sad. You're pretty sure you're responsible for most of it, even though he's never said so, but you can't bring yourself to tell him to get over whatever it is that’s pulling him down. You're too busy blaming yourself over what happened—over what you became—to actually address the problem. And perhaps you do blame him a little bit for it, too. He shouldn't have tried so hard to save you if this—this—is what you would eventually become. Not that he could have known, though. Not that he could hav—

"Jane's been tossing and turning for the past few hours, coughing in her sleep. I'm pretty sure she's got a fever, too." He drags his fingers over his face and through his hair, looking every bit the two-parts-older-brother-one-part-concerned-parent he is. "Dad's up with her, now, but—God—I don't know what we're going to do if she gets much worse."

Next to you, Nepeta whines worriedly. "But she seemed fine when we saw her earlier!"

"I know—but Jane's more stubborn than all of us combined. She won't admit there's a problem until she's, like, lost a limb or something."

You nod, already moving ahead in the thought process. "Yeah—if one of us gets sick, we're all fucked, right? I mean, we've been living smashed together since we got here, and that's probably not going to change anytime soon."

Again, he sighs, and you feel Nepeta shift beside you, suddenly realizing how bad this has the potential to be. It's not just about Jane—it's about everyone. "So fix her!" she chirps, but it's a little forceful, even for her. "You're supposed to be a doctor, right? So make her better!"

"But I'm not a doctor!" He bites back, frustrated, almost too loud. There's a pause as he grinds both palms into his eyes, across his temples, and you wonder if he's feeling alright. Stubborn bullshit might be a running genetic trait in his family, after all. "And... even if I was, I couldn't just fix her. We're down to less than a week's worth of food, but even that hardly has the kind of vitamins and stuff she'll need if things start getting worse. And I don't even think we have enough water to last that long!"

You blink, because the fact that you're running out of food is news to you—and suddenly you're pissed. At John for keeping something that big and important from you, and at yourself for not realizing it sooner. "Oh, shit—what? Why didn’t you tell me?” You turn to Nepeta, “Did you know?" And she shakes her head. Her hands snake around your forearm again, and she grips you tight. She's upset, too. "What the hell, John? We're just as much a part of this group as you!"

"I know, but—"

"Do you not trust us? Is that it?"

"No, it's not—"

"Just because we're fucking monsters now—that doesn't mean we don't have just as much a right to know what's going on!"

"God damn it, Karkat, this has nothing to do with that!"

"Bullshit!"

It takes your brain a moment to register the fact that Nepeta is not longer holding your arm, but, by the time it does, you're already busy trying to catch yourself as she shoves you to the ground. Everything goes still for a moment—even John is frozen where he's back up and standing—as you blink up at her. Fists clenched, feet spread, she stands above you looking more like some kind of enraged Amazon goddess than the five-foot ball of grins and giggles you've come to befriend in the weeks since she picked you up off the street. Since she saved your life.

"Is that what you think of me?" Her voice is small and quiet and hurt and pissed, and it dawns on you, then, that every thought you've ever had about yourself could just as easily be applied to her, too. Except it never did. You never meant it that way.

"That's not wha—"

"You just said it! You just said we, Karkat! That we're monsters now!" Fuck. Fuck, you did. But no, no you weren’t thinking. You were just angry and sad and frustrated and hurt. But you didn't mean it. Not about her. "Well, I'm not, okay? I might look kind of scary but I'm not a monster—and even if I were, I wouldn't be a bad monster."

"I—"

"No—no! Just shut up!" You do, and you feel your loose teeth rattle when as your jaw clicks closed with a little too much force. "You're so mopey and depressed and mad all the time and I'm so freaking sick of it! I didn't know you before this whole thing happened, but that doesn't matter to me because the important thing is that I know you now! And I know the way you are now—how you look and how you act—so the rest of everything else doesn't matter, okay? You can cut your hair and paint your nails and go to a tanning booth and change everything about yourself, but you'll still have the same voice and the same sense of humor and you'll still be the same height and the same shoe size! I know you're a good person and I know I'm a good person, so I don't think the way we look now should matter so much to you because the whole world and everything is going to shit and we just have to learn to deal with i—"

Suddenly, the cabin door swings open and a little head of black hair rushes out, blurring around the three of you before you even get the chance to blink. A second later, you see Jane pause just off the walkway, bend over in the grass, and retch. Her father follows, sprinting out of the cabin after her, and John's at her side in an instant.

The spell—or curse—is broken, shattered by the sounds of an eleven year old girl puking up her guts, but, when you glance back up at Nepeta, her expression hasn't really changed. It's deflated, yeah—most of the anger is gone. But now, she just looks so disappointed. It occurs to you then that you might have just lost something very precious. Without a word, she turns, disappearing back into the woods the both of you emerged from a hundred years before.

You’re frozen, and Kankri's groggy voice from the screened in porch says something you don’t quite catch. You just sort of turn to stare at him, and end up getting blinded by the red of his sweater against the goddamn phoenix-lit sunrise you had hoped to avoid.


It becomes clear rather quickly that the day is going to be a long one. Once everyone has calmed down enough to sit through a proper explanation, you’re told that John had been waiting outside to tell you about the supply shortage in the first place. There had already been a plan to do so when you all sat down for breakfast, but thanks to the circumstances keeping him awake he had decided to move things up a bit. You’re so damn tired—you've been up for nearly the entire night—but you end up getting roped into a few more hours of painful awareness, anyway. The next hour passes sitting at the kitchen table with John and your brother as they go over what supplies you have left, what you'll need to somehow get, and how long everything you do have will last. It's exhausting and depressing, so you just sort of end up zoning out for most of the discussion as they make lists and addendums to lists and then rewrite it all again.

Unfortunately, you're too bull-headed to actually go to sleep after all the fuss you made—and, in any case, Nepeta still hasn't returned. You don't think you'd be able to sleep peacefully without her curled around you (completely platonically!! she assures you) in your little light-proof blanket fort. She's very warm, you tell yourself. You'd just be cold and uncomfortable.

"—rkat, are you even paying attention?"

Again, you blink (you’ve been doing a lot of that lately) and refocus on the conversation somehow still going on around you. "Yeah, of course—dumbass."

"Hmm?" Kanrki replies, suspicious—you can tell he's trying to start something, but you're not going to rise to the bait. It's unlike him to goad you. Or, rather, it is very much like him—but it's out of character to do it so openly. You wonder not for the first time just how much you missed during the days of your little downward self-pity spiral—just how much the mess of everything is affecting the others.

You're such a selfish bastard, you think—and that does make you hate yourself just a little bit more.

Thankfully, John comes to your rescue. Not that you need him to save you or anything—you can deal with your brother just fine, thank you very much—but his interjection is appreciated, nonetheless. He doesn't even acknowledge Kanrki's comment, and instead plows ahead with a straightforward: "We were just talking about how much fuel we have left."

"Fuel?"

"Yeah, you know—for the generator, and stuff. It runs on gasoline, and we've already burned through almost all of the supply we had stored here at the cabin from past visits. If we don't find a way to get more soon, we're going to have to start siphoning some from the cars—which would leave us without transportation if we end up needing it. "

"Just one more thing to add to the list, then," you retort, annoyed (again) with yourself for not even considering it. What did you think, the power ran on magic? Stupid. It takes almost a full minute for the implications of what could happen if the generator stopped to set in, though—no heat, no way to preserve food, no lights, no way to cook. "Probably near the top."

John nods, scribbling a few things down on the notepad in front of him, and you're tempted to read what you can across the table. You hadn't realized he'd been taking notes—all this pointless daydreaming (or daynightmaring. Is that a thing? You're too tired to think much about it) needs to stop before you end up getting yourself into some kind of real trouble.

Things go on like that for a while, the three of you swapping ideas and formulating a plan. Jane and her dad spend the entire time outside, and every so often you'll hear the telltale signs of complete gastrointestinal upheaval. John flinches at each, like he wants to go help, but you both know there's nothing he can do. He's where he needs to be now, making the best of your situation.

The fact that you'll have to head into the city for what you need goes unspoken until you've exhausted every other topic of conversation. And then, finally, you have to decide who goes— who's willing to risk an encounter with whatever pieces of the population are left—and who stays. By now, most of the major cities have been evacuated, but only so much progress can be made in the middle of a complete societal breakdown. Military focus, according to John, had originally been concentrated on the most people-packed national areas: New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Houston—but, since then, most reports have gone black. Their goal had been containment, but something so widespread, deadly, and fast-spreading can't really be contained. The Washington area had largely been left at the hands of local and state law enforcement—anyone not already affected had scattered.

Nepeta is a logical addition to the group as the most physically capable of your whole little family. John volunteers to act as your guide through the area—he had grown up there, after all—and he himself isn't exactly lacking in the athletic department. You're surprised, though, when John asks you to come too. Kankri protests immediately—he's already almost lost you once, he says, so he won't be sending you off to die again. But you cut him off, because it makes sense—you've got the body of a guard dog now. Might as well start acting the part.

With that, it's settled. You're told to get some rest while you can, but no matter how much you want to just black out for a few hours, you know that's not something you'll be able to do. Nepeta's still missing, and no amount of tossing and turning and stretching and repositioning will get your brain to stop working long enough to catch even the quickest of naps. You waste the next three hours trapped in an endless war with your mind, trying to get up the courage to go looking for her, but the moment you finally decide to actually do it, the image of her devastated face keeps you in place. She wouldn't want to see you anyway.

Eventually, she does reappear, but you don't know it until you step outside to talk with John and see them talking heatedly in the shade of the forest’s edge. They both look tired. Your worry multiplies tenfold, because being tired in a life-or-death situation is absolutely a recipe for disaster.

"Are you certain you will be alright?" You hear Kanrki speak up from beside you, and only then do you realize that you're staring at the two of them a little too intently.

"Yeah, yeah," you wave him off and try to glance toward him, you have to flinch back, wondering if he stands against the sun on purpose. God, it's so fucking bright. "I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I think we have been over this at least twelve different times, so it would benefit both of us if you kindly shut the hell up and stop worrying."

He sighs, but you refuse to back down. You can taste the first notes of his lecture crackle through the air, but you're too worn down to engage any proper evasive maneuvers. "Regardless, little brother, it is my job to take a concerned interest in your wellbeing. It seems that there has been a slight disconnect between us throughout the entirety of our stay here on the Egberts' property, but I have been loath to mention it before now. I did not want to draw unnecessary attention to the issue, on the grounds that you might take offense to my commen—"

Right around then, you zone out, forcibly ignoring the blocks of text you can feel from your brother's general direction. You don't want to hear what he has to say—it's too little, too late. He's wary of you, you know he is. Or, at the very least, he spends so much time making the effort not to be that it just makes the whole thing that much more obvious. You wonder if this disease did something to your heart, too, because the thought brings a pain to your chest that you don't really want to consider.

You’re brought back to the present when two skinny, knit-covered arms wrap around your shoulders from the side, and it takes a moment for your brain to register that the contact isn’t hostile—it isn't confining. In that moment, though, the threat-protection instincts you shouldn't have start to kick in, and then Kankri is letting go, backing away at the sound of the growl you don't mean to make.

You think you hear an apology as the cabin door slams shut, but you're not sure which of you it came from.


No one says anything during the almost two hour drive back to John's old city. Actually, no—that's a lie. John talks plenty for the first fifty miles or so, but, once he figures out that neither you nor Nepeta are going to supply any substantial dialogue, he sort of trails off, not actually finishing whatever thought he had started babbling about. It doesn't make a difference to you, because you're content to sit in the back of the Egbert’s stupid minivan and brood. Just outside Seattle, though, Nepeta strikes up some pointless exchange from the passenger seat, and the two of them end up chatting like you're not even there. Once or twice, John makes some effort to include you, but Nepeta plows over his attempts before you have the chance to interject.

Not that you would, because no. Fuck them. And fuck their stupid conversation.

The only upside to the time you spend angry is that is distracts you well enough from how absolutely terrified you are about this whole thing. Shit, you're not a fighter—and you really, really don't want to run into any of those things again. Just the thought makes your head spin and your stomach churn and your blood freeze and your breath hitch and holy shit. You consider for a moment the fact that, were circumstances different and therapy still a thing that happened, you might end up with a pretty solid PTSD diagnosis. But nope. You don't get the luxury of wimping out, because you've already died once. What doesn't totally kill you is supposed to at least make you stronger—like some lame celestial consolation prize—but apparently the cosmos skipped over you when it was handing out awards.

Because you're not strong. Yeah, now you might be able to bench press more than, say, zero—but you're brain hasn't changed. And, no matter how much undeserved, unseen muscle you suddenly have at your disposal, you still have no idea how to fight. Thinking back, you realize how naive you were, walking out of that shitty barn with nothing more than dingy little scythe to keep the monsters at bay. You got what you deserved for being so cocky, so stupidly courageous. Now, you're doing the exact same thing—walking into a tiger's den—with only two major differences: one, you're not the only idiot marching toward what will probably be your death; and two, you think you know exactly what you're going to be facing. Because, really, there's no way there won't be Infected where you're going. You made that mistake once, and you're not going to do it again.

What the hell were you thinking when you agreed to this? You weren’t thinking, that’s what—too caught up with the idea of sacrificing yourself as one big fuck you to the universe, you didn’t actually make it far enough in the mental process to realize what, exactly, that entailed.

You're so caught up in your internal complaining that you don't realize the car has stopped until the trunk opens and you hear John rummaging around behind you. He and Nepeta are both outside already, and you're still buckled in, staring out at the parking lot of an abandoned Michael's Craft Store like you expect the scenery to start moving again. Maybe you could just stay inside. Maybe they wouldn't notice.

"Hey, Karkat—you okay?" John's voice calls over the back seat, and you want to curl up into a ball and disappear because wow, of course they would notice. That thought makes your heart do weird things.

"Yeah, I'm just peached, thanks." It's impressive how steady your voice sounds, you think, so you busy yourself with untangling the seatbelt and crawl out of the vehicle as slow as (in)humanly possible. "It's not like we're offering ourselves up as sacrifices, or anything. Like suicidal, adrenaline-junky divers swimming in the middle of a shark frenzy—only without that shitty cage to float in. This whole thing is pointless." When no one responds, you decide it doesn't matter whether or not they’re ignoring you—or if they even heard your grumbling in the first place. You don’t want to get into an argument about how very un-pointless this trip is, because you know very well you’ll lose. It’s important you’re all here, and, if given the chance, you probably wouldn’t turn back—but that doesn’t mean you have to happy about your own stupid decision to come along.

As you make your way around the car, you see Nepeta bouncing on the balls of her feet beside John's lower half. He's got himself buried halfway into the trunk, and it takes you a moment to remember what you stored back there: weapons. Or, at least, your makeshift methods of self-defense. After a moment (and several muffled curses about shifting cargo), though, your fingers are wrapping themselves around the hilt of the scythe he’s holding out to you. It's shiny and clean, you notice—like someone had taken the time to wipe it down 'til it glistened even more than when you'd first found it. This is only the second time you've seen it since arriving, and you’d nearly forgotten about it. John had asked you this morning if you wanted to bring it, and you'd nodded without thinking much on the issue. It was a useless weapon, yeah—but a weapon, nonetheless.

An empty backpack is tossed Nepeta's way, and you can already see that she has her hunting knife holstered at her side. She looks fierce and determined and serious and so very unlike herself—it's unsettling. So much so, in fact, that you're more than a little caught off guard when John emerges for the last time.

"Is that a fucking sledgehammer?" You gape, completely sure that the thing your best friend is hoisting around like a sack of flour weighs more than you do. John just sort of grins sheepishly as he rests the handle on his shoulder. "That's it—you're the Hulk. I'm friends with the goddamn Incredible Hulk." You manage to pull an actual laugh from him, and even Nepeta relaxes. Not your intention, but not an unwelcome result, either. "You're a freaking doctor and everything. Oh, shit—that's perfect. We’ve got the actual, real-life Bruce Banner on our team. We’re the Avengers—we’re fucking superheroes."

"I'll be sure to keep my temper down, then," he snorts. "As cool as having green skin would be, I don't think I'd be able to pull it off that well. And I'm not a doctor, Karkat—seriously. And Bruce Banner was a physicist, anyway."

"Close enough, dumbass."

After that, the tension doesn't totally disappear, but it melts away somewhat, much to your all-consuming relief. The three of you double check your phones to make sure the GPS apps are still working, and after a brief overview of the area and promises to meet back by the car in two hours with whatever you find, the three of you split up. John grips your shoulders and engulfs you in a tight hug, thanking you for coming along and apologizing, apologizing, apologizing without giving you any kind of explanation as to why. You don't get the chance to pat him awkwardly on the back before he pulls away, though, and can only watch as he does the same for Nepeta. It sounds a little too much like goodbye for your liking, and the farewell leaves a sick taste in your mouth.

You and Nepeta stare at each other in silence, each waiting for the other to make a move as John walks away, disappearing around a corner. You wonder if he knew the two of you needed a moment to sort things out—and if you'll actually use the moment to do just that. No one is saying anything and you're getting kind of nervous. The urge to yell and scream and stomp around and crush her in a hug and then yell some more and maybe rip your hair out for good measure is more than a little overwhelming, but your brain is telling your body to stay frozen, so it does.

Only when the pause finally moves from awkward to uncomfortable to painful does she speak. "I'm still really mad at you, okay? But just don't die—that would make me really sad and angry, and I'm already sad and angry enough, and I think it would make you sad and angry, too. Because dying sucks, and it's enough to make anyone really upset. So don't die, Karkat."

You blink, and you can feel yourself scowl—but it's a familiar feeling, not tight and strained like it has been lately. It's the face you used to wear, and, even though she's never seen it, Nepeta seems to pick up on that. She relaxes a bit more. "Yeah—I would present the same advice to you on a soft, velvety sleep-cushion—if I wasn’t already aware that you could kick the ass of every piece of shit within a hundred miles. You’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. We’ll both be fine."

She looks at you funny, and you wonder if you've said something wrong—but then she flashes you a grin. "Yeah, we'll be fine." In a second, she's gone, bounding off in the other direction. You don't know why, but you stand there for a moment, unsure of what to do with yourself.

So wait until you're sure the others are too far away to hear you, and you yell at the sky for no good reason.


By the time you're done letting out all of the hopelessness you've been building up for the last few weeks, you feel infinitely better. So much better, in fact, that the afternoon doesn’t seem as bleak as it did just minutes before. You can't find it in yourself to be as so fucking down about everything as you were, even if it's just for a little while. That’s all you need, really. And, if the noise you were making didn't attract hoards of flesh-ripping monsters, you figure you'll be pretty safe for the rest of the evening.

With that, you check the time on your phone and head off. You're in charge of picking up fuel—or at least locating it. The empty, red gas containers from the cabin are still in the back of the car, so you figure you'll drive it to wherever you need when the time comes.

On your GPS, John had pointed out several gas stations close by. There's no guarantee all of them will be operable, though—or have what you need—so you decide to make things easier on yourself and check them one by one. A fair amount of wandering goes into locating the first one, and when you do, you're disappointed to see it's out of power. The little Stop-And-Go store has been raided too.

Much to your dismay, the next three yield similar results.

As the afternoon wears on, you feel your temporary gumption slowly fading, giving way to more and more of your usual frustration. You're on your way back empty-handed when your phone beeps—and you don't even bother containing your snort when you see what it is.

ectoBiologist [EB] RIGHT NOW opened memo on board FUCK YOU, SANTA

EB: hey, guys! any luck so far?

arsenicCatnip [AC] RIGHT NOW responded to memo

AC: :33 < *ac nods enthusiastically*

AC: :33 < the harris teeter on south street still has lots of great stuff!!

AC: :33 < and theres a cvs in the shopping center that you furrgot to mention

EB: awesome, nepeta!!

EB: and the cvs is great, because i haven't been able to find much.

EB: we can pick up some of what we need from there. the costco i went looking for was pretty much gutted, unfortunately.

AC: :33 < *ac is very happy to hear that eb is pleased with her efforts*

AC: :33 < *ac also wonders if eb has heard from cg lately???*

EB: no, which is kind of worrying.

EB: whoops, i mean *eb shakes his head no, and looks worried about his friend.*

EB: karkat if you are being a creep and reading these messages without bothering to respond, now would be a good time to let us know you're alive.

You roll you eyes at no one in particular, and start typing as you walk. The fact that your friends are worrying about you, though, lifts your spirits more than you'll ever admit to anyone.

carcinoGeneticist [CG] RIGHT NOW responded to memo

CG: WOW, TRY NOT TO GET YOUR LADY-PANTIES IN A BUNCH.

CG: I AM FINE. ALTHOUGH I AM ALSO UNFORTUNATELY EMPTY-HANDED.

CG: YOUR CITY HAS GOD-AWFUL ELECTRICAL PROVIDERS, JOHN. I'M BEGINNING TO QUESTION HOW CIVILIZED YOUR COMMUNITY WAS.

EB: karkat! i can assure you that my lady-panties are thoroughly unbunched, thank you.

EB: also, ugh. that's a bummer. we're kind of stuck if we can't find fuel.

AC: :33 < want me to see if i can pawsibly find a gas station around here?

AC: :33 < *ac diligently checks her surroundings because she is certain that she passed one earlier on her quest*

EB: yeah, that would actually be really great!

EB: there should be plenty of places around here, because there are generally a ton of cars on the roads.

EB: have either of you guys started heading back to the parking lot yet?

CG: I HAVE, YEAH.

AC: :33 < me too.

EB: it would probably be better if we stayed spread out so we can cover more ground.

EB: but i also don't think we should go too far, because eventually we'll have to walk all the way back.

CG: IT WOULD BE MORE THAN A LITTLE POINTLESS TO RETRACE OUR STEPS OVER GROUND WE'VE ALREADY COVERED.

EB: what if both of you turned right at the next intersection and kept going that way?

EB: since you're coming from opposite directions you'll be walking opposite paths.

AC: :33 < *ac grins showing all of her wonderfully sharp teeth and gives her furriends two thumbs up*

AC: :33 < sounds great to me!!!

CG: WHAT ABOUT YOU, DUMBASS? WHERE ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO ME GOING, THEN?

CG: I'M PERFECTLY WILLING TO FOLLOW YOUR DIRECTIONS, NO MATTER HOW COUNTERPRODUCTIVE THEY MIGHT END UP BEING, BUT NEPETA WILL BE HEADING BACK YOUR WAY IF I REMEMBER CORRECTLY.

CG: WHICH I PROBABLY DO.

EB: nepeta will end up walking parallel to where i just came from, and i'll keep going straight so that you and i end up walking parallel.

AC: :33 < *ac thinks that karkitty and john are thinking too hard about this!!!*

AC: :33 < while you two are sorting out your issues im going to go actually look for stuff!!!!! bye!!!

AC: :33 < *she sticks her tongue out at her furriends and saunters away to complete her mission*

arsenicCatnip [AC] ceased responding to memo

CG: I HAVE ASKED YOU MORE THAN ONCE TO STOP CALLING ME THA

EB: bye!! good lu

CG: FINE, THEN. BYE.

EB: i think we just got ditched.

CG: WOW, THANK YOU. I'M REELING FROM THAT STARTLING REVELATION. HELP, THE KNOWLEDGE IS SLOWLY EATING AWAY AT MY THINK PAN. I'M FALLING INTO THE SPIRAL OF A HOPELESSLY NEVER-ENDING EXISTENTIAL CRISIS.

CG: LOOK WHAT YOU'VE DONE TO ME, JOHN.

CG: THE HORROR.

EB: i think nepeta actually probably definitely has a point, though.

CG: I THINK YOU JUST USED THREE CONTRADICTING ADVERBS IN THE SAME SENTENCE.

EB: i think that is actually probably definitely a thing that happened.

CG: OH MY GOD, JOHN, DO NOT START WI

Suddenly, a sharp, high-pitched noise breaks through the air, and you drop your phone and the scythe, clutching at your head to block out the noise. You'd stopped walking after John had told you not to go any further, but now you’re sinking to your knees as the sound keeps ringing, ringing, ringing through your ears. It's over after just a few seconds, but you think you might have gone deaf (or lost your mind) because it keeps playing over and over and over again, bouncing across your eardrums. You just sort of lay there for a minute or two, curled up on the sidewalk with your arms over your head, until things finally get quiet again. And then you stay still just a little bit longer, trying to get the world back in order.

When you glance back at your phone, you see that the screen has almost shattered—and curse, because fucking whoops this isn't your phone. It's Kankri's—yours is still sitting, smashed to pieces on the side of the road two hundred miles away. And your brother is actually probably definitely going to murder you. Or at least lecture you. Dear God, you hope he murders you.

Through the cracks, though, you can still see the Pesterchum application blinking.

EB: karkat????

EB: what's wrong?? did something happen??

EB: are you okay???

EB: are you there??

EB: oh my god karkat i swear if this is a joke i am going to

EB: i don't know what i'm going to do but please please be okay.

EB: please please please respond please.

EB: i'm coming your way now, okay??? if something happened just stay put or try to find shelter or something.

ectoBiologist [EB] closed memo.

You stare dumbly at the screen for a while, waiting for the letters to stop spinning around, and, when they finally do, you curse some more. The cracks are covering the little "close window" button, and you can't open a new chat or call John or do anything with this shitty piece of technology, now.

You do stay put, though—or, at least, you try to. As you lay on the ground, you try to piece together what the noise could have been. It was too loud and too sudden for you to really make out the tone, but there aren't many things that can make a sound like that. An air horn? A megaphone? A car?

Yeah, now that you think about it, it definitely sounded like a car—but the Egbert’s stupid-looking minivan is still too far away for the sound of its horn to be that loud. Does that mean...?

You jerk up, blink past the black spots suddenly dancing across your vision, and start to thoroughly freak out. Because you realize that there is a very, very, very high possibility that there are other people here.

BLAM!

When the second sound rips through the silence, you're not hit as hard simply because you're way past paying close attention to the things around you. It's enough to make you flinch, though—and pause for a while—but this time you can't figure out what it might have been. Fireworks? Someone hitting a garage door? A really big-ass balloon popping? Some kind of distress signal? Oh, shit—if the horn-blowers set off a distress signal, they might be in trouble or some shit. The kind that would just get loads worse by the time John got his ass to where you are now.

You've never been inclined to help anyone, despite the way you were raised, because you've never had anything to offer. You're not strong, you're not fast, and you're certainly not brave. But you came on this stupid mission out of spite, ready to play the part of a shitty mutant guard dog, and you're pretty sure you've got to live up to that at some point to at least reap a few benefits in the afterlife.

As you stumble to your feet and take off in the direction of the sounds, you wonder if you've lost your mind. It wouldn't surprise you.


As you pick your way through the deserted city streets, your blood gets colder. Things you wish you couldn’t hear start to become clearer—snarling, hissing, yelling—and a few more popping noises sound in rapid succession. Gunshots? Oh, shit—you really hope they aren't gunshots. You don't turn back, though. You press on, until you turn one final corner and—

shit shit shit fuck shit fuck no no no no nononono

Your body freezes and you backtrack, immediately realizing how stupid this whole idea is because holy shit there are so many of them and they're all over the gas station and that car and weren't there supposed to be people around here and—

Your ears pick up the sound behind you just in time to lunge away, and you end up half run-stumbling into the open. The blow you were expecting never comes, though—so you turn around and shit there's nothing there what the fuck. You start to back away but it's too late, because, by the time you whip back around to make sure the things didn't see you, at least one is heading your way. Or you think it is.

There’s movement through the windows of the truck, and then bam! the thing is knocked off balance, attention refocused on whatever just shot at it from the other side of the car. Right. Right, there are people here. People that you came to help, but you're just standing in the middle of a war zone like some stupid deer caught in some stupid headlights.

It doesn't take long for you to do the math. You don't know how many humans—people—there are, but you can tell that they'll be overwhelmed pretty soon. You're trapped with them, because there are at least three monsters looking your way, even if they're still concentrating their efforts on whoever is firing from out of sight.

Might as well die doing something good with your life, yeah?

So, before you can talk yourself out of being stupid, you sprint toward the car, not sure what you're planning to do but aware that you can probably help somehow. You get there too fast, though—your brain isn't used to your body working so efficiently, so it doesn't have time to tell everything to stop before your crash into the car. Without thinking, you reach up, grabbing at the luggage rack on the top and pulling yourself up and gripping tightly until your mind catches up point-seven seconds later.

How the hell did you just do that?

You don't have time to answer yourself, though, because when you open your eyes to figure out where you are and who you're with and what's going on, "Holy fuck!" you know these people.

You've never met them in person before, of course, but you'd seen enough pictures on your best friend's cell phone to recognize at least the girl. And, even if you hadn't, the resemblance she holds to her cousin is so freaking uncanny you're pretty sure they could be siblings or something. It occurs to you, then, that John had been talking up the arrival of his extended family for days. When were they supposed to get in the area again? You can't remember—God, you wish you had been paying more attention to what he and your brother were talking about earlier.

At the exclamation you're not really even sure you let out, though, the girl turns around, and only then to you see that she’s standing protectively over a boy on the ground. In her eyes, though, you see it—you see her fear. Because she's afraid of you because you look like one of them and you will always look like one of them and people you meet will always sort of maybe be afraid of you and—

Someone screams, a name is called, and you dive forward at the same time she does.

Because, yeah, it really is true—you're a just a fucking guard dog. Might as well act the part.


one, two, three, four

one, two, three

one, two

one

You remember once, early on when you and Nepeta first started staying out late, she had tried to teach you how to hunt. She had done it all her life—hunted, that is—but it had always been different. Forced, somewhat, because she fought with knives for claws and couldn’t kill beasts like they deserved—with dignity, she said. With dignity to a predator against which they had some chance to win. She had confided you that she'd always wanted to fight like an animal, because she'd always felt more at home in the wild. Maybe that's why she was so happy—so, so happy when you both went out that first night. When you'd found the bear. When she'd killed the bear.

You had thrown up. She had laughed, covered in blood and looking every bit like the demons from your nightmares.

You refused to go out for nearly a week after that, but you remembered what she'd told you, anyway.

Breathe, she'd said. Breathe slower and slower and slower until you can't hear your heart beating and then listen to the world around you. Because the world is always listening to us and we never stop long enough to pay it back the favor. That's how you hunt. You listen, and when you listen hard enough, you can hear every creak of its bones and every pulse in its veins and every weakness it’s got trapped in its stupid, awesome body.

God, you'd been so terrified of her after that.

Now, though, you let yourself go. You coil your legs and let the bubble of forced temporal continuity you've been living in since Christmas fade out through your toes. You let the world drift away, blurring at the sides of your vision, and you let your breathing slow, slow, slow ‘til you lose track of your heartbeat.

And then you can hear the blood pumping through its veins. And you can hear the creak of its joints. And you can hear the hitch of its lungs.

And you can hear its weakness.

You don't know when time starts flowing normally again—you don't know if it ever even stopped. But one moment you're listening to the black, black, black flowing in its neck and the next you're tasting it. It's pouring from your mouth and oozing through your teeth, and it’s so horrible and familiar you feel your stomach lurch. But you don't let go—you keep your mismatched jaws on its neck and curl your fingers—your claws—into its skin and latch on while it thrashes and tears at you and throws you forward and backward and around. You feel your back hit something, but you don't even spare a moment to think about what it could be because the growling in your ears is so loud that it blocks out everything and nothing and you're not exactly sure which one of you it's coming from. Or if it's coming from both of you.

It stumbles to a stop for less than a second, but that's all the time you need—because you use the leverage you've got and push against him and pull your head back and tear and bite and tear and bite and tear and bite and tear and—

Then you've got nothing left to clamp your teeth on, because its head is tipping off its shoulders and it’s falling to the ground, dead, dead, dead as you go with it. You hit the ground in a pile of slick, squishing flesh and limbs, unsure of what to do with yourself for a moment. Because that was too easy and you actually possibly definitely want to do it again.

So you do.

Vaguely, you can hear people shouting, bullets firing—but your brain is working in overdrive, focused on the monsters around you because you need to hurt, kill, help, save, protect! And you won't let anything stop you. Nothing can stop you. You're invincible, ripping through flesh and muscle and bone—you've got an advantage that they don't have. You have your mind—your mind! So you can reason, you can predict, you can plan. You're deadly and horrible and wonderful and for the first time in such a long time you feel alive.

And then, just like that, it's over. You're kneeled over the mangled corpse of a thing, ready to take on your next target, when you sense someone standing behind you. Before you get the chance to swipe at it—to kill it—though, there are hands on your shoulders. Hands too small, too gentle. They make you pause for a moment and take the time to glance around—to really see.

There's blood everywhere, slick and bubbling black over pavement just as dark, streaked across gas pumps and the broken glass windows of the little store and the big garage doors. More than half the bodies aren't even recognizable anymore, ripped open and torn to shreds and pieces. It all seems surreal, like a scene from some slasher movie, so you just sort of blink.

"...Karkat?" The voice behind you is quiet, and the hands are still on your shoulders—your damp, heavy shoulders, covered in a shirt saturated thick with bodily fluids of the fallen. The sound brings you back to your senses, though, and you twist your head around, still blinking as the adrenaline haze fades from your vision too slowly for your liking.

Nepeta's eyes are big and sad, and you see that she's covered in blood, too. But she's not looking down at you with an ounce of fear. "...fuck," it comes out in one long, quiet breath because you finally realize how muted everything is without the shrieking of the grey beasts. You don't really know what you're trying to say, but you think the statement captures the mood rather well.

Behind her, you can see that the humans—no, that your friend and his family are still huddled around the car, surrounded by bullet shells and brain bits. But something is wrong. You can tell by the way the old man is cradling the white-haired woman in his arms; by the way John is talking with them both, all hand gestures and serious-faced worry. Jade and the kid—Jake, you think—are nowhere in sight. You start to stand, wanting to join them, but Nepeta's hands are still on your shoulders and she stops you. "I don't think we should be over there right now," she shakes her head, looking a little unsure, herself.

You're still feeling numb, so when you ask: "What's going on?" the words don't really register. It occurs to you then that you're still standing with a mutilated corpse between your legs and there's black blood dripping off your chin—so you promptly bend over and heave before she has the chance to answer. Before you know it, you're on your hands and knees, throwing up whatever sludge you managed to swallow—but the whole thing puts you right next to the dead, torn-up mess and that makes your stomach lurch again. All the while, Nepeta just rubs your back and makes worried noises, and you wonder how she can stand to be around you. You're a devil—a monster through and through. You're no better than these things.

After a moment, you realize John has moved to your side, too. All the retching made your nose burn and your eyes water, but through your blurred, wet vision you can see that his eyes are red and puffy, too. “Karkat, oh God, Karkat. Are you hurt anywhere? Like, open wounds or anything? You're covered in this stuff, shit—it's probably good that you're getting it all out of your system. Everything. Like, a natural stomach pump. I know it sucks, but—God—I just don't know how this much could affect your body." He keeps talking, sitting you back as he checks your pupils and presses on your neck and tells you not to fight the urge to throw up if it comes again, and then hands you a bottle of water out of nowhere and tells you to rinse and spit until there's no more blood in your mouth—but you can see that his hands are shaking. "The same goes for you, Nepeta. Here—yeah. I don't know what would have happened if you guys hadn't been here... I should probably get back now. Yeah. I'm just so glad you're okay."

You watch him race back over to the old woman's side, and, after stiffly following his instructions, you ask Nepeta your question again. She spits out a jet of murky-grey water and shakes her head. "I don't know the whole story even though I watched it happen, but I think one of these guys—" she kicks the corpse beside you for emphasis "—got her in the side. Like, ripped out this whole chunk of her stomach and stuff. I don't... I don't think John can fix her the same way he fixed us." You don't say anything, but you look over at your best friend and his grandfather just in time to see the old man touch his forehead to the woman's, and a black-red-bloody, wrinkled hand reach up toward John. You close your eyes and puke again.


By now, your ethical standards have taken up a permanent residence in that moral gray area labeled survival of the fittest, and, quite frankly, you're just too tired to think much about right versus wrong anymore. There isn't more than a moment of hesitation before you break down the door of a small, empty townhouse and make good use of its showers. Inside, though, there aren’t any clothes your size, so Nepeta ends up rummaging through the next building down in search of something for you to wear. She says not to worry about more of those monsters heading your way, because animals naturally avoid places mucked up with the blood of their own kind. It just screams predator, and very few creatures are stupid enough to walk right into a place they think they'll be killed. It's a pretty great bluff, you think, because you don't know if you'll have the energy to do anything other than pass out of you see another one.

Even looking in the fogged-up bathroom mirror after you’re clean is hard.

You meet back up with the others in the same parking lot you left John's car. They've moved the Harleys' truck there, too, and everyone—the younger pair, included—is just sort of sitting around when you and Nepeta arrive. You'd been ordered by your best friend to get as clean as possible, but no one else had been as covered in the stuff as you two.

In the end, it becomes clear that you can't take Grandma's body back to the campsite, so you decide to bury her just outside the city, instead. To prevent any starving thing from digging up her corpse for a snack, though, you send her off the same way you did Nepeta's sister—with a funeral pyre fit for the greatest of Norse kings. Everyone cries, even you, despite the fact that you'd never met the woman in your life. You can't decide if she's the one you're really crying for, though.

It's not the last death you'll have to witness or the last pile of wood you'll have to build, no matter how much you wish it could be. Because three months later, when the internet finally goes down and all central power shuts off, you all have to face the realization that you did survive the apocalypse—but that what comes after the end of the world is so, so much scarier.

END OF PART I

Chapter Text

==> BE THE SURVIVOR

==> WATCH EVERYTHING UNFOLD

Your name is JOHN EGBERT, and the moment you're forced to finally come to terms with the fact life as you know it has almost entirely ceased to exist, time starts moving faster than a hundred miles per hour. Cut off from everything—although there's not much left to be cut off from—the days and nights and weeks and months start to blur together.

It's not long after the world goes dark that you realize your complete dependence on technology for navigation has essentially screwed you over. Without the internet to guide your way the bare highways and back-roads suddenly feel like a maze, and the woods become almost entirely impossible to figure out. You make do with the paper maps you manage to pilfer from rest stops and gas stations, but the first few months are spent relatively blind to your surroundings.

And, as you figure out sometime near the end of March during a supply run back to Seattle, with no central power to keep things running, gas pumps have become essentially unusable. You're left without easy access to fuel. It doesn't take long for Grandpa Harley to suggest siphoning what's left from the tanks of whatever cars are still sitting around the city, but nothing lasts forever. When July finally rolls around, you're forced to start fanning out even farther than your home city in search of what you need.

By the end of your summer, though, your raids have managed to attract the attention of the few stragglers still left hiding in their basements or attics, and you close out the first year with four dozen makeshift shelters surrounding the cabin. Eventually, your hideout becomes a hub for whatever living activity is left. Culture and race and religion don’t hold as much meaning as they used to, because suddenly the only labels you need to qualify for survival are human and uninfected. The vaccine took lives indiscriminately, so you’re all refugees, all down on the same level for once. You never thought you'd see the day when a ragtag group of four West-coast mobsters and members of Native American royalty ate at the same dinner table, but that becomes every meal for you after a while. The initial novelty of it all wears off when you realize how depressing it is that equality came at such a high price.

As for your family, Nepeta takes a particular liking to certain man from the latter bunch—a Lakota who had been trying to save up enough money to study robotics in college—much to your worried amusement and Karkat's unspoken panic. When your best friend makes the official announcement and he and your little hunter are officially sharing a tent even more officially than they already were, you’re pretty sure it wasn’t just for his sake. As time goes on and the population you have to feed grows, though, Nepeta starts spending less and less time on at the campground. She takes it upon herself to lead almost every hunting, raiding, and scouting party you send out, and months pass without a word from her each time she, Grandpa Harley, and their team leaves.

By the end of the second year, the size of your camp has nearly tripled, but things aren't operating as smoothly as you'd like. No one ever officially declares you a "leader" of any kind—it's just sort of an unspoken thing that people respect you, though you're not really aware you hold any kind of real authority until long after any tensions are resolved. You just sort of assume people—refugees from the global holocaust you all survived—listen to what you have to say because you are, to the best of your knowledge, one of the only medical professionals left alive. Most doctors and medics and nurses had been the first killed because they'd been rushed on-scene during the first real attacks and were practically living in the overpopulated hospitals. You, on the other hand, were a coward—you'd run off to save your own skin, and people somehow found reason to respect you for it.

Karkat and Nepeta aren’t the last people you save from their own blood, but you're naive enough to think that everyone could learn to get past the differences because there’s almost no one left to hate. But humans can be horrible and petty, even when everyone has the same goal in mind.

You don't really even realize the split is a thing that's happening until, suddenly, it is. Like toddlers, the people you've helped recover from attacks and the people who managed to make their way without much incident are drawing lines in the sand between their tents, refusing to sleep near one another and launching attacks over some invisible wall. The “normal humans” you pull out of the cracks are scared of the people Karkat and Nepeta start to take under their wings, thrown off by their appearance and habits and strange sleeping schedules, terrified that they'll be killed at night when the Cured don't sleep. Your assurances work for a while, but suspicion and mistrust are inevitable. For both groups, you're too biased.

The problem comes to a head one night during the second October you spend trapped in the woods. By the light of a campfire, two men—one tan and one gray—end up at blows over something you don't remember in the weeks to come. Insults fly, accusations are made, and the tension piles on thick as a crowd gathers. It draws the attention of you and Karkat away from your own meals, but, before you can figure out what to do, your best friend is between them both, making some curse-laden speech about humanity and equality that basically boils down to Get your shit together, you bunch of stark-raving douchebags. We're stuck here in this fucked-up world whether we like it or not, so we might as well at least try to be civil and not kill each other. If you've got a problem—he'd pointed to the dark-haired, razor-toothed one—come to me, and if you've got a problem—then he'd gestured over to the other man—go bitch about it to John. We'll deal with your shit together, like goddamn mature adults, because apparently you're too high and mighty to handle whatever it is yourselves.

And that had been that.

Shortly thereafter, official committees and teams under the direction of the two of you are established to keep order. Both camps are separated once and for all, and only those willing to work with members from each are selected to help out with major duties like perimeter security, scouting, general care and provision tracking, and—later on—resource development. By the end of that December, you're operating less like a summer camp and more like the world’s smallest city-state.

Peace never lasts, though, and soon it becomes clear you can't stay holed up in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest forever. Your first Washington state winters are a nightmare you only manage to survive by sheer luck, and the first snowstorm your second year nearly wipes you off the map. The cold doesn't bother Karkat's group as much as it does yours, though; they can actually leave the heat of whatever dying fires you can keep alight without freezing to death in the less than hour, so most provisional duties are passed on to them for the few weeks you’re just frantically trying to keep everyone alive. You also discover the Infected are similarly undaunted by the snow.

All in all, the season is hard. Most of the older members of your group don't make it, your father included. Your entire world crumbles, and it takes almost a year for you to get back up on your feet—not than many people realize it. You can't afford to fall, because if you go so does everything you've built. Jane creeps into your bed at night to cry, you just hold onto her tighter than you ever have before. If your own chest starts heaving, neither of you mention it.

In response, Karkat, Jake, and Equius—a member of your camp from the group of Native Americans you take in during the first year—begin work on a tentative relocation plan. Paper maps are all well and good for supply run navigation through populated areas, but they're relatively useless for the kind of off-grid view you'll need to find a new, safer place to live. Most satellites, the three discover, are still relatively operational—but actually connecting large-scale to the signals they're still bouncing out becomes a challenge. One wireless tower is successfully repaired, but leftover automated security from the original company it belonged to shuts down your whole system after less than a day, and progress screeches to a halt as they try to clean up the mess.

Then, a quarter-way though the third year, while ransacking the third in a long string of abandoned rural neighborhoods along the Oregon-Nevada border, Nepeta, Grandpa Harley, and their team uncover the seventeen-year-old son of two extreme couponers holed up in a technological hub that probably could have sent NASA's best computer scientists into fits. While he's physically weak from months without bothering to venture outside, his mind is sharp, and by August, Sollux has you up and running like nothing happened in the first place. There are a few complications in getting him across the nearly six hundred miles back to base, though; the group returns heavily wounded—your new addition, included—and without your grandfather. Jade steps up to fill the position he leaves behind, but things are never quite the same for her and Jake after that.

Over the next few months, teams are sent out in every direction to repair as many internet towers as they can, and soon almost half of Washington is back online. You collect a few more straggling survivors you hadn’t yet been able to dig out, and supply runs can move faster and more efficiently with the added benefit of battery-operated, mobile wireless routers to keep everyone connected and on track via cell phone.

The team can't work miracles, though, so the term "phone" remains a pretty loosely used term; with only a spotty internet connection to run on, they aren't much more than chat-based communication devices. Pesterchum becomes your basis for everything, and a number of raiding parties are sent out with the electronics stores specifically in mind. Everyone who doesn't already have one is given a phone or an iPod or whatever and told to create a chumhandle, and the Pesterchum servers are roped completely under the communication team's control. Suddenly, the world seems a whole lot more manageable because everything's not so big anymore.

Just as winter starts to roll in again, the search for a new place to stay kicks back into high gear. Nothing comes up, though, and you're forced to endure another December held captive under eight feet of snow. Your numbers have grown to nearly five hundred in total, split at a 2:5 ratio between Karkat's camp and yours in terms of population. What they lack in quantity they make up for in strength—but you're convinced the numbers will have flipped by the end of the winter if you can't keep everyone alive somehow.

Christmas and New Years pass without much to celebrate, but in the middle of February the months of hard work pay off almost completely by accident. While setting up an emergency automatic-connection feature on the application, Sollux somehow manages to get himself counter-hacked by an unknown IP address, and, when you find him at awake noon the next day instead of sleeping, he's chatting up a storm of technical jargon with the glaringly-pink text of an unknown chumhandle. Almost overnight, everything changes.

You'd never been an avid fantasy reader during your days as a student, but some sensations were hard for even you to ignore. During your last few years of middle school, Rose Lalonde had been the biggest name across every tabloid, both for her novels and her own unique back story. The latest music and TV news headlines were replaced by variations of Openly-lesbian teen mother drops out of high school at age fifteen, only to make millions two years later on her New York Times bestselling-series “Complacency of the Learned”, and by the end of your eighth grade year Rose Lalonde had become the next Stephanie Meyer. She had stormed the entertainment world in a flash, before disappearing just as quickly as she had come. It was a mystery you'd never cared much to involve yourself in, but, over the next few days, it becomes your new reality.

After ducking out of the media spotlight, Rose had hidden herself away to raise her daughter and finish her books, after which she had finished high school and begun teaching classes at a small, experimental college funded largely by her own mother—a prominent astrophysicist you'd only read about in journals and science articles. She lived among the students and teachers, and brought her little girl up into the world of intellectuals. When the first evacuations were called, the school had been mostly empty for winter break, leaving the pair and several others relatively isolated on campus. Not having any other safe place to go, they had opted to stay.

By chatting almost daily with the author and her daughter, you learn that the Skaian University of Arts and Sciences is located in the northwestern-most corner of the United States, miles away from any other major outcrop of civilization. It’s completely self-sufficient thanks to hydro-electrical generators build under a nearby waterfall, and most of the facilities didn't lose power when everything else crashed—apparently, their internet has been active for years. There is plenty of room for you, she says. You almost break down in tears.

Getting everyone packed up and ready to move takes a bit of work, and the journey is even longer. With no way to easily transport everyone by vehicle, you set off in groups on foot, but all the careful planning in the world can’t ensure that everyone arrives safely. One of the first things you do at your new home is designate a new markeryard for those you lose along the way. (When Roxy asks you why you don't call it a graveyard, you tell her it's because there are no graves—the most respect you can give a body these days is a funeral pyre. Anything you bury will just be dug up and eaten—though you leave that last part off your explanation.)

All-in-all, though, life improves drastically once you're settled in. With Equius's help, most of the dining hall equipment is brought back to life, and two more buildings are hooked up with power. There isn't enough room for everyone to sleep comfortably indoors year-round, but after nearly three years of living under the stars, there isn't much complaining when you break the news.

As one of the buildings still with power, the biology labs are also in fairly good condition, if a bit dusty from years of disuse. You immediately stake your claim on those, and, with Karkat's help, dive back into researching the thing you’re up against. You had never stopped collecting what information you could in hopes that someday you'd be able to use it, and now you’re glad for that little bit of optimism. Some of the other rooms in the building are cleared out, as well, and you set up a makeshift infirmary under your care.

With a more permanent base settled, the wide-range alert system is restarted to direct anyone else left alive to your location. As it turns out, some camps established by military evacuation squads are still spread out in places your own squad teams never actually crossed, and you close out the fourth year with a total of almost six hundred refugees. By then, most people to survive the initial outbreak have either died or been found, so additions taper off after that. Your numbers stay nearly constant for the next two years.


[4/13/37]

Your name is still JOHN EGBERT, but you are now TWENTY-FIVE YEARS OLD. Six years ago, your entire civilization COLLAPSED within the span of THREE MONTHS, leaving you and your family some of the ONLY SURVIVORS. You managed to stay alive because you had been in CLOSE CONTACT with the THING that would eventually WIPE OUT three-fourths of the human population, and have since used your resources to help anyone else you've come across. Unfortunately, this has given everyone the widespread impression that you have all of the answers to EVERY PROBLEM EVER, which you most certainly do not. So, you've taken up the rather unfortunate habit of HIDING from your responsibilities by holing up in your laboratory with a hand-drawn DO NOT DISTURB sign taped to the door.

It works just fine to keep people who aren't immediately dying out of your hair, but your family has long-since caught on to your little charade and refuses to be ignored. Half an hour ago, you went so far as to actually lock yourself in, and your phone hasn't stopped beeping since. You're tempted to turn it off, but the fear of a real emergency coming up keeps you from actually doing so—much to your complete, utter dismay.

— tipsyGnostalgic [TG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 19:29 —

TG: omg johnnn

TG: johnnnnnnn

TG: johnnnnnnnnnnnn

TG: youre bein such a big baby john

TG: whiny baby john

TG: i know ur there

TG: i can see you thru the window just sitting all grumpy glaring at your phone

TG: do you think the phone is going to bite you john??? because the phone wont hurt you but i might when you finally come out

TG: this is ridiculous and stupid

TG: ur not even doin any real wok

TG: work*

TG: shame on you john egbert

TG: just answer me so i can at leas tgive them a reason why you dont wanna come

TG: its a party john parties are meant to be fun!!!

TG: and u are suckin all the fun outof it just by not being there

TG: i wont stop mesesaging you until u look up or answer or leave or something

TG: messaging*

TG: this is so dumb

TG: johnnnnnnnn

TG: johnnnnn

TG: y r u doin this 2 me

TG: you kjnow i cant leave until you do cause theyre not goin to let me back in w/o u

TG: im on your side here

TG: i didnt want to come get you cause i knew you didnt wanna go but they kept insisitin!!!

TG: the whole thing is stupid anyway cause its ur birthday and you should be able to do what you want even if its abandon the wonderful gathering we have collected for u in your honor

TG: theres food too

TG: john its cold out here

TG: johnnnn

EB: if you're cold, why are you still standing outside?

TG: he speaks!!!

TG: thank u for blessin me with ur presence finally

TG: also im not goin to come inside bc the mission given to me by ur sis was to keep an eye on you and thats what im doin

TG: i cant see u from the hallway cause there arent any windows inside from there

TG: im a good lil scout and i am going to sit out here and freeze my cutie butt off until you decide to shape up and stop bein a big whiny loser!!!!

Sure enough, a slow, steady tapping starts up from what corner of the room, and you don't have to look to know that Roxy is standing there, all bundled up and disgruntled, knocking on the glass window.

TG: i dont know y ur makin suck a big deal out of this

TG: such*

TG: at the very least you can pretend its not a party for u and just let everyone else have their fun

TG: you should have seen janey plannin this whole thing

TG: she was like soooo excited about it all and even saved up enough eggs to bake you a real cake

TG: except whoops that was supposed to be a surprise

TG: if ur not going to play nice at least act like youre excited for her sake ok??

EB: ugh, fine.

EB: i'll meet you out front.

TG: yes!!! i knew i could convince u

— tipsyGnostalgic [TG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 19:41 —

The knocking stops, and you take a much-needed moment to sigh and just sort of rest your face on your desk. You know you're being more than a little bit selfish, but you really, really don't want to go to the not-so-little birthday get-together your family and friends have set up for you. It’s not that you don't appreciate the work they put into the whole thing. Really, you're grateful! And more than a little flattered that they love you as much as they do. But you've figured out over the years that big events like this—like your birthday, for some weird, unnecessary reason—are just that: big. Almost everyone gets involved, and it's one of those few times where people from both camps actually make some sort of effort to actually get along. And that part of the whole thing is great! But you know that the minute you step into wherever they've decided to set things up this year, you'll be the center of attention.

God, you hate being the center of attention.

A high-pitched whine sounds outside the locked door, and you heave yourself up out of your chair. As slow as you possibly can, you gather up your jacket, hat, and the scarf Rose knit for you as a welcoming present when you first met, and shuffle toward the door—only to be nearly toppled the minute you open it by a little head of blonde hair who had, apparently, been pressed right up against the wood.

"Oof, Roxy!" You laugh, because instead of standing back up the fourteen-year-old just leans face-first on your chest, giggling belatedly at something.

"I can't move 'cause I'm all frozen from standing outside for so long," she sighs dramatically into your shirt, wrapping her arms around your waist. "You're just going to have to carry me all the way back, Mr. Big Strong Leader, 'cause I don't think I'm gonna to make it if you don't."

You huff, unmoved by her pitiful pleas. "Come on, Roxy—weren't you the one full of complaints about me not getting up fast enough?"

"Carry me!"

"What are you, five?"

"Jooohn..."

"Rox-eee..."

"Who's the five year old now, huh?"

"Oh, geez—real mature. Do you see my eyes, Roxy? Do you see how hard I'm rolling them?"

"Mhmm, so hard."

"Yeah, so har—Roxy!" You sputter as two hands snake around to squeeze your butt, and your face goes red as she just laughs and laughs and laughs into your shirt. In the end, you do end up carrying her piggy-back style—but only because she can't stop giggling long enough to actually stand up straight. By the time you make it across the snow-covered campus to the dining hall by her direction, she's still snorting your ear, draped across your shoulders. Much to your all-consuming relief, though, there isn't a hint of alcohol on her—she's just happy. It warms you up from your insides out, and you wonder not for the first time at the affect this not-so-little girl has on you. She's the one purely good thing left in the world, you think—she doesn't remember much of what the world was like before everything went up in smoke, so she's grown up without the lingering resentment that most teenagers and adults left hold in their hearts. It's refreshing and wonderful, and you're lucky enough that she's taken such a liking to you.

Even before you make it to the cafeteria doors, you can hear the roar of chatting and laughter from outside. The place is big enough to fit everyone comfortably when you're split up, but, on evenings like when people make an effort to play nice, things get just a bit tight. There are a few members of Karkat's camp milling around the entrance as you approach, and they greet you with smiles and well-wishes and waves, all of which you return whole-heartedly. Roxy doesn't let you stall for long, though, and soon she's kicking your side, throwing out farewells on your behalf. After a quick apology, you finally steel yourself and actually open the door, leaving behind the frozen outside and the chuckles that follow in your wake.

A few people inside turn to complain about the draft, but, the minute they see who you are, their reaction is much the same. Chatter spreads, handshakes are exchanged, hugs are given—all with Roxy still on your back—and, eventually, you're shuffled along to where those of your family still on base are awaiting your arrival.

The commotion you unintentionally make attracts their attention before you see them, so, by the time the crowd parts enough to let you through to the table they're surrounding, most of them are already on their feet. You spot Jane just before she spots you, though, so you get to see her expression go from lost and sad to overly-excited. You wonder why you decided to wait so long. Then, of course, her eyebrows scrunch up and she marches right over to you, not even pausing before she smacks at your poor, abused hip. "John! What took you so long? I thought you weren't going to show up!"

Roxy starts squirming, and you bend down to let her off your back so she can scurry over to her mother and the rest. The action puts you directly at eye-level with your sister, and you take a moment to appreciate how much she's grown. At seventeen, she's filled out into a fine, strong young woman with short-cut dark hair and the same glasses she's had since middle school. She huffs, blowing hot air in your face enough to ruffle your own messy bangs, and you just sort of grin at her. "Sorry—I thought I'd keep you guys in suspense for a while, ‘nd let you get the fun started without me around to drag you down."

She huffs again and crosses her arms, "Apology not accepted," but you only laugh and stand up straight, ruffling her hair for good measure. You know she's not really mad at you—just annoyed, but overall fairly happy that you did actually come. Roxy was right—this party is just as much for her as it is you, simply because your sister loves big get-togethers like this. They make people happy, she says.

Jane lets out an aggravated whine at you for messing up her hair, but you don't get the chance to snort something back before there's a hand slapped on your shoulder and you’re pulled into a crushing hug you aren't quite prepared for. If Jane has grown over the past few years, the difference in your cousin makes him almost unrecognizable. At sixteen, Jake is just riding off the end of puberty, a time during which he shot up at least two feet and filled out half as much. While isn't nearly as built as you are, he certainly isn't as skinny as he used to be, and—though the you’re eye-to-eye now—you get the feeling he'll be taller than you when he finally stops growing.

"Well, look who it is! Glad you finally decided to come ‘round, chap," he laughs, accent still half-alive even after all these years away from his home across the Atlantic.

Honestly, though, you're a bit surprised to see him. "Jake! What are you doing here? Not that I'm not happy to see you or anything, but isn't it your week to work the perimeter?"

"Ah, Mr. Slick was kind enough to offer up a trade for this evening—a onetime offer, his shift for mine, the man said. I'd have been a fool to pass up the chance!" He laughs, and you snort, trying to imagine how that conversation went. No matter what kind of front the middle-aged mobster put up, you'd all learned years ago that he had a decent-sized soft spot for kids—which, according to him, most of you were. Jake, for his part, keeps chattering on about how you missed dinner as he pushes you toward the others, but you tune him out when you notice that Jane has disappeared.

Before you know it, you're being ushered into a seat at the head of the table, between Rose and Karkat. Your best friend glares you down, though, and shoves a plate of food in front of you before you’re settled in. "Eat so you don't die from starvation, or something. You've skipped out for the past week, from what I've heard—don't make me shove this down your throat, because I will if I have to, dumbass," he hisses, but underneath the scowl you can see he's genuinely concerned. Which he doesn’t have to be, gosh.

"Aw, Karkat—you do care!" you chuckle, nudging his shoulder with your own. "But, really—it's no big deal. I've just been busy, that's all." And you have; in a world where even the smallest mistake could mean the difference between life and death, you're not stupid enough to miss meals on purpose. You just... forget sometimes, when you're caught up working in your lab, taking care of your patients, or just generally trying to keep everyone from killing each other. Karkat grumbles while you dig in, and Rose graces you with an indulgent smile.

"You really should take better care of yourself," she says, and she sounds so mature and motherly that you forget not for the first time that she's only four years older than you. Kankri nods sagely from across the table, like the idea had been his the entire time.

You roll your eyes, and Jake laughs loudly again, taking one of the empty chairs as he answers for you. "The day we get John to take a break long enough to give himself just a spot of attention is the day I eat my pistols, I swear it." Karkat winces at his volume, which somehow carries over even the cacophony of people-noises you know he already isn't particularly comfortable being around in the first place.

"And then we'll throw another shitty party, because it'll also be the day you shut the fuck up and leave us in peace. I hope you choke on those damn pistols."

There's a lot of dramatic gasping from Jake's general direction, and snickers waft up from where Sollux and Roxy are seated next to each other. Kankri starts saying something about friendly conduct and setting good examples for everyone, but Jake’s too busy emphasizing how scandalized he is by Karkat’s opinion of him to pay much attention.

Things carry on like that for a bit, filled with chatter and laughter and half-hearted insults as you scarf down the weak-but-satisfying stew your sister's team must have prepared for everyone's dinner-and-or-breakfast. There isn't much to it, but you know the last scouting group sent out will be returning in a few days with fresh supplies to restock what's been dwindling. It's not long before Jane reappears, though, at which point she comes up behind you and tells you to close your eyes. You do, of course, and there's a bit of shuffling around before you're told to open them again. She sounds so excited, you can't help but grin.

The cake is simple, only one layer of pastry half-frosted a shade of light blue, and there aren't nearly twenty-five candles stuck into it—but it's wonderful, and you tell her so over and over and over again. Even if sweets have never been your favorite, you know that Jane has always loved to bake—just like your dad. You tell her that, too—that he would have been proud to see it, and she promptly bursts into tears so you pull her into your lap like she's five again. They're happy tears, though, because she knows you're right and you know you're right and wow you really miss your dad.

At some point during your little moment of familial drama, though, Karkat and Rose get the room to quiet down—which you notice just in time to see most members of Karkat's camp cover their ears and join in singing what could definitely go down in history as the most off key, terribly wonderful rendition of "Happy Birthday" ever in the history of forever. You bury your face in Jane's back, but she shoves you and makes you blow out the candles as Jake lights them.

After that, the real festivities begin. Tables are pushed and stacked against the walls, and the few instruments salvaged over the years are brought out. You participate in one dance only—an obligatory birthday YMCA shaken to the tune of three acoustic guitars, one violin, and a set of improvised table-drums—before settling back down to drink in the chaos. Roxy forces everyone from your group up at least once to dance with her, but manages to rope Jake into more rounds than anyone.

After a while, though, your cousin excuses himself to go check on the guards he has stationed around the borders as they switch shifts. With Jade away on a supply run, he’s taken half of her place as acting head of security. You send him off with a good-natured slap on the back, and he disappears with Karkat's shouting not to forget tonight's meeting, god damn it, on his heels. You doubt he will—tonight, Jade and Nepeta’s raiding party will be online for their last call in. He wouldn't miss it.

You don't stay much longer, either. By the time you crush Jane, Rose, and Roxy in four-way hug and smother them with surprisingly-heartfelt thank yous, most members of your camp have scurried back to the gutted, blanket-stuffed administration building where everyone’s packed until the weather warms up. You offer to help clean, but they turn you away and rope Kankri into the job, instead. "It's your birthday—that means no chores for you, even if you deserve to do them," Jane says, and you just laugh and make some comment about how the work never really stops as you step back outside.


You end up spending the next few hours milling about the infirmary, chatting with your patients and administering what care you can. Early on—back when you still took part in supply runs—you'd convinced your cousin to let you raid a bookstore or three; thanks to that, the university's resources, and experience, you’ve managed picked up more than your fair share of the medical knowledge you would have gained if you’d gotten the chance to finish school. You aren't perfect—no one is, really—but you're the best left. Winter colds and allergies and the occasional injury aside, though, no one has managed to fall horribly sick this year, and for that you're grateful.

