Actions

Work Header

Common Ground

Chapter Text

They caught him in the aftermath of the attack, dragging him out from under the pile of rubble where he had been tactically concealing himself- not cowering, he didn’t ever fucking cower, not even from a starship-sized monster that was barrelling through buildings like the architecture had killed its lusus and pissed on the corpse. Not that it should have surprised him. He’d chosen the coastal town specifically because of the attacks, because in a place that was already mercilessly fucked to the Otherside and back he’d thought nobody would notice one more ragged figure with sweet fuck all to trade trying to barter for the basic grubshitting necessities of life.

Past Him was a pan-damaged idiot for not realizing that the pitiless fates would embrace this shining golden turd of an opportunity to fuck with him yet again. When the Othersider had lumbered out of the ocean, roaring and dripping water and virulent blue acid, everyone had run for cover. For all normal and respectable citizens that meant a public shelter but after the last disastrous encounter with one of those hellholes he had known better. Heading towards the Othersider had been terrifying, but no more so than every other insane risk he took in the name of continued survival, and he’d actually started to feel moderately safe once he was behind it and out of the immediate path of its rampage. Finding a pile of rubble he could burrow into had been a bonus, an extra guarantee against being crushed into pulp by a giant horror-terror or burned to a crisp when the sun rose. He’d started to doze when the sound outside had changed from “rampage” to “fight”. He was under no illusions about who was being saved here- if they gave a shit about the lowbloods on the coast, they’d stop the damn things out in the ocean- but just knowing that there was a Jaeger on the scene made him feel safer.

And then the next thing he knew, Imperial Drones were pulling the roof of his temporary shelter, looking for Mother-Grub-knows-what and finding one small, malnourished, barely-adult mutant whose time avoiding the cull lists had finally run out.

* * *

Karkat woke up suddenly, switching from asleep to awake before anything could interfere by, say, killing him. The squeakbeast that had come carelessly close to his cartilage nub managed to just barely dodge his clumsy grab and he cursed as it vanished into a crack in the wall. Scrabbling after it, he was brought up short by a sharp tug on his ankle.

“Ah, I see you’re finally awake.”

Too late for the thought to be of any actual use, it occurred to him that maybe he should have pretended to be unconscious. Instead Karkat shuffled back into a crouch, fingers prodding at the shackle keeping him chained to the wall while his eyes scanned his surroundings. It didn't take long; he was in a cell, dark and damp and, thanks to his abject failure to undergo anything resembling a growth spurt, humiliatingly spacious. The entire front wall consisted of a heavy metal grille and in the dim light that was filtering in from the corridor, he could just make out a roughly troll-shaped blob huddled at the back of another cell opposite.

“Not that I meant to imply you were in any way being wilfully idle just now,” the stranger added. His voice was smooth and oddly deep, although Karkat’s own voice had dropped a few registers as he got closer to and passed conscription age. He guessed this guy had to be at least his age or older, which meant he shouldn't be on Alternia any more than Karkat should.

Unless you're not on Alternia any more, and isn't that a comforting thought? Karkat shifted, wondering if there was any position in which the shackle wouldn't chafe his leg.

His fellow prisoner still hadn't stopped talking. “There are many biological and psychological reasons why you might require more sleep than is average for a person of your age and it would be deeply insensitive of me to assume that the length of your dormancy was a matter of personal choice rather than the influence of external factors- not that such a personal choice would be cause for censure, either. Naturally, I have no desire to impose my personal world-view onto whatever lifestyle choices you may or may not be making, unless those choices would involve the exercise of unchecked privilege which we must all of course strive to-”

Pressing a hand to his aching head, Karkat growled at the other inmate. “Shut the fuck up,” he snapped.

For a few blessed moments, there was silence, and then to Karkat’s utter dismay the stranger proved that he simply could not keep his wordhole taped shut. “I’m sorry, that was thoughtless of me. I should have realized that you might be suffering from some pain following your ordeal, although in my defence I was not aware-“

“By all the unhallowed acid-spewing bulges on the Otherside, will you stop fucking talking!” Karkat yelled. “I was half-dead even before I dragged my sorry ass into what turned out to be Monster Attack Central, and being forcibly drone-napped from my happy little life of dodging Cull Squads and Eldritch Abominations has not put me any closer to a frame of mind where I want to get lectured by some petty fucking highblood deserter on the fine points of how to be a complete nooklicking asshole!”

“Actually, I’m not a highblood-“

“Oh, well that makes everything just fine and dandy, then! I’ve been caught draft-dodging and breathing while a mutant, so literally red-handed that I might as well have dived head-first into a vat of bleatbeast blood and swum around a bit, and once they get done figuring out how to make it as slow and painful as possible I’m going to be culled for the unspeakable crime of being hatched in the first place, and my stomach is trying to crawl up my backbone and my head is being split open by a thousand angry stingbugs that have apparently been nesting in my skull and you want to give me a fucking monologue in that shit-eating holier-than-thou accent of yours on the finer points of everything that is wrong with me, which is to say me in my entirety, but that’s all just fucking piss in the wind and I can forget about it because, hallelujah and praise the Mother Grub, you’re not a highblood!”

He broke off, chest heaving too hard for breath. Water dripped, a small plink echoing in the air.

“If it helps at all, I think there's a good chance they won't cull you,” said the stranger, once the silence had really had time to draw out and become awkward. His voice, Karkat noted through the dull throbbing of his head, was at least a little softer. Not that it became any less annoying for it. “Of course, I wouldn't want to give a false assurance of safety given that they are probably debating the relative merits of their available options right now, but based on my current working knowledge of the situation I would say there is probably a greater than even likelihood that they want you alive.”

Letting out a huff of breath, Karkat slumped back and leaned his back against the cell wall. Moisture immediately soaked through several layers of the ragged clothes he was wearing and he muttered a curse, rubbing a hand across his face. “I'm an off-spectrum hemotype mutant,” he said quietly, too tired to put any force into the words. “I only survived this long by getting the fuck out of my hive when they came looking and moving ahead of the drones. Clearly someone had enough of a lapse of good sense to prevent them from culling me immediately, but that's not going to last.” He reached out and grabbed the chain shackling him to the wall, shaking it a little. “Unless you're hiding a bundle of keys in that oversized noise-flap of yours, I'm dead.” He dropped the chain and scowled at the distant figure. “You could at least leave me to regret my existence in peace, fuckass.”

“Ahem, well, much as I would like to respect your wishes, I'm afraid I will have to violate some of your personal boundaries a little as there are some extremely pertinent facts which I don't believe you've been appraised of.”

Karkat was about to demand to know what kind of facts, precisely, would make any kind of difference to his situation now, when his fellow prisoner shifted. A chain clanked in the cell opposite as the shadowy figure scooted forwards until he was crouching in the light from the corridor. Then he lifted his head.

Even through two sets of grille doors Karkat could see him clearly enough. His first reaction was to yelp and try to jump back, which didn't work so well when he was already pressed against a wall.

His second reaction was to stare. It was- actually, it was nothing like looking in a mirror, because although the face staring back at him was undeniably his own every last little detail was different. Like how the hair looked like a tame style ruined by a stay in a cell, rather than Karkat's own recalcitrant squeakbeast nest. Or how the face was rounder and fuller, with fewer hunger-filed planes and sharp angles. Looking closely, he thought the stranger might be older than him too; not by much, but it showed.

The eyes, though, were the same. They glinted at him through the grille, shining in the shitty prison light with a bright red colour that shouldn't have been possible once, let alone twice.

Karkat opened his mouth and made a dry little peeping noise.

“Yes, I know,” said the stranger, who from the way his eyes were narrowed was studying Karkat as intently as Karkat was staring at him. “I do apologize for putting you through a shock like this. I hadn't intended to deceive you, per se, but given that my own emotional reaction when they brought you down here was rather strong- by which I do not mean to suggest that I am distressed by your existence, nor place on you any expectations of obligation or social bonding that you might not be comfortable with, especially given the fact that you have clearly been engaged in a solitary existence for some time, which I am also not going to pass judgement on given your clearly deprived circumstances in wigglerhood-”

“Name,” rasped Karkat.

The stranger halted mid-flow. “I beg your pardon?”

Karkat swallowed, then stabbed a finger into his upper thorax. “Me. Karkat.” He jabbed the finger at his double. “What the fuck is your name?”

“Oh, Kankri,” said the other prisoner. He shrugged. “Kankri Vantas, although I should hardly have to tell you that. Unless you favour a different filial appellation, in which case you can let me know and I will endeavour to remember your preferred means of address. In fact...” he sighed and shook his head. “I apologize. With all these distractions I completely forgot to ask you if you had any triggers I should avoid mentioning in the course of our conversations. Not that distraction is any excuse, but if there are any topics or phrases that would distress you then you should let me know now so that I can avoid them. Are you familiar with the concept? It's no trouble if you're not, I can explain quite easily, and there's no call to be embarrassed by a lack of knowledge on the matter so long as you are prepared to educate yourself when the opportunity arises. Now usually when I'm listing triggers I prefer to start with anything that- did you hear that?”

A sarcastic reply died on Karkat's lips as Kankri fell silent and he heard the sound of footsteps coming closer. By unspoken agreement both of them pulled back into their cells, huddling as far into the corners as their shackles would let them. Karkat rested his palms against the walls, revulsion to the damp slime forgotten as his attention narrowed to a single focus. His lips moved as he tried to count how many people were coming, but with the odd echoes it was hard to tell. More than three, but he couldn’t be certain beyond that.

When they finally came close enough to see, there were five of them. They all wore black jumpsuits whose only markings were a sigil patch on one shoulder and a series of bars that had to be a rank insignia on the other. Most of them had two bars, but the guy in front had three bars and a teal symbol- obviously in charge. Karkat frowned, not recognizing the uniform. Not that his knowledge was exactly up-to-date or even reliable to start with; he was at least smart enough to know that a diet of schlocky martial romance films was hardly going to give him a thorough schoolfeeding in every aspect of the military.

They opened Kankri's cell first. The other mutant was on his feet before they even reached him, hunched over defensively and holy fucking grubfondlers he was still talking.

“...again register a complaint regarding my treatment and the unnecessary violations to my person that I am subjected to under your care, such as it is, and make an appeal to your better nature as fellow trolls and, indeed, sophont beings to beawareofthenaturalrightsandDIGNITYOFYOURFELL- MMPH!”

The guard who had tied the gag on took a step back to admire his handiwork, and the one holding Kankri's head dropped it with a shove that sent the captive mutant reeling forwards a step or two. Seeing the furious but silent glare Kankri directed at them, Karkat wasn't sure whether to cheer or pray that the floor swallowed him up. He watched as stiffly, and with every inch of him radiating fury, Kankri held his hands out to be restrained. The guard who had shoved him snickered, then dragged the hands behind Kankri’s back before cuffing them together. Kankri made some muffled noises until he was silenced with a slap to the head, and as soon as they released the shackle around his leg he let himself be led out of the cell into the corridor. Two of the guards stayed with him, a hand on each shoulder, while the leader walked over and unlocked Karkat's cell. Karkat stayed huddled in the corner, eyes tracking the head guard as he approached. The man stopped a few feet away and looked down at his belt to retrieve a pair of cuffs.

In one mad dive, Karkat had knocked him to the ground and was scrabbling for the keys. His claws scraped against them but then he was hauled back by an arm around his neck; he bit, teeth sinking through heavy cloth and into tender flesh despite their pathetic blunt tips. The owner of the arm yelled in pain as blood flooded his mouth, and before she could try anything else Karkat threw his head back and heard a satisfying crunch of cartilage. The guard staggered away from him and he lunged forward again; this time, his hand closed around the keys before both his arms were grabbed and hauled in different directions. Karkat screamed in wordless rage and used his captors as anchors to kick out with both legs, landing a clumsy blow on the head guard as he stood up then thudding painfully to the ground as the pair holding his arms staggered inwards under his weight. Dragging his arms back out of their grasp and not giving a single shit about the strips of cloth and skin he left in their claws, Karkat bolted for the open door before he was even upright.

Karkat bites Veteran Kharon.

A heavy weight slammed into him from behind, sending him sprawling and slamming his cartilage nub into the cold metal panels of the floor. Before Karkat could get purchase or wiggle free, a sharp jab hit him just behind the left horn, and on the heels of the pain a wave of calm rolled out of his skull and through the rest of him. Karkat slumped as his various appendages underwent a transformation into soggy noodles. His thinkpan fizzed and dissolved into happy mush soup, and when they hauled him up and started dragging him around like a sack of tuber-roots he couldn’t even put together the necessary thoughts to be upset about it, let alone fight back.

The submission daze wore off gradually; by the time Karkat noticed that his hands were cuffed and that he too was gagged, they were just stepping out of an elevator and into a corridor that, while still dull metal, was at least mostly dry and properly lit. Still muzzy, Karkat blinked and looked over at Kankri; the other mutant gave him a look that he had seen dozens of times in the last sweep. It was the you’re disgusting, semi-feral, and so far beneath me it’s not even worth taking the time to berate you for it look. Coming from a fellow aberration against the natural order of trollkind, it was surprisingly hurtful. Karkat glared at him as best as he could manage then looked away.

There wasn’t much to see in the corridor, just solid metal doors that only opened to admit more black-jumpsuit wearing guards- or soldiers, or what-the-fuck-evers because Karkat’s head was spinning and he sure as shit didn’t know any more. Some of them watched curiously as the two prisoners were led past them down the concourse; Karkat glared back at anyone who stared at him until they hurried away. It wasn’t until they reached a larger metal door at the end of the hall that he realized they’d all been staring at him, not Kankri. He didn’t have time to work out what that might mean before the door was opened, and he was shoved through after his double into a sparsely-furnished office. From behind a utilitarian desk that was piled high with workpads and dominated by a top-of-the-line husktop, a seadweller with one fin and a face that looked like half of it had been attacked by a box of angry knives looked up.

“Sit them down,” she said, and the guards obediently hauled a couple of basic chairs out of the corners of the room and dropped Karkat and Kankri onto them. Karkat squirmed, trying and failing to find a comfortable way to sit. The chairs were obviously designed as some form of subtle torture device, he decided; given the way the seadweller’s lip was curling as she looked at them, he was willing to bet she cared for their comfort only slightly less than she wanted to cut off her other fin and eat it.

A wave of her hand dismissed three of the five guards, including one who was sporting a swollen and bleeding cartilage nub. Karkat watched them go with a vague sense of achievement, before being brought sharply back into the present by the sound of the seadweller’s chair scraping across the floor. He watched wide-eyed as she walked around the desk, and tried to flinch back when she bent down to study him. A strong hand grasped the back of his neck and stopped him from pulling away. Karkat proceeded to get a much closer view of her milky eye and fishbait scar than he would ever have wanted.

“Another talker?” she asked, a hint of irritation in her voice.

“Biter, sir,” said the guard behind Karkat. He thought it might be the teal-blooded leader. “He nearly got out of the cell before we caught him.”

The seadweller straightened, eyes narrowing at the unseen man. “Careless of you.”

“We contained the situation,” said the head guard, and Karkat was certain that he only heard a faint trace of fear in the words. If it had been him, he wouldn’t have admitted failure at all, but the seadweller didn’t seem to mind overly much. She walked back over to her desk and turned to lean against it, still studying the pair of them. The hand gripping Karkat’s neck let go, but he didn’t make the mistake of thinking his warden was in any way relaxing.

Wavescar studies her prisoners.

“My title is Commander Wavescar and you should know that personally, I find you both utterly repulsive,” said the seadweller, so suddenly that Karkat almost got whiplash snapping his attention back to her. ““Under any other circumstances, any other command I have had in my hundreds of sweeps of service, I would happily give the order and see the pair of you culled like the misbegotten freaks you are.” Her good eye flickered from Karkat to Kankri and back again. “That said, this is not any other command, nor are these any other circumstances. We are at war with an enemy unlike any we have ever faced, a foe that strikes directly at the heart of our homeworld and the continued existence of our species.” She scowled, the scar twisting the expression into something every bit as frightening as a subjugglator's mask. “Every army we have sent against it has died, every weapon we have used on it has failed, and every other weapon we dare not use because it would seal our own destruction. The Othersider attacks are growing stronger and more frequent by the perigee; our first, last and only line of defence against them are the Jaegers.”

Karkat jumped a little as her head swivelled to face him directly. “You were found in the aftermath of an Othersider attack, so I assume you have at least seen a Jaeger before.” Not waiting for him to nod assent, she continued. “What you do not know, because it is one of many facts we do not publicize about the Jaegers, is how we select the pilots.” Noting Karkat’s expression of surprise, she snorted. “Yes, I said pilots; regardless of what wild rumours are running around the coastal cities these days, the Jaegers are not robots or drones. They are controlled by living minds; not by means of a standard interface or a Helm rig, but through a method called the Drift. And the Drift, Vantas, has very specific requirements of a pilot. Regardless of what the Empire or I myself might prefer, it does not care about hemostatus, or combat prowess, or physical deficiencies. Cull orders, social clout and criminal record are all irrelevant.”

Pushing off from the desk, Commander Wavescar stepped over to stand in front of his chair again and leaned down, her hands leaning on the armrests. Karkat forced himself to remain still and meet her glare, ignoring the cold sweat that was prickling down his back.

“What the Drift wants, and what it is my duty to provide, are pilots who can synchronize,” Commander Wavescar said, her voice quiet and razor-edged. “Pairs, Vantas, with sufficient similarity and connective capability that I can hook their minds together, put them in a Conn Pod, and expect to get more than two pan-dead piles of carrion in an obscenely expensive coffin. Despite sweeps of extremely thorough experimentation there is still only one indicator of Drift compatibility, and it is so unbelievably rare that anyone who meets the criteria is, by decree of Her Imperious Condescension, too valuable to cull.”

As she stepped back, Karkat risked a glance across at Kankri. The other mutant was staring straight ahead, looking mutinous but also considerably calmer than Karkat felt. His head was spinning with the tail end of the submission daze and the fact that Jaegers had pilots and that from what Wavescar was saying it really, really sounded like…

“Congratulations,” said the Commander, practically spitting the word out and breaking across Karkat’s thoughts. “You two are now Jaeger pilots. Your training will begin tomorrow at oh-one-hundred sharp, and I suggest that along with your good fortune you take some time to contemplate all the things I can do should you cross me that do not impede your ability to control a Jaeger in the slightest.”

Before her words even had the first conceptual ghost of an idea of a chance of settling in, she looked up towards the guards waiting by the door. Waving a hand impatiently, she gave one final order.

“Get them out of my sight.”

Chapter Text

The new cell was a definite improvement on the last one, Karkat had to admit. He didn’t give a shit about the lack of decoration so much as the fact that it was dry, clean, properly lit and best of all equipped with a pair of brand new, top of the range recuperacoons filled to the brim with fresh, nourishing, blessed-by-all-the-martyrs sopor slime. The only thing that had stopped him from diving in head-first as soon as he saw them was the fact that all the clothes he owned he was currently wearing, and he wasn’t sure which idea appealed to him less; dealing with crusty, unwashed sopor-caked clothes, or stripping off and sleeping naked in front of an audience of whichever assholes were watching from the other end of the ocular surveillance device embedded in the ceiling.

In the end he had figured it could wait until later and, despite the part of him that was screaming out for real rest, had curled up for some fitful sleep in the corner. Since they’d apparently decided to forgo culling him in favour of conscripting him to pilot a Jaeger- he couldn't make himself face up to how monumentally impossible that still seemed- he was reasonably sure they would have to give him some new clothes sooner or later. Either that or the whole thing would become a moot point when they surgically extracted his thinkpan and put it into a blender with Kankri’s. His more paranoid instincts were still insisting that was a plausible outcome that he should be flipping the fuck out about and he was trying to convince himself that they wouldn’t waste kindness on people who were about to become nothing but biotech. To his own surprise, he was mostly succeeding. Commander Wavescar certainly didn’t seem like much of a bleeding heart, unless the heart in question had just been bodily ripped from the thorax of someone she disliked.

Ultimately, there were only three things about his current accommodations that he would describe as less than entirely satisfactory. The first one was the constant surveillance. The second one was the locked door standing between him and anywhere else in the entire universe that he might possibly want to be.

The third one was sat on the chair that came with the bare desk on the far side of the room, and as far as Karkat could tell had not shut up since his gag was removed.

“...which of course utterly negates the possible contributions of those whose inclination is to form non-traditional interpersonal attachments, a category which includes aconcupiscent and aconciliatory individuals in addition to relationships with a nonbinary emotive migration- what is often crudely referred to as 'quadrant oscillation', a term that should be avoided as it carries derogatory connotations of indecisiveness or immaturity that could be offensive or triggering to...”

Idly, as he gave up on getting any more sleep, Karkat wondered if other people got this irritated with him when he started really ranting. Probably, but he didn’t give a fuck what those unappreciative ingrates had to say. He also wondered whether or not he could claim that Kankri’s voice triggered him, but reasoned probably not. That was deeply unfortunate because pretty soon he was going to eviscerate his intended copilot just to get some peace and quiet. He was fairly sure that if he did, he would be quickly culled for no longer being a useful mutant.

“…all of which of course fosters an environment where individuals feel pressured to conform to the expected norms, which are then enforced with lethal authority by the filial drones. This forms the supporting framework for the persecution of other so-called 'undesirables'- another potentially triggering term which from your lack of response I assume does not cause you any particular trouble, although I personally must register my extreme distaste at such an inflammatory term being in the common vernacular- through conscription and the internalised sense that one must measure up to an arbitrary and discriminatory standard to be considered 'worthy' of survival...”

“For the sake of the Mother Grub's ever-expanding egg sphincter!” Karkat slammed his hands down and pushed himself upright, glaring across the room at Kankri. “If you're going to spend the rest of eternity displaying your unceasing ability to coordinate your oversized wordflap with your chitinous windchute, you could at least deliver up some useful information instead of this steaming hurricane of hoofbeast manure!”

Kankri paused and tilted his head, fixing Karkat with a stern frown. “Analysing the systematic cultural structures that result in oppression is an extremely worthwhile exercise, but if you believe you have a more pertinent topic for discussion then I would naturally be willing to give your points their due consideration-”

“You could start with how long you've been here and why you're not dead.” Karkat leaned forward, rocking up into a crouch again- easier to move quickly, if he had to. “Or did you think I wouldn't notice that everyone here's focusing on me and ignoring you like you're yesterday's mouldy grubloaf? Not that I blame them.”

Kankri met Karkat's glare head-on. “Perhaps a more apt subject would be establishing some basic rules for our dialogues. If I can say so without rancour or judgement, your habit of constantly interrupting and belittling me is proving taxing and although I have no wish to shame you for something which may merely be down to a lack of education, insufficient social opportunity or even a physical condition I really do feel that our communication could benefit-”

Hissing, Karkat jumped up and stalked across the room. Kankri jumped back as a pair of hands slammed down hard onto the desk next to him. “Thank you so fucking much for your consideration,” he said, snarling the words through gritted teeth. “Tell me more, please. I'm just so fucking ecstatic to hear you lecture me on all the ways in which I'm congenitally fucking deficient or fucked over by circumstance to the point of being an embarrassment to share oxygen with. Thank the countless stars and every shit-hole orbiting them for putting you here to give me such a shining example of worthy trollhood to live up to!”

“Sarcasm is hardly a refuge. I really do feel-”

“I don't give a shit about what you fucking feel! I have no shits! My shits at this point have formed a pirate combine, stolen their conscription shuttle, and are currently headed out of Imperial Space at several hundred times the speed of light!”

Suddenly Kankri was on his feet too, face almost touching Karkat's own, mouth twisted in a snarl and eyes blazing with anger. “Will you STOP. INTERRUPTING. ME.”

Kankri loses patience with Karkat.

Karkat stared at a face that was looking much more like the one he saw in mirrors. His mouth opened, but something in his thinkpan had clearly shut down because no sound came out. He couldn't look away; Kankri's fingers were twitching like he didn't know whether to throttle Karkat or disembowel him, and Karkat cursed Past Him for not remembering that he was dealing with a stranger, an unknown quantity who despite talking like the most annoying wiggler on the planet had still managed to survive longer than he had with the same cull-worthy mutation.

He was so fucking dead it wasn't even worth wasting the time it took to regret it. Silently, Karkat hoped that killing him would get Kankri executed, so he could kick the shit out of him in whatever tortuous afterlife they would undoubtably both land in.

Then Kankri blinked and took a step back. His face smoothed over, the mouth untwisting, the frown unknotting, and with a small huff of breath he shook his head. “I apologise,” he said, his voice back to its usual haughty tone. “That was an unbecoming and inappropriate outburst on my part. Despite the provocation you offered, I should have remained firm but polite. It is quite plain that you are under not inconsiderable amounts of stress and by losing my temper, I have failed to take into account my duty as someone who is more aware of the relationship between language and power to provide an adequate example-”

“You're completely grubfucking insane,” Karkat said, staring at him blankly.

Kankri gave him a reproving look. “I must ask that you check your language regarding mental illness, as using terms which-”

Before Karkat could give in to the growing desire to test Kankri's submission reflex, his intended copilot was interrupted by a loud clang from the door. Both of them looked towards it, Karkat turning around in time to see it swing open and reveal one of the soldier-guards standing in the corridor outside. Karkat wouldn't have recognised her if it weren't for a bulky, olive-stained healing patch glued over her cartilage nub.

Fixing them both with a glare that should rightfully have caused them to freeze into a pair of solid ice statues, the solider-guard shifted into a stiff attention stance. “Veteran Kharon, reporting as escort.”

Kankri took in a deep breath. Before he could start in on whatever interminable monologue he had prepared this time, Karkat jumped in and asked: “Escort where?”

Veteran Kharon's eyes narrowed in distaste as she examined him. “I have orders from the Commander to take you both to the ablution block.” One side of her mouth lifted into a smirk. “She said I can use whatever force I consider necessary to get you clean and presentable.”

Karkat swallowed and walked meekly over to the door, stopping just out of arms reach. Kankri followed him over, but to Karkat's horror if not surprise he stopped a little further back, folding his arms and lifting his chin in clear defiance.

“Once again I feel obligated to point out that rather than resorting to threats, intimidation and barked orders, you might wish to consider making polite requests which, if on consideration proved to be reasonable and devoid of malice, I would be glad to comply with. As presumably would be any others subjected to similar treatment, not that I wish to deny them their own voices should they choose to hold a different opinion on the matter to my own, notwithstanding any duress or acts of psychological dominance on the part...”

Karkat stepped smartly back as Veteran Kharon stepped into the room and grabbed Kankri's shoulder. His stream of words broke off into a pained hiss as her claws dug in, and her smirk became a full-grown vicious smile.

“Oh, look at that,” she said, eyes lighting up with glee. “Now there's blood on your shoulder. Better get that cleaned up before the Commander sees it!” Releasing her grip, she shoved him one-handed towards the door and shot Karkat a glare that had him scurrying out after his double. He was surprised to see that there were no more black-jumpsuited figures waiting for them in the walkway; looking back at Veteran Kharon as she stepped out and closed the door with a metallic slam, he decided against commenting on it. She was just waiting for an excuse to get him back for that nose. Fuck, that was probably what had landed her supervising this hilarious funtime outing to begin with.

Thinking on it, he supposed that there wasn't much point keeping him and his supposed copilot under constant heavy guard if the ultimate goal was to put them in sole charge of a two-hundred and fifty foot tall heavily armoured battle machine. The realisation that he had gone from cullbait to an honest to fuck conscript almost made Karkat stop dead in the hallway; it was only the fact that Kankri bumped into him half a second later that kept him moving. He put his feet one in front of the other, moving in a daze that was caught somewhere between sphincter-clenching panic and absolute, irrepressible honey-drunk joy. He had a chance, and not just a grudging option to be cannon fodder or try out a series of suicide missions until he stopped being an irritation. No, for once whatever miserable luck he had been assigned at hatching had scraped itself together and presented him with a perfect opportunity, wrapped up in sparkly gift concealment paper and tied with a bow. Because for the first time since the Condesce had taken her throne his species was under real threat and he, Karkat Vantas, mutant and outcast, had the potential to save them. By fighting toe-to-toe with gigantic monsters from the Otherside, no less, thus giving him countless ways to prove his competence at basically everything but especially strategy, tactics, combat and leadership.

It was everything Past Him had ever dared to hold futile hope for, and the most incredible possibility Future Him had ever had to fuck up everything beyond all possibility of repair or redemption. Karkat wasn't sure whether to laugh or be sick. He still hadn't made his mind up when they arrived at the ablution block, where the sight of rows of benches and cubby-holes leading into a large, extremely public lavation chamber brought him up short.

A sharp shove between his shoulders sent him staggering forwards. Karkat nearly crashed into a bench; when he looked back at Veteran Kharon, she planted her hands on her hips and sneered at him.

“Strip,” she ordered, jabbing a finger towards one of the empty cubby-holes. Karkat swallowed, and looked towards the lavation chamber. It was deserted, but that just made the open space between the spray nozzles all the more gaping and obvious.

He dithered for a few seconds too long, and sharp claws scraped his neck as Veteran Kharon grabbed his collar. Metal flashed and Karkat felt cold air, the blade slicing through his clothing. Yelling, he tried to squirm free, and with an almighty rip he left everything he had been wearing on his top half behind, leaving him half-naked and shivering more from shock than any problem with the temperature.

Grinning, Veteran Kharon levelled her knife at him. It was hard to tell whether the blade or her teeth were sharper. “Want me to get the rest, too?”

Behind her, Kankri looked up from the bench where he was folding his clothes into a neat pile, and opened his mouth. With a dull thud, the knife flew into the bench next to him, biting deep into the treated chitin. Kankri's jaw snapped shut as their escort strolled over and casually tugged it out with one hand.

“Got something to say, mutant?” she asked, staring into Kankri's eyes from a few feet away and playing with the knife one-handed. When he did nothing but stare back, she raised it and pressed the point up against his cheek. “Well?”

“No, sir,” said Kankri. The words were practically a growl, and Karkat could see a red flush rising up his double's whole body. Veteran Kharon straightened and Karkat quickly looked away, nearly tripping over in his haste to get out of his clothes before she took it as an excuse to put that blade anywhere near him again. The foot coverings were such a mess they had to be peeled off, and when he dropped the heap of clothes onto the bench they looked more like a pile of rags than something that someone might wear. There were lines on his skin, sharp delineations between his natural grey and the accumulated filth of a sweep spent on the run without access to decent hygiene. He rubbed at his wrists self-consciously while Veteran Kharon herded him and Kankri towards the lavation chamber with a wiggle of her knife.

Despite the fact that this was probably the single most humiliating incident of his entire life and thus worthy of the full force of his attention for the purposes of later retribution, Karkat couldn't help sneaking sideways peeks at Kankri. It was the same impulse that had made him stare back in the cells; an almost compulsive curiosity to find out just how similar he and his double were. He didn't know whether to be disappointed or relived that the story was the same as it had been with their faces. Kankri obviously looked like him; they had the same build, the same reddish tint around the grubscars, and even- when he finally gave in and peeked, for all of half a second- the same hint of mutant brightness between the thighs. But over that were the differences, in age and weight, and in the scars. Karkat was surprised to see that Kankri had some, although he wasn't sure why he'd expected him to have avoided them. They were, unsurprisingly enough, different to Karkat's collection of past accidents and slips with a sickle. Kankri had a particularly large trio of slices along one of his sides, and a decent collection of bruises and fresh cuts, but none of the outer arm and leg scars Karkat had picked up fighting with melee weapons.

He stopped trying to gawp at his double's body when he glanced up and caught Kankri staring back at him. They both turned away blushing, and from then on Karkat kept his eyes firmly locked at head height or above. He followed Kankri out onto the cold tiles, relived that at least Veteran Kharon wasn't following them in, and took up station under the head of a spray nozzle that automatically reacted to his presence by switching on.

The moment the water hit his skin, cooler than he typically chose but not too cold for comfort, Karkat knew that he had missed this almost as much as sopor slime. He turned his face up into the spray, worshipping the water that ran over him to slough off the sweat and filth. Refusing to turn his face away for an instant he fumbled for the cleansing agent dispenser, filling his palms with the cold slime over and over again as he lathered it onto every inch of his body. Suds spiralled away under his feet, black with grime, and his eyes prickled with something hotter than the water from the nozzle. When the tears spilled over Karkat took a moment to clean his face and told himself that it was only because some of the cleansing agent had got into his eyes.

The third rinse came away mostly white, which Karkat took as a sign to start working on his hair. Rubbing more handfuls of cleansing agent into his scalp without accidentally triggering his own submission reflex was a fairly involved job, and when he turned to make sure that his back got plenty of water he saw Kankri rinsing out his own hair and watching him from the opposite side of the lavation chamber.

“What?” he snapped, fighting the urge to try and cover himself. It wasn't like Kankri had the exact same body or anything.

His double's lips tightened slightly, and he frowned. “What I am about to say relates to my individual values and reflects my personal beliefs, so I should warn you in advance that it may be triggering in light of your own less privileged upbringing as regards physical confrontation. That said, I believe that breaking her nose was a mistake. If you have a differing opinion on the matter than of course I am willing to acknowledge the validity of that view from your own perspective.”

Karkat snorted and turned back to face the nozzle again. “We have a grubsitter who hates my guts for injuring her and your guts for being a mouthy fuckwad, and since our radiant Commander thinks we're lower than the scum on her boot we're probably stuck with her. One more regret. So the fuck what.” He glanced back over his shoulder. “What the fuck else was I supposed to do? I thought they were about to cull us.”

“Even so, violence is never the answer,” said Kankri. Karkat's hands stilled in his hair and he gawped at the other mutant.

“Are you shitting me?” he demanded. “Holy grubmunching martyrs, you actually are insane, aren't you? You're not even shithive maggots, because those maggots have long since pupated and they are now venomous pan-eating flies the size of personal automated transport pods! I mean, forget the fact that you should have been carrion sweeps ago with that attitude, they're planning on putting us in a Jaeger! What are you planning to do, talk the Othersiders to death?”

“Well, while we can safely assume that there has been no attempt made to negotiate with them-”

“You don't fucking negotiate with monsters the size of hivestems that kill everything in their path!” Ablutions entirely forgotten, Karkat glared across the chamber at Kankri. “That's like- like trying to talk sense into an Imperial Drone!” His eyes widened as a thought struck him. “Oh, holy grubshitting hell, they're putting me in a Jaeger with you! Don't you even fucking dare get me killed by trying to start a fucking tea party with an Othersider!”

Kankri's lips pursed and he folded his arms. The gesture looked mildly ridiculous while he was naked, wet, and smattered with suds. “Well, I will not be cooperating with any attempts on your part to act on your unrestrained violent impulses. I have taken several vows which are very important to me and I have no intention of compromising my own ethics for the sake of what you consider expedient.”

“Vows? Aren't those a religious thing?” Like a piece of a puzzle several things fell into place, and Karkat slapped himself in the forehead. “Of course. No wonder you didn't die in wigglerhood- you were with a cult, weren't you? Probably something insanely heretical, since they were fine with the whole bright red mutant blood thing and there's no way that the Empire would sanction pacifism if it knew.” He glared at Kankri. “Do me a favour; if you were raised by the sort of pan-damaged lunatics who worship Othersiders, don't fucking tell me. I'd rather believe you follow a giant throbbing bulge in the sky or something...” His voice trailed off as he realised Kankri was staring at him in disbelief. “What?”

“You mean you don't know?” Kankri's voice sounded almost normal, for the first time since Karkat had met him. Surprised, but not haughty.

“Well, no, considering that I don't have the first shit-stinking clue what you're on about. It's just one of many things I am gloriously ignorant of, although in this case I also don't care. If you feel like sharing, how about you answer the question I asked back in the cell? How long have you been here, and why aren't you dead?”

Kankri sighed, and to Karkat's surprise turned away to face the spray of water from his nozzle. “If that is really what you are interested in then I suppose I can oblige,” he said, his voice flat and dripping with disappointment. “Although it's really quite simple. As you correctly surmised, I spent most of my wigglerhood in the care of an outlawed religious order- I would ask that you avoid the word cult as that carries negative connotations which could be construed as insulting. Not to bore you with unnecessary details, I had within that group a friend of sorts- although our relationship is considerably more complex than that and really to categorise it as such is a gross oversimplification and possible misrepresentation-”

“You know, I wish I'd never fucking asked now.”

Kankri glared at him. “Very well, if you must know, the Empire found us approximately half a sweep ago and executed almost everyone. My friend was spared because like us she had a hatchclone and they wanted her to pilot a Jaeger; I was spared because she threatened non-cooperation if they culled me.” Skin flushed red, he turned away from Karkat and started to scrub violently at his hair.

Silently Karkat turned away and began his own rinse, raking his claws through his hair to drag out the tangles. Watching the suds flow away down the drain, he refused to feel sorry for Kankri. Shit happened; the asshole was lucky to be alive. Karkat had been responsible for his own survival from the moment he crawled out of the brooding caverns, and he wasn't going to shed any tears for someone who had their life handed to them by other people. Even if most of those other people were now dead. Still, the sense of being clean wasn't as euphoric as it had been a few minutes earlier. Karkat finished up his ablutions almost mechanically, and walked back out to the changing rooms without a backwards glance, Kankri right behind him.

When he checked in the cubby-hole, Karkat found his old rags gone, replaced by a neatly folded black jumpsuit. Shaking it out, he noted that the rank patch showed the Jeb character rather than any rank bars, and that on the opposite shoulder where the sigil should have been was a blank grey patch. It was oddly flattering; even if it was a uniform, it was clearly his uniform, and more practically it was a definite improvement over his old clothes. Karkat grabbed the equally regulation underwear and started to dress, revelling in the feeling of clean cloth on clean skin.

He had been expecting it, but it still sent a jolt through him when he finished dressing and turned to see Kankri wearing an identical outfit. At least there were no reflective panes nearby. Karkat didn't think he'd be able to handle that too well.

Kankri picked at the sleeves of the jumpsuit, looking sullen and muttering something about erasure of individuality. Karkat ignored him and headed for the exit. Veteran Kharon looked over as he stepped out, her eyes flickering across him and looking unimpressed. Karkat made a rude gesture just in time for it to be seen by Kankri as he stepped out into the corridor.

His double shook his head sadly. “Karkat, such inflammatory behaviour is unnecessary in the extreme and acts as a serious impediment to opening meaningful discourse in the future-”

“Where are we going next?” Karkat asked Veteran Kharon, effectively shutting up Kankri and getting him to turn a shade of angry red that was viscerally satisfying. Not that their escort showed any appreciation. Instead, she turned and started walking down the corridor, only briefly pausing to check that both mutants were following her and saying nothing about their destination. This time as they walked they passed a few other people, all of whom pulled back against the walls to let them pass. Karkat stomped along after Veteran Kharon in a defensive slump, not even able to enjoy the way his new boots sounded clattering against the metal floor plating.

They had just turned the first corner when Kankri leaned over to start talking in his ear. “Don't think I don't see what you're doing.”

Karkat cast a sidelong glance at him then fixed his gaze firmly on the floor, but Kankri was not to be denied his captive audience. “If you think I am going to allow you to deny me the capacity to contribute to any discourse which concerns us both, you are sorely mistaken. Quite frankly I am shocked that you would reject my assistance in such a cavalier fashion. When I first saw you I was quite certain that you would prove to be a kindred spirit of sorts. While it would be problematic of me to reject the dedication and potential impact of other underprivileged persons in the development of a strategy for social change, I will confess to hoping that your experiences with being an off-spectrum hemotype would make you and I natural allies. Sadly it seems that your exposure to the toxic paradigm...”

Tuning out the monologue, Karkat heard his lower thorax grumbling and wondered when they were going to let him have something to eat. He'd swallowed some water in the lavation chamber to try and keep his digestion bladder quiet and it had done wonders for what had probably in hindsight been a nasty dehydration headache, but that trick only worked so often before you had to eat something with actual nutritional value. His thoughts drifted to thoughts of meals he had eaten as a wiggler. Steaming plates of illicit seafood that his lusus had dragged in for him to cook, grub-paste sandwiches made in the middle of the night while busy gaming, roe cubes stolen from Crabdad's stash as a curious pupa, prepackaged crap flavoured with numbered chemicals- fuck, he missed it. Not that he would turn down a solid serving of shitty military rations, but remembering the food he liked was a game he played a lot these days.

As usual, this round ended with him wanting to kick the shit out of Past Karkat for being a smug asshole who didn't know how good he had it. Between that and Kankri's sanctimonious droning in his ear, his mood was set to resentful as fuck by the time Veteran Kharon led the pair of them through yet another metal door. This one led into a large room that was filled from floor to ceiling with some of the most terrifying equipment Karkat had ever seen. His eyes fell on a large reclining chair equipped with restraints and surrounded by lamps and an array of sharp and pointy things. For a brief moment, he considered saying fuck this and bolting for the door. Then he felt slightly ashamed of himself; he was an Alternian warrior, not an incontinent wiggler with a phobia of its own shadow, and if there was one thing he could be sure of right now it was that they didn’t want to cull him. Karkat straightened out of his slouch, clenching his teeth and his fists to hide any signs of shaking.

He didn’t regret his precautions when Veteran Kharon slammed the door behind her with a loud, metallic rattle that made some of the sharp metal things on the nearby trays shake. Kankri twitched, and Karkat saw their escort smirking at his reaction even after Kankri pulled himself together and glared at her.

“Who's that?” called a voice from somewhere deeper in the room, and a man wearing a long teal coat over his jumpsuit appeared from behind a techno-organic machine that looked disturbingly like a corpse receptacle. He frowned slightly at the two mutants, then his face lit up at the sight of Veteran Kharon. “Back again so soon, my dear?”