It’s nearly midnight when you bundle yourself back up to venture out again, and you leave Tavros—a quiet, nineteen-year-old boy from the same Native American reservation as most of your first refugees, and your only helper—to handle what's left to do. The executive meeting will take place, as it always does, in the library tech lab—the base of operations for the communications team under Karkat's care. You're one of the last to arrive, as usual, and most of the team leaders still on base are already seated around the long conference table in around which most of the monitors in the room are centered. The happy, carefree mood from dinner is nearly gone, and most everyone—even the members of Karkat's camp—looks tired.

Roxy has long-since been put to bed, but Rose and Jane are sitting next to one another, hands folded neatly as they wait for things to get started. Your sister’s legs are swinging under her chair, though, where her feet don't quite touch the floor—so you know she's just as anxious as you are to hear from your cousin and her team. After your father passed away, Jane had taken up his duties as head of provision management and general care—a job that Rose had graciously offered to share. Feferi—a bubbly twenty-two-year-old from one of the military refugee encampments—is braiding her long, black hair next to them. As a member of the Karkat’s camp, she works closely with Jane and Rose to make sure food is prepared and supplies are divided proportionately fair between the two groups, and nothing goes missing despite the strange meal times both groups have.

Nearby, Equius is tinkering with a mess of wires and metal that might have, at one point, been a... you have no idea, actually. Jake hovers by his shoulder, but you can tell that neither of them are really paying much attention to the task at hand. Jade's duties as head of both weaponry and security have been split between the two in her absence, but you know Equius is waiting more for reassurance that Nepeta is alright than your cousin.

Sollux and Karkat are huddled around the main communication monitor, testing and retesting and re-retesting programs and connections to make sure everything goes smoothly. Their screen is hooked up to a television mounted on one of the far walls so you can see what they're doing, but the diagnostic programs they're running don't make any sense to you. Although Karkat is the head of your communications and technology squad, he has an entire camp to keep track of, so the two of them have an unspoken co-leadership thing that you don't really question. It's hard to deny that Sollux's talents outmatch everyone on the base (with the exception of perhaps Roxy), so his involvement was inevitable from the beginning.

A few nodded greetings are exchanged, and Karkat tells everyone to shut up and sit down as the Pesterchum window finally appears back on the television. Video conferencing is almost impossible with the low-quality, long-distance signal, so you've designated a private memo board for important mass conversations like this one. Now, all you have left to do is wait. And wait. And wait.

Eleven o'clock, your set correspondence time, comes and goes without a word from anyone, and by the time eleven twenty rolls around Equius, Karkat, and Jake have all started pacing. An argument breaks out when your cousin trips over one of the wires and the screen cuts off, and there's a fair bit of scrambling before Sollux has everything up and working once again. Finally, half an hour later, nine discordant pings sound as everyone’s handheld devices receive the same message.

gardenGnostic [GG] RIGHT NOW opened memo on board iimportant 2hiit

GG: hey guys!!!

GG: sorry for taking so long!!

GG: some stuff came up but were alright so you dont have to worry!!!! :)

ectoBiologist [EB] RIGHT NOW responded to memo

EB: jade! we were all getting nervous.

carcinoGeneticist [CG] RIGHT NOW responded to memo

CG: HOW EXACTLY ARE WE DEFINING ALRIGHT HERE, THOUGH?

CG: WE REALLY NEED TO SET RULES FOR THAT KIND OF STUFF, BECAUSE WE'VE ALL LEARNED FROM PRIOR SHITSTORMS THAT FINE IS A PRETTY RELATIVE TERM.

arsenicCatnip [AC] RIGHT NOW responded to memo

AC: :33 < *ac tacklepounces cg*

AC: :33 < karcat!!!!

GG: we didnt lose anyone if thats what youre asking!!

CG: NEPETA, THANK GOD.

centaursTesticle [CT] RIGHT NOW responded to memo

CT: D —> Yes, it is very good to hear from you, finally

GG: and there arent any really serious injuries or anything just a few scrapes but nothing super serious

AC: :33 < hi equius!!!!!!

golgothasTerror [GT] RIGHT NOW responded to memo

GT: By gum jade its good to hear from you!

GT: Itll be nice to have you back home again soon.

GG: jake!!!! how have you been??

EB: okay, i hate to be a big downer, but we are kind of all here for a reason.

EB: i mean, it's really great to hear from you guys, but we started late so we can't take too long.

EB: you guys can need to be able to get at least some sleep in before you start travelling again tomorrow.

EB: and i do want to know what happened. it’s not like you to check in late.

GG: sorry!!! youre right :(

GG: first off can we do a roll call or something so we know whos here???

CG: AND REMEMBER TO KEEP THINGS ORGANIZED, YOU MORONS. WE DON'T WANT TO END UP WITH FIVE SEPARATE CONVERSATIONS HAPPENING AT THE SAME TIME. IF YOU NEED TO, OPEN A PRIVATE FUCKING WINDOW, BUT ONLY IF YOU CAN'T AVOID IT.

AC: :33 < *ac wiggles her eyebrows as cg*

CG: NO.

GT: Oh my.

EB: can we please stay on track?

EB: alright, we'll go around the table on this end and then anyone who's still lurking over there can sign in, too.

EB: clearly, i'm here.

CG: I’VE ALREADY REPLIED, TOO.

twinArmageddons [TA] RIGHT NOW responded to memo

TA: 2up.

CT: D —> I have also responded, but i believe i am next in line regardless

GT: Likewise!

cuttlefishCuller [CC] RIGHT NOW responded to memo

CC: )(I -EVERYONE!

tentacleTherapist [TT] RIGHT NOW responded to memo

TT: Good evening.

gutsyGumshoe [GG] RIGHT NOW responded to memo

GG: Hello!

EB: alright, i think that's everyone from over here.

GG: hi guys!!!

GG: its just me and nepeta tonight but rufioh said to tell tavros he said hi.

GG: and i guess that extends to equius too.

CT: D —> Tell the f00l my cousin will be pleased to hear that he has not died, as well

EB: and i'll pass the message on to tavros when i see him later.

GG: you got it!!! heehee :)

CG: OKAY, SO AS MUCH AS I HATE TO SIDE WITH ANYTHING THAT COMES OUT OF HIS MORONIC WINDPIPE, I HAVE TO AGREE WITH JOHN ON THIS. WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED?

EB: rude.

GG: it wasnt a super big deal really!!! our equipment just kind of went weird for a few hours

AC: :33 < *ac nods and furrows her brows*

AC: :33 < yeah it was really furreaky!! the hub didnt stop working but none of our phones could get the internet signal

GG: it was like something was blocking it so we ended up travelling blind for a while.

GG: although not really blind because we had our compass and a few maps and stuff just in case!!!!

TA: ii wiill take a look at iit when you get back. there could be 2omethiing out where you guy2 are that2 iinterferiing, two.

TA: iim going two have two figure out where you guy2 have 2topped for the niight 2o ii can add your locatiion two the map anyway, 2o ju2t hang on.

Sollux wheels his chair over to another computer set up near the back of the room, a set of two monitors sidled up next to each other with a navigation program stretched across both screens. The map is covered in colored dots, each designated by some key every member of the communications team knows as either a destination, recorded point, or important landmark. The whole system keeps everyone on the same page, making it easier for the communications team to guide various squads as they move, and it gives rescue units points to follow if something goes wrong.

A few keyboard clicks later, the Pesterchum window on the television disappears, and is replaced with a satellite view of Oregon as Sollux traces the internet signal through which your cousin and Nepeta are broadcasting. After a moment, it centers on the spot Jade's party has apparently set up camp for the night, and you frown. It's a little farther away than you had expected it to be. They're not making the best time, but it could be worse. When Sollux finishes, the network speeds up again, and you're free to resume your conversation without battling a hundred years worth of message lag.

EB: ugh, well, there isn’t much we can do about it from here except hope it doesn’t happen again.

EB: try to get back as soon as possible just in case, though.

EB: for now, let’s at least finish what we signed on for the first place. you know the drill.

EB: and seriously, let's try to stay on track for once.

Nepeta, head of the scouting division and working leader for the squad currently deployed, gives a rundown of where the team hit and what they managed to collect, and Jane and Rose take over on your end as they take notes and ask questions. Later, you know they'll go over what you've learned in greater detail, and use the information to plan out how long the supplies will last so that another raid mission can be organized. Jade fills Equius and Jake in on what resources she's managed to find and how much ammunition they gained and lost, for which Jake trades information about how the security rounds have been going in her absence.

Halfway through a heated debate between the three of them about a change in the weapons training regimen, though, everything comes to a screeching halt. The room, relatively silent as you all communicate solely over text, is broken almost completely in half when Karkat lets out an unexpected, half-yelled, "Oh, fuck," and almost all of you drop your phones in surprise. There's a beat as everyone freezes, but Karkat doesn't take the cue to explain himself. Instead, he starts scrolling frantically through something on his computer screen. "Sollux, do something productive with your useless ass for once and trace this shit."

There's something in his tone that has you all tense as the boy in question shoves Karkat out of his seat to get his hands on the keyboard, and soon the map is back onscreen. After a moment shifting and calculating and frantic typing, though, it settles on a new position halfway into Colorado—and now you're really confused. You've never sent scouting teams that far south—the trek on foot is too long and there's no way to guarantee a steady fuel supply though that much open land. Only once have you ever gotten a signal from anywhere near there, and it was from a team who'd gotten themselves turned around running from an ambush they didn’t survive. There's no reason for anyone to be left out there now.

Green questions line up on your Pesterchum screen and you look around to see that everyone else has stopped replying to the memo, too.

EB: hang on, guys.

"Karkat, what the hell is going on?"

He blinks, and turns his monitor around as Sollux sits back so you can see what he has displayed on his screen. It's a Pesterchum window, and, for a moment, you're confused. The wall of red text looks familiar and you're about to ask what the big deal is, why is his brother awake so late, but then you notice that no, actually—it's not Kankri. The chumhandle is different, the typing style is off, and—

"The alert system just picked up some fucking straggler way out in the middle of nowhere, and he's alive."


==> BE THE STRAGGLER WAY OUT IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE

Holy shit, it's cold. Not quite freezing, but still really fucking chilly. Why did you sign up for this? Oh, right—you didn't. You didn't sign up for this, because you're the one who wrote down and passed out the god damn signup sheet in the first place. This was your idea, and wow you're really beginning to regret it. Actually, that's a lie—you don't regret it, because this was the only option you had left, but you really kind of wish you had thought things through a little bit more.

Your name is DAVE STRIDER, and you are TWENTY-FOUR YEARS OLD. For the past seventeen days, you've been heading north on foot with the hopeless entourage you still haven’t been able to come up with an acceptably-cool name for. Actually, your younger brother DIRK isn’t impossible to deal with, but the psychotic graphic design student, her blind roommate—yeah, the one currently riding on your back—and the skinny drug dealer who probably never finished high school aren’t the most reliable crew to hang with. Now, though, you don’t have much of a choice about who you’re travelling with. They’re the only people you’ve had the pleasure of seeing for the past, what, half-decade? It’s not like you could have left the three-man snark parade behind to die while you took your brother and fled. Well, you could have, but you probably would have felt bad about it. Maybe.

After spending too long trapped inside the borders of your expansive, war-zone of a city, it had slowly become clear that you had run out of places to hide from the things that lurked through the streets at night. You had been okay at first—they scavenged apartment buildings for the corpses of your dead neighbors for food—but, by now most of the bodies were either gone or inedible. The five of you had become the prime target for almost every grey thing left in Houston, and nowhere was safe. No matter how many times you relocated, what you did to cover your tracks, or how many you managed to kill, they always found you. There were always more.

So you'd decided to pack up your shit and get the hell out of dodge.

You weren't naive enough to think that you could escape them altogether, but your plan had been fairly straightforward: get out. Find someplace isolated, set up a perimeter, and hunker down to ride out the rest of your miserable existence together. A farm residence had been your ideal target, and after a bit of coaxing you'd actually gotten everyone to gather their sparse belongings and move with you.

Unfortunately, though, you hadn't exactly thought much farther ahead than the initial escape. Now, you have no idea if the direction you've been heading is the right one—if it will get you where you need to go—but you swear you’ll kill yourself on one of these deadly-looking branches you’ve been beating back for the past seventy-two hours before you admit defeat and turn over your position as group leader to Vriska. That’s the deal you two set up—how you got her to agree to this whole thing. If you fuck up, she finally gets to be in charge, voted position be damned.

"Hey, my cherry brother, I'm thinkin' we ought to get our motherfuckin' rest on sometime soon. I don't know how much more trekkin' my toes can take, and the motherfuckin' sun set, like, a couple hundred hours ago."

You resist the urge to growl, and decided instead to just pretend you can’t hear the slow, drawling whine from what you think is the back of your little party. You don't bother looking behind you to check, though—not that you can with Terezi on your back—because, even though you know he's right, you're too angry with the way things have been going so far to actually make the decision. You know it's dangerous to be out so late, but you want to spend this night under a roof instead of curled up, frozen under whatever thin blankets you’ve been able to carry this far. Vriska snickers, and you can practically hear her counting down the minutes 'til you crack. And she can keep on counting, for all you care. You’re too fucking collected to fold under the pressure.

"For once, Bro, I'm going to side with the juggalo. It's almost midnight."

"You getting tired, li'l man?” You can’t help but bite, but he doesn't take the bait—a fact that both annoys and makes you kind of grateful.

"No, but I'm pretty sure Terezi is asleep."

Huh?

You stomp your next few steps to jostle the redheaded load on your back, and, sure enough, a muffled, "What the hell do you think you're doing, coolkid?" slurs in your ear. Her voice is thick and slow, and—yep—she'd somehow managed to doze off in-transit.

"I've gotta say, TZ—that's a low blow, taking advantage of me like that. As cuddly as my hot bod is, I'm not your fucking pillow." The comment earns you a half-hearted smack on the arm, but you sigh again and slow to a stop, anyway.

"You volunteered to carry me 'cause I was slowing everyone down. You're comfortable, it's late, and no one was saying anything," she whines into your shirt, and you wonder if she's going to stay there all night before Vriska creeps up behind you both and jabs her hard in the side. The action makes Terezi yelp in your ear, and—nope—you totally don't almost drop her. Not you.

"One more day, Strider," the grinning scorpion bitch hisses at your side, and wow, she is not helping your mood right now.

Half an hour later, you've got a circle in the underbrush cleared out and your blankets spread for the night. A fire for warmth is out of the question, because it would attract unnecessary attention—the kind of attention you're trying to avoid—so you're forced to huddle as close to one another as you dare. Gamzee takes the opportunity to light up his freaky product one last time before bed, ignoring everyone’s half-hearted grumbles about it. You're not looking forward to lugging the scent of weed on your clothes for the next possibly forever, so you decide to banish him to the other side of your group by Vriska when he finishes. While the rest of you settle in, he wanders around aimlessly, and after a moment you lose sight joint’s glow in the trees. But you don't particularly care—he can take care of himself.

He reappears fifteen minutes later carrying something in his hands, drugs gone, but only when Dirk asks what the hell he he’s got do you actually start paying attention.

It’s some kind of miracle box, he says—something he found strapped behind a poor limb-less brother’s motherfuckin' ribcage, and, after a beat of silence, it occurs to you that holy shit he had found a body. He’s too fucked in the head to sound particularly bothered by the fact that he’d just stuck his hands in a corpse, and wow you really didn’t think this guy could creep you out any more.

Then, of course, your brain reminds you that where there are bodies, there are bound to be the things that eat bodies. You start to say as much, but he cuts you off, slow and steady like he always is while buzzed.

"No worries, my cherry brother—his meat's all up in fleshy heaven, so ain't no predators gonna come predatorin' around here. Looks to me like they already made their buffet rounds on Mr. Skinny and his friends way back before leavin' Houston was even a thought in your pretty little head."

You tell him to fuck off, give yourself two seconds to relax again, and then refocus on why the hell he thought raiding a pile of half-eaten, bone-picked human parts was a good idea. Dirks points out that all the reasoning you need was rolled up between his fingers before he left, and demands to see the “miracle box”.

It’s cracked, dirt-covered plastic and easily half the length of your forearm, and you can see the frayed remains where there might have once been a strap or something looped through two metal hooks. When Dirk—the only one who actually willing to touch it—cracks open the case, he tells you to fish out your phone so he can have some light. You've learned to trust him and his skills—not that you'd tell the little shit that; it'd just inflate his ego—so you pull it out and power it up without much more than a few whiny grumbles about missing your beauty sleep because of this bullshit.

For as long as you can remember, your little brother has had a way with wires and screwdrivers. From pulling apart computers and toys, to "improving" your household appliances, he's always been able to do things you couldn't even dream of. When the world ended and you found yourselves trapped in your apartment for a full four months before you dared venture out, he'd taken it upon himself to pull apart the building's generator and get it working again, just so he could charge his phone enough to play Angry Birds. His skills had only improved over time.

He messes with the piece of crap as you and Vriska watch on, Gamzee having collapsed next to a dozing Terezi. Neither you nor the bitch are going to go to sleep until the other does, you know. You've been playing out the same passive-aggressive set of old-school competitions since you met and she nearly tried to kill you, so you doubt anything’s going to change that. Not now, not ever.

Suddenly, a shrill, high-pitched noise breaks the silence and—

A full minute passes before you realize it's your phone beeping, and wow it's been a hundred fucking years since you last heard that particular sound. Immediately, you snatch it back from your brother and—

holy shit, someone really is messaging you.

carcinoGeneticist [CG] 24083 HOURS AGO opened public bulletin board READ THIS AND STAY ALIVE

carcinoGeneticist [CG] 24083 HOURS AGO opened memo on board READ THIS AND STAY ALIVE

CG: I'M NOT GOING TO PREMISE THIS SHITTY WARNING SYSTEM WITH SOME KIND OF HORROR MOVIE COUNTDOWN, BECAUSE YOU CAN ALREADY SEE WHEN I POSTED THIS IN THE TIMESTAMP. I'M GOING TO MAKE THE ASSUMPTION THAT YOUR BRAIN IS DEVELOPED ENOUGH TO UNDERSTAND BASIC MATH, SO WASTE YOUR OWN TIME ON SOME THIRD GRADE DIVISION AND FIGURE IT OUT FOR YOUR OWN GOD DAMN SELF.

CG: JUST SO YOU DON'T FREAK OUT OR SOME SHIT, THOUGH, WE'RE GOING TO RIP THIS WHOLE LONG-WINDED EXPLANATION OFF LIKE A FUCKING BAND-AID AND SKIP ALL THE USELESS CRAP LIKE PROPER INTRODUCTIONS AND WHATEVER.

CG: THE POINT IS THAT IF YOU'RE READING THIS YOU'RE OBVIOUSLY STILL ALIVE. CONGRATULATIONS.

CG: UNFORTUNATELY, I HAVE IT UNDER GOOD AUTHORITY THAT YOU MIGHT NOT BE FOR MUCH LONGER IF YOU STAY WHERE YOU ARE NOW.

CG: THAT GOOD AUTHORITY IS PERSONAL EXPERIENCE, BY THE WAY. I KNOW WHAT THE FUCK I'M TALKING ABOUT.

CG: ANYWAY, IF YOU'VE MANAGED TO GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER AND SURVIVE THIS LONG, HUZZAH, YOU'VE WON THE FUCKING UNIVERSE. FIRST PRIZE IS AN ALL EXPENSE PAID LIFE WITH, YOU KNOW, OTHER PEOPLE WHO WERE SMART ENOUGH TO NOT DIE, TOO.

CG: YEAH, YOU READ THAT RIGHT. THERE ARE MORE OF US OUT HERE.

CG: WE MANAGED TO RIG THE PESTERCHUM SERVERS SO THAT ANYONE WITH AN ACTIVE DEVICE AND A PESTERCHUM CACHE ON SAID PIECE OF SHIT WILL AUTOMATICALLY SUBSCRIBE TO ALERTS ON THIS MEMO BOARD, WHICH IS WHY YOU'RE GETTING THIS NOW. YOU'VE WANDERED INTO AN AREA WITH THE ACTIVE WI-FI WE SET UP, AND NOW WE CAN FIND YOU.

CG: FUCK, THAT SOUNDED CREEPY.

CG: JUST TO BE CLEAR, YOU CAN FIND US, TOO. THAT'S KIND OF THE WHOLE POINT OF THIS GOD DAMN THING.

CG: WE'VE GOT SHELTER, SECURITY, FOOD, MEDICAL CARE, AND ACTUAL REAL PEOPLE IF YOU'RE INTERESTED IN LIVING OUT THE REST OF YOUR MISERABLE LIFE ON THIS SHITSTORM CRATER OF A PLANET IN RELATIVE NORMALCY.

CG: CLICK THE RANDOM PESTER BUTTON AND YOU'LL BE REDIRECTED TO EITHER ME OR ONE OF MY DOUCHEBAG TEAM MEMBERS. FROM THERE, WE'LL TELL YOU WHAT TO DO WITH YOURSELF.

CG: THIS ISN'T A FUCKING JOKE, SO GET THAT THROUGH YOUR THICK CRANIAL BONE.

CG: SHIT STOPPED BEING FUNNY WHEN THE WORLD FUCKING ENDED.

carcinoGeneticist [CG] 24083 HOURS AGO closed memo on board READ THIS AND STAY ALIVE

ectoBiologist [EB] 15330 HOURS AGO opened memo on board READ THIS AND STAY ALIVE

EB: hi, whoever is reading this!

EB: just wanted to add a few things to this old message. it's going to stay up pretty much forever, but i figured it would make sense to keep it updated.

EB: the offer still stands! just hit random pestered and you'll be rerouted to one of us, and from there we'll get you to where you need to be.

EB: if you think you can't make it on your own, just contact us anyway. we can send someone to get you.

EB: the point of this message was to add that we've relocated since karkat's first created this thing, though! which is really great because our new base is actually really sweet.

EB: that's the angry grey guy's name, by the way. karkat! and i'm john.

EB: anyway, yeah. i hope there are people still out there to read this! you're always welcome. :)

ectoBiologist [EB] 15330 HOURS AGO closed memo on board READ THIS AND STAY ALIVE

twinArmageddons [TA] 8147 HOURS AGO closed public bulletin board READ THIS AND STAY ALIVE

"It’s a wireless router,” Dirk says, and you totally don't jump a second time because you totally were paying attention enough to realize he’d been reading over your shoulder. "Whoever had this with them was using it to keep up a mobile internet connection. Try messaging them back, Bro. It's not like we’ve got anything to lose. Even if they can’t help us, we might as well tell them that their friends are dead."

Vriska nods, and you actually consider not doing it just to spite her. But curiosity and—fuck, yeah, you admit it—a little bit of hope win out, and you start typing.

Chapter Text

[4/13/37]

— turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering carcinoGeneticist [CG] at 00:43 —

TG: sup

TG: hey

TG: so i dont actually know if this shits going to work but i figured i might as well try

TG: is anyone there

TG: no

TG: thats cool

TG: fucking ice cold

TG: frozen

TG: like my ass

TG: jesus dicks why the hell is colorado even this cold

TG: its april for christs sake

TG: flowers should be blooming

TG: small children should be shedding their winter coats like tiny pink caterpillar monkeys breaking out of their weird fluffy cocoons

TG: seriously though id really appreciate it if you responded or something

TG: but no take your time

TG: no worries

TG: holy shit i hope youre not dead

TG: thatd suck for both of us

TG: i mean for you because youd be you know dead but for me too because id be spamming a corpses inbox

TG: thatd be hella awkward let me tell you

TG: okay yeah im pretty sure youre dead

TG: fuck this im out

CG: WAIT, YOU ARROGANT ASSHOLE.

CG: JUST WAIT ONE FUCKING SECOND.

TG: holy shit youre real

TG: no need for a blue fairy all up in here

TG: youre a real boy

TG: girl

TG: idk man karkats a fucking weird name but i dont judge

TG: im assuming youre karkat at least

TG: thats what the blue kid said in his memo

TG: hello

TG: wow youre rude as hell and then you just leave me hanging a second time

TG: i could be sleeping you know

TG: im wasting my valuable time here waiting for you

TG: dude its been like fifteen minutes what the hell

carcinoGeneticist [CG] RIGHT NOW invited turntechGodhead [TG] to join private board iimportant 2hiit

TG: oh

— carcinoGeneticist [CG] ceased pestering turntechGodhead [TG] at 01:14 —

carcinoGeneticist [CG] RIGHT NOW opened memo on board iimportant 2shiit

CG: I'M OPENING A NEW MEMO TO KEEP THINGS ORGANIZED, OKAY GUYS?

CG: NO COMPLAINTS OR I WILL REACH ACROSS THIS FUCKING TABLE AND SLAP YOU SO HARD YOU WILL SPEND THE NEXT WEEK AND A HALF IN THE INFIRMARY.

turntechGodhead [TG] RIGHT NOW responded to memo

TG: are you always this cheerful or is this a special thing just for me?

ectoBiologist [EB] RIGHT NOW responded to memo

EB: sorry, he's always like this.

TG: whoa theres more of you

EB: hi, by the way!

EB: oh, yeah. there's a whole bunch of us here right now, actually.

CG: I DON'T KNOW WHAT KIND OF KARMA OR STARS OR WHATEVER COSMIC SHIT YOU SEEM TO HAVE IN YOUR FAVOR, BUT YOU'RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO HAVE CAUGHT EVERYONE CURRENTLY CAPABLE OF SAVING YOUR "FROZEN ASS" IN ONE PLACE.

TG: who said my ass needed saving

CG: WHY ELSE WOULD YOU BE TALKING TO US?

TG: maybe i just wanted some decent fucking conversation

TG: something that youre clearly not capable of

EB: karkat, shut up.

EB: tg, maybe we could figure out what to do if we knew a little bit more about your situation?

EB: to be honest your messages kind of caught us off guard.

EB: oh, i'm john by the way. although you probably already know that, since you knew karkat's name.

TG: wow thank you for actually being civil mysterious blue john

TG: names dave

As you wait for someone to respond, you take a moment to glance up at the others. Dirk is still reading over your shoulders, and Vriska is leaning over his back to see too. At some point, she started reading the messages out loud to Terezi, who's now wide awake with a dazed Gamzee still sprawled on top of her. You can't tell whether or not he's paying attention, and quite frankly you don't care—you're too busy flipping the fuck out about the fact you're actually talking to someone new for the first time in years.

Not that anyone around you can tell, of course. You’ve got a reputation to uphold.

EB: hi, dave! nice to meet you!

CG: OKAY, WONDERFUL. HAPPY FEELY INTRODUCTIONS ARE OUT OF THE WAY. NOW HOW THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING TO US RIGHT NOW?

"You're not actually going to tell them, are you?" Vriska asks as you start typing, and—yeah—it suddenly occurs to you that someone in our group was nuts enough to go corpse-diving in the middle of the night and just sort of stumbled across this weird box might not make you viable candidates for whatever safe-haven they're advertising.

TG: shenanigans

CG: WOW, THANK YOU. I FEEL SO INFORMED.

twinArmageddons [TA] RIGHT NOW responded to memo

TA: you would have two have one of our hub2 two get a 2iignal, and we havent lo2t 2o many that ii cant keep track of my own equiipment.

TA: what ii want two know ii2 how you got your hand2 on iit iin the fiir2t place.

EB: guys, you can bitch about your technology later, okay? figuring out how to get him all the way to us takes priority.

EB: the important thing is that he does have a hub, so we can stay in contact.

EB: whoops, sorry, i'm assuming things. that is why you messaged, right?

TG: warm shelter and some real food sound pretty fucking sweet right now im not going to lie

EB: then we'll do our best to get you here safely.

TG: im under the impression this isnt your first time dealing with this shit so im going to hold you to that

You trade information well into the night, admittedly panicking a little when they tell you they're in fucking Washington state, but all-in-all everything goes as smoothly as it can. A few more colored voices pop up and they start up the goddamn Spanish Inquisition, but no real conflict arises until you mention the fact that you'll be carting an addict twelve hundred miles to their base of operations. The blue kid kind of freaks out about that, spewing out a whole list of problems that you hadn't even considered when you'd set out—namely, withdrawal. Yeah, there's no way Gamzee packed enough shit to last him the months you'll be on the road, and that's going to cause a metric fuckton of problems down the line. But from what you've seen, he's got his bags stuffed with whatever he can carry—including crap you didn't even know he was on—so you figure it'll be a little while before you run into any real issue.

By the time they start insisting you get some rest, they've made plans to send an escort party your way as soon as they can spare the resources, and you're feeling pretty fucking sweet about how everything is working out. For once, the future doesn’t look so fucking terrible.

The next morning, you pack your bags and put your brother in charge of the miracle box. Getting everyone in your five-man train wreck of a survival party hooked up to the network takes a better part of the morning, but the whole thing isn't as hard as it could have been. All of you still have your phones on-hand.

Back in Houston, Dirk had patched up a few hotspots throughout the city to keep in everyone in contact over long distances, so the transition from one chat client to another isn't particularly difficult in the grand scheme of things. Karkat and Sollux are the only ones online, and they try to guide you through the process from afar—but any seriousness about the situation just flies out the fucking window when Terezi gets her voice-to-text program up and running again. Hearing Karkat's angry messages read aloud by a computerized British woman is hands-down the funniest shit you've had the privilege to witness in years, and no, no you definitely do not snort like a hog when TZ tells him he sounds pretty.

Not long after, though, he tells you he has to head to bed, and you tease him about it ‘til he turns you over to some chick with bright pink text and signs off without really fighting back. Things get quiet after that, and you do a bit of dramatic brooding as your brother makes nice with the other TG.


[5/2/37]

Over the next few weeks, you establish a kind of routine, guided by two—sometimes three—voices through forests and along roads as you trudge northward. Karkat isn't always there when you wake up in the mornings, but the novelty of talking with someone new doesn't diminish no matter who five of you take the company of.

You're not lucky enough to avoid every pocket of Infected you run across, though. Detours into what had once been towns and neighborhoods in search of food are still as dangerous as ever, but you fight your way through just like you always have. And, yeah—maybe you are a little more optimistic than you had been. Not that it shows, of course. But having a plan is nice, and you even start to steadily rack up a pile of tallied victories against Vriska. She doesn't really have much to complain about these days.

By the time you hear from the guy with blue text again, you've almost forgotten about him. Or, well, no—you haven't actually forgotten him, but he's been pushed to the back of your mind because he never comes up as a topic worth discussing. When you'd asked, Roxy had told you that he and the others rarely kept in contact with Approachers—they were busy keeping everyone else in line—and after that you’d honestly never expected to hear from them again. Especially John. When the reasons Karkat and Sollux keep strange sleeping schedules come to light, you figure a guy who’s that important has better things to do than waste his time talking with a couple of messed-up kids.

Even so, he messages you one morning and you don’t really know what to think, but you figure responding is probably a good place to start.

— ectoBiologist [EB] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] at 09:38 —

EB: hi, dave!

TG: whoa hey sup

TG: to what do i owe this honor

EB: ew no, stop.

EB: you've been talking to roxy, haven't you?

EB: wait, that's a stupid question. of course you have.

TG: ...

EB: shut up.

EB: anyway, i just wanted to check and see how you guys were holding up.

TG: so far so good

TG: actually no thats a lie

TG: so far so great i mean

TG: atlas x5 combo up in here

TG: lifting up the sky aint nothing going to bring us down

EB: did you just quote a musical at me?

EB: is that what that was?

TG: no

EB: dave based on what i've heard i never would have pegged you for a broadway fan.

TG: no definitely not

EB: shh it's okay this is a judgement free zone.

TG: stop

EB: it's a circle of acceptance.

TG: why

EB: you don't have to hide who you are.

— turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 09:51 —

EB: wait, i'm sorry!

— turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 09:51 —

TG: liar

EB: did i catch you at a bad time? you seem pretty grumpy.

TG: im not grumpy

TG: i dont grump

TG: grumping is a thing reserved for forest-dwelling old men

TG: which i am definitely not

EB: despite the fact that you're currently living in the woods?

TG: fun fact youre living in the woods too

TG: if were making it rain dwarf names youd be dopey

EB: ouch, that one cut me deep.

TG: thats what you get dumbass

TG: the ironic beauty of idina menzels voice isnt something you should take lightly man

EB: except it's actually genuinely pretty?

EB: if you're talking about who i think you're talking about, anyway.

EB: but how is that ironic?

TG: sorry bro guess youre just not high enough on the level to understand it

EB: level?

TG: only those with the blood of the gods flowing through their veins have reached the farthest tiers of ironic comprehension

TG: youve failed the test

TG: we can no longer accept you through the gates of valhalla

EB: i'm pretty sure you just don't know what ironic actually means

TG: rude

TG: i should slap you for insulting my religion

TG: feel the sting of my scorned womanly glove

EB: ah yes, i forgot that word games were an intrinsic part of norse spiritual practices.

EB: forgive me, oh wise one.

TG: apology not accepted buttface

EB: actual five year old dave.

EB: oh, shit. wait. i'm so sorry. what's your last name?

TG: fanfuckingtastic

EB: i'm pretty sure that's not actually it.

TG: shit you caught me

TG: my full name is actually dave mchellarad

EB: access denied

TG: ridonkulamazing

TG: its scandinavian

TG: first my religion now my culture

TG: youre burning me down like a californian forest fire here dude

TG: the sickest of burns

TG: millions of poor helpless woodland creatures are smoldering to a blackened crisp on your watch

TG: oh look a cute bunny

TG: whoops there it goes looks like its dead now

TG: oh hey a baby deer

TG: dead

TG: yo you there

TG: wow what is it with you guys always ditching me

TG: rude

EB: your brother said your name is strider.

TG: thats cheating

TG: that totally counts as cheating

TG: im sorry john youve been disqualified from the game of life

EB: dave strider, i'm sorry but you need administrative access to kick me off the team.

EB: which is a thing you don't have, by the way.

TG: fuck you

EB: god dave, i'm not that kind of girl. take me out to dinner first.

TG: can't take you out to dinner if i dont know your name too then

TG: fairs fair now fork it over

EB: john egbert.

TG: egbert

EB: yes, egbert.

TG: egburp

TG: egdirt

TG: egderp

EB: oh my god.

TG: egsquirt

TG: egtwerp

TG: j eggy

TG: eggs johnadict

TG: okay even ill admit that one was a stretch

EB: is this payback?

TG: take it or leave it breakfast boy

TG: youve released the strider now face the consequences

TG: im at least twelve times deadlier than the kraken i can assure you

EB: one glimpse at how much of a loser you are and your victims drop dead.

EB: like a dweebish medusa.

TG: i was thinking more along the lines of like the white witch

TG: hella rich and ruler of an alternate dimension

EB: same powers though?

TG: one glimpse of how fucking awesome i am and my victims drop dead

EB: denial is a dangerous thing, dave.

TG: yeah those currents man so fast theyll pull you under if youre not careful

EB: just for that joke i hope you drown.

TG: ouch

TG: that was uncalled for

TG: im physically wounded here

TG: bleeding out on the street

TG: dude dont tell me youre talking to my bro again

TG: dude

EB: ugh you're such a drama queen, dave.

EB: i have to go, though. sorry.

TG: oh no worries man you do your thing

EB: cool! we'll talk later then.

EB: i actually did have some questions i wanted to ask you, but you distracted me with your stupidity.

EB: see ya!

— ectoBiologist [EB] ceased pestering turntechGodhead [TG] at 10:46 —

TG: later egbuns

— turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 10:46 —

When you finally close your phone, you can feel Dirk's eyes on you, so you raise an eyebrow at him. He just shrugs, and you actually do start to wonder what he and John talked about. Later that night you steal his phone to check, but you get so caught up in reading the Pesterlogs between he and Roxy that you forget about the whole thing and just laugh and laugh and laugh at your brother's expense. The poor kid doesn’t know how to deal with girls, and fuck that’s some comedy gold right there. Socially awkward Dirk Strider? Who would have thought?


[5/9/37]

John isn't online for a few days, but when you finally do see the icon on your chumroll change from grey to yellow you don't message him first—you wait for him to talk to you, instead. You still aren't really sure what to think of him, because, quite honestly, your information on the guy is pretty lacking. Sollux isn’t much help, either. All you manage to pull out of him are a few facts that may or may not be total bullshit, and they don’t really make you any less intimidated by he who bares one of the most fucking ridiculous names you’ve ever heard.

Not that you are intimidated by him.

Pfft. He's just some guy. (Who might actually be able to bring people back from the dead. And who could quite possibly be the leader of a really, really small country.)

No big deal.

At least he put up with your snark the last time you talked. But how much of that was sarcasm? Was he really poking back at you, or were you reading too much into it? For one thing, he doesn't type like a professional, which is sort-of-kind-of mildly comforting.

Now, you’ve got both hands shoved in your pockets, and you’re walking ahead of everyone else as the five of you slink northward along the side of a highway. Colorado seems to be going on forever, but you can’t decide if that’s because your pace has slowed or because it’s too goddamn cold to be the middle of May. Probably a little bit of both, you think.

To get your mind off the same looping topic you’ve been fretting over for the past hour, you decide to stoop as low as you possibly can and strike up an argument with Vriska—but then your phone vibrates, and oh shit he's messaging you.

— ectoBiologist [EB] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] at 15:12 —

EB: hey, dave.

EB: sorry it took me so long to get back to you! things have been kind of hectic around here.

TG: shit man no big deal

TG: i know youre busy doing stuff that needs to get done

EB: haha, yeah, sure.

There's a pause, and you just sort of stare at the screen as you walk, not really paying much attention to anything around you as you wait for him to start typing again. That couldn't have been it, right? Wait, fuck—you haven't done this socialization thing in a while. Should you say something? Should you wait for him to respond?

Ugh, when did talking to people get so hard?

(Oh, right—when you decided to spend half a decade trapped in a city with only a handful of freaks to keep you busy.)

TG: so when you signed off you said you had some other shit you wanted to talk about

TG: and i dont know whether you meant like speed dating twenty questions stuff or whatever

TG: but its not like i have anything else to actually do and i figure thats why you messaged me so yeah

TG: fire away i guess

TG: unleash the bombardment

TG: make it rain

TG: punctuated missiles up in here

TG: no fear

TG: im all ears

TG: times ticking away so heres the all clear

EB: are you rhyming on purpose?

TG: thats just one stanza of this fucking sweet lyrical i can feel coming on

TG: youve inspired me

EB: wow, i think i'm flattered?

TG: damn straight you should be

TG: seriously though dude say what you got to say

The conversation after that is stilted and awkward, and as the minutes tick by John's messages become more and more clinical. He asks about the supplies you packed before leaving, how long you think they'll last, and how much rest you're getting each night. He quizzes you about Gamzee and Terezi and then Gamzee again; about allergies and pre-existing conditions and when the last time anyone scraped his or her knee was. You pick up pretty quickly that there's something off about the way he's talking to you, but you can't decide whether your previous conversation had just been him humoring you and this is his normal way of speaking—or if something is genuinely wrong.

When he finally signs off, you decide to turn the tables and grill whoever else is online. Unfortunately, you haven't actually talked to anyone but the three voices guiding you to Washington—and John—since that first night, so you can only get up the nerve to click Roxy's name and not any of the other colors lighting up your screen.

—turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering tipsyGnostalgic [TG] at 17:31 —

TG: sup lalonde

TG: yo

TG: you there

TG: wait scratch that i know youre there because i can see you talking to my bro

TG: are you ignoring me

TG: why waste your time with one strider when you can have both

TG: two hot males begging for your attention isnt that every preteen girls wet dream or something

TG: do preteen girls even have wet dreams

TG: wait fuck how do i erase messages

TG: abort abort abort

TG: dave you sound like a pedophile

TG: are u a pedophil edave?

TG: should i stop talking to u?

TG: no on both accounts

TG: why is dirk looking at me like that

TG: roxy what did you tell him

TG: roxy

TG: fuck

TG: calm ur man tits davey i just asked him if you had a penchant for lil ladies back in texas

TG: he said you watched gay porn so i figure my vitus is safe

TG: virtue*

TG: there is no way i can salvage this conversation is there

TG: probably not

TG: its ur own fault tho

TG: why did you even wantt oo message me in the first place??

TG: i was gonna ask you if there was anything super big important drastic going on with you guys but yeah no i should probably go

TG: dont bea baby dave

TG: what would make u think there was?

TG: idk just wondering

TG: shit cant i just be concerned for the wellbeing of my bro

TG: bros

TG: which includes you by the way because youre an honorary bro

TG: gender nondescriminate term right there

TG: was that a typo or a freudian slip

TG:what

TG: the singular bro thing

TG: typo

TG: wait how do you know what a freudian slip is youre like twelve

TG: oh ok

TG: also im 14

TG: also also i grew up around college professors dont doubt how muhc i know bout stuff

TG: are you threatening me lalonde

TG: maybe yes maybe no ill just have to keep u in suspense

TG: but anyway i mean nothing really noteworthy i guess???

TG: the last scouting team kk sent out came back a couple of days ago

TG: there was some stuff that happened or somethin and idk the medics are stressed but its nothing they havent handled before so

TG: yeah

TG: oh

TG: is everyone alright

TG: wait thats a stupid question if johns involved whoever it is is probably fine

TG: dude can work miracles right

TG: not clown miracles but like real crazy shit

TG: yeah i dont think its anything really bad jsut a lot of overreactin

TG: they ran into a cell of sleeping stis during the day and some shit went down

TG: only like 1 person got really hurt but hell be fine

TG: johns kinda stressed tho

TG: have yuo been talking 2 him? cause kk told me and sollux not to say anything about it

TG: yeah not really just like once or twice

TG: im assuming stis isnt a good thing

TG: also im gonna ignore the clown thing bc i dont really wannna know

TG: oh stage two infected or somethin idk john and kk call it that

TG: oh yeah got it

TG: i was just wondering

TG: dont worry davey everythin is a ok here

TG: im glad johns talkin to u though

TG: whats that supposed to mean

TG: are you asking me 2 gossip about my bffs ssexy brother

TG: no

TG: you brought it up though

TG: i didnt know he had a sister

TG: or brother or whatever

TG: i dont know much about most of you guys actually

TG: well do you wanna know??

TG: i mean were going to b livin together soon so u might as well get acquainted with us

TG: idk it makes sense to me

For the rest of the afternoon, you and Roxy trade stories, and she tells you about everyone on base that she can think of—including people you don't even know. You're honestly surprised to learn that John is your age, but are even more thrilled when she tells you that he has a sister just a year older than your brother and a cousin Dirk's age. It's been too fucking long since your bro had someone relatable to talk to, so you make her promise to get the three of them in contact.

By the time she trades shifts with Sollux, your worries about the guy who types in blue have been squashed, and you feel like you've got a better picture of where you're leading your weird little entourage. Yeah, everyone there sounds kind of nuts, but you figure they can't be too bad. They're willing to take you in, after all.


[5/21/37]

When the five of you reach the Colorado-Wyoming border, you're half-frozen and exhausted with too many miles left to travel. In the month and a half since leaving Houston, you've been rained on six times, worn through three pairs of shoes, and slept in a real bed a grand total of four hours. And, the farther north you travel, the more frequently you run across pockets of the grey things that lurk in the woods and the deserted towns you pass through. You do eventually hear from John again, and he seems more than willing to sass back at you with just as much snark as you can dish out, much to your (totally nonexistent) relief. First few awkward conversations aside, the two of you start talking more and more until you're spending entire afternoons chattering and joking about nothing in particular. He starts staying up late with you on the nights you have watch, too—and he tells you about the stars while you describe the script you’d been writing before everything went to hell. He doesn't like to sleep, you discover, and that works just fine for you because you can't afford to relax much, anyway.

"Bro, we're going to have to stop soon. Shake mechanism aside, this thing needs batteries to keep functioning at the rate we've been using it, and we're almost out again," Dirk calls as you break through the trees, and you nod, orange hair falling in your face. He doesn't look up at you, though, so you make a sort of affirmative grunt in his general direction as you set down the wood you've gathered.

The five of you have stopped for the night, and even though you know it's risky you can't afford to spend another night without a fire to keep you warm. At this point, you're more likely to freeze in your sleep than die at the hands of whatever is drawn to your campsite, so you've decided to take the risk. Gamzee and Terezi are off to one side, setting out a tarp to keep your blankets dry against the damp, chilly ground, and Vriska follows you out of the forest just as you start laying down your twigs. She's on fire-and-food duty tonight, because you have the first lookout shift. Your brother is curled around the wireless hub in his lap, flashlight and screwdriver in hand, messing with something inside.

"Yeah, okay. We're a day and a half out from the nearest town, so we'll make a stop then. Harley and the others are supposed to meet us when we hit the next border, though—this'll probably be our last break. Anything else we're missing?" You say after a moment.

"A roof over our heads. Warm beds. Real food," Vriska mutters from behind you, and you sigh, rubbing the bridge of your nose and ignoring her.

Your brother shakes his head. "Nah, we're good."

Dinner and the rest of your evening chores pass in relative silence. Everyone is tired—so, so goddamn tired—and it’s been a while since anyone had the energy to put up a good argument. Without that, you don't have anything else to do, so most of your focus has been shifted to your Pesterchum accounts. You’ve all managed to find a few new friends, whether you’ll admit it or not.

By the time everyone else settles in for the night, you're worn out and bored and cold and still really fucking hungry. (Maybe you should up your food rations and add that to the list of things you'll need to find in a few days?) You consider the idea for a moment, before you decide it’s actually probably a horrible idea. You've learned not to spend more time in towns and cities than you have to. After going from the daily chaos of Houston to the relative peace the wilderness usually offers, you're not itching to throw yourself back into hardcore combat. It's been a few days since you ran into the last group of Infected, and you know with the luck you clearly don’t have you're due to meet another soon. It’s cosmic payback for something you can’t even remember doing, you’re sure.

Sollux is still online, so you tell him about your plan and he gives you a rundown of all he knows about the area. Your group is walking a path only one past scouting team ever managed to find, so his information is admittedly sparse. You'll have to be on your guard—but, then again, when are you ever not?

John's chumhandle, marked idle for most of the day, suddenly highlights onscreen, and you'll never admit to another living soul how that makes you want to fist-pump at the sky. Ironically.

Yeah, Sollux is pretty great, but you've found that you actually really enjoy talking to John. He's an interesting guy—the kind of person you never saw yourself really getting along with—and you aren't sure why he's taken such a liking to you. But that's okay. Overanalyzing the whole thing won't get you anywhere, so you just sort of shrug internally and tap his name on your screen.

— turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 22:56 —

TG: sup john

EB: hey, dave!

EB: you're on watch tonight?

TG: yeah man

TG: nothings gonna get past me

TG: im on the prowl

TG: protecting my little sheep from harm

TG: this is an anti wolf zone

TG: no predators allowed at this lunch table

EB: that's a new one. have you been thinking about that all day?

TG: genius cant be planned bro

EB: suuuuuuuure.

TG: holy shit

TG: have you been talking to serket again

TG: come on man you know shes bad news

EB: dave, you've been living with her for the last hundred years. i highly doubt she's as bad as you make her out to be.

EB: she hasn’t killed you yet, after all.

TG: no way man the reason i know what im talking about is because ive had to deal with her for so long

TG: trust me on this

EB: i do trust you! but i also think you're kind of overreacting.

EB: i know you two don't like each other, so you're biased!

EB: ancient feuds and all that.

TG: are you shitting me im way past the whole power struggle thing

TG: we settled that back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth

TG: but im talking about other stuff okay

TG: stuff i know that shes not going to tell you

EB: dave, we're not having this conversation.

EB: you don't get to tell me who i can and can't be friends with. end of story. can we please move on?

TG: alright fine whatever man

TG: just dont come crying to me when she idk literally stabs you in the back or something

TG: what do you want to talk about

EB: anything! anything that's not this!

EB: how was your day?

TG: uneventful as usual

TG: tree tree tree tree rock rock tree rock big tree

TG: there isnt much to see out here lets be real

TG: i did find a dead frog through

TG: that was pretty cool

TG: it was whole and everything like it just keeled over and died or something

TG: dont see that shit everyday do you

TG: no i dont think so

EB: you are actually a ten year old, i've decided.

EB: a ten year old boy who likes swords and dead stuff.

TG: oh yeah well how was your day then if youre just going to mock my great discovery

EB: boring.

TG: i call fuckery

TG: can you hear it

TG: im sending my voice on the wind like fucking pochahontas

TG: the next time you step outside the breeze will speak to you

TG: it will tell you the secrets of the universe

TG: one of which will be that the thing that you just said was complete and utter bullshit

EB: fuckery, dave? really?

TG: i spill out six lines of sick verbage and the only thing you get out of it is fuckery

EB: :)

TG: why do i bother talking to you

EB: i don't know, dave.

EB: but even though you're a big loser i'm still kind of glad you do!

TG: are you going soft on me egbert

EB: ugh, nevermind. i was trying to be nice, but i guess you're too cool for that.

TG: youre unusually touchy today

TG: did something happen

EB: no. like i said, my day was pretty boring.

TG: is something up with your sister

EB: no.

TG: is it harley

EB: no.

TG: lalonde

EB: dave, there's nothing wrong, i swear. just let it go.

TG: serket

EB: dave.

TG: it is her isnt it

TG: what did she do

EB: dave.

TG: i told you about her but no you didnt listen and now look what happens

EB: dave.

TG: what

EB: shut up, please?

TG: not until you tell me whats eating at your ass

EB: ew.

TG: just answer the goddamn question

EB: there's nothing wrong, jeez!

TG: you dont go all sentimental on me unless youve been thinking heavy thoughts so you and i both know thats not true

TG: you can bitch to me bro i dont mind

EB: while i appreciate the offer, i don't have anything to complain about.

TG: john youre a liar

TG: i swear to god i will reach through this phone line and slap you

EB: just let it go, dave!

TG: no

EB: yes!

TG: no

EB: yes!!!!

TG: no

EB: yes!!!

TG: no

— ectoBiologist [EB] blocked turntechGodhead [TG] —

TG: shit

ERROR: MESSAGE NOT SENT — USER ectoBiologist [EB] HAS BLOCKED USER turntechGodhead [TG]

— turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering ectoBioligist [EB] at 23:44 —

You sigh, blowing hot air out through your teeth as you lock your phone and glare intensely at the fire. Your breath fogs up the frozen night, and you remember travelling north once when you were really little—before life revolved around Dirk, before the Infection, before anything. Houston never got cold enough to see it, so you'd spent hours and hours just standing outside huffing and puffing until your lungs were frozen and you'd started coughing. Your parents hadn’t been pleased, but you thought it was the coolest shit ever. Now, while everyone is asleep, you take a moment to pretend you're a dragon. Big and strong and fearless and able to solve any problem. But no matter how hard you try, all you can blow out is fake smoke—no fire.

You’re not sure who you’re upset at—yourself or John—but you do know you’re unhappy. And that it’s going to be a long night.


[5/22/37]

By the time Sollux and Roxy trade shifts the next morning, John still hasn't unblocked you—and that's what glares neon in front of your face that something really isn't right. He's blocked you before—and, yeah, you have too—but it's never lasted more than a few hours at most. Half the time you aren’t serious; you poke and prod and tease at each other, and sometimes you do go too far—but you know at the end of the day that neither of you mean it. But you still can't message him, and that makes you indescribably upset for some reason.

You throw around blankets and kick logs and shoot brown-eyed glares at everyone around you as your group packs up to head out for another day of endless walking, but no one says much of anything. You'd spent half the night up on watch, so you're entitled to a bit of morning unpleasantness. Thank fucking God. You’re not sure how you’d be able to explain it, anyway.

You try asking Roxy about what's going on, but the two of you just end up arguing when she brings up the totally untrue fact that every conversation the two of you have had lately ends up looping back around to John. So you set your own chum status to idle and focus on the world around you, instead.

Which is hells of boring, and doesn't actually keep your mind off what's bothering you. At all.

From Vriska's back, Terezi's voice floats up over the crunching of feet over frozen gravel as she cackles into the her phone’s receiver, and when you hear the electronic voice read the text response back to her you know that she's talking to the girl who types in dark green—Nepeta. The computer is having trouble with some words, though, so you think there must be more than a few typos scattered through her messages. She's tired, probably. It's late enough in the morning that she would normally be asleep.

Your brother is also busy tapping away at his phone. Roxy had come through with her promise, and in the past couple of weeks he'd kept up consistent contact with John's sister and some kid named Jake. It was good for him, you thought—and, looking at him now, brown hair matted from another night on the forest floor and his secondhand winter coat smudged with mud, you don't think you've ever seen him so relaxed. He's had to grow up too fast, you know. And not a day goes by when you wish you could just take him away to the farthest corners of the world where he'd be safe. But you know you can't, so you've done your best to keep him safe in other ways. You've prepared him—you've taught him how to fight, how to survive.

You wonder who he could have become if things had turned out differently. What he could have done with his life. Your stoic kid brother, always too smart for his own good and able to understand more than he should—in a perfect world, he would have made a name for himself and done great things.

He glances up just in time to catch you staring, and both of his eyebrows shoot up. "What?"

"You're gettin' tall, kid."

He rolls his eyes, "Yeah, thanks. That's great piece of wisdom I couldn't go another day without."

"Just statin' facts."

"You sound like a lonely old man, Bro."

"And you sound like some shit teenager who's got a problem with authority."

"Fuck you."

"Watch your goddamn language, kid. I raised you better than that."

"You brought me up to be a lot of things, Bro, but a pansy-ass Southern belle wasn't one of them. If I want to fucking curse, I'll fucking curse." His phone beeps, pulling his attention back down, and he waves you off, successfully interrupting any of whatever you had been about to say. You're tempted to steal his phone again, but you've done it so many times in the past few weeks that the sneaky little shit's started to figure out your pattern, and the fun of it has started to wear off.

So you snort back at him and shake your head, instead. "Whatever, li'l man."

Toward the back of your group, you can hear Gamzee shuffling along, humming to himself. After you'd sat him down with Karkat and John on the other end of a Pesterchum memo to explain the situation, he'd started rationing out the plethora of drugs he'd brought with him. Even so, he's slowed down considerably. He's not stupid, you know. Creepy as fuck sometimes—yeah—but he's strong, and he's saved your life more times than you'd like to admit. You wouldn't have kept him around this long if he caused trouble. But when you hit the next town for tech supplies, you already know he'll disappear for a while—like he always does when you scavenge—to raid drug stores and grocery marts and corner shops for whatever over- and under-the-counter shit he can dig up, just in case. Now, you can't quite tell if he's talking with someone on his phone or just sort of staring at the screen, but as long as he's keeping his mind occupied you don't really care.

You feel your own phone vibrate, and your hopes definitely do not jump up a little before you look at the screen.

— gardenGnostic [GG] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] at 11:01 —

GG: hey coolkid!!!

For a moment, you consider letting the message sit without giving it a response. You’re tired and frustrated and just sort of generally pissed off at the world, but the thought of spending the next however-long in silence doesn’t exactly sound like a sugar-coated delicacy. So you suck it up and mentally kick yourself in the balls. No need for shitty self-pity—and at the very least, maybe she could tell you what's going on. (Also, you might be a little bit lonely. You've gotten too used to having someone around you enjoy talking to for hours on end.)

TG: sup harley

TG: hows it going

GG: pretty good!!! i have some great news too!!!

TG: oh really please enlighten me

TG: i could use some good news right about now

GG: were packing up the last of our supplies now so we will be heading out tomorrow to meet you guys!!! :D

GG: we should run into you in a week or two because no offense but your group moves kind of really slow so we can cover more ground than you in half the time!!

GG: but thats totally okay because that means well get to hang out in person finally!!! :O

GG: so exciting!!!!!!! :DDD

TG: wow you seem unusually energetic today

TG: also thats pretty fuckin sweet and no offense taken its cool

TG: were carting a drugged up clown freak and a blind chick there is literally no way you would not be faster than us

GG: heehee im just really super pumped to meet you!!

GG: also i have to compensate for how grumpy everyone here is being ugh :(

TG: you go harley you dont let anyone bring you down

TG: although do i get to ask whats up or is that idk confidential hush hush kind of shit

GG: hell yes!!! also yeah its fine its just that its always kind of scary when teams leave and i just got back a few weeks ago so normally i wouldnt be going out so soon and everyone is just kind of generally upset

GG: but i really want to see you and besides theres no one better for the job than me and my team!!!!

GG: we kick all kinds of ass!!! ;)

Oh. Well. Now you feel like an idiot—and a selfish dick. John has every right to be mad at you, you think. You're taking his cousin and putting her in danger because you’re too lame to get to his base on your own.

TG: shit harley we didnt mean to pull you from the ranks or nothing

GG: ugh not you too!!! :(

GG: dave i want to come!!!!

GG: and theres not actually any other group get you anyway because karkat convinced nepeta to stay behind and i dont trust any of the junior squads to make a trip that far without messing things up and dying

TG: which would be all kinds of bad

GG: exactly!!!!!

GG: okay jake is glaring at me so i think i should probably go

GG: i just wanted to tell you that i will be seeing you soon!!!! :D

TG: yeah dont make the kid suffer

TG: see ya round harley

GG: bye!!!!!!

— gardenGnostic [GG] ceased pestering turntechGodhead [TG] at 11:23 —

After that, you stop bugging John with messages he’ll never get, and spend the rest of the afternoon trudging along, acutely aware of how much your whole body just sort of really fucking hurts. Without endless, mindless conversation to distract you, you don’t have anything else to focus on. Almost everyone in Washington seems busy prepping for tomorrow, too, so eventually the others in your group are left to suffer in silence with you. You try not to take grim satisfaction in this, but fail horribly. Misery loves company, after all.

By the time you start seeing worn-out road signs boasting that there are only a few dozen miles left to the suburbs you've been heading toward, you're locked in a heated game of Extreme I-Spy with Terezi... and somehow losing. Badly. (You had thought it would be an easy win—an exercise in ironic douchebaggery—but when Vriska and Gamzee start laughing their goddamn asses off you figure out there might just be a bit of underhanded play going on behind your back. Traitors.) You're exhausted, frustrated, and hungry—and Dirk has watch tonight, so you know you won't be getting much sleep, anyway. It's not that you don't trust him to have your backs; no, you know the kid's got skill, but you're too much of a fucking dad to let him sit up and face potential danger while you count sheep and float through fucking dreamland. He doesn't know you guard him like that, though. And you intend to keep it that way.

The five of settle in early for the night, far enough away from the town border that you won't reach it until late afternoon tomorrow and you're still a safe distance away should it be populated. You're building another fire tonight, too, so you can't take even the slightest risk of being seen. You decide to make the best of the extra time, though, and make a pass through the surrounding woods to see if you can find anything worth killing for dinner. It's been a while since any of you have had fresh meat, because you can't take it with you during the day and you're usually too exhausted to go looking for it in the evenings.

You're tired as fuck now, too, but you know you can't settle down just yet. You need to keep your blood pumping, or you won't be able to stay up with your brother during his shift. So you dump your packs and head out, shitty sword in hand. It's not the ideal weapon for hunting, but it's all you have and you know how to use it better than anyone you've ever met.

It's May, now—almost June—so you've got plenty of wildlife to choose from. Or, at least, you should. Abnormally-cold temperatures aside, you start to realize something is wrong when you circle half a mile outside your campsite without seeing anything—anything. No birds, no raccoons, no squirrels. It's like the whole world's gone silent, and before your brain's registered what that means your body is already running back toward camp.

Fuck.

You want some rational part of your head to tell you you’re overreacting, but you can't see the light of a fire through the trees and you involuntarily pick up the pace, flash-stepping 'til you're stumbling into Vriska. "What the hell, Strider?" She whines, shoving you to the ground.

"Yo, my cherry brother—you feelin' motherfuckin' fine?" You hear Gamzee speak up, and it occurs to you then that everyone but Terezi is staring at you, and you're still standing against a tree like an idiot. You must make quite a sight, you think. Why were you running again? Oh, right. Shit.

"Where's Dirk?"

"The little ninja boy went out to go find us some motherfuckin' kindlin' for our ritual orange foot-toaster, but he should be back soon. You sure you're all up and alright, bro?"

You cough a little, trying to get your heart rate back under control because you're going to need your energy, you're going to need all the adrenaline you can save. "We're in a dead zone," you say, and everyone goes still.

Back in Houston, you'd had to live every day fighting. The city was filled with Infected, so you had to choose your buildings carefully when you left whatever base you'd decided to sleep in the night before. It was too easy to stumble across some sleeper cell or the occasional monster still awake with the sun, and you'd always had to be on your guard. Moving during the day, you'd stayed alive—and you'd fought and fought and fought. But here in the wilderness, things are different. The things you run across aren't as frequent, but somehow deadlier. They fight to survive, just like you, because they don’t have an all-you-can-eat a corpse buffet to dine at every night.

So far, you've had your fair share of not-so-casual run-ins, but dead zones are a shitstorm easily a dozen times worse. They're the trademark of a pack on the hunt, and—now—you're right in the middle of their territory.

Without a word, Vriska and Gamzee turn around and start rolling up the blankets you've laid out. Terezi curls around your bags, pulling them toward her and shuffling through in search of the cane she'd spent yet another day without.

The five of you are trapped—you don't know where the group is, but you know they're nearby. If you try to move, you'll make enough noise to attract attention, but you've got a better chance of surviving without the added weight of supplies bogging you down. So you’ll stay put, but you won't get any sleep. The less you make your presence known, the less likely you are to bring predators your way.

Terezi starts handing out weapons as you watch, tossing a set of juggler's clubs in Gamzee's general direction and a machete somewhere near Vriska. You heft up your own sword and nod to the two of them, signaling that you're going to go look for your brother. The little shit had better be alright. (Fuck, you really hope he's alright.)

You head out in the direction Vriska points, and flash step as silently as you can. It’s hard in the woods—you're constantly having to avoid sticks and branches and roots and leaves—but your body's moving on autopilot while your brain clicks into overdrive. Every breath you take sounds like a goddamn hurricane in the silence, and—why the hell is the sun setting so fast?

As long as you can see, the battlefield is even—but the minute the world goes dark you're royally fucked, because they'll be able to see and you'll be forced to fight blind.

You don't know how long you walk, but eventually you start heading in a circle around your temporary base, thinking Dirk may have turned, too.

(Damn kid—where is he? Where the hell is he? He’s going to give you a goddamn heart attack. Shit, he’d better be okay. You’ll kick his fucking ass if he isn’t. Shit.)

Something shifts in the corner of your eye and—fuck, fuck—you freeze mid step, barely catching yourself as your muscles strain to keep your body still. Your fingers squeeze around the hilt of your sword, and you hold your breath, waiting, waiting, waiting for it to move again. You can't tell what it is, though, because you don't dare turn your head. You hope it's Dirk. Or, at the very least, you hope it hasn’t found Dirk. The body shifts again, and no—it's not your brother, because his eyes aren’t that bright in the darkness and—

Your phone beeps, shattering the silence, and everything speeds up almost too fast for you to follow.