“Mediterminator Orresh,” said Veteran Kharon, nodding to the smiling man. “The Commander wants the mutants checked out. The new one needs a full medical assessment, and the other one needs examining in case he picked something up during his latest stay in the cells.”

The Mediterminator nodded and walked over to the terrifying torture-chair. “I'll need one of the subjects to take a seat,” he said.

Making a snap decision, Karkat strode over to the chair and before he could think better of it threw himself down into it. With a choice of sooner or later, he preferred sooner; at least that way he wouldn’t have a chance to get cold feet watching Kankri go through whatever digestion-churning mockery of medical practise they were about to be subjected to.

He barely managed to stop himself from yanking his wrist away when cold fingers wrapped around it. Karkat glared at the Mediterminator, but the man didn’t seem to notice; with his other hand, he pushed Karkat’s sleeve up. The gesture wasn’t rough, but it was firm, and Karkat hissed a little when the cloth scraped against the small rash near his elbow. Without acknowledging his reaction, the Mediterminator twisted his arm to study the sensitive patch before producing a small padded sample stick and taking a swab. Karkat hissed again.

“I must protest this behaviour,” said Kankri. Karkat’s glare snapped around to his double, ready to protest the reasonableness of his reaction, but to his surprise Kankri was looking at the Mediterminator. “The depersonalising effects of your actions could have a severe impact on someone sensitive to such social aggressions,” Kankri continued. “As I have explained to you many times on my previous visits, there is absolutely no need for you to abuse your position as both a medical practitioner and a privileged member of society to reinforce our less privileged status with such an evident and abhorrent reminder of our powerlessness and lack of self-determination.”

“Do you want me to shut him up?” asked Veteran Kharon. Mediterminator Orresh paused halfway through retrieving a palm-sized grub from a tank and blinked at her in what looked like mild surprise.

“Oh, no, I don’t think that will be necessary,” he said, and dropped the grub onto Karkat’s forearm. Karkat screeched at the sharp stab of pain as it bit down, and reached across to tear it off with his other hand. The Mediterminator intercepted his grab and with no apparent effort tugged the hand back across to the other side of the chair, strapping it down before Karkat could pull free. “We shouldn’t be here too long; I can run the test results for this one while I’m performing the check-up on the other.”

Karkat eyed up the grub attached to his arm. There were pulsing ripples running through its fat little body, and he felt mildly nauseous when he saw tendrils of virulent mutant red spreading under its white flesh.

“Ostracism is an extremely isolating experience which could prove triggering to my young compatriot,” Kankri said, his voice rising in volume and pitch and setting Karkat's teeth on edge. “Particularly during a procedure which is frequently alarming to the uninitiated. Karkat, there is no cause for concern. The grub is merely taking a sample of your blood for analysis. Barring any haemophiliac diseases or mutations in your genome, or the danger of medical malpractice or poor hygiene, the process is perfectly safe.”

Karkat was about to reply when the chair fell backwards. He followed it with an involuntary yelp and found himself lying on his back, staring up into the opening sphincter of something that had far, far too many tentacles for comfort.

“That is a biological scanning device,” said Kankri, and Karkat was actually glad to hear his voice because it meant that at least someone was talking him through this madness. Not that he would ever admit that. “It will perform a simple non-invasive scan to evaluate your physical structure and condition. Again, as you and I are presently in the do not cull category, there is nothing to be concerned about.”

With a wet, sucking pop Karkat felt the grub detach from his arm. He watched in morbid fascination as the Mediterminator picked up the now-red creature, walked across the room with it writhing in his grip, and dropped it into a machine that immediately started to whirr. Then his attention was drawn back to the horror show over his head, as the tentacles above him fanned out and the central sphincter opened to reveal a glowing core. Tendrils of light ran down the spread-eagled limbs, illuminating smaller cores along their length, until Karkat was bathed in blue-green bioluminescence. His skin tingled and his horns itched.

After what felt like a small eternity, the glow dimmed and the tentacles folded back up, wrapping around the closing sphincter. Mediterminator Orresh prodded something and Karkat was pushed back into a sitting position by the chair. The first thing he did was glare at Kankri.

“Nothing to be concerned about? That thing was shitting eldritch radiation all over me! How the fuck you could possibly define- AARGH WHAT THE FUCK!?”

Mediterminator Orresh stepped back, which fortunately meant taking the bizarre two-headed bug he was holding out of Karkat’s face. Its double antennae waved forlornly in the air, wiggling in every direction before it was dropped back into its tank. Karkat stared wordlessly at the Mediterminator as the man leaned down and unstrapped his hand.

“I’ll take the other one now,” he said. Karkat shot out of the chair and was over by the door before Kankri had finished taking his place. To his satisfaction, his double went slightly pale when a second blood-drinking grub was produced and attached to his arm; he even paused in his constant berating of the Mediterminator and his manner. Privately, Karkat couldn’t blame Orresh. If he was faced with a series of idiots wailing like infant purrbeasts over the consequences of their own fuck-ups, he would probably want to pretend he couldn’t hear them either.

By the time Kankri’s equally red analysis grub was dropped in the grinder, the Mediterminator had downloaded data from several machines onto a workpad and was annotating it with his claw-tip. Kankri got out of the chair with one final huff of disapproval then wandered over to hover near Karkat. For a few awkward minutes the two of them shuffled around one another- Kankri seemed to want to stand closer than Karkat wanted him- then Mediterminator Orresh cleared his throat and looked up at Veteran Kharon.

“The Kankri mutant is as healthy as ever, apart from a few new scrapes and bruises,” he said. “As for the Karkat mutant, the scans show signs of prolonged malnutrition and several slight infections. The most severe concern is a second-stage blood-borne paraspore infestation, but as the condition is stable and shared by both the Jade-bloods I feel secure that the mutant will not pose a significant threat to the general health of base personnel. As it has been given top-level healthcare ratings, I’m advising some dietary supplements that should clear up most of its medical issues within ten to fifteen days, including the fungal infection. Other than that, and the obvious hemotype mutation, it is well within the allowable parameters for a young troll of eight to ten sweeps.” Setting the workpad to one side, the Mediterminator smiled at the Veteran. “You can tell the Commander that I’m certifying them both as fit and healthy for service. And be sure to come back tomorrow so I can check on that nose!”

Veteran Kharon nodded, her hand on the door. “I will. Thank you, Mediterminator.” Turning back to Karkat and Kankri, her expression shifted back into a scowl. “Come on, you two. Move it!”

Karkat didn't look back, letting the Medical Assessment Block fall behind him as he hurried to keep up with their escort. Even if he'd thought asking for their destination would do any good, he didn't have the breath for it, not at the pace she was setting. Fuck, he'd thought he was in shape; remembering what the Mediterminator had said about the state of his health, he guessed he must have been delusional from lack of food. It was a good thing that wigglers and the undead sucked even worse than he did, or he wouldn't be alive to be afforded this glorious opportunity to be ordered around a mysterious military base by an asshole like he was a trained barkbeast.

None of which explained why Kankri was having so much trouble keeping up, of course. Karkat smirked when he realised that his double was actually less physically fit than he was despite being technically in better shape. The feeling of schadenfreude kept him warm all the way to the next door, which stood out by virtue of being a double-width archway and thus not identical to all the other doors in this place. Karkat could already tell that he was going to spend somewhere between half and three-quarters of his military service hopelessly lost, unless the Commander took pity on him and decided to assign Veteran Kharon as a permanent escort.

I think I'd rather accidentally stray into the unmappable bowels of this place and eventually die of starvation when I fail to retrace my steps.

Or perhaps this room, whatever it was, could provide a landmark of sorts. Karkat peered around the rim of the arch as he approached and saw a wide set of steps leading down to another archway; the angle was too steep to see into the room, but he could hear a lot of voices and his nose twitched at the smell of grubsauce and roasted meat.

Fucking finally!

“This is the communal nutrition hall, also called the mess,” said Veteran Kharon. “Go down the steps, get something to eat, and be ready to report for training in-” She checked the time monitoring device on the inside of her wrist- “half an hour. I'm under orders to tell you not to damage or get damaged by the other pilots, but honestly?” She grinned at them, eyes lighting up with malice. “I hope they rip you apart.” Chuckling, she strode past them and started off down the corridor in the direction they came from.

“That is hardly an appropriate sentiment in the context of-”

“FUCK YOU TOO!” Karkat shouted after her as she turned the corner.

“Language, Karkat,” said Kankri. Karkat made a rude gesture then set off down the stairs, pausing halfway down to take a breath and straighten his shoulders. He could still hear the voices coming from the communal nutrition hall, only now he was trying to imagine them. Jaeger pilots. Holy fuck.

“They don't bite, you know,” said Kankri, walking past him. “Well, mostly, but Mituna can hardly be blamed for his episodes and I am quite certain that Nepeta and Meulin mean it affectionately, even though it is a deeply inappropriate behaviour.”

Karkat blinked. “Wait!” He started to hurry down the steps after Kankri. “You know these assholes?”

“Well, yes,” said Kankri, glancing back at him. “I have been here for half a sweep, after all, and Porrim was very insistent about the conditions for her cooperation.”

Flurries of questions died on Karkat's tongue as they stepped out into the largest room he had ever seen. It had to be twice as tall as his old hive, and the base where they were standing was as far around as some of the large plazas he'd seen in the cities. Stairs led in from three directions, and the fourth held a long, curved counter and a window into a bustling food preparation block. Looking up, Karkat saw the roof curving in like a beehive, with wide balconies making extra floors that were full of trolls in black and grey sitting and eating and talking until, far overhead, he could see hexagons of tinted glass letting in the last neutralised rays of fading sunlight.

That light filtered down onto a cluster of equally hexagonal tables which had clearly all been gathered from around the nutrition hall and shoved together. Sitting around the resulting mega-table was a large group of trolls, and when Karkat's wandering gaze landed on them his gawp-fest came to an uneasy end because every last one of them was staring back at him.

“Oh, fiddlesticks,” said a voice, and chaos broke out. Karkat took three full steps backwards and had a foot on the stairs before he caught himself, and regretted it a moment later when a tiny greenblooded girl- she had to be an adult, there was no way she was juvenile with that much colour in her eyes- appeared under his nose and blinked up at him.

“The powerfurl huntress greets the apawable mew Vantpuss!” she declared, in a surprisingly powerful voice for someone so small. “She asks if this means that Katkri and his hatchclone will be pipurrlots now?”

Karkat blinked under the force of her wide-eyed scrutiny. “Uh-”

“NEPETA! GET AWAY FROM THAT INEXCUSABLE GENETIC OUTLAW THIS INSTANT OR I SHALL BECOME EXCEEDINGLY CROSS!”

“Leave the boy alone, Equius, he just got here!”

The angry blueblood sat down with a creak of plastic, leaving Karkat to gape in silent shock at the scene before him. Even from across the room he could see how strong the asshole was; the top of his jumpsuit was open and the arms were tied around his waist, showing off a grey tank top that would match Karkat's if it were not soaked in indigo-blue sweat and a pair of arms that looked like they'd been stolen from a fucking musclebeast. Between that, the broken horn, and the murderous glare levelled in his direction Karkat was one hundred percent sure that Future Him was going to do something to get his head ripped clean off his body.

And coming towards him and Kankri with a calm smile, as if she hadn't a care in the world, was a woman with a jade symbol on her shoulder and the rumble spheres to tell an angry blueblood to back the fuck off from an underweight mutant. And those rumble spheres were a fact that Karkat could verify visually, because her jumpsuit was unfastened almost a third of the way down and she definitely wasn't wearing her tank top underneath. Her sleeves were rolled up and he could see the that the twin tattoos curled up under her collarbone continued in looping vines down her arms.

“Kanny, I'm so glad you're alright,” she said, reaching out and pulling Kankri into an embrace. Karkat snickered as his double immediately stiffened.

“Porrim!” he snapped, flushing red and pushing her away. “I've told you repeatedly not to use that degrading nickname! I am not a wiggler and I do not need you treating me like one! If you feel the overwhelming need to embrace someone, I suggest you find a moirail. You do have an entire base to choose from, assuming you have not managed to entice the other half of them into your pile since we last spoke!”

The jade-blood glared at him. “I was concerned about you, Kanny,” she said, a hint of a growl in her voice. “One minute you were sitting here with us, the next they were dragging you off without an explanation! Although I suppose we do have a reason for that now.” She turned and smiled at Karkat, the light reflecting off the golden rings hooked into her face. “Hello, there. My name is Porrim, and it's a pleasure to meet you. Welcome to the Jaeger pilots' group.” She tapped her hand to the opposite shoulder in an informal salute, and Karkat absently brushed his own hand against the Jeb patch on his sleeve. It was identical to hers.

“Do you think you could at least give him a day to settle in before you attempt to seduce him?” Kankri asked, his voice acidic. Karkat stared around at him in surprise, and Porrim's expression tightened again.

“I was being polite, Kanny,” she snapped. “Must you be a brat about absolutely everything?”

“Hey, if you don't wvant him, I'll take him,” said a tall seadweller, sauntering over. Like the blueblood, he had tied his jumpsuit around his waist; unlike the blueblood, he wasn't built like an outdoor defecation facility and he didn't appear to sweat much, although he had accessorised his uniform with a gold chain round his neck. Karkat immediately and without reservation concluded that he was a raging douchebag, an impression the seadweller immediately confirmed by draping an arm around Karkat's shoulders and winking at him. His breath smelled like old seaweed and ash when he spoke. “Whaddya say, chief, fancy a taste of the deep ocean?” He wiggled his eyebrows and fins, grinning broadly.

Karkat's tongue, which had gone missing somewhere around being ambushed by a tiny cat-girl, suddenly returned in full force. “If you don't take that arm off me right now,” he said, glowering up at the seadweller and talking loudly enough for the entire gossiping gaggle of them to hear. “I am going to rip it off and jam it so far up your waste chute you will be fingering your own fins from the inside, you grease-drenched shark-fucking salt-sucking nookbiter.”

There were a couple of gasps from the general direction of the huge blueblood, and someone started laughing so hard that they fell off their chair with a dull thud, but Karkat kept his eyes locked with the seadweller until the guy's face fell into a sour pout and he removed the arm.

“Jeez, buddy, I was just trying to be friendly,” he said. “Wvhat do you think, you're gonna get a better offer? Dream on.”

“A dead hopbeast would make a better offer than you,” Karkat told him. “At least the rotten, parasite-infested corpse would be less of a raging asshole.”

This time any sounds of disapproval were completely drowned out by the whoops of laughter. Karkat looked over and saw a seadweller girl sitting on the edge of the tables, her jumpsuit sleeves hacked off just below the shoulder patches and the legs tucked into half-unlaced boots.

“I like you, Shouty. You got globes,” she said, jumping to her feet and strolling over like she owned the place. Which, when she got close enough for him to really notice the colour she was sporting, turned out to be not far from the truth.

For the second time in a short conversation, Karkat's jaw dropped. “You're Tyrian?”

“Shore am,” she said, grinning at him. “Meenah Peixes, offishoal descendant of Her Imperious Condescension and Heiress to the Empire. Feel free to swear allegiance or worship the ground I swagger over any time.”

Karkat's eyes flicked to the royal sigil on her one shoulder, then to the Jeb patch on the other, then across the chattering crowd at the table as he counted fins. “Aren't there supposed to be two of you to pilot a Jaeger? Where's your- hatchclone, right?”

“That's the right word,” said Porrim, as Meenah's face darkened. “But a rather delicate subject.”

“Yeah, who wants to carp on about that,” said Meenah, plastering a smile back on her face. “C'mon, Shouty Vantas, you can come eat with me and my posse.”

“Hey Meenah, darlin'...”

Linking an arm through Karkat's, Meenah raised her free hand to block the obnoxious seadweller's approach. “Not if you were the last fish in the sea, Cronus.”

“Avw, come on! Wvhat's a guy gotta do to get a little recognition around here?”

Still dazed, Karkat let a grinning Meenah lead him towards the tables. Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw Kankri deeply embroiled in what looked like a heated argument with Porrim, while the little cat-girl- Nepeta, that was what the big guy had called her- hissed at Cronus and bounded back past them to sit by a pair of obnoxiously loud girls wearing even more obnoxious candy-red shades. Then he was being pushed into a seat and introduced to Vriska and Aranea Serket, a pair of cerulean-bloods who had the same weird as fuck not-really-identical thing going on that he had with Kankri.

Karkat, Meenah, Vriska and Aranea at breakfast.

“So, Karkat, is there anything you want to know about the base or the Jaegers?” Aranea asked, with a toothy smile that she probably thought was friendly. “I know they don't always explain things very well to the new recruits and the faster I can help you get orientated the better it is for everyone, really, so I'm happy to help!”

“Pfft, who cares?” said Vriska, leaning across the table and grinning at Karkat. He stared back at her impassively; if Aranea was unsettling to his nerves, Vriska was busting through the wall of their hive and holding them up at gunpoint. The fact that she was wearing a fucking eyepatch and that the fingers tapping against the table were solid metal was not helping to reassure him, either. “Like he wants to hear you go on about all that booooooooring crap when he could be listening to me talk about that Othersider we totalled the other day. And by we, I mean I, because we both know that all the awesome moves in Serket come from me. All of them.”

Meenah rolled her eyes and flicked her head, tossing her braids back over one shoulder and almost hitting Karkat in the eye with them. “You gotta be kippering me. Shouty just got here and you both wanna scare him off with some hella long Serket story?” She turned to Karkat. “Come on, back me up here buoy. You don't want to sit there through these punk-ass pufferfish.”

“Maybe we should let him choose,” said Aranea. “I'm sorry, I don't know your name...”

“Karkat,” said Karkat, eyes narrowing as he stared across the table at the hardly-touched bowl of food in front of Aranea. “And if you want to make a deal, give me that bowl and I will sit here in fucking rapture while you tell me how being genetically identical to the most irritating piece of shit I have ever had the misfortune to encounter means that I'm not going to be culled.”

“Deal!” said Aranea, sliding the bowl across. Karkat grabbed it with one hand and a food shovel with the other, and was stuffing his face before anyone could get another word out.

“No fair!” Vriska said. “Hey, Karkit, I'll trade you mine to not have to listen to her.”

“It's Karkat, dumbass,” said Meenah. “And besides, if he doesn't know anyfin about the Drift we probably shoald let her shell him.”

“Mpfghn,” Karkat agreed, shovelling in another delicious mouthful. There was meat in there; actual proper meat, not whatever half-rotten shit he successfully scavenged or leathery old beast he managed to kill, and that was doubly worthy of note because from what he'd seen in the towns along the coast anything that wasn't a pre-packaged ration bar was rarer than golden turds these days.

“Alright then,” said Aranea. “Well, since you're a bit, um, busy there, I'll just go from the beginning, shall I?”

Vriska groaned theatrically and collapsed forward onto the table. Meenah prodded her with a three-prong utensil.

“Now, obviously you're aware of the Othersiders and the need for Jaegers to fight them and protect our homeworld,” said Aranea. “And by now it should be obvious that the Jaegers aren't just robots or drones; they have pilots. Us!” She waved her hands around, taking in everyone at the tables. “That's because robots and drones just aren't sophisticated enough. We can't build them to have the reactions, or the imaginations, of a living troll. For the same reason, using a Helm-style rig is out.”

“Didn't stop them trying, though,” Meenah added, with a glance over Karkat's shoulder. He followed her nod just in time to see a skinny guy wearing a yellow crash helmet fall off his chair and start screaming incomprehensibly. Vriska snickered as the people around him backed off or moved in to help him up.

“Now, Meenah, that's not entirely accurate,” said Aranea, sounding put out. “Mituna wasn't part of the Helm-rig tests; he was in the solo pilot program.”

“Mpfh?” said Karkat, shoving in more food and eyeing up Vriska's bowl. It looked like she had grub noodles. He hadn't had grub noodles for over a sweep.

“The solo pilot program proved that a single mind, without the Helmsman modifications, couldn't take the mental load of piloting a Jaeger. Most of them died, or were culled when it became apparent they were unrecoverable.” Aranea leaned in across the table. “Mituna was a really powerful psionic, so he survived better than most, but if they hadn't found Sollux when they did he would most likely have been culled when they moved to the dual pilot program.”

“Hey!” Vriska reached out to grab Karkat's wrist as he snatched her bowl away, then yelped when Meenah stuck her three-prong utensil into her hand. “Meenah! Those are my grub noodles!”

“So? Shouty's made of bones,” said Meenah, slapping Karkat on the back. “You want him trying to wash your back whale he's in this condition?”

Before anyone could argue any further, Karkat spat in the noodle bowl.

“Gross!” Vriska let go of the bowl. “Fiiiiiiiine, I guess if you're that hungry you can have them! Wiggler!”

“As I was saying,” Aranea said, with a glare at her hatchclone. “After the failure of the single pilot program, they moved to dual pilots. The idea is that the mental load is spread across two thinkpans; left hemisphere, right hemisphere, you see? But in order to coordinate between two trolls and a machine, there has to be a strong neural bridge, what we refer to as being “in the Drift”. The technology is hardly difficult, but as it turned out there were certain biological limitations.”

Karkat looked up, quizzical, and Meenah laughed. “Yeah, turns out, most troll brains ain't keen on uninvited guests.”

“The pilots kept psionically rejecting one another,” Aranea said. “In the best cases before a neural bridge was formed, but there were many more instances of a bridge forming and then collapsing before either party could disengage, leaving both pilots in an irretrievable vegetative state.”

“Cullbait,” added Vriska, drawing her thumb across her neck.

“Eventually, the researcharnalists discovered that a hatchcloned pair have enough native psionic symmetry to avert bridge collapse and form a true neurological synergy,” said Aranea, beaming across the table. “Of course, hatchcloned pairs are vanishingly rare. We eleven pairs- twelve, now that you and Kankri have joined us- represent the only known individuals in an empire of trillions capable of Drifting, and we are thus the only ones who can pilot the Jaegers.”

“So culling you would buoy a reel fucking waste,” Meenah added, flashing Karkat a grin.

Karkat swallowed. “Wait one fucking second here. Are you saying that in order to pilot a Jaeger, I'm going to have to let that nooklicker in my head?”

“Well, yes,” said Aranea, with a sidelong glance at her hatchclone.

Vriska laughed. “Don't worry about it. You get to go in his too!”

Karkat groaned and let his face drop to the table. Meenah prodded him in the arm with a three-prong utensil, and he swatted at it. “Fuck my life.”

“VANTAS!”

Karkat's head shot up and he looked across a table of dying conversations to see Commander Wavescar standing at the base of the nearby stairs, glaring murder at him.

“IT'S OH-ONE-HUNDRED AND FIVE!” she bellowed, and Karkat belatedly remembered that he was supposed to have reported for training five minutes ago.

“Fuck!” he yelped, jumping to his feet. Across the table he could see Kankri doing the same, but he was faster and beat his hatchclone to the stairs by a few seconds. From the look the Commander gave him, being the first one there to face her wrath had been a mistake.

“In future, when you are ordered to present yourselves, you will show up, or you will not let me find you,” she snapped. “Now FALL IN!”

Karkat and Kankri snapped to slightly shambolic attention, and with a sniff Wavescar turned and swept out of the communal nutrition hall. Having to follow his irate Commander should have kept Karkat kicking himself all the way to training, but one last glance back showed him Meenah giving him a wide grin and a thumbs-up before he climbed out of sight.

It was hard to shake the warm feeling of belonging that had taken up unexpected residence somewhere in his feeding sac alongside the noodles.

Chapter Text

The training chamber was more on the scale of the ablution block than the nutrition hall, but it was more than large enough to contain exercise machines Karkat had never even heard of and had no idea how to use. Luckily for him, he didn't need to; the centre of the room was dominated by a sparring ring raised on a circular dais, and as soon as they had stumbled through the door after her Commander Wavescar ordered him and Kankri into it then threw a pair of staves at their heads for good measure.

Karkat caught his out of the air, and although the Commander's expression of utter contempt didn't waver for even an instant she did turn it full-force on Kankri, whose stave was lying untouched at his feet. Not that Kankri seemed to give a shit, of course. He stared right back at the Commander, chin held high.

“If it is your aim to force me to participate in ritualistic brutality in the guise of 'training', I should inform you that I have taken a vow of nonviolence, and that attempts to coerce me into breaking it will not be successful.”

Karkat wanted to smack Kankri himself for that, but seeing the way the Commander's remaining fin twitched he bit his tongue and tried to make himself look as little like his hatchclone double as possible.

“Nonviolence,” the Commander repeated flatly.

“I can assure you that it was a considered decision, and not undertaken lightly given the dangers I could be expected to face in the course of my life. However, when reflecting upon the ethical and spiritual ramifications it became clear to me that such barbarous conduct- a word which I use only for lack of a more descriptive term, given its problematic and disparaging history with relation to pre-industrial and tribal civilisations-”

“Vantas!”

It took Karkat a moment to realise that the Commander was barking at him, and he inwardly groaned. Fuck Kankri for getting him in trouble already! “Yes, sir?” he said outwardly, determined to meet whatever was coming like a proper troll.

Wavescar's grin caught him off-guard. “Begin sparring,” she said.

Karkat's eyes widened as he realised that not only was he not in trouble, he was dangerously close to being in cahoots. He didn't grin back- he wasn't suicidal or stupid enough to think the Commander actually approved of his existence or liked him in any capacity- but he did turn his attention to Kankri, shifting his feet into an attack stance. He moved his hands along the stave, trying to find a grip that felt comfortable; it wasn't a weapon he had ever practised with, but on the plus side at least he could be certain that he was going to look like a complete idiot.

Kankri frowned at him. “Karkat. This is utterly ridiculous. You cannot spar with me unless I am willing to-”

The silent count of twelve in Karkat's head ran out, and with a sweeping motion that was probably non-standard in every textbook and combat class ever in the entire galaxy, he slammed the end of his stave into Kankri's thoracic struts. There was a loud slap, and Kankri yelped and jumped away.

“Karkat! That was unnecessary!”

“Seemed pretty fucking necessary to me,” Karkat said, and followed up his words with a harsh jab that hit Kankri in the gut. The other mutant doubled over, retching, and in a burst of creative inspiration Karkat managed to somehow twirl his stave and slam it across Kankri's back, knocking him flat to the ground. He was there before Kankri could stand, planting a foot on his double's back and the tip of the stave at the nape of his neck.

Unsure of what to do next, he looked up at Wavescar. The Commander stared back at the pair of them impassively and said; “Again.”

Karkat promptly retreated back to his side of the sparring ring, letting Kankri scramble to his feet and back away. “Karkat, listen to me,” he said, breathing more heavily than usual. “This is a pilot-specific training exercise; it's meaningless with anyone but the hatchcloned pair. If both of us were to refuse to participate then they would not be able to force us into it!”

No, they'd just cull us for being slightly less useful than a pair of broken load gapers, Karkat thought, following up the silent observation with a step forward and a series of wild strikes that he was absolutely certain would fail to hit anyone who was even remotely interested in getting out of the way. Kankri took the blows and stumbled backwards off the dais, tripping over his own feet and landing on his ass with a heavy thud.

“Again,” said Wavescar, still watching them impassively. This time Karkat barely even waited for Kankri to get back in the ring before he launched his assault, tuning out the interminable stream of lecturing and pleading to press the attack home. He beat Kankri within a few seconds, and again when Wavescar ordered it, and again, and again until he was starting to lose count of the number of times he had sent his hatchclone sprawling on his face, or knocked him out of the ring, or wrestled him to his knees, or started choking him with the stave. Every time Kankri went down Karkat wanted to shake him, to scream in his face, to just get him to fight back. Every time Kankri got back up and refused to even touch his stave, Karkat hit a little faster and more viciously, taking out his frustration in the thwack of fibrous plant material on tender troll flesh until he was heaving for breath and struggling to lift his weapon in hands that ached down to the osseous support struts. Kankri was wavering where he stood, bruised and bleeding and too tired to talk, but still steadily meeting Karkat's glare with his own.

Karkat stands over Kankri in the Sparring Ring while Wavescar watches.

Karkat had just shifted his grip ready for another blow when he was interrupted by a loud klaxon. Looking to Wavescar for orders, he was surprised to register the small crowd that had gathered around the sparring ring. In the front row were a few figures he recognised from the communal nutrition hall earlier, but Karkat could already tell he wasn't going to get the chance to ask any questions. Porrim and a smaller, short-haired version of her were already striding towards the door, and they were overtaken by the two blue-bloods who had been so unhappy to see Karkat arrive. The non-pilot personnel were moving too, pulling out communicators and starting to cluster into groups.

Seeing the Commander cutting a path through the crowd, and without any idea of what the fuck he was supposed to be doing, Karkat dropped his stave and hurried after her. He was almost to the door before he realised Kankri wasn't with him. Glancing back he saw the other mutant sitting slumped on the edge of the dais, poking at a split lip with the tip of one claw. For a brief instant Karkat felt slightly guilty, but he quashed it. If Kankri hadn't wanted to get hurt, he should have fought back instead of just whining constantly. It wasn't like the Othersiders were going to sit down for a civilised fucking chat over musclebeast lactations and baked circular confections, after all.

The corridors had gone from empty to bustling. It seemed that everyone had somehow managed to be in the wrong place when the still-screaming klaxon began, and now like an overturned colonybug mound they were scurrying into position in the hopes of not getting caught with their pants round their ankles. Commander Wavescar strode through the chaos like a hot knife through grubpaste, and Karkat scurried in her wake, dodging left and right to avoid being bumped and trampled.

He only realised that he hadn't been this way before when they arrived at an open bulkhead door large enough to drive a small goods transportation vehicle though. The Commander strode through it into a room packed with people working on husktops and dominated by a large window at the far end of the room which looked out onto...

Oh. Oh.

Karkat had seen the Jaegers before. Probably less than some trolls who lived along the coast, but it hardly fucking mattered when the footage had been on every newsfeed he had ever seen in his wigglerhood. It was different up close. He had known there were different ones, because you would have to be fucking blind not to see the different coloured stripes acting as trim on the gleaming black carapaces, but seeing them still and close by and next to one another he could pick out other small differences too- battle damage and mismatched repair jobs, turning the otherwise uniform machines into subtly more characterful entities. It was no wonder that people mistook them for some new breed of drone; the shape aside, there was something almost alive about them, even dormant and pilotless like this.

Wavescar hardly even spared the Jaegers a glance. “Report!” she snapped, and a blueblood near the window glanced up.

“Tripwires report a double event. Too early to get an accurate heading, but they're both Category Fours.”

Wavescar cursed and turned to the other corner of the room. “Scramble all the primaries and get the secondary teams on standby,” she said. “Let me know as soon as we have probable destination. Who's on-shift today?”

“Nitram, Maryam and Zahhak,” said another voice, from somewhere to Karkat's left. “Sir, Serket is still in repairs after the last attack. We can't put it on standby.”

Wavescar paused, pinched the bridge of her nose, and stared through the window at the line of Jaegers. “Prep Peixes,” she ordered. A momentary hush fell across the room, and she glared around at her stunned staff. “Forget the damn paint job! Serket's pilots aren't in repairs, it's a perfectly functional piece of equipment, and it might as well be useful for something!”

As the hum of voices in the room started up again, her eyes fell on Karkat and narrowed. “Vantas! Who gave you permission to be in here?”

Karkat's mouth opened silently as he searched for a reply that wasn't likely to get him culled on the spot. He hesitated too long; sharp claws dug into his ear, and in four swift yet excruciatingly painful strides the Commander had dragged him to the door. She helped him out with a boot in his ass, sending him sprawling into the corridor before turning on her heel and striding back into the Command Centre.

“Hey there, my fine motherfucking invertebrother,” said a languid voice from overhead. “What you all up and being doing down there all on the motherfucking floor like that for?”

Karkat rolled over and found himself looking up into a pair of long, thin faces streaked with white paint and framed with more hair than the creator had seen fit to bestow on the average shaggy bleatbeast. Two pairs of curious purple eyes blinked at him in perfect sync, and Karkat scrabbled away until his back hit a wall and he could push himself upright into a sitting position. He didn’t take his eyes off the two highbloods. They might not have seemed particularly homicidal or violently insane right now, but Karkat wasn’t stupid enough to fall for it, especially not when one of them was smiling at him with a mouth that had plainly, obviously, unmistakeably been sewn shut.

Kurloz and Gamzee stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

The other purple-blood, whose paint looked a little friendlier and whose jumpsuit had apparently been balled up, sat on, dipped in grubsauce and smeared in sopor every time it left the relative safety of the apparel cleansing machine, grinned down at him. “Me and my main motherfucking bro Kurloz here was all up and to be getting our fine selves along all to where the other pilots are at getting their motherfucking wait on. You want as how what these motherfuckers should be all up and to showing you as to what the way is all to being?”

Karkat’s lips moved as he tried to parse what the stranger was saying. “Are you asking me to go off alone with you clowns- and I mean that both literally and figuratively- so you can lead me to some sort of communal lounge for the assholes who've been unilaterally selected by the fickle fingers of haphazard genetics and imperial decree to pilot Jaegers?”

“Shit, yeah!” The purple-blood nodded, making his hair bounce, and stretched out a grubby hand to Karkat.

After staring for a moment, Karkat snorted. “Sure, why the fuck not?” They both had Jeb patches, after all; Karkat figured they would at least know where such a lounge existed, and they weren’t any more likely to kill him than Commander Wavescar was if he loitered around outside her Command Centre. He took the hand with a grimace, trying not to focus on the chipped, grimy claws, and was actually slightly surprised when the skinny-looking troll hauled him to his feet without any visible sign of effort.

Highblood, dumbass, he told himself, reclaiming his hand and trying to surreptitiously wipe it off on the ass of his jumpsuit. From the sharp look he got from the other highblood- Kurloz, that was what the chatty one had called him- he was at least half busted.

“I'm Karkat,” he said, switching his attention back to the talker. Hearing him introduce himself, the guy’s face split into a grin that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a wiggler who had just found out that his twelfth perigee gift was so large it didn’t fit in the hive. It would also have looked entirely natural on a hungry fangfish, but for the dual sake of potential hatefriendship and not crapping his pants Karkat didn’t dwell on the image.

“Gamzee,” the highblood said, digging his hands into his pockets and slouching into what was probably his regular position. Even not including his horns he was still taller than Karkat at full stretch, a fact Karkat decided to chalk up to the innate unfairness of the universe in general and fate in particular as it applied to him. “It’s as to being all kinds of motherfucking righteous is what it is to be motherfucking meeting you.”

“Sure,” said Karkat, jogging to catch up with the pair of highbloods who had started moving at a ground-guzzling lope down the corridor. There was something wrong about the way they moved, but he couldn’t pin it down. Instead he wracked his thinkpan for a topic of conversation that wouldn’t end messily. “So, how long have you guys been Jaeger pilots?”

What’s it like, being in each other’s heads? He bit back on the second question, not wanting to sound too nervous. Especially not when who he had to worry about getting in his head was Kankri, of all the useless globefondlers.

Kurloz looked around and blinked once, slowly, before making a series of rapid gestures with his hands.

“The fuck was that?” Karkat asked, when it was apparent he was done. “Was that supposed to communicate some sort of meaning, or do you just have a debilitating nerve condition that causes you to flail wildly at people and sew your noiseflap closed?”

The next gesture Kurloz made was one of Karkat’s favourites and was very definitely understood, but before Karkat could retaliate Gamzee stepped in front of him and stopped. Karkat found himself looking up into heavily-lidded eyes and a lazy grin that were both completely at odds with the tense thrum that ran down his spine.

“My main motherfucker here is all up and to being all kinds of motherfucking sensitive about what is all to up and being the business with his mouth,” he said cheerily. “So how about you don't be all up at asking him no shit about what that's all to motherfucking being on a thing?”

Karkat nodded silently. The feeling of something dark looming behind him vanished and the air decided to rush back into the hallway. The two highbloods resumed walking.

“Kurloz says as what this motherfucker should up to be all getting his tell on to a motherfucking mutant brother as what we've been all getting our heads up in the wicked revelations of the Drift for what's being on five sweeps now,” said Gamzee, after a while.

Karkat cast a suspicious glance at Kurloz, who hadn't made a gesture since silently telling him to go fuck himself. Then his thinkpan caught up to his ears and his jaw dropped. “Five sweeps? Holy grubfucking shitmongers, the first Jaegers-”

“Yeah, that was all up and being us,” said Gamzee, shrugging like he hadn't just dropped a megaton bomb between Karkat's auricular sponges and slammed the lid shut after. “Us and them Captor motherfuckers, anyhow. All up and got mine and mini-Captor's asses all conscripted motherfucking early on account of there being some wicked mirthless armageddon incoming, but we was all to being the motherfucking shit and laying down some righteously deserved merriment to the motherfucking Othersiders, you dig me?”

Dumbly, Karkat nodded, remembering those early days of the war. When the first Othersider had shown up and slaughtered its way out of the ocean and across half a continent it had been shocking, alarming, terrifying even. Half a sweep later he'd long since grown numb, watching the newsfeeds with his emotions shut down so he wouldn't have to feel the cold, creeping dread that had started to infect everything and everyone. The Empire had thrown everything it had at the monsters and it had been losing; everyone on Alternia knew that it was only a matter of time before the Condesce had to choose between a quick death for her species at her own hand, or a drawn out and painful one from the Othersiders.

He'd been huddled under a blanket drowning his fears in romance films when the newsfeed had cut into the broadcast. His first sight of a Jaeger had been a shaky smear of fast-moving limbs and black armour. It had taken too long for him to understand what he was seeing, to make out the drone-like silhouette and realise that the second monster was theirs, that it was on their side and that it was winning. He had been a frightened wiggler wearing bravado like a shield and the Jaegers had been hope, a dark shelter from the burning light that had been building on the horizon. They had been the next best thing to gods.

“How old were you?” Karkat asked, staring at Gamzee and trying to guess. Before conscription meant eight sweeps or less, but he was an adult now and his painted face wasn't giving away any clues.

Gamzee looked thoughtful and glanced over at Kurloz, who tapped his mouth then made a few brief gestures with one hand. “Six sweeps?” the highblood said, frowning slightly.

Faced with his quizzical look, Karkat's mouth slammed shut. Six fucking sweeps. At least one of the protectors he'd followed religiously had been piloted by a wiggler not much older than he had been. Half-piloted, he reminded himself, with a sidelong glance at Kurloz. No telling how old he was, either, but Gamzee hadn't mentioned him being conscripted early. Whatever, the point was that if he'd known about all this at the time he would have put some serious consideration into his crazy neighbour's stow-away-on-a-supply-dropship plan. Either that or he would have tracked these assholes down and demanded his own Jaeger sweeps ago. Six sweeps old, holy shit.

He couldn't think of anything else to say after that raw assfuck of a revelation, and Gamzee didn't seem to feel much need to say anything without prompting, so the three of them walked in silence for a couple more minutes until they arrived at, surprise surprise, yet another metal door. Kurloz opened it, and as the two highbloods stepped through Karkat finally realised what had been bugging him about the way they walked. At first glance they didn't appear to move anything alike- Gamzee loped along in a sloppy slouch, while Kurloz stood tall and took neat, silent steps. But as they stepped over the bottom ridge of the door-frame Karkat saw their feet rise and fall, touching down at the same moment, just as they had been doing all along.

In the split second before Karkat regained the use of his own legs, Kurloz glanced back over his shoulder and gave him a single slow wink. Karkat shuddered and ducked into the room, silently cursing out creepy-ass highbloods and trying not to wonder if they were moving in sync because of the Drift or because they were purple-blooded murderclowns because some thoughts were just too unnerving to entertain. Before he could get properly caught up in vague existential dread, however, he saw the window.

It wasn't quite as big or impressive as the one in the Command Centre, but it wasn't far off, and Karkat found nothing to complain about when he went over and pressed his face against the glass. The massive black shadows that were the Jaegers dominated the chamber beyond, but now he could see people moving around down by their feet. Three of them were slowly emerging from their bays, sliding forward on wheeled platforms that would have put an Imperial Battlecruiser to shame for sheer surface area. Karkat watched in unashamed wigglerish wonder as the sleek black contours and dark spines slid into the light, edges gleaming under the moon-bright lamps that dangled from bare girders overhead.

Down by their feet he could see six distinctive figures hanging around by the flurry of action, looking like toys next to their immense battle machines. The pilots were wearing what looked like gleaming black armour, made to fit; it was too far away to see their sigils or caste colours, but there were edgings and the occasional coloured plate on the Jaegers- one brown, one jade, and one deep blue- and as they drew nearer the pilots split up into pairs to monitor their individual machines. Karkat's breath caught as one of them paused and looked up towards the window. His face was too far away to make out, the only clear detail a wide-based set of horns, but he gave a friendly wave before hurrying off after his hatchclone towards the brown-edged Jaeger.

Wondering who he had been waving to, Karkat looked around and saw a girl with large, curling horns and a maroon sigil standing near the window and waving enthusiastically back. Sitting on a couch behind her was a nearly identical looking girl. Seeing Karkat looking at her, the second girl plucked the combustible inhalant cylinder from her mouth and said something utterly incomprehensible.

“What the fuck?” asked Karkat, wondering if Past Him had somehow misheard.

“Hai. Seikō wa tadashīdesu,” said the girl. She took a drag from the inhalant cylinder and added; “Kemononoyōni watashi ni noru. Anata no dōbutsu-tekina chi no yōna yasei no koto. Watashi wa kuraimakkusu toki, watashi wa himeiwoagerudeshou.”

Karkat was about to ask what the dronehumping fuck that was supposed to mean, when a voice behind him spoke. “Trutht me, you do not want to underthtand anything that Damara thayth.”