It's eyes are locked on you, but the minute you see its head turn you turn too, shitty sword at the ready, aimed at its neck. Teeth bared, nails poised, it dives at you and you swing, blade hitting just a little too low but you're too far gone to register the pain in your arm as you wrench your weapon out of its shoulder. It yowls in pain, snarling, and fuck any kind of cover you had is gone, now. They know you're here, if they didn't already. You take two more swings as it swipes at you, and just as quickly as the whole started, it's over. There's a hacked-up, headless thing lying at your feet and you don't even care about stealth anymore because you're pretty fucked anyway. So you call for your brother, yelling low and loud and angry—Striders don't do scared, so you compensate—and you run back the direction you came.

You need to get to open area, you think. That's the only way you've got a chance. In the woods, the Infected have the advantage because they can leap and climb and scale and they know the area, as much as a wild animal can know something, and you can't and don't.

There's a blur of movement at your side and you almost swing again, but stop the moment when the peeking starlight glints off another blade. "It took you long enough, you little shit," you say, and your voice is winded and raw and relieved.

"Yell louder next time."

"Listen better next time."

You don't fistbump—you can't, because you're both running and crashing through the branches and trying not to trip—but you make a mental note to give the kid one later. The most epic of invisible brofists, a limited-edition thing that only happens post-life-or-death situations. The two of you run across three more razor-toothed grey monsters on your way, but you take them down just like you always have. Just like you always do.

Striders are unstoppable, after all. Practically invincible.

A high-pitched scream reaches your ears just as you break through to the others, and even though your eyes are open you're not really seeing because no, no, no.

Gamzee bashes its head in, but it's too late.

Terezi slumps to the ground, and—fuck, fuck—there's so much blood.


You don't have time to process what's happening, because they're everywhere, crawling from every corner of the woods. Dozens of them—more than you've seen since you left Houston, and you think the five of you might have stopped a little closer to the city than you'd originally thought. Because this isn't the kind of group you find just wandering through the woods—it’s an outpouring from someplace populated. You swing and slash and leap and step, and you can hear the others do the same. But you're outnumbered, outskilled, and in some unheeded moment of pre-death clarity you realize this—this—is why John and the others don't get involved with Approachers. With groups like you.

Because you don't always make it, and that's a hard thing to deal with.

"We have to get out!" You shout—

—or do you? You can't tell over the roaring in your ears—

and you vaguely hear Vriska call back, screeching and panicked, "Where?"

"The highway—head for the goddamn highway!" One, two—another head falls and you turn to hack the arm off another one. You’re locked in. You need room to move. You need room to fight—and those are things you don’t have here in the forest. Staying put is pointless, now, because you’ve already been found.

"How will that—" hack, scream, hack "—how the hell will that help us at all?"

"Flat ground!" slice "Gamzee—fuck, Gamzee—get Terezi and run!" You can't tell if he follows your orders or not, because you're too busy putting your body between TZ and the things still coming for her. "Watch their backs, Serket! Watch their goddamn backs!"

Three more fall, and the night's so dark you can't tell what color their blood is. It could be a rainbow. It could be black. It could be red, red, red, just like yours and Dirk’s and Terezi’s, too.

"Bro!" Your brother’s yelling now, too—and Dirk never yells, so you know that something's wrong. He's your kid—your goddamn kid—so you don't even think before you act like a fucking idiot and take your eyes off the fight to turn your head and—

He's still on his feet, thank fuck. He's still fighting. He's still alive. So what the hell is he shouting for?

"Follow them!" You yell back, and you see his mouth open just before you hit the ground, too many rows of shark-mouth knives tearing at your side.


You kick and you claw and you punch and you finally get a grip back on your sword and you slice, slice, slice until all that's left attached to you is the head lodged in your side and one hand buried deep in your lower back. Your body's on fire, burning, burning, burning—and fuck, it hurts. Everything hurts. Everything hurts. Everything hurts.

You're on the ground for less than a second, but that's still too long because your little shit of a brother is still fighting and no—you're not going to make it out of this alive, you realize. There’s no way you can be in so much pain and still survive. But you sure as hell can make sure he does.

So you bury your blade in the ground and use it to pull yourself up, planting a kick firmly in the chest of another thing lunging your way. You must make quite a sight, you think—covered in blood, body parts sticking out of places they shouldn't—but the weight of the head is throwing off your balance so you brace yourself with one hand on the hilt of your sword and pull, rip, tear, scream as the teeth rake out of your side, taking most of your skin and muscle and you don't want to think about what else with it.

"Follow them!" You scream, yanking back your blade and hacking, hacking, hacking away at everything around you. There's blood in your eyes and blood on your hands and holy shit, you're in so much pain. You can't get a good grip on the hilt of your sword because it's too slick, and if you're fighting blind at this point you're not even really sure you'd notice. "Get your ass away from here!"

"Bro!" He's screaming back, but you're not sure if you're imagining it because that's all he seems to be saying.

"Go! Fucking go!"

"No!"

"Use your goddamn head, kid!" But do you really say it out loud? You don't know.

There's a snarl by your ear and you swing again and again and again, and you think you hear him say something back but it's drowned out by the noise. The body drops, and your eyes are stinging, and it's dark—but when you glance around, you can't see him anymore.

Thank God. Thank fucking God.

You let yourself go, then—you don't think about anything, you just act. Complete mind blackout, program wiped and re-written: Stay away from them! Stay back! Stay away from them!


You don't know how much time passes, but when your body finally gives out you fall, nothing tries to tear at you again. You can't tell if the forest is quiet, though, because your pulse is loud in your ears and there's a ringing in your head that won't go away—and you don't know if you actually succeeded or not, because you don't know how many monsters got past you toward the end. You drop your sword, but the blade doesn't clang against the rocky ground. It hits something soft, and you wonder if it's a body. There are so many bodies around you. You think you might be crumpled up on one, too.

But you feel naked without your sword, so you reach out to get it again, and your hand brushes something fuzzy and dry and—

The supplies.

They're dead, you think. They have to make it to the city or they're dead. There’s shelter and food and everything else there, but they have no way to tell anyone what happened, because Gamzee's miracle box is tucked in with the blankets and bandages. And if Jade stops to wait for the five of you at the rendezvous point no one is going to show up, because there’s no way they’ll be able to take TZ that far. Fuck, Terezi. You hope she’s still alive.

You have to let them know. If it’s the last thing you do, you have to let them know. You still have your phone. Does your phone still work? You don’t know, but you’re fading fast so you have to do something before you can’t move your arms anymore.

You think it's still in your pocket, so you slide your hand down to your hips across your body because you've lost feeling in most of everything. And yes, it's there.

What's your password? Do you have a password?

Your vision is blurring and your head is spinning and you think you've lost all of your blood by now. All of it. And you're grateful, because that means you'll get to die. You won't have to turn to a monster like the dead things around you—you'll just get to die.

You get the damn thing to unlock and the Pesterchum window is already open from earlier and—is that blue?

But you don't bother reading whatever's on the screen. You just smash your fingers against the keyboard and hope that whoever’s on the other end can understand you.

Chapter Text

==> BE THE FRUSTRATED DOCTOR

Degrees don't mean a thing these days—they're just paper. The only thing that counts is your ability to do the work necessary to keep your friends and family alive, doctorate be damned. And you're qualified enough for what you do—hell, you might even be overqualified in some respects. You've poured over every textbook and online resource available; dug through the University's medical libraries for whatever you could find; stayed up for days on end, studying for life-or-death exams and homework assignments that could mean the continued survival of life as you’ve come to know it. And you have more field experience than any student near your age. Regardless of how things may have been done in the past, by the standards you've been living on for the past half-decade you are a doctor. And, according to your friends, a fantastic one. You don't really see it, though—you struggle. You fight yourself and your patients and sickness you can’t see. And you've made mistakes.

Your name is JOHN EGBERT, and you really don’t have time to think about how much you may or may not suck, because you have work do to. Your friends are heading out into the field tomorrow, and it's your job to make sure they can handle it—to make sure they're physically ready. Beyond the border, even the slightest slip up could lead downhill to a world of problems. Fatal ones.

And—oh, God—you don't want to burn another body. You've built too many funeral pyres already.

"Quit fidgeting, Eridan. The longer you're here, the less time I have to look over whoever is left," you release the blood pressure pump on your friend’s arm and sigh, ignoring the eye roll you get in return. The two of you are in your lab, at the far end of the room where you keep the equipment for basic exams like this, along with Eridan’s brother for some weird reason. You've spent most of the late afternoon shuffling scouts through the same necessary process they've all gone over a hundred times, and quite frankly you're tired. The young man you’re currently dealing with—a member of Karkat's camp from the same military outpost as Feferi—isn't as bad as some of the stubborn assholes you've had to tolerate, but your patience is wearing thin and you can practically feel whatever semblance of a bedside manner you might have crumbling away. This whole mission has you filled with mixed feelings you don’t like—on one hand, you want to meet the group you've gotten close to over the past month-and-some, but on the other you're pissed and worried that your family has to leave again so soon.

Especially after what happened last time.

In the two weeks between your birthday and the last scouting group’s planned homecoming, the off-site comm. equipment gave out twice more before Jade and Nepeta made the decision to cut their losses and shut the system down altogether. It had been terrifying. While teams normally didn't maintain constant contact with the base, Sollux and Karkat had at least been able to keep track of their movements and make sure they were alright. But without any kind of link they were essentially travelling blind—and you were left waiting for word you knew would never come, because they couldn’t tell you they were still alive just the same as they couldn’t call for help when things went wrong. Days after their planned return, they'd shown up at the south perimeter border bloodied, bruised, and exhausted. Scraped up, but not suffering from much more than a few minor injuries and dehydration. That is, with one notable exception.

A knock on your doorframe cuts off whatever snarky retort Eridan had started to bite back at you, and you hear Cronus drawl out a lazy, "Hey, scooch! Hav-ven't seen you up and about lately," from the chair he’s sprawled across.

Like Kankri and Karkat, the Ampora siblings don't share the same family resemblance they might have before you found them. Eridan’s Infection didn’t change a thing about their relationship, though—according to Feferi, it’s just as painfully antagonistic as it’s always been. Really, you're not even really sure why Cronus has decided to crash in your office for his brother's physical. He works with your sister and Rose as a member of the general care squad, so the kind of danger Eridan and the others who make rounds on security and off-base missions have to stay prepared for doesn’t really apply to him. He hasn’t driven you up the wall yet, though, so you’ve just been ignoring him, hoping he’ll get bored and leave. You don’t really have the energy to kick him out, anyway.

You toss the blood pressure band back onto the rack and scoot your chair around to see what the sudden commotion is all about, and then you’re on your feet in a second. "Rufioh! You're supposed to be resting."

The young would-be Native American waves some paper in your direction and shakes his head, "Nah, Doc—I'm feeling fine. It's a nice day, and I asked your doll of a cousin if there was anything I could do to help out since you won't clear me for field work this go-around."

You run both hands under your glasses and make your way over to where he’s standing, ignoring Cronus’s snort in the background. Tavros’s cousin is a full head taller than you, but he has the sense to look sheepish when you stare him down. "First off, it's forty-two degrees outside. It's not snowing, yeah, but that's not exactly a desert summer. Secondly, the reason I didn't—and won't—let Jade take you out with the team is because you're still adjusting, whether you'll admit it or not."

"Geez, doesn't feel that cold outside. You sure?"

"No, I'm totally fucking with you for my own sick sense of entertainment," you can't help but deadpan, and Cronus actually starts laughing. Harsh. Maybe you've been talking with Dave too much.

Before Rufioh can reply, though, there's an over-dramatic sigh from somewhere behind you, and Eridan whines, "Can I go now-w?" in a way that might give a poor passerby the impression you’ve been holding him captive in some underground dungeon. Or that he’s actually a toddler. Either comparison works, you decide.

"I still have to check your vision. Glasses are hard to come by, so if you mess up your eyes I'm putting you back on general care with your brother," you say without turning around, and he groans. Rufioh hasn't moved, so you raise your eyebrows at him and try to bring the conversation back to the matter at hand. God, there are too many people in your office. "The fact that you're getting used to your body's new resistance to cooler temperatures is a good thing, but you need to be more self-aware. There's a lot of stuff you'll have to start readjusting your habits to deal with—which is something we've talked about, so I'm not really sure why we're still having this conversation."

"Come on, Doc. It's been, like, a month. I'm fine."

"It's barely been three weeks. And, no. We're not having this stupid debate again. Doctor's orders, blah, blah, blah. I've dealt with this before, so I know it takes more than a few days to get used to the internal and external changes that come post-Infection. The important thing is that you're alive, so until you've got an okay from everyone who's supposed to be keeping an eye on you, I'm not sending you out. Now, I'm pretty sure you didn't just come to complain about that, 'cause if you did I'm definitely going to throw you out."

He rolls his shoulders, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he shuffles the papers in his hands around a bit. "Yeah, yeah—okay. Jade just wanted me to let you know how they're doing so you can start re-stocking the med kit when you're ready. Pretty much everyone's packed, but they're all still over in the Cabinet working out last-minute stuff."

"What did they decide to do about the comm. equipment? Sollux never did figure out why it kept jamming."

"I'm still conv-vinced it was those guys they're going to get," Cronus breaks in, and you shake your head, turning back around to where he's now completely draped over not one but two perfectly good pieces of furniture made for sitting. "Think about it—the problems didn't start up until you all started talking to them."

"Get your feet off my table. And we already ruled that out, like, a hundred years ago. The first blip came before Dave and his group ever found their hub. It's just weird that whatever was affecting your signal didn't hit theirs."

Rufioh shrugs. "Whatever happened to screw us over, Jade decided to take some kind of new pack with them—something the geek squad has been working on since we got back. I don't know too much about it. Not my thing."

"Whatever they think will work. Now, as great as it's been to see your shining face in my territory, I really do have work to do. Are those the supply lists?" he nods and hands over what he’s holding. "Thanks. Tell them I'll take a look once I finish this. Go see your cousin first, though. He's in the infirmary, and he'll probably want to know you're up and about."

"Aw, come on. The kid's just going to lecture me worse than you've been doing."

"He's your family, and he's worried about you. Go talk to him, or I'll just call him down. And none of us here really want to get in the middle of whatever drama you two are going to start throwing out."

“But—“

Go.”

When you finally get Rufioh out the door and heading upstairs to where Tavros is tending to your other patients, Cronus's boots are back on your table, but he's got the chair leaned back and his eyes closed so you just sort of kick the back legs out and send him sprawling onto the floor on your way back to where Eridan is still sulking. You make a point of getting through the rest of his physical quickly, before you usher both of them on their way, too. There's a moment of quiet peace now that you’re finally alone, so you take a minute to spin around in your really intense, holy-shit-it’s-so-plush swivel chair to clear your head before settling in to look over the records Rufioh dropped off. You've got a bit of time before your next would-be patient wanders by—or you have to go looking for him, whichever comes first—so you decide to get through what you can while you wait.

Without the constant flow of people moving through your lab to distract you, though, your thoughts start to stray a bit, and you can’t help but wonder how Dave and his friends are doing. You feel guilty for blocking him. You really do. He'd been nothing but nice—in his own weird, roundabout way—but you'd been upset and he'd been the only one there at the time to take the brunt of your frustration. It doesn't take long for you to figure out that you won't be able to focus if you don't clear things up at least a little, so you shuffle through the clutter on your desk for your phone and hope he's online.

— ectoBiologist [EB] unblocked turntechGodhead [TG] —

— ectoBiologist [EB] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] at 18:28 —

EB: hey, dave!

EB: look, i'm really sorry about yesterday. there is kind of a lot going on here and i took it out on you, and that was really not cool.

EB: i know you're probably mad at me, but i just wanted to let you know.

EB: yeah.

EB: i hope things aren’t too boring out in middle of wherever. it'll be pretty cool to hang out with your ugly face when you finally get here.

EB: assuming you still want to talk to me, i don't know.

EB: it's been kind of a long time, so i don't think you're going to respond. that's okay though. see you later, i guess.

— ectoBiologist [EB] ceased pestering turntechGodhead [TG] at 18:41 —

You're more than a little disappointed that you don’t actually get to talk with him, but you figure he's either upset with you or busy. Although you really hope it's the latter.

Your friendship was kind of unexpected, and you’re honestly still surprised at how quickly the two of you clicked. You've never really had a friend quite like him before, and even though you'll die before you admit it to his face—he doesn't need the ego boost, you're sure—you actually do think he's pretty cool. Dave is everything you had wished you were when you were a kid—smooth, talented, creative, funny, and undeniably badass. Now, you know you wouldn't fit well into that persona, but you still wonder what life would have been like if things had been different. You're happy you met him, though, in a weird roundabout kind of way. Somehow, he doesn’t quite seem to fit in the world you’ve wrapped yourself in since the Vaccination, and the change is… nice. You make a mental note to thank Roxy for convincing you to message him.

Now, disappointed and tired, you set your phone aside and start plowing through the lists in as much of a whirlwind you can muster. You’re so wrapped up organizing and reorganizing, making notes to yourself about what you'll need to supplement their packs with and jotting down instructions for Jane and Rose when they start loading up food, that you barely notice when the sun starts setting. Rufioh comes down eventually, and waves a quick goodbye through your doorway before he heads back out to help the others. You can't help but wonder what Tavros had to say to him, but he doesn’t seem too happy so you don’t push the issue.

When your phone finally does buzz again, you don't answer right away. You figure it's one of the team members over in the Cabinet asking if you've finished going over the records—but when you finally do glance at the screen, your heart stops beating and fuck.

— turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 21:01 —

TG: hepl goy hit in a deas zone probbbbb

TG: gonna be dea dsonn

TG: tz hurt

TG: evryom went to th cituy for shelte

TG: find them

TG: not sute ho mnay stil on ther tail

TG: save tem

TG: sav di

TG: sa dirk

TG: fimf dirk

EB: dave! dave, what happened?

TG: city

TG: hep them

EB: we're coming, dave.

EB: just hang on, okay?

EB: don't fucking die, dave. you're going to be fine.

TG: fidn dilkkkkkkk

— turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 21:21 —

You stare at your phone for a full minute before you realize no you don't have time, and you're on your feet before your brain registers what your body is doing. The chair rolls out behind you at the movement and you stumble, tripping, but you don’t even notice it because you're already one step ahead, too busy sprinting, sprinting, sprinting across the cold ground all the way to the Cabinet—what you’ve taken to calling the old arts college. Now, its rooms have been cleared out and the whole thing turned into a supply storage building for everything you need to stay alive. Food, water, commodities—and the armory is there, too.

You burst through the door and shout for your cousins, Karkat, anyone—because you're not sure where they are, and it’ll take too long to check each cell.

"John, what the hell is going on?" Jade calls from somewhere down the hall, and you turn on your heel into the ammunition storage locker, chest heaving and out of breath.

"I'm calling a code orange," you practically yell, and only when a box of buckshot shells hits the ground with a clinking bang do you realize there are other people in the room, too. Jake, Horuss—Equius's cousin and a member of your own camp—and Rufioh are all staring at you like you've grown a second head, but Jade immediately takes charge of the situation.

"They've been ambushed?" she says, and you know you've got her full attention when her tone goes all stern like that. When you were kids, you never would have guessed that someday she would be capable of keeping her head under pressure, but after Grandpa Harley died she was forced to step up and take on the duties he'd left in her care. You've always admired her for that.

"I don't know what happened—I just got a message from Dave that something went down, and he's not doing well. I don't think he's with the others, but—shit, Jade."

"If you're calling a code orange, call a code orange. I'll meet you in the conference room in less than ten." You nod, but you don't know if she sees because she's already turning back around to talk to the others. Everything feels like it’s moving too fast and too slow all at once, but by the time you make it to the library you've let yourself slip into the familiar detachment of a doctor in surgery. Leader-mode, Roxy’s told you on more than one occasion. You just call it surviving.

Sollux and Equius are in the tech lab—you can hear them yelling at each other from the entranceway—but the minute you enter and they see your face, they drop dead silent. "Sollux, open up the emergency thread and get everyone here, now."

He doesn't question it, and immediately starts typing away at his own desktop setup. Equius blinks at you, asks if everything is alright, and you want to snap in his face because no, clearly everything is not alright. Instead, though, you ask him if he knows where Karkat is, and he tells you that Nepeta came to get him a while back. Before you get the chance to say anything else, both of your phones buzz and the emergency chat board opens up on your screens. You don't bother sitting down—you don't think you could stay still—so you just start pacing.

"Are you going to tell uth what'th going on?" Sollux asks, bouncing in his chair.

"Can you trace the last spot Dave’s router checked in?"

"Yeah, thure. But what'th happening?"

"Just do it, Sollux."

The television screen lights up and you see the location pinpointed on the map. It's near the base of Wyoming, just outside this tiny little city that looks smaller than the neighborhood you grew up in—and you decide that's it. That's the place Dave must have been referring to. But—God—it’s still so far away.

Soon, other members of the main teams start racing in, demanding to know what's happening while you tell them sit down and wait, because you’re only going to explain it once. You don't even really have a clear picture of it all, either—you're just speculating. The only thing you are sure of is that you need to get there—to that little dot on the map—as quickly as possible. Because Dave and the others could be dead now. Right now. While you're just circling a cramped conference of worried faces.

Karkat and Nepeta are the last to enter, but when your best friend starts yelling and getting everyone riled up you know it's time to take control. So you slam both hands on the table and tell him to shut up, please. And he does.

"Twenty minutes ago, Dave sent me a couple of jumbled messages asking for help. He wasn't making much sense, but from what I picked up their group must have made their way into a dead zone."

Sollux pipes up at that. "The latht I heard from him, they were thetting up camp for the night tho they could head to town in the morning for thupplieth."

"So they must have camped in the dead zone."

You hear Nepeta let out a little pitiful whining noise, and suddenly you think you'd like to make a sound like that, too. Because oh, God, camping in a dead zone— "But that's, like, suicide!" She says frantically, and you nod.

"From what I could gather, Dave is separated from the rest of his group, and Terezi is injured. I don't know what condition the others are in, but if they were ambushed by a pack on the hunt we know things can't be good," you say, and you have to clear your throat a bit before you get out the next part. Shit. Shit. "And I don't think Dave is doing well. At all."

Karkat growls from his seat, and you suddenly feel like you need to glare right back. "And what do you expect us to do about it? It'll take weeks to get there. By then, they could be—"

"Don't you fucking dare say it, Karkat. These are our friends."

"I know they're our friends, dumbass. You don’t think I care? I'm just trying to put things into a rational perspective."

"We’ll go tonight," Jade breaks in. "We're not leaving them behind, so at the very least we have to get as much ahead of everything as we can."

"And how the hell do you expect to get there in time?"

You run a hand through your hair, and cut in before your cousin can answer—because everyone is going to start shouting in a second, you just know it. "We'll take the trucks."

There's a pause as you let that sink in, and slowly a few heads slowly start to bob up and down in agreement. On base, you have six working vehicles, only for use in extreme emergencies. Cars are big, bulky, loud, and hard to maintain on the run—especially with the fuel shortage—but on wheels you can cut down three weeks worth of walking time to just a few hours. It's risky—if something happens, you'll be stranded out there in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of injured people and a roaring beacon blaring out your location to every Infected for miles—but it's your best bet.

"Yeah, okay—okay, that could work," Karkat nods, sitting back, but before you can say anything Jade starts waving her arms around.

"What do you mean we, John? You're not coming with us—you can't. That was the deal. No off-site missions because you need to keep things running here."

"I am, Jade. You're going to need me, and you're going to need Tavros, too. There are five people out there, two of which we know are seriously injured, and I'm not about to jump to the conclusion that the others aren't hurt, too. Karkat can handle what needs to be done here, so I am going with you."

"No, John."

Your sister, who's been sitting quietly beside Jake, finally speaks up. "I'm with Jade on this one, John—please. You haven’t been out in the field in ages."

"They're my friends, Jane. I'm not leaving them behind—and Dirk is your friend, too. What if something happened to him?" She pauses then, and glares at you. Everyone's glaring at everyone, now.

"We do not have time to claw at each other's throats if the situation is as dire as you make it out to be," Rose sits forward, placing both hands on the table. "John is our leader, and if he pulls rank and demands to go we can do nothing but trust his judgment. For now, it would be best if we gathered the team together. If you really are leaving tonight, I suggest you do it quickly." Her tone leaves no room for argument, and you shoot down anyone who tries with counter-points of your own.

Soon, things are back to working like the well-oiled machine they need to be, the rest of the evening passes in a blur of movement and motion. A four-door and a pickup are pulled from the tiny, six-vehicle fleet you've used less times than you can count on two hands, and Equius starts checking them over for travel. Everyone else splits up to regroup and reorganize, and you head back to the infirmary.

After explaining the situation to Tavros, your little assistant freaks out but agrees to help. Like all refugees, he's been trained to work with a weapon and defend himself, but you don't think he's ever actually been out on a mission before. He's determined to help, though, so the two of you set to work sorting out what you'll need for every possible scenario you might run into. You quiz him as you go along, asking him about what to do in different situations and how to approach certain split-second problems, and he passes with flying colors just like you knew he would. By the time the two of you are packed, you call Kankri in and brief him on what he'll need to keep in mind while you're away. He'll take charge of the patients in your place, and though you doubt you'll be gone for more than a day you’ve learned that it always pays to be prepared.

It's just before midnight when you all meet back at the trucks to leave, last-minute supplies and weapons in hand. Equius has his head buried under the hood of a rugged-looking SUV, and you can see Horuss helping Eridan load cases of water into the back. Tavros stands awkwardly off to the side, looking nervous with both arms wrapped around the medical bag you helped him prepare, so you wave a little in his direction to catch his attention. He flashes you a shaky, determined smile, and you know he’s going to be fine.

Meanwhile, Jake and Jade are just about at each other’s throats with your sister between them, trying in vain to moderate an argument that might soon come to blows. Earlier, Jade had refused to let him go on the grounds that he was needed to stay in charge of things on-base as usual, but Jake isn’t have any of that for the same reason you're refusing to be left behind. He’s become good friends with Dave’s little brother, you know, so you understand where his frustration is coming from.

In an effort to diffuse the ticking time-bomb of a Harley-English fallout, you step over and put a hand on your cousin’s shoulder. "Jake, please—we'll need you to be ready for us when we get back. You're a heavy fighter, but that's the kind of person we need backing the base while we're not here."

"I know,” he seethes, and now he’s staring blades at you, too. "That's the same devilfucking rubbish I've been fed every single time some mess happens that I'm not allowed to be a part of."

"It's a compliment. We're relying on you to watch our backs."

"The world isn't going to bite the bullet in a day! People here are capable enough to run through security cycles on their own without me nannying their goings-on."

"The world used to be a lot larger, Jake. Nowadays, it's plenty possible this whole system we've got going could collapse in a day. See how fast this whole thing happened? Three hours ago, we thought nothing could go wrong."

"That's exactly why—"

"You're staying."

A car door slams, and before your cousin can argue with you any more a snarky voice yells over to you from where the two vehicles are parked. "Hey, fearless leader—we're all set and ready to go once the meathead gives us the all-clear. You in?" Meenah, Feferi's older sister and member of your camp—much like the Amporas—hops down from the pickup’s bed. She's adjusting the straps on her gloves, so you know she's starting to get impatient. She never really connected with any of the Approachers in Dave's group, but the tense atmosphere is enough to put anyone on edge.

"Yeah, I'm coming," you call back, and give one last pat on Jake's shoulder before you head over to where the tan-skinned young woman is watching you, arms crossed. As quickly as you can, you strap your duffle down between an extra fuel canister and what looks like a case of Jade's M1 ammo. Your sledgehammer will stay inside the car with you, ready at hand in case something happens.

You're just hopping back down to the ground when you hear a very distinct voice yell, "Nepeta, wait!" and look up in time to see Karkat falling behind his girlfriend as she sprints down the hill to where you’ve all gathered.

"Don't tell me what to do!"

"I'm not—just—ugh," he throws his hands in the air just as the Nepeta skids to a stop by her best friend, nearly ramming into his side in the process. Equius, startled and still half-buried in engine parts, smacks the back of his head on the overhanging car hood and nearly drops whatever he had been working on.

"Oh, for Pete's sake, Nepeta—what are you doing here?" He huffs, standing up stiffly in some kind of horrible effort to make it look like nothing happened. Smooth.

She beams, bouncing on the balls of her feet and on the straps of her backpack. "I'm helping!"

Karkat shuffles up, then, and you can see how tense he looks, shoulders hunched with both hands shoved back in his pockets. "This is fucking ridiculous. We'd already made a deal that you weren't taking the next mission—you fucking promised."

"Circumstances changed, Karkitty," she bites back. "I’m no good to anyone here."

"So we're sending off the backbones of this whole goddamn organization on a spur-of-the-moment honkbeast-chase in the middle of the night? What happened to the fucking system?"

Meenah groans, and soon both of you have been roped into yet another argument about what feels like the same thing, over and over. "Chill your tiny tits, shouty. We'll be gone twenty-four hours tops if everythin' goes well—which it will—so you ain't got nothin' to worry about. Hell, I bet most people here won't even realize doctor-boy and his cousin and whoever else are gone."

You nudge her shoulder and scowl. "You make it sound like we're the only ones going."

"I believe the point Miss Peixes is trying to make is that those of us who run the highest chance of a noticed absence will likely leave and return undetected," Horuss breaks in as he approaches, and Nepeta nods. "Therefore the risks involved in the decisions of who stays and who goes are significantly less than if the journey were to take the several weeks we had initially anticipated."

At that, Jake and Jade start glaring at each other again, and you want to smack everyone upside their heads because you’re sick of these looping arguments. You just want to leave. Time is ticking away while you stand around picking at each other, so you sigh and end whatever fight is about to happen before it even starts. "Alright, then. We'll split up into two teams, as planned. The pickup is a two-seater, so Meenah and I will take that and whatever supplies we need to shuffle around to make room for Nepeta with the rest of you." You get hugged from the side at that, and you ruffle Nepeta’s hair for a split-second as you wave your other hand at the others. "Come on, guys. If we're going, we need to go."

Twenty minutes later, last-minute goodbyes have been exchanged and everyone is strapped in for the trip. Both of your groups have a wireless hub to keep in contact along the way, so Sollux will be your acting guidance system on the road. But no matter how many non-existent speed laws you break, once you're on the highway you're trapped with nothing to do but stare out at the darkened Washington scenery. Meenah insists on taking the first shift, so you’re left feeling helpless the passenger seat. The first hour passes with you staring blankly at your cell phone screen, trying to will back online the five screen names that’ve been blacked out for too long.


You only stop once along the way to refuel and switch drivers, but by the time you pull onto the highway just a few miles north of where you need to be it's already mid-afternoon. All in all, you manage to shave five and a half hours off what should have been an eighteen-hour trip by never dipping below ninety miles-per-hour, but that's still thirteen hours on the road. You don't know how bad your friends' injuries are, but any time spent in transit is another second you’re not doing your job—keeping the people you care about alive. Numbers run through your head before you can stop them: how long it takes for a human body to bleed out, how long it takes for Infection to set in, hemorrhaging, exhaustion, and a host of other things you wish you could just wipe from your brain.

When you finally enter the city, one of the first things you notice is how pristine most of the buildings are—like they've never been touched. There are a few broken windows and smashed-in doors, but the damage nothing like what you've grown used to seeing in places like Seattle. That, of course, could mean one of two things—either the town was evacuated, or completely consumed before help could arrive. With the sun still so high in the sky, though, it's hard to tell whether the place is empty or the population of whatever’s left is lying in wait. The place itself isn't large, but you have no idea where the others could be holed up in hiding. That leaves you with a lot of ground to cover.

The first Infected spots you before you even realize it's nearby, and that’s how you know something’s wrong. One minute you're driving along, trying your best to peer through windows and check for fresh blood trails that might lead you to your friends—and the next, there's something attached to the passenger side, clawing at the glass. Meenah doesn't miss a beat, and she swings the door open while you're still in motion, knocking it to the ground just in time for the truck's back wheels to roll over its lower half. You know that won't do much other than slow it down, but the whole thing enough to get your attention. You're not alone.

You get Meenah to send a message to the others in the SUV just in time for three more monsters to appear, sprinting alongside the truck, attracted by either the sounds of the engine or the thing you just ran over. You plow forward, not pausing because you know the minute you do you're screwed—you’ll be sitting ducks trapped in a metal cage.

"We need to find them soon," you say, and it occurs to you then that your hands are white-knuckled on the steering wheel, but you can't relax. "If there are so many around this early, there's no telling what's found them by now. Especially if they came after dark." Meenah hums at you, eyes fixed out the window as you speed through neighborhoods and past shopping centers. At the rate you're moving to outrun what's behind you, searching carefully is almost impossible. "Any word from the others?"

"Sweat-face said they weren't seein' what we're seein', but I'm thinkin' it's only a matter of time. There's no way this many freaks are out and they missed it."

"That doesn't make any sen—" suddenly, the car lurches as something hits you from behind, and you slam the breaks as a reflex. The sudden stop sends a grey body crashing across the truck bed into the back windshield, and before you can even think about the damage it might have caused it's crawling over the roof, clawing at the front pane and blocking your view of the street. You throw the vehicle in reverse and hit the gas hard, and in seconds it’s scrambling to get a grip on the slick metal hood.

"Where the hell did you get your license?" Meenah screeches as you put the car back in drive and speed forward again, rolling over the creature now struggling to get up in the middle of the road.

"They didn't really cover apocalyptic scenarios in Driver's Ed, sorry."

"Yeah, yeah; some excuse that i—oi!" You swerve to turn a sharp left but suddenly you're hitting the breaks again because holy fucking shit.

The entire street is blocked off, jam-packed with Infected spilling across the pavement and climbing buildings, clawing and biting and slashing at one another just to get closer to whatever it is the commotion is all about. They're swarming, you realize—but not at you, although you do suddenly become the target of more interest than you'd like the minute they start noticing you’re nearby. "There's no way that's normal." Against your better judgment, you put the car in park, and hope the glass windows and metal frame of the truck hold up against the dozen or so creatures now sprinting your way. But you can't plow through this—there are too many—and if you try to run you'll just end up leading a wild goose chase around town until you run out of fuel. You’re trapped.

"No shit, Sherlock. Somethin's goin' down."

"You think it's them?" But even as you say it, you're already scrambling for your phone. At the very least, you have to warn the others, and you can't help but hope there's a slim chance the hub in your car will pick up anyone else who's nearby. The truck rocks again, and wow. Wow. Shit. You’re pretty much surrounded.

Meenah fidgets, glancing out the back window again. "They're gonna start rippin' into our supplies soon if we don't do somethin'."

"I know, I know—just give me two minutes."

Another shake.

"We might not have two minutes."

You don't respond, because you're too busy tapping out a message to Nepeta about the mess. You have two options—get the hell out of dodge and risk losing your friends because you won't be able to stop with this many Infected on your tail; or stay and fight. Neither option seems particularly pleasant or practical, but you know the other group is going to vouch for option t—

Suddenly, your phone beeps, and a new chat window pops up. And you want to shout and laugh because yes, yes, yes someone else is nearby. They’re here. They’re alive.

— arachnidsGrip [AG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 15:54 —

AG: Hey, John!

AG: I just wanted to let you know that we probably won't 8e seeing each other.

AG: Some stuff came up and I think we're all pro8a8ly going to die soon.

AG: 8ut that's okay! It was pretty cool to talk to someone who isn't a total loser these past few weeks.

EB: vriska, where are you??

EB: dave told us what happened and we're in the town i think you're in!!!

AG: Oh, man. Oh, shit.

AG: That’s just gr8. Guess I owe Strider for that one, too. He keeps saving our asses even after he's dead.

EB: not the time! where are you so we can make sure you don't actually die?

EB: also dave is not dead, because he's not allowed to be.

AG: Geez, okay!!!!!!!! We're in a gym or something.

EB: laramie middle school gymnasium?

AG: Yeah, that sounds right! How did you know?

"Oh my God, they're inside," you say, and point to the building at the center of the chaos. It’s covered—totally covered.

"Well, guess we don't have much of a choice, then. We gonna wait for backup or we gonna bust in, guns blazin'?"

You bounce in your seat, impatient because you’re so close but totally aware that you’ll get yourselves killed if you head out on your own. "We'll be able to actually help if the others are here, which they should be soon. Try to get in touch with someone to tell them what's going on—I think I left Nepeta hanging without an answer."

"You got it, fearless leader."

"Don't call me that."

EB: i'm right outside, i think. but i can't come in.

EB: you're in a pretty bad spot.

AG: You don't think I don't know that?

AG: Get your ass in here as soon as you can, John! You are a doctor and we need a doctor!!!!!!!!

EB: who else is hurt?? dave mentioned something about terezi.

AG: Pyrope hasn't moved since we got here, and the mini Strider went down a couple of hours ago 8ecause he was stupid enough to get himself hurt without telling us.

AG: I don't know how much time we have left 8efore Pyrope wakes up and kills us all, though.

A car horn blares, and you look up in time to see a familiar black SUV careening your way from the other side of the street. Infected scatter, some heading for the car while others scramble away, back toward the middle school. Most have moved away from the entrance, now, and they're focused on the eight of you. Good.

EB: we're coming.

— ectoBiologist [EB] ceased pestering arachnidsGrip [AG] at 16:09 —

The car pulls up beside you to a screeching halt, and you can see your cousin behind the wheel. Nepeta starts motioning to you through the passenger side window, but Meenah is already one step ahead of you, rechecking her weapon straps and preparing for some kind of grand entrance into battle. Your sledgehammer is at her feet, but she can't lift it high enough to hand it to you so you reach over and maneuver it, yourself. With one hand. You think you hear her mutter something about Donkey Kong under her breath, but you aren't really paying attention.

There's another flurry of motion through the glass, and you sign back as much as you can. "You ready?" you ask your partner, and she grins in a way that would be mildly unsettling in any other situation.

"Let's go kick some ass."

Moments later, all four doors on the SUV fly open, and blood starts spattering through the air like a sick sprinkler's trail.


You don't have time for much more than a few shouted greetings before the handle of your hammer is cracking against the skull of a monster coming at you from the left. It goes down with a hard thud, but you don't have time to appreciate your first field kill in over a year because before you can blink two more appear in your line of sight. Gunfire starts up almost immediately, and you see Eridan and Jade clambering onto the roof of your truck for a better vantage point and access to extra ammunition. They take out six more.

Swing, crunch.

Another one falls at your feet, but you're long gone by the time it hits the pavement, already running back toward the truck for your bag.

"Cover me! I have to get inside!" you yell to no one in particular, and you spot Tavros just in time to see him impale a grey body through the neck with his short-handled spear. Good, you think—he's holding his own. But you'll need him, too. "Tav!"

You don't even bother unhooking the straps tying your duffle to the truck bed—you just yank them out and keep moving. But the action leaves you with one hand on your hammer; for less than a second, you're defenseless, and that's all the time the creatures around you need. You're stationary, and suddenly three Infected are right there at your back.

They go down in a hail of bullets and arrows.

"Don't just stand there, dumbass! Go!" Jade calls from above, and rather than respond you just start running. Horuss falls in step beside you, crossbow clearing your path, and you hear him call out to Tavros just as you approach the main body of the swarm. They're still blocking your path to the door, so you focus on taking out as many as you can before setting your sights on the last barrier between you and your friends. Readjusting your bag so you've got two hands back on your hammer, you set to work. Meenah and Nepeta dive into the chaos not long after, one bashing heads in with a metal bo staff and the other hard at work shredding everything nearby with a set of knives sewn into her gloves. You don't know how much longer you fight, but soon the five of you have a sizable pile of blood and flesh and limbs under your feet, and the uneven ground makes steady footing a tricky thing to keep.

In the surge of panic, most of Infected have moved away from the double doors—now scratched and bent and dented—so you seize the opportunity and call for cover a second time, knocking out two monsters still in your way. Then you swing, swing, swing against the metal, pounding your sledgehammer into with everything you've got until your arms burn and you think you might have given yourself a stress fracture in your wrist. But you don't stop. You don't stop 'til the metal bends and the hinges crack open enough for you to slip inside. Tavros is on your heels before you have the chance to yell for him, and just as he ducks in behind you slam all of your weight back against the door to seal the twisted slab shut as best you can.

"Holy motherfuckin' shit," someone calls, and then a second voice starts yelling your name.

The room is massive and pristine, like it hasn't been touched in years, and the rainbow-paint-dotted linoleum flooring is lined with collapsible bleachers, racks of sports equipment, and stacks of foam exercise padding. Off in one corner, there's the glass face of what must be some kind of office, and standing directly outside the door is a tall, lanky young man with wild hair and a neon juggling club in each hand. He's poised for defense, but as soon as a blonde woman starts shoving him out of the doorway he sways to the side and steps away.

"John, is that you?" she calls, and that gets your feet moving again.

"Vriska? Oh my God, are you guys okay?"

"No, we just—" suddenly, a snarl you're all too familiar with erupts from the office, and Vriska starts cursing up a storm because, "Oh my God, she's awake. She's awake."

You’re surprised to find you aren’t as freaked out as you thought you would be—but then it occurs to you that you’ve dealt with this a hundred times before. So you just move.

You sprint into the office just as the wooden splinters of what once might have been a desk start flying your way. You duck, pulling Tavros down with you, but you've barely caught your bearings before something tackles you from the front, growling and hissing. She goes for your neck, but you're quick to pin her arms and flip her under you—because she's weak, body still fighting a battle in her brain and blood.

Back when you'd first started talking to Dave and the others, you'd made sure to record all the medical information they’d been willing to give you, just in case something went wrong. Something like this. So you don't hesitate to start barking orders at Tavros, telling him to prep a transfusion bag. A sedative isn’t something you’re about to waste your time with because anything you pump into her system now will just pour out when you bleed her, so you settle in to keep her down with brute force.

"How are you going to—we don't even know if we have a match!" Tavros frets, but he keeps moving.

"Yeah, we do." You nod your head toward Vriska, who's now watching the two of you work from the doorway with the man you can only assume is Gamzee at her side, and she tugs at her hair as you start explaining the situation to her. She agrees faster than you thought she would, and soon Tavros is tying off her arm as you struggle to keep the fighting Terezi trapped under you. She’s not strong, but she’s small and sharp—and you don’t want to hurt her more than she’s already hurting herself.

An eternity passes before she stops thrashing enough for you to climb off her, and you let Gamzee take over holding her down. Your priorities shift, because you’ve yet to even see Dirk. Glancing at your phone, you take note of the fact that you've already been inside the building for over an hour, and you wonder if the others are alright, too. And oh, God—Dave. He’s still somewhere out there.

When you ask, Vriska half-hazardly points you to the back of the office, and you crawl over the splintered desk to see two stacks of foam mats propped up like beds tucked against one of the walls. You figure Terezi had been on one of them before her outburst, because the foam is shredded and soaked black. But there's still a boy lying flat in the second, and he isn't at all what you were expecting.

Given the amount of time since his exposure to the Infection, you should be staring face-to-face with grey skin and dark hair and convulsions and everything that isn't in front of you but is behind you. Immediately, you start to panic—because the only things that don't turn after exposure are corpses. But his chest is heaving. It's heaving and his heart is racing and he's sweating and shivering and holy shit his fever must be at least a hundred at three. Probably higher.

"Vriska!" you call, pulling off your blood-soaked gloves and tugging at his clothes, trying to find the injuries staining his white shirt red. "When did Dirk collapse?"

After a moment Gamzee answers instead, so you figure she must have passed out. Shit. "The little dude keeled over just after we locked our good selves in this motherfuckin' safe house, before the sun started speakin' miracles to us from the horizon." There's a wrap of what looks like gauze from a first aid kid pulled tight over Dirk's chest, and it doesn't take you long to figure out that the wound you're looking for is on his back. Carefully, you lift him up, turning him over so you can have better access to the problem, and it takes you a second to realize Gamzee is still speaking. "We thought he was just worn out from the whole trip and everythin', 'cause he didn't start shadowing over like our blind sister. But he ain't supposed to be motherfuckin' lookin' like that, so I think there might be somethin' else wrong underneath that skin of his."

You start carefully cutting the bandages away, trying to be as gentle as you can because the pressure of lying on his back fused the fabric to his clotting blood. Which could cause problems down the line. Compared to what you’ve seen in the past, though, he looks almost… normal. "What do you mean?"

"Well, for one thing, mini-Strider had them choco-eyes yesterday, but that ain't so much the case anymore." You aren't sure what he's getting at, so you focus on the task at hand and set to work disinfecting the claw marks you can now see scraped across the kid's back. He whines as alcohol and blood drip down around him, but he doesn't wake up. There isn't any black that you can see—not aside from the mess pooled all around you from what has to have been Terezi—so you kick yourself for jumping to conclusions and set to work.

Halfway through stitching him up, the thunder pounding footsteps slams into your ears, and immediately you see Gamzee get to his feet by the door. Your hammer is nearby enough that you can reach it if you need to, but Terezi and Vriska and Tavros are still too close to the office entrance to—

"Guys!"

"Jade!" Your cousin bursts into the room just as Gamzee stumbles out of the way, followed closely by Meenah and Eridan. "What happened? Is everyone alright?" you call, stretching to see over the debris.

She's out of breath, but her semi-automatic is strapped to her back and not in her hands. You take that as a good sign. "We're doing fine, what about—Oh my God, is she okay?"

Tavros speaks up in reply, because you can’t really tell if she’s talking about Terezi or Vriska—or both. "Yeah, they'll be fine. We kind of got lucky in coming when we did, which is good, so I think everyone is going to make it out of this alive."

"What about Dirk?"

"He's stable," you call back, but with the relief of a closing fight and safe companions comes a second wave of worry. Because there’s still one more person you have to find. "Tav, when you’re done, give me a hand over here." Things must be going better than you’d hoped, because within seconds he's at your side. Carefully, you hand him the needle still tugging at the skin on Dirk’s back. "Once you get him finished up, start giving him low doses of crushed ibuprofen every four hours to keep his fever down. Keep him steady, don't pull on his stitches. I know you've done this before."

He nods stiffly and sets to work as you stand and start stuffing things back in your duffle, slipping your gloves back along the way. Tavros has his own supplies with him, so you replace what you used from your own bag with pieces of his as the others watch on. Terezi and Vriska are side-by-side on the floor, both unconscious but calm, and you know things will work out alright on this end.

Just before you head back out to the door, you tell Jade to move them to the SUV when she thinks is safe, and motion for Meenah to follow. Eridan is the only one that questions it. "And w-where are you goin'?"

"We still need to find Dave. Sollux gave us his last location, and I'm not leaving him out there by himself."

"He's probably dead, you know-w."

You glare at him hard through your glasses, "I'm gonna be the one who decides that."


Once outside, you see that the fight is almost entirely one-sided. Nepeta, Equius, and Horuss are making quick work of the Infected left standing, so you spare one last wave in their direction and make a beeline back for the truck. Minutes later, you're peeling through town as Meenah barks directions to you, leaving the city for the highway. According to Sollux, the wireless router Dave kept with their supplies is still broadcasting from just a few miles outside the border, so it takes you less time than you thought to pull up as close to the signal as the road will allow. The keys are barely out of the ignition before you're scrambling out of the driver’s seat, bag on your shoulder.

"Hold up, kid! This was a dead zone last night—there's no tellin' what's left in there," Meenah clambers around to you, weapons already in hand like she's prepared for a fight.

"It's early enough in the afternoon that whatever might have been out has moved on—“

“Were you even payin’ attention back there? Theory disproven.”

“—and if there are things still crawling through the woods, we're just wasting time better spent helping Dave," you shoot back, and you start pushing through the trees without waiting for an answer. She grumbles something at you but doesn't complain, so you focus on following the directions and block out the world around you. If something happens, she has your back.

Fifteen minutes later, you smell it before you see it. That's how you know you're getting close.

"Holy shit, it's like a fuckin' sewer."

"Whatever bodies are nearby have been sitting out under the sun for almost sixteen hours. Predators or not, there's going to be some early-onset decomposition."

"How the hell are you so calm about all this? It's creepy."

You snort and shake your head, giving her a shaky laugh. Calm? She thinks you’re calm? You’re not sure whether you should be worried or flattered. "I'm used to it, I guess. We had some pretty rough times early on, back before we met Rose."

"Glad I wasn't around for that."

You start to respond, two steps later you're breaking through the trees into a clearing and shit, shit, fuck.

There are bodies and limbs everywhere, hacked up and half-whole and in every kind of horrible shape imaginable, all plastered across the ground like some kind of sick shag carpeting. Everything is grey, black, grey—and immediately your brain goes into overdrive because where is Dave? You scramble forward, picking your way through the mess, searching, searching, searching for something you aren’t even sure how to find. What was he wearing? What did he look like? You have no idea—and for all you know he could be buried seamless underneath your feet, another monstrous face that might have once been human. You trip, stumble, clamber—trying to be careful but racing against the ticking countdown in your head.

And then your heart stops.

Because there’s something crumpled in the sea of monochrome that’s brighter than everything else, a nickel on wet pavement that lights up when a car’s headlights pass. His clothes are soaked black, black, black but his skin is still pale as a ghost, like a beacon you almost miss. Oh, God—it’s so pale. It’s too fucking pale.

"Dave!" you shout, even though you know he can't hear you. There's no way he couldn't have been Infected, covered in so much blood and gore. He should look just like Terezi. Just like the things scattered everywhere around you.

Meenah says something, but you don't hear her because you're too busy kneeling in the mess beside Dave. And oh, God. He's just as torn up as the things underfoot. His clothes and skin are in shreds, and there's a gaping hole in his side that's still soft and damp, shining in the sunlight. The kind of wound people don't get back up from after a few days. His phone is still in his hand, screen cracked and caked and dead. And no, no. This isn't okay. This is why you don't get involved with Approachers. Because you're too fucking soft—you get too attached. And—fuck—you don't want to think about how happy you've been these past few weeks.

It isn't fair. Shit, it isn't fair.

You hear Meenah sigh, then there’s a hand on your shoulder. "Sorry, kid. I know he was your friend."

For a while, you don’t say anything, and she doesn't try to make you talk. You just sit there, watching, and she stands off to the side to give you some space. You're a doctor—you've seen plenty of death and tragedy, but that doesn't change the fact that it hurts.

When your phone finally buzzes—probably the others wondering where you are, if you're alright—you finally sit up and take note of everything in the clearing. You'll have to build a pyre, and the afternoon is ticking away too fast to move Dave's body somewhere else before you burn it. Oh, God—you’ll have to burn it. You tell Meenah as much, and send a message to Tavros asking how everyone is doing. They’re all still unconscious, he says, and you think that's probably for the best. So you tell him to pack up whenever he's ready and head back to base.

After that, you figure you've spent enough time sitting around. Grieving always comes later, when you’re alone at night and you have the time and space and solitude to let your emotions get the better of your head. Dave's body is draped across his group's supplies, so you gently lift him up from underneath, hoping to reach one of the blankets still wrapped up by their bags. A shroud. When your hand comes in contact with something lodged in his back, though, even you can't hold back the exclamation of disgusted surprise. Shit. That had to have been excruciating.

Stepping away from the muck, you lay him in the grass a few feet to the side, and he looks so damn tense and frowning and uneven that it makes your heart kind of hurt for some reason. He must have died in so much pain.

Without thinking, you kneel down next to him again and gently smooth a hand over his face, trying to work out some of the creases there. You'll cover him soon, but you're selfish enough not to want your first and last mental image of him to be so distorted. So horrible. You press on his temples and his cheeks and his forehead, and before you realize that you’re doing your fingers are slipping down to his neck out of habit, and checking for the pulse you know won't be there. You've looked over enough dead bodies to know when someone—

Fuck.

Suddenly, you're forcing your fingers down harder, holding your own breath just in case your head is screwing with you and you’ve gone off fucking deep end. Because there's no way—there's no fucking way he could be alive. There's no fucking way.

But it's there.

Your brain kicks into overdrive, and immediately you start cataloguing the damage to his body. It should be impossible for someone to survive the injuries he has, but that's up to you, now—that's your job. To make sure he does. Because holy shit. He's alive.

When Meenah breaks through the trees sometime later to tell you the pyre's been all set up, she finds you stitching up the wounds on a half-stripped Dave. The hole in his side is the worst of it all, but you do what you can with the resources you have and hope the car ride doesn't jostle the spot open again. Most of the blood flow has stopped, but after sitting out for so long a wound that large is just begging for infection. The normal kind, but still really fucking deadly. You decide to leave the hand lodged in his back for now—you'll have to carefully remove it when you get to base, and you can't risk any more blood loss.

You don't dwell on the fact that he's still half-coated in black, congealed slop, because the important thing is that he isn't dead. Not yet. And you intend to keep him that way.

Chapter Text


[5/24/37]

==> BE THE EXHAUSTED WEAPONS EXPERT

You've walked by these same trees a hundred times, but you never thought driving a route you know that well could be so hard. It's been almost eight hours since you left Laramie, and you've long since passed out of unfamiliar territory. In fact, with each dilapidated mile marker you inch closer and closer to home. But when you're on your feet, you can feel the curve of the ground and navigate through the map of the underbrush. The woodland floor feels like home, but this? Blasting across concrete faster than you can blink? It's unfamiliar after all these years. And boring.

Your name is JADE HARLEY, and you think offering to stay behind the wheel the whole drive back to base was probably the DUMBEST THING EVER, and you're really started to regret it. It's nearly four am, and you haven't slept in something like twenty-four hours. Although you know that's better than most of your team—you were the only one who managed to nap on the drive down, after all—you're still really, really tired.

Now, you're the only one awake in a big black death trap full of exhausted young adults, and the silence isn't helping at all.

In the rear view mirror, you can see Tavros slumped over in the third seat, arm resting on the back windowsill and Dirk's head propped up in his lap. Mini-Strider hasn't woken up once, and any attempts to shuffle him upright into a seat were met with violent protests on the part of your cousin's little apprentice. Bending his back too could pull out the stitches, Tavros had said, so after more arguing than necessary the two of them had staked a claim to the whole row, leaving the rest of your passengers to squeeze in what was already tight spacing.

Horuss and Equius had volunteered to sit in the back with what's left of your supplies, and you can just make out the tops of their heads over the back seats. Nepeta had insisted on curling up with the younger Zahhak, too, and even though you can't see her you know she's just as passed out as everyone else.

Gamzee is wedged long-ways on the floor at Tavros's feet, all crumpled limbs and baggy clothes and messy hair. You think it's probably good that Tavros kept him close by, because John's warnings from weeks ago about withdrawal are still fresh in your mind. You don't know how long it's been since the kid had his last fix, and you aren't sure anyone else would know what to do if something happened.

Vriska and Terezi are in the two seats behind you, both strapped in but still down for the count. Vriska has woken up a few hours into the trip and had a minor panic attack (it was completely understandable, you decided; if you'd been the one to wake up in a moving car surrounded by unfamiliar faces, you'd probably got a little nuts, too) but everything had calmed down after you'd talked everything over. She'd fallen back asleep soon after, completely exhausted and still more than a little woozy.

That had left Eridan up front with you in the passenger seat, and the two of you had bickered like five year olds until Horuss had shouted at you both to shut up because you were giving him more of a headache than he already had. You'd mostly ignored him, though, right up until Meenah had started pestering Nepeta, and you all went quiet as you listened to her read the conversation out loud in real time.

According to Meenah, she and John were fine—there hadn't been anything live left at Dave's last location. The same couldn't be said for Dave himself, though. John had done his best to fix him up on-site, but apparently the older Strider was in bad enough shape that she didn't think he would make it back to base. He was barely hanging on—and barely was apparently something of an overstatement.

You'd all gotten pretty quiet after that, and it was right about then that everyone else had started to doze off.

Now, you're stuck squinting out at the pitch black, uneven roads by yourself as you try to navigate back to the University at a roaring ninety-five miles an hour. You've got two ticks on the gas gauge left before you start running in the red, and no real way to tell how far you have left to go. All you know is that you're heading in the right direction, and that you should be there soon. You're getting down to the wire, and the school's turn-off sign has long-since succumbed to nature. Your makeshift replacement isn't reflective in the least, so you've got no easy way of seeing it in the dark.

After a few moments of deliberation (do you really want to deal with him, or should you just let him sleep?), you reach over and swat in Eridan's general direction. Your hand hits skin, so you think you might have made contact with his face—but you don't have time to enjoy it before he lets out an unnecessarily loud, "Ow-w! W-What the fuckin' hell, Harley?" and you immediately start shushing him. There's no point in dragging the rest of your teammates out of a much-needed rest.

"Shut up," you whisper, glaring at him out of the corner of your eye. You don't think he sees it, but it's the thought that counts. "I need you to do me a favor, okay? And by a favor I mean you have no choice and you actually have to do it without whining like a baby." He snorts and huffs and makes all kinds of indignant noises, but doesn't say anything. Good. You are his boss, after all. "Pull up the map and figure out how close we are."

"You got us lost?"

"No. We're not lost. It's, like, a preemptive prevention step to avoid that thing exactly."

He snorts, but after a few moments of shuffling around and way more grumbling than necessary your unintentional co-pilot eventually gets hold of his phone and pulls Sollux up on the other end. Your wireless hub isn't strong enough to maintain a steady enough signal for the GPS page itself, so you have to go through a middle man to see what's you should be on the lookout for and when. It isn't too bad, though, because you get the information you need and Eridan has someone else to bother for the rest of the trip. He manages to keep quiet without staying totally dead-silent in a car full of sleeping people, and even though you'll never, never, never tell him so you're kind of a little bit grateful.

As it turns out, you're less than an hour away from where you need to be, and in comparison with the last hundred years you've spent on the road the next forty-or-so minutes pass relatively quickly. Sure, you're left alone with your thoughts again, but the fact that there's actually an end in sight helps at least a little. Soon, you're pulling up onto the Skaian University main road, and you bark out a relieved wake-up call to your passengers. You're met with a lot of tired grumbling, but for the most part everyone seems just as happy as you that it's all finally over.

Before the car even stops moving, you see two figures sprint up to the parking lot's edge, one dragging the other helplessly by the arm. You don't have to guess who the first one is—Karkat's ears would have picked up the sound of your car engine before you even left the main road, so you had no doubt he'd be the first of your welcome home party to track you down. Nepeta perks up and scrambles over the Zahhaks as soon as he's in view of the back window, all the while completely ignoring their yelps of protest as she starts pressing her face against the glass. She's still half asleep, but happy to see him nonetheless.

The minute you've got the car stalled, you press the button to open up the back so she can get out without crushing anyone else, and Tavros mouths a relieved thank you in the rearview mirror.

Soon, you're folding yourself out onto the pavement, a little bent over but otherwise relatively balanced. Hiking four dozen miles in a day? No problem. Sitting in the same position for eight hours? A little less exciting—and you think easily three times as painful. It takes you a second to get your bearings, hands steadying yourself on the driver's seat that's nearly to your chest now that you're on the ground, and you're so focused on getting the feeling back into your feet you almost miss the voice calling your name.

When you finally turn around you're met with a face full of Jake, and you barely get the chance to breathe before he's scooping you up in a bone-crushing hug. Ugh, it's so not fair that he's taller than you. He's only sixteen—there should be some kind of natural law against it, even if he is a guy. Stupid Y chromosome. Stupid male hormones.

He's already babbling on about how he's glad you're alright and how he's glad everyone else is alright and how he's still mad at you but it just doesn't count right now because he's just really glad you're okay and—

You shove and squirm until you're out of his grip, and gasp for the sweet, sweet taste of fresh air just in time to see Nepeta lift Karkat up and swing him around as he clings to her, begging for his life.

"No, Nepeta! Put me down! We talked about this—Jesus fucking Christ!"

You don't even bother resisting the urge to laugh in his face.

The moment ends, though, when you hear Tavros call for help and realize he's still trapped inside the car, surrounded by the dead weight of at least three unconscious teenagers. You don't remember seeing Gamzee get up, but you're pretty sure Vriska is awake. Whether she has enough energy to stand up, though, is a different story. Massive blood loss isn't something a person bounces back from in a few hours—you know that from experience.

Equius and Horuss make their way around from behind the car, then, and before anyone has a chance to escape you shrug Jake's arms off you and start handing out jobs. You might be home, but the mission isn't over until everything's been completely squared away.

"You two, help get Terezi and Dirk and whoever else to the infirmary. And Vriska. And Gamzee. Actually, Jake—you should help, too." You hear a few sighs, but no one argues. Jake, at least, nods with some enthusiasm. Sudddenly, you kind of really hope Dirk isn't in as bad a shape as he looks, if only for your cousin's sake. The kid needs a few friends his age who aren't, you know, family. "Eridan, you and Nepeta help me get some of these boxes back to storage before we all lose steam and start falling over."

Despite all the sleep everyone got in the car, you know no one is well rested. If anything, everyone looks even more worse for wear than before, and the last thing you need is to learn that someone had fallen asleep in the shower and taken up a day's worth of hot water in one sitting. You're all still covered in sweat and dirt and who knows what else from your brawl in the city streets, and as much as you're used to a less-than-perfectly-hygienic living environment you know no one is going to want to get in a bed roll stiff and sticky with that mess.

It takes a bit of coaxing to get Vriska out and walking, but by the time they make it out of your sight Tavros has ended up supporting most of her weight anyway. Progress is slow even though Equius, Horuss, and Jake all have a handle on Terezi, Gamzee, and Dirk, but eventually Tavros disappears in the distance, leading his half-unconscious entourage in the general direction of the infirmary. Without John, you know he'll have his hands full, but he's done well enough so far on his own. You figure he'll be alright. Even so, you hope Kankri's at least still waiting behind in the building where you left him. At least then he'll have an extra set of hands to work with. The boys you sent him off with aren't really known for their gentle touch.

Meanwhile, Karkat does his best to keep the growing crowd of spectators at bay. You knew you couldn't keep your impromptu mission a secret for long, and if Karkat could hear your approach there's no way the other members of his camp—the other Cured—didn't. There's a good chance they heard you leave, too. You don't see any of the others, though, so you figure everyone else must still be asleep. It's a little early for anyone without nocturnal tendencies to be awake, anyway, and you're grateful that that means you have less people to deal with.

For the most part, you ignore it all and let Karkat handle the situation. It's not really your place to, anyway.

You've never paid much attention to the whole them versus us campaign some people keep insisting is a thing, because as head of security it's your job to protect everyone. You kind of think the whole divide is stupid, really, but you've long-since given up arguing about it. All you can do is respect the hierarchy and do your job, because you've learned from experience that fear is a natural instinct, not a learned one. It's almost impossible to break.