He turned around to see a lone pilot with a yellow sigil slumped on a couch, his attention apparently entirely focused on the portable husktop on his lap. If it wasn't for the Jeb on his other shoulder Karkat would have wondered if he were a pilot at all; a surreptitious peek around the room showed no sign of his hatchclone, and the guy looked like a stiff breeze could have blown him over- hardly what you'd expect from someone fighting Othersiders on a regular basis. There was no question where the lisp came from, either, not with all those teeth trying and failing to fit properly in his noiseflap. Between that, the bizarre double-horns that were almost as nubby as Karkat's, and the goofy bicoloured red and blue shades, the guy looked like a complete and utter tool.

On the plus side, he wasn't particularly terrifying and he didn't look like he wanted to cull Karkat on the spot, which made him prime potential hatefriend material. Karkat dropped down onto the couch next to him, letting out a small huff as it took the weight of his aching body, and tried to get a look at the husktop screen.

Sollux and Damara on the couch in the pilot's lounge.

The yellow-blooded pilot slammed it shut so fast that Karkat almost lost his cartilage nub for the trouble. “What the fuck, dude, do I come and look over your thoulder when you're trying to thuck yourthelf off?” He glared at Karkat, shades slipping to show eyes that glowed in the same two solid, unnatural colours.

“Holy fucking Mother Grub, how powerful a psionic are you?” Karkat blurted. Then, because whatever filters normal people got between their thinkpan and their chattergap had apparently not been installed on him; “And if you're trying to suck yourself off, do it in private, you fucking pervert. Nobody needs to see your gross yellow genetic material, especially not plastered across that dental nightmare you call a face. Even an Imperial Drone would reject that contribution; in fact, it would be so disgusted, it wouldn't even be able to bring itself to touch you for your undoubtedly well-deserved culling.”

The pilot snorted and lifted his husktop screen again, twisting around in the seat to block Karkat from seeing it. “Thure, you keep telling yourthelf that while you're alone in your 'coon at night. Not like anyone'th ever going to join you in there.”

Karkat pulled a face, remembering the quarters he'd been assigned- and more specifically, who with. “Fuck, I'm sharing with Kankri. There's no way that pompous nooksniffer isn't going to stick his humongous exploratory prod of a cartilage nub into my business constantly.”

“Kare no kyodaina wa watashi no naka de tsuku koshūsuru kare ni iu,” said Damara, flicking ash across the room at them. “Anata wa watashi no kuchi no naka ni osamaru. Ryōhō o ichido ni.”

“Theriouthly, ignore her,” said the yellow-blooded pilot, as Karkat cast a curious glance across the room. “She'th grothe.”

“Sollux!” said the other girl, looking around from the window. “Surely you don't want to try and scare off the new guy!?”

It would have sounded almost friendly if it wasn't for the too-wide smile stretching her face. Karkat glanced back at the now-named Sollux, who didn't even bother looking up from his husktop.

“It'th not thcaring, it'th fair warning. Damara'th an evil bitth and you know it.”

“Anata wa watashi ni seiteki kaikan o ataetai. Watashi no kuchi no naka ni shōben shite kudasai.”

The other girl cocked her head to the side and nodded, chuckling. “Okay, I guess you have a point.” She turned and shrugged apologetically to her hatchclone. “You are a pretty huge bitch, after all!”

Damara responded by using two fingers and her tongue to make a gesture that was so obscene that Karkat could feel his ears flushing to the tips. In the far corner, Gamzee started snickering; Sollux dismissed the whole incident with a snort and a shake of his head.

“Anyway, it'th not like you've got it that bad with Kankri,” he said to Karkat, ignoring the chaos as Kurloz started remonstrating with Damara. At least, that was what Karkat thought was happening; he wasn't sure either of the parties involved had any idea what the other one was saying, and he was certain neither of them thought it mattered. His thinkpan informed him a few seconds late of what Sollux had said, and when he caught it his head whipped around to glare at the yellow-blooded pilot.

“Are you fucking serious? You have met Kankri, right? He never does anything but talk and talk and talk and he's arrogant and he's stupid and he's a complete pants-soaking globeless coward and I can't believe they want to open a direct fucking line between my sponge matter and his space-hogging dead weight of a thinkpan!”

Sollux shrugged. “Tho he'th an athhole. Quit bitching about it. Nobody liketh their fucking hatchclone anyway.” Seeing Karkat cast a pointed glance towards Kurloz and Gamzee, he amended, “Okay, almotht nobody. Point ith, thuck it up, becauthe we all had to learn to put up with them enough to Drift.” He paused, cartilage nub wrinkling. “Well, mothtly.”

“Mostly?” Karkat asked. Sollux opened his mouth, but was interrupted by the clatter of the door opening. His mouth snapped shut and lifted into a small smile, attention entirely gone from Karkat.

Turning to see who was so interesting that Sollux was gawping at them rather than talking to him, Karkat saw a head peering around the door. Her face was familiar, as was the Tyrian purple of her eyes, but unlike Meenah her masses of hair were loose and both her wrists and her brow were ornamented with gold jewellery. She looked more like a ruler-in-training than Meenah, Karkat had to admit, but the cheery smile she flashed them couldn't have been more different from Meenah's domineering attitude. Having apparently scouted out the room to her satisfaction, she stepped inside and walked right up to where Karkat and Sollux were sitting.

“Hello!” she said, grinning at Karkat in such an innocuous and friendly manner that he immediately tensed. It had to be a trick or a trap of some sort, but he couldn't work out what it was or what it was meant to do.

“Hi,” he said, ducking his head in submission but keeping a careful eye watching her.

The girl didn't seem to notice his scrutiny, or if she did, she didn't care. “You must be Karcrab!” she said, flopping down onto the couch next to him. “I'm Feferi. I'm shoaly I wasn't there to meet you yesterday but there were some... complaicecations.”

“We were jutht talking about that,” said Sollux. He actually looked up from his husktop to meet Feferi's eyes when she leaned past Karkat to look at him. “To the thurprithe of abtholutely no-one, KK doethn't want to Drift with KR.”

“I didn't say that!” Karkat snapped. “Don't put your gross fucking lispy words in my talkhole, bulgebiter!”

“Yeah, whatever, it'th true and you know it,” said Sollux, glancing back down at his computer. “Nobody fucking careth.”

“I'm shore you'll do fin,” said Feferi, rocking forwards on the seat a little. “Reely, I'm a little jelly-ous. I've wanted to Drift for ages!” Seeing Karkat's confusion, her face fell a little. “Oh, Sole-lux didn't tell you?”

“I thaid, we were talking about it when you came in,” said Sollux, focus back on his husktop.

Karkat growled low in his throat. “Will one of you tell me whatever the fuck it is you're both being so mysterious about before my ass fuses to this couch?”

Feferi looked glumly at her feet. “Me and Meenah haven't ever managed to Drift,” she said.

“Technically they've never tried,” Sollux added. “Becauthe every time they're in the thame room they try to kill each other.”

“It's not like I do it on porpoise!” Feferi snapped. Silence fell across the room; Karkat hadn't realised just how much chatter the other occupants had been making until it was abruptly gone. Noticing that she was suddenly the centre of attention, Feferi blushed. “Shoaly, everyone! Nofin to be worried aboat!” As the other conversations in the room resumed, she turned to Karkat. “I hope you don't think I'm terribubble or anyfin; I don't want to course problems. It's just a sore spot, is all.”

Karkat shook his head. “Problem? Why would there be any problem?” he asked, voice betraying him by squeaking unnecessarily. He coughed to try and fix it. He felt fucking ridiculous, but for a second there he had seen shades of the Condesce in the smiling girl next to him, and it was only yesterday that he'd learned the Empire didn't want him dead after all. “It's between you and Meenah, right? We should all just go back to petting our bone bulges in private and leave you to work it the fuck out without us. It's nothing to do with anyone else.”

“I wish!” Feferi slumped back against the couch and glubbed miserably at the ceiling. “It would be so waterful if it didn't manta! But they need us out there fighting the Othersiders, becod if they didn't then we would both have been challenged or assassinated sweeps ago! And I know that and every time I swear I'm going to do betta and then I see her and I just want to tear her stupid face off!” Groaning, she slumped forwards, burying her face in her hands.

Sollux sighed and reached across Karkat to pat her on the arm, leaving the mutant feeling uncomfortably like an intruder. “Hey, you know you're jutht feeling thitty becauthe there'th an Event happening,” the yellow-blooded pilot said, in a tone of voice that was definitely shaded red. Concupiscent or conciliatory, Karkat couldn't tell and didn't really care. Widely cross-spectrum romance made for some of his favourite stories, but they were generally tragic ones, and real people were fuckheads anyway.

“Urgh, I know,” said Feferi, her voice muffled. She raised her head and glubbed again. “It just feels so stupid, having a Jaeger sitting out there that I can't even use while my whole species is in danger!”

The girl by the window turned and flashed her a bright smile. “Don't worry, Feferi, we all understand that you would if you could! And at least this way we have a spare Jaeger, just in case!”

Remembering what he had overheard in the Command Centre, Karkat nodded. “Yeah, I heard Wavescar saying that she wanted a different Jaeger prepped for Serket, just in case.”

He wasn't sure exactly what reaction he had expected to the news, but the darkening of the mood in the room wasn't it. Looking between a series of suddenly grim faces, Karkat scowled. “What? Come on, you could at least tell me what the fuck I said that was so bad! Or is this some sort of super-secret Jaeger pilot thing that I don't get to know about because I'm the new guy, in which case fuck you all with a rusty spike and blue acid lubricant.”

Damara removed the inhalant cylinder from her mouth.

“Anata wa, zetsubō-tekina taisaku o setsumei shimasu. Kyodai monsutā wa watashitachi subete o korosudeshou. Sore ga okoru mae ni, watashi ni seikō,” she said.

When nobody made any move to translate her words, Karkat slammed his palms down onto the couch and jumped to his feet. “You know what? I don't even fucking care. I wish you all many happy hours of sitting around like cracked pails, seeping in your own musclebeast shit!”

Nobody said anything or moved to stop him as he stomped towards the door, except for Gamzee who twitched up from his lounging position on a couch to say: “Bye, motherfucker.” Karkat ignored him and carried on into the corridor, slamming the door closed behind himself and immediately slumping against it. Hours of sparring had worn him out to begin with, and somehow without him noticing the lounge had become so tense and oppressive that stepping outside felt like taking a lead weight off his chest.

He waited long enough to gasp down a few breaths of clear air, then pushed off, striding away fast to mask the fact that he had no fucking clue where he was going. He wanted to make it back to the respite block he had been assigned; even if Kankri was there, he could ignore the asshole long enough to clamber into his 'coon and get some actual privacy. Maybe even a few hours of rest; Commander Wavescar was probably going to want more them doing more “training”- and he used that term fucking loosely- as soon as the Jaegers came back in.

Maybe if I wander round in circles for long enough I'll find it, he thought, turning left down a passage because he felt like it and finding a dead end. He snorted. “Or maybe I'll get so lost that the Handmaiden herself couldn't find me. Yeah, an eternity stuck in this fucking place! My joy at the prospect, it is boundless! Just see how fucking far away from me it's gone!”

His own voice echoed back to him, along with another shout. He couldn't make out the words but the voice was nearby, and with a silent curse Karkat picked up his pace, hoping to outdistance whoever it was. The plan failed dismally when he turned another corner and almost collided with the oncoming figures.

“WTATFH WHERYOU GOING FUKUTTHICK!” screamed the middle of the three, a troll who seemed to be made entirely from bones, spit, and snarling. He reminded Karkat of his lusus, in that Crabdad had never made any sounds that weren't a sort of furious high-pitched screech, but it had been annoying enough when he gave a shit about the creature doing it.

“Watch where you're going, bulgelicker!” he yelled back, tensing his hands into claws. The guy sure as fuck looked ready to launch himself at Karkat's throat any second.

The girl next to the angry yellow-blood stared at the guy through a pair of pristine red douchebag shades. “Yo, babe, chill out some, yeah?” she said, ruffling his hair. There was a lot of hair to ruffle, Karkat had to admit. It was so long that it was covering his eyes entirely, and it took him a few seconds to realise that the guy was sporting the exact same mouth full of snaggle-teeth that Sollux had. “And Red, no need to get yo' shizzle in a tizzle. Gotta give 'Tuna some leeway, you dig?”

“I CNAA THAY HWAVT IU WAN TYOU MGRUBFNUKIN HELELBITFH!”

Karkat's eye twitched. “Oh, yeah, he's a real fucking charmer,” he snapped. “I am feeling wholeheartedly motivated to give him the benefit of the doubt!”

“FTIKUK YUR HAED INA PAIL FCUKBLOOD MUTNAT PITHFATHE!”

From behind the yellow-blood, a white stick appeared and jabbed him in the thoracic struts. He yelped and jumped back, giving Karkat a clearer view of the third person. Side-by-side and even accounting for the expected, she looked a lot like her hatchclone. If her candy-red asshole glasses hadn't been a different shape, he didn't think he would have been able to tell them apart easily, although he supposed the cane could be another clue.

“Objection!” she said, jabbing at the yellow-blood again. “The court reminds Mituna Captor that he is under oath to at least attempt behaving himself for a period of no less than three lunar days! The prosecution finds his words to be in contravention of this oath, being at once crude, offensive, and maliciously selected.”

Karkat was expecting another outburst, but to his astonishment the yellow-blooded pilot immediately drooped, his chin sinking down onto his thoracic support bone. “I'm throry,” he said, and his contrition was so evident that Karkat wasn't even tempted to dismiss it as false. Then his thinkpan prodded him with a reminder of Aranea's earlier words.

Mituna wasn't part of the Helm-rig tests; he was in the solo pilot program... most of them died... if they hadn't found Sollux when they did he would most likely have been culled. And then the image of a skinny guy in a crash helmet falling off his seat, and an echo of something Kankri had said right before they walked into the communal nutrition hall. Mituna can hardly be blamed for his episodes.

Shit. Karkat winced, watching as the other girl wrapped an arm around Mituna's shoulders and pulled him in as he shook, resting his face against her neck. Gamzee's words came drifting back to him and Karkat shuddered. He'd thought the highblood clown clones were bad, but this guy had been in one of the Jaegers he idolised as a wiggler? He groaned and slapped both palms into his face, realising just how much of a bulgebiter move it had been to complain about having to theoretically Drift with Kankri in front of Sollux. Sollux grubfucking Captor, who had been yanked out of his hive and away from his lusus to be shoved into a Jaeger with this panshattered rail-vehicle wreck of a troll, and told to save the fucking world.

Past Him was, as usual, the greatest idiot to ever wriggle out of the brooding caverns and head-first onto a rock.

“Shh, 'Tuna babe,” said the girl holding Mituna, pressing a gentle kiss between his horns. “Not your fault.” She glanced over at her hatchclone. “I'm gonna get him to mini-Captor. Maybe following the action on the 'feeds will help keep him frosty.”

The other girl nodded. Her cane snapped out; Karkat jumped back too slowly, but it only pushed him in towards a wall as the other two passed. As they went by, Karkat heard Mituna making a quiet hissing noise, like he was trying to say the word “fuck” then getting distracted or forgetting how it went. Leaning heavily on the girl- her sigil was teal, Karkat saw- Mituna stumbled along the corridor, his feet seeming reluctant to obey him. Karkat watched them go, feeling the familiar sense of having fucked up like a bitter taste on his mastication muscle.

When the cane flicked away from his thorax it was almost a surprise. “You've heard about Mituna,” said the girl, tapping the tip of the white stick against the floor a couple of times before resting both hands on it and leaning forward.

Karkat took a cautious half-step back. “How the fuck do you know?”

The girl cackled- actually fucking cackled, there was no way that manic cracked-up giggle could be described as a laugh, not without committing some form of gross abuse against the word. “Because I've heard about you, Karkles.” Her stance shifted in an instant, cane flicking out to jab towards him. “Kankri's little hatchclone, which means you share his delicious mutation. And his talent for talking, from what I hear, although you're much saucier.”

Karkat stared at her grinning face and shuddered. Nobody should be allowed to look that fucking disturbing while smiling, seriously, she was worse than both circus freaks and Damara's hatchclone put together. He licked his suddenly dry lips. “Okay, what the fuck,” he said, and was pleased when it came out confident and mildly irritated rather than squeaking like a wiggler. “Is anyone in this place actually fighting Othersiders or are you all too engaged in naval-gazing and idle gossip instead? Don't tell me, let me guess, you're the editor of the super-secret anti-alien-monster base socialite magazine and now you want an eyeful of the rookie so you can write all about it!”

The girl's face fell. “Are you mocking me, Karkles?” she asked, a dangerous edge on her words. “Do you think it is amusing to poke fun at my disability?” In a flick of her arm, she flipped her glasses up onto her head, revealing eyes that were seared a blank, unseeing red. “Do you think I am getting my eyeful?”

Karkat swallowed on the urge to ask how she had survived conscription. The answer was obvious enough, even if she hadn't managed to get him backed against a wall with the suddenly very pointy-looking end of her cane hovering near his throat. “Oh, fuck. I'm sorry, I didn't know. Past Me is an asshole, even when I've literally just stopped being him, but he definitely didn't mean- I mean, I definitely didn't mean-”

He stopped, bemused, when the girl threw her head back and howled with laughter. The cane retreated from his neck, and he took the opportunity to edge away from the wall and eye up the distance between him and the nearest exit. With one more glance at the crazy blind bitch, he shifted ready to run.

Her laughter stopped instantly. “I don't think you want to go that way,” she said. Karkat froze, and she snickered. “Well, not unless you want to head straight back towards the pilots' lounge. Mituna and Latula should be there by now.”

Karkat glanced back over his shoulder the way he'd come, then back towards the girl. “How the grubshitting fuck do you do that?”

She grinned, tapping her cane on the floor. “Haven't you heard, Karkles? I know everything.” A teal-tinted tongue flicked out and licked around her lips. “So, where did you want to go?”

Opening his mouth to tell her he was fine on his own and she could fuck off and finger her own nook, Karkat paused. Weird-ass antics with the cane and her tongue aside, and forgetting entirely about that fucking grin and laugh, she'd actually been pretty helpful. Preventing him from getting into an argument with Mituna, telling him he was about to walk straight back into that clusterfuck of a lounge- and hadn't he just been thinking before he ran into them that he didn't have the first clue how to find his way around this maze, anyway?

“My respite block,” he said. “Or the one they put me in, anyway.” He narrowed his eyes. “You'd better not be fucking with me. I'm not in the mood. The mood has exiled me for life and torn up my citizenship papers, that's how far from in the fucking mood I am.”

The girl nodded solemnly. “Well then, far be it from me to cause a disruption to the smooth and lawful operation of the mood by reintroducing your antagonistic presence. Follow me.” She turned on her heel and started walking, cane tapping away in front of her as she went. Karkat hurried after her, until he was caught up enough to walk side-by-side. She set a brisk pace down the corridor, nodding to the occasional soldier as they passed by.

“So, what do you think of Kankri?” she asked, grinning broadly.

Karkat grimaced. “If I tell you, is it going to turn out that your hatchclone is a crotchstain upon the underpants of the universe, or an unhatched grub or something?”

The girl regarded him solemnly. “I will have you know that Latula is the raddest troll on this base. Possibly this planet. If she were any radder, we would all receive rad poisoning and it would be a cull-worthy offence.” Her cane swept out to knock him sharply in the ankle. “Now confess!”

Karkat drew in a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. “Kankri,” he said, in a slow and measured tone, “Is a supercilious, arrogant cluckbeast whose inflated sense of self-importance is outweighed only by the strength of his death-grip on the moral high ground and the size of the inflated wind bladder he uses to power his unending speeches. Of all the embarrassing, humiliating, degrading or outright disgraceful things I have ever managed to perpetrate in my short and regrettable life, not one has come even remotely close to the profoundly terrible realisation that I am genetically identical to that overbearing nookwhiff.”

The girl's head twisted towards him, and one eyebrow peeked up from behind her shades. “All that in less than two days? Impressive, Karkles.”

Karkat snorted. “Right. Obviously you know him so much better than me. Is this where you tell me the error of all my judgements and I thank you for your wise and timely insights?”

“Actually, you seem to have picked up on most of my own observations,” said the girl, swinging her cane out to tap around a corner before following it out. “There are one or two points I would challenge or add to, but your testimony is consistent and I do appreciate its descriptive nature.”

“But?” asked Karkat, prodding at the end of her statement. The girl chuckled, a much more normal sound than any of her previous laughs.

“But, if I were to ask you or anyone else on this base to describe Latula, the answer I would get would likely be similar to what I thought of her when we first met.” Her mouth falls out of its smile, revealing a half-sad, half-wistful expression. “She was so rad, Karkles. Older than me, more awesome than me, and so full of confidence that I couldn't find any room for my own. We all doubt ourselves sometimes, but meeting her- I was hardly even myself, for a while.”

“What happened?” asked Karkat, fascinated despite himself. He'd only had a brief glimpse of her hatchclone, but even from the little he'd seen this girl was the more impressive of the pair. She certainly didn't seem to be in the middle of a crisis of confidence now.

“The Drift,” she said, and the smile was back, softer and kinder and somehow more genuine than before. “It can change everything. Most people don't let it, but me and Latula...” Her voice trailed off, and her smile took on its normal razor edge. “I know her better than anyone, now. Better than her matesprit, and if she ever gets a moirail, better than they will. She knows me the same way and it makes all the difference.” She shrugged, and managed to look completely unrepentant when she added: “We're the best of the pilots. Our Jaeger has more confirmed Othersider kills than any three of the others put together, and less downtime for damage and injuries.”

“Good for you,” Karkat muttered. He stopped dead as her cane whipped out in front of him again, and turned to see her staring straight at him. It had to be an illusion, had to be, she couldn't even see him. But her face was deathly serious.

“They'll want you to Drift as soon as they finish your Drivesuits,” she told him. “A few days at most, and then not long after that they'll put you in the field for the first time. You and Kannie have serious potential- I know; I can smell it on you. If you want to survive, you'll Drift willingly. If you want to be the best? You'll Drift well.”

Karkat snorted. “And how the fuck am I supposed to do that?”

The cane jabbed him in the thorax as the girl stepped around to stand in front of him. “Not just you. Both of you. And all I can tell you is, trust the Drift and trust each other.” Before Karkat could reply, her cane swung around and tapped against the door they were standing next to. “This is your respite block.”

Karkat looked at the door in surprise. “Oh. Right.” Then, feeling that something else was necessary, he added; “Uh, thanks.”

The girl grinned. “Any time, Karkles.” She tapped her shoulder in salute. “Terezi Pyrope. See you in the mess!”

“Yeah, sure,” said Karkat, watching in bewilderment as she swung her cane up onto her shoulder and strode off down the hall, cackling madly all the way. Shaking his head to try and clear it of crazy broads and their loopy yet surprisingly hypnotic jabbering, he reached out and opened the door. To his relief, it was indeed the right room. Somewhat less relieving was the fact that Kankri was sitting at the desk again, fiddling with the contents of a portable emergency meditermination kit.

He glanced over as Karkat stepped into the room, briefly glaring at him with a face that was sporting a puffy black eye and a split lip before turning his focus back down to the kit in front of him. “Did you enjoy the fruits of your brutality?” he spat out.

Karkat ignored the uncomfortable twist of guilt in his feedsack. “If you don't like it, fight back next time,” he snapped, peeling off his jumpsuit and quickly checking the storage unit on his side of the room. He was heartened to find it stocked with more clothes.

“Taking up arms would violate my vow, as I already informed you at length,” Kankri replied. He was still staring fixedly at the kit, repacking it precisely and with professional neatness. “Whether I allow you to belabour me into the ground, or break my deeply held personal convictions to stand against you, I lose. The difference being that bruises will heal, given time.”

“Great,” said Karkat, hauling himself up onto the lip of his recuperacoon. “Why don't you tell that to the first Othersider we meet? I'm sure they'll be fucking delighted to stop their omnicidal rampage across our homeworld to stop and chat about philosophy with you!”

There was a loud snap as Kankri slammed the lid of the emergency kit shut. “Not that I should have to justify my beliefs or my actions to you, but as it happens I never said I wouldn't engage Othersiders in combat,” he said quietly, getting to his feet and staring across the room at Karkat. “I do think there could have been more attempts made to communicate with them or analyse their movements, but at this stage it is quite clear that they are not sophont and that their every instinct is inimical to the continued existence of our species. My vow does not cover inherently dangerous creatures that physically cannot be reasoned with, a category that I am rapidly coming to believe includes you!”

He stormed out of the room before Karkat could reply to that heap of steaming hoofbeast manure, slamming the door loud enough to make the walls shake. Scowling, Karkat slipped down into the cool slime of his recuperacoon, feeling the oxygen-rich goop envelop him and sink into his lungs with the first breath. Silently he decided that Terezi might be the friendliest person he'd met in this madhouse, but that she was also just plain shithive maggots.

He might have to Drift with Kankri, but like fuck was he ever going to trust the devious little squeakbeast.

DAMARA TRANSLATIONS:
[Yes. Fuck is correct. Ride me like a beast. Be wild like your animal blood. I will scream when I climax.]
[Tell him to stick his enormous prod inside me. You will fit in my mouth. Both at once.]
[You want to give sexual pleasure to me. Please piss in my mouth.]
[You describe desperate measures. Giant monsters will kill us all. Fuck me before that happens.]

Chapter Text

Two days later, Terezi kissed him for the first time.

They were in the corridor, halfway between the mess hall and the designated schoolfeeding blocks where Karkat was being alternately bored out of his skull and terrified out of his wits on a daily basis. Terezi grabbed him by the collar and dragged him down a side-corridor halfway through his explanation of precisely why Cronus Ampora was the worst person to ever exist, anywhere, ever.

At first he thought she was going to tell him some deep dark secret about the seadweller- he wasn't changing his fucking mind whatever she said, though, the slimy seaslug had strategically dropped an armful of bottled beauty products in the lavation chamber right fucking next to Karkat for two days running. He might have reluctantly grown used to the idea that every Jaeger pilot on the base was going to find out what he looked like naked, but that did not mean he was okay with them contriving to stick their face next to his nook, say “lookin' good, chief”, and smirk at him until he kicked them repeatedly in the head and maybe screamed like a wiggler a little. At least it had been less embarrassing than his reaction to seeing Tavros' robotic legs for the first time; thank fuck Nitram was too pathetic to be an asshole about it and no-one else had been around, because Karkat had looked like a complete vapid douchenozzle slipping and falling on his ass like that.

In defiance of his expectations, Terezi shoved him up against the wall and then pressed herself up against him, and Karkat barely had time to think that he had been expecting her to be bonier before her tongue was licking at the inside of his mouth. Part of him thought it was gross; it was hard to imagine something that felt more like a moistly writhing larva pushing past his lips. The rest of him told that part to shut the fuck up and pull her closer, because she was insane and beautiful and he was nine sweeps old and it had been half a lifetime since he'd dared to think that someone might ever touch him like this.

Faster than he would have thought possible his blood caught fire; when she leaned back he followed her, one hasty gasp for breath drawing in the taste of chalk and salt and sticky sugar before latching back onto her mouth like a hungry parasite. His hands gripped her shoulders and itched to run lower; her fingers ran across his back and lightning shot down his spine, hot and cold and boiling under his belly. Her tongue dipped into his mouth again and it didn't feel so bad this time. He pushed back, nibbled at her lip on instinct and tasted cool, metallic blood when one of his fangs pierced the flesh.

“Shit!” He pulled back, licking the blood off his lips and blushing when he realised that was what he had done. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-”

The noise Terezi made sounded like a growl, but it was anything but angry. Pushing his head back against the wall with one hand, she licked a stripe up his neck and tugged at his ear-lobe with her lips. Karkat gasped, pulse racing as her fangs ghosted past the arteries in his neck. His nook throbbed with every beat of his blood-pusher, and his bone bulge pressed swollen against its sheath.

“Mmm,” murmured Terezi, licking his neck again. Karkat tilted his head away from her in a near-submissive gesture, allowing her better access. “I was right. You are delicious.”

Her nose pressed up under his jaw, but her words let Karkat summon the remaining dregs of his dignity and shove his hands between them, pushing her back a step.

“No, fuck this,” he growled- a real growl, not a playful purr. “You want to ride one of your crazy colour-highs, you can bust into the storage blocks and sniff the liquid chromatic coatings they keep for the Jaegers- actually, you can fucking drink it for all I care, roll around laughing your non-existent ass off on the floor like the unsanctified offspring of an upturned shell-reptile and a cackling scavengerbeast until you die of heavy metal poisoning.” He took a deep breath and wished she wasn't so close, that he couldn't smell her, chalky and papery and hypnotically sweet. “Regardless of my shitty mutant blood and corresponding utter lack of personhood, I am not your fucking plaything and I'm not a piece of uncooked meat lying there for you to do whatever the damn hell you like with. Maybe you're okay with going at this like a wild hopbeast at a woodland orgy but I actually want to have relationships that mean something, so you can just fuck off and find someone else delicious to slobber over...”

He tried to push her further away, mind already on escape- he wasn't going to run, not where she could hear it, but he could put on a good turn of speed just walking. His entire plan was thwarted when Terezi froze in place; it was disconcertingly like trying to move a steel sculpture bolted to the floor.

“Karkat,” she said, and for once there wasn't even the hint of laughter in her words. “I think that you misunderstand my intentions.”

“Really?” Karkat bared his teeth at her, and braced against the wall to shove her away. He wasn't certain whether she let him win or not; either way she stumbled back a couple more steps. “So what is this? A friendly fucking hello? You've known me less than three days, you've spent most of that time being completely infuriating, how the flaptainting shitmongers do you expect me to believe you feel anything strong enough to be called pity or hate yet?”

The admission sent a surprising burst of pain through his upper thorax, one that took a moment to identify. He had liked Terezi, maddening as she was; she had been better company than he had expected to find in this lunatic containment facility. Three days might not have been enough for romantic feelings, not entirely, but it was enough for friendship. Betrayal was an ugly feeling; not wanting to face it, Karkat turned to go, and made it right up to the edge of the main corridor before her reply stopped him dead.

“How long do you expect we have to make certain?”

She waited until he glanced back before continuing; her eyes were fixed away from him, at the place where she had pressed him against the wall. “Jaeger pilots have died before, you know. Not often- but then, the kaiju didn't used to attack as much, or in these numbers. They're getting bigger, and attacking more often, and we still don't know how to stop them coming.” Her head turned and if he hadn't known she was blind he would have sworn she was looking directly at him. Karkat knew he should move, but he was frozen in place as she walked up to him, stopping less than a hand's breadth away. “I like you, Karkat,” she said, talking to his upper thorax. “And maybe I don't exactly pity or hate you yet, but that doesn't mean I'm indiscriminate. I just want to be sure that we take the chance we have now, in case there isn't another one later.”

Slowly, Karkat leaned forward and rested his forehead against hers, cupping the back of her head in one hand and closing his eyes. “No promises,” he said. “In case you hadn't noticed, I'm a raging fuckass and you're a globefondling maniac.”

“Truly, a match woven in the endless tapestry of fate,” said Terezi, and fuck his life, he actually found that weird, not-quite-mocking tone attractive.

“Fuck you,” he said, and tilted his head so he could kiss her. This time it wasn't nearly so heated, but the cool pressure of her lips spread over him like a soothing bath of sopor. He could have drowned in it, suffocated before breaking loose, but the sound of footsteps running in a nearby corridor reminded him that the rest of the world hadn't stopped existing and he pulled back. “Shit, this is a terrible time for this. There is not a single taintslurping chance I'm skipping schoolfeeding.”

He felt Terezi's smile against his lips. “Good thinking, Karcandy. Wavescar will not be impressed if we miss our tactics feeds.”

“Well, that's an understatement the size of an Othersider.” Karkat shuddered, remembering his previous two sessions. He had been utterly gobsmacked to discover that letting the Othersiders get close enough to the coast to trash the lowblood cities was actually considered a globe-fondling fuck-up of epic proportions in Commander Wavescar's book, but finding that out had been no cheerful frond-skipping outdoor meal plan. The Commander taught tactics in a near-permanent state of irritation, tearing apart every single mistake that was made in the field with a viciousness that made him itch to jump behind his chair and never emerge. He was convinced that Tavros and Rufioh were going to die of terror in tactics feeding one day. Karkat was also sure he would never forget the basics of engaging an Othersider in combat. He was having fucking nightmares about it.

“After dinner?” suggested Terezi, leaning in so her lips would brush his ear. “My place or yours?”

She was gone before Karkat could answer, leaving him to sort through dazed thoughts for a good half a minute before he remembered that he didn't want Wavescar to rip his head off and feed it down his neck.

He made it to the schoolfeeding block without incident, but the next few hours were spent in a state of heightened tension which was only made worse by the fact that he was sitting near the back between Kankri and Eridan. Karkat took notes with vicious stabs at his workpad, resenting every other fucker in the place for arriving there earlier and taking up all the seating spaces that were not directly beside the Amporas.

At least it's Eridan and not Cronus, he thought, then stabbed at his workpad again because that was a little like comparing unchecked diarrhoea to galloping crotch-rot. Beside him, Eridan sniffed disdainfully.

“It's a workpad, not whatewer unpalatable crap you're used to eatin',” the seadweller murmured. “Seriously, stop jabbin' at it, it's embarrassin' just watchin' you bein' such a clumsy ignoramus.”

Karkat bared his teeth at the seadweller, and cast an assessing glance at the adult Enforcer taking the feed. Today was engineering first, not tactics, which was lucky for him because he'd shown up half a minute late. It would probably be less lucky later when the blue-blooded bitch up front tattled on him to Wavescar, but what the fuck ever. He'd take whatever breaks he could get.

“I know how to use a fucking workpad,” he hissed back at Eridan, keeping his voice low. He didn't want to draw attention; he'd never been interested in xenobiology or engineering before, and the only thing worse than being immediately lost as soon as Othersiders or Jaeger technology came up was having his ignorance publicly dragged out of him. If he could just make it through the schoolfeeding intact, he could ask Kanaya for help with the basics.

“Coulda fooled me,” Eridan whispered. “I don't ewen know what you're doin' here. It's a waste of fuckin' time tryin' to teach most a the landwellin' idiots anyhow, but ewen these clowns should figure out that some dumbass freakblood ain't gonna keep up with any of us real trolls...”

Karkat snarled and brought his stylus down on the back of Eridan's hand, hard. The seadweller let out a cut-off whimper as the point jabbed through the webbing between his thumb and forefinger, and glared at Karkat through watering eyes as both Cronus and Kankri spun around. Nobody else seemed to notice.

“Oops,” said Karkat. “Look at that. I guess I don't know how to use a fucking workpad after all.”

Eridan reacts to being stabbed.

“Karkat!” Kankri's voice was barely more than a whisper, but the irritation in it was clear. “What in the world possessed you? You could have seriously maimed Eridan with that violent outburst!”

“Could have!?” Eridan replied, his voice caught between a snarl and a squeak.

Cronus whistled, low and quiet. “Easy there, chief. Don't vwant to push this one; he's got spunk.” He winked at Karkat, who leaned back as an involuntary shiver ran across his skin. “Nice jab there.”

“There is a hole in my fuckin' webbin'! That mutant fuckin' attacked me, Cro!”

“So? You'wve had vworse from your fuckin' lusus. Get owver it.” Cronus was talking to Eridan, but his eyes were fixed on Karkat. He smiled at him, a lazy grin that said nothing pleasant about the future intentions of the wearer. “Fella could really enjoy a temper like that, if he got to take it for a spin...”

“If you don't stop hitting on me I will throw up in your hair gel,” said Karkat. Eridan looked horrified.

Cronus wiggled his eyebrows. “Gotta come into my respite block for that, chief.”

“Cronus, I believe that Karkat is expressing a lack of consent for further relations with you and discomfort with your approaches,” said Kankri, who was keeping one eye on the front of the room where a particularly detailed exploded diagram of a Jaeger was hanging in the air. Not that it meant much to Karkat; the technology involved in them was so unfamiliar that he was starting to wonder if the Jaegers were being spawned by another hell-portal that nobody had thought to mention to him. Nobody could say that Karkat Vantas wasn't interested in anything that might save his sorry ass one day- not without getting a large bundle of hastily-scrawled study notes jammed up their waste chute, anyway- but Jaegers appeared to be the work of an insane genius whose first step had been to throw out the laws of physics.

Kankri was still talking. Karkat had sort of tuned him out; it was fast becoming habitual. “-and while of course I can understand your need to reach out to others, it is important to bear in mind that their individual choices are to be respected if you are to retain any degree of credibility as a prospective partner.”

“What, you sayin' I don't do that?” said Cronus. “C'mon, sweet-cheeks, you know I only gotta hit on the hatchclone 'cos you ain't up for it.”

The look he gave Karkat then was the clearest evidence imaginable that Terezi didn't think of him as just a choice piece of ass, because that expression was unmistakeable. Seeing the same look directed at Kankri too was just the cherry on the shit sundae.

“And of course, I am grateful for your continued respect for my vows,” said Kankri, seemingly oblivious to the weapons-grade ray of pure creep directed at him. “I honestly feel that we have made some great forwards progress with your views regarding hemostatus and blood privilege since we were able to remove the distraction of unceasing concupiscent approaches from my lect- our talks...”

Karkat was fairly sure that he actually was going to throw up if this continued, and he found himself sharing a sheepish look with Eridan that covered the all-encompassing nightmare that was going on over their heads and worked up from there.

“If you fuck Cronus, I'll slit your fuckin' gizzard,” whispered Eridan.

“If I fuck Cronus, you'll be welcome to,” Karkat whispered back. “He's not even loathsome enough to make a good kismesis; I literally cannot conceive of the circumstances under which I would consent to do anything even remotely concupiscent in his presence, and if by some incomprehensible twist of fate the stars aligned and I was struck with uncontrollable lust for his nauseating form Terezi would kick both our asses.”

He could practically see the moment that the thoughts slotted into place in Eridan's head to create a complete picture. “You're quadranted with Terezi? Concupiscent?”

Karkat shrugged one-shouldered and kept his eyes on the school-feed. “Yes. No. Maybe.” He scowled. “None of your fucking business, bulgemunch.”

“How'd a malcontent freak like you score her?” Eridan scowled. “Her and her hatchclone are the best Jaeger pilots ewer, ewen better'n me an' Cro. What you got that makes you a worthy ally or riwal?”

“Like I said, it's none of your fucking business,” Karkat hissed, half-glad that Kankri was still rambling at Cronus and couldn't overhear. “I'm not your personal relationship advice dispenser or your hatefriend.”

“Yeah, no kiddin'.” Eridan snorted and smiled, a little smug. “You wouldn't know nothin' about proper romance anyhow. Takes some actual breedin' an' class to appreciate the literary artistry and cultural benefits a Milles Anbun.”

Karkat rolled his eyes. “Cultural benefits my puckered excrement sphincter. The entire Milles Anbun line is formulaic garbage with the emotional variety and depth of a post-operative Helmsman. The only thing that redeems it from the unfathomable pits of impregnable mediocrity is the Double Jeopardy imprint, and that's only because no other fleet-permitted romance publisher bothers to explore the complexities of a stable vacillating quadrant core.”

The way Eridan's eyes widened was almost comical. “No way. You ain't any kind a well read.”

“So I'm guessing Sunzi Bingfa's Tactical Manuals don't count.” Karkat smirked at Eridan's confusion. “Love and War, asshole. Cornerstones of civilisation.”

Eridan's mouth opened and closed a few times, making him look more and more like a beached fish with each repetition. “You know,” he said eventually, like he was trying out an idea. “Seems to me, you could be any kind a blood colour under that mutation a yours.”

“Gee, you fucking think?” said Karkat, a little snappishly but still keeping his volume down. “It's not like I've spent my entire fucking life plagued with terrifying uncertainty about what what unexpected rollercoaster of hilarious funtime biology my body is going to throw at me next.”

Eridan threw the slightly blood-stained stylus at him; it bounced off and landed on the floor with a rattle. “I'm just sayin', you're obwiously a landdweller, but ain't nothin' to say you ain't a highblood landdweller under that nasty red shit you got.”

“Thank you so fucking much.”

“No need to be like that, Kar, I'm tryin' to be nice here.” Eridan sniffed. “So maybe you ain't so good as me, but I guess you could be good enough. You know, if your blood was the right colour it was meant to be an' all.”

Karkat stared at him. “If that was meant to be an apology,” he said slowly, “Then it was the most piss-poor excuse for an attempt at restitution I've ever seen in my entire life. And I have seen some seriously shitty attempts to say sorry. In fact, I was responsible for most of them, so I fucking well know what I'm talking about.”

“You gonna accept it or not? 'Cos most a the philistines around here ain't got no idea about any kind a higher learnin' or debate.”

Karkat squinted at him while he considered it. On the one hand, Eridan was a bigoted little shit of a fishtroll. On the other hand, he was a bigoted little shit of a fishtroll who could actually talk about vaguely interesting topics rather than the general mindless drivel Karkat had been subjected to for the last couple of days.

Ah, what the hell. It's not like he can get any more annoying. Karkat gave Eridan a half-nod and tried not to succumb to the pressing feeling that he'd made a terrible mistake. It got slightly easier over the next couple of hours, as they tapped messages into their notepads and slid them back and forth, debating the historical implications of the kismessitude between two rival admirals back in the days before adults were booted off Alternia and making snide jibes about each other's typing quirks. Luckily for Karkat, neither of them were caught; he was certain for a few blood-freezing minutes in the last hour that Wavescar was onto them, but when she dismissed them and he made it out of the room without being gruesomely dismembered it became apparent that her bloodthirsty glares had just been general background dislike.

“...just sayin', you can't construct any sort a workin' strategy from the troops that Naplon had awailable!”

“And I'm saying that even with an Imperial fucking battlecruiser, Naplon would've found some way to fuck up.” Catching sight of jade flashes ahead of him in the crowd that was rolling towards the communal nutrition hall, Karkat pulled ahead of Eridan. “Look, this was not a completely hideous experience, but I have shit to do. You can bug me tomorrow if you want to be further schooled in why your pet historical general was an egotistical panless moron.”

“You're just fuckin' jealous a talent,” said Eridan, which would have bothered Karkat if he hadn't started to work out that personal attacks were Eridan's primary line of defence against everything he couldn't straight-up dismiss. Ignoring the frankly pathetic attempt at an insult, he made a rude parting gesture at the seadweller and jogged up to Kanaya, noticing too late that she was strolling beside Vriska.

Mother Grub fucking damn it. He really didn't want Vriska to know any more about his business than she had to; he trusted her about as much as a poisonous stingbug in his foot-covering garments. Karkat sighed; it wasn't like there was much he could do about it now. “Hey, Kanaya,” he said, slowing to a walk and scratching a little uncertainly at the nape of his neck. “So, uh... I was wondering if we could hang out later...”

Kanaya smiled at him with a tolerance that would have surprised most of the people Karkat had spoken to- or near. “Of course,” she said. “The same as last time?”

Karkat nodded, relieved. Staying up so Kanaya could tutor him in all the things he didn't understand was causing him to miss sleep, but he was used to it and she didn't seem to mind. She was okay, really- a bit snarky sometimes, and she did hang around Vriska which was a mark the size of a trunkbeast against her, but since she put up with his musclebeast shit Karkat wasn't inclined to kick up a fuss about her putting up with other peoples'.

“What last time? Are you keeping seeeeeeeecrets from me!?”

Well, not much fuss, anyway. Karkat was about to tell Vriska where she could shove her oversized cartilage nub when he was intercepted by an arm around his shoulder and a tongue licking up his cheek.

“Hurry up, Karkles,” said Terezi, leaning on him just enough to make his blood-pusher race a little faster than optimal. “You know you're supposed to eat regular meals. Don't want to be late!”

His “fuck you” response was somehow lost in the process of being ferried away from Vriska and into the communal nutrition hall, where he was quickly trapped in place between Terezi and Sollux and presented with a tray laden, as usual, with more food than he had seen in sweeps before landing in Jaeger central. Part of it was down to Mediterminator Orresh making good on his threats of proper nutrition; part of it was that Karkat was a picky eater at lunch and needed to eat several metric fucktons to make up for it. Mostly it was just Terezi flirting. Karkat sure as fuck wouldn't have taken a tray of food from anyone else, not with the general sense of murderous hatred that still bombarded him from all directions whenever he ventured out in public.

“Hey, mini-Vantas,” said Latula, dropping into the seat opposite and grinning at him like he hadn't just been kidnapped and possibly poisoned by a psychotic maniac and a shit-eating smug douchebag. “What's the hapz?”

Karkat responded by taking a sizeable scoop of tuber-root mash and stuffing it into his face. It was possible that there had been a time in his life when eating had been relegated to a secondary interest, but that was clearly because Past Karkat was an ungracious little fuckwit who didn't know how good he had it.

“WHY RRU TFALKIN THFFAT FUCKAFTH BITTTH FUFF FUCK FTHIIIIIIIT....”

The table jumped slightly as Mituna kicked it. Bi-coloured psionic light flickered on Karkat's left, and a glob of glowing mash hit Mituna in the goggles.

“Thut the fuck up and chill your titth,” said Sollux, not looking up from his husktop. For a moment Mituna was snarling, looking like he was about to jump across the table and throttle his hatchclone, then Latula was making scandalously pale shooshing noises and wiping the mash away. Karkat stared at his food to avoid seeing Mituna tremble and felt like a complete heel for doing it. The older Captor was unnerving- not to mention rude, loud, and generally shitty to be around- but pretending that nothing was happening felt too much like he was emulating...

“Hello Latula, Karkat. Is Mituna being troublesome again?”

Kankri shoves in between Latula and Mituna.

Karkat groaned audibly as Kankri leaned between the matesprits, pushing himself into Latula's field of vision and twisting his back towards the spark-spitting psionic. Terezi helpfully pulled Karkat's food out of the way so he could plant his face into the table without ruining it.

The smile Latula wore was only slightly uncomfortable. “Naw, 'Tuna's fine, aincha babe?”

“Yethf,” said Mituna, almost inaudibly. Sollux snorted, but his gaze stayed down and he said nothing.

“Well, I hope that we will not be subject to any uncontrolled displays today,” said Kankri. His head twisted to look back over his shoulder. “Honestly, Mituna, although I recognise that you are not responsible for your condition and are in fact attempting to control your antisocial outbursts, I can only hope that you recognise the effort and sacrifice that Latula puts into your upkeep.”

Mituna seemed to shrink in on himself even further, if that was possible. Karkat held his breath and bit his tongue hard enough to almost break the skin; he wanted to snap at Kankri, but he knew from experience that it was a shitty plan. Attacking Kankri over Mituna would upset Latula, which would upset Mituna, which would upset Sollux, and the next thing he knew it would be all-out war in the mess. He'd learned that the hard way and it wasn't worth it just to make Kankri fuck off.

“Do you? Recognise it, I mean,” asked Terezi, and Karkat knew he wasn't the only one who disliked the feeling oozing over from the other side of the table. Sollux was hunched over his husktop, attention so locked onto the screen that he was clearly running away without even moving his feet.

“I don't intend to be here long,” said Kankri. He pulled a face. “Porrim insists that I eat with her tonight, although I cannot fathom why. I merely wanted to greet Latula and bring this over.” He leaned over and set a tray down between her and Mituna. “I thought that perhaps you might find it difficult to mind Mituna and make the trip to the counter for you both, and since I already know all of your favourite foods...”

“Right,” said Latula, still smiling. “Thanks dude, that's mega-rad of you.”

“No need to mention it. It was my pleasure.” Kankri looked up to see Sollux, Terezi and Karkat's heads all tilted in his direction and looking baleful. “I'll just leave you to it, then,” he added, and beat a hasty retreat.

“Do you want me to check that out?” asked Terezi.

Latula shook her head and took a fried tuber sliver from the tray. “Naw, Kan wouldn't do anything lame to the food. Not his style, you get me?” She ate the sliver, then held another one out to Mituna. “Come on, baby, time to eat.”

“I CAN FFEETH MYFTHEFF!” Mituna smacked her hand, knocking the morsel to the floor, then looked immediately crestfallen. “Thorry.”

“Naw, I'm sorry, babe,” said Latula, and slid the tray towards him. “Here you go.”

“Thith food THTINKTH LIKK MUTHTANFFF!” yelled Mituna, flipping the bowl of fried tuber slivers. Dropping his chin to the nutrition plateau, he delicately picked one up from the tray then started nibbling at the corner of it.

“Seriously, you want me to kick Kankri's ass?” offered Karkat. “Not that I don't think you couldn't, but that was so fucking uncool that the ambient global temperature went up about three degrees. I'm humiliated to actually share genes with him.”

Latula shook her head. “Naw, I'll talk to Kan later 'bout dissin' on 'Tuna, when my boy here ain't so wound up and cranky.”

“'M not crunky,” said Mituna, his voice slightly muffled by a mouthful of tuber slivers.

“You are, babe,” said Latula, patting his hair. Karkat quickly averted his eyes from what had to be the most messed-up matespritship he'd ever seen. Fuck, the guy had a moirail and she was still halfway to pale on his crazy ass. It was weird and slightly creepy and he was not jealous of them, not even slightly.

Fingers brushed down his arm to remind him of the Pyrope girl sat next to him. “So, you never answered my question,” said Terezi. “Your place or mine?”

That got the attention of their tablemates. “You two kickin' it together now?” asked Latula, looking genuinely pleased. “Since when?”

“Since this fucking afternoon, and butt out, nobody asked you,” snapped Karkat.

“Whoreff,” said Mituna, pausing briefly in his detailed study of a tuber sliver to snigger.

“Thuppothe we thouldn't be thurprithed,” said Sollux, not looking up from his husktop. “A blind girl with a red fetith. It wath her or Cronuth.”

“Gloat when you manage to attract a mate, slime-shitter.” Karkat shoved Sollux gently, just enough to rock him and disrupt whatever he was typing at such speed. “Oh, no, wait, you can't because that's never going to happen.”

“I'm telling GZth all about thith one.” Sollux turned his head and grinned at Karkat. “He'll be tho exthited. We can make bunting.”

“What colour?” asked Terezi, before Karkat could object.

“I don't fucking know, it'th GZth. Whatever thitty colour he findth before he forgetth what he'th doing, I gueth.”

Karkat snorted, but inwardly he had to agree. By some bizarre room-shifting alchemy that he didn't fully understand he'd spent the last two after-dinner periods in the Makaras' respite block, watching movies with the same reprobates who abducted him at dinner-time. It was as expected a hell-hole filled to the brim with cracked juggling clubs, empty soda-pop bottles, disturbing pictures of malicious clowns, and hundreds and hundreds of shitty horns that got under and behind everything that an unwary troll might lean on without thinking. Kurloz was nowhere to be seen and Gamzee literally gave no shits what was going on so long as he got to hang around drinking shitty clown soda and calling everyone his friends, and Karkat was starting to develop a serious concern that the highblood was missing a few of the vital mental links required to understand what the fuck was happening in his vicinity or remember events from moment to moment.

On the other hand, Sollux was being a bone-bulge, and Karkat felt compelled to respond in kind. “That's some real touching enthusiasm for our joyous new relationship, asshole.”

Sollux smirked. “I am tho totally hacking into the thurveillanthe in your rethpite block to thee Kankri'th reaction to thith.”

“Not if they're using our block, you ain't,” said Latula. “Hey, Red, you and 'Rezi can have it for a couple of hours. Me'n 'Tuna can hang someplace else, right baby?”

Mituna snickered dirtily. Karkat didn't even want to think about how he knew to do that. Honestly, there were a lot of things he didn't want to think about right now; the thought of him and Terezi being alone was downright alarming in the best way possible, but under that his insides were churning for a completely different reason. He hadn't had many- or any- people he was close to before, but he was definitely infected with this troll emotion called friendship. Falling into the routine of the base had been easy, like settling into a groove that had been carved out for him since before the day he was hatched.

He didn't want to mess it up.

He spent the rest of dinner on edge and trying to hide it, but Terezi picked up on his feelings and squeezed his arm reassuringly when no-one was looking. It helped a little, and he hardly kicked Sollux at all when they stood to leave and the younger Captor started snickering again. They left the communal nutrition hall side-by-side, not actually touching but close enough that anyone who didn't think they were vanishing off together was either blind or so determined to maintain a polite fiction that they should get a medal for it.

To Karkat's surprise, then, Terezi stopped at the top of the stairs outside the mess and turned to face him. It was strange, thinking that she couldn't actually see him. She was good enough at faking it that she always seemed to be right on the mark.

“What?” he asked.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” asked Terezi. Karkat studied her for a moment; thin yet solid, a presence of bones and angles and fierce edges, with a grin that could cut skin or iron and a mind that could see more than his eyes ever would.

It occurred to him that perhaps he was less worried about what he thought of her, and more about what she might think of him.

“No, and I won't be until we've at least tried it,” he said. “But I've done a lot of things I wasn't sure about in the past and I don't see any reason to stop now. Certainty is a bitch.”

The smile on her face told him he’d said something right, at least, and then Karkat was almost bowled over by Terezi as she crashed into him face-first. They made it to her respite block in a tangled mess of limbs and fell through the door, Karkat’s hands glued to Terezi’s hips and her claws tangled in his hair, joined at the mouth like they had pupated that way. Air came in short, frantic gasps and was passed between them in greedy, stale gulps. Breathing didn’t seem as important as it used to, a secondary consideration to staying in contact, to the taste of Terezi on his lips.

The door slid shut with a hiss and the backs of Karkat’s legs bumped into something soft but firm. Terezi pulled back and in the sudden rush of cold emptiness Karkat tried to lean back in towards her. She blocked him with her palms, which caressed the front of his thorax briefly before shoving him back, hard. It was a testament to how gloriously hormone-addled he was that he didn’t bother trying to catch himself, falling back freely onto the couch and leaning back up to catch Terezi as she followed him over the arm.

The seats weren’t quite wide enough for her to straddle him lying down; one of her knees was wedged between his thigh and the back of the couch and the other leg dangled onto the floor. It was uncomfortable as fuck but Karkat gave no shits- not because he had none to give, but because they were all currently reserved for the tongue running along his neck, the cool body pressed against him and the empty, wet, hungry ache chewing its way from his belly to the space between his legs. Glossy black hair fell around his face like a curtain and he pressed his lips to whatever skin he could find, kissing her cheek and nuzzling her neck and nibbling her ear. His hands slid along her thighs, clenched tight enough for the claws to pierce her jumpsuit, and her warm, satisfied hum shot straight to his crotch.

“How-” It was hard to talk, the words snatched between kisses and panting as she peeled open the front of his jumpsuit and ran her fingers under his tank top, sending fiery shivers across his skin. “How far-” She shucked her jumpsuit down to her waist with his help, grabbing his mouth into a kiss as his hands ran along the skin above her hips. “-are we-” More kisses, open-mouthed and breathless, fingers running like lines of boiling ice over his skin while his own traced patterns on soft, scar-ridged flesh. “-going?”

She paused over him, everything stilling. Her shades had slipped and Karkat could see blank, red-burned eyes, large and shaped like graceful sweet-nuts as they stared in his general direction. Terezi was beautiful, he realised dimly; not just attractive in a disturbing, bones-and-angles fashion but really, truly beautiful in a way that had nothing to do with what shape her features were. It radiated out of her like moonlight, bathing everything in her vicinity with raw essence of Terezi, and Karkat abruptly felt aware of every single one of his own shortcomings. In a sudden acute sharpness he felt his own overbite, the snub nose that he always thought looked like something large and obnoxious had squashed it, the patches of skin that still felt wrong even after the Mediterminator’s tender ministrations got rid of the infections that had taken root while he was living in the wilds.

He felt the hot, mutant sludge pumping through his body and the corresponding spike of familiar terror that came with the recognition. The ball of anxiety in his thorax tightened because some things he had always intended to hide and this, this was so fucking far outside what he had ever planned for that it was in a whole other galaxy and still moving.

“How far do you want to go?” asked Terezi, fangs showing in a razor grin and one finger tracing teasing patterns across Karkat’s collarbone.

To his everlasting and consummate shame, Karkat burst into tears.

Karkat starts crying during sloppy makeouts.

Immediately his entire body and the vast majority of his own thinkpan demanded to know what the shitting shameglobes his ocular lubrication ducts thought they were playing at, but by that point it was too late. He covered the humiliating display with his hands but Terezi was already sliding back, her hands shifting from teasing to comforting. Karkat let himself be pulled up into a clumsy hug, his legs still trapped under Terezi and his face resting on her shoulder. She still smelled maddeningly good, which did absolutely nothing to quiet the flat-out chaos taking place in his thinkpan.

“Sweet Holy Mother Grub fucksticks, what is wrong with me?” Realising that hiding his face was a lost cause, he moved his hands long enough to scrub his eyes dry on his sleeves. It didn’t work particularly well, because the fucking things kept leaking. “I don’t even- fuck, I’m sorry. This is probably the single most mortifying thing I could have done. Past Me is an idiot and as soon as I can stop fucking crying I’ll apologise properly for his musclebeast shit…”

He was shocked into silence as a teal mastication muscle ran up his cheek, replacing the wet tear track with a wet saliva streak.

“This far is okay too,” said Terezi, licking up another drop of moisture from his face. “Although there may be a penalty later, when you are able to pay it. Delicious as your tears are, they are a little watery.”

“There is something seriously fucking wrong with you,” said Karkat, but the knot of near-panic in his blood-pusher was unravelling. The little shivers that ran up his spine with each lick were pleasant, but not overwhelming.

“Mm-hmm,” murmured Terezi, continuing to lap at his face like some sort of untrained barkbeast. Her arms wrapped around him and pulled him close, but she stopped there, nuzzling at him in an unhurried, relaxed way that she seemed determined to just keep up forever. Karkat sank back into the couch as strange, contradictory thrills of soothing and excitement danced over his skin, and buried his face in her neck.

The next night, when Eridan asked if they’d got it off, Karkat told him to mind his own fucking business and or suck his own bone bulge, which turned out to be Ampora-speak for “yes, and please bug me incessantly for details”. He spent most of the night in a state of perpetual irritation above the norm, particularly when Kankri saw fit to give him an extensive lecture on the moral, physical and spiritual benefits of celibacy that ended when Karkat threw an empty dish across the mess table at his hatchclone and it bounced off Kankri's left horn.

Nonetheless, all through the night his eyes kept shifting to Terezi, whose head was turned in his direction more often than was strictly necessary. Unspoken though it was, Karkat knew that next time they were alone together he would be ready.

Chapter Text

The evening started out like any other, with the sound of someone trying to hammer their way through the door to the respite block using their bare hands. Karkat was rolling out of his recuperacoon and scraping off slime before the thumping had even stopped, dodging around Kankri to gather up an absorbent drying fabric and some clean clothes. He shoved his feet into untied boots and checked to make sure that he wasn't going to look any more patently ridiculous wandering the hallways than any of the other early-evening slime-drenched ablution-bound zombies.

For a moment as he looked up, he saw Kankri staring at him like he was thinking of saying something. Karkat nipped that idea in the bud by marching over to the door and yanking it open. Leaning on the wall opposite, Veteran Kharon engaged him in a glaring contest until Kankri very pointedly cleared his throat. Karkat broke his gaze and marched off down the corridor. He'd mostly worked out how to get around the base now; it was smaller than he had thought at first, and once you worked out that it was built around the twin hubs of the mess and the Command Centre everything else kind of fell into place. At any rate, it meant he could leave Veteran Kharon sullenly trailing them as he took the straightest possible route to the ablution block. At this hour of the night, they weren't the only ones headed that way; fortunately this section of the base was pilot habitation only, so he only had a limited number of assholes to worry about humiliating himself in front of.

Not that it was easy to feel that humiliated about his own clumsy state of undress after having borne witness to Gamzee wandering to the ablution block stark fucking naked and literally dripping slime. Karkat had only seen that once, fortunately, but it was apparently a semi-regular occurrence and one every other pilot had been subjected to multiple times. If he was being honest with himself, Karkat was actually starting to worry about Gamzee a little, deep down in the most foolishly-inclined recesses of his sponge matter. Even Damara wore an absorbent drying fabric to her morning ablutions, as a sort of wholly insufficient dress; the fact that Gamzee not only lacked basic trollish decency but didn't seem to comprehend the concept was... concerning. That was, if Karkat was going to let himself be concerned about the affairs of a nightmarish clown-worshipping highblood with the mental age and acuity of an unpupated wiggler. Which he wasn't.

At any rate, he had long since gone past the point of feeling sheepish about stomping into the changing area in his sopor-drenched undergarments, and he stripped them off and dropped them into a laundering receptacle in record time. There were already thick clouds of steam pouring out of the lavation chamber and Karkat moved in carefully, keeping his eyes open for trouble. He relaxed when he saw Aranea and Meenah. Hearing his approach, the latter turned and gave him a wide grin.

“Hey, shouty nubs, guess what?” she called. “Drift day today! You're gonna be an offishal Jaeger pilot before you know it!”

Karkat halted in dead shock, chilly water pooling around his feet. “Wait, fuck, that's today? Since when was that today?”

“Since I overheard Wavescar carping about it,” said Meenah, grinning at him with a mouth full of teeth that were more like fucking bone knives. “Word is, your Drivesuits are finfished; they're gonna suit you up after lunch and then it's the Drift.”

She strolled past Karkat, still frozen in shock, and planted a slap on his ass on the way past. “Don't get your tail in a twist about it, Vantas, it's nofin to flip out over.”

Karkat heard a second slap, followed by a loud hiss, and then the sound of Kankri's voice, slightly higher-pitched than usual. “Meenah, what you just did is extremely disrespectful of personal boundaries and could potentially be triggering for persons who are...”

Tuning him out, Karkat wandered over to the spray nozzles nearer Aranea and silently activated one. The skin on his ass didn't hurt or anything, but it was tingling with a possibly imaginary sensation that he wanted to wash off. He refused to give Meenah the satisfaction of seeing him rub at it; knowing her, she was actively trying to piss him off- not blackflirting even, just for laughs. If he hadn't been so busy freaking out about the Drift it would have worked perfectly, too, but too much of his thinkpan was being given over to raw panic at the realisation that today they were going to plug Kankri into his fucking mind.

“Karkat,” said Aranea, and he started, wet hair flopping wildly into his eyes. She looked different without her ocular corrective devices and with her hair dangling in wet clumps around her face. Younger, mostly. Karkat met her eyes because that was something else he'd learned about the communal ablution block; unless your name was Ampora or Megido, or you had a particular fondness for being kicked in the bone bulge, you kept your eyes above the waist and tried not to gawp at anyone's scars, tattoos, grubscars or rumble spheres. He was fairly sure most of them had broken that rule to ogle him at least once, but Aranea was one of the few people he trusted to have looked out of polite curiosity rather than general unrefined douchebaggery.

“You don't usually eat much at lunch, correct?” she asked, and the inanity of the question was belied by the quiet urgency in her voice. Karkat shook his head wordlessly- he couldn't usually stomach much, not after physical training. Training with the rest of the pilots meant they had an audience every time he 'sparred' with Kankri. It wasn't like he had a choice, not with Commander Wavescar standing right there watching- and he could have sworn she had them in the ring twice as long as anyone else- but the nasty, sick, guilty feeling in his stomach got worse every single time he gave in to frustration and mercilessly beat the crap out of his hatchclone. Throwing down the staff at the end of the bout was becoming a relief; yesterday he'd thrown it at the floor hard enough to crack, which was satisfying in a way that thrashing Kankri into a bloody mess hadn't been.

Aranea let out a small sigh of relief. “Good. I wouldn't advise it today, either. Some people react rather violently to their first Drift.”

Karkat swallowed. “Right. Uh. Thanks, I guess.” He turned back to face his spray nozzle, feeling a blush growing over the bridge of his nose. “Was that all you had to tell me or do you have more words of sage advice from the giant robot-drone super secret pilots' club to share?”

Aranea giggled briefly before muffling it. “No, not exactly,” she said, and something in her voice set the back of Karkat's neck prickling. She sounded too casual, like she was putting a lot of effort into what were supposed to be effortless words. “But I was thinking that since you're not going to be eating maybe you might like to spend the time with me and Porrim today? We were planning to go exploring in the lower storage rooms and I thought you might find it interesting.”

Karkat glanced back over at her through the obscuring spray and clouds of steam. She was smiling at him a little too widely, and it didn't touch her eyes, which were wide and worried. Definitely up to some egregious fuckery. “You thought I might find it interesting,” he repeated flatly. “Right. Because everyone knows about my insatiable appetite for wandering around in the near-pitch dark, feasting my ganderbulbs on the esoteric sight of rack after rack of cardboard containment cubes, cardboard containment cubes and more fucking cardboard containment cubes! Thank you so fucking much. I can barely contain my enthusiasm; just look at it, flopping around all over the place like a beached fish. It can join Gamzee's dignity, Porrim's chastity, and Mituna's common sense in the collection of things that don't fucking exist and probably never did.”

Aranea glanced over her shoulder to where Meenah was still trying to make good her escape from Kankri's haranguing, then leaned in close to Karkat with a sly, secretive smile. “Trust me. You'll find this interesting.”

She pulled away before Karkat could react, splashing across the lavation chamber and out into the changing block. With a muttered curse Karkat turned back to the spray nozzle and got on with the business of cleaning himself. It wasn't his job or his responsibility to try and second-guess the ramblings of crazy cerulean-blooded bitches who were probably just trying to prank him before what he thoroughly expected to be the single most awful experience of his life. Still, there was something about the last whispered invitation that he found both unsettling and intriguing. Perhaps it was that it had sounded genuine, almost excited- the voice Aranea used when she had something to explain, not the one she used when Vriska had An Idea that she had been roped into helping execute.

He was still puzzling over it when he left the ablution block, clean and dried and wearing a freshly-laundered jumpsuit that he already knew would smell like sweaty crotch by the end of the night. He left ahead of Kankri and arrived at the mess just in time to snag a seat next to Tavros. He usually ended up sitting with Meenah and Vriska, but Tavros was one of the poor saps they managed to recruit for their schemes on a regular basis so he tended to be at the same meal plateau. Karkat was mostly just in it because it was easier to steal food from distracted people. He wasn't dumb enough to get involved with their insane piratical maggot-farming, but he was on the receiving end of a conspiracy by everyone in the food preparation block to make him eat his own body weight daily and he accepted his duty gladly and with no regrets.

It seemed that Vriska and Meenah weren't the only ones looking to take advantage of Tavros' quiet, unassertive nature. A disappointed-looking Cronus slunk away as Karkat sat down.

“Um, thanks,” the brown-blood whispered to Karkat. “He's kind of, been staring at me, ever since Rufioh turned him down? It's, really, very creepy.”

“He should learn not to fucking hit on people who are happily quadranted,” said Karkat, stealing a roll off Tavros' plate and wondering just how much of an improvement Horuss was over Cronus, anyway. If he didn't find out who was running the book on when Rufioh would pluck up the courage to actually dump his creepy-ass matesprit he was going to start it himself before the end of the perigee. “Actually, he should learn not to fucking hit on people, full stop. Does he ever do anything besides sprout horrendous pick-up lines like some sort of substandard flirtation product vending device?”

Tavros shrugged. “Uh, Aranea says, that he's actually a pretty talented, musician?”

“Really?” Karkat looked at Cronus' retreating back with mild interest, then shuddered as the seadweller veered off to lean in a way-too-casual fashion over Latula and Mituna's seats, the only positive effect of which was to dislodge Kankri. “Urgh, fuck, who cares. He should have taken the fucking hint when Porrim of all people told him to go pail himself.” He shuddered. Being on the receiving end of Cronus' come-ons was hardly an exclusive club, but there was something in the way he turned nasty when told “no” that made Karkat really, really glad for the Jeb rank-patch on his arm marking him as too important to fuck with.

“Porrim is, really nice,” said Tavros, a hint of warning in his voice.

Karkat rolled his eyes. “I didn't mean to say she isn't, or that it's any of my business who she's pailing or papping, but there's three basic romantic constants around here.” He raised his hand and started counting them off. “One, Cronus hits on everyone, without exception. Lock him alone in a room for long enough, he'd start using cheesy pick-up lines on himself, and he'd probably get rejected then, too. Two, Porrim gets romantically entangled with everyone, except for Cronus because he's a creep, me because I'm too new, and Kankri because somewhere in his messed-up bundle of insane cultist vows is one about never letting himself experience basic trollish emotions or some shit like that. And thirdly, sooner or later everyone hits on your hatchclone, because Rufioh is ludicrously attractive and everyone wants a piece of that ass." He paused, noting that Tavros had turned a rich syrupy brown. “For fuck's sake, it's basic concupiscent appreciation, I'm not saying I want to dive across the tables and declare my undying lust and unconquerable desire to tap that booty. Just that if he asked, I might not say no.”

Tavros coughed and shifted in his seat, not meeting Karkat's eyes. “Okay. That is still, um, maybe too much information for me?”

“What the fuck ever,” said Karkat, stealing another roll to hide the fact that he was blushing too. “Let's just add you to the microscopic list of people who are somehow immune to the effect and move on.”

Tavros nodded quickly. “Actually,” he said, with a quick glance around to see if anyone was watching. “I think, that there is a fourth rule, which you are forgetting.”

“Fuck you, I don't forget anything to do with romance,” said Karkat, flicking a crumb at the other pilot's forehead. Tavros squinted briefly as it bounced off. “I am a steel trap of knowledge on all things quadrant-related.”

Tavros shook his head. “No, um, I really think, that it is a rule, that Wavescar is not, included in the other rules?”

Karkat rolled his eyes and savagely tore a mouthful off the roll. “That's not a rule because Wavescar is not a troll,” he stated, after swallowing the doughy nutrition. “She is a force of fucking nature in troll form, and if anyone was ever in the unfortunate position to find themselves in her quadrants she would eat them the next night. Whole.”

Grubjuice trickled down Tavros' chin as he spluttered, trying to hold in laughter. “Yes,” he said, eventually, after all the liquid had either spilled or been swallowed. “That is, definitely and absolutely, the truth of the matter.”

Reaching out to steal another roll, Karkat was thwarted by a lack of any food under his acquisitive claws. He sighed and steeled himself; now was as good a time as any, and Tavros as good a pilot to ask as the rest. “I'm going to get breakfast,” he said, nodding towards the counters. “Come with?”

With a glance at his empty plate Tavros nodded, and the two of them got up at the same time and strolled over to the end of the queue. A few of the waiting soldiers glanced at them and made as if to move aside, but Karkat ignored them and Tavros waved them back into place. Karkat knew from the movies that in some commands you queued by rank, and he'd worked out that Jaeger pilots outranked virtually everyone, but Wavescar maintained a strict first come, first served, losers should get up earlier and not come whining to me policy. What that meant in terms of queue jumps when offered, Karkat didn't know, but since he'd arrived enough people had tried to trip him up on points of conduct that Karkat was wary of any offered politeness. Tavros was hardly highblooded or terrifying enough to intimidate them into behaving themselves.

After a few minutes of awkward silence, during which Tavros kept glancing at him, opening his mouth, then closing it and studiously examining the floor again, Karkat decided enough was enough. “So,” he said, biting his words off quick and forceful. “Drifting. They're going to want me to do it today and I wanted... I was wondering... fuck, just tell me what I'm supposed to do!”

Tavros looked back at him and blinked in surprise. “You're, uh, asking me?” he said.

“No, I'm asking all the other inexperienced nookwhiffs in this line,” snapped Karkat. “Of course I'm asking you, bulgeguzzler. You're a Jaeger pilot, aren't you?” Realising that his voice had grown louder, he quickly glanced around, but judging by the overwhelming lack of interest everyone was showing in them he hadn't been overheard yet.

“Well, yes,” said Tavros, somehow making the confirmation of basic fact sound like a guilty admission. “But, I would have thought, that maybe you would ask Terezi, or maybe Sollux, as you are closer, to them...”

“Terezi introduced herself with advice to trust the Drift, whatever the fuck that was supposed to mean, and Kankri, which isn't fucking happening.” Karkat shifted his weight and glanced back over at the tables sharply. Terezi's head turned his way and she waved, as if she had heard him speak. Which she fucking might have done... Karkat glared at her and lowered his voice before he continued. “And I don't talk about that sort of stuff with Sollux, at all. He'd just be an asshole about it anyway.”

“Oh, okay then?” said Tavros, turning slowly brown again. “In that case, um, I guess, what is the thing, that you want to know?”

Karkat shrugged, casting another suspicious glance at Terezi. “I don't know. I don't have the first fucking clue about the Drift, except that everyone goes on about it constantly.” He thought about it for a moment. “I guess I'd like to know what in the name of the Condesce's gold-plated dildo I'm in for, and how the dragon-taunting fire-fuckery I'm meant to survive it.”

Tavros nodded and took a step forward, bringing them both to the counter. He grabbed a tray and started filling it with a new batch of rolls. “Well, in that case, I would say that the Drift is like...” his voice trailed off.

“Like what?” Karkat demanded, grabbing a couple of rolls of his own. One of the Conscripts on kitchen duty caught sight of him and darted over, planting a large plate of food on the counter in front of them. He backed off sharply when Karkat reached out and took it, flinching back like mutation was infectious or something. Karkat snorted and set the plate of prescription nutrients on his tray, then turned to Tavros. “Come on, Nitram, I'm expecting an answer before I actually fucking find out for myself!”

“I'm, thinking,” Tavros replied, almost harshly. He grabbed a bowl and ladled a scoop of something green into it. “It's, um, hard to really describe, but I would say that being in the Drift with someone, is like having your ankle, tied to theirs, uh, with a short rope.” He scooted his tray along and grabbed some more plates of food, then after what looked like serious consideration, grabbed a couple more. “If you want to, um, get anywhere, then you have to move together? If you try and, er, go in different directions, then you don't actually move, at all? And one of you can't, pull, or hold back, because then you both, um, fall over.”

“Well, that sounds really fucking productive,” Karkat muttered, eyeing up how much Tavros had stuck on his tray. Even he didn't eat that much; nobody fucking ate that much, not even Gl'bgolyb, emissary of the deep and creature of a thousand ravening stomachs.

“Well, that's more, what it's like, when it's not really, um, working?” said Tavros. “When it is, you don't really notice, being two people, and it's easier.” He scratched at a spot behind his ear and stared at his dinner tray. “Just, be careful, about the rope. Don't pull it, or, um, let it pull you. I don't really know where Terezi got, trust the Drift, but she's wrong. Don't. Trust it, I mean. It'll drag you down.”

“No problem there,” said Karkat, unnerved. They reached the end of the counter and he lifted his tray. “Thanks for the advice. I'm sure at least some of it won't be complete pailslurping garbage.”

“No, problem,” said Tavros, setting out back to the table and reclaiming his seat. By the time Karkat had sat down next to him, half the food on Tavros' tray had vanished, commandeered by Meenah and Vriska both for eating and for creating a rough map on the table with which to enact Jaeger battles past. Karkat wrapped an arm around his own food and tucked in with a will, making a mental note not to steal Tavros' food quite so much in future. He looked over at Terezi again, and actually returned her wave before remembering she couldn't see it and kicking himself. Mother Grub fucking damn it. Vriska snickered at him, so he stole her rolls in retaliation, starting an argument about the basic concepts of possession, the law, and whether or not it was okay to call Terezi over as an external adjudicator when she had a clear emotional bias in the case.

Even with the efforts to keep him distracted, Karkat was on edge all through breakfast and no better by the time they all trooped along to physical training. Wavescar was waiting for them as usual, surrounded by her adjuncts and assistants. Karkat kept his eyes on her as he shuffled into place beside Kankri, trying to spot anything different in her stance or her expression or anything. He didn't see it, or at least nothing that wasn't almost certainly the product of a fevered imagination. She waited until they were all arrayed in front of her, forming a rough semi-circular arch around the edges of the sparring dais, then took a single sharp step forward. Everyone in the room had already been standing to attention, but when the Commander moved every single last one of them managed to find some more attention to stand to from somewhere. Karkat straightened his shoulders, forcing them back out of the slouch they kept dropping into.

“Vantas!” she snapped, and the distaste she put into the word was palpable. “Your Drivesuits have arrived. Report to the Medical Assessment Block today after lunch for Drift prep.” She glanced from Kankri to Karkat and back again. “Neither of you are to participate in sparring practise today, and if either of you manage to get yourselves injured I swear on my remaining horn you will regret it, do I make myself clear?”

Karkat nodded once, wordlessly, then closed his eyes and groaned when he hear Kankri clearing his throat beside him.

“I do not recognise authority derived from threats of violence, whether explicit or, as in this case, implicit,” he said. Karkat's head dropped into his hands.

“Shut up, shut up, shut up,” he hissed, through his fingers.

Kankri, predictably, ignored him in favour of continuing to ramble like a nub-bumping asshole. “Furthermore, I find your attitude towards my hatchclone and myself problematic in the extreme. I would not go so far as to say I resent it, but given your position of authority over us- an arrangement that neither of us were given any genuine choice in, and which thus cannot be truthfully called in any way consensual on our part- this blatant and continued hostility on the spurious basis of our hemostatus is outright harmful to the dynamic of-”

Karkat fisted his hands in his hair and peered out from under them across the sparring ring. “Is it too late for me to ask to be culled instead?” he asked. “Because I think that might actually be preferable to subjecting my thinkpan to this torrent of raw sewage.”

Kankri glared down his nose at him. “I was lectur- talking, Karkat, and as I have already told you, interrupting others-”

“By the ancient and bone-chilling rites of the subjugglators, will you just shut the fuck up-”

“-more respect for those who do not have the privilege of avoiding culling as we do-”

“-never stop fucking talking, my god, how has your lower mastication plate not dropped off-”

“-as a form of erasure by denying a voice-”

“ENOUGH!”

They both jumped at the sound of Wavescar's voice. During the course of their argument, it seemed that everyone else in the room had taken a smart step backwards, leaving them exposed and without any protection between them and her wrath.

One purple seadweller eye regarded them from between narrowed lids; the other, milky-pale, gazed blankly through them. Karkat wasn't sure which was more unsettling.

“You have your orders, Vantas,” said Wavescar eventually, her voice anything but mild. “There will be no further clarification on the matter.”

Both mutants' mouths slammed shut at the same moment, and a few ringing blood-pusher pulses later life returned to the room. Karkat stepped back as Aradia and Damara were called into the ring, and found a place to perch on a weight-lifting machine. Being able to sit out and watch the sparring practise quickly turned out to be less of a blessing than it seemed. As the conflict hormones from his quarrel with Kankri faded, Karkat found his twitchiness about the upcoming Drift growing worse for every second he spent sitting on his ass watching the others go through their practise. Not even the goddamn slapstick routine that was Sollux and Mituna failing dismally to spar could cheer him up for long.

Eventually, unable to even get up the energy to practise with Nepeta, he banished himself to the fitness conditioning machines in the forlorn hope that the activity would help clear his head. It was minimally successful, but while walking on one of them he caught sight of Kankri next to him. His hatchclone was walking at the same pace and with the same near-panic that Karkat was feeling written all over his face. For a fleeting moment he almost felt sorry for Kankri; it left him so disgusted with himself that he dropped off the machine and went over to the suspended blow-strengthening targets. By the time he was done working out some of his aggression on the largely inanimate objects, he was tired and sticky with sweat and still filled with a shaky, hollow feeling.

Lunchtime took forever to come and still managed to arrive in the blink of an eye. Walking back to the mess with everyone else, Karkat found the shifting, nervy feeling in his nutrition sac getting worse with every step. Briefly at the top of the steps it occurred to him that Aranea had invited him to be somewhere else, but even if he hadn't already been suspicious as shit about that offer he wouldn't have been able to take her up on it. Karkat was sure that if he stepped out of sight of the other pilots, even for a moment, he would find a maintenance closet to hide in and never be seen again.

The meal passed in an eternal blur, wedged between Nepeta and Gamzee, his head resting beside his tray while he tried to remember how to breathe and left his food untouched. A few people tried to talk to him, but he wasn't sure who over the sound of his own blood-pusher in his auricular sponge clots. Some part of him was clinging to the completely illogical hope that if he just stayed very still and pressed his face against the meal plateau and didn't move then time would stand still and he wouldn't ever have to leave. He was vaguely aware of the usual argument in progress over his head; he hadn't worked out yet whether Equius was always like this or whether Karkat's presence just made him anal, antsy and aggravating. Either way there were only so many times Karkat could be informed that neither Zahhak approved of him as a pilot, a person, or an entity on the same plane of existence as them before he stopped giving any fucks. That number of times had proven to be less than one.

It was still grossly unfair to Karkat's mind that Meulin's cat puns were worse than Nepeta's, she had zero volume control, and she kept hand-chattering to Kurloz at the same time. Most days he tolerated it because Nepeta and Rufioh were okay and they probably needed the moral support what with the severe levels of complete unreasonable bullshit they were wallowing in. Today, it was all he could do not to throw up what little he had eaten or make an extremely badly-advised attempt to throttle Equius into silence. To his utter amazement, when a hand rested on his wrist just as he was digging his claws into the table, it turned out to be Gamzee. The freewheeling clowntard winked at him when Karkat turned his head to see who was responsible, and Karkat was distracted from his self-pitying slump for all of ten minutes while he tried to work out how a disgusting, creepy string of bones and skin that had clearly traded the last of his sponge matter for greasepaint and shitty soda sweeps ago could be so fucking comforting in a pinch.

The effects wore off eventually and he was still wallowing in the self-indulgent depths of his own stupidity when chairs started scraping around him, indicating that everyone was getting up to leave. Reluctantly he raised his head, and was not shocked in the slightest to see Veteran Kharon standing at the mess entrance nearest the Medical Assessment Block with her arms folded and a sour look on her face. Lacking even the energy to berate his Past Self for wasting precious minutes on behaving like a delusional wiggler, Karkat dragged himself to his feet and over to her side. He was intercepted en-route by Terezi, who naturally stopped him by thrusting her fucking cane directly between his ankles and almost sending him plummeting head-first for the floor.

“Karkat,” she said formally, her face tracking his as he straightened. “Good luck.”

A kiss brushed against his lips for a fraction of a moment and when Karkat's eyes closed he was glad- glad that she was here, giving him all the support she could for what he had to face. It did precisely nothing to calm his nerves, but he was at least able to stand tall in the knowledge that there was one person would give a shit if he didn't come back.

Following Veteran Kharon to the Medical Assessment Block felt like marching to his own execution. Karkat knew he was being stupidly over-dramatic, but every time he tried to think sensibly he could hear his own thinkpan screaming on endless repeat: I don't want to do this I don't want to I don't. They walked across the base in silence- and if he had been thinking, wondering about the identical troll walking next to him more than himself, he knew he would have paid more attention to that fact- and came to a smart halt outside the door of the Medical Assessment Block.

Veteran Kharon opened the door, revealing Commander Wavescar and Mediterminator Orresh studying a pair of gleaming black armoured suits that dangled from the ceiling. They both looked around at the sound, and Karkat planted his feet firmly down to stop them from itching to run.

“Come in, Vantas,” said Commander Wavescar, turning back to the Drivesuits. She was leaning forward, knuckles resting on a table, studying the armour every bit as intently as the Mediterminator. “How long before you're ready, Orresh?”

“Oh, I'm done now, sir,” said the Mediterminator, smiling cheerily up at his CO. “I'm not detecting any failures in integrity and all the necessary circuitry layers seem to be present and functioning!”

Wavescar's brow furrowed. “Seem to be?” she asked, danger undercutting her voice.