Moving the supplies back to the storage rooms takes twice as long as it should, because every trip back and forth is a battle with the crowd. They do part to let you through, though, and you think that might have something to do with the fact that you all look like hell. For anyone not used to the direct aftermath of a trip out into the field it's a less-than-pleasant sight. Actually, you think it sucks even if you are used to it, but the point is that it's probably twice as frightening to an outsider. People are morbidly curious creatures, though, so you're still bombarded with equal parts rapid-fire questioning and silent stares. You're not sure which is more unnerving.

Karkat promises to hold a camp-wide meeting and let everyone know the situation, but he keeps stressing that the mission wasn't a big deal. That it wasn't anything special—just a routine pickup with a little added mess—so please wait a few a few days. (His language is a little more colorful, of course, but you're kind of too focused on getting the task at hand finished so you can take a nap to really keep track of the exact wording.)

By the time you've got a tarp back over the SUV and you're ready to hit the showers, the sun is starting to rise and people have started moving back to their tents. If you're quick, you think you might be able to make it back to the cafeteria in time to catch Jane and Rose switch shifts with Feferi. They'll be getting ready to start breakfast just as Feferi finishes cleaning up after dinner, so you might be able to sneak an early meal before you crash. And if you're fast enough, you won't have to deal with the crowds.

You send Eridan off and help Karkat and Nepeta shuffle everyone else back in the general direction of the Cured campground, and turn back around to head home, yourself.

The old blanket-stuffed administration building has essentially returned to its main function as the indoor entertainment building—or as much of an entertainment building as you can have these days—now that the winter dorm overflow has moved back outside to their seasonal tents. While Karkat and his isolated group have a permanent outdoor setup on the south side of the campus, the rest of you aren't so lucky. You've had to make do with the room you have and improvise the rest.

To save space, everyone willing is paired up with a roommate. You and Jake have been stuck together since before the very beginning, so naturally he was the best choice for you. The two of you had been living in the same space on and off for years already, so the change wasn't as drastic as it was for some people. Meenah and Cronus had been a different story, unwilling to room with anyone else and thereby essentially stuck together after it had been explained that they couldn't stay with their respective siblings because of the camp divide. You owe the fact that they haven't killed each other largely to Meenah's almost permanent residence out in the field with Nepeta and the scouting team, you think.

Suddenly, you wonder where she and John are. You haven't heard from them in hours, and hope everything is alright. You decide right then and there that you're going to pull Rose aside about a markeryard service when you go sniff out food after your shower, because you know your cousin well enough to realize that he's not going to want to deal with it. You wonder if Dave's already passed, or if he'll hang on until later tonight, when he's warm and safe and relaxed in the infirmary. You hope he's not in too much pain.

By the time you reach your shared tent, you've made yourself thoroughly sad and are fully prepared to argue some more with Jake if only to get your mind off it. You'd rather be angry than sad—you can shoot things and punch people when you're mad, but when all you want to do is curl up and cry you don't have anything to tear to shreds but yourself. It's not a pleasant feeling, so you've learned to redirect it.

When you pull back the flap, though, you see immediately that he isn't there. Your room is empty, when you'd expected him to already be splayed out and snoring across his makeshift mattress totally passed out post-shower. No wait, that's what you wish you were doing. Wow, you're really tired. Now that you think about it, you're not really sure why you expected him to be here—if anything, he's probably already made his way back toward the cafeteria for food.

Even so, you do feel bad for blowing him off after he'd been dragged all the way by Karkat to see you and the others (you make a mental note to get the story of that meeting out of him later) so you decide to track him down after your shower and maybe apologize for your argument the day you left. Maybe. You were totally justified in not wanting him out in the field with you! You know you were. Even if you hadn't told him the whole story, he should have understood that you had your reasons. Ugh, he could be so frustrating sometimes!

You aggressively stuff a change of clothes in your shower bag and decide to get your team's laundry pushed up to the front of the cleaning queue (again) before heading back out. You've learned from experience that Infected blood stains and you really don't like having to walk around in black splotch-smeared pants. New threads are hard to come by these days, so most of what you wear is already pretty worn and patched up. The last thing you need is to look like you just came back from a mission all of the time.

The sun's almost completely risen now, and you can already see a few half-awake refugees stumbling out of their tents toward one of two places—the showers or the cafeteria. You get a few waves as you pass by, but for the most part the two or three people who pass are too cold and groggy to register that you look like a wreck. You wonder, then, if only Karkat's camp new about the mission. On a normal basis, the two groups don't mix, with the few notable exceptions being anyone on a team. You doubt there would have been an opportunity to spill the beans while you were out, but now you suppose it doesn't matter. If Karkat has decided to hold a meeting, John will have to, too, just so no one gets their nonexistent feathers all ruffled and bunched.

"Miss Jade!" It takes a second for you to realize someone's calling your name, because you suddenly feel like you've hit the wall and all you want to do is take a nice hot shower and not think about things—which you can only do if you get there first. By the time the sound does register, though, the little man is already frantically waving and skip-jog-run-whatever-ing in your direction. "Miss Jade, Miss Jade, Miss Jade!"

"G'morning, Mr. Deuce!" you say as cheerily as you can, because even on your worst days you've always found it hard to be upset with the happiest, least-threatening mobster you've ever met. (Not that you've made a point to meet many, of course. But, you know, life happens.) Of course, none of the four middle-aged mafiosos you picked up from Portland early on are... normal. You're kind of glad, though. You think sharing your shelter with a GODFATHER REINCARNATED X4 COMBO would have been really nerve-wracking.

He tips his ratty, hole-filled-but-well-loved hat at you and beams. "It's nice to have you back home again! We all got real worried when Mr. Jake didn't show up to change the guard shift this mornin', and started wonderin' if somethin' had happened. But I guess seein' you was reason enough to miss it!"

You blink, then, and—oh, shit. You'd completely forgot about the sunrise perimeter security rotation. Whoops. You'd assumed Jake would take care of it because you'd only just gotten back, and the fact that he didn't is both frustrating and a little bit worrying. You decide, then, to swing by the infirmary before you do anything else to see if anyone there knows where he might have gone after helping Tavros shuffle around the newest members of your little safe-haven.

"M'hmm!" You nod, still smiling even though your mind is already half a mile away. "It's really great to be back. But, you know, I'm really tired and I think maybe we should catch up sometime when I'm not about to fall over, is that alright?"

He blinks at you, before nodding frantically and tipping his hat again for good measure. "Oh, yes, yes, yes—of course! I'm real sorry for holdin' you up!" Deuce waves you on, and you grin back as you start inching away in the general direction of the infirmary. You doubt Jake would have stayed there long—he's always been adverse to the place for some reason—but that's where you'd sent him last. "It was nice seein' you, Miss Jade!"

"You too! Tell the others I'm sorry about this morning."

"Don't worry your head about it, Miss Jade!" he calls one last time, "Go rest up!"

Oh, but all you seem to do these days is worry. It's a little frustrating, but you suppose it all comes with the territory. You've got a lot of people to look out for, after all.

Especially Jake.

With one last wave over your shoulder, you start heading toward John's building at a pace that wouldn't have any spectator mistaking you for drunk-Dawn-of-the-Dead-makeup-artist tired or oh-god-my-insides-are-eating-each-other-help hungry. You're a woman on a mission, whether you like it or not.

The minute you open the infirmary door, however, you immediately regret the whole thing.

From what you can see, things are in chaos.

John's office door—the first on the right—is closed, but every other room in the first-floor hall has been opened. You can't see Tavros, but you can hear his voice. He sounds like he's arguing with someone, maybe two people, though you can't quite tell who. You're too busy watching Kankri try to coax a wobbling Vriska back into one of the doorways—she looks angry and unsteady, and you're pretty sure that's not a good combination at all. Ever. Under any circumstance.

"I'm fine, okay? I don't need your help—don't touch me. I don't even know who you are!" She's leaning up against the hallway wall, sending looks Kankri's way that could quite possibly kill him at any other place and time. It's the glare of a cornered animal, and you get the feeling things are just starting to get ugly.

"Now, to be quite fair, based on my understanding you've only had contact with a very limited number of people over the past few years, so that could be said for most of the people you're going to encounter in—Jade!"

(What is it with everyone calling your name today? Really, letting the whole world know you're nearby totally isn't necessary. Really.)

You sigh, slowly coming to the realization that no, you won't be getting that hot shower anytime soon, and wave just as Vriska's head turns to look at you. "Vriska, you should really be listening to Kankri. He might not be a medic or anything but he knows what he's talking about! And if Tav told you to do whatever he's trying to get you to do, then you should probably do it."

"But I don't need more rest—I've been sleeping for, like, eight-hundred years! I feel fine!"

"Clearly, you're not fine because from here it looks like you can barely even stand up on your own," you say, hiking your sadly-unneeded bag higher on your shoulder and crossing your arms. You start walking toward the pair, but Vriska starts backing up so you stop after only a few steps. Interesting. And definitely not good. "Second, what are you even planning to do? I can't imagine when the last time you had the chance to not worry about anything for a while, so—I don't know—embrace it! You don't have to be anywhere or do anything. It'll probably be a day or so before we introduce you to everyone, and Tav isn't going to let you leave before John gets ba—"

"Shit!" Suddenly, Tavros' voice rises up above everyone else's, followed immediately by the sounds of retching. Jake appears in the doorway just beyond Vriska and Kankri, looking a little green, and Tavros calls for Kankri's help inside.

The older Vantas brother shoots you a pitiful, pleading, borderline-pathetic look and you sigh again, resigned to staying just a little bit longer. You set your bag down just as he scurries around your cousin, and you start to approach Vriska again, who by now looks about ready to jump out of her skin. It's not hard to guess what's going through her head right now—she's weak and in an unfamiliar place surrounded by people she doesn't know. After six years spent fighting for her life every second, her survivor's instincts are bound to have kicked into a kind of hyperactive extreme. You've seen this kind of thing in refugees before—people who come from dangerous areas or smaller camps hit in the past. You rarely have to deal with it first-hand, though. That's not your realm of expertise—or anywhere near it, actually.

The closer you get, the more you can see inside the room Jake just had just escaped from. Just around the doorframe, Tavros is holding Gamzee's hair out of his face as heaves out his guts over a waste bin. There's a smallish pile of bile on the floor nearby that Kankri's busy wiping up, and ew. You can shoot a monster point-blank in the face with a semi-automatic, but you don't do puking. And apparently Jake doesn't either.

Equius and Horuss are standing awkwardly in one corner of the room, unsure of what to do, and Dirk is laid out, still unconscious, on the only piece of furniture in the room—a small, makeshift mattress. Terezi is nowhere in sight, so you figure she must be sleeping somewhere nearby, in one of the other rooms.

Tavros looks up and fixes you all with the fiercest glare a scrawny, ninety-pounds-when-wet teenager can muster. "Somebody—I don't really care who—but somebody should move Dirk, uh, to another room. At least until we get this cleaned up. Um, thank you. Vriska, you should go to your room. And maybe try to sleep."

The Zahhaks, relieved to have some kind of job, set about moving the mattress and our cousin's friend out of the room and somewhere down the hall. You can't even really figure out why they're still here, to be honest. Maybe Tavros wouldn't let them leave. (You get the impression he can be very forceful when he wants to be).

You aren't really paying attention to where they take Dirk, though, because you're too busy keeping half your brain focused on Vriska and the other half on Jake. You turn back to Vriska—slowly but surely, your patience is wearing thin. "Look, you don't have to go to sleep or anything—hell, you don't even have to rest for all I care. But at least go into the room and stay there until this whole mess dies down. You can leave the door open. You can open a window—it really doesn't matter to me; whatever makes you comfortable. But I think we'll all feel better if we know you're safe, blah, blah, blah, and in a place where we can find you if we need to, and where you can't get lost, and where you can't hurt yourself if anything crazy happens." She looks angry for a moment, so you hold your hands up in the universal gesture of surrender. "Not that I'm saying anything will."

There's a moment where she eyes you skeptically, unsure, before she starts nodding slowly and you breathe a sigh of relief. Thank God, ugh, maybe now you'll be able to sneak out of here.

Once she's shuffled inside another room nearby, you turn your attention back to Jake, who's still standing in the hallway looking a little lost and kind of sick. He's pointedly avoiding eye contact, though, so—yeah—you're pretty sure he's still mad at you. You're tempted to roll your eyes at him, but you figure that won't help the situation so you just settle for thinking about it really hard. Instead, you just sort of look at him really hard and say, "You feeling okay?"

"Yeah, just wonderful."

"You sure?"

"If I wasn't sure, I wouldn't 've said it, yeah?"

Oh. Well.

You nod and hum a little bit to yourself, because suddenly you can pretty much see the thick layer of awkward tension between the two of you.

Gamzee's fit has stopped and you can hear Tavros and Kankri talking in low voices, so the hall is mostly quiet now. This is your chance. You've seen Jake, and you don't really feel like starting an argument with him—you're not really needed. Finally, finally you can get your shower.

You're ten free from the door when it slams open and John rushes in, calling for Tavros and as he runs past you with an unconscious man in his arms.


==> KARKAT: USE PAPERWORK AS BONFIRE KINDLING

As really goddamn amazing as that sounds, you know you can't do that. You can think about it, though. And oh, the inferno is fucking beautiful.

Your name is KARKAT VANTAS, and you are currently holed up in your tent, hunched over a salvaged teacher's desk that's piled high with lists and formally-filed complaints and ration requests and a whole bunch of other stuff you really DON'T WANT to deal with. Your GIRLFRIEND is currently sprawled across your shared blanket pile, SLEEPING like the dead, completely oblivious to your bureaucratic struggles.

When you'd first set up your little establishment six years ago, things had been easier. There weren't too many of you, and you'd all defaulted to John for any problems that came up. Pretty much everything still goes through him, of course, but you've become some kind of middle man for anyone unwilling to talk to him directly. The paper trail was your idea—some small attempt to get a handle on the chaos—and to be honest most of your correspondence with John happens online. You like doing things with your hands, though. You like writing things down. It's easier for you to remember that way.

All you'd wanted was a relatively peaceful existence holed up in a lab looking at DNA for the rest of your life. You never asked for this. Ugh.

You're halfway through figuring out what to do about a theft accusation when the sound of nearby footsteps catches your attention. They're loud and heavy, and even through the muffled layers of your animal fur tent walls you can hear them coming from farther away than you'd like.

Human footsteps.

You rarely get visitors from the other side of campus.

The sound pauses directly outside and you sigh, getting up to undo the ties holding the front of your tent shut while you (supposedly) sleep. You don't have any kind of alert system to let you know when someone's waiting, because you don't need one. Whoever's outside knows this, apparently, so that at least narrows down the list of people it could be.

You're more than a little surprised, though, when you finally get your tent flap open and see Kankri standing there, hands clasped behind his back and looking older than you remember last seeing him. He smiles a little and whispers a tired, "Hello, little brother," in some attempt not to disturb your sleeping neighbors, which you're grateful for.

You stand aside and let him come in, and as you make your way back over to your desk chair, you watch him look around as subtly as he can. Suddenly you can't remember how long it's been since he was last here. Or the last time you talked to him. Or the last time you'd seen him, really. John's birthday, maybe? And even then, you hadn't said more than a few words to each other.

You don't offer him a place to sit—you figure if he wants to, he can just put his ass down on the floor. Instead, you stare and wait for him to speak.

"John arrived home several hours ago."

"I know."

"You did not come by to see him."

"I was busy. I am busy. Christ, Kankri—did you just come barging in to tell me something we both know I already knew?" You practically hiss, narrowing your eyes at him. He cringes, and nope. No fucking way. You're not in the mood to deal with this right now.

"No, I simply came to alert you of the fact—"

"That's a load of fucking hoofbeast-feces, and we both know it."

He goes quiet, then, and just stands there looking nervous and pitiful and tired. Nothing like the older brother you remember from when you were little. Nothing like the dark-haired superhero who'd held your hand as you hopped between foster homes. Nothing like the man who'd raised you from before he, himself, was anything close to a teenager.

You wonder not for the first time which one of you has changed—or if you've always been this disconnected and just never realized it.

There's a whine from your mattress, and Nepeta rolls over, cocooning up under your blankets. She's probably been awake since you let Kankri inside, but didn't say anything—she's been trying to get you to talk to him for months. "AC thinks her Vantas boys should stop arguing and address their problems and maybe hug," she says, muffled through layers of fabric. "Because if they don't she'll claw out both of their throats so she can sleep in peace."

Kankri swallows audibly, and you can't help but snort a cynical laugh at that. At the whole thing.

Wow, your life is really fucked up.

"Just go away, Kankri. You don't want to be here—hell, I can practically smell how fucking terrified you are. It's been years. You've had years to get over this bullshit and you haven't, so just leave me alone." You're full-on glaring, now, and your brother won't meet your eyes. Nepeta makes another sad little noise from underneath the blankets and Kankri sighs. It's a strained sound, but he nods anyway.

"Regardless, you should pay John a visit when you get the chance. I have the distinct feeling he is in need of a friend right about now." He doesn't say anything else, and you watch as he leaves, not moving from your spot until you hear his footsteps fade away as he nears the border of your territory. Only then do you get up to tie the flaps of your tent back closed.

You're just settling back into your seat to finish what you had been working on when Nepeta heaves a huge, over-dramatic huff. "That's not what I meant, you know." You roll your eyes, not looking up from the paragraph in front of you. "You have to forgive him at some point, Karkitty."

"There's nothing to forgive. He's just an arrogant, paranoid, prejudiced douchecanoe who can't see past everyone else's issues long enough to take a look at himself and see he has problems of his own."

"Awh, c'mon. That's not fair—he really does try! He's just not, you know, very good at it." Suddenly her arms snake around your shoulders and her chin rests on the top of your head, and you sigh. Again. "You know, when my sister and I used to fight—back before her accident—we'd get all our energy and frustration out by beating each other up. Like, wrestling! It was fun, and we got so exhausted that neither of us had the energy to be mad anymore and it was great."

"Yeah, because Kankri and I are totally built for—fuck, what's that thing Jake says? Scrums. Because we're totally built for scrums and fisticuffs."

She giggles, and you can hear the noise vibrate in your skull. It's a pleasant buzzing, and you realize then then that you're probably not going to get anymore work done today. "You're so difficult sometimes, did you know that?"

"Yeah. Sorry, I can't help my sparkling personality."

"I'm serious though. It's the thought that counts, right? I mean, he came all the way here just to talk to you. Don't you think that means something, even if it's just a little tiny thing?"

"No."

"Karkat."

"Nepeta."

"At the very least, I think you should go see John. Go check on him. He's your best friend, even if you're too stubborn to admit it sometimes. And best friends are super important!" She nuzzles her face in your hair and hugs you closer, and suddenly you're finding it very hard to argue with anything she says.

"If he needs me to baby him, fine. I'll swing by that sterilized hell-hole he calls home later. But now I have work to do."

"No, go now."

"In a second."

"Now." She stands back up then and flops back onto the bed, curling up into a ball. Suddenly, you feel bad for waking her up. Just because you have trouble sleeping sometimes doesn't mean she should have to suffer with you. "Go."

"Ugh, fine. Fine." You scrub our hands across your face and sigh, before standing up again. "I'll be back in a little while." After shoving your phone in your pocket and kissing the top of her head—the only thing visible outside the mound of blankets—you make your way outside.

Beyond the closed-off area of the campus where your camp is set up, the school seems to have come well enough alive. As you squint against the sunlight—you've gotten used to it over the years, so it doesn't bother you now as much as it used to—you can see groups of humans milling around, talking and laughing and living. You pass a dozen people playing what looks like some makeshift version of soccer, and a few teenagers holding what could be a handstand competition—you're not really sure. A few people wave as you pass and you nod in reply, but for the most part you're ignored. Which is good, you think. No stares at all are better than hateful ones.

You're not really sure what to expect by the time you finally enter the old science building. The hallway is mostly quiet, but you can hear a few people talking on the second floor, voices muffled by the ceiling. There are also two voices coming from behind a nearby closed door, as well. Rose, you think. And someone you don't recognize.

John's door is closed, but the messy DO NOT DISTURB sign is taped to his door so you figure he must be inside even though you can't hear him. Ignoring the sign, you knock. "Hey, ass-face. You in there?" When you don't get a reply, you try the knob, and after a second of staring at the huge office-lab x2 combo extravaganza you sigh and close the door again. No luck. For a second you consider the possibility that maybe he's not even in the infirmary, before forcibly drowning that line of thought. It's difficult enough to get him out of the building for meals, and he hardly leaves for anything less than weapons training and sparring. And as far as you know, he's got four new patients to watch over. He's still inside somewhere.

You make your way over to the door where you can hear talking, instead. When you knock this time you get more of a response, and the voices go quiet for a moment before Rose speaks up again, louder this time. "Come in."

As soon as you open the door, you catch a split-second glimpse of Rose sitting cross-legged on the floor across from a girl with blonde hair you don't recognize, but the girl freaks out the minute she catches sight of you. The next thing you know, you're stumbling against the opposite wall, back in the hallway. "What the hell?" Your face is stinging like fuck, and there's something wet on your lips—when you reach up, you realize your nose is bleeding.

Fuck this. You're going back home.

Suddenly, the door opens again, and Rose is standing there looking mildly distressed. "Karkat—I didn't expect you here, I'm sorry," she sighs, and you wave one hand in her direction, the other pinching your nose closed. You don't see the new girl, so you figure she's still inside. It occurs to you then that yeah, you probably should have announced told them who you were or something. This wouldn't be the first time you'd been mistaken for something you're not.

"Jesus Christ, ow."

"Oh, goodness. Here—let me see if I can find something. Hold your head back." She disappears into John's room before you can tell her not to worry about it, and you're left standing there awkwardly in the hall.

There's movement in the corner of your vision, you can see the blonde chick staring at you from the doorframe now. You turn your head and glare. "What the actual fuck?" Okay, not the nicest greeting, but she did slam a goddamn door in your face. Totally justified.

She snorts, crossing her arms, and wow—this one's going to be fun to have around. You can just feel it. "I should be asking you that question, you know."

"Wh—fuck!" Rose is suddenly kneeling next to you, moving your hand and pressing a rag to your face, and what the hell that really hurts. She doesn't even blink, and there's a glint in her eye that makes you think she might have done it on purpose. No fighting. Yeah, whatever. Message received. (Painfully.)

"Karkat, this is Vriska. Vriska, meet our establishment's second-in-command. I trust you won't go injuring him unnecessarily in the future? He's not much use if he's been broken, after all."

Vriska's eyebrows go farther up than you'd like.

"This? You put this in charge?" she asks, and her voice hits higher an octave as she stares at you with this horrible mixture of fear and disgust. Wonderful.

You growl at her, just for show, but even though you know it's going to happen you still feel disgusting when she takes a few steps back.

"Karkat," Rose hisses, and yeah that probably didn't help. "Vriska, he isn't going to hurt you—we talked about this. There are some people here that you might find threatening, but I can assure you they are just as human as you and I."

"Yeah, right," she bites back, eyes still wide and fixed totally on you.

Rose holds up the rag then, now blotchy and gross, covered in blood. The movement bumps your nose and you flinch, because fuck. "Human blood—his human blood. It isn't quite red, but look and see that there is no black. He is not a monster. No one here is a monster. And if you are not prepared to deal with that, I will have to take matters up with John." Vriska doesn't say anything else, so you take that as a good sign and decide to get the hell out of here. You knew this was a bad idea. Paperwork is better than this. Rose hands you back the cloth and you press it to your face, but she keeps her hand on your shoulder even as you stand up. "Go let John take a look at that," she says after a moment. "Just to be sure it isn't broken."

"Yeah, well, I don't have a fucking clue where he's holed his sorry ass up, so I can't actually do that."

She rolls her eyes and nods to the stairwell door, "He was upstairs, finishing up in the surgical room last I saw, and we haven't heard him return. I can only assume he's still there."

You blink. "Wait, what happ—"

"I really must insist that you go," she says, glancing over to where Vriska's still standing, tense and wary and looking like she's about to bolt. Rose shoves you a little bit, and you realize she's not going to tell you anything else so you head farther down the hall, really fucking frustrated with pretty much everyone right now.

Walking up the stairs is kind of hard when you're still holding your head back to stop the blood flowing from your nose, and since it's still going you're starting to think that maybe it is broken. Well, shit.

The second floor of the building looks much the same as the first, a hallway lined with doors that lead to more repurposed classrooms and research labs. Some of them have signs taped up, scribbled with either a name or a function in John's blocky handwriting. The voices you'd heard from downstairs have quieted, replaced by sound of running water.

Halfway down you can see the door labeled SURGERY is half opened, so you make your way toward it and hope John actually is inside. You're getting really fucking tired of chasing after him.

When you get to the entrance, however, you pause.

The room is one of the repurposed labs, so there are long tables and counters and shelves everywhere. They've been cleared off and filled with piles of gauze and bands of thread and a bunch of other stuff that makes your body hurt just looking around. In the center of the room, two teacher's desks have been pushed together and covered in fabric to make a makeshift operating table, and on it you can see the unconscious body of some kid around your age. He's on his side, mostly naked, and covered with more stitches than you've ever seen in your entire life.

John's standing at the sink, still in the same clothes from two days ago but now with a lab coat you've only seem him wear a few times. It's buttoned all the way to the top, covering most of the dirt and grime on his clothes, and it's smeared red, red, red with blood.

This guy, you realize, must be Dave. It has to be. There's no one else it could be. And now you understand what Meenah meant when she said he probably wasn't going to make it. To be honest, he looks dead now, even. You can't make out the rise and fall of his chest, and you can't really even hear his breathing. But he's not covered up, so you take that as a good sign.

The water shuts off, and you look up just in time to see John turn in your direction. "Karkat? What ar—oh my God, what happened?"

"The blonde chick downstairs," you say, and immediately he's ushering you over to a chair and rifling through one of the shelves.

"Vriska? Did she punch you or something?"

"With a fucking door."

He snorts, and you roll your eyes as he takes the rag from you, much gentler than Rose. "No offense, Karkat, but that's kind of lame." Immediately, he starts wiping the blood off your face and cleaning you up, holding your chin, so you don't get the chance to reply until he reaches over for what looks like a roll of really thick medical tape.

"I didn't ask for your opinion, dumbass."

"Yeah, well, you're here, aren't you? And it looks to me like it might be broken. Oh my God, I can't believe you broke your nose on a door." He laughs again, before ripping part of the tape off with his teeth. "Hold still." Carefully, he pulls it tight over your nose and you absolutely can't be held accountable for the noise you just made because haha fuck fuck fuck ow fuck.

For a second, your vision fuzzes out, and when you finally blink the world back into focus John is staring at you with the saddest apologetic look you've seen in a while. "Sorry, necessary evil. Try not to bump it or anything. So, like... no sleeping on your face. Or falling. Or making out." You narrow your eyes at him, and he just shrugs, grinning a little too much for your liking.

"Fuck you."

"Rude! You have a girlfriend."

"What are you, five?" you grumble, and he just chuckles to himself at your expense.

There's a pause after that, both of you unsure of what to say, before John finally stands up and breaks the silence. "So what did you need? If Vriska wrecked your face more than normal, you must have already been here for something," he says as he starts to retreat back to the sink and wash the new blood off his hands. Now that he isn't in front of you, you have a better view of Dave—and you have to turn around again so you don't.

Jesus fuck.

You swallow and shrug even though you know John can't see it. "Kankri came by our tent and asked me to come check up on you."

"He did?" The question is just as cheerful as the rest of your conversation, but now there's an edge to his voice you don't really like. Hysterical exhaustion, maybe? Maybe.

"Yeah. So, uh, how are you?"

"I'm fine, Karkat. Geez."

You roll your eyes and try again. "How's he, then?"

The water shuts off, and you watch as John goes to wipe his wet hands on the front of his coat before thinking better of it and grabbing one of the cleaner-looking towels nearby. He sighs, and then shuffles over to sit on the floor next to your chair, resting his back against one of the legs. You just sort of watch him, a little worried, because you can't really tell what he's thinking right now.

John's always been quick to make friends, and that's half the reason you think he never really got involved with Approachers before. He's too trusting—too friendly. Unexpected death is inevitable nowadays, and even with all he's had to deal with you don't think he's ever really accepted that. Or maybe he has—honestly, you don't really know.

Maybe you should try talking to him more.

All you do know is that he looks tired—and not just ugh-I-need-sleep tired, either. The kind of tired that seeps into your soul and eats you from the inside out. The kind of tired that comes from endless battles in an endless war against an enemy you can't see, you can't hear, you can't feel.

"Nineteen broken bones, sixty-seven external lacerations, punctured small and large intestines, a ruptured spleen, and massive internal bleeding," he says, and then he lets out this hopeless chuckle that kind of crushes your heart and wow you're feeling really sappy all of a sudden. Maybe you lost more blood than you thought.

"Holy shit," you breathe, because yeah. Holy shit. "Is he—?"

"Alive? Yeah, by some ridiculous crazy unheard of miracle or something. By all medical accounts he should be dead—he should have died hours ago. But nope. He still has a pulse, and he's still breathing. Barely, but it's still happening."

"Whoa."

"Yeah."

"What about the other members of their little suicide brigade? Besides Vriska, because she's doing just fucking fine if you ask me."

John nudges your thigh with his head and snorts. "Yeah, Vriska's alright physically. Mentally, though? I mean, she's spent the last six years fighting for her life. What can you expect?"

"So have we, you know."

He shakes his head. "Not like she has. Or the rest of them, for that matter. I can't imagine what it was like trapped in a city for so long."

You shrug, because yeah, he's probably right. But that still isn't an excuse to break your nose, you think. That was totally uncalled for. "What about the others? I heard one of them got turned, so I guess I'll be moving people around soon. Whoever it is'll need a place to live."

"Yeah, Terezi—Nepeta's friend. She was the only one, thank God. She had a nasty wound down her arm, too. Dirk and Dave were touch and go for a while, though. Or Dave was, at least. He was covered in blood when we found him—like, seeping-into-his-wounds-type covered. I don't know how he didn't get Infected. You should see his clothes—or what's left of them, at least. I don't think they started out that color. Actually, I'm totally sure of it."

"That bastard had better thank his fucking stars, then. That's lucky as hell."

"I don't think hell's very lucky, Karkat."

"It's an expression, dumbass."

"Whatever," he nudges your leg again, and you roll your eyes. You kind of missed this, both of you going back and forth. Best friends are important, Nepeta had said. You wonder if John still thinks of you as his. "Gamzee's already started going through withdrawal, and Tavros is with him now, trying to get him calm. That's going to take round-the-clock care, so I think I'm just going to have them stay together for the next few days, 'til he's at least coherent again. I don't know. Tav was in here a minute ago, helping me. He seemed alright with it." John sighs, scrubbing his hands over his face. "And Dirk—I don't even know where to start with Dirk. I've got him in a cold bath, trying to break his fever. His external injuries aren't bad, but I don't have a clue what's going on inside his body. I don't even know where to start."

You hum in acknowledgement, because, really, what can you say? You can do it! or Don't worry, we all die at some point. There's no good middle ground, so you just don't say anything at all.

As it turns out, you don't really have to.

John laughs again, and then stands up, stretching. "Anyway, see? I'm fine. No need to worry. Now go get some sleep, geez. It's almost what—one? It's almost one. How are you even still awake?"

You stand too, and absentmindedly reach up to scratch at the throbbing bandage on your face before John catches your arm and fixes you with a look that says don't fuck that up or I'll press harder next time. "I could say the same about you, you know. I doubt you slept at all on the way back from wherever the hell you ended up, so it's been, what, forty hours? Probably more? Have you even eaten anything?"

"Like I said—I'm fine. Now, I'm going to get cleaned up and crash, like I'm sure Nep did when she got home. Or did you guys have a little fun first?"

He grins, and, "Damn it, John, put your fucking eyebrows down. Down. No, stop. Stop it," you sputter, and then throw you hands up because, "You know what? Fuck you. Fuck."

"Eloquent."

"Shut the fuck up, John."


[5/29/37]

Two days later, Terezi wakes up, and after clearing her injuries John brings you and Feferi in to help start adjusting her to the changes she'll face now that she's like you. At first, you're worried because she's blind and you've never had to deal with someone disabled on campus. Most died back when the first wave of Infection hit—easy prey.

You learn almost immediately that your fears are completely unnecessary.

John seems just as baffled as you when he explains that the Infection had completely bypassed her eyes, and instead overcompensated for her blindness in other areas. That her other senses are almost frighteningly off the charts in terms of sensitivity. Hearing, smell, taste, and touch had all gone into the equivalent of come crazy ridiculous permanent caffeine overdrive, he says, and even though it'll cause her all kinds of discomfort for a while she'll eventually adjust just fine. Things will be different, of course, but she'll survive.

She stays in the infirmary for a few more days before John releases her, and after a series of long, drawn out introductions you assign Rufioh as her roommate. They're the two newest to turn, and he'd been living on his own the past few weeks, anyway.

That night, you hold the meeting you'd promised the day Nepeta and the rest had arrived back home. You announce it during breakfast, Terezi's first meal with the camp, and then explain the situation once everyone's gathered in the open area at the center of your tents. More introductions are made, and all in all the affair is relatively uneventful. Mostly, everyone seems intrigued about the fact that she technically can't see.

You don't talk to John much after that, but the next morning during dinner Jake bursts into the cafeteria and demands you come with him right that instant please. Everyone goes quiet, and you're about to tell him off for being awkward and intrusive and a bunch of other things when he insists because it's kind of an emergency I think.

"How can you not know if it's an emergency or not?"

"Just come!"

You don't really have any other choice but to follow him after that, and you end up getting dragged all the way to the infirmary without any sort of real explanation. When he opens the door, you're greeted immediately with the oh-so-lovely sound of someone puking up their guts, and you almost turn around because you're not a doctor, damn it! This is John's territory.

Instead of listening to you complain, though, Jake just shoves you into the open doorway and oh. Okay.

There's a kid you've never seen before kneeling on a makeshift mattress, bent over a waste bin, heaving. He looks like he's around Jake's age, except you can't really tell because he's skinny and pale as fuck, with platinum-blonde hair plastered to his sweaty forehead. You can't see his face, but he's shaking so badly you're not even sure how he's managed to stay sitting up.

John is sitting the ground next to him, wiping off his face and mouth with what looks like a damp rag every time he comes up for air, and oh. Fuck. Oh fuck.

The stuff he's coughing up looks like tar.

Chapter Text

[5/30/37]

==> JOHN: DEAL WITH A HUGE FUCKING DISASTER

The sky is dark, clouded over more than its usual three AM overcast, and you're tucked away in Dave's room. It's small, but even so you've set up a kind of nest in one corner—a temporary office spread out on the floor. Even though it's been six days since you brought him home, he's still barely holding on, and you want to be right on-hand if anything happens. He's stable, yeah. But he's just too still and too pale and you're more than a little afraid that you'll wake up one morning to a corpse. To a dead Dave.

You haven't gotten much sleep this past week, and you can feel your eyelids starting to sag as the words in front of you—the words of some not-so-ancient professor from the not-so-ancient past—start to blur a little bit. But you can't sleep. No, you can't sleep. Not until you figure out what's wrong.

And then suddenly you hear Jake barreling down the hallway, stomping like a goddamn stampede and more than likely waking everyone in the building with enough sense to sleep. Before you can get up from your cocoon of papers and books and blankets to scold him for making such a goddamn racket, though, he's already skidding into the doorway, disheveled and panicked, babbling at twelve miles a minute.

Your name is JOHN EGBERT, and for the last three days you've known something was PROBABLY DEFINITELY NOT RIGHT with your two critical patients. Beyond their gruesome external injuries, that is. You've only just begun to put the pieces together, though—only enough to come up with a loose working theory—so when Jake starts raving and pulling at his hair and just sort of generally looking frightened, you feel your face pale because shit, this is it, and you still need more time.

Moments later you're bolting down to the same first-floor room where Dirk's been since you first brought him in, completely awake and more than a little unhappy.

You're not sure what you're expecting, really, but it certainly isn't anything like this.

Fuck. You're so fucked.

Dirk is propped up on his pillows, curling in on himself, and there's a pooling trail of black dripping down from his mouth. It's spattering and soaking into the sheets with every passing hack-cough-wretch that crawls its way up his throat, and before you have time to think about what you're doing you pull the blankets off his body and lean him over the side of his makeshift mattress bed. Hard flooring is easier to clean than fabric, and even if it's coming out of his own body you don't want him touching any more of the stuff than he already has.

"Give me the trash bin."

"What?"

"The fucking trash bin, Jake. Hand it to me." You don't take your eyes off Dirk, who's staring blearily off to the side and not really focusing on anything, and brush his bangs out of his face with one hand as you reach out toward Jake with the other. After what might be more fumbling and scrambling than necessary, you manage to get the cheap plastic thing propped up between Dirk's knees, catching most of the bile so the mess it at least somewhat contained.

"John, I'd really appreciate it if you could shed some light on this rather frightening situation," you hear your cousin say, voice strained, and when you look up you see that his green eyes are wide and he's wringing his hands, standing in the doorway like he's not sure what to do with himself. Which he probably isn't.

You wish you could give him a straight answer, you really do, but telling him what you think is going on might be worse than leaving him in the dark. So instead you send him off to find things—a rag from your own room, some warm water, Karkat—and you pretend not to cringe when you hear him banging around, causing more of a nervous racket than he already has. By now, you're sure most everyone else in the building is awake, and it's really only a matter of time before someone wanders down and sees... this. And panics. And that really can't happen.

When Jake finally brings you a sloshing pan and cloth with shaking hands, you curbside his mission to get Karkat and send him up to find Tavros, instead. No one is allowed on the first floor until further notice.

There's a lot of nodding and not much moving, so you glare because come on, Jake, geez—don't be such a wimp. It's just a little blood. (Even though you're kind of maybe freaking out, too.)

As soon as he's gone, you set to work cleaning up Dirk as best you can, wiping of his face and tucking his hair back into the collar of his shirt to keep it out of his face and scooting all the soiled blankets into a messy pile away from the two of you. By the time Jake returns, your hands are streaked with black and the bandage you've had wrapped around your injured right wrist—the one you fucked up when you decided to make war with the metal gymnasium door—is completely soaked through.

You make sure Jake doesn't stay long, ushering him out again as soon as he appears in the doorway.

You wish you could do more than just hold and wipe as Dirk keeps heaving and heaving and heaving because you're supposed to be able to fix these kinds of things, damn it! And right now you don't think you're really doing anything at all. You try to get Dirk's attention a few times, but he doesn't respond to anything you say. As far as you can tell, he's still only half-conscious, and you're thankful Jake had been nearby because otherwise you think Dirk might have just drowned in the black muck still crawling its way up through his system.

Not soon enough, you hear the building's front door open—or, rather, you hear Karkat's voice carry over the symphony of choking right in front of you. He's yelling, complaining, clearly not happy, and you can't really blame him—you did just have him pulled out of a meal, after all. (Or at least you think you did. You're not really sure what time it is, but you think maybe it's around dinner for him and the others.) The pissed-off protests stop dead, though, when Jake just sort of pushes him into the doorway and he sees.

The one thing you take comfort in is that he looks even more panicked than you.


It takes close to an hour to get Dirk cleaned up and calmed down. You're stuck most of the work while Karkat interrogates you, asking the same four questions over and over and over until you finally yell, "Give me a second, Karkat—stop complaining or help!" and he shuts up.

Jake, unsure of what else to do, just sort of frets along the edge of the room looking pale until you send him back to his tent to lie down because he looks like he's going to pass out (or puke or freak or something else just as horribly dramatic) and you've got bigger things to worry about.

You end up changing Dirk into some of your own clothes because you don't have anything else on-hand for him to wear, and he's so skinny the fabric practically swallows him up. Neither he nor Dave have been able to eat since arriving—you don't have the equipment to set up any kind of nutrition IV—and you know if they don't wake up soon they really will start to wither away. Starvation is a slow, painful thing, and you think it's one of the worst ways to go. Worse than a thousand claws tearing at your skin. Worse than a bullet, worse than a blade. You'd never wish it on anyone. Never. (You know more than you should about starvation, really—more than you could ever learn from books. Those first winters before you found Rose are something you wish you could forget.)

Eventually, Dirk passes out again, and once you're absolutely convinced nothing horrible will happen while you're gone you head into your own room across the hall. You're a mess now, too, and before you can sit down and sort out what's going on you have to get yourself as cleaned up as you can.

Karkat trails behind you, seething, but you take the time to get your thoughts in order as you pull of your shirt and start to change the bandage around your wrist. It doesn't hurt much anymore, really, but that could just be because your won't stop pumping fast no matter how hard you try to keep a calm appearance.

By the time you turn around, Karkat has started pacing, arms crossed and scowling in your direction. He's got his lips pursed shut like he's straining to hold in everything he wants to say, and the moment you make eye contact he explodes, throwing his hands up and out in your general direction. "What the fucking hell just happened?" He shouts, and you glare back because Jesus shit Karkat keep your damn voice down. Instead of saying that, though, you just sort of scrub your hands down your face and sigh.

"I knew it was too good to be true—no one's that lucky, Karkat. No one," you say, leaning back against the counter behind you.

"Don't get all fucking mopey on me, you piece of shit. That was blood—that was blood. That was fucking black shit coming out of the kid's protein chute. There's only one thing that can mean, but you and I both know it looks way off-base."

"That's the problem," you say, and then you start pacing too. Karkat stops mid-step and just watches you as your voice slowly gets louder and louder and louder. You can feel your eyes widening, your heart racing, the panic setting in no matter how hard to try not to let it win. "All the symptoms are there. He's been unconscious for days, he's been sick—high fever, chills, all that bullshit—and his hair, Karkat. Have you seen his hair?"

Both of your friend's eyebrows shoot up and he looks at you like you've finally lost your mind, which, now that you think about it, you might actually have. "What the fuck does that have to do with anything? So he's been dying his hair brown or whatever—what the hell does that matter? Ampora's been doing it for years. Rufioh too."

"Dirk has, like, eight inches of blond roots, Karkat—eight inches. When we picked him up six days ago he had a full head of brown hair. How familiar does that sound? No one's hair grows that fast. No one who's body hasn't been kicked into overdrive, eating itself from the inside out. Terezi was a redhead this time last week. Now she's not."

There's a beat of silence as the pieces start falling into place, and you can see the exact moment Karkat reaches the same conclusion you have because his eyes widen and shit. Shit, shit, shit. "...But he's still so fucking pale."

"Think. It's all the same. All of it. Take your mind off the coloring for a second and just think."

"Well then why the fuck hasn't he lost his shit yet? It's been almost a week—the virus works faster than that."

"The flu used to change every year. And the chicken pox—what makes this thing any different than the chicken pox? It built up resistance to the vaccine years ago. It mutated, Karkat. It grew. It evolved. Are we naive enough to think the EI Infection couldn't do the same?"

He breathes out long and slow, air whistling through his pointed teeth as he blinks at you and you can see it—you can see the realization in his eyes. Because if it's true—if you're right—then everything you've been working toward for the past six years has been for shit. You don't know how to fight the virus; you've only ever known how to push it back a little farther. How to survive. But now? If you've lost your only window of opportunity to save the people who've been hit, then you're fucked. There's no way out.

"So if my thinkpan is processing your bullshit correctly, you're telling me we've got at least one—possibly two—biohazards camping out under your fucking roof? You said Strider—Dave—was covered when you found him. Covered. I'm going to jump out on a fucking limb here and guess that if one has whatever this shit is both of them do." You know—oh, God, do you know. But Dave's been mostly quiet up to this point, so you've been trying not to think about it. Dirk is the one on the verge of waking up, so he's who you have to worry about now. "You couldn't just flush the shit out of their systems?"

You shake your head because no, you've already thought of that. "It's been six days, Karkat. It's too late. This whole thing—all the pieces are the same. It's like someone took a negative picture of you or Nep and the spread out the development over a couple of days or something. And even with the longer time-frame it's probably too late. Best case scenario, Dirk snaps before the weekend's up. Worst case scenario, he goes bad before the end of today."

There's a beat of silence as that sinks in for both of you, and you have to sit down. You need to sit down. But at the same time you just want to run, run, run as far away as you can because no, no, no. You know what you have to do, but oh God oh God you don't think you can. You have a duty to the people who trust you, and that number reaches high up into the hundreds. You have a duty to keep them out of harm's way, to heal them, to keep them safe—and in keeping two potentially-lethal time-bombs under your protection you're putting everyone at risk.

"What the fucking hell are we going to do?"

You don't know. You don't know.

Dirk is sixteen, the same age as your cousin. He's just a kid. He's a brilliant kid, from what his brother told you. He has a future ahead of him, bleak as it might be in this fucked up world you're stuck in. You've smashed in heads without thinking. You've broken arms and crushed torsos and killed without blinking because they were monsters and you had to survive. You can break in metal doors, but you don't think you're strong enough to kill a kid on a hunch that he'll try to tear you to pieces sometime during the next seventy-two hours.

(But would that really be strength?)

And oh, God. Dave.

You feel your stomach lurch because how could you look him in the eye and tell him you killed his brother. You couldn't. You can't. You won't. And if you have to take Dave's life, too—

No.

You don't think you can.

You press your palms against your eyes and let your weight drop into your desk chair and hold your breath and everything goes so, so still. So still. But not quiet, not dark—because behind your eyelids you can see red and black and yellow and—

When was the last time you slept?

Karkat shuffles to your side, oddly quiet, and after a moment you feel a hand on your shoulder anchoring you to the present. "I don't know," you answer, because that's all you can say. You're exhausted—your body and your heart and your mind are just so tired and you don't know what to do. But you have a job, you have responsibilities, and you have to think of something. Anything. You have to fix this. "At the very least, we have a few hours before we have to make any real, big, super important decisions. For now, we can just—"

Suddenly, both of your phones start beeping, and you barely have enough time to register the noise before the emergency alarm in every building across campus starts ringing.


You blink for a second, not sure what to do, and then suddenly you're up and bolting for the Infirmary door. You almost crash into Tavros as he comes careening down the stairwell from the second floor, an iron grip wrapped around the wrist of a shaking, wide-eyed Gamzee. You've got your phone halfway out of your pocket already, and before Tav has the chance to ask what's going on you glance at the screen to confirm what you already kind of know and shit.

It's like someone has flipped a switch in your body, and suddenly all of your energy has come rushing back, pumping through your body from some unseen, hidden source—and it fucking hurts.

"John! What's—"

"Tav, get everyone upstairs—move any first level patients you can up with you and barricade the entrance. Seal the windows," you order harsher than you intend, and without waiting for a response you bolt, already pushing the main doors open as Karkat takes off after you. The sun should be coming over the horizon any minute now, so it's your best guess that most of his people have returned to their tents. "Karkat—start gathering the security teams from your camp. I'll meet you at the Cabinet. If Jade isn't already there, she will be soon." You glance over in his direction just in time to see him nod, paler than usual but determined, and he takes off to the eastern grounds. True to your word, you sprint for the Cabinet, directing the few stragglers you meet to the northern side of campus, away from danger.

You try to make sense of the pesterchum log on your phone as you move. It's the emergency memo board, the same one you used just days ago to call the code orange on Dave's group. But this time Eridan's purple text is flashing, choppy and frantic, telling you that everything is about to go to hell.

caligulasAquarium [CA] 1 MINUTE AGO opened memo on board emergenciie2 only

CA: code red

CA: im patrollin on the southern perimiter an theres a group a stis approachin nearby

CA: a big fuckin pack

CA: eta seven minutes

CA: this is me callin for backup

twinArmegaddons [TA] 1 MINUTE AGO responded to memo

TA: ii am 2ettiing off the lockdown alarm and 2endiing the northern patrol two you.

TA: try not two fuck thii2 up and get u2 all brutally murdered.

It's been just over two years since you last issued a code red, and since then there have been so many new additions to the camp you're not entirely sure everyone will know what to do. You try to go through lockdown drills every so often, but practice and a real attack are two completely different things. The emergency memo board only sends messages out to members of the security and executive teams, so, just as you hit the Cabinet door and yank it open, you pull up a separate memo board that only you and Karkat have administrative access to—one that goes out to the whole camp. People need to know what's going on before panic starts to set in, if it hasn't already.

ectoBiologist [EB] RIGHT NOW opened memo on board iimportant announcement2

EB: we are officially going into lockdown, everyone.

EB: this isn't a drill or anything.

EB: according to southern patrol, there's a pack approaching fast, so i need everyone to stay calm and cooperate.

EB: all members of the security and scouting teams should report to the armory immediately. from there you will pick up weapons and ammo to help pad the southern defenses.

EB: everyone else should move to the cabinet and library based on your usual lockdown instructions. make sure to check in with your emergency group leaders!

EB: it is very important that everyone stays calm for the next few hours while things are taken care of. i promise that i will do my best to keep you safe.

The last message you send out leaves you with a heavy feeling in your chest, both because the last conversation you had with Karkat is still fresh in your mind and because you honestly don't have any way to guarantee anyone's safety. All you can do is try. And even if it kills you, that's what you'll do. (You try not to think about the fact that these days dying is so easy, so that kind of vow is something you have to be prepared to follow through with whether you like it or not.)

You plow into the armory room without pause, and when the door swings open you see that you're the first one inside. That's both good and bad, you think, because while it gives you a second to gather your bearings it also means people have been unarmed for that much longer.

Back when you'd lived on the campsite, every refugee had carried a weapon at all times. In the middle of the woods, the threat of an attack had always hung over your heads because you'd been sitting ducks stuck outside of your element. Over the past three years, however, you've been safe—and because of that you think you've gone a little soft. The University was—is—a secluded, half-hidden sanctuary away from the populated areas that Infected targeted on a consistent basis, and as time you'd gotten out of the habit of staying armed to the teeth at all times. Weapons training and daily exercise and such are still mandatory, but you've taken to storing larger weapons in one place for safe-keeping and easier maintenance.

The armory room, once the center for metalwork and sculpture back when the Cabinet was still the old arts college, is an open area with scuffed and scorched concrete flooring and high ceilings. The gray stone walls are lined with metal dividers and repurposed shelving, and the whole place gives off a kind-of warehouse feel, much like the rest of the building. There are three main sections that tools and equipment have been sorted out into—firearms, blades, and specialty weapons—and you can remember the hours spent sorting through everything like it was yesterday.

Boxes of every kind of ammo are stacked neatly in the firearms area, lined up alongside hanging racks of rifles and semi-automatics. A long table has been set up exclusively for cleaning and maintenance, and there are still a few grease-stained rags crumpled up alongside what looks like a half-assembled shotgun.

Similarly, the bladed weapons section is lined with shelves of upright machetes, knives, and everything else you've been able to salvage from army supply stores over the years. There's a small space set aside with sharpening blocks and shining rags, and for some reason the area as a whole is much neater than the guns'.

You, however, make a beeline for the specialty weapons. Everything that doesn't fit into a nice little category ends up there, and that includes your own ancient sledgehammer. It's propped up in your tiny designated corner, leaning against a spot in the wall that's been painted messily with your name. To prevent any confusion, every weapon in the room is labeled, tagged with the owners name and a number, ensuring that it always ends up back in the same spot after training or a mission. The entire setup is actually pretty organized, and if you had more time you might consider patting your cousins on the back for their clever system.

(Glancing down the lines, though, you spot scattered rifles and blades and empty spots on the racks tied with scraps of black—the sign of a soldier fallen in battle. A set of numbers added to the corresponding nametag show the row and column of that person's stake in the markeryard, and as your eyes flick over the whole setup you can't help but wonder how many more pieces you'll be tying before the day ends.)

Just as your hands close over the handle of your hammer, the doors slam open again and Jade rushes in, followed closely by a trail of security and scouting team members not already out on duty. Her own M1 semi-automatic is already slung over her shoulder, and she barely spares you a nod before she starts barking orders, directing groups to start unpacking boxes of ammo for easier access and distributing arms. Within moments, she has some kind of practiced assembly line established, and as soon as she pauses her shouting you dart over to her side to ask where Jake is. You'd thought he'd be with her.

"He keeps his pistols in the tent, so the stupid dummy ran straight to help the southern guard instead of coming here first," she says, and there's an edge in her voice that lets you know that she wants him with her and out of harm's way.

Your stomach drops just as your phone beeps again. It's the emergency memo, and one glance tells you that you've missed more than you'd like over the past few moments of scrambling.

tentacleTherapist [TT] 3 MINUTES AGO responded to memo

TT: I will be moving civilians safely indoors momentarily. For now, I have sent out members of my team to collect anyone from the overflow tents.

CA: i can hear the pack comin an i think wwere goin to need more than the deployed patrols

CA: eta four minutes

CA: goin to need both a my hands for this so no more updates or nothin

gogothasTerror [GT] 2 MINUTES AGO responded to memo

GT: Im booking it your way to offer my own bullets and jade is heading to the armory.

TT: Please be careful, Jake.

carcinoGeneticist [CG] RIGHT NOW responded to memo

CG: WE CAN HEAR THEM ALL THE WAY FROM OUR OWN FUCKING TENTS, TOO. THEY'RE NOT MAKING EVEN SOME KIND OF HALF-ASSED EFFORT TO HIDE SO I'M GOING TO DO THE GODDAMN EQUATION AND SAY THE GROUP IS ALREADY WORKED UP IN A FRENZY.

CG: ALTHOUGH THEY WOULD HAVE TO BE TO MAKE IT THIS FAR NORTH.

CG: I'M SENDING THE EMERGENCY RESERVE TEAM FOR WEAPONS BECAUSE I GET THE FEELING WE'RE GOING TO NEED ALL THE HELP WE CAN GET.

You suck in a breath and immediately call out the newest information—Karkat's contribution to the memo—to Jade. The reserve team essentially consists of a massive group of members from the Cured camp who aren't already on either the security or scouting teams under Jade's direction. Because they tend to be stronger than most members from your own camp, the group is almost exclusively made up of gray-skinned backup arms only called out in extreme emergencies. And, apparently, Karkat thinks the situation is bad enough to warrant their extra weight. All members of the reserve are strong in their own right, but none made the official teams for a variety of reasons—the most prevalent among them being an inability to work with others and a general distrust of anyone outside their own camp. Still, you're not willing to turn down what your friend thinks you'll need. Unfortunately, though, it complicated the situation more than it already is. It could be a while before Jade herself makes it to the field.

Your cousin curses and shouts out a new set of instructions to the people left around her, and you realize then that a steady stream of fighters have already been moving in and out of the armory. Your friends are putting their lives on the line to protect your home, and you've yet to make any kind of real move.

"I'm heading out!" you yell, hoisting up your hammer and ignoring the twinge in your wrist as the weight lands on your shoulder. You can't tell if Jade says anything in return because your brain is already out on the front lines. You push your body through the door and down the hall, and when you break outside into the gray morning the air feels heavy and thick. Some weirdly detached part of your mind thinks it might be the sign of a storm, but you're not paying enough attention to really consider the possibility.

You're almost to the main gate on the southern side of the campus (it seems like just yesterday you were driving through with Meenah, an unconscious Dave splayed across your lap) when you hear the first rounds of gunfire, and you push your legs harder, faster, willing your body toward the perimeter. The grass-covered University campus grounds are surrounded on all sides by forest, the only clear path out the paved road leading back to the highway. You can't see anything down the road, though, so you dive into the trees, fighting back branches with your free hand as you follow the sounds of claws and teeth and yelling and bullets and war.

And then you see them.

They're scrambling through the woods alongside you, around you, and you swing just as the first one to spot you makes a lunge for your left flank. Another gray body hits a tree trunk in front of you, snarling and leaking black as it goes down in a hail of lead and gunpowder, and it takes you a moment to realize that the flash of purple blurring at the corner of your vision isn't Eridan.

Cronus barely spares you a glance as he aims his rifle at the next mass crawling overhead and pulls the trigger. "Took you long enough, chief!" He yells between gritted teeth, already turning his back to you and the thing now struggling on the ground, dazed from its fall and injuries. You slam the head of your hammer into its skull before it has the chance to get up and whip around to find your next target. Now that you're paying attention, you can see the branches in the canopy above shifting more than the wind could ever make them move, and there are shadows darting between the trunks around you that shouldn't exist no matter how dim the sky is.

"What the hell are you doing out here?" you call, swinging again and catching a snarling thing just as it lurches from the shadows towards Cronus's exposed back. "Rose said the gen-care team was back with the others!"

"Did you really think I was going to let my kid brother fight out here without me to back up his useless ass?"

Another stream of bullets goes whizzing past your head from behind, and you hear Eridan shout something from a distance just as Meenah dives in from the side, impaling another monster through the chest with her staff as it falls from the trees to your right. She flashes you a grim salute and disappears back into the chaos. You take that as a sign that they've got everything covered here and nod back even though she doesn't stick around long enough to see it. This is only the back line of defense, and you have yet to find Jake. You can only assume he's closer to the front lines (which, to be honest, worries you more than it should).

"I'm heading forward!" you shout to Cronus and the others nearby, already pressing ahead. "Hold the perimeter!"

The farther out you move, the more you find yourself crushing bodies and slamming Infected into the natural obstacles towering around you. You follow the sound of familiar shouts and gunfire as you move away from the University border, and it occurs to you then that your forces are spread too thin. Horuss and Equius cross your path once, but as you forge on you run into more monsters than you do soldiers defending your home. You have no way to get the word out, though, so you keep pushing forward in hopes that you'll find the front line of defense to pull them back. You're outnumbered—dangerously so—so you'll have to make up in density what you can't hope to match in sheer size.

Then, finally, you spot them—a familiar flash of green (lined up back-to-back with gray that almost—just for a second—sends a shiver up your spine before you realize that it's the good kind of gray; a friendly gray). Jake and Nepeta, along with the Portland mobsters and a handful of other fighters, are facing off against a swarm of skin and claws from every angle.

Feet spread wide and firmly planted in the ground, your cousin is pounding bullet after bullet from a pistol in each hand through the bodies of creatures from all sides, and as you take out a monster from your right you can't help but admire how much he's grown from the scrawny ten-year-old struggling to grip a clip in the parking lot of some old Seattle gas station. Now, he's one of the best shots at the camp—second only to Jade—and you think probably the only ambidextrous crack-shot left in the country. Probably the world. (Not that there were many of those to start with, really.)

Nepeta, on the other hand, is flitting back and forth, weaving through the pack of danger in a blur of blades and blood. The knives sewn into the fingers of her leather gloves extend her already-impressive claws to an even deadlier reach than normal, and you're reminded yet again why she's the most lethal thing for thousands of miles. The mess of skin and bodies she'd left scattered in the streets when you'd first met her was—is—nothing compared to the carnage and havoc she can wreak nowadays.

"John!" Jake shouts as soon as he sees you amid the fray, and the others around you immediately glance in your direction for a split second before the chaos pulls them all back to the fight. You catch eyes with Droog for a moment just as he pulls the trigger on his own handgun, putting a bullet between the eyes of a creature diving for Boxcars' exposed back, and the Portland mobster nods in silent greeting. You don't respond, though, because you're already thinking two steps ahead, trying to figure out how you're going to get everyone closer to the campus border all while still keeping the flood of death at bay.

Four downed monsters later you think you have a pretty solid grasp of who all is in your immediate area, and you start shouting orders. You yell once, twice, three times before people stop moving forward. The message moves through the air like molasses, slow but sure, and after longer than you'd like you can hear others shouting it too, moving it down the front flank from your left and right like some sick game of life-or-death telephone. Moments later, Jake finally starts stepping backwards toward the direction you came, followed shortly by the rest.

You stay ahead until everyone who had once been in your line of sight is behind you, covering as your friends—your family—struggle to move and fight at the same time. In your peripheral vision you see members of the scouting team and Karkat's reserve forces start to surge up and join the others, but even then you're not sure if it'll be enough to protect your home.

Thunder rumbles overhead and you feel the sound in your bones, but you refuse to let it shake you.


You don't know how long you fight.

Soon, the overcast sky is leaking icy rain on your heads and without the sun you have no way of gauging how fast the morning gives way to afternoon. The barely-there daylight works both for and against your forces, because while you and your camp suffer in the bad visibility the soldiers from Karkat's camp thrive in the harsh conditions. The downpour itself, however, is a different story. All of you—monsters included—are covered in mud before long, sliding through the slick dirt as you press against each other. Stable footing is barely more than a prayer after a matter of minutes, and more often than not you find yourself tripping over some fallen, half-slain body as you swing your sledgehammer. The dark, blurry chaos also makes it hard to tell who you're trying to defend and who you're trying to kill, because with water and blood and sweat dripping in your eyes you don't have the ability to really look before you take someone out.

By the time you reach the point where three consecutive moments pass without something trying to rip you to shreds, your body is burning with cold and hot all at the same time—you've lost feeling in your limbs and your right hand isn't quite gripping as firmly as you'd hope, so you think your wrist might really be broken, now, if it wasn't already. You can still hear gunfire and yelling, but it's muffled by the torrential waters rushing through the trees overhead.

You're almost there, you think. You've almost made it.

But the fight isn't over yet.

Someone calls your name and you tighten your grip on the handle of your sledgehammer just in time to see something drop from the canopy above you, but before you can blink it's already on your back. The bone-crushing weight lands squarely on your shoulders, but you don't let it take you to the ground—you're stronger than that. But—

you've still got your weapon in-hand and you can't let it go because if you do you'll be left defenseless and if the thing gets its claws in your you're fucked, shit, shit, shit

And then suddenly the thing is gone, pulled off you from behind, and you hear six rapid-fire shots at so close a range that your ears start ringing.

A split-second later, the creature is lying in a crumpled heap on the ground at your back, face completely destroyed after being shot at near-point blank. Equius, face grim-set and teeth gritted, is standing over it, fists still raised and poised where he'd just pulled the creature off you, and next to him is the last person you would ever expect to see out in a place like this.

"Kankri?" you blink as you swipe the dripping bangs out from behind your water-prismed glasses. He still has both hands clasped tight around the handle of his handgun, poised post-firing, and his mouth is set in a thin line. The same worn-out red sweater he's had for as long as you can remember is soaked completely through, the heavy rainwater weighing it down, stretching it deep across his thin shoulders and over his hands. It makes him look smaller than he already is, and you wonder if he can even see with the way his own water-logged dark hair is flopped down over his eyes. "Does Rose know you're out here? Cronus and you—the more of your team we have, the less of you there are helping her keep people calm!"

You at least hope Karkat had the sense to stay put back on the base, but, then again, he really isn't much of a fighter anyway. (Although Kankri even less so, if you're being honest with yourself. And that's what has you worried.)