“Well, I can hardly be certain until the recipients are, ah, attached.” The Mediterminator waved a hand dismissively in the air. “Pass me the forms, I'll add my certification to the Engineradicators'.” Wavescar passed him a workpad and Orresh scrawled on it with a stylus before passing it back. “Well then!” he said, clapping his hands together and looking over to where Veteran Kharon was closing the door. “If you will direct the subjects to stand in front of the Drivesuits, just here, yes, we can get started.”

What followed was the most long-winded and tedious game of dress-up Karkat had ever had the misfortune to be subjected to. Not that he made a habit of being the victim of such games, but if he had been, he was utterly convinced they would have been carried out in a less frustrating fashion than this. The Drivesuits were for the most part essentially basic bio-armour. Even if the feedback circuitry in the lining was more comprehensive than the norm, it was still the sort of thing that had been in use for single-occupancy combat vessels for centuries. Their status as irreplaceable potential Jaeger pilots, however, meant going through a safety checklist so long that an Othersider would baulk before swallowing it whole. Every last piece of armour from the boots to the shoulder-pads necessitated a minutes-long pause while Orresh checked the fit and sensor calibrations to make sure there wouldn't be any unexpected faults.

The Drivesuit was an impossibly comfy fit, so snug that he could have easily forgotten he was wearing it at all after he got used to the initial sense of weight dragging at his limbs. Still, Karkat was almost relieved when they had it all on and the Mediterminator brought out a twinned pair of spinal clamps from their container. Almost. He forced himself to hold still while the Mediterminator activated the external nerve links, but let out a hiss as the clamp rippled along his back, sending out a wave of tingling hot-cold across his skin. He flexed his muscles, rolling his head and kneading air with his fingers, feeling the movement of his body under his new polycarbonate shell. His and Kankri's Drivesuits had grey edgings and weren't marked with a sigil, just like the jumpsuits that sat neatly folded on the table nearby.

There were a few more tests after that- range of motion, grip strength, pressure sensation- and then Orresh stepped back and nodded to Wavescar.

“They're ready,” he said, and the bottom dropped out of Karkat's digestive sac. He was certain that Wavescar saw it, the way his hands tensed and his weight shifted back. Her mouth twitched in a motion that wasn't really a smirk, before she turned and set out for the back of the room. Karkat followed, unable to resist the temptation to walk just a little oddly, to find out how his new Drivesuit moved.

At the back of the Medical Assessment Block was a small, domed chamber which had clearly been assembled within the existing room. Inside were a pair of chairs, side-by-side, surrounded by the strangest construction Karkat had ever seen. It had to be some sort of machinery, but it was as hard-edged and cold and dead as the base itself, a bizarre fretwork of metal plates and glass screens that served no comprehensible purpose. The only thing Karkat could understand were the helmets; there were two, one beside each chair, connected by a detachable silver-coloured cable to the body of the machine.

“Sit down,” ordered Commander Wavescar, and Karkat obediently walked over to the nearest chair while beside him Kankri did the same. He settled himself down gingerly, on high alert for any signs of bioware suddenly spewing out to plug into him. Which was ridiculous, and he knew it was ridiculous, because he was already wearing most of the kit he needed and the rest was in the helmet that he had just picked up and was turning over in his hands. Karkat stared down into a smooth pane of reflective black, and saw his own eyes looking back out, wide and round and too fucking bright like always.

He gripped the helmet a little tighter, just to hide the way his fingers were trembling.

“Vantas, put it on,” said Wavescar, in a tone that had zero patience left for his shit. Karkat swallowed a breath of air, praying it wouldn't be his last, and in a single motion flipped the helmet round and onto his head.

It didn't completely enclose his skull; the thing had to be custom-made, because it was exactly fitted to the contours of his head and narrowed to fit perfectly between his horns before expanding into the back- and face-plates. Nonetheless, the way it wrapped around under his chin and jaw, and the faint click as the back linked into the spinal clamp, left Karkat feeling almost claustrophobic. No, fuck almost; he was claustrophobic in here. His blood-pusher fluttered and he struggled to breathe, and things didn't get any better when the faceplate suddenly flooded with a viscous gel the colour of Sollux's blood. Karkat inhaled a lungful before he could stop himself and coughed on reflex, but the stuff drained away as fast as it arrived and didn't seem to hamper his breathing.

In front of his eyes, a display winked into life. It was like nothing he'd ever seen before, like someone had grabbed the contents of a husktop screen and written them in light on the plastic in front of his eyes. Half the icons were greyed out or lime in warning, but some cycled through little animations and the part of Karkat's thinkpan that was still working right identified them from his recent schoolfeeding. This one to regulate oxygen intake, and this one to monitor bloodflow, and this one to tell him that internal comms were online and would he like to access them now?

“Ready to initiate Drift,” said Mediterminator Orresh, and the only reason Karkat knew his blood hadn't actually turned to ice was that none of his shitty little icons flashed in panic.

“Do it,” said Wavescar, and Karkat was falling. No, not falling- he was being dragged under, hauled by an undertow into a whirlpool that tugged pieces of him off and swung them around until he caught them again coming back the other way. Karkat screamed and around him memories fragmented, echoes of panic across the sweeps throwing themselves up to bob on the surface, all hopelessly jumbled out of order. He remembered running from the drones on the cusp of dawn, the night a strange lusus broke into his hive when he was a wiggler, the cut on his face in a Public Shelter that he couldn't quite hide long enough. He remembered hiding in the dark and silently praying with the Elders as the cull squad broke through the walls, that time he got so lost in the caves that he thought he'd never be found again, the awful moment at the seaside when he lost his footing on a rock and went tumbling into the water...

He'd never been to the seaside.

The moment he thought it things dropped out of sync, the self-that-remembers and the self-that-refuses dropping out of phase and throwing their weight in opposite directions. The memories flowed thicker and faster, racing past out of control, flickers of feelings and images and smells that didn't mean anything out of context. They hit him like bullets, they flew through him like ghosts, and it was all he could do to keep his head above the surface.

Don't pull the rope.

The words were snatched away before they'd even had time to form- whoever had called this the Drift was a complete grubfucking idiot, it was more of a Storm, a Typhoon, a raging fucking Hurricane- but they were present long enough. Karkat pulled in a deep breath, felt the air dragging in through two throats and into two sets of lungs. He forced himself to ignore the echo and let go. Immediately he was whisked away, dragged down after his flying memories as all the resistance he had been offering vanished. Whirling chaos sucked him in, tore into him, pulled him into a place where

she let go of his hand and shoved him out through the curtain onto the stone stage, and the crowd all went down on their knees and bowed their heads. He was small and confused and seeing them kneel was frightening, because it felt like they expected something but he had no idea what. He looked around for her, wanting comfort, and instead found the picture behind him. It was carved into the cave wall and coloured in fading paint; it showed an adult troll with his horns and eyes as red as his own blood, shackled to a post and screaming, and the sight of it made his blood-pusher freeze

Karkat and Kankri in the Drift.

Karkat's palms pressed into hard polymer; he gripped the helmet then yanked, dragging it up off his head. The whirlwind in his head disintegrated, shattering and falling away as he hurled the headgear across the room. He staggered out of the seat, stumbling on the first step and half-running, half-crawling across the floor. Behind him he could hear shouting, an alarm blaring, but it barely registered. He made it to the edge of the domed chamber before his digestion sac turned over. Bile and half-digested food spewed onto the floor; Karkat kept heaving until there was nothing else to come out and he was retching dry, face dripping with tears and vomit. Behind him, Mediterminator Orresh was babbling.

“...stabilised the neural cascade, but I can't estimate the potential damage...”

Karkat's hand planted on the wall and he dragged himself upright, lurching through the door on still-shaky legs.

“VANTAS!” yelled a voice he vaguely recognised as Commander Wavescar. “STOP RIGHT THERE!”

He planted one of his feet firmly on the ground and managed to take a step. The act filled him with a sense of bitter victory and he wobbled forward another two steps before the world started fuzzing red and he toppled over.

The last thing he heard before he hit the floor was his commanding officer cursing like a lowblood in a bar brawl, and then he passed out.

Chapter Text

The first thing Karkat became aware of was the immense throbbing crack running down the middle of his skull. His whole head was awash with simmering magma pain, which became no less intolerable when he realised that his thinkpan was not literally splitting apart but was instead punishing him for his past folly with a bulge-withering monstrosity of a headache. A groan tried to rise out of him and died in his mouth, which felt drier and more shrivelled up than a desert zombie’s shame globes. It escaped as a small hiss of air and was apparently still enough to prompt some painfully loud rattling and clattering nearby.

Karkat opened his eyes- which turned out to be a challenging proposition because his eyelids had gummed themselves together while he was out cold- and rolled his head towards the noise. The burst of white-cold pain the movement released blinded him for several precious seconds and made his nutrition sac lurch. He swallowed bile, causing another spike of agony, and squinted against a room that was sharp and bright and fuzzing around the edges. He saw Mediterminator Orresh leaning over a comm device, saying words that were too distant and fractured to hear properly.

Knowing full well that he would regret it, Karkat rolled his head to the other side and waited for the fire-storm to die down in his thinkpan. This time his eyes showed him a still figure lying on a heavily-reclined medical chair. Kankri was in his underwear and looked paler than usual, with dark bruises under his eyes. He was far, far too still and it took Karkat a long and tortuous wait before he managed to pick out the delicate rise and fall of his hatchclone’s thorax. As soon as he was sure Kankri wasn’t dead Karkat closed his eyes again, welcoming the cool, soft darkness. If only he could close off his other senses the same way; all of them were turned up to thirteen, and everything fucking hurt.

Apparently, even thinking viciously was painful. Karkat winced without meaning to and wondered if it was worth the price to roll his head back to a more comfortable position. Deciding that Future Him could just live with a stiff neck and like it, he tried concentrating on staying very, very still and praying that he would just fall unconscious again. No such luck. His thinkpan was active now, and in the absence of anything else to contemplate it decided to focus exclusively on how shitty Karkat felt, how entirely his own fault this was, and the unparalleled magnitude of his regrets on the matter.

When his innards decided to start dancing an enthusiastic jig, Karkat gave up on all pretence of merciful rest. He lurched upright and grabbed the first receptacle that came to hand, then violently emptied his nutrition sac into it. The metal pan was deep and fairly broad, so at least he managed to avoid splashing. He was fairly sure it was meant to hold piss, but what the fuck ever, at least he had retained some minuscule scrap of dignity by not spewing vomit all over himself.

It wasn't until he was done with the last few aftershocks that he saw he had an audience. Karkat froze in silent horror at the sight of Commander Wavescar, standing at the foot of his medical chair and scowling at him like she took personal affront with his condition. Maybe she did. He was pretty sure he remembered doing something unbelievably fucking stupid, like physically ripping his way out of an active mental link. He winced and tried not to think about it too hard; he didn't want to know what else he might remember.

When she was sure she had his full attention, Wavescar raised her lip in a small snarl. “Do you know why I am here, Vantas?” She paused, and waited until he wordlessly shook his head- ow, shit, pan rattling painfully- before continuing: “It’s because I disobeyed orders.”

Karkat opened his mouth, thought better of it, and slammed it shut again. The movement sent sparkles of jabbing agony through his skull, but Wavescar seemed supremely unconcerned by this. “Wipe that look off your face, Vantas. I did it because my commanding officer was a coward, an idiot, and a disgrace to everything I stand for. In the process I saved countless lives and bought us victory over a deadly foe.” Before he could process her words, she leaned forwards. Her claws gripped the rails at the edge of the medical chair, and her eyes narrowed. “I am here because through my actions I have proven beyond any doubt or dispute that I will do anything and everything that is necessary to ensure the survival of our species. I do not care what enemies I make, what laws I break, or what customs I disregard. If victory requires me to slaughter every last troll alive to save the Mother Grub, I will.”

She paused and her face softened for a moment; her eyes briefly closed, then re-opened on a face as hard as stone. “After this war I expect to be executed, if I live that long, and I do not care because I believe that the Jaegers are the only chance to save our race. On the strength of that belief I have taken personal responsibility for two dozen individuals, more than half of whom would otherwise have been culled. Among their number are two Tyrian-blooded heiresses whose very existence threatens the stability of the Empire, and two mutants whose genetic code is considered anathema to all right-thinking members of trollkind.”

To Karkat's surprise, she walked around the side of the chair and took the pan of bile out of his unresisting hands, setting it aside with careful precision. “You, Vantas, are alive because you are of most use to our people that way.” She turned and Karkat recoiled, the pain in his head and the sharpness of the light forgotten as her hands slammed down on the chair next to his woefully underdressed and undefended body. “Or you were until yesterday, when you performed the most piss-poor excuse for a Drift I have ever seen between two hatchclones, broke a direct mental link with your partner, and placed both of you in danger of complete neurological collapse!”

Karkat swallowed, tried to talk, failed, squeaked like an infant mewbeast, and then managed to croak out; “Sorry.”

Wavescar snorted and took a step back. “Fortunately for you, the Mediterminator informs me that he expects your hatchclone to regain consciousness at some point in the next few hours. Regardless of the state of his sanity or intellect, he should still be capable of entering the Drift with you, and that is all I care about.” Her lip curled in distaste as she stared down at Karkat; he fought the urge to curl up and try to cover his vulnerable midsection. “If he had been killed or permanently incapacitated, then your usefulness as a pilot would be at an end, and I would right now be authorising Orresh to perform a vivisection on your thinkpan to see if we could uncover any further data on Drift capability. Do not make the mistake of thinking you have the same leeway as the Peixes pair, because you do not.” Seeing Karkat shiver, she leaned in again. A long, sharp-clawed finger jabbed at his thorax. “I don’t know what’s holding you back, Vantas, and I don’t care what you have to do to get over it. You have one more chance before I decide you are of no use alive. Take it.”

She marched away in a gust of deadly intent, leaving Karkat curled up around his knees and staring across the room at Kankri, who was still unmoving. The pain and the sensitivity had faded to a mere insistent throbbing, but now there was guilt gnawing away at his guts and sending his blood-pusher into death-defying swoops. Fuck. Fuck the Othersiders for invading, fuck the Jaegers for being needed to fight them, fuck the drones for catching him and fuck Wavescar for salvaging him. Fuck Kankri for existing and for being the king of all arrogant, insufferable douchebags ever to befoul the universe with their existence, and most of all fuck him, Karkat, for thinking he might actually ever amount to anything, and for being an abject fucking coward when the time came. He might well have rendered the one being in the universe he needed to rely on a pan-damaged wiggler or a raving lunatic, maybe both, and in the end all he'd gained was a murderous bitch of a headache to go with his murderous bitch of a Commander.

Mediterminator Orresh walked over to Kankri and starting studying one of the monitoring parasites, and suddenly Karkat had had enough. He scooted forward out of the chair, gritting his teeth against the pain that was washing through his nervous system, and paused for a couple of seconds before pushing himself onto his feet. The Mediterminator glanced around, then turned back to his unconscious patient without a word. Karkat took that as a sign that he was either good to leave, or that he would fall over before making it to the door. Either way, he decided that starting with actual clothes sounded like the best plan. It took a good minute of careful squinting to find his and Kankri's jumpsuits; they'd been bundled off into a corner and had a workpad dropped on top of them. He staggered over, trailing his hands along the edges of tables and the wall to help catch himself when he stumbled, and dropped to sit on the ground as soon as he'd grabbed the top jumpsuit. He'd managed to wriggle halfway into it before he realised it was Kankri's. The asshole was slightly taller than him, and didn't have as much bulk across the shoulders.

Well, fuck it. Getting this far had been hard enough; like hell was he going backwards now. Karkat's fingers slipped when he tried to fasten the jumpsuit, so he left it dangling open from crotch to neck and looked around for boots instead. They were nowhere to be seen. Fuck those too, he didn't need them, it wasn't like there was anything dangerous he was going to tread on while stuck in the hermetically sealed soldier-tin. With one hand on the wall and one gripping the edge of a table, he managed to haul himself back to his feet and start staggering for the door. It still wasn't easy or painless but he felt less like a newly-hatched grub flopping around the shards of its own eggshell, and with a destination to focus on he hardly tripped at all. Opening the door was another challenge, and one that required him to take a break halfway through and lean against the wall, breathing heavily. His second attempt was more successful. He pushed the heavy door open- insanely, ridiculously heavy, what were they expecting these doors to stand up to, a charging horde of fucking cavalreapers?- only to trip and hurtle face-first towards the floor.

He was caught inches before he impacted the ground, and then swung back upright so fast that he almost threw up again. Swallowing down the acid in his throat, he looked up at his rescuer and saw Porrim studying him with an almost reproachful look on her face.

“Are you meant to be up and moving about?” she asked, her arm still wrapped around Karkat's shoulder for support. She was tall enough that he could just comfortably lean into her shoulder, which he did with a silent prayer that she wouldn't bring it up, ever.

“What does it fucking look like?” he asked. The words came out as little more than a mumble, and Porrim sighed.

“Here, let me,” she said, and before Karkat could ask what she was talking about his legs were swept out from under him and he was being cradled against her thorax.

“I'm not a wiggler,” he said with a scowl, immediately belying his words by snuggling closer to her body. Resting his head against her shoulder gave him a flawless view of the upper curve of her rumble spheres, and he added; “And I'm not getting in your pile or your 'coon, either, so this had better not be a tender confession of your undying pity for my mutant ass.”

“I wouldn't dream of it,” said Porrim, starting to walk down the corridor. “But believe it or not, I am concerned about your well-being. I'm rather fond of Kankri despite his more irritating tendencies, and the two of you have quite a lot in common.”

“Hoofbeast shit,” Karkat muttered into her shoulder. The twisting guilt in his nutrition sac prodded him, and he added. “Kankri, he's...”

“I know,” said Porrim, biting the words off sharply. “Wavescar told me everything.” She tilted her head down, glittering jade eyes staring impassively at Karkat. “She was keen to make certain I didn't blame her for any damage.”

Karkat looked away. “I'm sorry,” he said, biting his lower lip. “I really fucking am.”

“Sorry fixes nothing,” said Porrim. “First Drift is always hard, especially when the hatchclones don't get along, and as you and Kankri were the worst I've seen aside from Meenah and Feferi I can hardly blame you for reacting so badly.” Her lips tightened. “I can, however, blame you for not taking the opportunity to prepare yourself better for the encounter.”

“What fucking opportunity?” Karkat asked, glancing back up out of her shoulder. “I don't remember anyone sitting me down and telling me oh, by the way, Drifting with Kankri is going to be like jumping into a fucking hurricane full of knives, so be careful with that!”

“You were invited. It is hardly mine or Aranea's fault if you failed to show up.”

“Wait, what?” Karkat jolted, trying to sit upright then grabbing onto Porrim's shoulders when he started to slip out of her grip. “That's what that was about? Why didn't you fucking tell me!?”

“Well, of course it was,” said Porrim, pausing in her stride briefly to shift to a more secure grip. “What else were you expecting on the day of your first Drift?”

“I don't fucking know!” snarled Karkat, ducking his head back into her shoulder as they started moving again. “What possible reason could I have for not wanting to go to an isolated corner of buttfuck nowhere with two people I hardly know on the strength of the most screamingly cryptic invitation ever delivered!?” He glanced around, and stiffened as an extremely pressing question occurred to him. “Where the fuck are you taking me?”

“To have a conversation that needed to be had yesterday,” said Porrim. “And if you don't stop wriggling about I will drag you there.”

Swallowing, Karkat leaned back in against her. “Actually, I think I can probably walk now.”

“Are you sure?” asked Porrim. Karkat nodded, a little gingerly but nowhere near as painfully as it would have been a few minutes earlier. In truth he was probably still going to be wobbly for a while longer, but he'd already let a near-perfect stranger with every reason to loathe him start carrying him off, there was no fucking way he was compounding the error any further. He immediately broke the resolution by clinging to Porrim's neck as she set him down. He kept an arm wrapped around her shoulder as she helped him limp down the corridor, but it wasn't like his treacherous body was going to let him move about any other way.

By the time they made it down to the storage rooms, Karkat was actually feeling much stronger. He still leaned against Porrim, hiding the extent of his recovery; if he needed to fight his way out, he would need the surprise factor. He was definitely starting to regret not finding the boots, or his own jumpsuit; his feet were cold and he kept stumbling on the trailing cuffs of the legs. Everything was cold down here, though, the air damp and chill in a way he remembered from the cells when he first arrived. The lights were dimmer than in the main corridors, but to Karkat's surprise, they were all working. Then again, he couldn't imagine Commander Wavescar being impressed with substandard maintenance. Porrim led him to the very bottom level, into corridors that Karkat had to remind himself were on the opposite side of the base to where he had been incarcerated. Waiting at the bottom of the stairs for them was Aranea. She jumped to her feet as they approached, and gave Karkat a long, appraising look before turning to Porrim.

“Is Kankri-”

“He will wake up,” said Porrim. “Probably some time today. There's no way to tell if he'll be himself, or if...” Her voice trailed off, and Karkat stared intently at the opposite wall of the corridor.

“We should find somewhere more private,” said Aranea. “The nearest store-room is this way.”

Karkat bit back on questions- he didn't know what required so much secrecy, but with Kankri's future still uncertain he didn't want to push his luck- and let himself be led through a door into a dark room. Light flickered on overhead as they stepped in, illuminating racks that stretched off into the far distance weighed down with heavy gears and shafts and rings of metal, some of them bigger than Karkat. Aranea hurried along between the shelves until she found a stack of smallish crates at an intersection, and sat down on one like a chair. Porrim sat next to her and Karkat carefully lowered himself onto a crate on the end, after briefly checking to make sure he knew which way the exit was.

“So,” he said, his voice echoing unnaturally loud in the dank store-room. “What was so fucking important that you had to drag me all the way down here to talk about it?”

Porrim and Aranea shared a look, then the cerulean-blooded pilot cleared her throat. “Karkat, before we go any further with this, we should tell you that the information we are here to impart is utterly forbidden by order of Her Imperious Condescension. Knowing it without special dispensation is a crime punishable not only by execution, but by erasure; if someone is known to possess it, everyone they have had contact with is subject to the same punishment. Sharing it with someone else is treason of the highest order; a heresy, if you will, against the fabric of our society.”

Karkat jumped to his feet, took a step away from the two women. Neither of them moved to stop him. “Then why the bulgefondling shit do you want to tell me?” he asked, voice rising to the edge of hysteria. “What, you didn't think maybe I was in enough trouble already? That I didn't have enough of a headache worrying about my own neck, so I needed to be incontinently terrified for Terezi's too? For fuck's sake, I knew Aranea had an irresistible compulsion to regurgitate everything she knows into our unsuspecting gullets like she's a nesting fisherbird and we're her chicks, but I had been holding out hope that everyone else had more sense than a rotting piece of carrion clawing its way through the topsoil!”

“Karkat!” Porrim surged to her feet and stood at her full height, hands on hips. “We want to tell you because this information directly affects both you and Kankri! You have the right to know!”

Something in the tone of her voice made Karkat pause. He glanced again towards the door, then back at Porrim, and then at Aranea. The cerulean-blooded pilot was biting her lip and playing with something in her fingers, a silvery amulet that he'd never seen before. With a sigh, Karkat sidled back over to his crate and perched on the edge. “Fine, then. It's safe to assume I won't be spreading it, at least.”

Porrim nodded, and took her own seat again. “Well,” she said, and took a deep breath. “I suppose the place to start would be to ask you if you have ever heard of the Signless Sufferer, or the Book of the Iron Infidel.”

Karkat scowled. “Is this some FLARP shit? Because it sure as fuck sounds like it. If those are real things they should be ashamed of themselves for sounding like fake-ass musclebeast droppings.”

“Yes, well, I'm afraid this is about to become even more FLARP-like,” said Porrim, with a slight wince. “Tell me, Karkat, do you believe in Ancestors?”

He couldn't help it; he burst into laughter. “Ancestors?” he managed to stammer out between snorts. “Fuck, and I thought you were serious...”

“We are!” shouted Aranea, leaning quickly forwards. Her pendant dropped out of her fingers and swung in the air just in front of Karkat's eyes. He stared, transfixed by the two circling loops-and-tails of the symbol.

“Where the fuck did you get that?” he asked, unable to stop his voice from shaking.

Porrim's eyebrows shot up. “You've seen it before?”

“Of course I've fucking seen it before, it's my shitting sigil!” His sigil, which nobody on this tentacle-fucked base had ever seen, let alone had the opportunity to replicate and secretly start wearing- unless they'd got it from Kankri. “Did Kankri put you up to this? That nookslurping fuckass, he's lucky he's in the Medical Assessment Block-”

A powerful hand grabbed his arm and he yelped as Porrim's claws dug through the jumpsuit sleeve. “This is not a prank, and if there is one person you should not be blaming for this, it is Kankri,” Porrim snapped, her fangs glinting in the half-light. “He has spent his entire life fighting to not be defined by this symbol, and you will not threaten him while he is helpless following your mistakes!”

Karkat's mouth snapped shut and he nodded dumbly. Porrim's snarl slowly faded, and her hand unwrapped from his arm. Karkat rubbed at it, still tracking her as she sat back down. Aranea looked between them in silent consternation, then cleared her throat.

“Probably the best place to start, then, is with the assurance that in some cases at least we have evidence that Ancestors are very real,” she said. Karkat turned to look at her, and she gave him a small smile. “A particularly obvious example would be the case of the Condesce with Meenah and Feferi, but Vriska has provided compelling evidence in the form of a journal which we have confirmed to belong to Marquise Spinneret Mindfang, a famed Gamblignant and, it seems, our Ancestor.”

Karkat snorted. “Firstly, if you're believing anything Vriska tells you, you're a grubfucking idiot and I've got a hive in the badlands I want to sell you cheap. Secondly, fine, let's say Ancestors are real, why the fuck does it matter? Unless you're a highblood who gets a kick from practically worshipping them, it's not like they can actually have any meaningful impact on your life centuries or millennia later.”

“Ah, well, that brings us to the next thing you need to know,” said Aranea, looking indecently happy. “Which is that you and Kankri are undoubtedly amongst those fortunate individuals who not only had an Ancestor, but whose Ancestor made an indelible mark on history!”

She grinned, obviously pleased to have delivered this news. Karkat folded his arms. “Fine, I'll bite,” he said. “What the fuck did my apparently-illustrious-and-in-no-way-imaginary Ancestor do that was so damn special, then?”

“He was a hero,” said Porrim softly. “A prophet, a messiah, and a martyr.”

Her words sent a chill along Karkat's spine and he shivered. His eyes flickered back over to Aranea, who was playing with her pendant again. “Explain.”

Aranea cleared her throat. “While he lived, your Ancestor was called the Signless; what actual names he had are lost to time. According to the testaments of his Disciple, he was hatched a mutant, a bright-red grub. No lusus would have him and he should have been culled before he ever pupated, but the jade-blood who found him could not bring herself to go through with it. She saved his life by claiming him as her own; she abandoned her duties and fled to the surface to raise him in hiding, becoming known as the Dolorosa.”

“She raised him?” asked Karkat, unable to hide his disbelief. “Like a lusus?”

“It is not entirely unknown,” said Porrim. “My caste are noted for our ability to empathise with and show fondness for grubs and wigglers. It's what first brought us to be selected for the duty of custodians to the Mother Grub, although that stereotype is aggravating in the extreme in that it enforces a crippling lack of options for those of my blood colour and does not acknowledge jade-blooded individuals who lack a lusal instinct. But I digress: the point is that there have been cases in the past of wigglers or grubs who would not otherwise survive being adopted by jade-bloods. It's rare, and the resulting trolls rarely survive conscription, but it can happen.”

“Okay, fine,” said Karkat. “So she raised him. I'm guessing he did something more noteworthy than growing up to get called a messiah? Either that, or people in the past had some embarrassingly low standards.”

“He did more,” said Aranea, settling in on her crate. “From a very young age, the Signless displayed an unusual degree of concern for his fellow trolls, and as he approached adulthood he began to have visions of a better world, one free from conflict and oppression. He travelled the world- this was long before adults were banned from Alternia- and preached everywhere of the better world he saw, encouraging his fellow trolls to strive for equality and peace.”

“He sounds like a useless crotch-gazing piece of cullbait,” said Karkat. Both woman bristled.

“He had a message that spoke to millions,” snapped Porrim. “Think of how many suffer under the tyranny of the hemospectrum! Tens, hundreds, thousands of thousands heard his teachings and were inspired! His words encouraged slaves to throw off their chains, the oppressed to stand up to their oppressors, the outcasts to band together!”

“There was a revolt,” said Aranea. “An unprecedented uprising, lowbloods and even some midbloods fighting for freedom against their highblood masters.”

Karkat rolled his eyes. “Let me guess, they all died hideously in a predictable fashion.”

Aranea nodded, her eyes glittering. “Yes. The revolt was crushed, the ringleaders executed along with any other lowblood who failed to run or fight on the winning side. And some did fight with the highbloods; in the end, the Signless was betrayed by one of them, and captured along with his closest followers. He hadn't even been one of the leaders of the revolt, not directly, but because his words had inspired it they chose to make an example of him.” She lifted her pendant, held it out again. “This symbol represents his shackles.”

A memory flashed through Karkat's head, an image of a stranger's life, a panicked wiggler on a stage and a fresco of an adult troll in torture...

“They staked him out for the sun,” he said. “They heated the shackles to red-hot and they let him burn.” Sensing two curious gazes on his face, he shifted uncomfortably. “I saw it. In the Drift.”

Aranea nodded. “Yes, of course.” She sighed. “At his death, your Ancestor gave one last sermon, which his Disciple recorded for posterity. It is known as the Vast Expletive and caused some considerable friction between those of his followers who survived. Some felt that the messages of his life and the clarity of his visions were most important; the secret cults descended from them still call him Signless, and try to practise the peace he preached. The others believed, and still believe, that there is a truer lesson to be found in the all-consuming rage and hatred he felt at the end, that we have forfeit any right to forgiveness with his death and that only by strife can we achieve a better world. To those cults he is the Sufferer, and his symbol is a call to vengeance.”

“My symbol,” said Karkat quietly, reaching out a hand to Aranea. She slipped the chain of her pendant over her head and passed it to him; he cradled the small metal sigil in his hand, staring at it and stroking the cool surface with his thumb. His symbol. Kankri's symbol. The symbol of a Signless Sufferer.

“So what happened?” he asked, eventually. “If we're not just dumbfuck lucky mutants, if our Ancestor was this big deal revolutionary heretic prophet, then how the fuck did either of us survive this long? Why did I end up living on a midblood lawnring with a lusus and a heretical sigil, while Kankri got raised by a bunch of useless fucking Signless cultists?

“Actually, Kankri was raised by Sufferists,” said Porrim, a small smile playing on her lips. When Karkat's head jerked around to her in surprise, she chuckled. “I should know; I was one of them. There are many devotees of both cults amongst the jade-bloods. The cult I belonged to smuggled Kankri out of the brooding caverns as soon as they learned of his existence. The Elders hoped that he would grow up to lead them in a war of vengeance and destroy this corrupt world, as the Sufferer promised in his final sermon.” She shook her head. “Unfortunately for their plans, Kankri is both remarkably stubborn and congenitally contrary. As frustrating as I find it, I actually admire it a little. He has always been determined that any achievements he makes will be his, and on his own terms.”

Karkat tried to imagine it; growing up surrounded by trolls who wanted you to be an avatar of hatred, the tool of their vengeance and the figurehead of their plans, nothing but a symbolic successor to a long-dead asshole. His mind passed him a memory of Kankri after their sparring sessions, beaten and bloodied and still defiant, proud. Undefeated.

“Shit,” he said, quietly. The world dropped into the silence of the storage room, regret spreading like ripples in the air.

Aranea leaned forward and held out her hand. Karkat dropped her pendant back into it; she slipped it back on, deftly manoeuvring it around her horns, and slipped the forbidden symbol back out of sight under her clothes. “We don't know exactly what happened with you,” she said gently. “But if I had to make a supposition, it would be that after Kankri was found, the Sufferist cults stopped looking for the promised Descendant entirely. Meanwhile the Signlessist cults, having limited contact with and a sceptical attitude towards their estranged brethren, would have remained alert and continued preparations. I myself was recruited by a Signlessist cult, and from what plans I was privy to a more subtle approach- such as the provision of a lusus, and a more normal upbringing- would be in keeping with the usual nature of such formulations.” She sighed, her head bowing. “That I didn't hear about your existence, and that you made it to conscription age without being contacted, suggests that whoever was responsible for your survival gave their life to ensure it. That may be why they gave you the symbol of the faith as your personal sigil; so that the rest of us could find you. Certainly while you were on Alternia, it is extremely unlikely that anyone but a cultist would recognise that mark, and it could be assumed that any cultist of either denomination would then be invested in your survival.”

“None of us were expecting two Descendants,” said Porrim. “Although in retrospect, it seems almost obvious.” When Karkat lifted his head to frown at her in confusion, she shrugged. “I know that neither of you are your Ancestor, and I respect that, but given that the division in his followers reflected a division in himself, and considering the obvious differences between you and Kankri...”

Her voice trailed off in the face of Karkat's growing glare. “So I'm the Descendant of the Sufferer and he's the Descendant of the Signless, is that what you're trying to say here?” He practically jumped off the crate, scowling at the two of them. “Oh, sure, neither of us are him, we're just cheap knock-off copies, fucking replacements to finish his holy work! Forget any idea that we might be different people, have our own lives, our own ideas, our own ambitions! No, our Ancestor was a motherfucking prophet so everything we do is just what he would have done if he hadn't been inconveniently interrupted by being publicly tortured to death! You know what? I'm glad you people never fucking found me! I'm glad that I had to run away from my hive and scrounge for food and hide in caves and dodge zombies and Othersiders and drones, because at least I wasn't dealing with your proscriptive messianic musclebeast shit!”

He had been backing away as he spoke; Porrim got to her feet and took a step towards him. “Karkat-”

“No! I don't want to fucking hear it! You don't get to tell me-”

His words were cut off by the scream of a klaxon. All three of them froze as lime strip-lights started to flash in the ceiling, matching the rising and falling wail of the siren.

“Othersider,” said Aranea, and all three of them started to run. Porrim quickly outpaced them both, but Karkat was almost completely recovered and managed to stay almost level with Aranea as they pelted back up the stairs and almost ran squarely into someone coming down the other way.

“Terezi!” said Karkat, which even to his own auricular sponge clots sounded unbelievably inane but he really couldn't think what else to come out with when prompted by the sudden appearance of his matesprit. The way she grabbed his arm, slightly too rough and a little clumsy, was more alarming than the ongoing howl of the klaxon.

“Karkat, you have to come with me,” she said.

“What's the situation?” Porrim asked. Terezi shook her head.

“I don't know yet,” she said. Her head turned briefly towards Aranea, and Karkat was surprised to see an almost vicious frown lurking behind her candy-red shades. “But I'm on-roster with Makara and Captor, and the Commander left orders with us to bring her both Vantases when the next event occurred.” She pointed upwards to the lime emergency lights. “As you can see, that's now.”

“But Kankri is unconscious,” said Aranea.

Terezi shrugged and tugged a little on Karkat's arm. “Then Karkat will have to do. Come on!” She started running back up the stairs, Karkat in tow, outpacing Porrim and Aranea until they were effectively alone on the stairs.

“Terezi, what the actual fuck?” Karkat hissed, stumbling up the risers after her. “There's no way you found us down here that fast after the tripwires were activated!”

“Correct,” said Terezi, flashing him a grin. “Excellent deduction, Legislacerator Vantas. I commend you.”

Karkat growled, wondering if maybe Terezi wouldn't make a better kismesis than matesprit. “No,” he said. “We are not- I refuse to play some shitty wiggler FLARP musclebeast shit game with you right now! Tell me what the fuck is going on!”

“Why don't you tell me?” Terezi replied, and although her tone was light Karkat didn't mistake the edge underneath it. “One minute you were in the Medical Assessment Block, then I stepped away for a minute, and then you were gone. I had to track you down here by scent and I find you in a storeroom with Porrim and Aranea?” Her smile became vulpine. “That is what we call suspicious.”

A chill ran down Karkat's back. Treason of the highest order. “That is what we call none of your damn business,” he snapped, pulling his arm out of her grip as they reached the main landing.

“Right,” said Terezi, flatly. “Well, if you happen to have any other business that is not mine, might I suggest you keep Aranea away from it?”

Karkat frowned. “Why? What the fuck is supposed to be wrong with Aranea?”

Terezi's mouth tightened. “Would you trust Vriska with your secrets?”

“Fuck, no,” said Karkat immediately. “But Aranea isn't Vriska, for which we can all be eternally thankful, hallelujah and praise the Mother Grub for only spawning one sociopathic spider bitch.”

“She's certainly good at being trustworthy,” said Terezi, in a dark tone that was far from reassuring. Before Karkat could ask what she meant by that, Terezi had pushed open the door at the top of the stairwell and led them back out into the main corridors of the base.

They were almost back to the Medical Assessment Block when Porrim and Aranea caught up with them again and the former collided spectacularly with Feferi. The jade-blooded pilot's greater size and momentum sent the seadweller sprawling, and Terezi extended a hand to help her up which was quickly accepted.

“What are you doing here?” Porrim asked. Feferi winced.

“There's a tripple event,” she said, and Karkat recoiled along with the other three. Seeing their reaction, Feferi shook her head. “It's worse than that; two Category Fours and a Category Five! We're in reel troububble!”

“Category Five?” Aranea echoed, shocked. “But there's never been a Category Five!”

“There was never a Category Four, either, until they started appearing,” said Terezi, setting out at a brisk walk in the direction of the Command Centre. “Where are you headed?”

Feferi glanced over at Karkat. “The Commander sent Meenah out to fin you. I'm supposed to be fishing Kankri- he woke up a little whale ago!” Her hair bobbed as she looked around. “You shelled go to the Command Centre. She's really crabby!”

Message delivered she darted away towards the Medical Assessment Block, faster than seemed natural. Karkat hesitated for an instant, then started jogging after Terezi.

“A Category Five!” Aranea was saying. “This is awful! The Category Fours were giving us enough trouble and we've already moved up to triple deployment to deal with the double events. If it's escalating again then we're going to be overwhelmed in a matter of weeks!”

“Then it is just up to us to make sure that doesn't happen,” said Porrim firmly. She paused at the intersection and nodded to Karkat. “Whatever it is the Commander wants with you, good luck.” She glanced at Terezi, waited for a little distance, and then dropped her voice to add: “I hope you know that I don't consider you or Kankri to be replacements for your Ancestor. I just happen to think that he had many good qualities, which you both inherited. What you do with those qualities is your own business.”

Realising that they were stood in the corridor that led to the Pilot's Lounge one way and the Command Centre the other, Karkat glanced around to check that they wouldn't be overheard, then nodded to Porrim. “Thanks,” he said. Glancing round to Aranea, he added; “To both of you.” Then he whirled and took off at a run, feet pounding on the metal floor as he ran after Terezi. She paused at the turn-off, waiting for him with a look that promised investigation.

“I'll see you later,” she said, and Karkat heard the implied promise. I'll come back alive.

“You'd better go,” he said. You'd fucking better. It was surprisingly hard, even though he'd known... they were both Jaeger pilots, damn it, this was always going to happen.

The kiss that pressed his lips was a surprise, but a welcome one. Karkat leaned into it for the precious seconds it lasted, then watched Terezi stride off with a nervousness he hadn't felt before. He waited until he couldn't hear her footsteps, then shook himself. Forget Terezi and the Othersiders, Wavescar was going to kill him if he didn't report as ordered.

The Command Centre was just as busy as it had been the last time he had seen it during an Event, and despite knowing that he had permission to be there he was still cautious when he tiptoed in. Nobody seemed to notice his presence; their attention was focused on the satellite image that showed three lime dots slowly migrating away from the heart of the ocean. Behind the image in the hanger he could see four Jaegers slowly rolling out, ready for action.

Wait, four?

“Vantas!” Commander Wavescar had caught sight of him and was approaching fast. “Good, you're here. Where's-” she looked past him, and a smile that was more than half snarl appeared on her face. “The other one,” she finished, and Karkat glanced behind him to see Kankri standing in the doorway. His hatchclone was dressed slightly better than he was, but was leaning heavily on Feferi and looked like he might have actually died at some point without anyone noticing. Still, the haughty tilt of his chin was all Kankri, and Karkat felt a surge of relief.

“Whatever reason you have for this summons,” said Kankri, his voice wavering, “I would like to point out that given recent events it seems plain that Karkat is in no way ready to compromise for the greater good of-”

“He had damn well better be,” said Wavescar, cutting across Kankri's momentum with her blunt declaration. “And the same for you. Suit up, Vantas. You're going out in the Peixes Jaeger.”

Both Vantases gawped at their commanding officer, but it was Karkat who found his voice again first. “You've got to be fucking kidding,” he said, throat drying up. “We literally just avoided dying because of our world-stunning incompetence at Drifting! Kankri can't even stand up straight on his own yet and you want to send us out there against three Othersiders, one of which is the biggest, nastiest grubfucker to claw its way out of the portal!? I thought you weren't planning to cull us!”

“I have to agree with Karkat on this matter,” said Kankri, his eyes round with concern. “We are in no state to make an attempt at piloting even under ideal circumstances. I was under the impression that we would be waiting for our own Jaeger to be completed before any such trials were expected of us, although that in and of itself does indicate a problematic attitude whereby a piece of vital equipment has been left largely unused due to ingrained societal notions of 'superiority' and 'inferiority' which merely reinforce the hemotype discrimination endemic in our culture-”

Commander Wavescar scowled at them. “Sometimes, Vantas,” she said, her eyes flickering across the pair of them. “You have to throw the wiggler in the water to teach them to swim. You may think the current situation is dangerous, but I can assure you it will not be getting any safer. Captor and Makara are our most experienced Jaegers, and Pyrope is statistically the most successful. If you are going to fuck up”- her tone made it clear that she considered it more a matter of when- “this will be the best opportunity you get to survive it.”

The whole room had fallen silent. Eyes in a rainbow of colours were watching what was happening by the door, waiting to see the outcome. Commander Wavescar disregarded them entirely; she took a step forwards, used the full extent of her height to loom over them- and she was tall when she wanted to show it, had to be at least a few centuries old- and grinned. “You want to live, Vantas? Go and fight for it.”

Slowly, without breaking eye contact with her, Karkat backed up until he was standing next to Feferi. It took the Tyrian-blooded girl a few seconds to work out what his frantic hand-wiggling meant, but then with a small “oh!” she ducked out from under Kankri's arm and helped manoeuvre him around until he was leaning on Karkat instead.

“I'll shell you the way to the Drivesuit Rooms,” she whispered, and Karkat nodded. He walked backwards out of the Command Centre, helping guide Kankri back, and didn't take his eyes off Commander Wavescar until they had stepped around a corner and out of sight. Once they were clear, Feferi sped up, and Karkat and Kankri broke into a half-limping, half-jogging gait that was either going to get them there faster or send them sprawling ignominiously across the floor together.

Feferi led them in the opposite direction to the pilot's lounge and through a doorway out onto a narrow catwalk. Karkat couldn't help but stare as they stepped out into the hangar; now that he was standing in it rather than peering through a window, it looked larger; bigger than the rest of the base put together- the mess included. He watched the bustling figures far below, tinier than colonybugs at this distance as they ran back and forth with spare parts and workpads and purposes that orbited the four towering drone-like shapes that were slowly advancing into place. His head spun and he pulled back from the edge of the walkway, fighting vertigo. His eyes landed on the nearest Jaeger, its bare shoulders in the shadows only a short distance below his feet. Just one of its pauldrons was large enough for him to fucking live in. The thought of actually controlling something that immense was overwhelming.

“Over there!” called Feferi, pointing to the door at the end of the catwalk. The rooms she was pointing too hung from the ceiling, a line bisecting the hangar. “Good luck; I hope this Drift goes betta for you!”

“Me too,” Karkat muttered as she ran back past them, heading back to Wavescar for new orders he supposed.

“I suppose it wouldn't affect you in the slightest if I expressed my discomfort with this entire scenario?” said Kankri. Karkat shifted his grip on his hatchclone, and walked up to the door, pushing it open and barely ducking out of the way of a rushing tech.

“Look, I fucked up,” he said, looking around the long room to catch a glimpse of Sollux and Mituna armouring up and not because he was avoiding Kankri's eyes at all. “And I can't promise that I won't fuck up again any more than you can, which as reassurances go is right up there with finding an armed stranger in your respite block, but I've talked to Porrim and Aranea and, well... I fucking talked to them, okay?”

“Karkat!”

He paused as they drew level with Terezi and Latula; the latter gave them a one-handed salute, while the former dodged away from the techs who were outfitting her and grabbed his head between her hands.

“Good luck?” Karkat guessed.

Her grin widened. “Good hunting,” she said, and pulled him into a kiss that was somehow different from the one she had given him before. Less passionate and possessive, more affectionate and lingering. It struck Karkat that with both of them going out, there was no guarantee that she would ever see him in the flesh again; he returned the kiss with a gentle pressure that seemed to be what she was looking for. He could taste her on his lips as she pulled away, and he clung to that memory. He wanted to keep it safe, just in case.

“Good hunting,” he echoed, and Terezi's smile was sharp and deadly and perfect. He glanced back over his shoulder as they continued on their way. Kankri waited until his view was obscured by a cloud of techs before he coughed to draw Karkat's attention.

“What?” Karkat snapped.

“Now that you are no longer being distracted by your base physical impulses-” Karkat growled at him warningly- “I am curious as to what exactly you have been trying to tell me,” Kankri said as they passed Gamzee and Kurloz, doing some sort of weird clown bonding juggling thing while techs fussed over their Drivesuits. “Am I to believe that one conversation has led to a paradigm shift in your attitude? Because while I would not want to invalidate the experiences of those who believe they have genuinely experienced moments of revelation or epiphanies, such sudden and dramatic shifts in behaviour are rarely the heralds of a more enlightened approach to discourse, particularly as it highlights the issues relevant to the disenfranchised and oppressed.”

“I'm saying that I was right in the first place,” Karkat said, his voice taking on a slight edge of irritation despite his best intentions. “You were raised by a cult of pan-damaged lunatics.”

If he hadn't been turning them towards the waiting band of techs in grey jumpsuits and the two empty Drivesuits, he would never have seen the small smile ghosting the corners of Kankri's mouth. “Yes, well, I really must correct your use of language there,” he said. “Using derogatory phrases such as 'pan-damaged' and 'lunatics' is extremely belittling to trolls who have suffered cranial injuries and who are suffering from genuine mental or emotional illnesses. Note that it is also best to avoid framing these issues as 'problems' or 'disabilities' as both words come not only with potentially triggering connotations given the expectation of culling for those found wanting under the current hemobigoted eugenic Imperial policies but are also stigmatising to the individual, identifying them directly with the issue they are struggling with and dismissing their inherent personhood.”

Karkat rolled his eyes and walked the last few steps up to their Drivesuits. He gave the techs a sharp look when they stepped forwards, then realised how fucking stupid that was and unwound Kankri's arm from around his neck so he could hand his hatchclone over to be suited up. “Thanks, I'll remember that next time I'm facing down some frothing rot-pan who wants to rip my limbs off and paint pretty flowers with my blood. I certainly wouldn't want to hurt their fucking feelings!”

“Consideration is a simple matter,” said Kankri. He frowned at the techs around him. “I hope that you all bear that in mind, too, rather than taking for granted that your role will allow you to invade the personal space...”

Karkat tuned him out as everything around them became a whirlwind of activity. He found himself being helped into his armour by more hands than he could conceivably fight off. By the time the shiver went up his back to tell him he was secure, Kankri was standing opposite him, similarly attired. They shared a wordless look that carried more understanding and mutual feeling than their abortive Drift attempt could ever have done, and then they were being shepherded forwards into an airlock. To either side, Karkat could see his fellow pilots moving in parallel to them; Terezi waved to them from across the room, and then they were stepping forward into what Karkat knew from his lessons to be a Conn-Pod.

Karkat had been expecting something like the Helm Chambers in the more graphic films he had seen; walls that pulsed organically and thick ropes of bioware funnelling into the core of the device. What he saw looked more like an explosion in a robotic construction block.

“What the fuck?” he asked on general principles, wandering around the domed room and examining the bizarre architecture. Everything was dead metal, mechanical links and electronic controls, and it looked wrong. He hoped like fuck that the torture device in the centre wasn't what he thought it was.

That hope was quickly dashed when one of the grey-clad techs walked over to the complex rig of struts and armatures and said; “If you would each take a side in the control array?”

Karkat was about to protest, but then Kankri walked past him and, with only a moment's hesitation that could just have been to make sure he didn't fall flat on his face, stepped into the nearest pair of boot-shaped clasps. Well, fuck that, he wasn't going to be outdone. Karkat marched around the Conn-Pod to the other array and tried to hide the way his blood-pusher leapt into his throat when he stepped into it and felt machinery give slightly under his weight.

The tech showed them how to set their arms into the appropriate armatures and how to turn on the computer control panel with one hand- it was a typical left-handed setup, just fucking great, wasn't it a good thing Karkat was used to this hoofbeat shit. He spent most of the explanation glancing around the Conn-Pod, still unnerved by the overwhelmingly dead, mechanical look of the thing.

“The Drift sequence will initiate automatically when you lower the helmets,” said their helper, finishing up her guidance. “Which in turn will activate the Jaeger. Wait until the pod drops, and you're good to go.”

Information delivered, she saluted and left the Conn-Pod as fast as was trollishly possible without breaking into a run. Karkat could hardly blame her. Muttering under his breath, he reached over and toggled a control that was supposed to lock him properly into the control array. There was a heavy metallic clank as the mechanisms latched onto his suit. Karkat felt a small jolt as the alignment of his legs was tugged, his posture altered by the default position of the machine. A few more whirrs and clatters faded away, and the two of them were hanging in silence, alone in the empty chamber. Blood-pusher fluttering and breath coming ragged, Karkat glanced across at his hatchclone to find Kankri staring back at him with the same expression of abject terror.

Karkat took a deep breath, held it for a second, then let it out again. “Scared?” he asked, with a small sneer that made the question into a challenge.

The corners of Kankri's mouth pulled up into a tight smile that looked about as real as sympathy from a seadweller. “No,” he said, and there was a vicious edge to his words. “You?”

“You fucking wish,” said Karkat. There was no time to say anything else before a loud clunk signalled the Conn-Pod detaching from the Drivesuit Room. Karkat grit his teeth and unconsciously flexed his hands, trying to grip onto something that wasn't there. Then there was a lurch, and his nutrition sac was dropping out through his feet, his weight lifting in freefall until with another heavy clang the head of the Peixes Jaeger attached to its body.

Karkat's eyes fixed on the small icon in his arm-side display that would let him know when the Conn-Pod was locked in and saw it turn grey. Before he could change his mind he reached up and pulled down the helm armature. The faceplate fitted as perfectly as the rest of his armour, the displays flickering alive in his vision. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Kankri doing the same, and when the flood of sanguine yellow relay gel flooded over his face he closed his eyes and braced his mind for impact.

There was a brief hesitation, a fraction of a second just long enough for regret, and then they were plunging into the Drift.

The rush was the same as before, the pull and the storm of memories screaming around him, but this time Karkat held his ground and forced himself not to panic. Slowly, like an echo in his mind, he became aware of Kankri doing the same. The Drift tugged at them, a gentle pull that pulled them inexorably together until the harmonies merged, the echo vanishing entirely into the single focus that remained.

So that was why Wavescar never learned our/my (any of our) (fucking) name/s, thought Vantas, stretching out their new metal arm and feeling the gears turn as they closed their fingers one by one into a fist. Dimly they were still aware of their smaller bodies, two tiny fragile meat-things nestled deep under their carapace, precious and vital but no more autonomous than any other component.

“Vantas, respond,” said a voice. They heard it in all four of their ears, twin pairs of internal eyes noting the external comm active light blinking, and recognised Commander Wavescar through two sets of memories that bounced back and forth and echoed and shared impressions of a stranger. She was a brutal tool of the oppressive hemohierarchy. She was a dedicated commander demanding of respect from her lessers. She had kept them alive at her own risk. She had been an asshole about it.

“We're here,” said Vantas, choosing one of the smaller bodies to speak for them. “Drift is strong and stable, which you should be able to tell from where you are, unless there has been some catastrophic monitoring error you've neglected to mention.”

“Or you're all fondling your bulges instead of paying attention,” they added, using the other body.

There was a snort from the other end of the line. “Congratulations on your graduation to pilots,” said Wavescar, sounding almost amused. “Now stop insulting my Command Crew and get into position for air drop. Current data shows the Othersiders are headed in our direction and I want them stopped before they get anywhere close.”

They wanted to answer back, to say something that would let them take some control of their life, but when they tried to come up with the words the thoughts were too divergent, too confusing. Their mind wobbled, pulled apart, echoed on parallel tracks for a few seconds before the Drift brought them back together and by that time the roof overhead was peeling back to reveal four suborbital lift vehicles hovering against the night sky. Long cables dangled down from them as they manoeuvred into position. Vantas felt the heavy thunk as the cables attached themselves to pickup points on the Jaeger's armour, and fought the urge to grab at them like a wiggler clinging to its lusus when the lift vehicle hummed upwards and their feet moved off from the ground.

They were half-expecting the cables or the autogrips to fail at any moment, but nothing of the kind happened. All four Jaegers lifted into the sky without incident, dangling under the powerful lift vehicles as they were flown out towards the oncoming foe.

“We're dropping you at the outside edge of your effective depth, to give you the maximum opportunity to stop the Othersiders before they approach the base,” said Commander Wavescar over the comm. “Be careful; you'll be close to some of the deep-sea trenches and if you miss your footing you will not float.”

“She'th talking to you, Vantath,” said Captor, in an almost childish sing-song.

“Try not to die,” Pyrope added. “We'd miss you.”

“If you're trying to unsettle us, it's not working,” said Vantas, with a pang of feeling for the teal-painted Jaeger. Because we're already (fucking) unsettled, but they hardly need to know that, right?

The night was almost over by the time they reached the drop zone, the first poisonous colours of dawn starting to stain the far horizon. There were three immense, lumbering shapes cutting wakes through the water. Vantas braced for the drop moments before the cables released and landed in a crouch, the momentum of their fall shattering the ocean and momentarily creating a crater of water that rushed back in as a vast circular wave. The sea closed over their head, then poured off them as they stood upright, streaming back down their body as they planted their feet on the shallow seabed. Around them the water surged as the other three Jaegers started their slow march forward, pushing through the waves towards the immense shadowed shapes that were silhouetted against the rising sun. Vantas lifted one solid foot, hydraulics sliding smoothly as the day they were made, and took a step forwards, then another, then another, pushing inorexably onwards towards their distant enemies.

As they got closer, more details became apparent. The Othersiders were mountains of leathery grey-brown skin, blue phosphorescence glowing out of their mouths and under cracks in their flesh. Two were just slightly larger than the Jaegers; the third was twice as big as its companions, a scythe-like ridge rising out of its head and arcing into the sky. Seeing them approach, it threw its head back and let out a cry that stabbed through air and water and metal.

The external comm crackled into life. “You're with uth,” said Captor. Ahead, the yellow-marked Jaeger was turning away from its two companions, altering its heading towards one of the smaller Othersiders. “Pyrope and Makara are getting the big one. We're mopping up the thcrapth.”

Vantas zoomed their vision in on the Category Four, wading through the ocean on four trunk-like legs with bony shoulders that jutted over its head. “Look again, Captor. Those are big scraps.”

“Not when we're done, they're not,” came the reply, and before Vantas could reply Captor started accelerating, breaking into a run that shook the ocean floor and made the waves foam white. Red and blue light ran across the carapace of the yellow-marked Jaeger, and in a blinding burst of psionic energy Captor leapt out of the water and hurtled down fist-first into the head of the Othersider. The crack of metal on flesh and bone was audible clear across the water, and the comm line filled with mad cackling from two throats.

Time we stepped in (show them how it's fucking done) (I'm not going to be upstaged by him!). Vantas started running, chasing towards the ongoing melee. Off to his left he saw a flash of metal and blue blood flying as Pyrope and Makara piled into the Category Five; he ignored them, focused on where Captor was grappling with their own foe. Psionics flickered across the surface of the Jaeger, too weak to hold the Othersider but enough to give the machine an edge. Vantas raised their fist, focused in on one of the knee joints, and threw themselves against the weight of the water.

They were almost in range to deliver the blow when, with a powerful toss of its shoulders, the Othersider threw Captor aside, right into Vantas' path.

STAND YOUR GROUND!/GET OUT THE FUCKING WAY!

Dissonance tore across the heart of the Drift, and was joined a moment later by the physical impact. Their footing was gone; everything lurched and started to tumble end over end, sparks flying and metal screaming. In the heart of the tempest two minds reached out and held on to one another in a tenuous grip, barely enough to push away from the other Jaeger before they landed on the ocean floor with a heavy impact that shook everything to the marrow. The world was rushing water and flashing lime light, and the comm was crowded with Captor screaming obscenities and Pyrope shouting for help and Wavescar demanding clear reports, now.

The mental grip grew stronger, and Vantas planted a fist on the seabed and pushed themselves upright. When their head broke the surface, scattering sun-glittering water, they looked around for the enemy.

“Fuck,” they said.

“VANTAS, REPORT!” hollered the comm. They ignored it, setting out at a full-tilt run towards the knot of fighting figures around the Category Five. Pyrope was fighting it head-on, ducking and dodging enough to turn crushing blows into glancing misses but slowly giving ground. Makara was limping in from the other side; one of its shoulders was a bare wreck, exposed wire and coolant lines sparking and draining in the air. The limp remains of its arm were clutched in the other hand like a weapon. Vantas saw them raise it high and bring it down on the Othersider with enough force to shatter the armour plating. Roaring, the Othersider rammed its head into the damaged Jaeger, sending it flying back again.

Vantas ducked under a swiping hand that was larger than their head; discord sparked through the Drift and settled as they punched, throwing as much weight as they could into it. Their fist sent ripples through the Othersider's flesh and with a screech it turned its head. They had a brief view of a glowing electric-blue maw before a spurt of acid arced out towards their Conn-Pod. At the last moment they were knocked aside by a heavy impact. Stumbling to regain their footing, they saw the unnatural blue liquid splash across one of Pyrope's hips and were hit by a flash of unstable panic. Metal sizzled and melted away and the other Jaeger stumbled back, tumbling towards the ocean.

Suddenly Captor was there, catching Pyrope and pushing her back to her feet. A flickering psionic glow blossomed around the ruined leg and the two of them rushed forwards, each grabbing one of the Othersider's forelegs and dragging it head-over-tail into the ocean. They landed with a crashing tidal wave of water that briefly blotted out the sky.

The comm crackled. “Get Makara and head back to bathe!” Captor yelled.

The water around the three grappling figures churned almost as though it was boiling. “What about the Category Five?” Vantas yelled back, looking for an opening.

“Relax, Vantas, we've got it!” Pyrope said, in an act of blatant falsehood that under any other circumstances would have been more endearing than bone-chilling. “You need to catch the third one before it hits our operations!”

Cold panic flooded the Drift and nearly dragged them under. Iron control held them steady as they turned and marched towards the distant gleam of sunlight on black Jaeger armour. Makara was lying on an undersea shelf, their head barely visible above the waves. It turned towards Vantas as they approached, and their remaining arm reached out. Vantas grabbed it, slinging it around their shoulder and hefting the broken Jaeger out of the water. Water poured out through a cracked chest-plate, mixed with fluids that Vantas didn't recognise but was certain were not supposed to be haemorrhaging out.

“Thanks for coming to motherfucking get us, brothers,” said Makara, in a dual-voiced echo that was probably an entirely legitimate and harmless form of self-expression that would be unreasonable to police but which was also creepy as fuck. “Don't reckon as we'd have been much longer before drowning our asses down there.”

“Yes, well,” said Vantas, starting to stride in the direction of the vanishing Othersider- still visible, just, on the dark horizon. “We need to move fast. Can you keep up?”

Makara glanced down, and with a pained grinding of gears managed to wriggle one leg. “Not so motherfucking great,” they said.

“Vantas,” said a voice over the comm. Commander Wavescar. “Drop Makara and pursue the Othersider.”

For an instant, the Drift synced up perfectly, two different impulses pushing and pulling to the same place. “FUCK no! He'll drown! I thought we were all too valuable to lose!”

“This base is too valuable to lose!” the Commander replied, her voice a dangerous growl. “We are scrambling but we may not have time to bring any other Jaegers into play before the Othersider is on top of us. Makara still has a chance if they use the escape pods, but we do not!”

“Assuming you pick them up before the sun fries them!” Vantas yelled back.

“Naw, brothers, the lady's right,” said Makara. Their arm whirred as they started to tug it out of Vantas' grip. “See you on the motherfucking flip side.”

“IDIOT!” screamed Vantas, as their grip broke. Without the other Jaeger to hold them up, Makara toppled backwards, vanishing under the ocean with a crash of water. Vantas dove forward a step, about to duck under after their fellow Jaeger, and paused as they caught sight of the distant Othersider, still moving inexorably towards their base.

“VANTAS!” hollered Commander Wavescar, loud enough to make the comm crackle. “GET YOUR ASS BACK HERE NOW!”

Cursing, Vantas cast one last apologetic look at the dark shadow of Makara under the water then broke into a run, forcing their way through the water in a desperate attempt to catch up with the Othersider. The Drift threw up memories, all the people they knew there, Porrim and Aranea and Tavros and Feferi. They imagined the monster ripping the roof off the mess hall like opening an eggshell, their friends bleeding, dying, wondering why they didn't come. They imagined Captor and Pyrope and Makara behind them, fighting against an impossibly huge creature and dying alone in the ocean.

They imagined being the only ones left the next time the portal opened, and ran faster.

The Jaegers weren't built to move fast over long distances, and the Othersider had a long head start. By the time they caught up to it, the base was visible nearby as a blot of black geometry jutting out of the sea and they had long since turned off the screaming chaos of the comm. Their legs were aching and every breath hurt, but they didn't break stride, leaping out of the water and tackling the Othersider down. Their momentum carried them both underwater, Jaeger and monster struggling to get a grip on one another. The Othersider had prominent ridges running up its sides and Vantas grabbed one, twisted it until flesh tore and radiant blue drifted in the water. Then its head snapped round and razor teeth dug into their forearm. Vantas screamed through two throats, the Drift wavering as one of their two smaller bodies thrashed and tugged to reclaim the limb. It tore free in a burst of light and metal, shards floating down in the water. One-handed they grabbed into the creature's throat, grasped onto something soft and fleshy, and yanked with all their strength. Something large and blue came out, trailing toxic blood, and the Othersider screamed in a burst of bubbles that blinded them.

They staggered back, shielding their half-gone arm, and were brought up short by a grip locking around their leg. Their reaction was a pulse-beat too slow, and they screamed again as the world flipped upside down. They broke the surface of the water and they were flying, staring up at the filtered light and fading stars, before a shattering force slammed into their thorax and battered them down. Instead of water they crashed into something solid; metal and stone rained down around them as they landed sprawling in the hangar, knocking down two Jaegers hard enough to crack their empty shells.

There was no time to consider just how serious a disaster this was before the Othersider appeared, crawling over the ridge of the broken roof and flaring its side-fins against the sky. Vantas rolled out of the way as it dove down, shattering the floor where he had been lying and sending lethal shards of metal flying. As they scrambled back to their knees they found themselves staring straight through the window of the Command Centre; it was empty apart from a single figure. Commander Wavescar scowled at them, then her eyes went wide and she jabbed a finger to the side. Vantas was still turning their head when the Othersider crashed into them, knocking them into more of the silently waiting Jaegers and scattering them across the hangar.

Vantas scrabbled back and grabbed blindly for a weapon. They ended up with a Jaeger head, which they threw at the monster. It slammed into the Othersider's jaw and bounced off, crashing into something else in the darkness; the Othersider screamed in rage and pounced. Again they were too slow to move, and ended up pinned to the floor by their good arm. The creature leaned over them, opening its maw. Vantas stared up into an endless expanse of flesh studded with blue lights, and realised with a detached sense of certainty that this was it. Maybe it was for the best that it ended here, anyway. It wasn't like they would have wanted to see what came next.

There was a thunderous crash from nearby. The Othersider's head snapped around towards the noise, looking for the source. When nothing presented itself, it turned back to Vantas, blue-tinted saliva dripping from its teeth to score deep pits in the floor and the Jaeger's armour. In the Drift, two minds that were one gripped onto one another.

I'm sorry/I'm not.

A fist the size of a habitable building crashed through the roof and into the Othersider's head. For a split second Vantas stared, too shocked to act, then as the monster staggered away from the new threat their sense returned and the Jaeger rolled away and up into a crouch. They looked around to see who had come to save their ass- Captor, had to be Captor, everyone else was (fucked) insufficiently capable.

It wasn't Captor. The thing that dropped into the hangar, leaving two extra indents in the floor, wasn't even immediately recognisable as a Jaeger. Its silhouette was wrong- sleeker, blunter, less spiky, with long forearms that ended in heavy cylinders of metal and hands designed for a machine half as large again. As Vantas watched it swung one of those arms, spinning it in a lazy loop that ended in a blow that stoved in a huge chunk of Othersider torso and knocked the monster flying into a wall. The new Jaeger swaggered after it, coming out of the shadow of the roof and into the light. It was the wrong colour, dull grey rather than glossy black, marked with bright splashes of painted colour- mostly blue but in too many different shades, including one luminously bright one that looked too much like Othersider blood for it to be coincidence. On one of the over-large, smooth shoulderplates there was an image that made no sense to Vantas. It was too complicated to be a sigil- a fan-like shape of layered white rectangles, the outermost one framing the image of what looked like a subjugglator- but wearing red and yellow?

The unknown Jaeger reached the Othersider just as it was staggering back up to its feet, and slammed its head with another of the long, looping blows. As the creature crashed into the ground, the Jaeger raised one of its hands and made a twisting gesture. Three sharp tines sprung out of the end of the weighted cylinder on its wrist, extending over its fingers. Before the Othersider could move aside, the strange Jaeger punched down, the three spikes piercing the creature's skull and pinning it to the ground as it thrashed its way into death.

The strange Jaeger waited until the Othersider had completely stopped moving, then retracted the spikes. It took a step back, seemed to consider for a moment, then clasped its hands together and brought them down in a single, world-shaking blow to the Othersider's skull. If it hadn't been dead before, Vantas thought, it definitely was now. There wasn't anything that could survive having every bone in its head go runny like that.

They almost scrambled back when the strange Jaeger turned towards them, and actually did raise their arm in a pathetic attempt at defence when one of those lethal bludgeoning arms came up. Then they saw the outstretched hand at the end of it, and feeling rather stupid they extended their own to meet it. The other Jaeger pulled them to their feet like they weighed nothing, then turned and crossed the hangar until they reached the doors at the end. Vantas stared in awe as the stranger gripped the mag-locked metal and forced it open. Seawater rushed in across the damaged barriers, flooding the floor as the stranger waded out and started fishing around for something. Vantas was utterly confused for all of a minute, before the other Jaeger emerged holding a massive plate of ragged metal that had been torn from the roof and, with a casual toss, sent it clattering back to where it had originated.

As the stranger dredged up more pieces of the roof, Vantas switched their comm back on. They weren't entirely surprised to hear nothing but silence. “If it's not too much trouble to ask right now,” they said, letting the tired servos in their knee give out and drop them back to the floor. “What the fuck is going on?”

Static crackled, and then the active indicator lit up with an unknown source. “Now that is the million-dollar question, right there,” said an unfamiliar voice with a heavy, unidentifiable accent. “No, wait, you guys use caegars, right? Fuck it, who even cares. What is going on, my dear brand new spanking alien bropal, is that the motherfucking cavalry just showed up to pull your asses out of the fire. You just sit back and relax, maybe check out these majestic goddamn stallions galloping past, the wind blowing in their manes. Stallions like those, you know you've got some serious fucking cavalry on your case. And we are serious, my friend, serious like you're busy boning the hottest piece of ass this side of Proxima Centauri and someone downstairs yells 'Honey, I'm home!', you get me?”

“That is not a very informative answer!” Vantas snapped.

“I quite concur,” said another new voice, this one unmistakeably feminine and carrying the same fluid accent. “As the beginnings of an explanation, might we suggest that you take a look towards the sunrise?”

Irritated, but more curious than ever, Vantas shuffled around until they could squint out across the water into the increasing glare of the day. “What do you mean, I can't see...”

Their voice trailed off as they saw the cluster of silhouettes against the horizon. Watching as they drew closer, Vantas could make out the battered and broken forms of three normal Jaegers along with three other unfamiliar shapes. Only Captor was still standing, limping along one-legged and leaning against a Jaeger that looked strangely slender, almost frail against the sun. Apart from the grey metal colour and vague shape- head, body, two arms and two legs- it didn't seem to have much in common with the one rebuilding the roof, or the other two that marched beside it. The one on the left had a large glowing circle at the centre of its upper thorax, easily visible in the shadow of the sun, arms that looked like a patchwork of boxes and cylinders, and a large-bore tube mounted on each wrist. The one on the right was a much smoother silhouette, its armour compact and sleek, and its blank face bisected with a strip of reflective black where eyes would be if it were a person.

He watched as the strange Jaegers waded closer, carrying their damaged burdens high above the water. As soon as the roof was complete enough to block the sunlight, the heavy-armed Jaeger went out to meet them; the sleek, black-eyed one greeted it with a raised hand, which the heavy-armed one gently slapped with one of its own. The force of the impact was still enough to make Vantas wince. Phantom memories of their own pains ran through them, and they groaned, struggling to hold the Drift against the weight of exhaustion.

“Who- who are you?” they asked, as the strange Jaegers strode out of the sea and into the hangar, laying the broken black-armoured Jaegers down around him. The black-eyed one swivelled so its head was facing him.

“Already told you, bro,” it said. “We're the cavalry, here to save your collective butts. But if you want a little more detail than that?” The Jaeger crouched down in front of him, impossibly graceful for a twenty-five hundred ton machine. “We're aliens. The name of our species is 'human', but who gives a shit? Most of the other species we've met remember us for one thing.” One immense metal hand reached up and touched the non-existent brow in a bizarre salute.

“Nice to meet you, pilot. This unbelievably sweet ride is Ronin Steel, and we're the biggest badasses in the universe because we invented the Jaegers.”

Chapter Text

The communal nutrition hall was packed out. As the largest room on the base that wasn't currently in need of major repairs, it had become the only place with a hope in hell of holding everyone at once. From the moment the last Othersider had fallen people had been gathering to gossip and review and try to work out just what the fuck had happened. Karkat had been there for three hours, ever since being peeled out of his Drivesuit and patched up by the not-too-tender ministrations of the Mediterminator and his assistants. Somehow he and Kankri had both managed to avoid sustaining any noteworthy damage in the middle of the clusterfuck. There was a bone-deep throbbing in his arm, and the lower half was now lined with the same unnatural geometric scars that he had seen on some of the other pilots. He couldn't quite stop flexing his fingers, watching them move in fascination that they were still there, that he was whole.

It could have been worse, not that you would know that from the reactions of the others. Karkat was sitting next to Kankri because they were both pariahs, getting nothing but glares both from the troops lining the balconies above and the pilots that shared the ground floor with them. He couldn't even call it unfair. Their first time out and they'd been worse than useless; the other three had almost been killed trying to protect them, and the one fight they'd taken on solo had trashed every Jaeger that hadn't already been broken. He- they- had destroyed their ability to fight back against the Othersiders, and left their world defenceless.

Only they hadn't, because at the last second four alien Jaegers had shown up and saved everything, and now everyone's nerves were running high. Nobody had seen the aliens clearly; they had left their Jaegers only to be swept away to Commander Wavescar's office, and not even her aides knew what was being discussed. Given that there were apparently now eight aliens on Alternia and they weren't being hunted down and killed, the rumours were flying. Wavescar was trying to recruit them. Wavescar had been captured in battle and brainwashed by them. They were here to kidnap the mother grub. They weren't actually aliens, they were a secret second Jaeger strike force. They had followed the Othersiders out of the portal.

Karkat's thoughts kept coming back to the alien who had spoken to him. We invented the Jaegers, they had said, and something about the ease with which it had been mentioned sent chills down his spine, because hadn't he been thinking about how alien the Jaegers looked inside, about how strange the technology had seemed?

For once it was easy not to share his thoughts. Even if everyone hadn't been giving them death-glares, neither Karkat nor Kankri felt much like talking, and especially not to one another. Karkat knew Kankri felt the same without even having to ask and just that knowledge made his palms sweat and his nutrition sac churn. He didn't want to know anyone that well, didn't want anyone to know him that well. It should have been pale, that sort of intimacy, only it wasn't. They didn't have piles and papping and the gentle cushion of soft-edged pity to blunt the vulnerability. He'd never pailed anyone and he'd run away from the drones before they could get interested in his genetic contributions or lack thereof, but he imagined that this was what it would feel like to fuck a stranger to escape the inevitable culling. Both desperate, both needing to survive, and neither wanting it with each other.

He wished he did have a real moirail, or a matesprit who wasn't in the Medical Assessment Block. Hell, he'd settle for any quadrant right now as long as he could go to them and forget this. Forget that he was a piece of biological machinery, that his arm wasn't meant to be there, that he had stripped down to his soul in front of a virtual stranger, that his hands wouldn't stop fucking shaking.

The babble in the room quietened down as footsteps approached from outside. All heads turned towards the entrance ramp, and Karkat lifted his head up from the table not knowing how he was going to face Wavescar- or worse, the aliens. Then two tall, bony figures appeared instead, leaning on one another and shakily making their way down into the mess. Both Makaras looked strange without their grease-paint, younger and older at the same time. The stitches through Kurloz's mouth looked even more painfully wrong this way, and dark shadows appeared under Gamzee's half-lidded eyes. They added to the air of exhaustion as he leaned on Kurloz, limping through the crowd. The other pilots parted silently to let the two of them through and it quickly became obvious where they were heading. Karkat glared and Kankri straightened in his seat as the two indigo-bloods stopped in front of their table.

Gamzee's face might have looked young, but his eyes were all adult purple as they wandered between the two mutants. “So,” he said quietly, his voice coming out raw, and Karkat realised abruptly that he might have heard two voices over the comm but it had to have been Gamzee's throat speaking alone in the Jaeger because Kurloz couldn't. “You motherfuckers was all up and getting to your righteous motherfucking fury on as to over saving the lives of these two faithful, if I recalls as what was happening correct and motherfucking proper-like.”

Kankri cleared his throat, like that had been his idea and he hadn't been panicking about trying to solo an Othersider. At least, Karkat thought that was the way round it had been; it was still confused in his thinkpan. “Yes, well, although it was hardly optimal as a strategy, it is the duty of all enlightened beings to act to preserve the lives and indeed dignity of their fellow persons without judgement or prejudice as to the moral or social character of those persons. Naturally there can be some particular circumstances in which acts of seeming 'rescue' or 'mercy' are in fact quite the opposite, but in order to go into those scenarios I must first give trigger warnings for emotional manipulation, gaslighting, hemoprejudice, abuse of authority-”

“You're welcome,” said Karkat, cutting across the start of Kankri's speech and ignoring both the glare he received from his hatchclone and the memory of dull rage burning in his upper thorax- listen to me, just listen, they say that I should live up to the memory but nobody ever listens... He cut off the faint whispers in his mind by meeting Kurloz's eyes, then flickering across to Gamzee's. “I'm sorry we had to leave you, and I'm sorry we were too fucking cowardly to do more. Nobody deserves to die helpless and alone; anyone with the faintest shred of basic decency would have kept the comms open and stayed with you, but apparently between us we don't have the innate courage displayed by infant squeakbeasts, especially given how gracefully we went on to fuck up our actual grubdamned job.”

Kurloz shook his head, hair flopping around his horns, and Gamzee grinned. There were still way too many teeth in there, even without the paint to emphasise them. “Naw, brother, it's all motherfucking sweet.” They both glanced away, taking in the quietly watching crowd before looking back to Karkat. “We're thinking on how all these motherfuckers up in here are getting all their harshest judgement on and saying things as what are truthful in the one sense while forgetting some other motherfucking truths what got places all up in this motherfucking wicked blameful courtroom they gone and made.” His lip curled in a quick sneer, and his voice raised. “Any of you motherfuckers all remembering on your first battle? 'Cos we are. Shit was bitter and cruel and even with them motherfucking Drift miracles to show us what our way was up and being, we was all to motherfucking being square in the hands of the Messiahs- or whatever other gods you motherfucking pagan heretics got to worship in their rightful stead.” Gamzee looked back towards them, Kankri then Karkat, and his smile softened. “Ain't none of us gone and fought some Category Four motherfucker solo on our first motherfucking time out. You motherfuckers done everything what you could and more, and we're all getting our gratitude on for that 'cos it ain't nothing as what you didn't drop us to motherfuckin' die from your own will.”

As quick as lightning the tall troll slipped out of his hatchclone's grip, leaned across the table, and pressed a quick kiss to each of their foreheads. He was back in Kurloz's grip before Karkat could even twitch, but where his lips had brushed skin Karkat could image his forehead burning. Beside him, Kankri started to stammer out something about personal boundaries and inappropriate contact, but both Makaras ignored him. Gamzee rested his head against his hatchclone's shoulder, eyes closing; Kurloz gave them both a presumably warm smile and turned away.

And froze, because standing at the foot of the entrance ramp behind them was Commander Wavescar. Her milky eye glared at them while the other swept across the assembled personnel, dragging the chill of the deep ocean after it.

“Pilots, with me,” she ordered, then turned and marched away. After a second's pause everyone scrambled to follow and the babble from the upper terraces started up again. More grist for the rumour mill, not that Karkat cared. He darted out from behind the table then trailed along after the crowd, not wanting to get any closer to the other pilots. Despite what Gamzee had said, he didn't want to find out the hard way who was feeling more angry than forgiving.

Wavescar led them at a brisk pace through the corridors, which were darker than usual. Karkat guessed that having an immense monster from another dimension tearing up the damn roof and a clumsy-ass Jaeger stumbling about inside had caused some collateral damage to the structure. It didn't matter too much, since there were still enough lights to see by and it wasn't like the corridors were full of terrible trip hazards, but it still hurt like a fang that had been ripped out. Sure, it would grow back, but the hollow pain was a sign that somebody or something had gotten close enough to do the damage.

He wasn't too surprised when they arrived at the pilot's lounge; hearing the gasps and mutters of everyone who stepped in before him, it was with a sense of utter weary inevitability that he walked through the door and took in the cluster of aliens standing over by the window.

They didn't look too dissimilar to trolls, and that was the most surprising thing of all. Right number of limbs- of digits, even- and a basic facial structure that was almost identical. The obvious differences were, well, fucking obvious- different colours of skin all in browns and pinks rather than proper grey, hair that could be trollish black or bizarre, almost lusal yellow-white, no grubsfucked horns- but it was the small things that really set his skin prickling. The way their hair lay, too smooth and too tame to look natural. The fact that their eyes were oh-so-slightly too small, glinting chips of icy white that hid their colours behind dark, wide-blown pupils. The way they moved, too fluid and loose and never quite still so his eyes kept flicking back to them to keep them in view in case they pounced.

All told, he preferred the Othersiders. They were big and ugly and dangerous, but at least they weren't subtle about it.

“Get comfortable,” ordered Wavescar, walking past the couches- where Terezi was sitting with Latula, Sollux and Mituna, and Karkat felt a sense of numb relief that they were awake, they were okay- over to where the aliens stood. There were eight of them, and they shifted aside to make room for Wavescar to loom behind them. They didn't move out of the way like subordinates fleeing before her; they made room, like equals. Karkat's threat assessment slid up a notch from 'freeze like a startled nutbeast' to 'start praying, dumbass'. His claws scraped uselessly against the wall as he backed up into it and tried to look like he was leaning against it in a nonchalant fashion rather than succumbing to a fit of nerves that demanded he be near the exit. There weren't enough seats for everyone anyway.

Wavescar glanced around the room, her eyes fixing on Meenah in the middle of one of the couches. It was her day to be in the mess; Karkat had picked up enough to know that she and Feferi had a schedule and kept to it religiously.

“Peixes, over there,” said the Commander, pointing to the corner furthest from the door. “And you are under strict orders to remain calm and not attack anyone, understood?”

Meenah straightened from her slouch in a sudden jerk. “No glubbin' way!” she said, lip curling into a snarl. “You can't bring her in here, not whale I'm aboat! I forbid it!”

“I can, I am doing so, and you have no say in the matter,” said Wavescar, her voice perfectly level and containing only the faintest hint of a growl. “Now move, before I order you to be restrained. We do not have time to pander to your failings any more.”

“FAILINGS?” Meenah screeched, jumping to her feet. Everyone around her, including all eight aliens, flinched back.

“Failings,” repeated Wavescar, without blinking. “For which there may be a solution, if you will start by getting in the corner.”

Karkat could see Meenah bite back on her words and think about what the Commander had just said to her, before she spun and stalked off into the far corner. Not a moment too soon, either, because no sooner had she made it than the door opened again and Feferi stepped in.

“Hello?” asked the second Heiress, smiling at the room. “You sent a messenger to the training chamber for me, Command- OH!” She broke off as she noticed the aliens, and then as her eyes skimmed over to the corner where Meenah stood her open jaw slammed shut and her eyes narrowed. “Oh.”

“Opposite corner, Peixes,” said Wavescar, pointing past Karkat's shoulder. Feferi didn't argue; she shot one glare at Meenah, then turned in a swirl of fabric and strode past Karkat into the furthest point of the room from her hatchclone. Wavescar waited until she was sure that the two hostile Tyrian-blooded heiresses were suitably separated, then turned her attention back to the rest of the room.

“As you have noticed, we have some visitors,” she said. “You may be wondering what they are doing here; the answer is simple. I called them.” She paused, waiting for the collective gasp to die down, before she continued. “As strange as the concept may seem, they are here to help. How and why, I will let them explain, but what you need to know is this: they have my support.” Her eyes swept across the room, seemingly meeting everyone else's individually for a fraction of a second. Karkat stood firm and met her gaze squarely when it landed on him, and was unspeakably relieved when it passed on. “We have discussed what their role will be and what they need in order to assist us; as of right now, you are to respond to them as if they had authority on this base surpassed only by my own. The reasons for this will become clear momentarily, but before then you also need to understand that everything you are about to be told is classified at the highest levels. I am giving you clearance because I believe you need to know. The ordinary personnel on this base do not require this knowledge and will not receive it. Is that understood?”

An affirmative chorus, ragged but unanimous, met her question. Wavescar glowered at them all a moment longer, as if in disbelief, then stepped aside and nodded to the group of aliens. One of them stepped forward- a young man from the look of it, but what the fuck did Karkat know about alien genders or how they aged? The guy was one of the ones with black hair; his face was made slightly less alien by a pair of dark-rimmed lenses that framed his eyes and gave the illusion that they were slightly larger. Like all of the aliens, he was wearing something that Karkat might have called a uniform if it wasn't for the fact that they were all wearing different ones. This one's hodgepodge mixture of clothing included a jacket- blue, but too dark and faded for a blood colour- that was hanging open to display an off-white shirt with a picture of a green blobby grublike thing on it. The green blob was smiling and Karkat silently prayed that this was not what alien sigils looked like.