Kankri nods stiffly in response, eyes still locked on the carnage at his feet, and you wonder for a second if he's going to be sick. Before you have the chance to ask if he's alright, though, he starts talking, voice shaky but determined. "There has been a break through the defensive line, and both the young Mr. Nitram and Ms. Lalonde have requested your assistance immediately."

"Fuck," you hiss just as you feel your blood run cold, "Where?"

"The northern side. The group is small, but we were caught off guard and there is only so much we can do when most of our main forces have been deployed out here."

You nod, already looking past the pair for anyone not currently caught in the fight for survival, and don't respond. The first person you lock eyes with is Rufioh, so you call out for him and then start sprinting back to base. You don't bother checking to see if Kankri and Equius are following you, but you don't particularly care because your brain is already thinking two steps ahead to everyone holed up and terrified back on the main campus grounds.

Every refugee knows how to fight, sure—everyone is required to attend combat and weapons training at least four times a week—but sparring and facing down real monsters aren't quite the same. Having the skills to defend yourself and your family is one thing, but having the confidence to do so is a completely different ballgame. And for most people on the base it's been years since their last encounter with the things that go bump in the night these days.

When you finally make it through the trees back onto the University grounds, you follow Kankri's shouted directions without missing a beat and sprint toward the Infirmary. You had focused so much on guarding the base's southern side—the direction the attack had come from—that you hadn't really thought much about protecting the north. And you doubt Jade had, either.

You'd thought it would be safe. You're paying the price for that mistake.

The rain, now pouring down in sheets, drowns out almost all sound as you run farther and farther away from the woods. What it doesn't block out, though, the sound of your blood pumping in your ears takes care of.

But as you make your way closer and closer to the Infirmary, the chaos picks up again and God, oh God, you hope everyone is alright. The ground is slick and soft, but you don't stumble.

And then you see them.

They're clawing at the walls of the Infirmary and the Cabinet and even though you can't see the library you assume they're there, too. A few are circling through the grassy space, and the rest are pressing against the handful of refugees brave enough to face them down. You can just make out Rose through the torrential downpour, slashing and slashing and slashing as monsters come at her from all sides, and Feferi is nearby, beating back what she can with her own bo staff. Gunfire sounds from a second floor Infirmary window, and you can see the barrel of Roxy's rifle peeking out into the rain. Good, she's still inside—which means Jane probably is, too.

Without stopping, you run right into the fray, making a bee-line for Rose just as the fight starts overwhelming her.

"John!" she yells, eyes meeting yours for less than a second just as she brings down one of her two hunting knives on the neck of a hissing gray thing. Your friend looks relieved, if only for a second, and then she moves to face the monster head on, exposing her body from behind. You don't hesitate to take your place there, fighting from her other side as you stand practically back-to-back.

"Is everyone alright?" you shout in return, bringing your hammer down as the creatures start to swarm. Now that you've brought reinforcements, they're starting to view you as more of threat—or maybe food—than the annoyance the others probably were before. Out of the corner of your eye you can see Rufioh, Kankri, and Equius take on Infected in groups—and then the Cabinet door is opening and a handful of refugees led by Karkat break into the chaos.

"So far, we have only suffered a few minor injuries," Rose calls to you, "and those individuals have been moved into Tavros's care."

You drop another clawed thing and nod, before realizing she can't see you. "Good."


The rain doesn't let up. If anything, it gets worse as the day wears on, pouring down like a weight on your shoulders as you swing, swing, swing, breaking bones and crushing bodies and fighting not only for your life but for the life of your family. Eventually, you move away from Rose when you see Karkat start to struggle, and Fef rushes to take your place. You shout to Karkat, asking if he's alright, and he just tells you to fuck off with in the most relieved shout you think you've ever heard. The same old scythe he's had since this whole thing started years ago is continually being washed clean by the torrent from above, but you can still see how stained black it is.

You don't know when Tavros leaves the Infirmary—you don't see him when he comes out to join the fight, and you don't know why. (Later, you'll look back and think that maybe he had been coming to get you, to tell you something. You never get the chance to ask.)

But you hear his scream—oh, God, do you hear his scream—and it's like everything stops. You're not sure if it's just your imagination, but you think even the monsters falter for a second when the kid yells, high-pitched and cracked and so damn full of agony and fuck.

The momentary distraction is all you need to pound the thing in front of you, and then you're searching, scanning, hunting through the rain to find him—that blur of orange—and when you spot him crumpled on the ground face-first, pinned on his lower back by a creature reeling and jerking from an immaculate, immediate hail of gunfire from above, you don't even think before you run.

One final slam to the skull sends the Infected on top of him sprawling to the ground, and you shout over the thunder for Roxy cover you. You can't tell if she hears you or not because she's so far away, but you know if she doesn't watch your back, someone else—anyone else—will. So you're okay. You're okay, but Tav isn't.

His arms are twitching at the ground like he isn't sure what to do with himself, scratching at the grass, and his chest is heaving hard enough that you think he's about to start hyperventilating if he hasn't already. You can't see any immediate external wounds so you decide right then and there that he probably isn't at risk for Infection, but something isn't right—something isn't right—because he's still yelling cracked and ragged and he's making no move to get up.

You shout his name, tell him to breathe, tell him he's okay, because he's in the middle of a war zone and you need to get him out. He doesn't respond and you realize that you're going to have to move him yourself, but when you reach down to turn him over he just screams and screams and screams.

You drop your hammer and grit your teeth and lift him up bridal style, and he fixes you with the most agony-filled stare you've seen in a really, really, really long time before going totally, completely, terrifyingly limp in your arms, unconscious, and fuck. No. No.

Everything feels like it moves in slow motion after that.

You burst through the Infirmary door, slamming it open with one foot (shit, you think you might have broken the lock, you'll have to get Equius to take a look at it later if—when you all survive this), and immediately you're met face-to-face with a crowd of terrified refugees packed into the halls, huddled on the floor. You must look like some kind of monster yourself, covered in rain and blood and holding the wrecked, tiny body of a teenage boy so close you think you might break him.

A few people scream, but all you can do is shout for them to barricade the door behind you before you push into your office, the closest room to the entrance. There are a few people inside, tucked near the corners and away from the window, but you don't pay them mind as you shove everything off one of the counters and lay your little apprentice down as flat as you can. You set to work figuring out where his injuries are, what happened, what you can do to help. You pray to the God you stopped believing in years ago that he was just terrified, caught off-guard, but you know somewhere deep down that wasn't the case. It couldn't be the case.

Because you've seen him fight before, and you know that he has more fight in his skinny tiny body than most of the people you have on base.

You can't find anything wrong save for the bruise line slowly blooming before your eyes along his lower back where he'd been pinned, and you think in the grand scheme of things it could have been so, so much worse. So you heave out a shaky sigh of relief and take a moment to breathe. There's a dull murmur outside the door as people talk in hushed voices among themselves, but for the most part the loudest noises are the sounds of fighting outside.

Then, suddenly, there are a few yells from the hall and you turn just in time to see Gamzee stumble in, leaping over the crowd and using more curses in his apologies than anyone you've ever heard. He looks shaky and pale and skinny, so unlike the wild-eyed fighter you met just the week before, and if you hadn't been keeping track of his recovery you don't think you'd recognize him. He has his mouth open to say something, but the minute he lays eyes on Tavros the only sound that comes out is a pained, raspy whine.

"He's fine," say, shaking your head, and you see Gamzee kind of fold in on himself a little, relieved. It's been a while since you met someone so expressive with his emotions—you can read everything Gamzee is thinking across his face, and you wonder for a moment whether that's just how he is or if he's so burned out from withdrawal that he doesn't have the energy to put on any kind of front.

"Thank the motherfuckin' messiahs," he says, his scratchy voice so quiet that you almost miss it under the sound of the commotion through your window.

You need to get back out there, though, so you don't really think about what you're doing before you tell Gamzee to keep an eye on Tavros and head for the door. Everyone is watching you, now, so you do your best to keep your back straight and your head held tall like you're confident everything will be alright—which you are, you think; you are.

There are two shaky-but-determined teenagers not much younger than yourself armed with what look like the legs of a broken chair standing at the door, blocking it closed with their bodies because you'd told them to barricade themselves in but weren't specific as to how, and they quietly step aside when you approach, looking up at you like you're some kind of heroic god. (Which you're not—fuck, you're not—but you can't tell them that because the idea that you can somehow save them from an endless, broken world is one of the only things that gives people hope these days, you think.) You put a hand on the shoulder of the kid to your left (you're having trouble flexing the fingers on your right hand and you know now more than ever you can't show weakness so you just kind of let it hang limp, trying to mentally prepare yourself for when you have to pick up your hammer and fight again) and then you're out the door once more.

The rain hits you like a wall, cold and searing and heavy, but the minute you're back into the madness everything speeds up and you have to hit the ground running, sprinting, sprinting, sprinting for your hammer still discarded in the middle of the battle. It's half sunken in the mud where its own weight has it pressed down into the soft ground, so a few moments of useless scrambling around pass before actually find it. You're far from defenseless without your weapon, but even so the ten short seconds it takes for you to hone in and reach it as chaos rages on around you seem longer than they should.

By now, the ground is littered with gray bodies and the soil soaked black with blood. You can see your own forces have doubled in size, and the power shift has put you at an advantage—finally, finally, you there's some kind of end to this whole fucked up situation in sight. Fighting on the campus perimeter must have died down enough to spare the extra muscle, because you spot Horuss fighting alongside Karkat, Meenah flinging her own bo staff in time with her sister, and Slick gouging out the eyes of a monster just as Rose goes for its neck. You're barely back into the fray a minute before you hear someone else call your name, though, and just as you can turn to figure out who it is Rufioh appears at your side, yellow eyes wide.

"How is he? Shit, Doc, is he okay?" he asks, so focused on you that he almost misses the creature coming at him from his left and you have to pull him back just as it lunges, swinging at it yourself.

"He'll live," is all you can say because you know you won't have a real idea of how he's doing until he wakes up—you've learned over the years not to assume. Rufioh seems to sense your hesitance, though, which you can understand. The way things are these days he'll live could mean a whole host of shaky promises that aren't exactly positive. Instead of asking you to clarify, he just nods and stabs another monster through the heart with his spear.


By the time the last body falls, the rain still hasn't let up. You're all exhausted, drenched, and terrified—but after a pause of standing, tense, waiting for the next claw to come, you hear a loud, relieved cackle and it's like a switch is flipped.

Suddenly everyone is laughing, laughing, laughing. Laughing until tears start falling and sobs start running through bodies, but it's all so mixed with rainwater that it doesn't even matter. That first grin had come from Terezi (when did she make it out here?) and as you watch she jumps on Karkat's back, bringing them both to the ground. Feferi crushes her sister in the first hug you've seen them share in a long, long time and Meenah just sort of stands there, dropping her staff but not quite pushing away, either. Rose calls up to Roxy, still leaning out of the second floor window, and after a moment the Infirmary door opens and Jane comes barreling out, slipping and sliding through the mud as she sprints directly toward you without looking back.

Before you know it, her arms are wrapped around your waist and she has her head buried in your shirt as she clutches onto you like you're going to disappear. You fold around her, engulfing your little sister in the kind of all-encompassing hug reserved only for the most desperate of times, the most fulfilling of victories. (You've shared more of these hugs than you'd care to admit, and that thought scares you a little.)

But you can't stay long, you know, because while the carnage inside the base has ended you don't know if the people on the outside are still fighting. You've yet to see either of your cousins, and even though you know they're more than capable of handling themselves that fact makes you nervous. You wait until Jane stops shaking to let her go, and when you do you call for Equius and Meenah and everyone else you can see around you who had started out on the front lines (with the exception of Rufioh, because you can't spot him—but the Infirmary door is still open, so you assume he's gone inside to find his cousin). Before you get the chance to relax, to relish in your win, you're already running back toward the southern side of campus where the others should be.

When reach the southern perimeter, the already-dwindling fight is just powering to a close, and with your added pressure it becomes something near a one-sided massacre with the bloodbath tilted in your favor. There are several wounded huddled back toward the University entrance, away from the carnage, but nothing serious enough to warrant any kind of real panic. You end up carrying Eridan on your back when you finally begin to make your way toward the Infirmary to tell everyone that you've won—you've won—and he curses in your ear the entire way, both because he was stupid enough to get hurt and because you make him carry your hammer in addition to his own rain-soaked rifle.

You reach the northern side of campus a procession of exhausted, bloody soldiers, and the cheer that rises up almost brings you to your knees.


Hours later, the downpour is still coming down in sheets, but things have started to function as normally as possible again. Healthy refugees are shuffled out of the library, Cabinet, and Infirmary, and everyone is accounted for in some way, shape, or form. Anyone willing to help with cleanup dons whatever gloves Jane can scrounge up from the bowels of the Cabinet, and groups of fighters and civilians alike begin the grueling task of moving the broken, bloody carnage back toward the pyre pit near the markeryard. When the sky dries up, you'll have to burn everything.

You end up back in the Infirmary, tending to the wounded and panicked after two minutes of cleaning up, yourself. Your right wrist is swollen and bruised and barely functional—completely broken, you decide—and you're just grateful that you're left-handed. Progress is slow with only five working fingers in your favor, though.

Kankri helps for a while, running errands and tending to people who just need a bit of calming down, but when you see exhaustion start to sway his steps you send him back to the dorms for rest. He must tell Rose you're running things alone, though, because after that you get a steady stream of members from the gen-care team willing to lend their legs for a bit.

Tavros still hasn't woken up by the time you get things as sorted as they can be and send the last exhausted, bandaged soldier off to sleep. Most of your rooms are filled, now, either with people who don't want to do outside and see the carnage or the few fighters wounded enough to warrant your watchful eye. You have Gamzee move Tavros to his own room instead of putting him in a patient corridor, but you're too burned out to argue when Gamzee refuses to leave his side. In the end, you let him move his own blankets in with Tav's and make a pile like the one you yourself have set up in Dave's semi-permanent space.

Only when everyone else is finally settled do you take the time to check on the Striders. Because of the blood-curdling interruption, you and Karkat never actually came to any sort of real conclusion about the two of them, but after everything that has happened you know that you, at least, have already decided that you won't do anything stupid based on a theory. And you won't let anyone else, either.

Dave is still out cold, which doesn't surprise you, but you can see how hollow his cheeks are and you know if he doesn't wake up soon you won't have to make a decision about him at all.

When you make your way to Dirk's room, though, you find something that you're not really expecting to see. Jake, rain-soaked but otherwise clean, is sprawled out across the foot of the younger Strider's bedding, snoring. When you'd seen him last he had been helping Jade move bodies, but now that you think about it you're not sure how long ago that was—you're not sure just how long you've been in here working.

But that's not the surprising part.

The patient himself is propped upright, blinking but tense, a hard gaze fixed on you from the moment you open the door. You're so focused on your cousin, though, that almost a full minute passes before you realize he's watching. When you do, you kind of jump a little (and you totally do not yelp like a prepubescent girl—nope, not you). You can't help but be a tad taken aback by the piercing orange of his eyes—you've seen them already, of course, but he's never been awake enough to actually really look at much this past week. Neither of you stay anything for a moment, and you stand frozen in the doorway while he squints at you, wary. You don't want to move too much or approach him because you're not sure if something will set him off. You don't know how much he remembers from the past week, how much is familiar to him.

After a moment, though, he just kind of heaves this shallow, resigned sigh and glances down toward Jake. "He's lying on my feet."

You can't help it—you laugh.


It takes more than a little bit of maneuvering to get Jake off the pallet with one hand, and in the end you just end up sort of scooting him onto the floor. He doesn't wake up—instead, your cousin just shifts and keeps snoring after a moment's pause. With Dirk's permission, you take Jake's place at the end of the mattress, perched on the edge and out of the way of Dirk's feet, and sit in silence for a little bit while he gets himself re-situated now that his legs are free.

"You're the guy who found us," he says eventually, and it's not a question—just a statement of fact. His voice is quiet, scratchy from almost a week of disuse, but confident and steady in its own way. (You never talked much to Dirk over pesterchum over the past few weeks, but even so you find yourself wondering if Dave sounds similar.)

You nod, only half-smiling because wow, now that you're sitting down you realize just how absolutely exhausted you are. It kind of hits you like a brick to the face, and you hope it doesn't show too much.

"Yeah, I'm John. I guess it's nice to officially meet you—I really appreciate you, you know, not dying."

Dirk snorts, eyebrows shooting up, and welp you are just the king of first impressions. It's you.

"No problem. It wasn't really high on my list, either, so I suppose that worked out well for both of us," he replies, shrugging a little sluggishly. "I guess I should be the one thanking you, though. For saving our asses. Pyrope—she made it here, too?"

"Yeah," you say, "she's fine." You decide not to elaborate on her condition just yet, because she is fine. And that's all Dirk needs to know right now.

"Serket and Makara?"

"Vriska's down the hall and Gamzee is upstairs with a friend of mine. They're both fine, too—but Vris is still a little freaked out by all of, you know, everything."

He nods again, quiet, and there's another pause as you wait for him to ask about his brother. The question never comes, though, and it occurs to you then that the last he'd probably seen Dave was the same way you'd found him—or at least something similar. He thinks his brother is dead, you realize, and that breaks you a little inside because shit, you don't know what you'd do if something happened to Jane. Or Jade or Jake. And you can't help but be a little awed by how calm he's acting about the whole thing. (Although that could mostly be due in part to the fact that he's still pretty out of it, awake for the first time in days and physically exhausted.)

"Dave's upstairs, too. I've been keeping an eye on him since he got here."

There's a moment that passes where you're not really sure if Dirk heard you because he doesn't react—not really. He just sort of sits there. And then his eyes go wide and you see his pale hands grip the sheets tight—so tight you think he might rip them—and then there's a sheen to his gaze that might be tears (but you're not about to mention it). "That fucking bastard," he says, voice so raspy you almost miss it, and suddenly you regret mentioning anything at all because you're really not sure whether Dave will live or die. (But if you were in Dirk's position you'd want to know, so you know you made the right decision).

You don't really know how to respond so you just kind of hum in response and wait for Dirk to relax a little bit. You don't want to get him too worked up because he's already not doing super great, even if he is on the mend. Instead of saying more about his brother, you make a sort of vague, sweeping gesture in your cousin's direction and say, "That's Jake, by the way. Just in case you were wondering."

Dirk blinks again, still a little watery and trying to absorb even more new information, and you can tell that he's starting to fade out. You doubt he's been awake long and you're sure his body is already exhausted. A week spent fighting off the Infection without food or water would do that to a person, you think.

"Jake as in GT?" He asks after a moment, eyebrows still firmly in place in the upright and raised position, but his tone of voice hasn't changed so you're not sure whether that's a good reaction or not.

"Yep."

"Huh."

The internal debate over whether or not to tell him that your cousin has made a habit of napping in this particular room over the past week is cut short when your phone pings and you both jump a little (again). Although you'd like to ignore it, you know after the events of the day that's not really something you can do, so you just shrug apologetically and pull it out under Dirk's watchful gaze.

— twinArmageddons [TA] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 18:37 —

TA: dont get two 2ettled JN.

TA: ii know youre bu2y a2 fuck but KK ii2 calliing an exec meetiing or 2ome 2hiit.

TA: and youve got two be there for obviiou2 rea2on2.

TA: he 2ay2 there2 2ome 2tuff you want two talk two u2 about.

TA: and al2o there2 the biig obviiou2 glariing ii22ue of how the fuck today actually happened.

EB: what time does karkat want us to start coming over?

EB: like, are we talking really soon as in right now?? or as in later tonight?

TA: he2 already runniing around liike a fuckiing lo2er tryiing two round up everyone who ii2nt an2weriing theiir phone2 2o iim goiing two a22ume he want2 iit two happen liike now.

EB: ugh, fine. i just have a few things to finish up here and then i'll be right there.

EB: if you see karkat before i make it tell him he could have just messaged me himself to save you all the trouble.

TA: got iit.

TA: iill be 2ure two let hiim know he2 a raviing douchenugget moron completely incapable of iindependant thought and ba2iic logiical rea2oniing.

EB: awesome! thanks, sollux.

TA: no prob JN.

— twinArmageddons [TA] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 18:46 —

When you glance back over to Dirk, you see that he's still watching you, but his eyelids have drooped and he's started sagging back down into the pillows. You tell him you'll have to head out soon, and he seems almost relieved, so you make him promise to get as much rest as he needs before you stand and almost trip over the unconscious green lump still sprawled out on the floor.

"Want me to haul him out of here?" you ask, but Dirk just shakes his head.

"Nah, let him sleep. He looks like he could use the rest. And so do you."

You roll your eyes a little and wave your healthy hand vaguely through the air. "Don't worry about me—worry about yourself. You've been out for a while and—no offense—but it looks like you could use a few hours of beauty sleep, too," you laugh, and he gives you this a kind of tired smirk in return that you take as a positive sign. Before you head out, you double back and rummage through Jake's pockets until you find his phone. After typing in the pass-code, you toss it on the bed near Dirk's side. "If you need anything, though, just message me. I'll be over in, like, twelve seconds. Anything at all." He nods, you smile, and then you're out the door.

Chapter Text

==> ROSE: DISTRACT YOURSELF

You were fifteen when it happened.

You weren't the type to go to large parties, really, but it was the end of your freshman year and your mother had insisted. The night itself is a stop-motion blur—just dark rooms lit up with strobe lights, loud music, and a red solo cup you should have known better than to take. (But it was late and you were caught up in the moment, the excitement, the energy of everyone around you. You couldn't have known there was something extra mixed in with the cheap beer. You couldn't have known.)

But you do remember waking up the next morning in a strange house, in a strange bed, feeling sick to your stomach and wrong, wrong, wrong. You remember the phone calls and the policemen and every detail of your therapist's ornate office. You remember the doctor's appointments, the days spent in court, and the discovery just a few weeks later that your life would never be the same. You remember sitting with your mother for hours—not crying, just existing in the same space with her and wondering how she could still stand to be around you after all you'd put her though. You remember making the most difficult decision you'd ever had to up to that point (and for the rest of your life afterward)—the kind of decision no fifteen-year-old should ever have to make.

Everything stopped. Every string you had attached to the things in the world that defined your existence, your future, your happiness was cut and reattached to one tiny little barely-more-than-an-idea you had never planned, never wanted.

After that one horrible night, your entire life became Roxy.

You didn't return to school the next year. The private academy you had been attending didn't allow that sort of behavior in their student body, no matter the circumstances. Instead, you turned to online courses and in-home tutors for as long as you could, all the best your mother could find. But when Roxy was born, even that became too much to handle. Studying took a backseat to diaper changes and breastfeeding, and by the end of your sophomore year it had become clear that you had to make yet another choice.

Your mother had offered to find the most qualified nannies, the most reputable childcare facilities, but you knew from the beginning that you didn't want her to grow up as you had, raised by a woman who missed your first steps and first words because she was busy working halfway across the world. (You knew your mother loved you, she always had—but sometimes you couldn't help but question her priorities.)

Without school to occupy your every waking moment, however, you suddenly became faced with an overabundance of free time, something you had failed to anticipate in its entirety. Unable to sleep through the night and always on your toes during the day, you were left twiddling your thumbs between the times Roxy needed you. To keep yourself sane, you began throwing yourself back into books, something that had always given you so much comfort. Evening after evening was spent pouring over William James, Mary Ainsworth, and Carl Jung, trying to understand what special brand of madness had taken residence in your head. (Your therapist had been the one to suggest "motherhood", and now, so many years later, you think she might have been on to something with that.)

But when your research endeavors failed to bring you any sort of peace, you turned to the only other escape you knew.

You had written.

Complacency of the Learned had never been more than a pet project, something to work on between studies, but as that first year with Roxy passed it became so, so much more. (A distraction, an escape, a blessing.) Your mother was busy traversing the globe—just as she always had been—but when you finally finished your first draft's draft she had been the one to read it over. She had been the one to look you dead in the eye through the video chat window and tell you, "Rosie, I really think you got yourself somethin' good here," and beamed.

After that, it was like your whole world clicked again.

You had learned to love Roxy more than life itself, more than anything in the world—a feeling you had never experienced before. Something totally and completely incomparable. But you were still a child trying to live the life of an adult, and your writing gave you a direction your daughter couldn't at such a young age.

It had taken a full year after finishing the first installment of your series to get any sort of publisher interested in you, and by then you had already finished two more books. When you finally did get your work out into the world, though, the response was far beyond anything you could ever have hoped for. Complacency of the Learned took off like few others had, and before long your small cult following had grown into a international interest that spanned across six continents. By the time Roxy was four years old, five of the seven-part series had been released, the first of which had already been filmed and released to theaters, two more in the works.

Suddenly, at nineteen years old, you were one of the fastest-growing entertainment icons in the world, a success story everyone wanted to know the gory details behind. More than three fourths of the material printed about you in tabloid magazines and newspapers was haphazard speculation, rarely true, and on some days it became hard to tell whether you were famous for the novels you'd worked so hard on or simply your unique, morbidly-intriguing circumstances.

Do you regret dropping out of school? Do you owe your fame to the connections of your mother, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize? What are your plans for the future? Is it true that you're—canI say that on national TV?—that you're gay? If that's the case, how exactly did your daughter come to be? What advice would you give to young women in your situation? If given the choice, is there anything about your life you would do differently?

You didn't run away, not really. You just moved as far out of the spotlight as you could, and in doing so ended up on the opposite side of the country. Early in her career, your mother had been instrumental in the establishment and construction of a small university for exceptionally gifted individuals, and that—the Skaian University of Arts and Sciences—became your safe haven. Although well-known in certain Ivy League circles, it was relatively secluded and willing to accommodate your special circumstances, a quiet place you could continue working in solitude and relative anonymity. That particular decision was easy, and in a matter of months you had received your GED and were living on-campus with a four-year-old Roxy.

Your daughter, as she was often wont to do, stole the hearts of both the students and teachers alike, wide-eyed and excited and bursting with barely-coherent enthusiasm as she absorbed the wealth of knowledge around her. When you first arrived, she had just begun to speak in sentences, still jumbled and baby-slurred and adorable. Within months, however, she had mastered the art of simple conversation and begun learning how to read. Her family grew exponentially overnight, and her tiny, brilliant mind stretched to accommodate each new experience. It was amazing to watch, and to this day you still find yourself blown away by her intelligence. (She reminds you so much of your own mother, vibrant and loving and incomparably gifted.)

Initially, you weren't anything to the school. A resident, nothing more—not a student or teacher. But before long you had proofread and reviewed so many papers as favors to the students around you that the administration and board of directors offered you a position on the faculty. The next year, you began working part-time as the instructor for the University's creative writing classes. Regardless of whatever controversy surrounded you, your books were still some of the most popular in recent decades, and accepting the offer benefitted both you and the school. Rather than receive a salary, your living expenses became your paycheck, and teaching became a welcome break from work.

You never could have imagined your life turning out the way it did. When you were young, you had no idea what you wanted to be when you grew up. But the universe works in mysterious ways, you've come to realize, and you know you wouldn't be the same person you are today if things had happened differently.

You still think about your mother sometimes. Realistically, you know there is an almost undeniable guarantee she has long since died, killed or turned or simply gone. And New York is far away—so, so far away. Even if she were still living, you doubt you would ever know.

You owe her everything you are, you think. More than your genes and your life. She had saved you from yourself, held you up so you could survive the things you had no control over, and helped you take charge of the things you did. But she hadn't held your hand—no, she'd taught you the only way to survive your choices in life is to learn from them and find your own way.

You wonder what she would say if she could see you now.


For the first time in a long time, the grounds are mostly quiet. It feels, you think, like the calm that comes after any storm in great literature. The time of resolution, peace, happiness. But the rain is still pounding down in sheets, hard and heavy and wet as hell, soaking anything and anyone caught scurrying under the chaos. The thunder and lightning have, at least, long since stopped—and they stopped, you think, when the last body fell, like some kind of Victorian-era poetic justice. A universal compensation for what you'd all had the strength to claw your way out of, to survive.

By now, you've managed to clear everyone out of their hiding places and put all those willing to work. The ground is slick, and the feeling in your toes fled hours ago because your socks are soaked even through your boots. The longer the rain falls, the worse the terrain becomes, but you can't stop. The moment you do, you know that everyone behind you will stop, too, and you can't afford to let that happen. Most of your focus is being taken up by the headless, legless gray torso you're holding on to your back by the arms, and any concentration you have left in your system is being rerouted to the tasks of not tripping, not falling—trudging on.

Your name is ROSE LALONDE, and you are TWENTY-NINE YEARS OLD. Just a few hours ago, you were FIGHTING for your LIFE against a hoard of INFECTED suicidal enough to INVADE YOUR HOME. Now, you're left with what must be two hundred gray bodies, hacked and shot and dead, scattered throughout Skaia and the surrounding woods. With John busy treating the wounded and panicked, you and Jade have been left to handle cleanup. It's been a long day already—you've been pushing your body to its limits since the sun's rising—but the work is far from over.

The smell of rotting, damp corpses will turn your safe-haven into a beacon for anything left wandering the woods, and you have to burn as many as you can as soon as possible. The rain, as difficult as it's made everything up to this point, is the only thing keeping you from whatever is downwind, and as soon as the ground is dry enough to start a fire it will be a race against the clock to stay hidden. For now, all you can do is gather everything up in one place so the disposal goes as smoothly as possible later on.

Jade's voice carries up over the rain and the wind across the silent procession of three dozen refugees between you, everyone too tired and too focused on the corpses they're carrying to talk. "Good work, guys! We're almost done!" A murmur runs through the crowd—relief—and moments later you're crossing over the last hill between you and your destination.

Years ago, the northeast fields had been a grid of carefully-manicured sports grounds. Now, the spray-painted boundaries have faded, and what's taken their place is a sad, overgrown clearing lined with hundreds of tied-stick crosses and stones, all scratched with names and dates. There are no bodies buried here—only thatched-together reminders of lives lost.

The Markeryard backs up to the forest that runs along the campus edge, and carved out of the ground in a clear spot farthest away from any building is a seven-foot patch of charred up ground, lined on the inside with large rocks. It's the permanent pyre ground, the closest thing you all have to a sacred spot.

This is the only place big enough for all the Infected bodies you've had to move from every acre of Skaia. By now, there are piles of mangled flesh stacked at least your height, ready for burning when the time comes, and a single small pile of wadded up, black-stained clothing from refugees who have already made their way back to their tents to get clean. Along the edge of the Markeryard, you can see a few people moving in and out of the woods, busy piling up rocks around some of the corpse stacks to protect the surrounding grass from any stray embers that might fall in the fires.

You spot Equius directing water-logged Cured and humans alike as he carries with ease a chunk of stone larger than anything you could ever even think to lift. Jade had put he and Nepeta in charge of barrier construction, and they'd done more than their fare share of work to keep things running smoothly. You can't see Nepeta, though, so you assume she's back by the waterfall with the other half of their team.

When you make it to the smallest pile of bodies, swinging the clawed, mangled torso up to the top strains your muscles and you grunt, stumbling a little at the sudden lack of weight on your shoulders.

Behind you, someone starts to sneeze.

"Alright, that's the last of them!" Jade calls from the back of the line. "Get inside and dry off as soon as you're done here! Remember blood protocol! Someone will come around later to collect your clothes!"

Immediately, you turn around to help the next person in your procession of death with his load, and before long the crowd begins to scatter back toward the dorms and tents. Through the rain, you can see dozens of slouched silhouettes dragging their feet. More than half of the people you'd roped into cleanup had fought against the attack, too. They more than deserved their rest.

Jade and Jake are the last people in line, the first of whom is carrying a full corpse across her shoulders. Jake helps his cousin toss it into the pile after slinging one of his own, and with that the last of what had been the largest hoard you'd ever seen is finally gathered up in single spot. The three of you stand in silence, then, exhausted and dripping wet, and it suddenly occurs to you that Jake hasn't said a word in hours.

While Jade busies herself with kicking some of the slowly-sliding bodies back into place, you take a moment to really look at him. He's sopping, black hair is plastered to his face and clothes so soaked they're like a second skin to his body. His wire-framed glasses—the same pair he's had since you met him three years ago—are pushed up on the top of his head, probably tangled in his hair to keep from falling off. Although you doubt he'd been able to see much through them, you don't think going on without is much better. He's squinting around, not really focused on anything, and now that his hands are free he keeps reaching up like he wants to rub his eyes before thinking better of it. He's covered in black shit like the rest of you, and the rain hasn't done anything to wash it off.

You sigh, but the sound is lost to the wind's roar. "You should go as well," you say, and it takes him a moment to realize you're talking to him. "Make your way back to the tents and get yourself scrubbed."

He shakes his head a little too vigorously—like he's trying to convince you see, I'm fine, I have plenty of energy!—and his shaggy, sodden hair flops around too stupidly to be taken in any way serious. You feel your eyebrows raise when a particularly large clump hits him in the eye and he stops, wincing for just a fraction of a second. "Oh, bugger."

"Go, Jake," you say again, but he just keeps squinting at you even as you put your hand on his arm and push him gently back in the direction everyone else has started to move.

"No, no—I'm alright. Perfectly wonderful. There's still so much to be done, and you ladies—"

Jade breaks in, then, appearing suddenly behind you after finishing her carrion abuse. Her glasses, too, are shoved up into her hair, and watching them stand so close together you can't help but think (not for first time) how much they look like siblings. "If the next words out of your mouth are anything like and you ladies might need my assistance calaboose spectacles diddlyscrum I will drag your mattress out into the rain and make you sleep outside for the rest of probably forever!" She has a fierce look in her eyes—the look of a leader, a survivor—but no matter how hard she's fighting to hide it you can see so, so clearly that the exhaustion is finally starting to settle itself right down into her bone marrow. "Do what Rose says and get some rest, geez!"

"But—"

"Everything you own, Jake. I will put everything out in the fucking rain."

You roll your eyes as you watch the two of them glare at each other, both too stubborn too look out for their own self-preservation and completely unwilling to admit so. When neither says anything else, though—locked in a standstill of squinting, green-eyed absurdity—you interject. "As positively thrilling as this little spat of yours is, I wouldlike to check on Roxy and Jane, and I don't find the idea of leaving the both of you out here to meet your deaths in the cold particularly appealing. Jake, I will walk you back toward the tents. If you'd like to accompany me all the way to the cafeteria, I'm sure the girls wouldn't mind the company."

They both turn toward you, Jake just in time to miss the grateful glance Jade throws your way, and you fix him with the stern do-not-argue-with-me look you've learned works better on him than Roxy. Your patience is quickly wearing thin, and if this continues you dink think you'll be held accountable for your own actions.

Rather than argue for a cause he knows he's already lost, Jake turns the tail-end of his water-logged scowl on you and nods a little. "I suppose I should see how the girls are fairin'—" he starts, and then nearly face-plants in the mud when Jade shoves him hard from behind. "What in seven hells what that for?"

She waves a hand over her shoulder, already turning away toward the group at the edge of the clearing. "You weren't moving fast enough!"

Jake opens his mouth to shout something back, but you know their fighting has gone on long enough. If you let them keep this up, one or the other will say something they regret, and it's been too long a day for their bickering to continue without consequence. Instead, you put your hand back on Jake's arm and begin steering him away from his cousin, toward the main campus buildings. He huffs, clearly unhappy with being sent away, but doesn't fight you. You doubt he would dare even if he weren't so tired.

Jake stews in silence as you walk, fuming quietly beside you. There isn't much you can say because you're at the end of your nerves, too, and you doubt you'll be able to do any real sort of reasoning with him. He's worn out and angry, and you understand that. (You're not sure whether or not it's the mother in you, but you can't decide whether you want to wrap him up and tell him everything will be alright or smack him upside the head for acting like a baby when the rest of you are hurting, too.)

After a while, you finally do hear a quiet voice mutter, "She treats me like a child," and can't quite tell who he's talking to—you or himself.

"You're sixteen, Jake."

"And she's twenty-three! I doubt she has all the universal mysteries figured out, either!" he replies, voice rising slightly as he throws his arms in the air. "Age doesn't have anythin' to do with anythin' in a world where fourteen-year-olds sleep with rifles at their bedsides."

You shoot him a look at that, the urge to smack him suddenly overriding any fleeting maternal instinct you might've held, but instead you purse your lips and say, "Jade wants what's best for you, nothing less."

"And keepin' me trapped here is what's best for me? I've been around all this—" he throws his arms out then, gesturing out through the rain, "—just as long as she has, and I'm just as good with a weapon!" It occurs to you then that this isn't just about being sent back to the tents—this is so, so much bigger. And hell, you wish he had waited a little bit longer to let it all out, because although you've been waiting for this particular conversation to happen since the day you first met you're not sure you can remember all the things you had planned to tell him.

"I highly doubt skill in combat has anything to do with it," you say, "you and I both know you're one of the best fighters here—"

"But Jade doesn't," he scoffs, and you don't think you've ever heard him sound quite so resentful before. You can see, when you glance at him, that his expression has turned darker and angrier than you've witnessed in a while. He loves his cousin, you know—you've observed their unspoken affection in how much he frets over her while she's gone and his poorly-masked concern whenever she returns. But you can't help but wonder how far their relationship will stretch before he starts resenting her more than he cares.

"Don't be petty, Jake. Of course she knows. She would never put as much trust and responsibility in someone she thought incapable."

"I'm never allowed to leave!"

"She doesn't want you hurt. You've been outside, you know how dangerous it is out there. You can do more here than you can out in the wilderness."

"Horseshit," he hisses, "She doesn't trust me, then—that's what it is. She doesn't trust me."

"Really, Jake. Are you listening to yourself? You know and I both know that couldn't be anything farther from the truth."

"The truth?" he laughs, bitter and exhausted and loud, so unlike his usual carefree self. "I wouldn't trust me either, you know."

"Jake—"

"You know who my father was, and look—look at what he's done. I've got his blood in me. I'm bound to fuck everythin' up eventually."

"Stop, Jake."

"I'm surprised you lot keep me around, really. Prevent it all before it happens and just—"

"Jacob English, don't you dare—"

"No, do not call me that—do not—"

You can't help it, really. Your body moves on its own, and before you know it you're standing right in front of him, hand raised, and everything is silent except for the rain. You're glaring up at him—glaring up at him hard—and he's staring right back down at you with eyes so sad and tired you hardly even recognize them.

You don't know the whole story, just the pieces you've gotten over the past three years from Jade and John. They don't talk about it much—Jake's childhood—and Jake himself has never, never brought it up. The bits you do know tell you a tale that's far from happy, far from ideal, but Jake has never given any sort of indication that it bothers him much. You'd always credited Jade and John and Jane for that, but now you wonder how much was really genuine. How much he still hurts. You can't imagine the weight he carries on his shoulders, all thanks to someone he barely even knew. (Actually, you think, you really can.)

After a moment, you lower your hand. You hadn't struck him, no matter how much you wanted to. That wouldn't solve anything, not really. Stress brings out the worst in people, and today has certainly been a perfect breeding ground for it. Instead, you put your hands on either side of his face and make him look at you right in the eyes. He's easily a head taller than you, but he looks so, so young. So much like a child. Your heart breaks just a little bit more.

"Do not ever," you say quietly, "even remotely suggest what I believe you were about to insinuate if I am anywhere near you. Or far away from you. Or breathing the same air on earth as you. And even after I've stopped breathing, I swear on all that is good in this world if I hear another word like that I will haunt you for decades."

You stare at each other in silence for a moment, standing stock-still in the pouring rain, and slowly Jake blinks, nods, relaxes. You wrap your arms around his broad shoulders for a moment, and when he curls around you all you can think is that it should be Jade he's hugging—or John or Jane—not you. But you know he'll never admit to them what he's said in a fit of anger and exhaustion. His leader, his best friend, his mentor—all people you know his pride won't let him confide any sort of fault to. So instead of pressing, you just hold him tight and don't let go.


When the fighting had finally ended and the cheers died down, John had divided up what teams he could and set to work organizing the framework for cleanup. You'd been adamant that Roxy stay out of harm's way as much as possible, despite being a major participant in the whole mess (something you're still not particularly happy about, no matter how grateful you are for her help), and John had readily agreed.

By then, the only people who had eaten within the last eighteen or so hours were members of Karkat's camp, so you had asked that your daughter be sent to work in the kitchens where she would be away from the gruesome corpses and on-edge refugees outside and in the buildings. Roxy had, of course, protested until her lungs ran out of air, fuming that she could take care of herself just fine, and besides! Jane is gonna work in the Cabinet while you and Jade start doin' your thing out here so why do I have to get stuck inside?

Eventually, you and John had been too tired to argue, so you'd agreed to let her help her Jane. Together, they'd spent more than enough time gathering supplies to protect the refugees cleaning up. Those who didn't already have gloves were given them, scrounged up from the sparse stash of spare clothing you kept holed up with the rest of your emergency supplies.

When you and Jade finally left the Cabinet with your fully-equipped procession in tow, the girls had set off toward the Cafeteria to set about preparing food for the entire camp. It didn't occur to you until later it would just be the two of them, because Feferi was busy helping Karkat manage the blood protocol countermeasures as workers began moving toward the showers and their rooms and tents. You doubt, though, that minded either of the girls much—and even if they did, neither said anything. This wouldn't be the first time they'd cooked for the camp on their own.

As you'd thought, Jake decides to stay with you rather than retreat to the safety and comfort of his tent, and when you make it to the dining hall you're met with the smell of food so good you feel your stomach roll on the verge of nausea. The building is warm and dry, and it's such a sensation shock that you have to pause in the doorway for a moment to take it all in. Jake nearly runs over you from behind, though, captured completely and totally by the peace and comfort waiting inside, and when you step aside to let him pass be practically runs toward the kitchens with an energy you didn't think he still had.

As you maneuver your way toward the curving hallway between the main seating area and the source of the smell, a surprised, high-pitched squeal erupts over the distant buzz of electrically heated oven coils and spoons scraping along the bottom of stirred pots. "Jake! Put me down this instant!" You hear Jane yelp, followed immediately by a pair of high-and-low giggles. By the time you do make it around the corner, Jake has his smallest cousin trapped in a hug with her feet lifted at least six inches from the ground. His face is split into a beaming grin as he laughs, a perfectly constructed picture of carefree happiness so unlike what you'd seen just moments ago. (You wonder, suddenly, how many of his smiles are genuine.)

Roxy is behind them, clutching the long counter with one hand and a whisk in the other as she strains against doubling over at the force of her own snorting laughs. "Get her, Jakey! She's bein' too uptight and prissy and you gotta get her to loosen up some or I'm gonna die in here!" she snickers, waving her kitchen tool and inadvertently flinging what looks like mashed potatoes in the process.

Jane tries to say something, but her voice is muffled by Jake's shirt and the only sound you catch is a sort of indignant, pained whine.

"What was that, missy?" Jake chuckles, "You'll have to speak up a bit." But whatever muffled threats Jane makes in reply are drowned out by your daughter's laughter, and it's so infectious that Jake joins in, too. From the doorway, you can't help but smile, and when Jake turns to beam at you doesn't give any indication that what happened earlier actually occurred. (You do see, however, that his arms are straining to hold his cousin up.) He throws a wink in your direction and says in an dramatically over-formal tone of voice, "Ms. Lalonde, as the most well-spoken bluestockin' in the room, do you think you might be able to translate for me? I'm afraid I don't speak goober very well."

This, of course, nearly floors Roxy, who can barely breathe at this point anyway. But when she sees you, she lights up all the same. "Mom!"

While Jane continues to fume and flail, your daughter begins making her way across the room toward you at lightning speed. You glance back up at Jake with an expression that's softer than you intend, and say in the same ridiculous tone, "I must apologize, sir—my skills in that particular dialect are rather lacking."

He lets out a sigh that would put any self-respecting Shakespearean actor to shame and throws his head back, "Oh, a tragedy! I might never know what wisdom my dear, simple cousin could be tryin' to impart on my humble soul!"

Roxy reaches you, then, and starts to wrap her arms around your waist just as you stop her with a hand in her hair, "I'm soaking wet, love—that might not be the best idea," you say, and she struggles to pout around her giggles as you give her hair a rigorous ruffling.

(When you were younger, you used to wonder how much better your life would be if you'd made a different choice. You'd never regretted it, not really, but late at night when you couldn't sleep because of the screaming baby at your breast you'd ask yourself why.

But then you would look down at her, at the tiny fuzz of barely-there blond hair and too-big, too-pathetic pink eyes and your heart would break—it would shatter into a million pieces—because in that moment you would be so overwhelmed with a kind of crushing affection your brain would just stop.

You would hate yourself, then, for ever wanting to go a single day without your girl, your Roxy, and when she finally calmed down you would sit and cry as quietly as you could without waking her up. You would cry because you hated yourself, and you hated your body, and you hated the universe. And you would cry because you never thought you could love another person as much as you loved the helpless, pale little thing in your arms.)

"Mo-om!" Roxy whines, immediately combing her fingers though her hair, trying to flatten back down the damp strands you'd managed to fluff up rather well. "Not cool at all!"

"On the contrary, love, I think you look rather radical," you smirk, and all that gets you in return is a stuck-out tongue from your daughter. You definitely do not retaliate, because you are a mature adult and mature adults definitely don't stick out their tongues at children. Definitely. "And Jake, you're just as sopping as I am—your poor cousin is probably more than a little damp herself, by now."

Jake huffs, but sets Jane's feet back down onto the floor anyway. The moment she can breathe again, she starts glowering around at all of you, and sets right to work straightening out her rumpled apron. "Jake, that was absolutely uncalled for," she huffs, "We are trying to work in here, darn it!" Sure enough, her stained apron is dark and wet straight down the front where she'd been pressed right up against her cousin's chest, and there's a black smear down the side where some of the blood still covering the both of you had rubbed off onto her.

As you watch, Jake's brows furrow, "Shitknickers, Jane—I do apologize. I didn't even think about that happenin'."

She sighs again and shakes her head, rolling her eyes behind her glasses, "Oh, it's alright. It won't kill me," she says, reaching behind her to undo the knot on her apron strings. "No harm done, see?"

Roxy, in the meantime, has moved back toward the long, eight-burner electric stove along the wall. It's covered almost completely by just as many miss-matched stainless steel stockpots filled to the brim with what looks even more appetizing than usual.

Neither of the girls are tall enough to see over the brims of the massive things, so along the bottom of the stove is a wooden stepping bench Jake built for them back when he and the others had first arrived. The kitchen itself is massive, but only three-fourths of its many appliances are still fully operational. Anything broken or worn beyond use is being used for storage, but glancing around now you can see that most of the surfaces usually stacked with non-perishables and piles of garden-grown vegetables are bare. You'll need to speak with John about that at some point, you think.

Suddenly, there's a knock on the doorway behind you, and you all kind of jump a little, Roxy nearly falling off the stool in the process. Jane reaches out an arm to steady her just as you step forward, but she waves her friend away with a small whine.

When you're sure she's alright, you finally do turn around and find yourself facing one of the last people you expected to see.

"Kankri?"

When you'd all gone your separate ways earlier in the day, you had sent the older Vantas to help John in the Infirmary. With Tavros out of commission and a steady flow of injured refugees to take care of, you knew he would need the help. Now, though, you feel your stomach drop—because you can't think of any reason Kankri of all people would abandon his post.

"I apologize for interrupting," he says, nodding in your direction, "but Miss Harley informed me that you had come this way."

You purse your lips, "Yes, I can see that. Is something wrong?"

The young man opens his mouth for a moment, about to speak, but after glancing around the room he closes it again. By now, you can assume that Roxy, Jane, and Jake all have their eyes on him as well, and he swallows. You've never known Kankri Vantas to be a nervous man—or a quiet one, for that matter—and your unease grows. "May I speak with you alone for a moment?"

"Yes, of course," you reply, and he steps aside immediately to let you through the doorway first. You're not willing to head back out into the rain, but to avoid prying ears you move as close as possible to the closed Cafeteria doors before motioning Kankri on.

He clears his throat, "John has dismissed me back to the dormitory, but I fear he is not in any condition to be left alone. He would hear no complaints from me, however, so I thought it best to inform you. Though he refuses to admit so, he is badly injured." Kankri shifts from one foot to the other, glancing back toward the direction of the kitchen.

"His wrist?"

Kankri nods, sighing, "It seems whatever damage it sustained today has exponentially exacerbated the previous problem."

You sigh too, then, and nod as well. "Thank you for telling me. I will see to it that he has help, whether he welcomes it or not. Now, I must agree with John—return to your room and rest."

Kankri looks for a moment like he's about to protest, but thinks better of it and nods."If there is anything else in regards to which you should require my assistance, please do not hesitate to find me." You thank him again, and after another moment his back disappears into the downpour just as the door shuts behind him.

When you make it back to the kitchens, Roxy, Jane, and Jake are all huddled around the doorway, all looking too guilty not to have been listening in on your conversation. "I suppose I don't have to let any of you know what that was about." Jake is the only one who shakes his head, while Jane looks more than ready to yell at someone. Or hit them with a spoon.

"I can't believe it! He's going to drop dead one of these days, I swear it. Roxy, can you stay—"

You hold up your hand, "No," and both Jane and Roxy—who had already been nodding solemnly—turn to look at you.

"No, what?" Jane gives you a look that's somewhere between do-not-tell-me-what-to-do-I-am-going-to-go-knock-some-sense-into-my-stupid-brother and frigging-heck-I'm-tired-and-my-brother-should-be-old-enough-to-take-care-of-himself-what-could-you-possibly-want, and you cross your arms.

"I need you to stay here and finish preparing meals. No one has eaten today, and I doubt anyone will be coming to dinner later this evening. By then, most of the committees will have finished their assigned tasks, and the first thing on their minds will be rest. Cold weather, rain, and a lack of nutrition are a dangerous combination, and we will have to feed as many people as we can before the day is over. What that means, however, is that the food needs to be finished before the entire camp passes out for the night. We'll be delivering meals directly to everyone's rooms, and I have found it is much easier to get someone's attention when he or she is awake."

Jane blows a puff of air out through her nose and looks as though she really is about to begin a tirade, but Roxy puts a hand on her best friend's shoulder. "Mom has a point. I mean, I'd totally stay here and slay the stoves while you're off kickin' your hot bro's dumb butt, but things would definitely go way faster if you were workin' your culinary kitchen magics here with me." They share a look, and after a moment Jane sighs.

"Alright, fine," she says, before turning back to you. "But you'd better follow through on what you told Kankri. Make sure the oaf has help."

"Of course."


You leave Jane and Roxy to their work a few minutes later, Jake in tow, and begin making your way back toward the residential areas to find Feferi and Karkat. As more and more people return from cleanup—Equius and Nepeta's group, the squad Meenah and Horuss had been leading to find stray weaponry left in the surrounding woods, and Horuss's team left with the task of reorganizing the armory—the piles of blood-stained clothing heaped outside of rooms and tents for collection were steadily growing. Blood protocol usually only applied to a small group of people, scouts returning from off-grounds missions. It had been quite some time since the operation was carried out on such a mass scale.

Infected blood, like snake venom or skunk spray, remains lethal long after its source has met the end of a bullet or blade. It's not magic or cursed—it's science. And it's very, very dangerous. Although miniscule exposure isn't enough to completely Turn someone, even small amounts can be deadly in their own ways. From what John has told you and what you've read in his notes, the toxicity of Infected blood doesn't decrease when mixed with water, and the only effect soap has is moving it to another place. Disinfectant is useless.

Normally, you would clean the blood-soaked clothes of returning scouts in wash bins, but the sheer amount of fabric you would have to scrub after today would be too much to handle, too impractical. Fresh water is scarce enough, and it would take days to soak every article of clothing left out for collection. You can't use the river, either—in doing so, you would run the risk of contaminating your water supply. The only solution you have, then, is to burn the clothes alongside the Infected.

When you finally do find Feferi, she seems to have everything relatively under control. She and several other members of the general care team are busy at work, gathering piles of clothing and used towels to haul toward the Markeryard. Karkat, however, is nowhere in sight.

You follow through on your promise to Jane, though, and gather up a few of Feferi's team to visit John one at a time in shifts. You tell them not to leave until their allotted time is up, even if he argues. They're more than willing to help, and Feferi is more than willing to let you take them.

(Although you'd all seen John in combat training and spars, very few outside of the group he'd arrived with three years ago had actually seen him fight. But today, nearly everyone witnessed it. From what Jade had told you, he'd been on the front lines for most of the battle, taking down more creatures than she or anyone else could count, all while leading with a tactical eye. And you'd watched him, too, when he had come back to deal with what managed to slip around the front forces. There were just a few of you fighting, horrifically outnumbered and out of your element, but he had come with the others to reign hell on those who threatened you. And he had saved your life at least a dozen times as the two of you fought back-to-back, side-by-side.

Whether he believed it or not, he was truly meant to lead.)

Jake, meanwhile, does finally leave to rest. You send him back toward his and Jade's shared tent with a hand on the shoulder and a meaningful look, and he flashes you a smile that you don't quite understand before wandering off through the rain.

After that, you leave Feferi and her team to work, and make a pass by your own room to change before beginning your next task. You still share a room with Roxy, the same faculty dorm you've had since you first moved to the University a lifetime ago, and not much is changed. (Sometimes, you'll find yourself standing in the middle of it, glancing at the alarm clock on your bedside table to make sure you're not late for your next class, and every time that happens you'll tell yourself you're going to rearrange something, change it somehow so you don't feel so lost. You never do.)

You don't spend much time cleaning yourself up, because you know you'll being going back outside soon anyway. Less than fifteen minutes after you leave Feferi, you're walking back through the halls, knocking gently on doors to check on everyone who has made it back already. Some are passed out, exhausted, but you stay and chat with the ones who aren't, just to make sure they're okay. Whether they were part of the fighting or not, everything that happened was terrifying, and everyone had been affected in some way. You take the time to calm down those who are crying, reassure those who are fearful, and gently wake those who are already having nightmares.

You're not sure how much time has passed when you finish making your way through all four floors of the dormitory, but the sky doesn't look any different than it did hours before as you step outside. It's still raining and dark, cold and windy. Your stomach growls, but you keep moving forward.

By the time you make it to Jade and Jake's tent, almost everyone has to their respective rooms, but you're surprised to find theirs completely empty. You fret for a moment, wondering if Jade is still out working and where Jake could be if he'd left your company hours before, but before you can do anything about it your phone beeps.

— twinArmegaddons [TA] began pestering tentacleTherapist [TT] at 18:46 —

TA: head2 up kk ii2 calliing an exec meetiing.

TA: he 2eem2 2uper pii22ed.

TA: or at lea2t he2 actiing liike more of an iignorant fuckwad than u2ual.

TT: Hello, Sollux.

TA: 2up.

TT: It's been a stressful day for all of us. I believe Karkat is entitled to a little bit of anger.

TA: ii diidnt me22age two argue about the fiiner poiint2 of kks iin2ufferable character.

TA: iim ju2t pa22iing along the me22age.

TA: my 2ugge2tiion would be two come over a2 2oon a2 you can.

TT: I will see you in a few moments, then. Thank you for letting me know.

— tentacleTherapist [TT] ceased pestering twinArmegaddons [TA] at 18:51 —

You sigh, locking your phone, and sweep one last look over the vacant tent. Perhaps, you think, your worries were unfounded.


The library is relatively quiet, and when you make it to the meeting room where everyone else should be waiting, you discover that you're one of the first to arrive. Sollux, as usual, is hunched behind his cocoon of computer monitors and wires, and he doesn't even look up when he asks you to pleathe remove your bootth. Jane is already waiting at the long table, swinging her legs and fidgeting enough to make it very clear that she doesn't want to be here—not one bit. You frown, because if she's here then Roxy is in the kitchens alone, but you know she doesn't have much of a choice when it comes to things like this so you don't say anything.

She greets you with a tired smile and wave, but when you take your seat she sighs. "How long do you think this will take?"

"I don't know. Sollux wasn't particularly revealing as to the details of this meeting," you reply, glancing over toward the black-haired mess in the corner. He doesn't bother looking at you, but he shrugs all the same. Helpful. Instead of arguing, though, you turn back to Jane. "How are things going?"

"We're nearly finished. All that's left is to portion out meals for distribution, which I believe Roxy and Cronus are doing now." You raise your eyebrows at that, butt Jane just shrugs. "I saw him on my way over and asked if he would help. "

The two of you chat for a few moments, and it's not long before the main building door suddenly opens and John appears in the doorway. You blink, not really recognizing him at first, and looking at him you think Kankri might have grossly understated his assessment of John's condition.

Your young leader normally stands just over six feet tall, broad shouldered and strong, but now he's tilted to one side, sagging like he can't quite keep his balance. His hair, damp and muddy like he hadn't bothered to clean up after the fight (which, now that you think about it, he probably didn't) is matted down over his face, tangled in the frames of his glasses in some places. Even from this distance, you can see the bags under his eyes. You can tell just by looking at him that he's soaked completely to the bone, clothes plastered to his body like a vacuum-sealed plastic bag, and the mud on his legs is caked halfway up his shins.

The thing that catches your attention most, though, is the bandage wrapped tight around his right wrist and hand. His fingers look swollen, and there's a purple-blue tint peeking up from under the gauze along the base of his thumb. The whole thing hangs limply at his side, barely moving even when he comes stomping into the room. Jane makes a kind of quiet, pained noise at your side, and when you glance up at John's face you can see his brow is scrunched up and he's giving his sister a look that says I'm fine stop worrying I'm your older brother for fucks sake you can't baby me shut up without any real venom.

"Before you take one thtep into thith room, take off thothe goddamn hathardths thtrapped to your feet and roll up your pantths or thomething. I won't have you fucking up my equipment," Sollux calls with a split-second glare in John's direction. Sure enough, there's a trail of dirt and grime leading out the door behind him, and his expression twists as he glances back, hesitant and unsure and resigned and in pain.

As you watch, John crouches down to begin the slow-going task of untying his mud-caked boot with one hand. It only takes you a moment to stand, but before you can cross the room to help him he's already waving you off.

A few tense moments pass before he finally gives up and begins using both hands to undo the knots, but by then you're already ignore his protests and kneeling down in front of him. "You shouldn't be using that," you say, finishing off the strings in less than a fraction of the time he'd been struggling.

"I'm fine."

You glance up at him to raise your eyebrows—to give him a look—but he's not watching you. Instead, he's still fixed almost completely on the task of rolling up his pants leg as you move on to the other boot. His teeth are gritted, but he's not using both hands.

When you both finally stand, John knocks your shoulder with a quiet thanks before moving toward one of the empty seats. Seconds later, the main library door slam down the hallway, followed immediately by the sound of thundering footsteps. In the blink of an eye, Karkat is standing in the doorway, followed closely by Jade and Nepeta.

"Excellent, I'm so glad you pathetic piles of shit finally decided to bless our sorry asses with your carbon dioxide waste. Now we can finally get these bullshit festivities in full swing," Karkat yells, and you see John roll his eyes as the girls take their seats.

"Bullshit festivities, my favorite," he says, and Karkat glares hard across the table. Everyone is exhausted and sore, and you get the feeling that if things are starting off this well they'll only be getting better.

And you are not in the mood for a fist fight.

"Boys, please. Karkat—you called this meeting for a reason. Perhaps we should address that before we launch into personal attacks. If you're both still in the mood to kill one another after the rest of us have been dismissed, you know where the training grounds are," you lean forward in your chair, crossing your hands on the table and daring them to argue.

Karkat huffs, puffing out his chest like he's going to say something, but rather than explode he takes his seat and continues scowling in every direction. "Fine. Whatever," he says. "Sollux, pull up a map or something."

John nods too, then, still watching Karkat warily but looking less and less inclined to expend the energy an argument would require every second.

The wall-mounted television flicker on, showing the same program you'd used thousands of times before. It's centered right on your location, just west of Lake Shannon, covered in little dots and makers to show various mission points and red zones. "Pull it out to, like, a fifty mile radius. No—two. Make it twice that," John says, and the clicking from Sollux's corner starts up again as the map zooms out, dipping past the western coast of Washington state on one side, all the way down to Seattle. The rest of the screen is taken up mostly by national parks, the undeveloped greenlands and mountains that have kept you safe for so many years

Jane's eyebrows shoot up at that. "A hundred miles?"

"We run perimeter checks out almost half that far one a semi-regular basis," he says, and then pauses with a look toward Jade who nods in confirmation. "So we know what happened today wasn't a local thing. Or, you know, sort of local. But we need to figure out where they came from. The best way to do that is to factor in all the stuff that make a spot safe for a group like that to survive."

Nepeta waves her free hand, then, and looks solemn when she finally does speak. "Climate, altitude, former population, wildlife—stuff like that."

Jade nods again, staring hard at the map now, "We can probably rule out the east. There's never been much activity that way, 'cause there are too many trees and not enough meat. They wouldn't survive very long out there, I think."

"That leaves the west coast, then," you say, but Jade shakes her head.

"Maybe, but we've been up and down through Bellingham and Mount Vernon and Everett all the way down so many times that there's no way we would have completely missed a group that big."

"Based on my understanding, however, no one has been to Seattle in quite some time."

"We generally try to avoid it, yeah. But even if they had come from there, that doesn't explain how they found us."

There's a moment of silence, the only sounds a dull clicking of keyboard keys from Sollux's corner of the room, and Jane sighs beside you. Jade's statement sinks in slowly, and you all stare at your hands, worried and exhausted and not thinking as well as you should be because of it.

"They followed you idiotth."

All at once, every head turns toward Sollux in the back of the room, but he waves your collective attention back toward the screen as he continues typing with one hand.

Jade shakes her head. "We haven't been anywhere near Seattle in months, there's no way they could have followed us!"

"Not Theattle—"

"—from Laramie."

John is the one who says it, strained and quiet and serious. And when you look over toward him, he's gone pale.

Sollux continues on, unfazed by the interruption. "Yeah, good call geniuth. Look—" the map zooms out, then, and soon you're all staring at an uneven, highlighted line trailing from your location now, the University, to some tiny dot in the southern corner of Wyoming. "—it'th roughly twelve hundred mileth from here back to where you were. If the group broke off and thtarted heading after you at, thay, average running thpeed, it'd take them thomewhere between eighty to a hundred hourth to get here. Factor in thleeping during the day, and that'th pretty damn clothe to theven dayth."

"Average running speed?" Jane asks, glancing back and forth between her brother and Sollux.

"Fourteen to twenty mileth per hour."

"There's no way anyone could run that fast—not normally—and especially not for that long."

Instead of answering directly, Sollux leans up over his screens and nods toward Nepeta. "NP, what'th your average thpeed?"

She blinks for a second, but shrugs. "I don't know—I never really thought it mattered."