“Hi there!” the alien said, smiling widely and showing a row of thick, blunt teeth. “I'm Ranger Egbert, but since that makes me sound like my Dad you guys can call me John. Me and my cousin, Ranger Crocker here-” he waved one hand towards a very similar-looking alien whose neatly-buttoned shirt was heaving under the stress of a pair of truly impressive rumble spheres- “are the copilot-buddies for Joker Wild.” His head turned back to glance through the window behind him, and Karkat's eyes shifted to the four dim shadows that stood out against the scattered shafts of burning sunlight- the only illumination left in the broken hangar. The silhouette John was looking at was the long-armed bludgeoner that had saved Karkat's ass, and as the alien turned back Karkat was sure he saw a ghost of a familiar motion.

Fuck. Being saved by an alien was bad enough, but did it have to be one that was so obviously and obnoxiously cheerful? Karkat scanned the other six, trying to work out which pair had talked to him from Ronin Steel- and he definitely wasn't feeling at all wistful about the ridiculous appellations they had given their Jaegers, because he absolutely didn't need to name his thousands of tons of awesome with a label you had to be a prepubescent wiggler to consider badass rather than hopelessly pathetic- when it struck him. Egbert. Crocker. Rumble spheres.

They weren't hatchclones.

From the muttering around the room he wasn't the only one who had figured it out. John let them be surprised for all of ten seconds before he waved a hand in the air for attention. He got it, alright; the movement was wrong in the same way as the eyes and the teeth, and that weird fluid quality to their motions was made a thousand times worse by the gesture. Karkat pressed a little further back against the wall; a few people hissed, and John dropped his arm with an apologetic giggle.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, rubbing at his elbow in a way that still didn't look quite right. “No brachiating ancestors. Sorry!” He shrugged, shoulders rolling weirdly, and sparkled his blunt-toothed grin at them again. “So, according to your commander, you guys really haven't been told very much about what's going on here, and we think that has hampered your ability to fight. So we're going to be covering a lot of ground in a short space right now; don't worry too much about getting every little detail, because from here on out we're going to be working on adapting the strategies we already have to your circumstances. Right! To explain the background here, I'm going to ask my buddy Ranger Lalonde here to help out, since she likes explaining stuff and she's really smart!” He leaned forward a little, put his hand up by his mouth, and in a stage-whisper added; “I totally slept through classes, but she let me borrow her notes and they were really good!”

“Yes, thank you, John,” said one of the two pale-haired, presumably female aliens. She stepped forward with the natural grace of a highblood as her comrade stepped back, sweeping the room with a look so appraising that Karkat had to fight the urge to straighten up his rumpled jumpsuit. She herself was dressed in the most uniform uniform of the aliens, black trousers and jacket done up severely to avoid any hint of dishevelment. “You may call me Rose as this will serve to distinguish me from the other Ranger Lalonde, and as John has indicated, I will be providing you with some background information today. While my tale may not at first seem relevant to your immediate situation, I urge you to remain focused and listen carefully to my words. The story I share will, in the manner of the prophet illustrating through parable, cast illumination onto your present predicament and provide understanding of the situation before we move onto guidance towards your ultimate solution and, I should hope, salvation.”

“JUFFT FKIN THAY IT ALLEDY YOU DUBUM THITFQUITTING BIFTITH!”

Two laser-guided glares, one from Commander Wavescar and one from the alien Rose, immediately locked onto Mituna. Karkat winced, flinching back along with everyone else- or almost everyone, because in a couple of swift strides Kurloz had crossed the room and crouched down in front of Mituna. Their eyes locked, and Mituna stilled. Quickly, but gently, Kurloz reached up and papped him on the arm in a gesture that was eye-scorchingly, gut-churningly pale.

“Hey, mad apologiez for this biz,” said Latula, into the sudden silence. Her eyes shifted from Wavescar to the aliens, but her arm stayed protectively cradled around her frozen, damaged matesprit. “'Tuna's a bit cracked in the pan, you dig me? I know it ain't so rad when he lays into you but you just gotta- he don't mean it like that, yo.”

“Fthorry,” muttered Mituna. Kurloz squeezed his arm, then in an abrupt glide of motion shifted into the seat beside him- not coincidentally shoving Sollux aside. With a huff and some psionic crackling, Sollux slid down onto the floor and scowled at Rose, not penitent at all. In one way Karkat couldn't blame him- she'd barely been talking a minute but it was obvious that like Aranea and Kankri, the alien loved to fucking lecture, probably until her lower mastication plate dropped off from overuse. On the other hand she was mildly terrifying, and even if she wasn't going to maim people who crossed her Wavescar was. Deliberately pissing her off seemed like the action of a lunatic.

Then again, Sollux only really seemed sane by comparison to his bugfuck hatchclone, so maybe there was some sense to it in his pan.

“If we are all quite settled,” said Rose, with a hint to her words that said they had better be after all that fuss. Karkat didn't miss a couple of the other aliens behind her snickering. “Then I shall, without further ado or delay, begin my narrative. It originates with a species of parasites. Not in the usual sense, of creatures that form an unwanted symbiosis or stealthy predation on another organism; no, the parasites to which I refer engage in their behaviour on a planetary scale.” She looked around the room, taking in her audience. “These creatures long ago consumed their own homeworld and rather than learn from the destruction they instead embraced it, developing technology that would let them flee to another world, colonise it, and consume it in turn. These ancient Precursors had little regard for anything beyond their own needs, and cared not for any creatures that already inhabited the planets they sought to overtake. In fact, the nature of the alterations they wished to make preferred not only inhabited biospheres, but those home to sophont beings. Those beings fought back against invasion, and soon the Precursors learned that if they were to continue in their path they would need to exterminate all resistance before their arrival. To this end they created monsters, toxic biological nightmares that they pitted against one another until only the strongest remained to travel through the Rifts they created and exterminate whatever native populace they found on the other side.”

She paused, letting her words sink in. Karkat shivered a little; it was too obvious what she was talking about, but the idea of an ancient and hostile intelligence behind the Othersiders was more unnerving than he cared to admit. Looking around the other pilots, he saw Kankri's brow was furrowed like he'd just been handed a tricky puzzle, Terezi was tapping her fingers against her cane, and Aranea's eyes were glazed over a small smile- of course she was getting her fucking rocks off on this, it was exactly the sort of thing she liked to go on about herself.

The alien clearly decided she had been waiting for a dramatically significant amount of time, and resumed her story. “The monsters came like a storm, like a hurricane, a force of nature too powerful to be resisted, and over the aeons, many worlds fell to them. The races that were in their way either fled to other worlds or, if they could not run, fell to extinction.” A small smile grew on her previously sombre face. “Until one species, too young and too inexperienced to evacuate their planet and too stubborn to simply wait for death, discovered a means to fight back effectively against the great monsters that they had dubbed 'kaiju'- a word meaning 'strange beasts'. Their discovery was in no small part driven by luck; luck of inspiration, luck of dedication, the simple luck of biology and technology that made their plans possible at all. But that luck, and the determination of a few brave souls, was enough to create the first Jaegers. It was enough to fight the hurricane, and win.”

Kaiju. Karkat tried out the unfamiliar word in his head. Strange beasts fell a little short of the truth, but then Othersiders wasn't exactly a great description now that he knew they were just the Drones to the Precursor Highbloods on the other side of the Portal. Or Rift. He liked that word, at least; Portal sounded neat and clean and scientific, but a Rift was something that got ripped open and left to bleed its hideous acidic shit all over their nice clean world. The aliens were obviously better at naming crap than whatever slimesucking propagournalist had been coming up with the Alternian words, presumably while switching between fingering their nook and caressing their bone bulge over the massive career enhancements made possible by the impending doom of their entire species.

“I shall not insult your intelligence by playing coy with the truth, or attempting to maintain a transparent deception,” said Rose, drawing the attention of the room once again. “It was our species who created the Jaegers, and became the first to save our home from the kaiju. Yet that was not the end of our battle; the technology and global cohesion developed for the Jaegers allowed us to travel between the stars, and there we met other races who suffered from the same incursions that had once threatened us. Our reaction to this was and still remains controversial; like many species, we do have a preference for protecting our own and would naturally remain suspicious of outsiders. However, we also have a not inconsiderable capacity for altruism, and the nature of the Drift is such that those of us who work with it consider cooperation a matter of basic survival. Rather than let a dangerous foe inimical to all life continue unabated, we brought our technology and experience to bear in the defence of others. Our species became so associated with our creations that we are now known on many worlds, even ones we have not ourselves visited.”

Rose folded her arms, her expression closing off and growing stern. “Your species is not the first we have helped against the threat of the kaiju and the Precursors, but you are certainly one of the most difficult cases. When your ambassadors first approached us, we were heavily advised not to provide aid at all. Your reputation amongst spacefaring peoples is little better than that of the kaiju, and for some is considerably worse.” Her eyes lit on Meenah and Feferi briefly, and Karkat found himself shifting a little awkwardly. He'd never thought of it like that, never even given a single frond of thinksponge over to contemplating what an Alternian invasion might be like for the invaded except for the inevitable cowering and worthless pleading that made the aliens all the more pathetically crushable. An old fantasy came back to him, one where he was a Threshecutioner leading his flaysquad through the ruins of an alien city and hunting down the stragglers to complete the conquest. Only this time, instead of dangerous and bestial foes, he saw his prey hiding under rubble, intelligent eyes glinting with the same helplessness that he had felt seeing the Othersiders- the kaiju- reducing his own world to ruins.

It wasn't a pleasant thought, and he quickly pushed it aside as Rose kept talking.

“Nonetheless, it is the sworn duty of the Pan Planetary Defence Corps to provide aid against the Precursors to any who require it,” she said, her fellow aliens nodding agreement behind her. “Normally that would have meant sending a Jaeger Strike Group to the afflicted world and a team of scientists and technicians to help adapt and optimise the technology to your people. Your Empire, however, turned down any such offers of assistance. In the end, all we were allowed to provide was technical and tactical information, which we were assured would be put to good use. At the time we were glad to have the decision simplified in such a way, but we were still sure to include a Mayday protocol in our data packet.”

From the couch opposite Mituna, Kurloz and Latula, a hand went up. “Excuse my ignorance,” said Kanaya softly, her voice still perfectly clear in the hush of the room. “But I do not think I am familiar with the concept of a Mayday protocol. I am certain that someone as intelligent as you purport to be would not simply expect us to understand alien terminology without explanation, but regretfully I am still compelled to ask for clarification on the matter- if that is quite alright by you.”

A smile flickered across the Rose alien's face once again. “No, I am the one who should apologise for my rudeness,” she said. “You are quite correct, I should have explained. 'Mayday' comes from words meaning 'help me' and refers to an ancient marine distress signal from our world. Its use in the PPDC references not only to a life-threatening emergency on the part of the distressed, but a guarantee of aid on the part of the recipient. Thus our Shatterdome dispatched us to provide what assistance we could the moment your Commander's Mayday signal was received. Does that answer your question, or do you require more detail?”

There was a brief pause as Kanaya considered her answer. “No, that seems to be an adequate explanation,” she said.

“Whale, I hawe a question,” said Eridan, louder than was strictly necessary. “Since you already dealt with the triple ewent, and you know you're not whelkome on this world, why are you still here?”

One of Rose's eyebrows raised upwards. “Aside from the obvious benefit of our presence while you rebuild your own Jaegers, you mean?” She smirked. “Our conversation with Commander Wavescar has allowed us to identify three key tactical issues that need addressing, and she concurs that our long experience will be invaluable to that end.” Raising her hand, she counted off a single finger. Karkat noticed that her claws were short and rounded, hardly dangerous at all. “Firstly, and most obviously, there is your species' unique reaction to the Drift. This is not an uncommon problem; the entire Pons system was originally designed for neurotypical human mental architecture, and has had to be adapted for every species we have met without exception. Still, the fact that you are physically incapable of Drifting with most other members of your species is a significant drawback and not one we have come across before.” She shook her head. “You are really quite fortunate that your species is sufficiently hardy that you have not needed to redesign the Jaegers themselves. Although the basic model we now work from has been adapted for species that lack human endurance, it is still too physically demanding for many. In some ways it is fortuitous that your Jaegers have been destroyed, as this gives Rangers Strider and Harley a chance to consult on the rebuilding effort. I am quite certain you will like the results.”

“We can make them way tougher once we get an idea of your physical limitations!” said one of the other aliens- another female, and the only one whose hair reached past her shoulders. She grinned at them, showing off more heavy, blunt, alien teeth. The raw enthusiasm in the gesture shone out past the strangeness; Karkat watched her warily, not yet certain whether she was an irritant to be avoided or a new verbal sparring partner. “And there are so many potential tactical advantages you're not exploiting with a standardised design!”

Vriska perked up at that, her good eye going wide as she slowly grinned. “Are you saying that we get to have personalised Jaegers?”

Rose glanced back at one of the presumed-males, who nodded and took a step forward. Despite all the glaringly obvious differences, he reminded Karkat too strongly of Equius; maybe it was just the combination of a tank top with a pair of douchebag shades. “According to our statistical analyses of various Strike Group performances and the best available intel we have on the Precursors' tactics, there's a mad biznasty probability that the kaiju have a hella easier time taking apart Jaegers that are technically identical to Jaegers that have already been reduced to their constituent components in battle. Personalisation and reconfiguration are more than just vanity projects; you are hereby obligated to bling the shit out of your bots. We want you dazzling all the other alien gangstas on the block with your truly ostentatious taste in humongous fuckin' mechs, so much so that we will be contacting our own manufacturing facilities to help pimp out your rides for you.”

His words were met with a stunned silence as every pilot in the room started to really contemplate what they might be able to wrangle adding to their new Jaeger.

“Well, as there are no arguments there, I shall move on,” said Rose, nodding to her comrade as he stepped back. “Secondly, you have a serious deployment issue. Commander Wavescar has explained to us that the positioning of this Shatterdome is no coincidence; whether you are aware of it or not, you have been placed in the ideal location to protect the Mother Grub, a creature which I am given to understand is vital to the continued existence of your species. Unfortunately, this has the twin effects of both limiting your response time to threats located elsewhere, and signalling to the enemy that there is something of grave importance here.” Her lips narrowed as she pressed them together briefly. “This latest attack would indicate that they have determined your weak point. Myself and my comrades will be working closely with your commander to attempt to concoct a means to minimise this threat.”

It was a sharp return to reality after the glittering visions of new, shiny, specialised Jaegers. Karkat saw Porrim and Kanaya sharing some worried whispers, and around the room everyone else was fidgeting. Feferi looked on the verge of tears, and Meenah was scowling; he personally felt somewhere between the two extremes. Everyone knew that the Mother Grub had to be protected, and if he'd thought about it for even half a minute he would have realised that it was the first, obvious and only consideration as to where to drop the Jaeger Base, but knowing that the enemy had worked out where to attack to hurt them most was terrifying.

Rose didn't give them much time to dwell on the matter, though, before moving on. “Thirdly, and most concerning of all, there is the location of your Rift,” she said. “The Precursors have not remained idle since we first thwarted them, and the battle for every world is challenging and fraught with hazard, but never before have we encountered a situation where the Rift is guarded.”

Karkat frowned as he tried to work out what she meant. The Rift was in the middle of the ocean, everyone knew that, but guarded? And why was it a bad thing that the monster-spewing fissure into another dimension was inaccessible, anyway?

Then the alien spoke again, and her words send a chill through his blood. “It has been made absolutely clear to us that as long as the guardian is located so close to the Rift, any battle in the region is utterly unacceptable. This unfortunately is an untenable situation; if we cannot fight in proximity to the Rift, we cannot close it, and eventually this world will be lost. Yet if we harm Gl'bgolyb, we also risk the lives of every last living member of your species save three.”

The silence lasted for all of half a second, and then everyone started shouting at once.

“ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?” Karkat yelled, giving precisely no shits whatsoever that his words were immediately swallowed into the cacophony along with everyone else's. “IS THIS SOME SORT OF COSMIC JOKE WHICH IS DEEPLY HILARIOUS TO YOUR INEXPLICABLE ALIEN HUMOUR PALATE?” He pushed off the wall, hands moving in wide but violent stops and starts to emphasise his words. “I FUCKING REFUSE TO BELIEVE OUR ONLY CHOICE IS BETWEEN EXTINCTION BY ACID SPEWING GIANT HELLMONSTER AND EXTINCTION BY ALL OUR THINKPANS SIMULTANOUSLY TURNING TO FUCKING GRUBSAUCE! YOU HEAR ME? I DO NOT FUCKING ACCEPT THIS STINKING PIT OF-”

“SILENCE!”

Wavescar's bellow cut across the room like a Threshecutioner's sickle through a lame quackbird. Everyone fell silent as she strode forward, drawn up to the full height of a centuries-old seadweller, her good eye searching for anyone who dared to cross her will. Her lips were pulled back into a full snarl and yet her arms were tucked neatly behind her back, her feet falling into a perfect military stance as she took up position in the middle of the room.

“We will not panic,” she said, her voice as cold as the heart of a glacier. “We will not give in to our fears, we will not give up our hope, and we will not become extinct. Do you understand your orders?”

Silence met her words, and she tilted her chin back, glowering down her nose at them all. “I said, do you understand your orders?”

“Yes, sir,” said a single rough voice. Karkat looked around in surprise at Gamzee, but he was already being joined by the other pilots, each of them joining in one by one to add their assent. Both Zahhaks were quick to agree, but Karkat saw Kurloz nodding silently, heard Damara say something that was too short to be completely obscene, watched Vriska elbow Aranea into speaking up with her. Meenah and Feferi both spoke at the same moment, their voices overlapping, and they looked at one another in surprise for a few seconds before breaking the stare.

Kankri hadn't said anything, but he was looking squarely at Karkat the whole time. As the rest of the room fell silent once again, Karkat became aware that his hatchclone wasn't the only one staring; Wavescar had turned towards him, her expression completely unreadable below the usual veneer of bubbling fury.

“Yes, sir,” he said, and wondered why the words felt so wrong to say. Wavescar looked away towards Kankri.

Well, Vantas? She didn't say it. She didn't have to. Everyone was looking at Kankri now, and the smug little shit knew it. Karkat groaned aloud when he saw his hatchclone start smirking, his mind racing. He didn't know what Kankri was up to, didn't understand what he thought he was doing...

“Yes,” said Kankri. Wavescar stared at him for another long second, then nodded and looked away.

There was a strangled noise from across the room. “Commander,” said Equius, his skin developing a distinctly blue sheen. “The mutant did not show the proper respect-”

“Respect is secondary to success.”

Karkat could feel the gasp go through the room even more loudly than he could hear it, which didn't make him feel any better. He didn't know whether to kick the shit out of Kankri for cheeking their Commander or himself for not having the guts to, and then Wavescar had to go and pull the rug out from under all of them- fuck, he wanted to go back to hiding in caves where shit made sense, and if that wasn't a ridiculous wish then he didn't know what was.

If they had been expecting an explanation, they were going to be disappointed. Wavescar looked around the room, then nodded to the aliens. “Unless there was more to cover, now seems a good time to dismiss them.”

Rose glanced back at John, who shrugged, then shook her head. “By all means. We will need to begin interviews immediately, though.”

Wavescar nodded. “Vantas, you wait behind and do as you're told. Everyone else, you heard her! Dismissed!” Not waiting to see the results of her declaration, she marched across the room and left, the door falling shut behind her.

Seeing that no-one else had made a move to leave, Rose raised an eyebrow. “Were there any questions?” she asked, calmly.

A cane clicked against the floor. Karkat watched, blinking, as Terezi slowly levered herself to her feet. “I have a question,” she said, her head turning towards the aliens and her face solemn.

“Then by all means, ask it,” said Rose.

Terezi tilted her head. “What does 'Jaeger' mean?” she asked. Karkat sucked in a breath as he realised what she must have put together already. He'd just assumed 'Jaeger' was the name of the researcharnalist who had invented them, but if they were alien technology, if the aliens called them the same thing, then Jaeger wasn't Alternian at all, it was a loanword. And given that they really did seem to like naming things, it probably had a meaning beyond a random assignation.

Rose seemed to understand, because there was a small smile on her face as she replied. “Hunter. Jaeger means hunter.”

Terezi cackled, and Karkat felt his lips curling up into a vicious smile. Hunter. Now that was a good name. He reached out and brushed his fingers against Terezi's arm as she left, and she smiled in his general direction. The rest of the pilots filed out, followed by the majority of the aliens; it wasn't until everyone else had left and he found himself alone in a room with two aliens and Kankri that it occurred to Karkat to wonder what exactly Wavescar had just volunteered him for.

Luckily, he wasn't waiting long. “Karkat and Kankri, I presume,” said Rose, smiling coolly at them both. “Commander Wavescar suggested that we begin with you. Ranger Harley and I want to run some basic tests and interviews on all the pilots in order to optimise the programme. We will each take one of you, then switch, then let you know which of your fellow pilots to call in next. The order we will speak to you in is not important; feel free to choose between yourselves, or leave it to the vagaries of fate as you will.”

“Call me Jade,” said the long-haired alien woman. She was still bubbling over with a good humour that was definitely starting to irritate Karkat. “Really, I feel silly being Ranger Harley when you're John and Rose!”

“I assume that we are not being given any choice in the matter,” said Kankri.

“Well, you could refuse, but that would be pretty dumb,” said Jade, and Karkat quickly revised his opinion of her to 'possibly tolerable'. Not that people didn't usually insult Kankri, but few did it in such a matter-of-fact way. “We're trying to help!”

“If you would follow us,” said Rose, setting a brisk pace out of the door. Karkat had to hurry after her, not for the first time cursing the length of his legs. He cast a sideways glance at the Jade alien and was not heartened by the fact that she was the same height as him. All the others had been taller.

Kankri sidled closer to him as they walked. “So do you have a preference for which Ranger you wish to see first, or should we randomise our assignation? Not that I wish to prop up yet another instance of our agency as individuals being ignored and removed, or validate the concept that she has any right or indeed moral authority from which to give us orders-”

“I'll take Lalonde,” said Karkat, more confidently than he felt. From what little he'd seen of them, Harley was possibly alright but Lalonde was like some manner of unholy mixture of Kankri, Aranea and Terezi, a certifiable member of the elucidated brethren of the insufferable waffling nooksniffers. He wanted to get that over with as soon as possible, and preferably before Kankri could plant any thoughts in her head. He refused to regret the decision until they were right outside a pair of closed doors and Rose was pushing one open. He spared one last glance back at his hatchclone before he followed her inside. The door closed with a resonant clang of metal.

The alien was just settling down behind a basic desk when he turned. She was smiling with a mouth of square, blunt teeth; it was downright unnerving. Karkat didn't know what she found so damn amusing about the universe but he couldn't shake the uncomfortable feeling that it was bad for him, whatever it was. He looked around the room to distract himself and almost immediately changed his mind; the half of the room that wasn't taken up by the desk was blatantly and brazenly occupied by two narrow concupiscent platforms, both of which seemed to be hosting a dishevelled pile on top of the padded recreation surface.

“Is something the matter?” Ranger Rose Lalonde asked, raising a single eyebrow in the face of Karkat's rapidly rising blush.

Karkat flinched and then stared; it had to be a test, it fucking had to be- oh high and holy Mother Grub, what were those things doing there, did she want him to- nonono, he wouldn't, he couldn't. He could handle romance movies getting steamy, but the thought of doing that, and with an alien, and there were piles on the platforms oh unholy riftbiting shitfucks not even Cronus was that perverted, and if he was Karkat didn't want to know about it.

“Nothing,” he said, and his voice came out two octaves higher than was usual. The alien's pale eyes flickered, following the same magnetic line that drew his gaze, and a slight frown drifted across her features.

“I apologise for the mess,” she said, a little curtly. “My sister and I have never been the tidiest of individuals, and there was not enough space available in the Shatterdome for us to have separate living and working space. If it bothers you, I am certain that we could adjourn to acquire some manner of screen-”

Karkat shook his head, a little too forcefully. “No, that's fine,” he said, cold with relief. “I just- I wasn't expecting it.”

“Hmm.” The alien jotted something on a workpad that looked different to the ones Karkat was used to seeing; sleeker, paler, and with the same artificial sheen that he had noticed inside the Jaeger. “I would hate to cause discomfort to my guests through a cultural misunderstanding. Perhaps you could elaborate on the cause of your unease?”

Karkat blanched and shook his head again, even more vigorously. “Fuck, no,” he said. Seeing her look slightly disappointed, he felt compelled to add. “Relax. I'm sure Kankri will make your ears bleed telling you all about it when it comes to his turn.”

“I see,” said the alien, making a few more notes. She waved a hand to the chair on the other side of her desk. “Please, take a seat.”

Hesitantly, Karkat lowered himself onto the very edge of the chair, hands gripping the metal hard enough to make his knuckles ache. “So, why am I here?” he asked, the inside of his mouth and throat dry. “I know you said you want to interview everyone, but unless you're particularly interested in the cultural importance of Alternian cinema I don't see what you expect me to say that you couldn't just learn on the feeds.” He shifted on the edge of his chair, freezing when it made a scraping sound.

“Psychological assessment,” Rose replied, looking up from her workpad to give him another disconcerting smile. “In essence, over the course of the interview I intend to build up a map of how you think, which will be invaluable data for the Pons system adjustments my sister and I are working on.” Her stylus tapped on the desk. “I believe Jade intends to perform basic physical assessments, to gauge the possible scope of adjustments to your Jaeger designs. Dirk will be able to assist her in collecting a good deal of helpful data on that count, of course, but proper testing is a necessary base if we are to fully support and realise your potential as pilots.”

Karkat hunched further down in his chair. “How the lusus-gambling fuck do you 'build a map of how I think'?”

“By asking questions, and seeing how you answer,” Rose replied. “For example, you mentioned Alternian cinema. Is that an interest of yours?”

“Yes,” said Karkat. “As if that wasn't completely fucking obvious when I said it was the only thing of any actual interest that I could talk about at length. Would you also like to ask me my name, or is that too complicated a concept to introduce to this ludicrous babble-farce interrogation?”

Rose looked up at him. “If you don't want to talk about it with me, then we can start somewhere else. Why don't you tell me about your relationship with Kankri?”

There was a loud clatter as Karkat's chair tumbled back; his hands slammed down on the desk, but Rose hardly blinked at the sight of a face-full of snarling troll. “FUCK Kankri!” Karkat yelled, claws scratching ineffectually on the metal surface. “That's all anyone ever wants to talk about to me! Kankri this, Kankri that, why don't you like Kankri, why don't you trust Kankri, why don't you sit down and play happy-fucking-grubcake-patties with Kankri, because who cares that nobody else fucking likes the asshole! You're his hatchclone, Karkat, so obviously you're just not trying hard enough to get past his unbearable smug exterior to the intolerable arrogant douchewad within!”

Gently tugging her workpad away from his flexing hands, Rose nodded. “It sounds as if you have a lot of anger about this that you haven't had much opportunity to express.”

“Oh, I express!” Karkat snapped, pushing back from the table and starting to pace in a tight, moody circle along the front of the desk. “I beat the shit out of him every day in training, only it doesn't fucking help! None of it fucking helps!”

“Why do you think that is?” Rose asked. Karkat paused.

“I don't know!” Grabbing the chair, he swung it back upright and dropped into it, staring up at the ceiling. Flat metal panels did not stare back. “I feel like a piece of shit,” he said eventually. “Every time I take it out on him, it feels fucking fantastic for exactly as long as it takes for the shine to wear off and then I just feel like the biggest asshole that was ever hatched.” He paused again, and Rose said nothing; the silence stretched long and expectant. “I- no, fuck, I can't say it. It doesn't make any sense.”

“Why don't you say it anyway?” Rose suggested. “Clearly whatever it is makes sense to you on some level, and I am eager to gain insight into this tangled web.”

“Don't talk like that, you sound like Vriska, and I literally cannot think of another material entity I would like to confide in less,” said Karkat. “But fine, if you insist. I loathe him; he's completely fucking impossible, just being around him makes me want to hurt him, and objectively every word out of his mouth makes him an even more terrible person, but- the problem is, I admire him, too?” He scowled, staring firmly down at his left foot. “He doesn't fucking give in,” he said. “Even when he should, even when it's so stupid and I want to shake him, he doesn't quit. And he's smart, too. Not exactly fucking clever, as literally anyone who's ever seen him mouth off to Wavescar can confirm, but some of the things he says- he knows stuff, and I don't. His whole life, he's known who he was and had a purpose, and I was just this dumbass little mutant freak with some jury-rigged dreams and about as much chance of achieving anything as a stick in a hurricane and... and he's taller than me!” He ground his teeth together, flexing the tendons in his jaw. “It's like looking at a better version of me, only he's not any fucking better at all, he's a complete stinking nookwhiff, and I hate him for it, I hate him so fucking much!”

His shoulders shook a little and he took a shaky breath, fighting against the prickling in his eyes. There was a faint click as Rose set her workpad and stylus aside. “It sounds to me as though your problems are not with Kankri,” she said. Karkat raised his head just enough to glare at her from under his hair, but she met it steadily. “Karkat, you and Kankri are not the same person.”

“Really? You think so?” Karkat narrowed his eyes. “Once again, thanks for stating the completely blinding obvious facts of the case. Have you considered taking up a career in weather reporting? You could tell people getting rained on to use their retractable precipitation blocking devices!”

“Karkat, I know that you know that,” said Rose, infuriatingly calm. Karkat wanted to shake her to try and break her implacable front, but her chilly front and purplish eyes gave him pause. “But, I suspect, you don't comprehend the implications of it on an emotional level.” She leaned forwards across the desk, her hands clasping together. “The feelings you are struggling with are not uncommon amongst my people; it is normal for us to have multiple people around to whom we bear significant similarity for comparison, and relationships between such individuals are often complex and multi-layered. The fact that you have been thrust into such a situation with no similar frame of reference beyond the concept of a distant ancestor can only act as a complicating factor in a relationship that you are under considerable amounts of pressure to form.” She smiled again, briefly glancing away. “It took many years and many more disagreements for my sister and I to reach an acceptable level of harmonious accord, and we are far from unusual.”

“So what are you saying? That I'm stuck with him?”

“Yes,” said Rose. “And no. You are most assuredly going to be forced to associate with him on a regular basis, but if you wish to build a functional relationship with him I can only recommend that you remember this: Kankri is a person entirely independent of you. You are under no obligation to become him, and he does not represent the sole possible manifestation of the traits you admire that he possesses. I cannot council you on what to think of him, only that your opinion of him should in no way be contingent on your opinion of yourself.”

Karkat raised his head, jaw firmly set against the risk of tears. “I thought I was supposed to trust him,” he said. “Isn't that what it takes, to Drift?”

“You are more than just a Jaeger pilot,” said Rose. “And so is he. You do not have to like someone in order to trust them; you do have to understand them.”

Karkat snarled, his fingers plucking at the edge of the seat with little metallic plinks. “How the fuck am I supposed to do that?”

“You could try talking to him,” Rose suggested, raising one eyebrow in an amused fashion. Karkat slumped backwards in the chair and pulled his legs up after him, hugging around the knees.

“Have you ever tried talking to him? Oh, no, wait, you just fucking got here! So unless your powers of being a pushy broad with a cartilage nub that is unerringly attracted to other peoples' business are powerful enough to span the depths of space...”

She laughed at that, a fluid, bell-like sound. “Just think about it.” She pulled her workpad over again, and lifted the stylus. “Why don't you tell me some more about your life before you came here? I received the distinct impression from Commander Wavescar that there is something distinctly unusual or abnormal about you, and I'm curious as to how that has impacted your experiences and development.”

Karkat scuffed the sole of his left boot against the edge of the chair. “Right, because this wasn't already verging uncomfortably pale. Let's just take the plummet into that abyss together- oh, no wait, I think you have me confused with Porrim.”

The alien tilted her head. “I'm afraid I don't understand. I don't wish to push you into anything you are uncomfortable with, of course, but do you think you could elucidate on the nature of your objection?”

The ensuing explanation passed in an increasingly comfortable blur. Karkat forgot that he was talking to an alien, that the chair hurt his ass, and that her idea of proper furnishing was considerably more obscene than he preferred. His precise and detailed explanation of all four quadrants segued via drones into a heated rant on the hemospectrum, his glaring lack of place on it, and its various failings as personified by trolls Karkat had met throughout his life. Rose's stylus wobbled as he explained the role of Threshecutioners in life and in film, why nobody should ever let their lusus eat leftover grubcakes, and the relative merits of fighting zombies versus cholerbears- generally the zombies were easier, but there were extenuating circumstances if you were looking for somewhere sheltered to sleep. She nodded and prodded and asked questions, and it wasn't until she cordially thanked him and turned him out that it occurred to him that she had somehow tricked him into telling her all about his life anyway.

He should have felt betrayed, but somehow he just felt lighter. It wasn't a feelings jam, not exactly- there hadn't been any touching, let alone a pile- at least not one they'd used- and besides, he'd been talking about facts and experiences, not his deepest darkest feelings and hopes and nightmares. He certainly wasn't feeling any need to burst back in and demand that she make an honest troll out of him, although jamming her workpad up her rectal chute sounded like a pretty good idea.

No, there hadn't been any pity there. Just a polite, refined interest that had tricked him into opening up and drawn out some of a poison he hadn't even known was there, like a Mediterminator lancing an infected wound. Karkat shuddered and vowed to never speak to Ranger Rose Lalonde ever again under any circumstances, because she was a sneaky, manipulative bitch who wielded words like a scalpel and knowledge like a scythe.

He wasn’t waiting in the corridor long before the other door opened and Kankri stepped out, looking a little pale and somewhat ruffled. It took the older mutant a few painfully long seconds to realise that he wasn’t alone.

“Karkat,” he said, sounding slightly faint. “I apologise if I have kept you waiting.”

“Good, because this corridor is more boring than listening to Aranea talking about the third age of nautical expansion.”

Kankri frowned, which made him look a little more like himself. “Karkat, that is hardly a gracious response to what I am certain was a well-meaning attempt to educate us on a period that, while disturbing in its cultural excesses, is an important and formative link in the development of modern civilisation-“

“Since when have you been gracious about anything?” demanded Karkat, pushing off from the wall and stalking closer to his hatchclone. “For that matter, since when have you been listening to Aranea? Last time I saw you near her when she was telling stories, you looked like someone stuck a rotten assbud up your nasal cavity.”

“That is hardly the point!” Kankri folded his arms and sniffed. “Besides, as difficult as she may be to listen to sometimes, Aranea would be a welcome respite after my encounter with Ranger Harley.” His eyes fixed solemnly on Karkat. “I am afraid there is nothing I can do to spare you the experience, so please accept my warnings and condolences. The woman is a tyrant.”

“Doesn’t sound too bad.” Karkat shrugged, and cast a nervous glance back at Rose’s door. “I’ll take her over Lalonde, at any rate. I can’t tell how much is alien weirdness and how much is sheer unadulterated mind-fuckery, but next time I’m telling Wavescar to bite my bulge. It’ll be safer.”

Kankri swallowed audibly, and nodded. “Well, then, thank you for the warning.” He looked over at the door. “I suppose we had best not delay too long.”

“Yeah,” said Karkat, eyeing up his own door with suspicion. Fucking aliens. Taking a deep breath, he strode forwards and pushed the door open.

"Hi there!" The alien looked around as he walked in, and Karkat froze in the doorway. Unlike the other room there were blankets hung up halfway across blocking off his sight of the far end, but he was uncomfortably certain of what he would find beyond them if he looked, and the half he could see was considerably more alarming than Rose's busy office-space. Ranger Jade Harley and her copilot had turned their quarters into a joint armoury and machine nest; everywhere he looked there was more of the metallic, sharp-edged alien technology. Jade was standing beside a flat metal gurney, her far from pristine green "uniform" accented with a large pair of goggles that were flickering with the lights of a display on the inside.

He had hesitated slightly too long, because her smile faltered. "Karkat, right?" she said, stepping away from the table. "Come on in, jump up. I promise I don't bite!"

Karkat eyed her warily as he crossed the room and took a seat on the table, wondering exactly why she had felt the need to make that promise. Was she a rainbow drinker, or did her species usually just bite people?

"Okay, so, this shouldn't take too long," said Jade, smiling at him. "We've already got a good wide baseline for your species thanks to your Commander's data packet, and of course full access to your medical records, so I'm mostly checking for individual variances and limits so we can redesign your Jaegers to make full use of your capabilities. This might sting a bit."

Her hand darted out and something pressed against the back of his hand in a flash of light on metal. Karkat jumped back as it pinched his skin.

"Ow! Fuck!" He slapped his other hand over the spot, which was now oozing tiny droplets of red. "You know, if this is your idea of a friendly greeting, you're a shitdelving moron."

"And you're a rude asshole," said Jade, examining the tool she had jabbed him with. "Hmm. Blood analysis looks better than your initial medical. Congratulations! I bet Jane could tell you more, though. Squeeze this."

Karkat scowled, but took the ball she handed him. "So fucking sorry if I don't like being suddenly jabbed with sharp things. Oh, no, wait, I'm the opposite of that. What in the name of a billion galaxies spiralling into the fathomless asshole of the universe convinced you that was an okay thing to do?"

"I like seeing how people react," she said, glancing up at him with a sweet smile that couldn't be as genuine as it looked. "Squeeze as hard as you can, please."

Fingers gripping the ball until his knuckles whitened, Karkat shook his head. "Someone is going to stab you back one day, you know that, right?"

"Someone already did," said Jade, sounding almost proud. "Dirk's really fast, too! I still have a little scar on my bicep, over here..."

She twisted around to point, and Karkat wondered if all aliens were insane or whether it was the Drift that did it. Judging by his fellow troll pilots, he was starting to think he should prepare to kiss whatever sanity he had left goodbye.

"So what did you do to Kankri?" he asked, as she took back the ball and jotted down a few more notes- on a fancy-ass floating holographic display, just over her workpad. He would have called it some pretentious highblood crap except he couldn't shake the feeling she'd helped build it herself. "Whatever it was, can you teach me to do it?"

"I just wasn't putting up with him being a butthead," said Jade. She grinned at him, shoving up her goggles. "I won't take it from you, either."

While Karkat was still spluttering, she strode across the small room and stood by a machine that looked like a set of handlebars attached to a platform, around which was what looked like a small conveyor belt. "Come stand on this," she said. Hesitantly, Karkat slipped off the metal table and did so, hands wrapping around the handlebars as he kept a wary eye on the uncertain surface underfoot. The alien darted around him and he tried not to flinch as she fastened a band around his arm and another around his head, fingers coming dangerously close to an accidental pap.

He couldn't help holding himself stiffly, and she must have noticed, because halfway festooning him with small tabs she paused. "It's okay, you know," she said, searching his face for hints of communication. "These are just monitoring devices. It's nothing to worry about, I'm not going to hurt you."

"This coming from Medeterminator 'Might Sting A Bit'," grumbled Karkat. To his surprise, she laughed.

"I suppose I did do that," she agreed. "Sorry! Maybe if you're good, though, I'll give you a lollipop."

"What's a lollipop?" asked Karkat, craning his neck as she checked some more numbers on her pad.

"You don't know?” She stared at him, wide-eyed. “Oh, wow, I definitely have to give you one later!" So saying, she switched the machine on. Karkat yelped as the conveyor belt under his feet started moving, but it wasn't moving very fast and he easily fell into a walking pace that kept him upright and in-balance.

A sidelong glance showed him that she was examining numbers again, and he huffed. "What the fuck is this meant to tell anyone?"

"Well, basic Jaegers these days are designed for the lowest common denominators in all physical capacities to operate, based on all the species we've worked with," said Jade, her voice a little slower as her eyes flickered across the numbers and drew her attention. "But that severely reduces their combat capacity. So we need to figure out where we can boost them up again!"

Karkat growled and put on a burst of speed that almost had him colliding with the handlebars. "So what? You saying we're weak?"

"Oh no, not at all!" Far from being terrified of the potentially powerful Alternian conquerors, she seemed almost gleeful. "The opposite, actually; your species is really tough! It's amazing how similar you are to humans- Jane's talking about writing a paper on the forces that led to the convergent evolution, she's really excited!"

This time surprise caused Karkat to stop moving, almost dragging him off the machine until he stumbled and started walking again. "You? Tough?" He risked letting go with one hand to gesture at her. "You're all- soft, and you don't have claws or teeth or anything. I could probably have taken your soft, flabby ass before I even pupated!"

"Pfft, yeah, right," said Jade. Her nose wrinkled up in a gesture of disbelief. "I'd kick your butt, fuckass." She reached over and pressed a couple of buttons, speeding up the belt on the machine. Her hair tumbled down in front of Karkat, and he found himself thrust face-first into a thick silky curtain of black moments before he was forced to break into a jog. "Besides, I said similar, not identical. Our tests so far show that you guys have a really big physical range, but that generally you are stronger and more durable than humans."

Karkat smirked. "Ha! See?"

"But we're still better at endurance," Jade finished, giving him a triumphant smile of her own that was considerably less unnerving than Rose's. "It was the biggest problem with the Jaegers, actually, back in the beginning; they're designed for people who can keep going for days and days on very little if we have to, and most species can't do that! Yours isn't built for the same kind of sustained effort either, although you're a match for us in shock resistance and pain management- which is pretty unusual, and a good thing because that opens up a lot of options on the Jaegers!" She checked her pad again, and frowned slightly. "Huh."

"Huh?" Karkat's head snapped around. "Huh, what? Is that bad? Good?"

"Interesting," said Jade, and flicked the speed up again. "You and Kankri are both showing a way lower heart-rate and energy expenditure than I expected. Still not near human endurance, but it's way over the norm for your species." She beamed at him. "Physically, you're about as good a Jaeger pilot as I could ask for!"

"Physically," Karkat echoed, breath coming in short pants, and Jade shrugged.