John, however, speaks up. "The fastest you've made it during physicals is thirty-nine, but that's sprinting. You broke the treadmill, remember? I had to get Eq to rebuild the whole thing so it could handle you." His voice sounds hollow, a little mechanical, like he's just reciting facts without actually processing them—like something's wrong. "I'd say your average endurance speed would fall, like, maybe somewhere near what he's saying."

"My word," Jane says quietly, and Sollux just nods.

Karkat's lips are set in a fine line, and only when he speaks do you realize that he's been strangely silent for the past few minutes. "I fucking told you, John. I said it was a bad idea."

There's a beat of silence, and in that moment you're not sure whether John wants to reach across the table and punch his best friend or leave the room because his expression is still heartbreakingly slack. He does neither, though. Instead, he just sort of nods, not really looking at anything, and says, "I know."

"You know? They followed the trucks—those screaming metal death traps you were so sure would work. Their screeching is only comparable to the fucking smell they give off," he's yelling now, not louder than usual but as you watch his words cut through the air you start to see John visibly shrink. "This whole fucking shitstorm was all for what? Two dead kids, a drug addict, a crazy woman, and some blind girl?"

"Vriska isn't crazy," John sighs, voice tight, "and the Striders aren't dead."

Karkat's expression hardens, then, "They might as well be."

Beside you, Jane sucks in a breath, and when she speaks her voice is suddenly very quiet. "What do you mean?"

John shakes his head. "Dirk's awake—for real this time. He's fine," he turns to look at Karkat, then. "He's fine."

"Puking up black shit isn't fine," Karkat replies, and he throws his hands up like he can't believe what he's hearing, "His skin, his hair, his eyes—that's not fine either."

"Dirk's awake?" Jane perks up, brows still furrowed.

Jade sits back in her chair, silent, and the two of you exchange a look. There's something you're missing—something big. But neither of you are willing to ask because the minute you do, you think you might set off either of the boys. Out of the corner of your eye, you see Nepeta take Karkat's hand and squeeze it.

"Yeah," John nods, "He asked about his friends. He seemed—I don't know—relaxed but, like, exhausted. Which you can probably expect. And I don't think he expected his brother to still be alive."

Karkat sighs, voice still loud but suddenly too serious. "You have to make a decision, John."

Jane keeps looking back and forth between them, unsure just like the rest of you of what's really going on but the only one willing to actually ask the question. "A decision about what?"

The boys ignore her, though, for the most part. John shoots her a look like he wants to tell her to leave, please Jane, you don't need to hear this, but he doesn't.

"I have," he says instead, turning back to Karkat. "I'll keep an eye on Dirk, make sure nothing happens, and Dave—" his words cut off as he swallows suddenly, and when picks up again his words are so much quieter. "If he doesn't wake up in the next few days, I don't think—I don't think I'll have to make a decision at all."

You sit in silence for a few moments after that, not really sure what to do or say. John rubs at his face with his left hand, completely drained, and you're just about to ask Karkat if you can go because everyone needs to rest when there's a knock on the door and you all kind of jump. John's demeanor changes in an instant—his back straightens and his face crinkles up like he's about to smile (even though he doesn't not really, because at this point you're not sure he actually remembers how).

"Come in!" he calls, not exactly cheerful but certainly not as lost as he'd sounded just moments before.

You wonder, then, fleetingly, if anyone you know is ever genuine with their feelings, or if they're always hiding themselves away. As a leader, you know John has to be strong—he can't break, because the minute its foundation starts to crack the entire building starts to crumble—but you wish on some level he wouldn't be so afraid to show when he's hurting. You wonder if he and Jake are ever honest with anyone about what's going through their head. You wonder if they're honest with themselves.

The door creaks open a fraction and Roxy pokes her little blond head it to squint at you all, before disappearing again. You blink, not really sure what just happened, but before you can say anything you hear her voice call down the hall, "There's seven of 'em!"

Cronus's voice echoes back, "You got it, doll!" and then Roxy reappears, beaming.

"Dinner's comin'!" she says, and immediately there's a quiet hell fucking yeth from Sollux's corner of the room. Roxy laughs, and suddenly it's like all the tension is sucked out of the room. Karkat rolls his eyes, Jane snorts, and John lets out this kind of breathy chuckle that somehow lifts everyone's spirits up six inches off the ground. For a moment, you're almost completely overwhelmed by a need to crush your daughter in a hug because only she could do something like that—take a room full of people ready to kill each other and cry all at the same time and make them smile. Only Roxy.

But you don't.

Instead, you watch as Jane starts fussing, going on about how she's sorry she wasn't there to help, is there anything she can do? And you both stand, bustling out to the hallway just in time to see Cronus re-enter the building with a tray of plates piled high with what looks like some of the best food you've seen in quite a while. (Although that could be because you're starving, more so than you thought.) Your stomach growls and Roxy laughs, and then you really do pull her close.

Jane rushes forward to take some of load from Cronus, and you realize then—watching them through the open door—that the rain has finally stopped.


Roxy and Cronus don't stay long. Your little group is the first in a long line of people who hadn't shown up for dinner, like you had predicted, so the two of them leave after a bout of fleeting chatter to continue on their rounds.

After that, though, conversation lightens somewhat as you discuss final cleanup plans, repairs, and increased security measures around mouthfuls of food.

When you finally broach the subject of a supply venture, you aren't met with much resistance. Jade nods, humming around her fork. "Yeah, we're gonna have to track down ammo, too. Between today and the run down to Laramie last week, we're down to almost half our stock."

With a resigned sigh, John agrees. "I'll write up a master list of everything I need in the Infirmary, along with anything you guys—" he waves his left hand toward you and Jane "—need for the kitchens. And like you said, Rose—we're going to need clothes and stuff, too. To make up for everything we're burning."

"This is gonna be a super duper big run," Nepeta adds. "I guess we're taking the whole team?"

Before Jade can say anything, though, you lean forward slightly and cross your fingers in front of you on the table. "Actually, I would like to make a suggestion."

Everyone blinks, and John waves you on. "Shoot," he says. So you do.

"I think it would be beneficial if Jake took the lead on this mission."

The reaction is just about what you had expected.

Jade is on her feet in an instant, practically hissing at you, "Absolutely not," but you hold your ground and stay seated.

"He has the necessary experience, and has been—"

"I don't care," her voice is deadly, both hands pressed flat on the table as she leans toward you, "about his experience. My answer is no, and that's final."

There's a pause as everyone stays frozen, not quite sure what one of the most dangerous people in the room is going to do next. She's glaring daggers at you, like you've just suggested she kill Jake with her own two hands. (Which you think, maybe from her perspective, you have.)

Nepeta is the one who moves first, though, slowly standing to put a hand on Jade's shoulder. "Jake's, like, sixteen now. And he's been asking to go out with us for years. I'm with Kitty's mom over there on this one. It's about time he takes the lead on something that isn't just, you know, the morning security regimen."

Jade's glare turns on her and she shakes off Nepeta's hand, "It's dangerous and he's needed here. John—" she looks to her cousin, then, "this is ridiculous."

But John shakes his head. "You saw him out there, Jade. He's just as capable as the rest of us under pressure, and what happened today is more than what he'd have to deal with on an average supply run—" Jade makes an angry noise and slams a hand on the table, but John continues. "And after all this, I'm not sure how much safer he would be here than anywhere else. The best he can do is get back in the swing of, you know, real combat."

"No."

"You've gone on three missions in just as many months. You need a break, Jade," he says voice gentle and firm and tired all at once. He turns to Nepeta, then. "And you, too."

The short-haired girl huffs, tilting her head to the side like she's about to argue, but Karkat catches her other hand without a word and she stops, blinking. "Yeah," she says finally. "Yeah."

Jade isn't having any part of it, though. "My answer is no."

"And my answer is yes," John counters, finally standing up to face his cousin. At his full height, he towers over her by nearly a foot, but Jade doesn't so much as blink. A moment passes and no one in the room lets out a breath, you think—because only when Jade finally does move to you realize you'd been holding yours.

"I hate you," she hisses, quiet and deadly and so sincere you think you can see the exact moment John's heart breaks as she turns her back to leave the room.


The meeting disbands soon after that, quickly and quietly without much fanfare. The sun has gone down by the time you step outside, but the night is devoid of any normal activity from Karkat's camp. The Cured leader himself trudges back toward his tent with Nepeta in tow as soon as they leave the library, not so much as glancing back with a goodbye before disappearing into the night. John sends Jane back toward the dorms after hugging her tight and planting a kiss on the top of her head, and after they part ways he moves back toward the Infirmary. You call after him, telling him to go some sleep, for God's sake , and he waves a hand at you over his shoulder without really answering.

Sollux stays behind in the library, where he spends nearly all of his time. Like John and Tavros, he sleeps in where he works, constantly on alert, monitoring all of your systems should anything go wrong.

You walk back toward the dormitory building alongside Jane, who stays quiet the entire way. She hasn't said much since Jade walked out, and you don't try to pry. You know she hates seeing her family fight—you all do—and you wish, sometimes, that the three of them would all just learn to get along for her sake.

When you finally stop outside of the room she and Kankri share, you pull her into a tight hug and kiss her head, just like her brother did, and wish her a good night. Sometimes it's easy to forget that she's not your daughter, too. And sometimes you just ignore the fact that she's not, because it doesn't really matter much, does it?

She hugs you tight in return, fingers digging into the back of your jacket, and without hesitation you ask if she wants to spend the night with you and Roxy instead. She nods into your shirt and for a moment seems so, so much younger than seventeen. Today has been a humbling day for all of you.

When you step inside your room, you find Roxy sprawled out across her bed, snoring softly and dead to the world. Almost immediately, Jane collapses next to her, and when you offer her your own mattress she just shakes her head and pulls an extra blanket on top of herself. Already, you can see her eyes closing.

You're not going to sleep yet—no, you still have one more thing to do—but you wait until Jane finally falls asleep to venture back out into the darkness. You're tired, you realize. So, so tired, but mothers can't rest until their babies are safely tucked away.

And one is still missing.


The Cabinet is almost completely dark, save for the light coming out from underneath the armory's door. You knew she would be here—whenever she's upset, this is the place she almost always holes herself up.

When you step into the giant concrete room, she's sitting with her back to you at one of the long tables, bits and pieces of metal spread out across the length of the whole thing in front of her. She doesn't turn around, but her shoulders tense at the sound of someone opening the door.

"Go away, John," she says, and even though her voice is quiet it echoes against the walls.

"Unfortunately for you, I would rather not," you reply, and she jumps slightly, jerking her head around halfway at the sound of your voice. Her long, black hair is matted and her bright green eyes are dull and tired—and if you didn't know her better you might wonder if she had been crying. But you don't wonder, because you do know better. Jade Harley doesn't cry.

"Oh—hey, Rose," she turns back around, and you take the fact that she doesn't tell you to get out as a good sign. Carefully, you begin making your way toward her, picking across empty ammunition boxes, a few small broken blades, and a few dented rifles that haven't yet been shelved.

Standing behind her, you have a better view of what she's doing at the table, and you sigh. Scattered out in front of her are the inner workings of her dismantled M1, along with at least two other guns, all completely pulled apart at every seam. As you watch, she carefully picks up a small metal sliver and begins rubbing it down with an oiled rag, gently and slowly like she's afraid she'll break it (even though both of you know she won't, because she's done this too many times to mess up like that.)

And then you see her hand.

"Am I allowed to ask what happened?" you say, but the tone of your voice isn't really a question.

She pauses, glancing back at you like she's not really sure what you're talking about, and blinks. "This?" She looks down at her left hand, haphazardly wrapped in red-stained gauze around the knuckles, and blinks again. "Oh. I, um. I punched a tree."

"I see. I must offer my condolences to its neighbors, then."

Jade snorts and you count that as a win. You don't quite get a smile out of her, but at the very least she turns to around to face you. "It survived, don't worry," she says. "I think I got the bad end of the deal."

You hum, nodding, "This is why we have sandbags, you know," and begin to make your way around the table to sit across from her. She turns back around as you move.

"The tree was closer."

For a while after that, the two of you sit in relative silence, a peace only broken by the quiet clicks and squeaks as Jade cleans the inner workings of her constant companion. You don't push her—you've learned by now that she's too stubborn to speak when pressed. So you wait, tired but content, for her to say what she needs to if she even feels like talking at all.

You don't know how much time passes before she does eventually speak, but she's already on the third rifle when she begins, quiet and vulnerable and sounding so unlike herself you have to look up at her face to remind your tired mind who you're sitting in front of.

"I don't remember my parents, you know," she says. "I was seven when they died, so I should be able to. I think so, at least. I think when you're seven, you should be able to remember stuff like that. But I don't. And I don't remember my aunt, either—John's mom. I was even smaller when she died, though, so that's probably okay." She pauses. "Were you close with your mom?"

You nod, humming. "We only had each other, so I suppose it made sense for us to form some kind of bond when we were together. She rarely stayed in one place at a time, though."

And Jade gives you a small smile in return. "She sounds a lot like my grandparents. I think they did an okay job with me and Jake, even if they were always going somewhere new. Just like your mom did a good job raising you."

"Do you miss your grandparents?"

"Do you miss your mom?"

You smile too, then. "I do, yes. I suppose that's a fair enough answer."

There's another drop in conversation, then, as Jade continues working and you continue watching her. You're nearly dozing off in your seat when she speaks up again. "What would you do if something happened to Roxy?"

The question catches you off guard, and at first you're not sure how to respond. So you just sort of sit there, mind half-muggy but still thinking, and realize you can't. You can't think about that. So you answer honestly. "I don't know," you say, and your voice is so much quieter than you intend. "I don't know." Because you really don't. You don't know if you'd be angry or sad or if you'd feel nothing at all. Because if something happened to Roxy, you'd lose your whole world, and that's not something people just come back from.

"I don't know, either. I don't know what I'd do if something happened to Jake," Jade says quietly. "It's my fault, you know—all this bad stuff."

"That couldn't be farther from the truth. You can't control what course the universe choices to take, it simply goes on without listening to us. What occurred today, that is no one's fault. Not yours or John's—neither of could have known the trucks would attract that much attention."

But Jade shakes her head, "Everyone around me dies," she says, and her voice cracks in a way you've never heard it before. "Everyone around me dies. It's because of me, Rose. The Harley curse, like my Grandma said."

And as you watch, the strongest woman you've ever met begins to crumble.

"John's mom, Jake's dad, my parents... Grandpa Harley and Grandma and John's dad. It's all my fault. Everyone I decide to love dies."

In the next instant, you're kneeling on the floor next to her chair and she's wrapping her arms around your shoulders, and some distant part of your mind wonders how many hugs you've given today. And how many hugs you've given to this family in particular. (But that same part of your mind reminds you that they're not just this family—they're your family. And they have been since the day you met.)

"No one has died in a very long time, Jade. No one died today, when any one of us very easily could've. You helped keep us safe, just as you always have, just as you always will."

"No one's died yet, which means someone will soon. I know it, Rose. I know it." She's crying, now. Really crying. Her glasses are digging into your shoulder and you think some of her hair is in your mouth but you don't care, you just hold her and shoosh her and tell her that everyone is fine, that Jake will be fine, because she taught him how to take care of himself and he's a survivor just like her.

When she finally falls asleep, you're both laying on the cold concrete floor, tired and sad and sore from one of the worst days you've ever had to live through, and all you can do is hope you haven't made empty promises.

Chapter Text

[6/1/37]

==> BE THE HELPLESS MENTOR

You can see Tavros staring at the ceiling, glassy-eyed and vacant, still as death but breathing all the same. It's been a day since he woke up—two since the attack—and you're wondering not for the first time if he should have just stayed unconscious, if that would have been better than this.

Or would it have been more merciful if he'd never opened his eyes at all.

It's been hours since he made any kind of sound, and you can only hope the poppy tea you'd given him earlier has started working. It's the closest thing you have to morphine—a home-grown substitute from Jade's greenhouse out by the river—and the only indication you have that anything about his condition has changed is that fact that he's finally stopped screaming. Even that isn't much of a reassurance.

Your name is JOHN EGBERT, and you haven't felt this useless in a long, long time. Because you can bandage cuts and flush out black poison and smash in skulls with your fists if you have to, but at the end of the day that's just tape to patch up whatever problem you're given. YOU CAN'T FIX ANYTHING, not really. And Tavros—even now, you don't know how bad things really are, only how bad they might be.

You're standing at his bedside, tucked away in one of the only cozy rooms in the enitre Infirmary building. It's been Tav's since you first moved here, after all, and from top to bottom it's decorated with the same trappings that had once covered his tent when you still lived on the campground so many years ago. It's not messy, though. Everything is neat, from the piles of papers and handwritten notes stacked on counters to books sorted alphabetically on shelves and the carefully tangled twine of whatever craft project he'd been working on last.

The walls, too, are lined with woven trinkets and feathers—remnants of a home left behind in the barren Lakota lands of South Dakota where he, Rufioh, Equius, and Horuss were born—hung over messy finger-painted designs you and the rest of your new family had helped create. Hand prints and smudgy animals and geometric patterns and a sunset and a night sky stretch from floor to ceiling in every space that had been a blank, antiseptic white when you'd arrived. (You remember laughing a lot that day, crammed into this emptied-out space with a more than dozen other people, each and every one of you colorful right down to the roots of your hair.)

A loud sneeze erupts through the silence, and you can't help but snap your gaze back down to the boy who looks too small, too skinny buried under stacks of white blankets. He hasn't moved, though.

Instead, Gamzee sniffles from his place on the floor at Tavros's other side, wedged tight up against one counter with his gangly legs pulled up to his chest. He and Rufioh both—the latter of whom has finally, finally passed out across one of the counters—have refused to leave until he wakes up, and they've stayed true to their word. Since the attack, they've slept (sparsely) here, had their meals here, and spent their days here, and to be honest it had surprised you. Gamzee's commitment, at least. He'd only known your little apprentice a week at most, really, and yet here he was, staying up day and night for the kid. As for Rufioh, you don't think he's showered in days, because even though Horuss brought him a change of clothes there's still a smudge of black peeking up from under the collar of his shirt.

"So what's the motherfuckin' verdict, Doc?"

You sigh quietly, heavily, a kind of defeated noise that you don't really intend to make but that comes out anyway. "He's doing alright, I guess—I mean, his vitals seem okay. No external damage or bleeding, and not a whole lot wrong inside his body, either. But he's not responding to any kind of stimuli below his T6, and that's not good."

Watery eyes lined below with dark circles blink up at you. "That doesn't mean nothin' to me here, brother," Gamzee hums, rocking back and forth a little bit as his eyebrows furrow.

You rub the bridge of your nose under your glasses, stalling in your own way because you don't want to say it (saying it makes it real and you really really really hope you're wrong). "His legs aren't working right. They're not really working at all, from what I can tell. His whole lower half from the waist down just... isn't."

"Motherfuck," Gamzee hisses, and you nod. Because yeah. Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.

You quietly hum in agreement, and there's another pause, then. Silence as the two of you just watch Tavros, watch his skinny little chest move up and down, listening carefully to his shallow breathing. "The best we can do for him now is let him rest, I think. That's kind of the only thing we can do."

Gamzee nods again, and presses his forehead to his knees, curling into some kind of upright fetal position and effectively ending whatever little conversation the two of you had been having. You don't want to leave (you want to stay here with your friend because oh God if he's paralyzed, if he's paralyzed in this world—you don't know what will happen to him) but you have other patients to check in on and Terezi is expecting you in your office soon. You can't stay, no matter how much it sucks. So you reach down to ruffle Tav's hair with your left hand and adjust the blankets around him before you make your way back out into the hall, closing the door as quietly as you can behind you.

You're on the second floor of the building, where most of the rooms are usually empty and quiet. Now, though, there's a dull murmur of conversation coming from behind several closed doors, a constant background noise that's both comforting and unsettling all at once. You've come to find a certain degree of peace in the relatively-perpetual silence of your building, but you know that if people are making sound more often than not they're alive. And that's a good thing.

Suddenly, there's a shout from down the hall, followed by the aggravated shrieks of a not-so-muffled argument. You sigh, not really wanting to break up another fight between the Amporas but knowing you have to, all the same. A quick glance at the clock on your phone tells you that there's still a little bit of time before you need to be downstairs, and you hope you can get things cleared up quickly.

You open the door without even bothering to knock, because at this point they both know the rules and don't get the luxury.

"—reckless, as usual!" Cronus is standing over his brother, who's propped up on pillows in his temporary bed and looking for all the world like he wants to punch someone (a particular someone) in the face. Which you think he might, actually, based on the way he's moving to stand.

"Eridan, stay down—you'll pull out your stitches," you say as soon as you step into the room, and he stares you down for a full second before flopping back with a half-wince-half-glower.

Cronus beams, shooting both of you an aggrivating look of smug satisfaction, "Yeah, cool it, kid. See? Even chief here agrees with me. Like I said, you w-were already stupid enough to get yourself hurt—"

You cut him off, because you're not taking sides. That's not what this is. "And no arguing, geez. Or no yelling, at least—I don't care if you bicker like little babies, but if I hear you outside of this door one more fucking time, you're both out."

Eridan sinks further into his pillows and glares at his brother, then. "You heard him, Cro—get outta here. Your douchebag face is causin' too much fuckin' trouble," he grumbles, and just when Cronus looks like he's about to shout something back you raise your eyebrows and he throws his hands up instead.

"Fine, w-whatever. I hope they forget to feed you, you little shit," he says, and then he's pushing past you out the door. Both you and Eridan wait in silence until his stomping footsteps retreat down the stairs to the first floor, and the minute they're out of your earshot Eridan huffs. You don't doubt that he can still hear his brother causing a scene, though.

"W-was that all you came here for, or w-were you gonna poke at me, too?" he says after a moment, and you shake your head.

"Just had to get my daily dose of Ampora-ass-kicking in, that's all. I already changed your bandages for the day, so you're not really my problem." Eridan cracks a grin, then, and you let out your own tired chuckle.

"Yeah, w-well, good. I've seen too many too many ugly mugs today to w-want anythin' to do with anyone."

You can't help but snort at that. "He means well, you know. Cronus, that is." And you get another long-suffering, over-dramatic sigh in return.

"Yeah, yeah—don't need a lecture on how-w t'deal with family. Me and Vantas should start a fuckin' club or somethin'. Assholes W-With Shitty Asshole Brothers United or I dunno."

"Only if you let Jane join," you reply, "minus that first Asshole," and you do your best to smile. Eridan just rolls his eyes.

"Self-depreciatin' humor doesn't suit you, but that's just my opinion'. Keep scathin' us all with your sick burns or w-whatever, you'll look less like a loser that w-way." Sage advice delivered, he carefully turns on his side, trying to face away from you without pulling too much on the sutures trailing up his calf, and waves a hand in your general direction. "Now-w go aw-way."

"Maybe I'll kick you out even if you are quiet," you say, and all you get in reply is a muffled yeah, yeah.

No matter how annoying the Ampora brothers can be, the truth of the matter is that their relationship is actually fairly... stable. They argue and insult each other more than any two people you've ever met, but you know they really do care about each other in their own ways. Cronus wouldn't have been so angry if he didn't.

And in that way, they're so, so different from the clusterfuck that has become Kankri and Karkat. You've seen the Amporas fight, you've seen them come to blows—but at the end of the day they're family, and you don't think anything could really change that. Not their physical differences, not their gap in skill. But the other two—they're a different story. A long story that no one but you and a few others really know from start to finish.

You toss another don't rip your stitches, I swear to God over your shoulder and close the door behind you.

On your way to the stairwell, you pass back by Tavros's room and resist the urge to peek in one last time. You know nothing has changed, though, so you don't, no matter how much you want to.

(And you do your best to ignore Dave's room altogether, because he hasn't moved either, and now it's been so long that you're starting to believe that he never will. You're starting to lose the hope you had that you'd save him, because you're starting to realize that hope is a luxury you can't afford. Not anymore.)

The first floor is noisier than the second. You normally to keep your more severe patients, the ones who stay longer than a day or two or the ones you are seriously injured, upstairs, away from the building's main doors, away from the chaos of people moving in and out on a daily basis. Even with the overflow of the past few days, you've tried to keep at least that rule somewhat enforced.

(Sometimes you bend the rule, though, like with Dirk. He'd been the more likely of the two Striders to survive, as much as you hate to admit it, and you wanted to be nearby at all times just in case something happened so you didn't move him from the room Tav had picked.)

Not all of the doors are closed, either, which is nice in its own way. You can hear the undertones of conversation floating out from almost every direction, keeping you distracted as you move down toward your own room. A quiet wave or a called greeting comes from almost every room you pass, each one accompanied with a word of thanks for one thing or another. (You're just doing your job, you tell them, but they still look up at you like you're something special.)

A burst of laughter erupts down the hall to the right, and you step into Dirk's doorway just in time to see Jake disappear under a wad of blankets as it hits him in the face. Jane is clutching at her sides while she giggles louder than you've heard in weeks, and within seconds Roxy is sitting triumphantly on the squirming pile of fabric as your cousin spews out muffled cries for help. The three of them are all crammed onto the foot of the bed, limbs tangled up as Dirk himself watches on quietly. He looks exhausted, just like the rest of you, and even though you've been doing your best to keep him fed he looks thin in the hand-me-down clothes you've given him. His too-long, two-toned hair gives him a kind of shaggy appearance somewhere between one of those granola-types from the 1960's and a big city homeless man, and not for the first time you think that you should probably talk to him about cutting it soon.

Dirk is the first one to see you standing awkwardly in the door, watching, and when he gives you a little half-nod you blink—because even though he isn't smiling (you don't think you've seen him smile at all in the past two days) his paper-pale cheeks have the slightest flush and his orange-gold eyes are sparkling ever-so-slightly. Shining. And you think, maybe, that he's happy.

So you wave and remind them not to shout (Roxy whines and Jane waves you off with a huff and Jake uses the momentary distraction to wiggle his head out from his tattered plush prison) and you move on to the next room. You'll check on Dirk later, you decide. Because you think this is probably better for him than any kind of care you could give.

When you finally do make it to your office, Terezi is sitting backwards in one of your chairs, face completely pressed up against the window. It's sunny outside. Clear. If you just looked at the sky, you'd never guess that a storm had nearly ripped you all apart just two days ago. The muddy, torn-up ground tells a different story, though—it's like the whole building is sitting on a half-dried swamp. And you think it'll probably be a while before you can get grass to grow anywhere near here again. The earth here is poison, now. It's stained with black blood seeped deep into the soil.

You wonder idly how the surrounding forests will recover, but you know that nature always bounces back. No matter what you throw at it, it'll all still be here long after you're all gone.


Checking Terezi's progress doesn't take nearly as much time as you had anticipated, so she ends up sitting in your office long after you've finished taking down notes in her file, providing snarky commentary as you go about your business. Out of all the Cured you've treated, you think she's probably adjusting the best to the physical changes—and on top of that, her sensory responses are higher than any you've ever seen. She had already physically recovered enough to fight in the attack despite the fact that she'd been severely injured barely a week before, and now, less than half that time later, she's managed to completely rebound from any minor wounds she'd sustained. And that isn't even taking into account the kind of synesthesia-esque visual sense she's developed in spite of her blindness—and the fact that it's been steadily getting stronger.

In short, she's an anomaly. A fascinating anomaly.

"Why're you staring at me, John? That's weird. And you're doing it all wrong, anyway."

You blink, and sure enough Terezi is grinning at you from across the room, right in the line of your vision when you'd spaced out. She's perched in a chair by the window again, but this time she's sitting on the balls of her feet like she's going to leap off at any second. (And you tense a little because you honestly wouldn't put it past her to do exactly that, most likely onto you, just to see your reaction.)

"I'm not staring at you—you're just. I don't know. In the way of my eyes or something," you huff back, pointedly turning your entire body back toward the papers spread out in front of you. You've got Vriska's file open, now, and you think you've read the same three lines of Rose's most recent psychological evaluation at least half a dozen times. A second passes before your brain processes the rest of her statement and you turn back to Terezi, who's still grinning. Still. So you squint at her. "And what am I doing wrong, exactly?"

Her smile widens, and you don't know to make of that because you didn't think that was even possible. "Ogling a blind girl, stupid. Do you like my face, John? Is that what this is? If you're going to take advantage of my disability, at least pay attention while you're doing it."

The strangled choking sound you kind of half-sputter out is very mature and completely fitting for a respectable young man of your age.

Terezi just keeps staring past you, though, totally unfazed. "That was the most pathetic mating call I have ever heard. I am so disappointed in you. This is never going to work out."

"Um," you kind of wheeze, not really sure what to say because she's still grinning what the heck and you can't really tell if she's joking or not. "Not that you aren't. Very attractive. I just. Um."

God damn it, now she's snickering. "You're blushing—Jesus, you're blushing."

"You're blind!"

"That is a hurtful accusation. I am hurt."

You roll your eyes at that one, and turn back (again) to your papers because god fucking damn it you're going to get some work done if it kills you (and you are not blushing that is a lie). "It works out well that you're in the Infirmary, then. Best place to get injured." You silently thank the universe that your voice doesn't crack.

"Oh man, I'm in so much pain from all of these burns. How could you do that to a blind girl, John?"

"I'm pretty sure I don't have any ice, but there might be some sunscreen around here if you want to, like, protect yourself from any further damage," you wave your hand in the general direction of some overhead cabinets.

"I'm suing, this is medical malpractice."

"Bring it," you say without moving, and she laughs—a loud, screeching cackle that you think would be really fucking creepy if you weren't already getting used to it. (It kind of cuts off, though, because you think she startles herself with her own volume. You don't acknowledge it.)

"See you in court, asshole."

"No, you won't."

She gives a kind of scandalized gasp and throws her head back. "Will the slander never cease?"

"Not as long as you're here distracting me." You lean your chair back on two legs and glance up at the cracked, plaster ceiling for a second before rubbing your eyes again. (You don't want to think about who's lying motionless in the rooms above you. Either of them.) Terezi hums, and then out of the corner of your eye you see her leap off her perch into a standing position on the floor. Impressive.

"Then for my own self preservation I'll leave you here to be pathetic by yourself and go piss off Sollux instead," she whines dramatically. You snort at her response and roll your eyes—

WHAM!

—and then suddenly you're lying with your back on the floor with the wind completely knocked out of you, starin up at Terezi's laughing face. "Don't lean your chair back like that, loser. It's dangerous and who knows what could happen." You decide it's cosmic payback for doing the same thing to Cronus so many days ago.

"Thanks for the tip," you wheeze, and then she's gone, cackling her way out the door and back into the hallway. You feel kind of bad for shooing her off in a kind of roundabout way, but you know she doesn't really mind. You've found that nothing really bothers her, not really, because no matter what she'll always have the last word. (Although you'll never forget her face when she'd come to check on Vriska and Vriska had screamed.)

You wait until she's long out of earshot to get up, because when you'd hit the floor your right wrist had taken the brunt of the force. It takes more effort than it should to roll over awkwardly and fold yourself up onto your feet, and when you do finally manage to get upright you stretch your back, wincing when it cracks.

"You sound like an old geezer."

Jane is standing in the doorway to your office with her arms crossed, and she's giving you that look—the one that could really mean a whole host of things but always boils down to something like God damn it, John. You cough a little awkwardly. "Rude."

She shrugs, rolling her eyes at you. That seems to be a trend today. "Not my fault if it's true, you know."

All you can do is huff in response as you reach down to right your chair, pointedly ignoring her because you are a grown-ass man, damn it, and you will not rise to the bait of a seventeen year old girl. "Was there something you needed?"

"We heard a tremendous crash from down the hall and I was concerned, that's all. I should have known it was just you mucking up again."

"I do not muck," you huff, and now it's your turn to cross your arms. She doesn't even blink though, and all you get in reply is a raised eyebrow. The two of you stare at each other for a second, and then suddenly she narrows her eyes at you.

"Have you had anything to eat today?"

You sigh again and make a kind of vague hand gesture in the air that you know isn't fooling anyone even though it makes you feel the tiniest bit better. "I'll grab something later."

Before you've even finished talking, though, Jane is already shaking her head. "No, you won't. You and I both know that, so don't lie to me. It's bad enough that you do it so much to yourself." Her voice has an edge and you know she's not teasing you anymore.

"I'm not—"

"I'll come by with something in a bit. I've got to bring food for everyone else here, anyway, and one more bowl won't kill me."

You know she means well—you really do—but even so you can't help the frustrated noise you make. You don't miss meals on purpose, not really. You just... forget. You can't remember the last time you actually felt hungry (liar, you can, but that was a different place and a different time), and more often than not the thought of food gives you a vaguely queasy feeling you can't really pin down.

You don't tell her that, though.

Instead, you let her scold you just a little bit more before she turns back out into the hallway.

When the front door of the building open-shuts you close your eyes, lean against your desk, and listen to the murmur of people in the rooms around you.

Your head hurts, you realize. Your wrist is low-key throbbing from where you'd hit the floor and that hasn't gone away, but you can feel a new, dull ache forming behind your eyes. You're half tempted to move back upstairs, back to the quiet of Dave's room, but you know you'll be even less inclined to sift through files when you're surrounded by more people to fuss over. (You're a lot like your sister in that way, you think—or your sister is a lot like you. It's kind of funny. Your Dad was that way, too.)

(But the difference between you and your Dad is that he never made excuses, and no matter how much he had his hands full with you and Jane and even Jade, too, for a while, he always got his work done.)

You sigh again (again) and open your eyes.


==> BE THE DEAD KID

You're surrounded on all sides by gray and black and yellow and your hands hurt—your hands hurt so much they're numb. But if they're numb do they really hurt? Or do you just think they hurt because why else would they be numb? You can't tell (you don't know) everything is blurry and burning and no, no, NO—

—you grip the hilt of your sword (when did you pick up a sword?) and you swing and swing and swing but it just passes through—

—but you have to keep going you have to keep fighting you have to keep pushing because you have to protect, you have to protect, you have to protect—

(who are you protecting?)

(you don't know, you don't know, you don't know)

Something hits your chest and you scream but no sound comes out because suddenly—suddenly—you can't breathe why can't you breathe what's happening why—

The world gets bright—so bright, so fucking bright and hot like you've just been thrown dead center into the goddamn sun—and suddenly you're falling. The whole world and everything drops out from under you and the next thing you know you're hitting something hard—something hard and flat and cold and—

something has your legs and it's pulling and pulling but you can't move your arms because it's got your arms, too

—you try to lash out at it but you can't. And you can't open your eyes, either, because you think the minute you do you'll be completely and totally blinded like—

(you can see a flash of something red and grinning through the darkness, but it's gone before you can catch it.)

—like something? Something you know. But you don't know. Do you?

And for a moment, you go completely still, because your brain keeps jumping around and what is that something and—

What the fuck?

There's a kind of foggy realization somewhere very far away that tells you when you stopped moving, nothing happened. The pressure on your arms and legs is still there—and you still can't move them, not really—but there's no new pain. No new grip. No new heat.

And then you start to hear everything.

It starts like a low-key kind of humming—like your head's been shoved under twelve down comforters and everything is just kind of. Muffled. Really muffled. But as you keep your body still and focus on the sounds, the mumbled buzzing noises start to take some kind of vague, weird sense and in the back of your mind you think that this whole thing feels a lot like a really, really, really bad hangover multiplied by, like, eight.

Why eight I hate the number eight why do I hate the number

Suddenly you feel like you're going to throw up and before you even have the chance to think your stomach just kind of heaves and your heart rate picks up and suddenly you're fighting again but you're choking, choking, choking—

Before you realize what's happening, the world tilts at an unnatural angle and your head starts spinning and everything gets so much brighter

and then you're staring at the blurred outline of.

of a room.

You're in a room. Alone. And you're standing? Oh, shit, you're standing—THUD—fuck nope never mind you're on the floor again and your eyes are closed because fuck it's so bright.

You just kind of lie there for a moment, confused and in pain and out of breath, and then you realize that there's still something holding your legs—oh god oh god oh god—but when you open your eyes again (too fast this time and your head starts spinning) you squint and see that you're tangled in what looks like blankets. From a bed?

Why does your face feel wet?

Your name is DAVE STRIDER, and you have no idea what the hell is going on.


==> BE THE HELPLESS MENTOR. AGAIN.

You end up sitting at your desk for a full twenty minutes just sort of staring at the papers in front of you before the pain in your arm becomes so sharp and stinging and unbearable that you can't actually ignore it anymore, no matter how hard you try. You've given up on Vriska's file, and now the lists of supplies you need from Jake and his team when they finally leave are starting to blur a little. You can't tell if that's because you're just unfocused or if your body is finally succumbing to some kind of shock with the stress of the last few days piled into a broken bone or two.

You know you have to be more careful with it, because if it heals wrong and you lose the use of your right hand you'll be screwed. Very screwed. (And you can't imagine how things would change if you lost the use of both your legs, how you would survive, what you would do, so you try not to think about it and you try not to think about the boy upstairs.)

Eventually, you work up the energy and the balls to touch the loose bandage you've wrapped around the swollen skin, and you slowly start to peel it off, exposing purple and black bruises that stretch all the way from the base of your thumb to an inch or two up your arm. It looks gruesome, and you're honestly a little bit impressed with yourself. You've been preaching about the dangers of injury in a world like this for years, and yet here you are.

Fucking amazing.

After a few moments spent kicking your own ass for being so stupid, you steel yourself and start pressing around the injury, trying to pinpoint exactly where the break is. It's hard to tell because everything kind of hurts, but you figure out it's some kind of distal radius fracture, still non-displaced, and you're relieved because those are the easiest to fix. If you'd broken one of the smaller bones, you'd be in more trouble than you already are. (You try to ignore the fact that your self-diagnosis could just be wishful thinking, because you don't have any way to really be sure.)

You end up wrapping up most of your arm and hand in so many layers of thick bandage that you can't really move it, which is good, because you're not willing to break out the plaster rolls and give yourself an honest-to-God cast just yet. If it comes down to it, though, you will—or at least that's what you tell yourself.

The building's double doors open just as you're pinning the last bit of fabric down with a little aluminum hook, and you realize belatedly that your office is still open. Anyone could have passed by and seen how poorly you're really doing, and that makes you panic a little. Before you have the chance to dwell too much, though, Jane appears in your doorway with a massive serving tray of bowls, followed closely by a similarly-burdened Feferi, and you blink.

"What time is it?" you ask, and when you glance at the window you realize the sun has somehow managed to start setting while you weren't paying attention.

Jane raises her eyebrows and you can practically feel how entirely unamused she is from across the room. "Dinner time," she replies, and yeah you know that, but wow you don't think that totally sunk in when she told you she was going to bring you food earlier. Where did the day even go?

As you stand, Feferi smiles at you over Jane's shoulder, "Hi!" and you wave back before she disappears to deliver food to the others on the hall.

You sister stares you down as you make your way toward her, and you can't tell if she's angry or worried or both. You're not really sure why she'd be mad at you though. Frustrated, maybe? That one seems like a constant, these days. "When Roxy and I come back to collect this stuff later, that bowl had better be empty," she says, and you nod because what else can you do? Nothing, that's what. There's a pause, and as you grab your share, she asks, "How's Tavros doing?" and her tone seems softer.

"About the same," you reply, and you decide not to elaborate. She seems to understand, though. She doesn't press.

"Alright, well, I'd better go. I don't know if Fef is going to remember not to go in Vriska's room, and—"

"Hey, John?" the girl in question suddenly appears behind Jane again, her tray half empty. "I heard a crash upstairs and I'm not really sure if it's important because I don't know how often that kind of thing happens around here but I figured I'd let you know just in case!" She looks worried, but after a tense moment spent wondering what it could be you sigh.

"Eridan is probably trying to stand up again because he's stupid," you say, and even though Feferi snorts she still doesn't look particularly happy. She and Eridan have been through a lot together over the years, and you know that her tent has probably been unnervingly quiet lately while he's been here with you. You can relate a little bit; even though you're in a building full of people, without Tavros up and around to keep you company the Infirmary hasn't felt much like home. "Thanks for letting me know, I'll head up and check on him."

She relaxes a little and nods, before heading back down the hall. Jane gives you a look that says that had better not be an excuse to skip dinner and you roll your eyes at her before moving to set your food on your desk. When you turn around, she's gone, and you're not sure whether to strangle Eridan or thank him because you're half-convinced your sister would have made you eat right in front of her if given the opportunity.

Jane emerges from Vriska's room just as you pass, but before she closes the door you realize that Vriska has moved her bed and lamp since you saw her this morning. It's not on the far end of the room against the wall anymore—instead, by process of elimination you can tell she's pushed it to the same side as the entrance so that when the door opens, whoever is coming in can't see her. You make a mental note to speak with Rose about that later.

Dirk's room is still open, too, and when you walk by you can see Jake sitting on the floor at his side, leaning against the bed as he plows through dinner. Roxy is cross-legged at Dirk's feet, munching happily on her own food while she tries to coax him into eating a few bites. You poke your head in and tell him to get down what he can because he needs the nutrition to get his strength back, but not to push it if his body isn't ready for much yet.

The halls upstairs are still comparatively quiet, and you've already got half of a lecture planned out in your head for the man who's continually proven himself to be the most ornery patient you've had to deal with over the years.

But when you're halfway down to Eridan's room you stop because—

—what the fuck was that? It almost sounded like—

And then you hear it again.

The groan is muffled and scratchy and it kind of trails off at the end, but it's definitely coming from behind you, and maybe you're imagining it but you think (you hope! And also don't because what if it's not a good sound, not a coherent sound) it's coming from Dave's room. You turn around after a moment standing frozen in disbelief, because if you're wrong there's no harm done and if you're right then holy shit.

When you open the door, you're tense and poised to throw a punch if you need to. You don't know what's waiting on the other side, if Dave is awake and alive but not human, and if that's the case you have to be completely and totally prepared to do whatever you need to do.

But you don't see pale claws diving right for your throat—instead, there's a crumbled-up pile of thin limbs and tangled sheets laying motionless on the floor. There's black, too, on the mattress trailing down to the pile, pooling from somewhere, and it takes you a moment to realize that the mop of orange and white poking out from underneath what looks like an arm is Dave's head.

"Oh my God," you say without thinking, and you get a kind of startled-tired-confused-pained grunt in return.


Dave doesn't move as you make your way slowly towards him. As you look closer, though, you can see his scarred back heaving, like he's low-key hyperventilating, and you call his name just to make sure he can hear really you. There's no response, so when you finally get close enough you kneel down next to him you reach out your left hand to—

Suddenly there's something gripping your wrist hard and you jerk back, ready to slam him into the wall if you need to even though you don't want to but if he's Turned there's nothing else you can do but try to protect yourself and everyone else if you need to and—

He doesn't make any move to pull you down, though, and after half a second he lifts his head enough that you can finally see his face. The dark blood is coming from his mouth, and now that you can hear his breathing you realize he's rasping, crackling, half-drowning. His body has finally healed enough to start rejecting what it can (but it doesn't look like much, and after almost two weeks you wonder how much is actually flowing through his system). His eyes are closed, and you stay perfectly still, holding your breath because this is not going at all like you had expected. Not that you'd expected much in the first place.

Then, slowly, he opens them, squinting and blinking at you like someone is shining a flashlight directly into his eyes or he's just woken up after a heavy night's sleep or both. Definitely both. But you can see the exact moment several seconds later that is brain, probably muddled and not completely functional just yet, registers person and his grip on your arm starts to loosen. (And yeah, that's definitely going bruise. Now you'll match on both sides!)

Dave makes a noise that almost sounds as though he's trying to speak, but after so long without use or much water his throat is dry, only half-functional, caked with black bile, and it comes out more like another moan than anything else.

"I'm a friend, don't worry. You're safe. If hurts to see, close your eyes. The lights are off but the blinds are open so I'm going to put them down. The sun should be setting soon, though, so you'll feel better about that in a few minutes. I'm going to stand up now, okay?" You say softly, almost whispering, and although he doesn't try to say anything else he takes your advice and his eyelids drop back down.

Slowly, you make your way across the room, and pull down the shades as quietly as you can, bringing the room into a dimness not dark enough that you can't see but significantly less bright than it had been. The door is still open and the main floor switch is still off, so the only light left is the evening sun pouring through windows at either end of the hall.

"I'm coming back over to you, now. You're in the middle of the floor and I'm going to need you to sit up if you can, okay? You sound like you're having trouble breathing, and that will help your lungs get more air." He shifts a little but doesn't move much overall, so when you're kneeling next to him again you say, "I'm going to move you, just try to relax. I promise I'm not going to hurt you, but if something feels wrong try to let me know so I can stop. You were seriously hurt, Dave, and that kind of thing doesn't heal overnight."

You reach out a second time but stop when there's a raspy string of grunts that almost sound like words, now, and you really wish Tavros were here because you need water, you need towels to clean up this mess, you need an extra set of hands (but then you feel terrible because Tavros is more to you than an assistant, he's your friend).

"Don't try to push yourself to speak if—"

"You know my name," he wheezes out a second time, still barely audible and broken but recognizable nonetheless. And once again he tries to open his eyes, squinting up at you and then finally blinking, looking at you and wow, okay, even though you'd seen his red irises before while he was unconscious, coming face-to-face with them when they're working is a whole new ballgame. It's both terrifying and completely mesmerizing.

He's still struggling to get air into his lungs, though, so you try to focus on the task at hand. "Yes, Dave, I do. Now please—you'll feel a lot better when you're sitting up, trust me." And apparently he does, because he lets you carefully maneuver him upward so that he's leaning against the bed. After a few moments, his gasping slows to something more like breathing.

He's still tangled in his sheets, most of which are now stained with splotches of dark toxic bodily fuild, so the next thing you do is set to work unwinding them from his legs. He's not wearing anything aside from a pair of boxers from the Cabinet so you could easily access the injuries all across his body while he was unconscious, and you can see already that he's managed to pull out more than a few of those stitches. "You really did a number on yourself," you say, and when you glance up you see that he's watching you with a slightly-detached intensity that makes his piercing eyes all the more unnatural-looking. "I'm going to have to re-sew a lot of this soon, or you'll open up some of these wounds again."

"Di—"

At first you don't realize he's actually said anything because the word cuts out halfway through when his shallow voice cracks, so you blink at him, and then suddenly it's like there's been adrenaline pumped into his veins because he's moving, glaring at you and grabbing at your shirt with an iron grip.

"Where is Dirk?" he demands, almost shaking you a little, and you put your hands up in front of you ever-so-slightly just in case he does get violent.

"Your brother is fine. He's downstairs, just a few rooms away."

And at that Dave just kind of sags, resting against the bed and visibly wincing when it comes in contact with the injuries on his back. He nods, looking more relieved than any person you've ever seen in your entire life, and his eyes slip closed again. "Good."

After a moment, you pick back up with freeing him from his self-made fabric prison, and he doesn't say anything else. When you've got all of it undone, you start using some of the already-ruined sheets to clean up the mess still smudged on his face, parts of his torso, and the floor. It's already started to dry and stick, though, so after doing what you can you stand up and say, "I'm going to get soap or something for the rest of this, okay? Try not to move much. I know the floor probably isn't very comfortable but you managed to puke all over your bed so I'll have to get that sorted before we try to get you back up there. I might just end up moving you to another room, actually. Anyway, yeah. I'll be right back."

You get a noncommittal grunt in return, and with his eyes still closed you think it looks like Dave might be slipping back out of consciousness. At the very least you want to try and get some water into his system before then, because you don't know when he'll wake up again, so you pick up the pace a little and head down the hall to the surgical room rather then your office downstairs. There, you gather up a small basin and a mug that says "Skaian University Chess Club", and fill them both with water from the sink. On your way out, you grab a few relatively-clean rags, too, and it takes a bit of maneuvering to balance everything without two fully-functional hands.

You're so focused on not dropping what you came for, though, that you almost miss Feferi squeal "Oh my God!" when she sees Dave through his open door. You'd forgotten she and Jane were still handing out food, you'd forgotten to tell them not to come upstairs—or maybe you should have just closed the it when you left. You don't know.

The minute you step out into the hall, there's an ear-splitting snarl, and all you see is a white blur lunge at her before she screams.


Stew and broken glass fly everywhere as Feferi and her tray crash to the floor, and all you can do is pray the CRACK! you hear isn't her skull against the ground as you rush forward.

Dave is on top of her, snarling, pinning her down and ready to kill. The uneven black stitches criss-crossed over his pale skin make him look like something from a horror movie, an experiment gone wrong, and some part of your brain things you should be terrified.

But you aren't, because everything you'd been holding is suddenly on the floor and you're running, diving, hitting his side at full speed, tearing him off her as she keeps screaming. The two of you go rolling and sliding across the linoleum floor until you hit the wall at the end of the hallway hard and come to a stop. Dave doesn't stop fighting, thrashing and growling and yelling as much as he can with a voice so raspy. "No! What are you doing? I have to—No! Not again—No! No!" over and over again until all that's left are incoherent shouts and snarls.

(His red eyes are wild, unseeing, and you're not sure if he's fighting you or if it's something else you can't see.)

Vaguely, you hear the sound of doors opening, of shouting, of someone crying, but Dave gets a hand free and starts clawing at your face so you ignore it and keep him down because right now he is a threat. And that is your first priority. So you push back hard and not once does he get the upper hand.

After too long, you manage to flip him on his stomach, arms pinned behind his back and use your right arm to hold the side of his head hard against the ground. He's still struggling, hissing hot, forceful breaths out from between clenched teeth, but with his jaw locked by the pressure you're applying he can't do much more than make grating, caged-animal growls.

"Dave, I need you to calm down. No one here is going to hurt you, but if you make it necessary I will use force. Like now, for instance. Calm down, Dave. Deep breaths. You're fine, you're safe. I just need you to calm the fuck down," you say in a low voice, over and over again like a mantra. You're safe, you're fine, just calm down.

And after what feels like an eternity, he does. Slowly but surely his thrashing dies down, and soon the only things left are the sound of his loud, fast breathing and the heave of his back against the knee you have there to keep him down.

You realize, then, that's all you can hear. Dave, your own heartbeat pounding in your ears, and the occasional sniffle from somewhere to your right. The rest of the world is almost completely silent. And when you look up, you're met with the terrified faces of almost everyone on the hall, all holding their breaths and staring at you wide-eyed.

Feferi is still on the ground, but now she's sitting up, surrounded by a pool of broken glass and food and dark red blood. Eridan, who's propping her upright with one arm and gripping her hand with the other, has his own sharp teeth barred, and you think if he wasn't holding onto her he'd be ripping Dave to shreds.

The stairwell door is open, too, and Jake is standing at the top, arms spread wide in a defensive position while Jane, Roxy, and a few others peer around him, afraid.

And Dirk is there too, although you're not really sure how (and you're seriously going to lecture him later). He's got a white-knuckled grip on the stairwell railing and his whole body is shaking, but he's staring at his brother with an expression of so much horror, so much hurt, that you have to look away.

So you focus your attention back on the maybe-not-as-okay-as-you-thought man you've still got trapped. "Can you hear me, Dave? Are you calm?" You repeat it twice before you feel him sort of sigh, and he closes his eyes. At first you're worried he's passed out again, but then he gives you a stiff, jolting nod against the ground, and you let up some of the pressure on his head without making any move to get off him. "Good." Then, you turn your attention to Feferi, and the taut-rubberband tension in the room seems to snap. From what you can tell, everyone lets out a collective breath as you ask, "Are you alright?"

Eridan answers before she gets the chance to say anything, spitting and justifiably enraged. "W-what the fuck kinda question is that? A course she's not alright, she just got almost killed by—"

Feferi cuts him off by just kind of pressing her free hand on his face, over his mouth. "I'll live!" she says, giving a of breathless, strained, hysterical giggle that doesn't do a thing to make you feel better. Eridan growls against her hand.

You hum, low in your throat and worried. The fact that she's okay enough to laugh doesn't mean much, not really. But you can't tell if her attitude is just Feferi or if she's starting to go into shock. "You're bleeding. Eridan, put pressure on the wounds you can, wherever they are, but if there's glass don't push it deeper. Rufioh, carry her to 216, it's an empty room. Actually, no—Eridan, you shouldn't be moving, you're still hurt. Gamzee, try to stop the bleeding."

Gamzee just looks at you, and Eridan starts to protest, but you are not in the mood and everyone else in the small crowd you've accidentally gathered has started to back away, scared and not wanting to be too close (but still not willing to hide in their rooms just yet). "Motherfuckin' me?"

"Yes, motherfucking you. Show him where she's bleeding, Eridan." You turn to the stairwell, then, and nod to your cousin. "Jake, come here. Roxy and Jane, take Dirk back downstairs, he shouldn't be—"

And suddenly, Dave starts thrashing again. You're caught off-guard just enough that he's able push his torso up and move his head before you slam it back down to the ground. A few people scream in surprise, but Jake doesn't miss a beat and steps forward, ready to help if you need it.

But Dave isn't paying attention to any of you. It takes you a few seconds to realize he's not growling, he's not fighting, and when you really look down at him you see that his eyes are locked dead on his brother.

And you think if he weren't so dehydrated, he might be crying.

But Dirk just blinks, and his expression hasn't changed. And when he speaks, so quiet and heartbroken and scared, you might have thought you'd imagined it if Roxy hadn't reacted.

"What the fuck, Bro?"

And then he turns around, nearly falling as he tries to take the next step down on the stairs. Jane reaches out immediately to help him, and Roxy looks like she's about to start crying when she follows behind.


After that, Dave goes almost completely limp, like all the fight just drains out of him, and then he really does pass out. You're able to get him up as much as you can, but because of your arm you have to let Jake help you carry him back into his room. His stained mattress is still stripped, which saves you the trouble of doing it now, and you take everything—your own blankets and the papers and books you'd been keeping there while you slept on his floor—out except for the bed.

Most patient rooms in the Infirmary have a worst-case-scenario system set up in the walls and floors. It's not much, really, just four metal hooks Equius and Horuss drilled in after an incident early on that almost cost you your life. Nylon tow straps are meant to be tied to each, and then to the wrists and ankles of whoever you're trying to hold. They're designed to secure any newly-Infected who are particularly violent, keeping them in place so they don't hurt themselves or those around them.

The straps are down in your office, so you lock the unconscious Dave in his room and leave Jake to guard the door just in case he wakes up again. If you're being really honest with yourself, you don't think anything will happen, but whether you like it or not Dave has made it clear to you and everyone else that he's a danger. And you're not about to take any chances.

The hallway, although still a mess, is devoid of people now, and you can hear Eridan half-yelling from an open door several rooms down. You know you have to look over Feferi as quickly as possible, so you get your feet moving and make your way to the first floor.

It takes you longer than you'd like to find the straps tangled in one of your cabinets, but as soon as you do you're heading back toward the stairwell, trying to straighten out the mess as you go. You don't realize Dirk's door is open until you pass by and hear Roxy's high-pitched, upset, kind-of-shocked, "John!"

When you look up, you see Dirk on his bed with the girls flanking his sides. He's staring at you, mouth set in a thin line and eyes hard and complexion looking even paler than normal, and you have the decency to pause, just for a moment. Or, well, he's not staring at you, really—he's staring at what you've got in your hands. They all are.

And you can't sugar-coat it, no matter how much you might want to tell them it'll be okay, because even though you're Jane's older brother and Roxy's friend (no, that's not quite right, she's just as much your sister as Jane) the reality is that you have to put your job over what you might want. So you just say, "It's what's best for everyone right now," and keep moving. (Later, Roxy will tell you that she hates leader-mode, and Jane will shake her head quietly, looking worried like always.)

Dave is still unconscious when you get back into his room, and you make quick work of tying him down before you lock the door again and thank Jake for his help. He nods, makes a strained joke about his duty and protecting the camp and whatnot, and disappears down the stairwell to find Rose wherever she might be on campus. The hallway is still a mess, and you'll need help cleaning it up.

Then, you make your way to Feferi.

Rufioh is nowhere in sight when you enter the room, so you assume he's gone back to Tavros, but Gamzee is standing awkwardly in one corner while Eridan seethes at his (girlfriend's? Best friend's? You really have no idea what their relationship is, now that you think about it) side. She's stripped down to her underwear and her food-and-blood-soaked clothes are sitting in a pile on the floor at the foot of the bed.

When she first sees you in the doorway, she perks up a little, but the way she's blinking unfocused and only really looking in your vague general direction makes you think she's probably suffered a head injury in addition to whatever else. You tell Gamzee he can go, and he slips out of the room with a quiet "I hope this sister here gets to feelin' better real soon," that goes without a response.

As it turns out, Feferi does have a severe concussion, and there's a deep five-stripe scratch from the back of her right shoulder to the top of her breast that needs stitches. Most of the blood, though, looks to have come from the minor cuts littered all over her body made by the broken glass. She's coherent but confused, and despite her vomiting all over Eridan while you ask some basic memory questions the whole thing goes rather well. Eridan refuses to leave, so you bring him a change of clothes from his room and make sure he hasn't burst any of his stitches before you move on.

Rose, Jake, and Kankri are already working on the mess in the hall, and just as you're apologizing for making your own contributions Cronus and Meenah burst through the stairwell door. Meenah, usually cool and calm under pressure, doesn't acknowledge anyone as she makes a bee-line for her sister's room, and Cronus pauses long enough to ask you how Feferi is doing before he follows her.

You offer to help clean, but Rose shoots a pointed look at the unraveling bandages on your wrist and tells you not to worry about it. (You do anyway, though. Worry, that is.) You don't say anything, and you decide not to dwell too much on the fact that your cousin is up here and not downstairs with his friend.

By now, the sun has completely set, and you wonder if you're ever going to have an uneventful day. With the chaos starting to settle, it occurs to you that Karkat is going to be pissed at you for letting something like this happen, and you can't bring yourself to feel much of anything about that realization. Because you're pissed at you, too—at how irresponsible you were, at how much you let your guard down, at how you've done nothing but put people at risk over something as stupid as friendship. And you deserve it.

While he's still unconscious, you use the last of your suture thread to redo all the stitches Dave managed to destroy on himself, and by the time you're done, you don't really feel anything about anything at all.

Chapter Text

[6/4/37]

==> DAVE: WAKE UP

The last time you rejoined the world of the living, it had been a slow process. You didn't know where you were, who you were, or what was happening. You had no idea about anything. But this—this is something else entirely. It's sharp, excruciating, immediate. It's a thousand needles stinging every inch of your body, pumping adrenaline into every cell, catching you so far off guard you start gasping for air like wind's been sucked right out of your lungs. Your tongue feels like cotton, and your throat burns.

In short, it sucks ass.

Even with your eyes closed, you can see a sea of neon orange that's actually kind of painful, so you try to put a hand over your face and block out the light filtering through your lids. For some reason, though, you can't move.

So, naturally, the first thing you do is freak the fuck out.

(Except not, because you don't freak out . No way, not you. You just kind of panic a little. And by a little you mean a lot. ) You try to move your arm again, and then your other one, and then both. They don't budge so you yank harder, harder, harder until you start to hear a strange, inanimate creaking sound. And you realize, then, there's something pressing on your wrists.

Your heart rate starts to pick up, because that means you're not paralyzed—you're being held down , or at least that's what it feels like. You're trapped , and oh fuck no, that is not okay . You open your eyes—

Who gave the sun permission to be so fucking bright not you that's who shit ugh no fuck this.

—and squeeze them shut again. Temporarily blinded, you stop thrashing, and while you're distracted from the low-key hysteria building up in your head you start to remember. You know your name, you know (vaguely) where you are, but now the weirdly-blurred knowledge of everything else is starting to sharpen and oh, oh . Okay. Yeah.

Your name is DAVE STRIDER, and you feel like a TOTAL ASSHOLE. A justified asshole (anyone would react the way you did, right?), but an asshole nonetheless.

You can recall a man—a tall man with wide shoulders and glasses and a kind smile and a no-nonsense voice that made you feel like things were going to be okay even if you weren't totally convinced. He'd found you, talked to you, calmed you down, and tried to help you. He'd made it seem like it was the most important thing in the world to do so. You'd felt safe, even though you had no real idea what was going on, and when he'd said your name— Dave —it was like you'd been pulled back into your body from some weird, faraway place.

(It was a trippy as shit experience, and not in the cool way at all .)

But then all of a sudden you'd felt so worried, so panicked, so scared , because you had no idea where your brother was ... and like a switch, the opposite of all of those feelings when he'd told you Dirk was alright. You'd been so confused, but you knew then that you were safe. You'd somehow made it to the place where John and Roxy and Karkat everyone else had been waiting. So you'd let yourself relax, and then (of course) everything had gone as horribly wrong as it possibly could.

You'd heard the girl squeal, excited about something (you?), but when you'd turned to look at her all you'd seen was gray, gray, gray . You had no idea you could move that fast, let alone while you felt like absolute shit ... and that's where everything sort of starts to blur in your head.

There was screaming, high pitched and so close too close make it stop! to your ear, and the metallic, salty taste of blood. It's sick smell swallowed you up and made you feel alive and terrified all at once. And fighting, too. You'd struggled and struggled against something, not really paying attention to what because you just knew you had to protect yourself and Dirk and Terezi and Vriska and Gamzee and—!

And suddenly there was a voice. A firm, strong voice that you'd heard before, telling you (again!) things would be okay and that you needed to calm down. You realized there was someone on top of you, holding you down, and oh my fucking God you'd been fighting a person , and you'd attacked someone , and that was really bad holy shit you fucked up, you fucked up .

The man had given orders, then, naming people and telling them what to do, and it occurred to you from some very far away place that this was someone in charge. He mentioned Gamzee and you heard him respond, and that had been some odd kind of relief because even though the two of you had never been close friends you'd spent years together. You were glad he was okay. Was everyone else okay?

But then he'd said Dirk's name —he'd said it like your brother was in the room —and you'd had to see, you'd had to see he was okay because even though the man had told you already you had to see with your own eyes . So you'd fought again like a caged animal, you'd searched for him, and when you found him you thought you might be going crazy because he looked so different, so unrecognizable in some strange way that you couldn't really pinpoint. Then the man was forcing you down again , but it was him, it was Dirk, you just knew. He'd been this all-consuming, amazing part of your life since the day he was born, and you could pick him out in a crowd even if he changed every feature he could.

The way he was looking at you, though. You hadn't seen him wear that kind of expression in years (not since the Beginning) and you think you may have physically felt something break inside your body. And then he was talking to you, sounding so hurt and disgusted and confused , asking a question to which you had no real answer.

What the fuck was right.

You hadn't known then, and you still don't know.

Once again, you try to open your eyes, this time at the kind of pace that would make elderly snails look like a fleet award-winning NASCAR racers, and after a small eternity you're squinting up at some nondescript field of blank orange-white. Nice, really helpful. You hear a dull murmur of noise all around you, but it sounds far away, muffled, and it's hard to pick anything specific out from the din.

You're determined to figure this shit out, though, so you blink a little and try to move your arms again. They're still not budging, so at least now you know you weren't going totally nuts a few minutes ago. Next challenge: figure out why .

Slowly, you tilt your head to the side, but the pin-pricks all over your body flare up every time you try to move and it takes you a second to get a good view of your left hand. And you're not sure whether you should be royally pissed off or just sort of resigned. You jerk your arm one more time for good measure.

Yeah, you're not going anywhere.

There are four neon-yellow woven straps looped around your left wrist and ankle, probably on your other side too, holding you in place spread-eagle on a bed. They're heavy-duty, the kind of thing used to haul shit on a trailer or something, so you figure whoever tied you down meant Serious Business when they trapped you. (Kinky.)

You recognize the room vaguely as the same one from... some point ago. (It occurs to you that you have no idea what day it is, what time it is, or how long has passed both since you last woke up and since you were in the woods, screaming.) A few things are different, though. The pile of blankets and books that had been in the corner is gone, and you're laying on a bare mattress with no sheets and no pillows.

You're still pretty much naked, too, and you're not really sure how you feel about that. The impressive amount of angry, bloody cuts, purple-black bruises, and wire stitches all over your body keep your attention away from wondering where your clothes are, though. Briefly, you lament the loss of your totally hot bod , but take comfort in the fact that you'll have some pretty bad-ass scars to show off when you're all healed up .

And then you realize you've finally pirouetted off the royal handle of sanity, because why are you thinking about your appearance at a time like this.

There's no one else in the room. It's just you, and you wonder where the noise is coming from because it almost (almost but not quite) sounds like voices.

You try to concentrate on pulling the straps again, this time putting as much force as you can behind one hand. The strap starts to creak (annoyingly loud!), but you're either too weak or it's too strong because that shit isn't going anywhere. Panic starts to build up in your chest, but you force it down because you know— you know— you deserve this.

Suddenly, there's a defined series of tap, tap, taps that overtake the dull background murmur you're beginning to think is all in your head, and a voice you almost think you know says something far away.

"—on't think you should follow me, but it's up to you. I'm just here to do what I need to and then leave. You're healed enough to take care of yourself, and he's not going anywhere." It's low, terse, and also kind of tired-sounding. A man, probably.

A second person speaks up, and this one is familiar. An all-consuming, overwhelming sense of relief washes over you because oh God, thank God. Terezi's okay, she's okay.

"I know, I just want to see him. It's not like I have anything better to do, anyway. I'm not going to sit downstairs all day and wait for Vriska to actually open her doo—" she breaks off and the tap, tap, taps that you realize are probably footsteps (why can you hear footsteps?) stop too and, "John, he's up."

"What?"

"He's awake, moron."

"How do you know?"

"Because I can hear him breathing weird."

"Hm." It's an unhappy sound.

By the time TZ's statement really registers in your brain and you make the connection that this—this is John holy shit that's what John sounds like why does it sound so familiar—the door has already opened, and two people step into the room.

Immediately, you recognize the first one. Blue eyes and messy black hair and biceps to kill a man—you tense up, wary and a little confused. Half of you remembers how gentle he was when you first saw him, how he helped you when you weren't yourself and reassured you; and the other half is focused on a montage-memory of rough hands wrestling you to the ground, a loud voice barking at people you can't see, and the feeling of being trapped, trapped, trapped. (You deserved it but it was still kind of frightening—how easily he could take you down and make you totally powerless.)

There are four long scratches down his left cheek that you can't recall. They look fresh, and they're such a prominent feature that seeing them just confuses you more.

You're so focused on the first you almost don't notice the second figure. When you do, though, all five of your senses go into overdrive, because—danger! Danger! Danger!—and you start struggling again even though realistically you know you shouldn't be afraid.

"Terezi, leave," the man says, and now you know why his voice sounded so familiar because it's him, John is him, and that's not at all what you were expecting. (Because this man has a cold stare and a voice that's somehow hollow and angry at the same time; this man is the one who brought you do the ground and held you there.)

But Terezi! You'd heard her, you knew she was coming, yet the person standing in front of you looks unfamiliar (while somehow so much the same, just like your brother had seemed, and that worries you).

She looks at you—or you think she does, at least; it's really fucking hard to tell what her eyes are doing behind the red-rimmed Ray-Ban sunglasses she's wearing—and crosses her arms. "No way. This loser doesn't have an excuse for being afraid of me, so he's just going to have to deal with it," she says, and yeah, that's definitely her. You go pathetically limp.

John moves forward and asks, "Dave, can you hear me?" But his tone isn't calming, not like it was last time he found you awake. "Are you coherent?"

"Yeah," you reply, or at least you try to. Your voice isn't working right, and trying to clear your throat does absolutely nothing. Or, well, it does do something—it makes you sound like a rusty lawnmower during the 1970s gas crisis. It's a really fucking fabulous sound, if you're totally honest with yourself.

"Here," John takes a few more steps and then he's right next to you, holding something in front of your face. Belatedly, you realize he has a large black bag in one shoulder and a cup filled with... something in the opposite hand. "Actually, one second." Before you can do anything, he sets the bag in the floor and makes his way back to the door, where Terezi is still standing. The glass gets passed off to her, and he starts untying the straps around your ankles. "I'm going to free you up a little so you can sit up and drink this—it's water, by the way—but you're clearly still pretty volatile so I'm not totally letting you go just yet."

"That's fair," you kind of croak out, and you can't decide whether the expression Terezi makes is worried or amused because even though there's a grin involved her eyebrows scrunch up (and you wouldn't put it past her to laugh at you while you're at your worst, even if she is your friend). As soon as the tension in your legs gives way, you rotate your ankles a little.

John walks back around to your left side and starts slowly propping you up against the wall behind your bed, at the same time motioning Terezi closer. He's oddly quiet, you think, but you really don't have much to go on because you've only seen him in person once.

The water feels nice on your cotton-y tongue, and before you realize what you're doing you've got your head tilted forward trying to chug the damn stuff. It's hard to do without hands, and you accidentally yank on the straps trying to get at it. (When was the last time you had anything to drink? You have no idea.) John moves the glass away before your old-man-dying-of-thirst-in-the-desert reaction spills any of what's inside, though. If either he or TZ hears the distressed, helpless whine you make when he does, neither reacts. "Careful. That'll be super cold if you soak yourself, and if you drink too much too fast you'll probably make yourself sick. That would suck for both of us."

You nod, even though God damn you're still really thirsty, and say, "Yeah, truth. I'm done puking up my internal organs, and I ain't about to start again." There's a little swell of pride in your chest at the fact that you can actually understand what's coming out of your mouth now. "Thanks, man. And hey, TZ. Nice shades." You also give yourself a few bonus points for sounding totally calm and collected even though you're really, really not.

Terezi really does grin at you, though—a genuine, toothy smile—and you actually feel a little bit better. "AC hooked me up with these sweet cherry specs because my old ones didn't make it back with us," she says, and she gives you a thumbs up. You return the gesture as best you can with your arms still pinned down.

Meanwhile, John has set the glass down on the floor and is rummaging through the bag he'd brought with him. There's a thick wrapping around his right hand, wrist, and lower arm that you hadn't noticed before because you were too focused on his face, and you can't help but wonder where his injuries are from. Based on your conversations over the past few months, you know that he doesn't leave the camp much—if at all—so they would have had to come from somewhere here. An equipment accident, maybe? A fight? (You try to completely ignore the possibility that they'd come from you.)

You're so caught up in your own thoughts that you almost miss it when John starts speaking. (Mental note: pay attention to what the fuck is going on around you.) He has a needle and a rubber strap in the hand that doesn't look like part of an intense mummy costume, and wow you haven't seen those used in any kind of actual medical context in years. "I'm going to draw some blood. The circumstances of your condition are kind of... weird, and I want to take a closer look at what's going on."

"Go ahead, dude. It's not like I'm going anywhere, anyway," you wiggle your arm a little to show off the strap still looped around your wrist, and give your best chuckle, hoping all the while it's as totally nonchalant as you'd like it to be.

John nods, sticks the plastic syringe barrel between his teeth, and wraps the tourniquet around your upper arm. He's quick about the whole thing, and you're actually kind of impressed at how tight he ties the rubber using only one hand. While he works, Terezi makes her way over to sit on the bed by your feet on the opposite side, and you almost don't even notice the needle break your skin. John is so surprisingly gentle that the small distraction is enough to take your mind completely off what he's doing.

But the minute he starts pulling out blood your gag reflex goes off, because holy shit it smells strong, too strong, and for a brief second you're standing over the girl from however long ago, clawing and biting. You don't even realize you've moved until John's hand is on your chest, pressing you back into the wall hard enough to bring you down to reality. "Hold still, Dave. The more you move, the longer this is going to take."

You glance over at Terezi and see that she's holding her breath.


John takes three vials of blood and sticks a Hello Kitty Band-Aid over the tiny puncture prick in the crook of your elbow. He leaves soon after without so much as a goodbye, and you wonder if this is really the same person you've been chatting with since April. Belatedly, it occurs to you that you should have asked him to undo the straps still on your wrists.

Your head starts to hurt.

Terezi stays behind, but even though the two of you can barely shut up on a good day the room stays uncomfortably silent for a solid five minutes. You're the first one to say something.

"So... Did he leave the water here or what?"

Terezi laughs, and suddenly you realize your mistake because why are you asking her? She's blind, there's no way she'd kno—

"Yeah, I think it's still down there. Here—" She swings her legs up over yours and slides off the bed, disappearing from your field of vision for just a moment as she crouches down toward the floor. When she pops back up, she's holding the cup in her hands, grinning.

"Uh." You just kind of blink at her.

"You thirsty, coolkid?" she asks, and you can hear her holding back another cackle.

"Yeah, but I'm not gonna trust with the extremely delicate operation required to satiate my terrible drinking problem, because you'll get me soaking wet. If you free one of my hands I'll do it myself."

Instead of listening, though, Terezi waves her other hand in front of your face and then sticks the glass to your lips. You don't really have any other choice but to drink, so you do, and the water tastes so nice that you almost forget to be completely stunned by the whole thing. When the last of it is gone, she pulls the cup away and you lick your chin for any stray bits you may have missed.

"Pretty cool, huh?" She says, and you notice for the first time since she walked through the door that she doesn't have a cane with her. She's been maneuvering through the room totally on her own.

"Shit, TZ. Yeah. What happened?" You breathe out, stunned. Because this—whatever it is—is pretty damn amazing.

"The end of the world happened, Dave. Didn't you hear?" She laughs again, and you roll your eyes. "But really, I don't have all the details. The Virus did some crazy damage to my system, but fucked me up in all the best ways. It's great! John said he'd never seen anything like it."

"I bet. You're one of a kind, alright," you snort. "So what's it like being able to... See?"

"Nah, it's different. Like, I can smell and feel and hear and taste everything. It's hard to explain, but you're too stupid to understand anyway."

"Wow, fuck you," you say, and she gasps, throwing her head back and letting out a scandalized noise that makes you picture some suburban housewife hearing her son say sex for the first time.

"So rude, Strider!"

"I stand by my statement." There's more laughing, and she sticks her tongue out at you for good measure. It's nice, easy, and the tension in the room starts to disappear just a little. "I'm glad you're doing okay, though. You really had me going for a while, you know? I guess the last time I saw you, you were pretty bad."

"I could say the same about you. We were all pretty convinced you were going to die for a while there." Her voice gets quiet, and she flops back down over your feet so she's facing up at the ceiling. "A week is a long time in a coma when there's no way to get food and whatever pumped into your sorry ass."

"Holy shit, it's been a week?"

"Well, no. I've been driving people crazy that long, but I think we've been here... twelve days? I don't know, it seems like more than that. John and AC are pretty convinced, though, and I'm not about to argue with them."

"Everyone made it, right?"

"Yeah," she nods, the back of her head rubbing against your bare legs, and you don't really have the heart to tell her that shit stings against your stitches because some stupid part of you doesn't want her to move. Right now, she's the only familiar thing in this whole place. "Your weird brother is downstairs doing pretty great, actually. He's up and moving around after your little bitch fit the other day."

"The other day?"

"So many questions, it feels like an interrogation. Yeah, three, maybe four days ago. When you go, you go hard, coolkid. Passed out a second time and left us all sure you were going to kick the bucket for real." You hum but don't say anything, so Terezi continues. "Gamzee is fine, too. That ass-clown has been holed up down the hall since day one, getting what he deserves for all the shit he's been putting into his system. He's got these moments of lucidity, though, when he's okay enough to hold half a conversation, but since the skinny kid got hurt he hasn't said much."

"...You're going to have to start at the beginning for that one."

Terezi waves one of her hands in the air and gives a half-hearted shrug against your legs. "Some stuff went down a little while after we got here. John's assistant, Tavros—he probably told you about him—took a hit, and only really woke up yesterday. He's pretty bad off, though, and the big man on top says he's paralyzed from the waist down. The kid was taking care of Makara before it happened."

"Shit," you don't know what else to say. "What about Vriska?"

"Eh, you know her. How are you doing, though?"

You decide to ignore the fact that TZ had avoided your question and snort out a laugh. The sound is more sarcastic than you intend. "I'm tied to a wall in a place I've never been while some asshole I've never met sticks me with needles—so just about as well as you'd expect."

Terezi's eyebrows scrunch up below her sunglasses and she snorts, too. "You've met John before, asshole. The minute you losers started messaging he was all you ever talked about. It was disgusting."

"Yeah, well, apparently he's not exactly who I thought he was." Suddenly, the corner of the room looks very interesting, and you hope your voice doesn't sound as disappointed to her as it does to you.

Terezi doesn't say anything in response, though, and you're just starting to wonder if you said something wrong when she finally speaks up. "He's probably just stressed. Something's been weird with him since you went ape-shit and put that girl Feferi out of commission, but I can't really say much either way 'cause I don't know him that well." When you glance back at her, she's messing with the hem of her shirt.

And suddenly you feel like a complete piece of shit, because this whole time that's the one thing that hasn't crossed your mind. You sit up straight and lean as far forward as you can, accidentally jerking Terezi off your legs in the process. "Oh fuck, oh my God, is she okay? The girl—oh my God."

Terezi props herself up on her elbows and looks at you. "Relax, Strider. She's beat up pretty bad, but she'll be fine. I don't know all the details so you'll have to ask John or whoever, but she left here—we're in the Infirmary, by the way, just in case you're too slow to figure that out— this morning with some guy to move back into her tent."

"Thank fuck," you sigh.

"Yeah, she seems like the kind of person who'll forgive you without really even knowing you—which is kind of stupid if you ask me—so I wouldn't worry too much. If I were you I wouldn't make attacking random innocents a habit, though."

"Yeah, no shit."

Her voice gets quiet again, then. "It'll take some getting used to. I mean, I don't know what all you've got going on in your head right now, but I know you. You wouldn't have done something like that if you hadn't been in a pretty bad place. But all the noise and the weird feelings—you'll adjust. It seems like everyone around here does."

"What do you—"

Suddenly, a shrill beeping starts up, and you flinch hard enough to make the ties on your wrists creak. (Terezi jumps a little, too, but she's so quick to recover you think you might have imagined it.) She hops off the bed and pulls a phone out of her back pocket, and a few button clicks later, the beeping stops.

"Sorry, coolkid, I've gotta go kick some ass."

You blink, ears still ringing a little. "Okay?"

"Weapons training. I'll probably swing by later, though. Or maybe tomorrow." She shrugs, throws a lazy wave over her shoulder, and then disappears out the door before you can think of anything to say.

In the silence that follows, it occurs to you that you hadn't thought to ask why Dirk looked so different, or what John had meant when he'd given his reason for taking your blood. Your headache feels worse, now, and you're actually kind of dizzy.


You don't realize you've fallen asleep again until you get yanked back into consciousness by the sound of two people having an argument outside your room. Immediately, you recognize John's voice, but the second is totally unfamiliar.

"—aid no, okay? Oh my gosh, I'm not going through this again today. Either stay out here or keep making your rounds, but you're not allowed in this room and that's final." He's not yelling—not really—but you think he's probably getting pretty close.

"That's so unfair. Terezi said he was fine, so—"

"A, Terezi is biased. B, She can handle herself a lot better than you could if something did happen. And C, I said no."

At that, your door opens and John steps through. There's a frustrated, angry noise from the hallway and you catch a glimpse of blonde and pink before he kicks the door closed with his foot. Balanced in his left hand is a small tray, on top of which you can see a bowl and another cup. The smell of food hits you like a concrete wall, and you don't have the dignity left to be embarrassed when your stomach lets out the most inhuman gurgling noise you've ever heard.

"'Sup," you say.

John huffs. "Now that you're actually staying awake, you need food in your system. I brought some more water, too—oh, good. Looks like you finished what I had earlier. Did Terezi help you with that? Of course she did. Anyway, I've got some nutritious puree-thing here that should be easy for you to digest."

"Ooh, puree, my favorite. I sure do love me some vitamin-rich mush," you chuckle, emphasizing your already-kind-of-heavy southern drawl in hopes of a smile.

Instead, though, all you get is a sarcastic, "Ha, ha. So funny," as he sets the tray on the floor next to the now-empty glass from... this morning? "At least you're well enough to make terrible jokes, that's a good sign. I'm not going to feed you by hand because you're a grown-ass adult and I've got stuff I need to take care of, but there's no one else around to do it so you're going to have to handle it yourself." You raise your eyebrows at him, but he's already working on the one of the straps pinning you down and doesn't see. "No silverware, though. Even if you seem pretty coherent, I'm not going to take too many chances. And you better not break this, because we're already in the middle of an annoying bowl shortage thanks to you."

"You've really got to work on your bedside manner, dude." John ignores you, and that's probably for the best.

When both of your hands are free, you flex your fingers and rotate your wrists, stretching as much as you can without pulling on your stitches. You lose count of how many joints pop in the process.

"Hey—" John holds the tray just out of your reach, staring you down until you don't have any choice but to look directly into his eyes. "I'm trusting you not to do anything dumb. You're going to be locked in here, but that doesn't mean—"

"Best behavior, got it." Your stomach growls again, and as much as you really don't want to upset John (yeah, okay, you'll admit it—you're a little intimidated by him) you're really fucking hungry. You hadn't even realized it earlier; you think you'd probably already passed that point in slow starvation when you just didn't feel it anymore.

He nods, "Good," and sets the tray in your lap. "I'll be back in a little while to get your empty bowl or what's left. Don't try to force it down or eat it too fast or whatever. Like I said earlier, it's really easy to make yourself sick." He goes to put his hands in his pockets but you watch him hesitate with his right hand, like he'd forgotten it was hurt, and he sighs instead. Before you know it, he's gone. Round two without a goodbye.

You decide not to dwell too much for now, because you've got other things to worry about. You don't have a clue what the food in front of you is, but you don't really care. Without a spoon, you have to drink it straight out of the bowl like milk left over after all the cereal has been eaten.

And it tastes fucking heavenly. Ambrosia-tier, maybe even higher, and you can't bring yourself to care about the X-rated slurping noises you make trying to get that shit down your throat.

You don't realize there's someone outside your room until the door has already closed and whoever-it-is has slipped inside, and it takes everything you have to keep yourself from choking.

"Damn, maybe I should come back later? You look like you're having plenty of fun in here on your own."

Standing at the foot of your bed is a girl who's almost a full foot shorter than you, and who, when wet, would probably weigh half what your brother does. Her blonde hair is cut just above her shoulders, pinned back with two hot-pink clips that are just a shade off from the bright color of her skirt. It takes you a second to recognize her voice as the one John had been arguing with earlier.

"...Wasn't the door locked?"

She grins, and suddenly she's swinging a ring of keys around one of her fingers in a way that's almost too cliché to be real. "I'm probably a totally horrible person for stealing Tav's set, but John can suck it and I don't think Tav would mind much, anyway."

"Wow, you stole some keys just for little ol' me? I'm flattered."

She sticks her tongue out at you. "It's not like I could get Mr. Hard-Ass-Loser-Pants' set without him noticin'."

"Yeah, well, he's got a good reason for sealing me up in here, after what happened to... Feferi?" You hope you get her name right for a variety of reasons, some more selfish than others.

The girl shakes her head, though. "Nah, we've got way more drama than you'd think going on around here, and it's not like that's the first time something like that has happened. I guess you're just unusual 'cause, you know," she makes a vague hand motion in your general direction, but doesn't elaborate, "but Fef's gonna be fine and we know you didn't mean it." You have no idea how to respond, so you just don't. The girl looks like she's about to open her mouth again, but she catches herself and waves a hand over her mouth instead. "You got a little somethin'... there."

What? Oh, oh. Yep, you can feel it. You've got food all over your face.

There's nothing around you can use to wipe it up, so you settle for the back of one of your hands and hope you don't look too gross. When you look down to set the bowl you're still holding back on the tray, though, you realize you're also still pretty much naked.

And there's a kid in your room.

If your face wasn't completely flooded with every shade of embarrassment possible before, it definitely is now.

"Look, are you sure you should be in here? I mean, clearly you're not, because John locked the door and it sounds like you had to do some illegal shit to get in here. But, like, I don't even know you, and we're both going to get in trouble so it'd probably be best of you noped the fuck out an—"

"Oh my God, Dave," the girl rolls her eyes. "At least now I know you weren't cat-fishin' us all with your charming personality. I'm Roxy, bee-tee-dubs. Nice to officially meet you!"

You blink a little because wow, yeah, you probably should have put that one together. Of all the people you've met so far (which isn't many, really) Roxy is exactly what you'd expected. It's oddly comforting, even if you are starting to feel a little overwhelmed by everything that's happened.

"...'Sup." You take a sip of water so you don't have to say anything else.

"Not much. How are you feeling?" Still drinking, you flash her a thumbs up. "That's great. You seem like you're doing better. We've all been kind of worried, but I guess that was probably pretty obvious. Dirk won't admit it, but he's been thinking about you non-stop since you guys got here. So many fraternal feelings in that room, let me tell you that right now. I start suffocatin' a little every time I walk in. And even Janey's been talking about when you were going to wake up. I think that has more to do with John than, like, you though. No offense."

You shrug, and there's a weird blegh sensation building up in your stomach so you stop chugging for now. "None taken," you mumble, although you're not really sure what she means. She beams anyway.

"That's actually kind of what I wanted to talk to you about. I mean, I really did want to see if you were okay! But I also already knew because I saw Terezi today and she told me that she'd seen you. For what it's worth, I feel bad for havin' alternative motives, but this is a long-term mission of totally paramount importance and I don't have a lot of time."

She pauses again like she's waiting for you to say something, but it takes a second for your brain to actually catch up. "You might have to slow down some, kid. One thing at a time. You're talking about Jane?" That's John's little sister, you remember.

"No, John."

"Okay, so what?" You're already not sure you like where this conversation is going, because over the course of the day your feelings about him have become something of a mixed bag—and not in a good way.

"You've probably figured it out already, but he's not well. Like, he's always kept me and Janey on our toes with his bad habits and poor lifestyle choices, but lately things have gotten really especially terrible. We've tried our best, you know? But there's only so much we can do for someone who doesn't really want to be helped. So when you first started talkin' to us, we came up with this plan that maybe you could—"

The queasiness is getting harder to ignore and you're definitely confused at this point, so you hold up your hands and close your eyes. "Whoa, whoa—I just said slow down. Cut me some slack here, I don't know shit about shit, let alone enough to do whatever you're telling me I have to. Start at the beginning."

She makes a frustrated noise in the back of her throat and sighs. "Okay, okay. I guess the whole thing is inherently a little complicated, or a lot complicated, depending on how you look at it. Or maybe not at all; perspective is part of the issue, probably, and I think Janey and me and Rose everybody else who's really starting worry about him are just too close to this whole thing to do it right. And it also doesn't help much that we don't know what we're trying to do in the first place."


Over the next twenty minutes (that's just a guess, though; you have no idea how much time actually passes) Roxy tells you more than you ever wanted to know about the man you thought you'd come to consider a close friend over the past few months. Not his hobbies or likes or fears, but the pieces of who he is as a person that you'd thought maybe you'd hear from him someday. The kind of stuff other people don't advertise you because it's just too personal.

You feel slimy, almost, the more she talks, but at the same time you start to understand just why she's dishing out all the dirt she has on someone you know—you know because it's so obvious—that she admires more than anyone else in the world. Someone she loves.

The John you'd seen today isn't him, not really, she says. It's like a pressure dial that's been slowly moving closer and closer toward the red in his body finally broke, and now he's reached his capacity for whatever's going on inside his head. He's bottled it all up—all of the pain and the worry and the kindness—and she and Jane have only been able to guess at the reason.

You ask her to elaborate.

She tells you it's the little things. How he's stopped waving at people in the halls, talking to them, being a friend to them. How he's gotten angrier, colder somehow, heartbreakingly cynical. In the days since you'd woken up the first time, he's yelled at two people for coming into his office unannounced, put Gamzee in almost total isolation for the remainder of his detox, and gone so far as to lock Tavros's cousin out of the room so he would sleep in a real bed.

He barely eats, and sleeps even less. From what they've been able to tell, he spends every waking moment pouring over notes and Petri dishes and old text books. That stuff has always been a problem, apparently, but Roxy waves her arms around when she explains that it's getting worse. So, so much worse. Like he's turned off any sense of self-preservation, physical or social or psychological, and made it his singular goal to keep everyone else alive.

He hasn't talked to Jade in almost a full week, either, and his relationship with Karkat has almost completely disintegrated.

You still aren't sure how you fit into all this, though.

"It's because you're, like, special, Dave. John's got all of us—his family and everyone on the camp—but in a lot of ways we're all just people he has to take care of. People he's known for years who rely on him for their daily lives to function smoothly, you know? But you survived for six years in a major city with just a few people and no backup, no medical help. That kind of thing is totally unfathomable for a lot of us here. You're a survivor—you and Dirk and Vriska and Terezi and even Gamzee. A survivor in the real sense of the word, not what we are. At the end of the day, you don't really need John or what he represents, because you have been and would be just fine on your own."

You let her speech sink in, and wonder how she can make the hell you've been through sound so easy, almost glorifying the nightmare you had to live day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. What's she's saying is true, in a way—like a self-fulfilling prophecy. By telling you she and the others could never understand, she's making it clear that they really don't. You feel a little hollow, like the connections you'd hoped to built with the people here might never actually be what you want them to.

But you understand, too.

She'd opened this whole can of shit with the preface that it was about John, not you, and that makes sense. He's her whole world—their whole world—and they don't know you, not really.

"I've got no strings attached," you say quietly, and she nods. Most of the energy she'd had when she first came in is gone, now, and she's sitting on the foot of your bed with her knees tucked up to her chin.

"We thought maybe you can be his friend without also being his, I don't know, follower? Like, just his friend. Someone he's on equal terms with. That's why I got you two talkin' in the first place."

That sounds familiar, though, like you've heard it before. Or at least heard about someone matching that description. "What about Karkat? He's John's best bro, right? Why not get him to do... this?"

"They were best friends—practically brothers, even right up to the point when I met 'em. But since this place has gotten bigger, since everyone here has actually settled in, they've started livin' parallel lives. Like, each doing their own thing, never really interactin'. They don't have much of a reason to, and it's twice as hard because they're not even awake at the same time. And the same problem still applies, 'cause even though KK's in charge of his own part of the camp, he still answers to John."

"It sounds kind of like you're trying to get me to mess with his head, if I'm gonna be real with you. Like, low-key bro manipulation or whatever. The plan or whatever seems dubiously ethical at its moral base and generally pretty shady overall."

"Makin' pals isn't shady, Dave. And we weren't even gonna tell you about it 'cause we thought you'd just go right on bein' friends on your own. But then this happened and—"

You don't hear whatever she says next because suddenly there's a thumping noise coming up quickly outside the room. "Time's up," you bite out louder than you intend, and turn back to the bowl of now-cold food sitting in your lap. Seconds later, footsteps turn into the sound of someone handling the door lock, and then an angry I swear I turned that deadbolt when I lef—

"Roxy!" John shouts the moment he sees her still perched by your feet. His voice is low and harsh and furious, the kind of tone you do not question under any circumstance. "How the hell did you even—I told you—Jesus Christ. Get out, now. We'll talk about this later."

But the little girl doesn't move immediately. Instead, she unfolds her legs and slowly drops to the floor, glancing at long enough to see that her startled eyes are starting to mist over. "There's nothing to talk about. I came to see Dave, my friend."

John sighs through his nose, and you can see the muscles in his jaw twitch ever-so-slightly under the pressure of his clenched teeth. "He's dangerous. You could have been hurt."

"Well, clearly I'm not so he's not dangerous!" She shouts back, throwing her arms up and effectively launching the ring of keys she still has in her hand directly toward your face. You see John's eyes widen, all trace of wild fury gone for a fraction of a second and replaced with totally unchecked concern, but there's nothing he can do before—

You blink, and your hand is inches away from the tip of your nose, fingers curled around the keys. You don't even remember moving, and you just kind of stare at the back of your hand for a moment before slowly bringing it down. "Holy shit."

When you look up, though, John's gaze is hard again. He doesn't say anything else. Instead, he steps to the side, and Roxy lets out another incoherent, defeated growl loud enough to make you flinch as she stomps out through the doorway. When she passes John, she pauses long enough to glare, and then disappears down the hall.

John takes your tray of half-eaten food and the keys without a word, and locks the door behind him. You can practically feel how tense he is through the air.

He leaves the water with you, though, and half an hour later when you're crouched on the linoleum floor puking up what little you'd managed to get in your stomach, you're grateful.


Terezi keeps her word, and by the end of the week you start expecting two sets of footsteps around the same time every day when John lets her in to see you. She keeps you updated on what's going on outside the tiny walls of your room (quarantine), describing people you've never met and places you're beginning to think you'll never see. No matter how much you try to convince John you're on the mend, he continues to lock the door every time he leaves

Although you hear her voice in the building sometimes, Roxy doesn't visit again, and you're not sure whether it's because she's not allowed or she just doesn't want to. Whatever the case, you're not really sure if you have any desire to see her, either. You feel like you've been lied to, in a lot of ways. The two of you had built up what you'd thought was a genuine friendship over the past few months, but she'd only been overly-friendly because she'd wanted something from you. The fact that she's only a kid—a kid who honestly might not realize how much what she'd done hurt—isn't as much of a comfort as you think it should be.

Overall, you try not to think about her appeal. She had said it herself: John doesn't want to be helped, and the more you're around him the clearer that becomes. He's like a completely different person, and even if you weren't so opposed to the idea of friendship for the sake of manipulation toward some greater good, you're not even sure you would want to build a relationship with him anymore.

And you have to worry about yourself, too.

After more prodding than you think it should have taken, John had finally given you the full story about what happened that night in Wyoming and the days that followed. You'd known things had been bad—really bad—but it wasn't until he'd stiffly listed off every single injury you'd managed to survive that you started to realize just how close you'd come to actually dying. And just how strange it was that you hadn't... or worse.

At the very least, though, your sorry condition explains one thing. Several, really.

The constant murmur of noises you shouldn't be able to hear through walls and doors and floors; the way light seems to hurt more than it should, and how you've started spending more time awake at night than when the sun is out as a result; the fact that only two weeks after being mauled, most of your smaller cuts and bruises have faded to pale marks; how your body seems to know where to move, how to move, before your brain does. You've become one of the people you'd heard about, the people John had saved who slept during the day and looked like the things you'd been fighting for six fucking years. (The people like Terezi.)

Except you're not—not completely.

You're something different, and John won't tell you what or why.

(You think maybe he doesn't know, either.)

Physically, you convince yourself you're doing okay. You're healing, and no matter how much time it's going to take to get used to all the weird internal shit and external you've got going on, you will. You're not even really aware you look any different (everyone gets kind of pale when they lose a bunch of blood, right?) until you wake up one evening and realize your hair has grown too long to ignore, and you can see where the ginger ends and the white begins just at the top of your vision. You'd asked John for a mirror, and had been surprised when he'd actually brought one the next time he came to give you fresh clothes. He wouldn't let you keep it, but didn't a word when you'd stared at your reflection for a full ten minutes, either.

When mention it to TZ later, she sits you down and tells you very seriously that you're more beautiful than a Victoria's Secret Angel, and you can't tell whether she's being serious or just fucking around. You don't say anything else after that.

The stuff you're really worried about is in your head. Because even though you've managed to avoid a full-scale, tsunami-grade flip out, you get the feelings it's coming. (You're so far in denial about this whole thing your psyche has gone meta—you know you're in denial, you can even acknowledge that you're in denial, but no one has bothered to tell your brain yet.) Waiting for your complete and total breakdown is like living in a house with broken smoke detectors. You know they're going to start screaming at you sometime, it's just a question of when.

You don't see Dirk again, either. He hasn't come to visit you, even though Terezi tells you he's almost completely healed by now. His injuries (you hadn't actually made the connection that he'd been hurt and he was like you until John had offhandedly mentioned that your symptoms were slightly different; you'd demanded to see him, but John told you that was up to your brother because you weren't going anywhere anytime soon) weren't as horrifically extensive, and the Virus's biological shenanigans had helped speed along what needed fixing.

At first, you try to respect that he might need some space. You'd both been through a lot, and the two of you have never been overly-affectionate about much of anything. But as the days pass without so much as a "I'm glad you're alive" via TZ, you start to get frustrated. And worried. And restless.

Because yeah, okay—maybe he wants some time away from you to process what's going on, but you need to see him. You need to make sure he's doing just as well as everyone says. And you need to know whether he's avoiding you because he's adjusting on his own or because he's afraid of you.

(You'd seen the way he'd looked at you that day in the hall. And you still see it, every time you think of him, every time the nightmares you can remember catch up with your consciousness.)

When you finally decide to break out of the tiny, white-walled, dull-as-hell prison you've started to consider your own personal corner of hell, it's not claustrophobia or resentment at John for keeping you confined or even plain ol' curiosity that seals the deal. It's Dirk.


[6/9/37]

You don't tell anyone (meaning Terezi) about your plan. The whole thing relies ninety percent on luck and ten percent on how well you can actually function outside the relative isolation of your room, and you're half convinced that as much as she loves making people's lives difficult, Terezi would talk you out of it if she knew. She trusts John's judgment just as much as everyone else, and you don't think she would really understand why you need to see your brother.

(From what she'd told you about her family, she only had one sibling: an older sister she hadn't been close with and hasn't seen since long before the world went to shit. And even then, there's something different about how you think of Dirk; it's more than brother , somehow, because in a lot of ways you raised him.)

You're not particularly worried about getting out of the room itself. Back in Houston, it wasn't practical for you and the others to stay in one place for very long. Getting too comfortable meant letting your guard down, and eventually the monsters would figure out where you'd holed up if you weren't careful. The five of you had always been on the move, spending a few nights in one abandoned apartment before breaking into another—or a house or a store or an office building—for the next week, and over the years you'd built up an impressive repertoire of self-taught home invasion skills you think the great MacGyver himself would be proud of. Locked doors have only ever stood in your way as long as you've let them.

The tricky part, though, is figuring out when to do it. John's visits are sporadic at best, and after a few days and nights spent sitting in front of your door, listening to what you can, you start to understand what Roxy had meant when she'd said he never slept.

(You learn a lot about the other people in the building, too. There's a boy down the hall who constantly has visitors, usually the same three voices in shifts with a few exceptions. You only realize after there's a strange rumbling noise up and down the hall one afternoon that it's John's assistant, the kid who can't walk anymore. Everyone makes a huge racket that day, first in a so-loud-it-almost-hurts frenzy of cheering and then a shouting match after a large CRASH! sends two of the voices into an argument about wheelchair design flaws.

The girl you'd attacked, Feferi, starts working again near the end of the week, much to the displeasure of a second female voice you don't recognize. Their conversations usually involve a lot of repeated " Are you sure you're okay? "s and " Oh my gosh, yes! You're worse than Eridan! "s. You're really, really glad she's alright.

And although you can't make out specifics about what's going on downstairs, someone leaves what must be a stairwell door open one day and you pick up enough to learn that for all her big talk, Vriska isn't adjusting well to the change in environment. Apparently she's making some progress, though, because on a few days later when Terezi comes to visit she tells you she'd spoken with her for the first time since y'all arrived.

You hear Dirk's voice once that day, talking with Roxy and someone with a thick accent you can't really place, but they're too far away to understand what's being said.)

An opportunity finally comes late Monday night, long after Feferi has made second-meal rounds for the other people who keep backwards time. In the last week or so, building population has steadily declined, and now the nights are almost completely silent. It's peaceful, in a way, and you think maybe you'd enjoy it more if you weren't so fucking bored .

Although you get the feeling you won't be for much longer.

Several hours ago, John disappeared downstairs, and while there's nothing super sound-the-alarm out of the ordinary about that, when things are this quiet you can usually hear him moving around. Now, however, there's nothing, and you think maybe he's actually gone to bed for the first time since you started in on this little game. Perfect.

Your escape plan is simple by necessity, because you don't have much to work with. Although your blankets and sheets have been returned, the room is still devoid of any major piece of furniture or appliance other than your bed... and the blinds on your window.

It takes a little bit of maneuvering to get them down from their metal brackets, but you manage it well enough. The window frame's top is just out of your reach so you have to climb up on the sill, and you honestly think the whole thing would have been pretty entertaining to watch if you hadn't been so worried about falling. Someone, most likely John, would come running at the sound of both you and the blinds hitting the floor.

Once you've got your prize, you lay it out on your bed and set to work prying apart the plastic casing at the top. Inside every pair of slat blinds is a metal hook or two that holds the pieces in place when they're up, and that's what you're looking for. It's easy enough to find, and in a matter of minutes you have the whole contraption reassembled (sans a few bits) and snapped back in place. You won't be able to see out of your window much after this, but you like your room dark anyway so it's no great loss.

Carefully, you bend each hook out to some semblance of a ninety degree angle, and set to work on the deadbolt holding you captive. Although Vriska was the best of your group at picking locks, you've had your fair share of practice, and it's not long before you're sliding the door open and breathing in the sweet smell of freedom.

The empty hallway looks familiar, in some faraway sense, and you try not to dwell on the fact that the last time you'd seen it some serious shit had gone down. Because you're on a mission, damn it.

You know Dirk is on the floor below you, so the first thing you do is look for an exit. You had been right—there is a stairwell, and the door is just a few feet at the end of the hall to your left. Bingo.

The moment you step out of your room, though, you almost lose your balance because holy shit, it's like the world around you sharpens to 4-fucking-K. It's not even intentional, your body just knows you're moving into a Bad News situation with one singular goal in mind. You make a mental note to ask TZ about it later, and although you're a little disoriented you don't stand still for long.

The stairwell door makes an awful, high-pitched, inhuman grating sound when you try to open it, because why the fuck would it not, and your heart rate picks up so fast you think you might throw up. After a few seconds spent completely frozen again, though, you don't hear any indication that John is going to materialize out of nowhere to murder you, and soon you're slinking down the steps in total silence. You leave the door open as an easy escape route.

You don't realize just how dark everything is until halfway to the first floor you glance out one of the small windows and see that tonight is a new moon. The only natural light shining is coming from the stars, and no overhead bulbs are ever on in the building at night, from what you've been able to tell. You almost have a mini-crisis right then and there because it's pitch black and you can see just fine what the fucking hell. Suddenly, you feel like crawling out of your skin because you don't even know your own body anymore. (What the fuck? This is so messed up. So fucking fucked up.)

It takes a minute to coax your respiratory system back into some semblance of functional (oh hell no, you're not having your breakdown here), but eventually you do and you keep moving.

The door at the end of the stairwell doesn't scream quite as loud at the second floor entrance, but it's still enough to make you jump back into the closest corner as soon as you get it open. Just like before, though, the hall stays relatively quiet. Now that you're actually on the first floor, you can hear some signs of life—a chorus of snores, the faint sound of someone humming, and one murmured, accented voice holding half a conversation—that you hadn't before.

After a moment of listening, though, you realize the conversation you can hear isn't one-sided at all. There's a quiet voice responding every now and then, so soft you almost miss it.

So soft you almost don't realize it's Dirk.

You have to decide, then, whether or not you want to keep moving or if you should just turn around and go back up like nothing happened. You hadn't planned on finding Dirk awake, much less with someone else—although if you're honest with yourself you hadn't thought much farther ahead than where you are now, at the bottom of the stairs. Ultimately, though, you figure you don't even have to see your brother. Maybe you'll just listen for a while, make sure he's alright, and then turn around.

So you steel yourself and silently make your way into the hallway, creeping so slowly you can barely feel the air moving around you as the voices of your brother and whoever he's with slowly get clearer and clearer, louder and louder. You're impressed at how muted Dirk's side of the conversation is, almost like he's whispering, and only when you're just a few feet away from the room you think he's in can you really make out what he's saying.

"—erious, man. Shit gets real out there, don't discount the high possibility that something could go wrong and inevitability get you and your team killed." Dirk doesn't sound worried, though—his tone is just as deadpan as it's always been. (What the fuck, Bro? What the fuck, Bro? What the fuck?) Just as deadpan as it usually is, at least.

"Holy fucking mackerel, you sound just like Jade," the other kid responds, followed by a muffled thump. "I've got plenty of field experience, so I'll be completely useless out there."

Dirk sighs. "Based on what I've been told, though, your field experience doesn't extend much beyond the confines of this relative oasis. And trust me, Jake—out there is nothing like what's here."

Jake? As in the kid your brother spent months talking to over Pesterchum, John's cousin? That makes you nervous, for some reason.

"You act like I've never been involved with the natural ataxia we live in these days. I understand completely that you had it hellishly rough down there in the great state of Texas, but that's no justification for invalidating what we've been through here. You had an entire city at your disposal—we had nothing." Jake's voice is serious—low and tense in a way that reminds you of John—and for a moment there's a palpable tension in the air you can feel even though the closed door.

"I'm not trying to—ugh, I'm just encouraging you to be smart about it. Exercise extreme caution and do not die under any circumstance. You leave for Missoula or wherever-the-fuck in eleven days, dude. That's not exactly an eternity to prepare."

"I don't need an eternity, just—"

Suddenly, you hear too loud, too heavy footsteps coming from behind the door marked DO NOT DISTURB across the hall, and belatedly you realize the humming you'd heard earlier has stopped. Dirk and Jake are still talking, but you miss whatever they say next because shit, you're not sure if whoever is behind that door is going to walk out and see you and—

The knob turns. You bolt.

You hit the stairwell doorframe and fling yourself around the corner just as light from the room's now-open doorway floods the hall. You're trapped, now, because if you try to make it to the second floor there's a good chance you'll be seen thanks to either your movements or reflection of the light off how fucking pale you are. So you just stay there, frozen, and hope whoever it is doesn't notice there's a door open that shouldn't be.

There's a quick series of knocks, like someone rapping on wood with their knuckles, and when all that follows is silence you know Dirk and Jake have stopped talking. After a long moment, you hear the tell-tale turn of a latch, and your brother's voice. "Hey, John."

FUCK.

There's a little shuffle of fabric, then, and when John speaks he sounds exhausted but... not upset. And you almost don't recognize him. "You haven't seen Jake, have you?"

"It's almost four in the morning, he's probably in bed or something. I don't know, ask Jade," Dirk responds, and now you're actually a little confused. Hadn't he just been talking with...?

"Oh, really? Hm," John doesn't sound convinced, almost like he's humoring your brother. "Well, if he does come by here before the sun comes up, remind him that he starts sparring with the rest of his team tomorrow—or today, I guess. No more teaching for him, he'll be down in the dirt with everyone else at seven AM, and I'll be out there watching how he does."

Almost immediately there's a muffled, "What?" followed by a thump, several muffled curses, and the sound of your brother heaving what has to be the most defeated sigh you've ever heard.

"You had one job, dude," he says. "It's not that hard to stand behind a door and keep your mouth closed."

You can't help it—you really can't. The half snort-laugh you choke out before you realize your mistake sounds so fucking loud you think you might've gone deaf afterward.

Because the whole hall goes quiet as your brother stops in the middle of whatever he'd been saying next.

After a moment John says, "Fef knows to keep the stair doors closed."

You hear footsteps.

And you sprint.


You don't get very far.

There's only so much your newfound, impressive natural instincts can do for you when you're in Full Panic Mode and aren't paying attention to much of anything other than an internal mantra of Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit! that doesn't falter for a second when your face makes contact with the stone staircase just a few feet up from the first floor. You're so stunned that you just kind of lay there, sprawled across the steps, questioning every decision you've made since the day you were born (or at least in the last two hours).

Your brain doesn't even register pain or the warm, sweet smell of blood until John half-yells your name in a tone that's somehow concerned and furious at the same time, and starts running toward you. When it does, though, you gag. It's in your—you can taste it—nope, nope, shit, nope

"Breathe, Dave."

But you can't, you can't, because there's blood everywhere and—

A pair of hands pull you up by your armpits, turning you around and then before you know it you're sitting propped against a wall. John is crouched in front of you, and frowning doesn't even begin to cover the face he's making at you. You blink at him, head still spinning and fuck you're still choking, it's everywhere, oh God, it's everywhere—and the next thing you know there's fabric pressing at your chin, soaking up what's still oozing out of your nose and your mouth. You're flooded with an entirely new smell, muted but still distinct, and familiar somehow.

"Seriously, Dave—breathe. Spit it out if you have to."

When your eyes refocus, John is shirtless.

Shit.

He's not looking at you, though. Instead, he's got his attention on a black-haired man you'd probably say was his brother if you didn't know better, standing in the stairwell doorway. "Jake, get a real towel from my room." He nods, disappearing down the hall, and then it's just you, John, and your brother, who had been next to the man, Jake (how did you not pick up on that immediately wow you must have really hit your head). John's still talking, though. And wow, he's pissed. "How the fuck did you even get out of your room? I locked the door—I know I did. I had my reasons, you know. Jesus Christ, you're a mess."

You try to shrug and it sets your head swimming, but at this point you've already made yourself look like too much of an idiot and what little dignity you have left won't let it show. So you take the cloth (John's shirt) from his hand and start wiping off what you can. It's almost completely soaked, now, and you hope he wasn't too emotionally attached to it because that shit isn't coming out without a fight.

You're still having trouble getting your lungs to work right, though, so when you try to speak it sounds more like a series of guttural gurgles and chokes than actual words. "Can't be tamed, dude."

John just kind of looks at you and shakes his head like he can't believe he's having this conversation (which he probably can't). "Oh my God."

But Dirk? Dirk laughs. Or, at least, he kind of snorts in a way that makes you think he might have laughed.

And suddenly, the clusterfuck you've managed to get yourself into seems worth it.

Chapter Text

[6/9/2037]

==> JADE: ZONE OUT

The Skaian University of Arts and Sciences is set just southeast of a mountain chain, right at the foot of a cliff. Down that cliff, a half-decent waterfall pools into a lake that's fed from two sources—the falls and a river running parallel to campus—and on the shore where the lake and river meet, there's a long glass-and-canvas, metal-framed building filled with rows and rows of plants.

Out of all the places left to go these days, this—the mountainside, the lake, the greenhouse—is your favorite.

Auditory and visual catastrophe of the University's hydroelectric power generator aside, the whole scene is actually very beautiful. Against the dismal, cloud-muffled sunrise just now peeking over the tree line, you can almost pretend that this is just another adventure, another destination experience with your grandparents and Jake. A bland one compared to some of the sights you've seen, but unique in its own way.

You can almost pretend that the last six years just... haven't happened.

Almost.

A spray of freezing water hits you from the side, and when you jerk, scream, and drop your fishing pole, you nearly slip off the wet stones into the lake in front of you. Not cool!

Your name is JADE HARLEY, and if you didn't have to wade into the icy lake to get her, you think you might STRANGLE your best friend. Instead, though, you flip a middle finger in her general direction and squat down to fish your pole (puns!) out from between the rocks you're standing on. Nepeta remains totally unfazed and laughs. "That's what you get for not listening to me!"

Even when you're not leading missions, the two of you have a responsibility to the camp, and more often than not that means you get to help provide food. Harvesting crops, hunting, fishing—stuff like that. You don't mind the work. Honestly, you think it's all mostly enjoyable; quiet and cathartic in its own way. At least you do when you're alone. When you're with Nepeta, though, things can get a little... out of hand, because although you both get results, your methods are very, very different.

Like this morning, for instance.

While you've been fishing from the lakeside at the far bank where the current is calm, line in-hand ready to lure in trout and cutthroat with your bait, Nepeta is stripped down to her underwear, thigh-deep in the rapids, grabbing at prey with her bare hands and tossing them toward the shore. You've both had relatively equal success today, not that you're keeping score or anything.

(You totally are.)

"I was listening to you, geez!"

Nepeta rolls her eyes. "Nuh-uh, I bet you don't even know what I said."

You stand up again and start reeling in your empty line, huffing. "I do! You were talking about Karkat."

"No, oh my gosh, we moved on from that ages ago." She throws up her hands and then puts them on her hips, splashing water everywhere a second time. (This time, though, you're watching, and manage to execute a pretty sweet dodge.) "Now we're discussing the sexual-social behavior of pan paniscus—those Bonobo chimpanzees."

"What?"

"They use sex to keep the peace in their society, right? And there's no real discrimination between, like, gender or other tribes. Lady chimps pair up, dude chimps pair up, ladies and dudes—and there's some kind of communal orgy every couple of hours. They're one of the most docile species of primates out there 'cause their main form of conflict resolution is just, you know, fucking. So I'm thinking the best way to get rid of all this tension we've got in camp is to just—"

"Whoa, whoa—there is no way we were talking about that!" You almost lose your rod again trying to cover your eyes against the horrible mental image of your cousins naked. Gross! "Just... Ugh."

Nepeta bursts into hoops and hollers, she nearly doubling over into the water. You kind of wish she actually would, just so you can have the satisfaction of seeing her face, and you try not the think about how much your indirect retribution would be dampened (hehe, more puns!) by the fact that, to her, the water really isn't so icy.

"We totally were! Or I was, at least. You were just kind of staring over at the trees looking stupid."

"You're fucking with me."

"You really did look stupid."

"No, no; I mean about the... monkeys."

"Oh, that? Yeah, I'm totally serious! It's amazing what a stress and energy relief sex is. Karkat and I—"

"Okay that's it we're done here! We're done!" You really do drop everything this time, and you're not sure whether you want to assume the fetal position or drown Nepeta. She's easily fifteen feet away from you and the rocks under your feet would be awful to lay on, though, so you end up just kind of flailing around for a solid four seconds. "I don't want to know! We're done!"

Then Nepeta really does fall. It's beautiful.

Before either of you can say anything, though, a shrill beeping picks up from the pile of Nepeta's clothes by the greenhouse door, and the two of you sober up a little. It's not an emergency—it's the wrong kind of sound for something like that. Nepeta heaves a sigh. When you look back over, she's standing again, staring at you with big, sad eyes that make you furious for some reason.

"Time to go," she says, and you grunt, not moving, all carefree joy sucked right out of you and the air up here in your little isolated not-paradise. "Time for me to go, at least. You can do whatever you want; you're you. But you can't hide out here forever."

"Watch me," you huff as she sloshes her way toward the shore.

"I'd rather not, actually. Come on, Jade—you've been sleeping in the greenhouse for, like, a week now. Avoiding John and Jake isn't going to change the fact that Jake is going, and there's nothing you can do about it."

"Fuck you! Don't think I've forgotten that it's just as much your fault as theirs," you bite out, and you almost feel bad when Nep looks like she's been kicked in the sternum. Almost, but not quite.

She doesn't stop talking, though, even as she strips out of her wet underwear on the riverbank and starts putting on her dry clothes. "At least come to training. You'll get to watch me and Eq kick his ass—that'll at least make you feel a little better, right?" 

You don't say anything.

After a few minutes of gross, awkward silence, Nepeta gets the hint and sighs. The last think you hear before she disappears back into the trees toward camp is a mumbled, "You've got to forgive someone sometime, you know," and then you're left alone with bitter thoughts and a basket of wriggling, dying fish.


 

You don't know how long you sit there, staring out at the water, waiting for something to happen. Waiting for another meal to bite your line, or for something to drag you down into the lake and hold you at the bottom. That last thought is morbid enough to surprise you, because it contradicts so much what you've been trying to achieve these last six years—the only thing you've ever done, ever wanted to do: survive.

(Somehow, though, you're too tired to really care. You've only been awake for a few hours, since just before sunrise, but you feel like you haven't slept in a decade.)

Eventually, you decide to take a break.

You're not giving up because there is no giving up, not with this. You'll have to do it again sooner or later, because if you don't someone else will come by for the poles and nets and disturb your peace. Maybe this evening, maybe tomorrow morning; it doesn't matter when, just that it will happen. So you gather up your sopping things and toss the equipment back into the greenhouse without any real conviction, before hoisting the fish-filled basket's leather strap over your shoulder. Slowly, you the trek back toward the main camp and, there, the Cafeteria.

You make quite a sight, you think, ragged jeans rolled up just below your knees with a dark blue-and-green plaid flannel button-down shirt tucked halfway into the high waistband, where you've got a hunting knife holstered. Your sleeves are rolled up just over your elbows, and you're covered from neck to toe in splotches of mud. Although you've tried to bathe in the lake, you haven't brushed your knotted-up-in-a-wild-bun hair or even changed your clothes in a week.

Three years ago, you wouldn't have thought twice about it. Now, though, you and everyone else have gotten used to the kind of minimum-standard cleanliness that comes with civilization. It makes you uncomfortable—both the dirt, and how gross you feel covered in it.

The whole thing doesn't make sense to you, how the marks of domestication and sophistication—the things that make you human and separate you from the creatures in the woods around you—are all rooted in unhappiness at their most basic points. Dissatisfaction with the way things are and the desire to improve them. Dissatisfaction in who you are or the things around you or the conditions in which you've found yourselves.

Civilization is the need to progress, to make choices, and then inevitable dissatisfaction with those decisions.

You wish you could be something simpler. An animal following biological imperatives instead of a conscience. Devoid of higher emotion. Devoid of any sense of existential meaning or purpose.

Life would be so much better.

So much easier.

So much more and less, all at once.

You stub your toe against a tree root and curse. The pain doesn't unbalance you enough to fall, but in a way it wakes you up from a kind of mindless stupor you hadn't realized you'd dropped into. (Like when you're driving and your mind is a million miles away but you still somehow get where you need to go, or when you're singing along to a song without paying attention and then suddenly realize you somehow know all the words even though you can't remember learning it.)

The dying fish in your basket squirm a little, jolted back into their last moments of consciousness at the break in rhythm.

In your life now, you're like those fish, you think as you pick up the pace again. This is their purpose—they live so they can die to serve a greater good, your survival and the survival of everyone else who will eat them. You exist now only for a similar cause, the survival of yourself and those around you. Without you, there would be no food, no supplies, no means of defense. Sure, there are others—Nepeta and your teams, even John and Karkat—but you are one of the best.

And you can leave camp the most often, for the longest times, taking the greatest risks, because in some ways you have the least to lose.

(Your family is a broken mess, you can't do much else, you don't have to be in some sad fabrication of the old world to stay sane because you never really lived there in the first place.)  

The mud on your back and legs still feels gross, but it's worse now. Like the dirt is seeping under your skin.

You keep walking.

The small section of forest that separates the lake and river from the main campus isn't large, not really, but now it seems like five hundred miles pass between the greenhouse and the edge that opens up where the Markeryard is laid out. You can hear the tell-tale grunts, yells, and laughter floating up through the trees from the training grounds just below the hill to the west, and you do your best to ignore them, even as you pause.

You almost never come here.

The whole place—ragged handmade wooden crosses tied together with fabric, crudely-carved rocks, a single dying sapling a young mother had planted to honor her daughter—is depressing, and you already get enough of that every day. You start walking again.

A light morning breeze whips by, making you shiver against your damp clothes, and with it comes the disgusting, acidic, burning smell of cooked meat. The smell of death. (You'd finished dealing with the piles of corpses—getting rid of what you could with fire and burying the bones of what was left—more than a week ago, but the stink decided to stick around. You frown and hope it rains again soon.)

There's only one other person in the field with you, a thin, dark-haired figure hunched over a particular part of the Yard you know better than you'd like. No matter how much you just want to keep going and not think about where he is, you can't, because the cold wind makes Kankri shiver, too, enough to shift his position. And then he sees you. And he gives you this look that makes you want to hit something. "Jade? My God, you look as though you've been chewed up and spat out by the river itself."

His voice is rough and strained, like he hasn't used it in too long, and he sounds like he's been crying. Maybe not when you'd walked by, but recently.

You shrug and push forward. You don't want to deal with this, not today. "Someone has to do the messy work around here."

Kankri nods, frowning like he wants to say something but can't find the right words. It pisses you off sometimes just how fucking calculated he can be. All thought, all talk, no action.

(That's not fair and you know it, though. Kankri's been around since the beginning, even longer than you, and he's done more than his part to keep you all going.)

"I suppose that's true." He stands up, brushing the dirt off the knees of his own old jeans. "Where are you off to this morning? I was under the impression you were in the midst of a self-imposed isolation."

"I haven't been hiding—I've been enjoying the aloneness alone thing. Sometimes you just gotta separate yourself," you snap, and Kankri either doesn't get the hint or he just doesn't care because he starts walking toward you.

"That still doesn't answer my question, you know."

"Maybe that was the point."

He pauses, just a few feet away from you, and sighs. Then there's that look again. Brow furrowed, eyes squinting ever-so-slightly, whole body tense—except for his hands. They're shaking.

You pause, too.

A second passes and you don't know what to do. You know what you want to do—you want to keep walking and not look back—but there's a little piece of you that also wants it. A specific kind of it, at least; the kind of it Kankri seems like he can offer. Company. Shared pain. Quiet misery.

You're too late, though, because before you can say anything he nods again. "I should be getting back to the kitchens." And that's it. He just... starts to walk away. You're kind of stunned, really—it's so unlike Kankri to let something go. Maybe something really is wrong, you think. Maybe you should tell Rose? Maybe you should yell after him? You're going the same place anyway.

But you don't even know where to begin, what you'd say, so in the end you don't do anything at all. His back disappears over the hill, and you're left standing by yourself, staring after him.

When you look back at the field, you see there's a small bundle of wildflowers at the foot of your uncle's marker, and it occurs to you that you can't remember the last time you visited your family's memorials.


It's still relatively early, in that strange time of day just before one half of the camp is awake and just after the other has started to retreat for sleep, so the grassy hill in the middle of campus that separates both sides is relatively empty. You see a few people here and there—early risers and night owls milling around in the quiet, overcast, almost peaceful atmosphere—but no one stops to talk to you. A few wave, one gives you a smile, but most just continue on their way. You're grateful.

You make it all the way to the Cafeteria doors without much more than a pause, and hope the trend continues. The Infirmary is next-door (in a loose sense, because everything on campus is spread out more than you think was probably necessary when the place was built) and you can see both the building's entrance and John's office windows across the long strip of overgrown landscaping and crumbling sidewalk separating you. You're too far away and the sun is too bright to catch anything but the horizon's reflection in the glass, but that doesn't mean John or whoever else is inside can't still spot you out in the open. Your feet move a little faster.

Nothing happens.

You slip through the Cafeteria doors without looking back.

Like the courtyard, there are a handful of people inside minding their own business. Two are still eating, but the rest are seated by themselves with books or notepads or nothing at all. One middle-aged man with gray skin has his head resting on the table in front of him, totally silent and perfectly still. Most, though, are empty with the exception of a few leftover plates, a plastic cup here and there, three forks, and the occasional smear of food. Dinner for the Cured probably didn't end too long ago.

You make your way back toward the kitchen, where you can hear the faint sounds of running water and metal pots jumbling together. You're surprised to see Feferi elbow-deep in a soap-filled sink, totally alone. Hadn't Kankri said...? At the very least, the other members of the General Care team wouldn't have left her by herself so soon after she'd been hurt. (You'd heard about what happened from Nepeta, who'd heard it from Karkat, who'd heard it from Eridan, who was apparently there.)

Feferi has her back to you so there's no way she can see you, but before you say anything she turns around and grins. "Hi, Jade!" You hadn't exactly been quiet.

"Where is everyone?" you ask, slowly sliding the basket onto the floor. Most of the sticky lake water has drained out and the fish are almost totally still, but every now and then one will spasm helplessly in the pile. You almost feel bad for making them die such a long, painful death.

Fef waves a hand in the air, slinging soap bubbles everywhere. "Rose and Jane are covering for John, Cronus is training with Eridan this morning, and I don't know where Kankri and Roxy are. Probably still asleep? Kankri said he was busy—" What? "—but I never heard back from Rox."

"She's missing?"

Feferi shrugs, smiles a little like she's trying to pacify you before anything's even happened (what is with everyone today?), and turns back around toward the dishes. "I'm sure she's fine. If she's not still in bed, she's probably with Sollux or something. It wasn't technically her day to help in the morning, anyway, so it's not a big deal."

You sigh. "Fine. Anyway, here—" you kick the basket. "I figured it'd be better to bring them over now instead of just, I don't know, letting them sit outside all day to go ba—wait, why do they need to fill in for John?" You blink, suddenly wondering what else you've missed. Nepeta would have told you if something happened to him, right?

"He's out at the training grounds, last I heard. I guess he wanted to keep an eye on Jake or something? And thanks—just let me finish this and then I'll clean them." She pauses, and from behind you see her shoulders kind of slump as she swipes the back of her hand across her forehead. "Although hopefully someone else will show up so I can get some sleep. I don't want to have to worry about starting breakfast, too." You don't think she means to make you feel bad—she's not the type of person who would.

Before you can stop yourself, you say, "Don't worry about it—I'll take them out front and do it. No sense letting them sit longer than they need to, and they'll probably stink up the place anyway."

So much for getting in and out quickly.

(And Feferi looks at you over her shoulder with so much gratitude you start to feel even worse about not actually wanting to stay.)

The conversation trails off into nothing after she thanks you at least twice, and you hoist the basket up onto your damp back for the second time today.

The main dining area is empty, now, of everyone but the one unconscious (?) man still slumped forward. You wonder idly if he's okay, but it's not your job to worry about people's lives—not really. Just whether or not they have what they need, right?

You settle on the sidewalk just to the side of the main Cafeteria entrance and drop the basket at your feet before sitting down cross-legged, your back against the building wall. With John gone, you don't have to worry about hiding from the Infirmary, so it doesn't take long for you to fall into a steady rhythm of gutting your catch with the hunting knife at your waist, piling the fishy innards in the grass so you can take them back to the greenhouse for fertilizer later. It's nice—calming, almost—especially now that most of their flailing has stopped.

As you work, the thought occurs to you that if Roxy hadn't replied to Fef's call for extra hands, Rose would've on her behalf. But from what you could tell, she hadn't. It seems a little odd to you, but then again you've hardly been around the past few months—you don't really know how things work here on a daily basis anymore. And Roxy can take her of herself by now. She's, what, fourteen? (You blink, suddenly realizing that you have no idea.) It doesn't matter, though. Feferi didn't seem to think it was a big deal, and besides—it's not your job.

(Right?)


 

You spend the next half hour as engrossed as you can force yourself to be in the fish in front of you, cutting and pulling and piling. Every now and then you catch your mind starting to wander, though, so you have to pause and yank it back before you can do anything else. It's annoying, but slicing off your hand would probably be even worse. Cut, pull, pile. Cut, pull, pile. Cut, pull, pile.

(Everything around you smells like shit soaked in lake water. You want a shower, need a shower. Not just a skinny dip under the waterfall, but a real deep cleaning. Ugh, you feel disgusting.)

A slow movement finally registers in your peripheral vision, and your hands stop moving. One side of the Infirmary's double doors is folding in at a snail's pace, just a few inches at a time, and if you weren't one-hundred-percent sure wind couldn't turn a door knob you think you might've written the whole thing off as the chilly June breeze rolling through. Your mind immediately goes to John (had training ended already? Had he come back while you were inside the Cafeteria?) but he wouldn't be so weird about his own damn door.

After a few tense moments, it stops halfway open, and there's a hesitation long enough for you to start wondering if it actually was the wind before a small, skinny, pale as shit arm slides through. Then a torso, one jean-covered leg, and part of a he—"What the fuck! Shit, shit," whoever it is disappears back inside so fast you don't get a real look at his or her face. The muffled curses continue, though, wafting out over the grass just loud enough for you to make out a few.

At least you know it isn't John.

You decide not to get up, and instead turn most of your attention back to the fish in your hand, vaguely annoyed. Again.

The door doesn't close, though, and eventually whoever-it-is decides to try again. Slowly, the figure emerges a second time, now with one hand held over his eyes. Blond hair just a shade or two off from his skin, drowning in clothes a few sizes too big (that you think might actually belong to Jake, now that you have a better look, but you're not really sure); it's the kid you brought back from Laramie, Dirk.

Or, at least, you think so. The last time you'd seen him, he'd been unconscious on an Infirmary cot and in pretty bad shape (also wasn't his hair darker?). Now, though, he looks... almost okay? If you ignore how much weight he's lost, that is. And how disoriented he seems.

Honestly, you have absolutely no intention of getting involved. Yeah, maybe you do kind of wonder if he's supposed to be outside, and maybe you are kind of curious about what he's doing, but you've got work. Really. It's none of your business, end of story.

But when he tries to take a step and ends up pitching forward, balance lost to the metal door sill running along the ground, your body moves on reflex and you bolt up. You're too far away to do anything.

The crack! of skull against sidewalk never comes, though, because in the blink of an eye Dirk's hands are out in front of him, feet moving, and he's using the momentum from his fall to push himself back up into a standing position a foot or so beyond where he'd been. His eyes are still shut. Impressive.

That's the end of his bag of proverbial tricks, though, because he just kind of stays there frozen after that, arms out like he's waiting to fall again and honestly looking pretty dang lost. "Shit," he mumbles, and you can't help but snort.

"...Are you okay?"

He jerks so hard you think he might go down again, and his head snaps in your direction. For a second, he opens his eyes, but as soon as he does he yells, "Fuck!" and then both fists are covering his face. His balance teeters. God, is this kid even ready to be up?

"Whoa, sorry—didn't mean startle you or anything," you say, moving a few steps closer. He tries to move backwards but stumbles again and yeah, you're pretty sure what he's doing right now is Totally Illegal. But at the same time, you remember how skittish Vriska was the last time you saw her, and stop just in case. "I'm not going to hurt you, if that's what you're freaking out about."

The kid snorts. Wrong assumption, then.

"No, I know. I just... fuck, I didn't think this through." He mutters the last part like he's talking to himself, and you raise your eyebrows at him even though he's still got his hands over his eyes.

"...Does John know you're out here?" Dirk stands up a little straighter. "Mhmm, I thought so. Don't worry—I'm not gonna tell," you say, shrugging. "If whatever you're trying to do is gonna piss him off, I'm not about to stop you." Honestly, you think making him angry might brighten your day a little—and you're not ashamed to admit that yes, you're definitely that petty.

He sags a little with what you think is probably relief, and drops his hands to hang limp at his sides. For a moment, he squints at you, but hisses a little and then shuts his eyes again. "...Thanks."

"No problem. As long as no one gets hurt, I don't really care." (You turn around, then, and start making your way back over to your spot in the shade with no intention of getting involved any further. By the time you sit down, though, Dirk hasn't moved. He just keeps standing there, probably totally fucked, but with a stubborn expression that says he's not really willing to admit it. Halfway through another fish you decide have a little mercy. "...Are you doing something in particular, or just, you know, out for a tan while the warden's away?"

He has the decency to look sort of embarrassed, even if it's temporary. "I'll be gone in a second. I just have to adjust to real, actual sunlight. Shit's way brighter than it seems from a window. But if you could point me toward the... place where they do exercise and training and stuff, that'd be cool."

That catches you off guard, and you blink. "You know John's there, right? Like, you want to go toward the person you're trying to avoid?"

"...Yeah, like I said—I didn't really plan ahead, okay? I thought I'd go watch my bro, though. He's up there today and I figured—Look, just tell me where to go and I'll be out of your hair." He huffs, frowning.

You blink at him. "Hang on a sec, John let Dave out?" What the fuck is your cousin thinking? Suddenly, your mood flips from somehow simultaneously annoyed and amused to angry. How irresponsible could he possibly be?

Dirk's shaking his head, though, and he looks kind of hurt. Maybe that was the wrong thing to say? "No, no—Bro's not—he's... I meant this guy named Jake. My, uh, friend."

You deflate, relieved but not pacified. "That still doesn't explain why you're okay with the fact that John's up there."

"Look, just tell me where to go, okay? You want me to piss off John, so why the fuck does it matter?" Dirk snaps, opening his eyes just long enough to glare at you.

You shrug again. "Whatever, I guess it really doesn't. You'll never make it if you're voluntarily blind, though."

"Jesus Christ."

You can't help it—you laugh. The whole situation is honestly ridiculous, and yeah, okay—you admit that you're a little curious. (Only about Dirk, though. Yeah. You don't give a shit about why John's out at training today, you don't want to see his face when he gets pissed off, and you know Jake is going to be fine so it doesn't matter whether you check up on him or not. Only about Dirk.) "Give me a sec and I'll take you up there."

"What?"

He doesn't get an answer, though, because you're already gathering up the fish—gutted and whole—to bring back inside. You'll deal with the other gross bits later, you decide (and hope you can get back to clean them up before the breakfast crowd complains). Fef doesn't question it when you tell her something's come up, but she sighs anyway.

By the time you make it back outside, Dirk's moved a few feet west. He's also squinting around, which makes him look really stupid. "You're going the wrong way," you say, and you think he glares (but you can't really tell because you start laughing again).


==> BE THE HELPLESS LOSER

Fuck that, you are not a loser. In fact, you're so much the absolute antithesis of anything even remotely related to failure one might call you a fucking champion. A conqueror of collapse. A destroyer of deficiency. A vanquisher of—

The aggravatingly-apathetic chick you've been (sort of?) arguing with for the last few minutes emerges from the building across from what you've come to learn is this camp's one and only medical facility, both hands stuffed into her pockets. She'd used her shoulder to open the door and just sort of slides out, looking for all the world like taking you to see Jake and John is the absolute last thing she wants to do. (Which you don't really get, to be honest. From what you've been able to gather, the former seems pretty well-liked by the refugees living here and the latter is respected almost unconditionally. It puts you on edge a little.)

You squint at her (because yo fuck the sun, but you're not about to stagger around this place with your eyes totally shut) and she makes some snippy comment that sets her off like she's best damn comedian left on earth (which you think is improbable at best, even in such an atrophied global society) so you decide to scowl at her instead.

Your name is DIRK STRIDER, and you are SIXTEEN YEARS OLD. Three months ago, you and the cluster of assholes your Bro managed to collect over the past six years FLED the only place you've ever called HOME with no real plan—and then a little over a week ago, you woke up in a STRANGE PLACE surrounded by STRANGE PEOPLE, devoid of any recollection as to how you'd actually arrived. A bunch of crazy shit happened after that, most key points of which aren't even worth thinking about because A) they don't make a lot of sense, and B) you're still trying to figure out how to exist as a functioning maybe-not-totally-human (which is petrifying in and of itself and takes up a lot of your time).

Suddenly your feet aren't touching the ground anymore, and you end up accidentally opening your eyes all the way because what the actual fuck and shit, nope, so you thrash a little and—THUD—back to earth. The girl (who you realize isn't a girl but a woman clearly older than you) is standing over you, flipped from giggling at her own joke to pissed as hell, but before she can yell you say, "What the fuck?" and your voice cracks because puberty and your pride hopes she's too angry to laugh at you again.

"Well, there's no way you're going to make it up there on foot before winter rolls in, so I might as well carry you," she bites. "But if you kick me again, I'm just going to drop you somewhere and leave."

"No."

"Do you want to get there or not?" She crosses her arms, towering like some Amazonian warrior with no time or tolerance for you and your petty problems. You're flat on your ass in damp, overgrown grass, half blind and totally lost, and in the face of a stranger so fierce and uncaring you almost forget who you are—Dirk motherfucking Strider, raised by a man without fear.

When you try to stand up, you slip in the dirt.

And without asking, she just reaches down and hauls you up over her shoulder like a sack of laundry.

"Okay! Okay, fine," you (totally don't!) shout, because now your face is inches away from her ass. "Carry me, whatever. Just let me piggyback or something." You realize she's snickering.

Before you know what's happening, she reaches back to grab your forearm and leans to the side and you start falling off her shoulder and—oh fuck no, she is not dropping you again—but with her right hand free she grabs your other shoulder and—instinctively you latch on and—

"Better?" She asks, and what the fuck you're on her back now. It occurs to you that your feet aren't that far away from the ground. She's much shorter than you thought, and six times stronger.

"Yeah." Your voice cracks again.


The fact that she's carrying you doesn't slow her down at all, and you start to wonder what kind of life the people here really live. A life of survival, just like you—but one built on a different foundation than what you and Bro and the others had. In the city, stealth was the key to staying alive. No one—not even Bro—had the kind of raw power you've seen in the people here. Jake, John, and now this woman. (You try to ask her name, but she says you'll figure it out eventually. The rest of the walk is mostly silent.)

You don't have any real mental frame of reference for the size of this camp, just technical dimensions from Roxy that made some kind of objective sense. But now, as you squint around the grassy fields and buildings, you realize that it's huge. Not in the same way the Houston was, with its endless skyscrapers and street block mazes—here, there are acres of open space surrounded by endless, empty forest. The architecture is few and far-between, most structures well-kept and clearly in use, and only one is taller than two stories. It's quaint, like a rural suburb.

But the tents—they're what would leave you speechless if you had anything to say in the first place.

Row after row cloth and tarp shelters large enough to stand up in, unlike anything you've ever seen before—there's a collection of them behind the building the woman had been in and out of, lined up and somehow astonishing. (A few people are milling around, and one waves from afar, and you don't think it really occurs to you until right then that this place is full of life. It takes your breath away.)

But when you make to the top of the slope that you realize is the geographic center of this whole community, the small group of huts looks haphazardly built, mediocre, temporary compared to the sea of animal furs and canvas that stretches out in front of you.

This area is fenced off, and each tent is easily twice the size of the first you'd seen, clearly well loved and lived-in. They're spread out, some with natural but oddly morbid ornamentation in their lawns (bones, wood, rocks... even small gardens), and every so often two are connected with what looks like a clothesline (but you're too far away to really tell). A huge fire pit surrounded by stones and logs sits in the center of it all, clearly the hub for what almost looks like a small village.

(It's completely deserted, though, which is almost unsettling.)

The picturesque living photograph has you totally enraptured right up until the sound of someone shouting at the top of their lungs breaks the scene.

"Seriously?" The woman carrying you falters for just a second. "Move, Jake!" In the distance, you can hear yelling, wheezing, the rhythmic thudding of footfalls. And you think—just maybe—the sound of someone crying.

A few minutes later you see it, and the woman stops again.

The grassy, rectangular area is relatively large—wider than a football field but not quite as long. It looks more like a grazing pasture than any kind of athletic environment, though, with weeds and wildflowers grown halfway up to where you think your knees would be if you were standing. It's surrounded by a two-foot-high, two-rail split wooden fence, clearly built by hand but still sturdy enough to hold the weight of a young woman (with black hair and gray skin and even though you've started to get used to it because you've met so many people like that over the last week, you still feel your muscle tense up and you think maybe that means you're afraid) balanced on top of the tallest horizontal slat. She's the one screaming.

Standing on the ground next to her with his arms crossed is a massive man with straight, dark hair that falls just past his shoulders and tan skin. Even though she's on the fence, he's tall enough to come up to the gray (Cured, you think. Cured) woman's shoulders. (Another beast, you think. You're starting to lose count.)

Off to one side, outside the fenced-in area, a group of thirty-some people are scattered, collapsed in the grass. Even though the weather is cool, they're covered in sweat, chests heaving and mouths gasping for air. Some you recognize (Terezi!), most you don't. While a few stare blankly at the overcast sky, the rest are transfixed by the brutal scene unfolding inside the field.

Jake is on the ground, face-first in the dirt with his arms braced beside him like he's going to push up—but he can't, because John has one foot on his back, holding him down.

And in that moment, you begin to understand why fear and respect as so intertwined, so often confused. 

Because this man is not the gentle, awkward voice who reassured you that everything would be alright when you woke up and had no idea where you were. This man is not the soft touch who dressed and re-dressed your wounds, told you who you were now and why, or sat with you on late nights when you'd slept through the day without meaning to. This man is not the one who joked with you and Jake and Jane and Roxy, poking fun at each and every one of them so you'd forget everything terrifying around you. This man is not John the caretaker, the doctor.

He's the leader, the warrior. The one who'd fought your brother—your inhuman brother—and held him down like it was nothing with no mercy in his eyes. The one who'd said It's what's best for everyone like caging your only family was the most mundane thing in the world (even though you know it had to be done). His face is set in a stoic, silent, immovable frown, and he's got his arms crossed like he's putting no effort into holding his cousin down.

You realize that Jake is the one crying.

The woman on the fence jumps down and makes her way toward him, yelling, yelling, yelling until she's right up in his face. "Get up, Jake! Your team is surrounded! Are you just going to sit there and let it happen?" He's struggling, now—and you can see his arms shaking from the weight of his cousin. "Infected are everywhere! Meenah just died, Jake—what are you going to tell her sister? She died because of you! Because you gave up and decided to lay on the fucking ground!"

Jake lets out a roar, then—an angry, frustrated, exhausted sound that makes your own body go a little limp because this is merciless, worse in some ways than what your own brother had put you through (but in others so much the same)—and you can seem him strain as he lifts himself up almost to a kneeling position—and then a second later his face slams into the mud. And through the overwhelming stench of fish and sweat and nature, you smell blood. John's arms aren't crossed anymore. Now, he's got one hand in his pocket and the other—the bandaged one—hanging limply at his side. He's leaning forward, putting more weight on Jake, holding him down with more force than before.

The woman carrying you is squeezing your legs to tight it almost hurts, and her chest is heaving.

Jake goes kind of limp.

And then she screams, "Get off your ass or I will dump all of your shit in the fucking river!"

Every single person jerks to look at the two of you, and you're hit with a slew of mixed expressions everywhere from confused and happy to pissed as hell. (You think most if not all are directed toward your shitty chauffeur.)

But the distraction catches John off guard ever-so-slightly, and Jake heaves up one last time, throwing him off balance just enough to get him to step down, and in seconds Jake is standing again. He's covered in muck and his nose is bleeding and there are tear-tracks in the dirt on his face, but he's grinning at the woman—and he's grinning at you.

Then everyone starts shouting at once.

"What the fuck, Jade? Why would you— Don't you know he's not—"

"You came! I knew it! Can't hide out fore—"

"Cripes, Jade! Think of some new threats, will yo—"

"Oh, shit—we're dead. We're so dead. She's he—"

"Dirk! Long time no see! You reek, tho—"

Amid the chaos woman from the fence lifts one leg and kicks the small of Jake's back just hard enough to make him stumble. "No one said you could stop running!" She's smiling, though, and even though he groans he does what she says. She and John begin making their way over to the two of you the moment he takes off. Terezi starts to get up, too, but the tall guy from earlier starts yelling at the whole group and she stays put.

The woman holding you (Jade! Holy shit, this is Jade. You feel like you should have known that, given how much she looks like Jake, but the way she'd acted about her family when you first met her...) lets go, and thump, you're on the ground again. For a second, when you look up, you think you see concern in John's eyes as he marches toward the two of you, but it's gone so fast you're not sure if it was ever really there. Instead, he zeroes in on Jade like he's about to give a devastating verbal beat down and—

He kind of wheezes a little and steps back, thrown off, because Jade punches him hard in the gut with absolutely no remorse.

"Fuck you, John."


 

His expression whips from hurt to pissed to totally calm in an instant (what is with this family's complete and total lack of emotional control?), and then suddenly he's towering over her, a menacing silhouette against the morning sun that reminds you of how she had dwarfed you just a few minutes before.

The woman from the fence pops up between them before he can say anything, though.

"Okay, guys! We all know you have issues, but, like, deal with them on your own time!" She claps her hands together and bounces on the balls of her feet, glancing back and forth between the two. "If you want to fight, get in the pen and do it. If not, get along or go away! I'm trying to do my job here." Then she turns to you and grins, sharp teeth lined up and just crooked enough to make the expression look more terrifying than reassuring. "Besides! You don't want to look bad in front of the new kid. Jade, you can't just drop people. It's rude." For some reason, you get a weird vibe from her. Like she's talking down at you, the same way Jade has been all morning.

Jade has her back to you so you can't see what she does, but there's no vocal response. Instead, you hear her huff, and after a moment she backs off and starts walking toward the rest of the group, who are now on the ground doing a series of grueling core exercises. She doesn't even glance at you.

Everything calms down a little after that, which is actually kind of nice. Before she leaves you and John alone (which you are not excited about, but it's your own fault and Jade even warned you about having to deal with him), you're formally introduced to Nepeta, and now that you're collecting faces to match the names of people you've heard about you're starting to think you'll never stop being surprised. She seems so... small compared to the picture you'd painted in your head. She pats John on the back before she makes her way over to Jake, who's still running (but with a determination that makes you wonder if what you'd seen earlier had really happened) and tells the leader of this entire community to please be nice.

Thankfully, John doesn't yell at you. Instead, he asks if you're alright (you are) and if you're able to stand (you can), then helps you up... And launches into a barrage of serious technical questions you're not really prepared for. (How are your eyes? What's the faintest thing you're smelling right now? The softest sound? How are you feeling emotionally? Do you have any unusual impulses or thoughts? And on and on and on, looking you over as he talks.) He doesn't write a single thing down, and you wonder if you'll have to repeat everything for him later.

Then, of course, he asks why you're out here. You start to explain that Jade had found you, but he cuts you off and repeats the question. Why?

You don't really have a good answer.

(You'd wanted to see Jake, yeah, but you knew he'd probably be back to see you in your room after he'd finished for the day. He'd probably nap for a while on the foot of your bed, and then leave when it came time to do his job with the security folks. He'd be back for dinner, of course, probably with Jane or Roxy or both in tow. So why had you wanted to see him now, doing this? You weren't worried, were you? Worried because you didn't think he was taking this whole "leading a scouting mission for the first time" thing seriously?)

You settle for innocent curiosity, and even though John raises his eyebrows he doesn't call your bluff.

He also doesn't send you back to the Infirmary, either. Instead, he sighs and grumbles something about how you and your brother are clearly related because neither of you can stay put. Then he turns back to the field and says, "You might as well stick around for a while, now that you're here. If you're well enough to get this far, it won't be long until you're working with the rest of them." You follow him toward the outside edge of the fence because you're not sure what else to do. The rest of the time you're there, you get a running real-life director's commentary in your left ear that's actually kind of helpful.

The group is back together, now. Nepeta and the other guy (Equius, John tells you) are pairing people off and shooing them to different places on the field. Terezi and another Cured (some guy with glasses and poorly-dyed bangs you feel like you've seen somewhere before) end up in one corner, and Jake stays close to the center with Jade. You catch his eye and he grins, face still a mess. You wave back.

When the last two people are sectioned off, Nepeta grabs the back of Equius's shirt and launches herself up onto his shoulders. He doesn't flinch, and it's such a ridiculous sight that you half expect to hear scattered laughter while you, yourself, feel a snicker snort its way out of your nose. The field is tense and quiet, though, as Nepeta starts yelling again.

"Alright! You know the rules. No weapons! No biting, clawing, or bone-breaking! Stay inside the fence, and no bets! The goal here is to learn and grow and all that! But don't be pussies, either. If we think you're not working hard enough, either Equius or I will step in as your partner." You see a few people shift in place, and yeah—even you're starting to feel a little nervous. "In the meantime, the two of us will be walking around, critiquing and answering any questions. Ready? Go!"

The whole place erupts into barely-controlled chaos. 

It's a sparring exercise, but only in the sense that the whole place is sort of supervised. If you didn't know any better you'd think it was a brawl. The hand-to-hand competence, though, is incredible. Disorganized as the whole thing might seem, everyone's moves are calculated and precise, and—from what you can tell—no one is holding back. The first person to go down takes a particularly nasty hit to his left side, but in seconds he's back up, winded and on the defense. You can't see Terezi and her partner well because they're on the other side of the field, but neither seems to be giving an inch, either. There are no handicaps in the real world.

But Jake and Jade—they're on another tier entirely. Even though Jade just walked in, fresh and ready to go, Jake is more than keeping up with her. From what you can tell, their styles are different due more to size than skill level, but she's easily blocking his full-force punches and he's not falling behind, unusually swift and graceful for someone so built. The dirt under their feet is a wreck. You're completely glued.

Suddenly you hear Nepeta say, "Four bags of tea on Harley," much closer than you expect, and when you glance over you realize she's leaning on the fence next to John. Equius isn't with her, but you spot him a few yards away carefully walking a determined-looking young woman through the motions of some leg motion. He looks out of place as an instructor, but it seems to be working.

John shakes his head. "No deal. You and I both know he's going to get his ass kicked. And so does he." You blink a little, surprised, but don't say anything. You can't imagine Jake losing.

Nepeta just laughs. "Yeah, she cares about him too much to let him win." She turns to you, then, "Thanks for dragging her up here, by the way," and all you can do is shrug. "You two gonna stick around for the weapons bit? Jake's going to be a part of that group, too."

"No," John replies, frowning. "He needs to get back to his room, and I need to let Rose and Jane get back to their real jobs. There's not much I can do there, anyway, and I already know how good Jake is with a gun. Jade'll handle that one... just don't let her kill him."

"No promises." Nepeta pushes off the fence to head back into the fray, and when you glance back at the pair in question, Jake is getting up off the ground, wiping blood off his lip. 


 

In the end, Jade destroys him.

The matches go on until Nepeta tells everyone to stop, and then everyone lines up according to how many points they'd received over the last half hour.

(Throughout it all, John gives you a rundown of how the whole thing works. Points are awarded for hits and dodges beyond a certain individual baseline quota designated by Jade or Jake or Nepeta. The more points a person has by the end of the week, the higher their quota for the next. People who don't make their quota are assigned extra tasks or penalty exercises, the severity and frequency of which decrease the more points an individual has. The three people with the highest number of points are exempt. When he's done, you decide it's probably good that you figure all this out now, and not the first day you're thrown into the pile with everyone else.)

Jade is the first in line, with Jake and Terezi's sparring partner in second and third, but Jade steps off to the side after the initial count because of an obvious technicality—she wasn't even supposed to be part of today's training anyway.

After Nepeta sets the bottom few running around the field, the group disperses, and Jake makes a beeline over to you and John. He looks worn out but still somehow full of energy. "Strider! Holy fucking mackerel, I can't believe you broke out," he laughs. "It's good to see you up and about like a free man."

John rolls his eyes. "It's not like I'm holding him captive or anything. It's for his own good."

"Yes, yes—of course. But sometimes a bloke's got to take the reins and decide what's best for himself, am I right?" Jake laughs again, throwing a wink in your direction while John cracks a small smile. He seems more relaxed, now—less fierce. You have no idea how Jake could joke around with his cousin after what you'd seen, though.

(And you choose to ignore the wink entirely.)

"You look like shit," you say, but Jake just beams.

"What's a little roughhousing without some mud and blood, eh? Kid stuff, that's what." You're not sure how to respond to that, but it turns out you don't have to because he just keeps talking. "I've got some time before the new lot convenes for round two, if you both want to get a quick bite to eat. Breakfast ought to be starting soon."

As much as you'd like to say yes (because you're starving, duh) you don't really feel like you get a say in whether or not you're allowed to go (which kind of annoys you, but you get it), so you look up at John and raise your eyebrows. He frowns, glances between both of you, and after a moment says, "Maybe another time. We're heading back that way, though, so if—"

A shrill, panicked voice cuts him off from behind.

"John! Good God, we've been trying to reach you for the past—oh." You turn around just in time to see Jane skid to a halt at the top of the gently sloping hill you'd walked down with Jade, red-faced and clearly winded. She blinks, mouth open, and then you can practically see her puff up like a royally-pissed-off pigeon as she stares directly at you. "What the freaking heck, Dirk?"

Shit.

In an instant, she's barreling down toward the three of you, a tiny whirlwind of total rage, and Jake and John start guffawing so loud and hard they both have to grab onto the fence to keep upright. "This makes my job so much easier," John wheezes out, but as soon as she's in front of you she hones in on him.

"And you! I've been messaging you for ages and you haven't responded once. Of all the irresponsible—I can't believe—Oh my God," she fumes, and you realize you've never actually seen Jane angry before. Miffed, sure. But pissed? Nah. (And even though the her family is clearly amused, you make a mental note to never, never get on her bad side.)

John calms down some and ruffles her hair, at which she looks significantly less than pleased. "Alright, alright—I'm sorry, I should have let you know that he snuck up here."

"Yes, you should have," she huffs. "Jake, stop laughing. You look like you've been hit by a car."

He grins. "Why, thank you!"


 

The three of you end up heading back in the general direction of the Infirmary together. Halfway there, though, your head starts spinning and your legs decide to just nope out. When you hit the ground, you'll admit you start low-key panicking (and Jane and Jake work themselves up into a frenzy around you), but John doesn't seem particularly freaked. "Adrenaline crash," he says, and helps you onto his back without much fanfare. "You were up all night—don't even try to deny it—and on top of that and everything else you've done more physical work this morning than in the last ten or so days combined. Honestly, I'm surprised you made it this far." The other two don't calm down much after that, though.

By the time Jane and Jake split off to the building across from where you're going (the Cafeteria, apparently, where Jane has to work now that John is on his way back) you're so exhausted you don't even want to eat with him—them—anymore, which is actually incredibly lame. Instead, you're looking forward to a straight crash directly into bed where you can sleep for a solid fourteen hours. Neither seem particularly upset by this, and the general consensus seems to suggest that's a really fucking great idea based on the fact that Jane tells you to rest up when she waves goodbye, and Jake says you look like you need it. Wouldn't want to disappoint.

But when you and John are a few feet from the Infirmary door you realize rest isn't going to happen, because you can already hear the shouts from your very loud, very pissed-off older brother.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

==> DAVE: DROP DEAD

Okay, maybe that's a little dramatic, even for you. But damn, you're starting to think death by boredom might actually be a thing that's possible. It's been... how long since you woke up? One week? Two? You can't even remember at this point—trapped in the same white, stone-walled twelve-by-twelve room, time is starting to blur together. Intermittent visits from Terezi and John have been your only real source of entertainment, and even that's a stretch. You've taken to sleeping at odd hours of both day and night, forcing your body into oblivion when you can't take your intimate relationship with the patterns on the ceiling any more. This has to be illegal. Cruel isolation of prisoners or some shit. Geneva Convention-level neglect.

You thought safety would've been a welcome change, but now you're not sure which hell is worse: here, or Houston.

So no one could blame you for wanting to break out, right?

(You sigh, blowing hot air into the sheets you've cocooned yourself under and accidentally inhaling some of your weird not-actually-dyed-but-still-worthy-of-a-scene-kid hair when it flops back into your face. It's getting long, now—almost long enough to tuck behind your ears—and you'd kill for a pair of scissors.)

True accountability for your actions or not, you'd done it and there were consequences—petty bullshit, you think, but still punishment.

Last night, after you'd wrecked your nose and split your lip on the stairwell steps, John and Dirk had stayed with you until the bleeding stopped. By then, you'd been pretty impressively covered, and both John's shirt and the towel Jake had brought were ruined. (You don't really remember Jake leaving because you were pretty fucking out of it, but one minute he was there and the next he wasn't.) The three of you had sat in almost total silence, John curtly telling you to tilt your head back or asking if you were dizzy every now and then, until eventually he'd told your silent brother to go to bed. Dirk hadn't said anything back, but he'd hesitated—not long, but enough for you to notice. And then you and John were alone.

(The fact that Dirk hadn't questioned him, had just done what he was told, seemed strange. Your brother was quiet, sure—but he had a strong character. He was a fighter. So either he had some serious respect for this guy, or he was scared.)

After your brother's door had closed behind him, John had stood from the step he'd been sitting on—you were still leaned up against the wall, him next to you at the bottom of the stairwell—and stretched. Through the window you'd seen a grayness that hadn't been there before, and you'd wondered just how long you'd been off your game. (Everything had still smelled like blood, though. Even now, thinking about it, you can't help but cringe a little.)

"Alright, let's go." John had said, and you'd blinked up at him. "Can you stand?"

You'd nodded and done your best, but the minute you'd gotten yourself upright you'd needed to look at your hands to grip the stair railing and almost gone down again. And holy fuck . The blood had been everywhere. Your palms were scraped up from the black sandpaper strips on the steps that had reminded your half-focused brain of skateboard griptape, and the white undershirt you'd been given (that blended in almost hilariously with your almost-printer-paper skin) to wear was totally fucked.

And then suddenly John had your arm over his shoulder and he was moving forward. "Don't think about it," John had said, and even though his voice was tense and you knew he was pissed, it had sounded sincere. He'd hauled you up to your room (prison cell) pretty quickly after that, and you weren't much help along the way. It was kind of embarrassing, actually—how easily you'd just crumbled.

He'd gotten right to work cleaning you up, which in some ways was surprising. He was still shirtless, and you think if you'd been in a better frame of mind you could have made some really choice comments while he'd pulled off your own ruined clothes. Instead, you'd stayed mostly quiet while he stripped you down to your underwear, found the metal hooks in your pocket, and sighed. He'd made that face you've seen him do more than a few times—the one where he pushes his glasses up and presses on the bridge of his nose with his eyes scrunched up—and somewhere in the back of your mind you thought he looked exhausted. The sun was just starting to rise outside, he'd said he needed to be somewhere early in the morning, and you knew (because you'd been pseudo-stalking him) that he hadn't slept in a while.

You'd thought, then, about what Roxy had told you. The whole thing still left a nasty taste in your mouth, but you'd started to think maybe there was some real truth to it all.

"Did Terezi bring these in to you?" John had asked, and you'd shaken your head like some kid getting scolded by the school principal. And that pissed you off . You're twenty-fucking-four, you'd been though some serious shit, and even though this guy had saved your life he had no right look down on you, to talk down to you.

"Lock a guy up in the same room for days with nothing to do and he'll cook something up," you'd bitten out, spitting dried blood in John's direction. He'd seemed unfazed, expression hard and unflinching.

"Like I said, I had my reasons. I still do, which means nothing is going to change. You're a danger both to others and yourself, as you've so clearly proved."

"I am not a fucking danger . I—"

"That's my call, not yours. You had to have gotten these—" he'd shaken the pins in his hand, then, "—from in here if someone didn't give them to you."

" Listen to me—"

He'd glanced around the bare room, ignoring you and instead taking in everything—the lights overhead, your mattress, and the goddamn motherfucking blinds. "I guess I should have seen something like this coming." One pull of the string was enough to tell him that they were broken, and soon they were off the window and in his hand. You'd been fuming , but there was nothing you could do, not really. Run? Fight? That wouldn't help, and if anything just make the whole situation worse. You'd felt helpless. "I'll bring you a change of clothes and some water so you can wash yourself off," and then he'd closed the door.

When he'd returned, you didn't even acknowledge that he was in the room, and after a moment of silence he'd left without saying a word.

A little while later, the rest of the building had started waking up, and you were left to wallow once again in complete and total tedium. Voices had floated up through the hall that sounded familiar enough but that you couldn't put a face to, and eventually you'd heard someone come up from downstairs and stop in front of your door. They never entered the room, though—instead, they'd just stayed outside so long that every now and then you'd forget they were even there. A fucking sentry.

Now, you're half-buried under your sheets in some half-assed attempt to block out the morning sun. It hurts like a bitch , and you feel a little bit like you've got a bad hangover what with how your head hurts and your eyes sting and everything is spinning ever-so-slightly. Not to mention how sore your whole goddamn face is where you'd smashed it.

It's been a few hours, but you're still wired enough that sleep for the sake of something to do is out of the question, so instead you end up idly listening to conversations in the hall. Food comes and goes, but no one brings you any, and you eventually figure out that John really has gone off and left someone else to watch the place while he's gone. That's probably why you've got a babysitter.

Just the thought of him starts to get you riled up and angry again. John is an asshole, you decide. Intimidating leader of a small country with so-called good intentions or not, he's huge jerk, and part of you wonders if Roxy's conviction in his character is just the result of some pseudo-Stockholm syndrome. Sure, he'd seemed kinder, more open over Pesterchum all those months ago, but anyone can put on a face to get their way. And he'd definitely had his frigid moments even then. You resolve to not play along with her weird little pal-scheme.

Eventually, you just sort of... zone out. Not really doing anything but not quite unconscious, either. You're tired and annoyed and you doubt anyone is going to come for you any time soon. Every now and then you'll hear snippets of noise, but you don't pay attention to what they're saying. The person outside your door doesn't say anything, but they don't move either.

You wonder whether or not you're a masochist for wishing something terrible would happen.

And then suddenly there's a loud slam from the hallway, like a door being thrown open with too much force and hitting the wall behind it, and someone runs past your doorway. A feminine voice farther down the hall calls out, "Jane?" and the frantic footsteps slow down to a stop.

"Have you seen Dirk?" a second voice—you're assuming Jane (and you wonder if it's the Jane who's John's sister)—asks, a little out of breath, and suddenly you're a little more alert.

"No, he was in his room the last time I checked. Maybe he left to use the restroom?"

"I checked. No one said anything when I knocked, so I took a peek inside and it was empty."

"That is troubling. Do you know how long he's been gone?" The voices start getting closer, like they're walking back down the hall.

"I've been in with Vriska for the past half hour... Mr. Slick?" They stop near your door. "Did anyone else come up from the first floor?"

A gruff voice right outside grunts, "Nah, just you," and you assume that's your bodyguard. He doesn't say anything else.

There's a pause, and then Jane sighs, "Oh my," so quietly you almost miss it from under your sheets, and in the pause before she continues on to say, "I'll get ahold of John.", you throw them off and move toward your door.

The other voice hums. "He shouldn't be up and around for a multitude of reasons, and if he's left the building there are even more potential risks."

And it occurs to you then—much, much later than you think it should have—that you don't know if Dirk is getting the same treatment you are. You know he's allowed visitors because you'd seen it, and you know he's allowed out of his room... but without supervision? You don't know. And even if he's been given that freedom, who's to say he isn't still trapped in the building?

("...He's not answering. I'm going to go see if John left his phone downstairs," Jane says, but before the other woman has a chance to respond her footsteps echo off into the stairwell.)

And as pissed off as you are about being a prisoner yourself, the thought of your brother spending his time holed up and cramped the same way you are makes you livid . On some level, you get why you're in here—you'd attacked someone without real reason and seriously injured her.

(And you really do feel pretty shitty about that whole thing, but at the same time you can't forget just how fucking freaked you were when you'd seen her.)

("I will run one last pass through the first floor rooms just in case," the woman left behind says, but you're not really sure who she's talking to because Jane is gone now. Your babysitter, maybe? A moment later, her footsteps go quiet, too.)

But Dirk? There's no way he'd done anything like that—no fucking way. He's always calm under pressure, he doesn't have your temper, and he's just too fucking gentle (no matter how much he tries to convince you and the rest of the world that he's an emotionless rock).

There are hundreds of reasons why that just wouldn't happen , why it couldn't .

Which means he's not a convict, he's a captive .

And they lost him .

You're in the middle of Washington state just north of buttfuck nowhere , and they lost him .

You think you're finally starting to realize just what kind of group this is, and you don't like it. You want out .

And you want out now .

You throw your shoulder against the door as hard as you can, slamming into it with your whole body weight. Your head still hurts and you know, rationally, that this is a terrible idea, but you don't give two shits at this point what your logical brain thinks. So you do it again. And again. And again. Someone—Slick?—starts yelling, and then you start yelling back even though you're not really listening to what he's saying.

"Open this goddamn door —You lost him? Let me the fuck out! Let me the fuck out right now !" The door doesn't budge, but you keep shouting and beating until you don't even know what you're saying anymore.

And then suddenly you realize it's gone silent on the other side.

"Dave?" It's John's voice, and he sounds so calm you can't help but seethe.

"Where's Dirk?" you yell, and you're fully prepared for some bullshit answer, ready to cut him off before he even finishes.

But instead he says, "He's right here with me," and you just kind of stop.

"What?"

"He went up to the other side of camp to watch this morning's training, and we just made the walk back."

"What?"

"Jesus, you're articulate this morning," John snorts, and you don't have a good response to that so you just kind of... sink to the ground like all the air has been sucked out of you. "Are you calm now?" He's talking down at you again, and God , even though you're suddenly so exhausted he still somehow manages to keep you seething.

"No, I'm not fucking calm . Let me out , goddamn it." You're still on the floor, though. "And I don't trust the shit you say at this point, anyway."

There's a pause, and you're not sure what you're expecting to hear next but it's definitely not your brother's voice. "You're being an asshole, Bro," he says, and he sounds tired. "Like, consistently. To everyone."

Your first thought is to shout at him, too—to tell him to fuck off because he doesn't know what he's talking about, but then you catch yourself because why the hell would you say that to him ? You're just... angry. Frustrated and angry and hurt and scared underneath it all, because you're stuck in the same damn room with nowhere to go and no one to talk to, because everything hurts all the time, because you're bored out of your damn mind and alone with your thoughts, because so much happened so quickly and now everything is different. And it's justified, right?

(But a voice in the back of your head reminds you that you can't remember the last time you weren't at least one of those things, not since you got here.)

Dirk keeps talking. "You've been erratic and volatile in the worst possible ways since you regained consciousness, and it's unsettling. And... kind of frightening?" The last part is muffled, and it comes out more like a question than anything else. It's so unusual to hear your l'il man uncertain about anything that you stop.

And you start to wonder—quietly, hesitantly, tiredly—if your appearance isn't the only thing that's warped and wrong . If it's not just your sight and your hearing and your smell and your hair and your skin. What if it's you ? What if who you are has changed, too? Like you've become this gross, monstrous bastardization of yourself?

"I'm sorry," he says. "It's just the truth."

Everything just goes kind of quiet, then.

You don't know how long you sit there, crumpled on the floor with your hands fisted in your hair, but after a while the door slowly opens. You're half-leaned against it, so when there's nothing left to support you your body slumps to the side—but your head doesn't hit the ground. Instead, something soft keeps you propped up. It has that same familiar smell that seems comforting in some far off way, and when you open your eyes (you don't remember closing them?) you decide you're hallucinating because it looks like John is on the floor with you, holding your head in his lap the best he can given how tightly you're curled in on yourself.

Everything is blurry and bright, and yeah, you're definitely losing your mind. Because your face is wet and the first sound that comes out of your mouth sounds scratched up and cracks halfway through but you never cry. Never . Your chest is heaving. Your whole body feels like it's on fire. "What's happening to me?" you say again and again, like a mantra, and after a while it doesn't even sound like your voice anymore. Like there's someone else speaking for you, articulating your worst fears. Making them real. "What's happening to me? What's happening to me? What's happening to me?"

(This is it, you decide— this is your breakdown. Not the thing you'd had at the bottom of the stairwell last night. That was mild—so, so mild compared to this . You feel like you're dying, sucking all the oxygen out of the room and suffocating.)

And somewhere far away you think you can hear John's voice, too. "I don't know. I'm trying to figure it out, but I don't know. I just don't know."


You don't remember falling asleep, but isn't that how it usually goes? You're in your bed and the room is dark, everything quiet save for sounds of someone moving around in a room down the hall and a soft, gentle snoring. For a moment, you wonder (hope) you'd just dreamed up the whole thing in a kind of nightmare born from your deepest doubts. Still half asleep, you twist your head up toward your window and see that your blinds are still missing. So that at least had been real.

Then you realize suddenly that the breathing isn't yours , and that wakes you right the fuck up.

You bolt upright a little too fast and it sets your head spinning, but there's someone else in your room and

There's a lump on the floor of the room's far corner, left of the door, and you blink a little bit because there's no way, right? You're probably still asleep. Because why would he be here ?

John is wedged against the wall, lying on his back with his left arm tucked behind his head. His glasses are bent at a weird angle that can't possibly be anything close to comfortable because they look like they're digging into his nose, and his mouth is hanging open, slack-jawed as he quietly snores. There's an open book face-down on his chest like he'd fallen asleep reading, and a mug of something that's probably long gone cold at his side.

You just sort of stare for a moment, because you really can't believe it. But he doesn't disappear and you don't wake up, so you figure maybe you aren't dreaming. The whole thing feels surreal.

Your stomach lets out a terrible gurgling noise that's so loud against the stillness you jump a little, enough to make your mattress squeak, and John inhales sharply. There's a beat of silence and you hold your breath, hoping you haven't woken him up because you're really not mentally prepared to deal with him right now.

"Dave?"

No dice.

He shifts, humming a little bit as he moves, and the hardcover hits the floor with a thud just loud enough to ensure that if he wasn't awake before, he probably is now. "Man, what time is it—" he mumbles, lifting up the arm that had been behind his head and squinting at the watch on his wrist in the pitch dark. "—'m not sure what I expected." As you watch, frozen like a dumbass deer caught in truck headlights, he pushes himself up into a sitting position and fishes a phone out of his pocket. "God, that's bright."

Your gut growls again.

He looks up at you then, still squinting, glasses still askew, a little bit of drool at the corner of his mouth reflecting the light from his cell, and you can't help but wonder if there are two Johns wandering around this fucked up place because he'll shout and fight and say some really horrible, heavy shit and then go and pull stuff like this .

"'Sup."

"He speaks!" John chuckles, and it's a warm, comfortable sound that you don't really know how to react to.

"What are you doing here?" You ask, because you can't think of anything else to say and it seems like as good a place as any to start.

"Sleeping, apparently," he snorts back. "Although that wasn't really the plan." He starts to stand up, cracking his back and stretching his arms as he goes, but doesn't elaborate.

"That doesn't answer my question."

He shrugs. Your stomach makes another noise, and you exhale through your nose because it really needs to quit doing that, you're trying to have a conversation for Christ's sake.

John snorts again. "Hungry?"

"Uh."

"It's been over a day since you had anything to eat, so I'm going to say yeah, probably. You passed out yesterday and I didn't want to wake you up, 'cause I figured you probably wore yourself out and needed the sleep. Here—I'll be right back."

Before your brain catches up, he's gone, and you end up calling a strained, "Wait—!" to a closed door. You don't hear the lock turn, and you're left sitting in the dark, even more mixed up than before.

Just when you've convinced yourself the whole thing was some weird, half-asleep hallucination, the door opens again (how long was he gone?) and John's huge frame is silhouetted against the dimly lit hallway. "Sorry that took so long. Lucky for you it's just about lunch time down there, unlucky for me I had to wait in line."

"Lunch...?" a second later, your brain catches up. "Oh. For the nocturnal folk."

He laughs again, and now you think you've heard him do that more in the last however-long than your entire time here. "Folk? Wow, you really are from the south."

You huff, but you're a little too distracted to be as annoyed as you'd like because damn , whatever he's got on the tray in his hand smells good . Your stomach seems to agree.

He leaves the door open and sets the tray in your lap, moving just faster than actually sluggish but still like he's got a weight on his back. "...Thanks."

"Mhmm," John hums, nodding a little. He lingers next to you for just a second before returning to his spot on the floor. There's a chink! and a muffled Oh, shit , when he accidentally bumps the mug (without spilling it, impressively) still sitting where he'd left it, but other than that he's quiet.

The sandwich is warm, filled with soft vegetables and thick slices of a meat you don't really recognize all piled between two cuts of what's probably homemade bread, and you regret ever thinking this place was anything like hell. It's gone in less than a second, and you down the water you've been given just as quickly.

When you glance up, John is just watching you, and if you weren't so distracted you'd probably be a little more uncomfortable about that than you are. Instead, you mumble through a full mouth, "You snooze, you lose, dude." He hadn't brought any food for himself.

He waves a hand in the air and then reaches for the mug. "I ate earlier, don't worry." And when he takes a sip, he makes a face, so you figure whatever is in it tastes weird at room temperature.

You're reminded again of what Roxy had told you a few days ago, and wonder just how much truth there is to what he says, creepy captor-worship aside. But you beat the thought down because why the fuck should you care? You're not sure what his motives are with this whole farce, what he wants from you. It's got you on edge and you don't like it, because you feel powerless not knowing what you should do. Maybe that's his game. To make you totally dependent on the times he's nice .

You swallow your last bite. "Your loss, it's good." You won't let him win that easily.

For a few minutes, the two of you just sit there together in the darkness, neither making any effort to start up another real conversation. Last night had been a new moon—you'd seen that much on the stairwell—so there's still hardly any natural light to work with, but just like before you can see fairly well. Colors are a little skewed and everything's still dark , somehow, but John's face is clear enough for you to see that he's still sort of watching you. His gaze is turned slightly to the left, but it's close enough to feel a little unnerving. 

(It reminds you of Terezi—how she doesn't need to look in someone's direction when she has a conversation because there's nothing to gain from it, but she'll make the effort because on some level it makes the person she's talking to feel more comfortable. Like everything is normal.)

You decide to ask him again why he's here, but before you can say anything he starts to stand.

"I should bring these back to the Cafeteria," he says, chipper enough to grate on your nerves, and you just nod. If he's leaving, you're not going to complain.

There's still no real urgency to his movements, and you wonder why he doesn't flip the overhead lights to make things easier on himself. When he collects the tray in your lap without an issue you're a little surprised, but then again he'd gotten it there in the first place without you realizing that he probably couldn't see shit.

And it's frustrating beyond belief, because you want to be pissed. You want to yell and ask a thousand questions and accuse him of fucking with your head. You want tell him to turn a goddamn light on, please, because then you'll have tangible justification for biting his huge, egotistical head off. And right now you don't because he's being so aggravatingly considerate that you almost (almost! But not quite) feel like an asshole.

(You try not to think about how gentle he was when he held your head as you cried, how he'd apologized over and over again for something beyond his control. How it felt like, in that moment, you weren't alone.)

He locks the door, and you hope you imagine the muffled apology that follows.



[6/10/37]
 

You spend the rest of the night awake, once again bored out of your fucking skull until the sweet, sweet embrace of oblivion cradles you in her downy arms just a few hours after the sun starts showing its ugly mug. Terezi wakes you up when she visits later in the afternoon, feigning complete and total innocence when you snap at her about your beauty sleep. You know she knows that you know she knew you were comatose because you know that she knows that you know she can hear you breathing through the walls or some freaky shit like that (just like you), but you're glad to see someone other than John so you let her fill you in on what you've missed.

She corroborates John claim that your brother had been outside yesterday, and you get a second—possibly third—hand account of how he'd snuck off behind everyone's back. You're a little proud when you hear that, but the situation rubs you the wrong way until she mentions he'd been there to watch training again this morning, largely unsupervised and "legal".

The two of you talk until lunch rolls around, when she decides to head off and find food for herself. She's gone for all of three minutes before she busts back through the door and tosses something at your face (that you catch before it hits). First Roxy, now this. You see a pattern starting to emerge, and you don't like it. "Ran into John downstairs and he said to give this to you. Now I don't have to sit in the same room and smell your disgusting, unshowered physique anymore."

It's a cell phone.

"That's my manly musk," you say. "Trademarked Eau de Swag . One-hundred-percent guaranteed total bitch flockage to my many satisfied customers," but the door has already closed. Her laughter echoes through the hallway, though, and you know she heard.

(John doesn't come to re-lock the door after she leaves, but the guard from yesterday is back and that's enough to set you off brooding for a while. You try not to dwell too much on it, though, Dirk's words still fresh in your mind.)

The phone looks brand new, so you figure your old one must have been left behind with the rest of your stuff back in Wyoming. It's nice as shit, though, so you're definitely not complaining. The one you'd had was several years old even before the whole world went and got itself fucked in the ass, so it was well past its twilight by the time it finally met its end. It had essentially saved all of your asses, though, so you're a little disappointed you didn't get the chance to give it a real hero's funeral.

Your new toy is fully charged when you turn it on, and even though there's no service you've got five bars of internet connectivity. God bless. The Pesterchum app is already installed, but that's all—it's still got the nasty default wallpaper and everything, so the first thing you do it take full advantage of the frozen World Wide Web and save yourself the physical pain of looking at it any longer than you have to.

When you finally log into the chat client, you're immediately flooded with notifications. Because you've signed in on a new device, you get an alert from the same public memo board that had led you here in the first place, as well as a few new messages that you haven't seen before with a collective timestamp more than two weeks old. All of your old logs are still saved on the online server and they automatically load, so it's like you're picking right back up where you left off what feels like a literal eternity ago.

— arachnidsGrip [AG] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] at 17:13 — 

AG: Apparently I should 8e thanking you, 8ecause the cavalry just showed up and the rest of us might live through this.

AG: I don't know if you're dead or what, 8ut my phone says these messages are sending so I guess it doesn't matter.

AG: Dirk tried to text you yesterday, 8ut nothing went through. Things are working now 8ecause John has the same thing we found, which I guess you have now.

AG: He and Pyrope are 8oth messed up pretty 8ad, 8ut he's not changing colors so we're all taking that as a good sign.

AG: Dirk, not John.

AG: You're a huge pain in the ass 8ut I hope you're still alive.

AG: John is going to look for you now.

AG: The rest of us are heading 8ack with everyone else.

AG: So thanks.

 — arachnidsGrip [AG] ceased pestering turntechGodhead [TG] at 17:40 —

It occurs to you then that you haven't heard from Vriska once since you got here. You know she's going through her own shit, though. Heavy shit, from what you've heard, and you feel more than a little like total crap for not really thinking about her lately. As much as you hate to admit it, you hope she's alright. (Gamzee, too. You don't even know where he is right now, and that's a little disturbing.)

You also wish you knew a little more about what actually happened after your brother and the rest made their break for safety. Terezi has really been your only source of information, and the last thing she remembers before waking up here is essentially the same stuff you have to work with: setting up camp in the forest and chaos out of nowhere . She'd apparently passed out before she and the others made it into town. You don't know how or when Dirk got hurt, where John found them... anything. You've been living to much in the present moment, you haven't really had time to consider anything from before . It all seems so far away now.

You scroll back up to the top of the app, just for kicks, and try to figure out who's online. Terezi's icon is yellow, along with your brother, Jade, Jake (who you never actually spoke to, but have in your contact list anyway), and John. Karkat, Nepeta, and Sollux are all understandably offline, and the fact that Gamzee and Vriska are gone even at this time of day makes you wonder whether or not they've still got their phones. Roxy's not around, either, and that strikes you as a little weird.

Your conversation pool is a little bare, then. TZ, Jake, and John are each out for their own reasons, and even though you want to talk to Dirk you have no idea what to say. You end up just sort of staring at the screen for a while, not really sure what to do. For the first time in days you have the freedom to actually talk to someone instead of just waiting for a mercy visit at any odd hour of day or night, and you don't have a clue what to do with it.

Eventually you don't have to make a decision at all, because someone decides to message you first. Only you have no idea who the fuck it is.

— tentacleTherapist [TT] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] at 13:46 —

TT: Dave Strider?

TG: the one and only

TG: who seeks an audience on this disastrously sunshiny afternoon?

TT: My name is Rose Lalonde. John passed your contact information along to me most likely in hopes that I would strike up a conversation to keep you company in my down time. I'm under the distinct impression you haven't been receiving a particularly diverse influx of social calls lately.

TT: And it's more often than not my job to ensure the demonstrative stability and psychological comfort of those living here.

TG: lalonde

TG: as in roxy lalondes mom?

TT: Yes, that is correct.

TT: I regret not formally introducing myself sooner, but every instance of contact we've had thus far has been during what seem to be particularly tumultuous times for you, emotionally speaking.

TG: okay but if youre in charge of psychological wellbeing or whatever the fuck

TG: the most productive thing to do would probably be idk get me out of solitary confinement

TG: and yeah sorry as much as it literally physically pains me to admit i haven't been in top form lately

TT: I was not under the impression you were henceforth detained, in quarantine or otherwise. Although, if that were the case even now, I have the presence of mind to assume there is enough evidence to support the necessity of such.

TT: I will, however, take the matter up with our dear leader if you would like. You seem coherent enough for your requests to warrant consideration.

TG: what was this a test or something

TG: god youre just as much of an arrogant prick as he is

TG: only with a longer vocabulary list of verbal bullshit to vomit up in a chat window

TT: Not particularly. Our past encounters have put me under the impression that you're prone to flights of near-berserk rage, during which times you are less than rational in every sense of the phrase.

TT: And I resent the accusation of being a so-called arrogant prick. You are, in fact, the one calling himself "Godhead".

TG: did you get my digits from that asshole just so you could smear my good name through a stupid im client

TG: is there any actual point to this or are you seriously just fucking with me

TT: Whether fortunately or unfortunately for you, I have no intention of doing anything close to intimate with you in mind, fucking or otherwise. I am and always have been partial to soft bosoms and gracefully clefted mounds of the feminine persuasion.

TG: so tits and ass

TT: Indeed. Tits and ass.

TG: fucking incredible

And in a way, it kind of is. Not Rose's sexual leanings, but the fact that within minutes she's got you all figured out. She'll poke at you, get you riled up, and then say something to either placate your ego or change the topic altogether. You're so busy trying to keep up and throw back snippy comments of your own that you almost don't have time to stay irritated. It's totally different from talking with Terezi or Vriska or even those first conversations with John—more than just banter, it's a savage repartee that you're very nearly falling behind in. And even though you hate losing, you feel refreshed.

You talk for nearly an hour before Rose tells you she has to get back to work, and part with the promise to chat some other time.

And once again, you're left alone.

By now, the commotion of lunch time in the building has died down, and the muffled sounds of people moving around on both floors has faded to a kind of unusual quiet. The room is darker now—not quite nighttime dark, but definitely not the bright damnation of mid-afternoon. There's a hissing noise you almost don't realize you can hear because it's so constant your brain started blocking it out at some point, and it takes you a minute or two to pick up on the fact that it's raining outside. Nice.

You pass the next while using up as much battery life on your new phone as you can, making it your own. You're not totally convinced it's yours , per se, but you figure you might as well enjoy the whole being-connected-to-the-outside-world thing as much as possible. Most of that time is spent downloading music, something that sounds so sweet and beautiful and amazing you're not sure how you survived so long without it. Back in Houston, you hadn't been able to set up any kind of speaker system because of the noise, and headphones were dangerous because you couldn't hear what was going on around you. One earbud in while someone else was on watch was fine, sure, but you could never do that for too long without getting a headache. You hadn't even brought them with you when you left.

Now, though, it feels like you're hearing it all for the first time.

You almost want to cry.

(But you don't, thank God. You've done enough of that in the last few days to last a lifetime.)

You'd had to abandon a lot of what was left of yourself after leaving Texas, and you wonder for the first time if you can finally, finally start rebuilding, just a little. If you can have hobbies without feeling afraid that they'll get you killed, friends without worrying every day that they'll die around the next corner, and a place to stay for longer than a few nights. A home . Someplace—no matter how small—that you can call your own .

For all the anger you've built up over being stuck in a room by yourself, not once over the last week have you felt real, actual, genuine fear . Not while your head's on straight, at least.

You doze off listening to a violin cover of some ancient pop song over the sounds of the rain outside.


 

When you wake up again, the phone battery is dead but you don't think too much time has passed because it's still pouring, and even though the light is dimmer, the sun hasn't set. You also decide that you hate sleeping.

Realistically, you know your body has six years' worth to catch up on, but you can't help but feel like you've missed out on something important every time you rouse. And you don't like the heaviness that comes immediately after you rejoin the living—the sluggishness. It makes you restless.

You spend the next few minutes pacing around your room like a caged zoo animal, stretching your legs and wishing you had someplace to run. Or at least walk. God, you wish John would just let you out already.

After you've officially driven yourself stir-crazy, you get up close to the door and listen. The guard is still there, but you wonder if it's still unlocked from when TZ left. Rose's message shoves its way right up to the front of your brain, then, and you wish you could double check because there's no way you remember it right. And if you do, it might just be that she'd heard a different story from the reality you've been living. Ugh, you should have asked while you had the chance.

At this point, though, you don't really have anything to lose. What's John going to do, stop feeding you?

(As much as you really doubt it, you can't help but wonder.)

So you decide to try.

The doorknob turns easily. So easily, in fact, that you just kind of stand there for a second waiting for someone to jump through the fucking window and piledrive you into shitty linoleum floor for touching it. Nothing happens except for the sounds of shifting fabric on the other side of the wall, though, so you go for a homerun and push it open slowly.

Still no SWAT team.

"It's about goddamn time," a voice says to your right, and you think your heart stops for a second. But it's just(?) the guard, a rough-looking middle-aged man with a scar trailing almost completely down the left side of his face and a patch covering that eye. He's wearing a felt hat like something straight out of a black-and-white mobster movie and a white button-down over fraying black slacks, leaning slouched against the wall with his arms crossed. There's a huge hunting knife at his hip, but other than that he's unarmed. You blink at him and he doesn't tackle you.

"I'm... allowed to leave?" you ask, still not really believing it, but the empty hallway is right there in front of you and doorknob is still in your hand.

"The kid didn't tell ya?" He raises his right eyebrow and looks at you like you've just said pandas live in Kenya.

"Who, Terezi?"

"No, renegade Gandhi from downstairs. He didn't tell ya that shit was open?" You can't tell if he's serious or not, so you just shake your head. "Damn, he's worse than me. I woulda just said somethin' like leave if ya dare and let ya sit on that for a while."

"Leave if you dare?" That doesn't sound comforting.

"Jesus, are ya just gonna stand there or are we actually goin' somewhere? I've been standin' here all day and my damn legs are stiff." He unfolds himself, then, and cracks his neck to the side. "Ya can't leave the buildin' yet, but then again I dunno why you'd want to. Shit's downright unpleasant outside. I'm at least glad I got off patrol for this job. Poor bastards still out there are probably hatin' themselves right about now." He chuckles a little, and you can't help but think that you really wouldn't want to get in a fight with this guy.

"So I can go downstairs?"

He shrugs. "If ya want. I gotta follow ya, though, just in case ya start weepin' on the floor again or somethin'." He smirks when he says it, and even though you bristle a little you're glad he didn't say kill someone .

Suddenly, there's a crash from a room down the hall, followed immediately by someone screaming, " Fuck this! " and the sound of glass breaking. "This is so fucking pointless! "

Sketchy Old Dude makes a tch noise with his tongue, and shakes his head. "Sounds like the cripple's finally showin' some backbone," he snickers. "'Bout damn time."

The smashing continues and then a door opens, flooding the hall with the noise. Someone you don't recognize (he's tall and gray and had his hair slicked back in a half-assed Mohawk) backs out of the room just as you hear John say, "Please, Tav, just—"

" No! Don't you f-fucking dare look at me like that! I'm so fucking sick of this! Why didn't—why didn't you let me die? I can't even go down the goddamn stairs anymore! " The voice cracks, high-pitched and furious. " Why didn't you let me die ?"

"Because you're my friend , God damn it , and I would rather have you in a wheelchair than burning in the fire pit out back!" John roars, and it's that same tone you'd heard that night on the stairwell—angry and hurt and worried all at once—only much, much louder.

"That's s-selfish and you know it."

(The person who had left has his back to the wall, now, and sinks to the floor. He's shaking.)

"I don't give a shit. We'll build ramps where we can and carry you where we can't. We'll move your room to the first floor—hell, I'll give you my room if you want it. It doesn't matter. We'll make this work ."

"We'll make this work ? I c-can't do my job anymore, John! I'm completely fucking useless! "

" Fuck your job, Tavros. You're alive ."

" Well what if I don't want to be?"

Everything just kind of stops, then. The whole hall goes completely still save for the sounds of someone wheezing as hard as their lungs probably let them, and you're frozen. Everything's frozen.

And when John speaks again, it's quiet and hurting but it doesn't waver once.

"Then that's your choice, but unless it's because you can't cope with the world and not because you've given up on yourself , I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure you keep on living."

A second passes, and then he's out in the hallway, slamming the door behind him. He walks past you without so much as a glance in your direction and disappears down the stairwell in silence.

(And the man on the floor puts his head on his knees and starts to cry.)  


 

You stand there for a moment, listening to the muffled sniffles until a wail rises up from the room John just left and your escort lets out a low whistle. "Well, shit."

You don't know what to say.

You're strongly considering a retreat back into the relative safety of your cell, though.

But Sketchy Old Dude (you should probably figure out his actual name—Mr. Slick? Isn't that what you'd heard yesterday? It sounds so ridiculous you're not sure) decides for you. "C'mon, kid. Let's go. I don't wanna be up here watchin' this fuckin' soap opera anymore." He starts making his way toward the stairwell door and you figure you might as well follow, because he's right—even if you went back into your room, you'd still hear all the crying.

John is long gone, but the first floor hallway isn't empty. Once you're down there, you realize there are way more people on the first floor than the second. Not a real crowd by any means, but there are at least three people milling around and you can hear more conversations floating through closed doors. It's a little overwhelming, actually, and that combined with the shitty overhead fluorescent lights is enough to put you on edge. The room you think might be Dirk's is open, too, but you're too far away to tell if anyone is inside.

A short, black-haired girl with glasses is standing at the end of the hall talking to someone—dark hair and tan skin and a faded knit sweater with holes around the hems—but when she sees you she stops and stares at you for a second. "Dave?" Her voice sounds familiar. The guy she'd been talking to turns around, too, but he looks a little wary.

"It see