"Well," she said. "The whole psychic thing makes the Drift really messy, but that's not my department. Rose and Roxy can handle that. I'm just the mechanic!"

Karkat rolled his eyes again, and groaned when she raised the speed higher. He was starting to see what Kankri had meant, calling her a tyrant. He would have gone with sadist, himself. He turned his head to call her that, but hesitated. She was leaning over the readout, the goggles pushed up onto her head and her eyes- too bright, too green- were watching the numbers while a faint smile drifted around her lips. She was leaning over, her hair forming a dark backdrop for a body that was surprisingly trollish while at rest. She was sweaty and slightly grimy and unarguably alien, but so clearly in her element that for the flutter of a missed blood-pusher beat Karkat could have sworn she was beautiful. There was something in her smile that he hadn't seen in a long time; something that made him believe Wavescar was right. They were not going to become extinct.

In fact, for the first time in a very, very long time, Karkat thought they might actually be able to win the impossible war.

Chapter Text

He raced after the monster on immense metal feet, balanced on the razor-edge of panic between speed and caution. He had to catch up before it reached the Mother Grub, but the shadowy caverns all around him were full of eggs and grubs and wigglers and every time he placed a foot wrong a thousand trolls died. Even though he was hopelessly lost in the labyrinth of caves he still knew exactly which way he was headed- slowly, too slowly, he was going to be too late but he couldn’t speed up- because he was following the monster. He could feel its presence up ahead, malice and death getting a little closer with every turn, every cut corner, every step of his journey.

Part of him knew he was never going to make it in time but the relief when he did was muted, drowned in new terror that flooded him when he saw the monster grasping the Mother Grub in its claws. Stop, he screamed, and through sheer force of will he made the monster turn. Clusters of glowing blue eyes peered at him from behind thick-caked clown paint, and he pushed again, forced it to set down the Mother Grub and start lumbering towards him. It lashed out with long limbs that swung like weighted rope and his own block was too slow, like he was moving through gel or slime. His arm tore away at the elbow and red blood gushed out. Weakened, he dropped to his knees and looked up into the monster’s face, but instead he saw a masked Threshecutioner who grabbed his good arm and started to drag him away. He screamed, fought to explain that his arm was still bleeding and that he had tried his best, but the Threshecutioner ignored his pleas. He was hauled up a hill and over to a stake, and cuffed to it without a word.

The sky was already lightening with the first bright colours of dawn, and his blood was pouring out into a lake of scarlet red around his feet. He tugged and screamed and begged but the ocean of blood was rising as fast as the sun and the stake at his back was starting to prickle with electric pain. The Threshecutioner raised their mask and it was Wavescar, unscarred and alien, glaring at him from a pink-brown face framed with yellow-white hair.

It is imperative that I protect the Mother Grub, she said, her loathing palpable in the air between them. You would understand that, if you were a real troll.

And he did, he did understand, but he didn’t want to die so he kept howling even as the first rays of the sun seared into his skin and the rising blood was sucked into his lungs in place of air.

Karkat woke up thrashing and gasping. His mouth was full of sopor and his hands were bruised from battering against the edges of the recuperacoon. His head broke the surface of the slime and he gulped recycled air, still shaking from the shock and slowly realising that he wasn’t dead or drowning or burning alive. The room was dim in the light of the temporal measurement display on the wall, the hum of base activity through the walls quietened for the day. Not wanting to wake Kankri and face questions- or more likely, a lecture- Karkat lowered his head to press his face against the backs of his hands. He took slow, careful breaths until the knot of tears and panic in his thorax had dissolved enough for him to work around it.

The sopor was still warm and he had time for at least another dream cycle before he was expected to be awake, but the memory of the daymare was poisoning Karkat’s thinkpan. He hoisted himself out of the recuperacoon, dripping slime across the floor, and gathered up a bundle of clothes before setting out through the deserted corridors of the base to the ablution block.

There was nobody around when he entered the lavation chamber. The spray sounded insanely loud splashing against the tiled floor. Karkat had been planning to take his time, to waste as many hours as he could while everyone slept, but with the water rushing past him and dripping off his skin he couldn't. It sounded like the sea, and he could almost smell the salt and taste the mechanical lubrication oil. He stayed just long enough to wash off the residue of sopor clinging to his skin, then practically ran back out to dress. His fingers fumbled on the fastenings, too delicate and too clumsy at the same time. The geometric scars stood out pale and red with irritation against his arm; he stopped half-dressed to stare at it, fingers tracing the burned-on circuitry.

He could remember having his arm torn off, could remember the rip of metal and hydraulics (flesh and bone) and the blinding pain and the sudden, hideous void in his balance. He could remember screaming, and hearing himself scream. He could remember too many things and there wasn't space in his head for all the memories, so instead he kept brushing the pads of his fingers along the burned skin over and over again, like touching it would somehow make reality feel more real.

Past Him was once again a peerless idiot, and the fact that he hadn't had any other choices didn't change that in the slightest.

“Karkat?”

Every muscle in his body tensed at the quiet greeting; his head snapped up and his body twitched back, startled into alertness. Kanaya stared back at him, her eyes wide and gentle. Karkat realised he looked like a startled hopbeast and schoolfed his face into a proper glower.

“What?” he snapped, hastily shoving his scarred arm into the dangling sleeve of his jumpsuit. “I'm getting dressed, you flighty snarkgabbler, and you can quit fucking staring because I'm not interested. Why the fuck are you even awake, it's the middle of the day!”

“Why are you?” asked Kanaya, walking over to him with quick, even steps that left her standing in front of him in no time at all. She reached out, ignoring Karkat's feeble attempts to slap her hands away, and fastened the front of his jumpsuit for him. “As it happens, I used to live a particularly diurnal life before I was recruited to the Jaeger program, and old habits die hard. Given that sooner or later all of the pilots experience insomnia, it has hardly proven a lonely practise for me, and I suspect it has had some benefit to others.” Patting Karkat's upper thorax with one hand, she stepped back and smiled at him. “If you would like to join us, we are in the communal eating hall. It is only an hour or two until breakfast anyway.”

A hundred possible responses ran through Karkat's head. He could shove her aside and stomp back to his recuperacoon, he could shout at her for meddling, he could crumble apart and fall onto her and hope that the hints of affection she was showing blossomed into something he could trust. The ideas tumbled over one another, scrambling for the top until it was all so much undifferentiated radio signal.

"Sure, why the fuck not?" he said, and felt reluctantly relieved when she smiled and turned away. It only took him a couple of steps to catch up with her, and they walked side by side in silence through the deserted corridors. Karkat would never have admitted it, but he was glad she was there; without her, the empty hallways would have been too spooky. Especially when he thought of the eight aliens who were hiding somewhere on this base; fuck, there was no guarantee that they needed a solid day's sleep in a 'coon, they could be anywhere, doing anything. Karkat started casting suspicious glances at every turn-off they passed, trying to ready himself for a glimpse of pale flesh and fluid motion.

It never came, and unmolested by ghosts, aliens, or irritable members of the military they made their way down the steps into the mess. It was a little brighter than was entirely comfortable, and Karkat instinctively tucked his shoulders even as he glanced up to the skylight. The panes were dark and coated to filter out most of the sunlight, but it was still strange to see them glittering.

"I miss the sun," said Kanaya softly, and Karkat gaped at her. She looked down at the floor and smiled slightly. "I am immune to being burned by it, and I often found solace in seeing the world so brightly lit," she said. "I never get the chance now."

"I'm sorry," said Karkat, and then because he didn't feel that had quite been sufficient; "That sucks."

Kanaya chuckled, and walked across the mess hall to the kitchen counter. "We all make sacrifices. I consider it worth it." She leaned over the counter-top, peering at something Karkat couldn't see. "Are you still in there?" she asked the food preparation block.

There was a loud clatter, and from around the corner appeared a head framed by too much hair and long, graceful horns. "Sister, I ain't so motherfuckin' sure as what any of us motherfuckers are all to being in any which where what ever was in a place, you dig?" said Gamzee, folding his arms across the food preparation surface then resting his chin on them. His eyes flickered across to Karkat, and a slow smile spread across his face. "Hey there, miracle brother."

"What the taintchafing fuck are you doing in there?" asked Karkat, his voice strangling its way out as a dry croak. "Do not tell me you have permission to be in there. No sane and responsible member of society would give you permission to be around fire, sharp implements and the food we eat unsupervised. This is clearly some sort of insane prank designed to make my rage bladder inflate to the size of a small moon and rupture." He paused, took in Gamzee still blinking at him in mild politeness, and groaned. "Look, just get the fuck out of there, shitlord, before someone or something gets irrevocably damaged and Wavescar feeds us all to her new alien allies."

The grin stretched a little further. "Naw, brother. I all up and got this shit." Gamzee ducked back down under the counter, leaving Karkat spluttering.

Kanaya chuckled again. "Karkat, it is quite alright. He has been coming down here once every few days since he was six sweeps old; if he was going to cause a disaster, he would have done so long ago."

"Yes, because that is completely reassuring and I am in no way alarmed to hear that an idiot clown whose personal habits are akin to those of a pustulous, incontinent barkbeast with dysentry has been messing around with my nutritional supplies," said Karkat, pressing his hands down on the counter-top and pushing up to peer over the top. "What the fuck is he- what the fuck are you doing in there, you hornfondling backbirth?"

"Baking miracles," came the indistinct answer, and Karkat would have considered it cause for concern even if he hadn't seen Kanaya's eyes narrow.

Backing off from the counter, Karkat turned to her and whispered. "Okay, seriously, what the fuck is going on here? Because insomnia I get but baking in the middle of the sleep cycle is panblasted nuts, and you obviously know something I don't-"

"Gamzee can make his own choices," said Kanaya quietly. "I am not his moirail, and I have no intention to be. But I would sincerely advise that you do not eat the pies."

"What-" Karkat was interrupted by Gamzee's head popping up over the counter again. This time the indigo-blooded pilot stood up and, with a slightly uncoordinated flourish, placed a steaming tin on the top of the counter.

"Miracles," he said, beaming. Frowning, Karkat crept closer and sniffed at the tin. It smelled of warm pastry, but something else too; something sweet but little else, an elusive non-scent that pervaded the steam. Karkat took a deeper sniff, but couldn't identify it. Leaning back he stumbled, his head seeming to drag a half-second behind the rest of him, and he grabbed at the counter for stability.

"What the fuck?" he asked, claws biting into the surface as his thinkpan teetered and wheeled. "What- what the grubshitting riftdelving..."

A long, bony hand patted his shoulder as Gamzee ambled past, pie in hand. "Don't all up and get to worrying on it none, brother," he said, settling in at one of the tables. "Ain't gonna up and be lasting no kind of time anyhow."

Karkat blinked, his eyelids feeling bizarrely heavy, and managed to lever himself around. "Your pie. Your void-damned pie is dissolving my fucking sponge matter." He blinked again, slowly. "What the kaiju-fucking shit did I just suck into my air bladders?"

"I all up and told you, brother," said Gamzee, looking at him sternly from beneath those half-lidded eyes. "Motherfucking miracles is all being what." So saying, he reached out and scooped a handful of hot pie-crust up with his fingers. Viscous, steaming, virulently green slime dripped from the pastry and was licked up with a flick of his long grey tongue.

Karkat gaped at the sight in horror. "Is that sopor? Holy Mother Grub, tell me that is not sopor. Tell me you're not actually pancracked enough to eat fucking sopor!"

"I'm afraid he is," said Kanaya, gently reaching out and helping Karkat shift from leaning on the counter to leaning on her. "I cannot imagine what his lusus was thinking, letting him develop such a habit. Most of us know and have tried to talk him out of it, but as I said, Gamzee can make his own choices."

"I ain't up and getting to what all the motherfucking fuss is being all over," said Gamzee, punctuating his words by swallowing another scoop of green slime.

Karkat stabilised himself with a hand on the tabletop as Kanaya helped lower him into a seat. "The fuss, you canvas-humping sideshow, is that that shit you are shovelling into your gaping feed-hole is not food! It's sopor slime, as in the stuff you are supposed to sleep in, as in not something you just decide to throw together as a midnight snack!" He looked over at Kanaya. "Does Wavescar know about this?"

"In a manner of speaking," said Kanaya. "According to Mediterminator Orresh, it is not at all advisable to allow him to eat sopor, and even less advisable to suddenly remove his supply. Wavescar has given standing orders limiting his intake, which I can assure you we are all monitoring." She narrowed her eyes at Gamzee. "As is his hatchclone."

"All this motherfucking noise and panic all up in here," said Gamzee, licking dreamily at his fingers. "It's all up and to being like some motherfucking singing." He tilted his head, looking at Karkat. "Ain't you up and meant to be eating somethin', brother?"

Karkat opened his mouth to express his utter lack of any need for food, and that it wasn't any of Gamzee's business anyway, but he was cut off by Kanaya standing up.

"I'll go find you something," she said, walking across to the meal preparation block. "As I understand it, you are barely managing to meet your medically stipulated nutrient intake as it is."

Filthy traitor that it was, Karkat's nutrition sac decided to chime in by grumbling loudly. With a sigh, he gave in to the inevitable and let his head droop to rest on the table, watching Gamzee slide the remainder of a tin of hot toxic goop down his throat. And he thought he'd eaten some shit in the past. How did anyone ever come up with the idea of baking sopor into a pie and eating it, let alone get away with it? It was completely shithive insane.

Kanaya came back with a plate covered in slices of grubloaf smeared in grease and accompanied by an assortment of sliced meat and fish. Karkat nibbled at it, hardly even bothering to defend his plate when Gamzee snuck food off it and only half-listening as Kanaya told the other pilot off. He would have protested the assumption that he was some sort of fragile, starving grub but the way they approached it, it didn't feel like an insult. More like he was being cared about, which was stupid, but not awful.

“Do you require any further assistance with your studies?” asked Kanaya.

Karkat gave her a bemused stare. “What, now?”

Kanaya shrugged. “We have the time, do we not?”

They worked on the school feeds- Gamzee commenting and completely failing to absorb any of it- until the sun sank and the food preparation block filled up with actual trained personnel who made loud angry noises about unwashed baking tins covered in sopor. Not long after them came the others, and Karkat stayed put as the pilots filed in and filled the tables. Kurloz settled in beside Gamzee, putting a plate of food down in front of him, and not long after that Kanaya fetched a second breakfast for herself and Karkat both. When Meenah strolled over and insisted on getting a hi-five from him, Karkat figured that he had been forgiven for the day before, at least by the other pilots. He watched her leave and wondered how long it would take before he agreed with them.

Kankri was the last one to show up. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked around until he found Karkat. The two of them stared at each other for a good few seconds before the older mutant turned away and went to sit next to Latula, on the other side of the mess. Karkat snorted and set to licking his plate clean. Now that they were sitting in proper moonlight and surrounded by chatter he felt unspeakably ridiculous for his daytime drama. It turned out that fighting monsters from another dimension was possibly upsetting! What a fucking surprise! Past Him deserved a kick to the skull for being such a wiggler about it.

When he saw Terezi come in, tired and battered but walking on her own two feet, he bullied his own worn-out muscles into carrying him over to her. They spent more of the meal dozing on one another's shoulders than they did eating, drawing affection from one another, and it was over too fast. He wasn't exactly exhausted and the lingering effects of the daymare had worn off hours ago, but yesterday he'd woken up sick, piloted two thousand tons of Jaeger, and fought a battle with some really testy horror-terrors before getting not really enough sleep. He wanted to crawl back into his recuperacoon, or he would if he didn't anticipate the end result being more tortuous dreams. It was fine. He could cope. He'd been longer without sleep before.

It wasn't until he had followed the other pilots right up to the training chamber that he remembered just how physically exhausting a normal day was in this fucking hell-hole. Karkat let out a heartfelt groan, rubbed both of his hands across his face in a completely futile effort to wake up, then stamped after the clown act into his least favourite place on Alternia, undersea monster portal included. Inside, everyone had gathered in their normal arc around the sparring dais, with the notable exception of both Meenah and Feferi, standing on opposite sides of the room and glaring at one another. Next to each of them stood a trio of nervy soldiers, the stiffness of their stances screaming I don't want to be here and I definitely don't want to have to do what I was ordered to do. It was a feeling Karkat could relate to; he checked where Kankri was in the arc, then found a spot near the back that was as far from his hatchclone as possible. Not that Wavescar would be fooled in the least, but fuck, after everything that had happened yesterday he didn't know how he was going to spar with Kankri again, ever.

The hubbub of talking abruptly died away, and Karkat turned to salute Wavescar- only to see that instead of the Commander, two of the aliens were strolling into the training chamber. They were the pair that wore dark shades; even studying them, Karkat couldn't work out whether or not they were hatchclones. The obvious similarities and the deliberate stylistic differences made a mess of any attempt to guess. The one with the flatter hair and rounder shades stopped to lounge against the edge of the entrance arch. The one that reminded Karkat of a pointy, skinny alien Equius strode forward and stopped at the edge of the sparring ring, right at the apex of the waiting crowd. Beside him, Terezi raised her head and sniffed the air, grinning like a loon at whatever it was she scented there.

“For those who weren't listening yesterday, or who have particularly truncated memories, I'm Ranger Strider,” the alien said, shoving his thumbs into his pockets in a way that just emphasised his muscular arms. From his new angle, Karkat could see a picture on his shoulder- probably a tattoo, although the image was nothing like Porrim's elegant vines. One pink-pale thumb jerked back towards the other alien. “The incorrigible director of post-ironic shenanigans in the shades there is my bro by blood and thus also Ranger Strider. Since that's confusing as all shit, you can refer to us as Lord Douchebag and King Asshole. Or Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff. Or you can call me Dirk and him Dave since that's what our alleged parental units in all their wisdom decided to dub us.” His head turned slowly, triangular shades crossing over everyone. “I don't really give a fuck as long as you respect me and my bro as your omniscient senseis of badassitude. We are the Mister Miyagi to your Karate Kid and the Shifu to your overweight panda asses, and by the time we are done with you every last Jaeger on this planet is gonna be pulling the sort of stunts that make Wuxia directors cry and cream themselves.” He paused, his head turning as he scanned across the pilots, then jabbed a finger out. “You. What is the single most important factor in Jaeger combat performance?”

Rufioh almost went cross-eyed staring at the finger. “Uh, I dunno, man... experience?”

“Wrong,” said the alien. His finger jabbed out again, this time landing on Equius. “You try.”

The muscular blue-blood broke into a sweat. “I- I do not- resolution?”

“Wrong.” The alien's arm swung around to Vriska, who folded her arms and smirked.

“Awesome fight moves!” she said.

“Wrong and wrong,” Ranger Dirk replied. His arm swung around to land on Karkat; the alien's eyes were invisible behind the shades, but Karkat couldn't shake the feeling that he was being subjected to the most intense stare he had ever received in his life. Dry-mouthed, Karkat shook his head, and the alien gave a disappointed tut. “Come on, bro, won't kill you to take a guess, and one of you has to get it right sometime-”

“Trust,” said a familiar, stern-edged voice from behind Karkat's shoulder. A white cane shoved him aside as Terezi pushed her way to the front, red shades meeting black head-on. “There has to be trust.”

The alien's arm dropped, and he gave a small nod. “Pyrope, right?”

“That is correct,” said Terezi, wearing the dangerous smile that meant she was offering a challenge. “And I was not guessing.”

“I didn't think you were,” Ranger Dirk said- challenge seen, and respectfully declined. “I've seen your records.” He turned away, raised his voice. “In fact, I've seen all your records, and I gotta tell ya; if you were human, almost all of you would've washed out of the program in Pons. Out of every pair in here there are only two pilot teams who meet the compatibility requirements on paper, and only one that consistently operates at the levels of synchronisation that we would typically expect from a Jaeger team in an active Strike Group. So I wonder, did any of you ever think to ask Latula and Terezi Pyrope why they're consistently outperforming the rest of you?”

Karkat shifted uncomfortably, remembering what Terezi had said to him the night she delivered him back to his respite block. Trust the Drift and trust each other. And he'd been too much of a chutesucking wastesack to listen, something that was really starting to form a distressing pattern in his recent life.

If Gamzee turns out to be right and eating sopor actually does grant miraculous powers to paint-wearing assholes, I am going to let the next kaiju I see bite my head off.

Across the room, Aradia had stuck up her hand. “I don't understand. We're Drifting, aren't we? How can we not meet the compatibility requirements?”

“Because you're cheating,” said Ranger Dirk Asshole Strider, turning towards her and coincidentally giving Karkat a pretty good view of his shoulder tattoo again. It looked like some sort of bizarre disembodied face, which should have been outlawed for the emotional and mental distress it was capable of causing to innocent bystanders. Terezi took another good sniff in his direction. “Your species is psychic, and I'm not just talking about the guys and gals who can hurl things with their minds or take a stroll through other people's heads like it's a public park and Fido needs walkies. I'm talking about how you're all connected to the same species-wide subconscious, which is how come you get shitty dreams about things you've never even seen and have to factor in the possibility of being completely obliterated by Cuddles the ancient Kaiju Queen.” His head turned, sweeping across all of them. “The Pons system is basically artificial telepathy, designed for a species with distinct and discrete subconscious identities. It lets us merge from the surface on down. With your species, virtually any two minds that you link are gonna recognise the psionic mismatch and reject the neural bridge. The only way around that is to have two people operating on the same psionic frequency so they won't recognise the second mind as a stranger- but then the Pons doesn't just link you, it sticks you in a fucking blender and chucks you out as a gestalt. Forget chasing the rabbit, you're already living in motherfucking Wonderland and inviting the Hatter over for tea and crumpets.”

“Wait a glubbin' minute here, are you sayin' that the Drift ain't like that for you? And what've hopbeasts got ta do with it?” asked Eridan, scowling at the alien.

Ranger Dirk clicked his fingers and pointed at the seadweller. “RABIT, not rabbit. Random access brain impulse triggers, which you don't gotta tap-dance with because you're already ass-deep in them and swimming. My people need the right partner, but more'n that, we learn to Drift. You don't. You're skippin' dinner and goin' straight to dessert, using up all your mental energy and focus on integrating competing reference frames instead of kicking the everloving shit out of kaiju where it belongs.” He held a hand out behind him; from beside the entrance arch, Ranger Dave Douchebag Strider flicked his foot and sent one of the sparring staves up into his hand before tossing it to his copilot. Ranger Dirk caught it without even looking, the cane slapping firmly into the flesh of his hand before his blunt-ended fingers closed around it. “Now, according to the schedule your radiant Commander growled at me last night, Vantas and Vantas get to go first. Roll on up, don't be shy, and step into the ring. For one night only, ladies and gentlemen, we get to see just what the fuck you call pilot combat training around these here parts.”

His gaze fell squarely onto Karkat as he finished talking. Taking a shaky breath and squashing down his hesitation- he couldn't afford to hesitate, it didn't matter what Kankri did- Karkat stepped forward and held out a hand to accept the stave from the Ranger. He stared fixedly at the ground while the second one was tossed over, refusing to look towards Kankri as the other mutant hesitated then walked over. There was a pause.

“You gonna take the staff, bro?” asked Ranger Dirk.

“No,” said Kankri, with the same solid finality that Karkat recognised from his eyes every time they fought. “I am not.”

Karkat was expecting the alien to argue, but instead he stepped back, staff still in hand. “Okay, then. Just do whatever you usually do.”

It wasn't the same as Wavescar's crisp instructions, but Karkat understood an order to commence when he heard it. Moving almost on automatic he stepped forwards, head rising to find his target, staff sweeping out to be stopped by the dull impact of flesh and bone. Kankri stumbled and Karkat pulled the staff back, swung it around, jabbed it forwards to slam into his core; his hatchclone doubled over, gasping, and Karkat swiped the staff down onto Kankri's back, a blow that would slam him into the floor.

There was a crack as fibrous plant matter struck fibrous plant matter, and Karkat stared at the staff that had intercepted his strike less than half an inch from Kankri's body.

“What the fuck is this?” asked Ranger Dirk, his voice perfectly level. Karkat flinched and said nothing.

“You were the one who ordered us to proceed as usual,” said Kankri, ducking out from under the two staves and straightening. He kept an arm wrapped around his midriff, but held his chin up and his eyes level with Ranger Dirk's face. “Which in this instance should consist of approximately half a work period of Karkat beating me to within an inch of my life. Or was this particular display of brutality insufficiently bloodthirsty for your tastes? I am absolutely certain that Karkat would be delighted to expend some additional effort, if you were to more accurately specify the degree of savagery you wish inflicted upon my person.”

Anger flared, and Karkat bared his teeth at Kankri. “Fuck you too, asslord!” he snapped. “You know this wouldn't fucking happen if you ever made even the slightest iota of an effort to defend yourself! Don't you dare try and act like this is all on me when you won't even make an effort to develop the basic instincts to not get our nookfondling arm ripped off!”

“I hardly think it is fair of you to assign sole blame to me for incidents that occurred while we were acting as a gestalt entity-”

“You want to talk fair, how about we discuss how I'm the one who has a circuit map burned onto his grubfucking body and you're still in one piece, you humongous heap of musclebeast excrement!”

“You are shitting me,” said Ranger Dave, pushing off from the entrance arch and strolling over. “This is the precise and exact definition of being shitted; the standard by which all future instances of shitting will be judged and held accountable. No way did these goddamn Stooges hold a Drift. No fucking way.”

“On the contrary, I'd say this explains quite a lot,” said the other Ranger, his face still impassive. His stave swung between Karkat and Kankri, jabbing them apart. “Right. I can see we clearly have a metric fuckton of work to do here, but let's start sorting this mess now. Both of you, back the fuck up; me and my bro here are gonna show you some sick moves.”

With one last glare at his hatchclone, Karkat backpedalled until he was off the dais. Where he and Kankri had been standing, the two aliens now circled one another, the staves held loose and one-handed.

“Three strikes total,” said Ranger Dirk, and the other alien nodded. Then, in a blur of motion, they both attacked. Karkat almost missed it as the staves spun out and hit nothing but air, Dave crouching under the blow moments before Dirk leapt over his own assault. They both rolled, and then they were on their feet again, circling like nothing had happened.

Ranger Dave was the first to move, stepping forwards and lunging with his staff. Ranger Dirk stepped aside and swept his own staff across the back of his copilot's knees. The blow struck and Dave went down, but somehow as he hit the ground he managed to bounce back up again, his staff coming about and slamming Dirk in the side. The two of them began to circle again, crouched low and ready, staves spinning in their hands before they launched into another assault, both ducking and weaving through the sweeps and jabs with such precision that only occasionally was the solid thunk of a block audible.

“What the fuck?” whispered Karkat, and in his ear Terezi chuckled.

“What's the matter, Karkles, never seen two pilots dancing before?”

He glanced away to look at her- strangely rapturous, her tongue poking from her mouth- and missed the final blow, signalled with a single alien shout. When he looked back, Ranger Dirk was holding his staff against Dave's neck; at full speed, a potentially lethal strike. He hadn't landed it.

Ranger Dave nodded, and the two aliens stepped apart and bowed to one another. Terezi let out a happy little sigh that made Karkat glance towards her again. Dirk tossed his weapon to his copilot, then turned back to the group.

“Both Vantases, back up here,” he said. Karkat moved with a little help from Terezi, who shoved him in the back. Slowly and with extreme reluctance, he walked back up to his hatchclone and the alien, hanging back as far as he dared to.

“You two,” said Ranger Dirk, his head turning between them and subjecting them to that same shaded, piercing stare. “Explain to me what you were doing, right now.” He pointed at Karkat. “You start. Why the fuck do you think it's beneficial to beat the shit out of your partner?”

Karkat stared at Kankri, then back at the alien, then scowled. “It's sparring. I spar. It's not my fucking fault he won't defend himself.”

“Yeah?” said the alien, his head tilting. “Wanna tell me how you ended up routinely full-contact 'sparring' with an unarmed, stationary opponent?”

“Orders,” said Karkat, keeping his glare steady even though his blood-pusher was racing. “Commander Wavescar said- she gave us a direct order, to spar.” He shifted a little under the impassive stare of the alien, and then to his horror the words burst out of him like a kaiju spewing acid gunk at some blameless architecture. “And I don't fucking care what you think of me for it, either! What the fuck was I supposed to do, say well, sorry Commander, but it looks like my hatchclone doesn't really feel like fighting so I guess I'll just park myself on my well-polished glute cushions and fondle my shame globes instead! This is pilot training! We have to do it if we're going to pilot a Jaeger and maybe he can afford to be a whiny-ass bitch about every last fucking detail but I can't! If Wavescar doesn't think we can cut it as pilots then he gets to go back to being someone else's collateral but I'm dead. He can take a few fucking cuts and bruises better than I can take a culling fork through the thorax!”

The Ranger's head tilted back. “Hmm.” He glanced past the two of them. “That accurate, people?”

There was a chorus of general assent, and Terezi's voice cut over it. “We can all corroborate his testimony, if needed.”

Dirk nodded towards her in thanks, then looked back to Karkat. “Right. So. You wanna follow orders, be a good little soldier, prove that you can make the cut so you don't get cut literally. I can comprehend that.” A single eyebrow rose up from behind the shades. “So here's the million-dollar question: why didn't you pull your blows?”

Karkat stared, his glare melting into confusion. “Pull-”

The staff in Ranger Dirk's hand whipped around, too fast to dodge; Karkat flinched back, but the blow halted a fraction of an inch away from his skin. The staff was perfectly still for an instant, then gently bopped against Karkat's arm before retreating.

“That, bro, is how you pull your blows,” said Ranger Dirk. “It is a time-honoured technique by which a warrior can show off all their sweet moves without maiming or killing their sparring partners, and you are going to learn it. I suppose we can all thank whatever gods or other abstract conceptualisations we hold dear that you don't know what you're doing with a stave, because otherwise you'd be down a hatchclone already. And speaking of-” he turned to Kankri. “Your turn, bud. Why were you standing there and letting yourself get beat on? I assume there's some reason beyond lack of practise, because most people at least stick their hands up or try to run away.”

Kankri puffed his chest out. “I refuse to engage in savage conduct against a fellow sophont being,” he said. “I have taken a religious vow of non-violence on the basis of a deeply-held personal conviction and I am determined to uphold it even in the midst of adversity.”

Ranger Dirk nodded. “This vow of yours; it apply to kaiju?”

“No,” said Kankri, surprise fleeting across his face. “Even before your detailing of their nature and motives yesterday, their universal hostility was plainly obvious. It would be akin to attempting to hold my vow against a hurricane, to borrow your comparison. Whist violence is still unsuitable as a first or only resort, as part of a measured response to an otherwise implacable and non-sophont threat it does indeed have its place. However, no matter how problematic his behaviour, Karkat is not a kaiju and to make any attempt to strike him would utterly violate my oath.”

“Even if he's gonna hurt you?” asked the alien. “What if he was going to kill you?”

“Then I would endeavour to talk him out of it,” said Kankri. “But a vow that cannot be maintained in the face of such trials is no vow at all.”

To Karkat's surprise, a small smile flickered across the Ranger's face. “Good. Glad to hear it.” Seeing Kankri start to smirk, Dirk raised a finger. “Just one more question, bro. This vow of yours, does it in any capacity prevent you from getting the fuck out of the way?”

Kankri blinked. “I- what?”

Ranger Dirk nodded. “That's what I thought.” He reached out and tapped Kankri gently on the upper thorax. “Your bro here is scared shitless he's gonna get his ass killed if he doesn't make good with the boss. You done anything to help him out with that, or are these loopy fruits levels of spunk all just him?”

“I am not scared shitless!” Karkat snapped, and immediately turned to glare around the room as people started snickering.

“Suuure,” said Ranger Dave, back over in the entranceway. “You're the bravest little bear, we all believe you.”

“Fuck you!” yelled Karkat, taking a half-step forward. He was stopped by a solid, pink, muscular arm.

“Hold it there,” ordered Ranger Dirk, before turning back to Kankri. “Well?”

Kankri flushed and stared at the ground. “...not in particular,” he said. “Although I have made multiple arguments to the effect that-”

“No is no, bro,” said the Ranger. He looked over at Karkat. “What about you? Made any attempts to understand your bro's religion? Takes a lot of guts, to be willing to suffer for your beliefs.”

Karkat glared at the floor. “No,” he admitted.

“You know, I had a suspicion that was what you were gonna say,” Ranger Dirk said. “But worry not. Like a true bro, I am here with the solutions to your conundrum. We will start by playing a game beloved of small children and corporate teambuilding courses throughout history. It is the very epitome of trust-related exercises in the annals of our species and everyone in this room is going to become a pro at it.” He turned towards Karkat and made a spinning gesture with his finger. “Turn around, sweetheart.”

Karkat lifted his glare from the floor and turned it onto the alien. “Why?” he growled.

“Because you have a beautiful ass and I want a closer look at it. Humour me,” said Ranger Dirk. Terezi broke into snickers. Realizing he wasn't getting any more explanation, and that this asshole probably would keep the entire room standing around doing nothing until they tore him, Karkat, limb from limb in retaliation for the boredom, Karkat obliged by shuffling around in a tight little circle.

“There,” he said, folding his arms as he returned to his starting place. He forced himself to ignore the sounds of his fellow pilots rupturing their humour glands. “Now what the fuck was that meant to achieve?”

“Not much,” said Ranger Dirk. “How about we try again, and this time you stop facing away from me and Kankri?”

The laughter faded, and Karkat's arms tensed. “You want me to turn my back on you? Is this a fucking joke?”

“What, you think I can't kick your ass face-to-face?” said Ranger Dirk. “And you know Kankri won't do anything; you were throwing a bitchfit about it less than a minute ago. If I were you, I'd be far more worried about that bloodythirsty mob of pilots you're not facing while you stand here arguing with me.”

Karkat growled at him, because logically he might have a point but it wasn't the same, dammit. He shuffled back round reluctantly, fighting the urge to peer back over his shoulder. Turning your back on people was inevitable in a crowded environment- just one more reason Karkat hated other people with a burning glow of ceaseless rage- but doing it when someone asked you to was just asking for something nook-clenchingly sick and awful to happen.

“Okay, good,” said Ranger Dirk from behind him. “Now Kankri, I want you to just take a step that way so you're behind him- a bit closer- yeah, that's it, just there.”

Karkat's eye twitched. In front of him, Terezi smirked and made an encouraging gesture. He made an obscene one at her in reply.

“Right,” said Ranger Dirk, so tonelessly that Karkat was certain he'd caught the exchange. “Now Karkat, close your eyes.”

With a huff of protest Karkat did so, and pointedly ignored the shift in air near his face and the thick, metallic scent of alien right under his cartilage nub.

“You're doing great,” Ranger Dirk said, and there was a stifled snicker that from direction and general fluid quality Karkat knew was the other alien. He made another mental note against “complete bulgewiping douchenozzle” for the less-pointy Strider alien then tuned back in to his instructions.

“Next bit's a cakewalk,” Ranger Dirk was saying. “You just gotta wait until I give the order, and then without looking or opening your eyes, Karkat, you fall backwards-”

“WHAT?”

“-and Kankri catches you.”

Karkat whirled around, eyes very definitely not closed. “What the fuck kind of maggot-panned game is this? What does your half-baked excuse for a sophont species do for fun when you get older- assuming any of you make it that long? Jump off buildings?”

“Sure, sometimes,” said Ranger Dirk. Karkat let out a muted scream and tugged at his hair.

Kankri coughed. “Perhaps this is not the best starting point. A more basic exercise...”

“There isn't one,” said Ranger Dirk, flatly. “This is it. Trust one-oh-one, basic trust theory, foundation trust. One person falls, one person catches. Worst case scenario, the catcher is an asshole and the person falling gets a bruised butt, but if anyone pulls that shit in here you are gonna wish I told on you to Wavescar.” He folded his arms and turned to Karkat. “Either you take the drop and trust him to catch you, or I demonstrate the correct technique for a piledriver with you as my audience volunteer. Wanna take a guess which one hurts more?”

Karkat snorted, reluctantly shuffling back around. “Thought you were against beating the shit out of people in sparring. I'm feeling really protected, here.”

“Everyone's gotta learn to take a fall sometime,” said Ranger Dirk. “All the way around, and eyes closed.”

He couldn't help but pull in a deep breath. With his eyes closed, he couldn't get a full and proper sense of where everything was, just vague blurs of smell and memory and tingles in his stupid, stubby horns. His fingers flexed with nervous energy, blood-pusher pounding in his ears.

Don't be such a fucking cluckbeast, he told himself sternly. Come on, alien wigglers do this, it's not so fucking hard. You faced down genocidal bioweapons from another dimension, you can face the fucking floor.

Except the floor wasn't what was making his palms sweat. Every fibre of his being was focused behind him, trying to work out where Kankri was, trying to calculate whether there would be someone there to catch him, what it would be like when there wasn't.

Fuck. He couldn't do this.

“Drop,” said the Ranger, and Karkat tipped himself backwards. It was ridiculously simple to go past the point of no return, and then he was in freefall, plummeting straight for the ground and a bruised gluteus muscle cluster, and it was too late, Kankri wasn't going to catch him-

-and then he landed against something soft and warm that broke his momentum and dropped slowly to the ground under his weight. Karkat let out a small gasp and his eyes flew open; he looked up into his own face, upside-down and wide-eyed. His head was resting on Kankri's knees, and he realised with a bone-deep blossoming warmth that the useless fucker hadn't dropped him after all.

Kankri was smiling at him, and it took Karkat several long seconds to notice he was smiling right back. There was actually a smattering of applause from around the room as they got back to their feet, Ranger Dirk holding out a hand to each of them. Kankri took it. Karkat didn't. The alien didn't seem to care much; he let them both get used to standing upright again, then tapped his stave on the ground for attention.

“You did good,” he said, with no more emotion than he had shown earlier. “But you're only half done.” He nodded to Kankri. “Your turn to drop, Chuckles.”

Karkat hadn't known it was possible for a troll to turn nearly white, but Kankri managed it. “B-but, but he, but I- this is not-”

“Trust is a two-way street,” said the alien, implacable. “And yeah, I know it sucks, but that's exactly why you gotta do this.” He placed the cane on the ground, rested his hands on top of it, one over the other. “Think of it this way. You already let him inside your head, and you got plans to do that again. If you're trusting him to move half your body, you should probably trust him to catch the whole thing.”

Kankri's eyes flicked over to Karkat, wide with the same fear that Karkat had been squashing down in himself only moments earlier. If he had been any kind of a decent being, he would have said something gentle and reassuring then.

Instead, because he was an asshole of a magnitude usually reserved for entities on the scale of solar systems, he rolled his eyes and said: “For fuck's sake. What possible, conceptual, remotely envisionable reason could I even be imagined to have for dropping you on the fucking ground? The sight of you smacking into the floor would have grown unfathomably dull days ago even if it hadn't been a complete non-event to begin with. Just troll up and take the drop already.”

Kankri stiffened, and the colour reappeared in his cheeks. “You,” he said stiffly, “are the least considerate, least polite, most needlessly aggressive individual I have ever encountered in my entire existence!” So saying, he spun around, arms folded up over his chest and chin tucked down.

Ranger Dirk peeked around at Kankri's face, then beckoned to Karkat. “Come stand a bit closer,” he said. “Yeah, just there. You ready?”

Karkat glanced down at his arms, feeling unaccountably nervous. He didn't mean to drop Kankri, but- what if he did? What if there was an earthquake, or Kankri fell the wrong way and he wasn't fast enough, or Nepeta pounced on him?

What if Kankri thought he dropped him on purpose?

Slowly, Karkat nodded, unable to speak through the litany of don't drop him don't drop him don't fucking drop him that was parading through his thinkpan.

“Drop,” said the Ranger, and from this side it was all so much faster. Karkat lunged forwards in a panic to grab Kankri in time and left himself off-balance, barely managing to arrest their conjoined momentum before they both hit the floor. Kankri was balanced awkwardly across one of his legs and looked up at Karkat with the sourest look of astonishment Karkat had ever seen.

“That,” said his hatchclone, in sharp tones, “was a terrible catch.”

“Still caught you, though,” said Karkat, and to his surprise a smile twitched on Kankri's face.

“Yes, you did,” said his hatchclone. “I believe thanks may be in order.”

Karkat gently rolled him off and stood up, then offered Kankri a hand up. The other mutant took it, still looking at him like he hadn't since the cells in the beginning. Like he'd just discovered something new, and wonderful.

The stave took Karkat by surprise, bouncing off his thorax. He barely managed to catch it with a clumsy grab before it skittered off across the floor, much to the amusement of the peanut gallery. Fuck, he was going to get so much shit over this later. Karkat ignored the gaggle of snickering morons in favour of Ranger Dirk and Kankri, and felt his stomach sink when he saw that he was the only one holding a weapon.

“We're gonna do more trust exercises, but for the next thirty seconds you two are gonna spar,” said Dirk. “If Karkat lands three hits in that time, he wins. If he doesn't, Kankri wins. You don't want to fight, fine, but you are going to learn to fucking dodge and you-” He looked over at Karkat- “You are going to pull your blows. I see a single hit land on him full-force and I will kick your ass. You both with me?”

Stunned, Karkat glanced across at his hatchclone, who returned it with his own look of dawning relief and determination.

“Understood,” they both said, in unison. Ranger Dirk nodded, and took a step back, off the dais. Karkat immediately pulled back, giving Kankri space to start. Dodging was going to be hard, in a confined ring, harder than just blocking would be. But thirty seconds wasn't much time for three strikes, especially with the control he was going to need to avoid hurting Kankri.

An almost feral grin spread across Karkat's face, something deep in his blood roaring. For the first time since getting here he was really, really looking forward to testing himself in this stupid exercise.

“Time in,” said Dirk, and for the first time both Vantas pilots began to really spar.

Chapter Text

Karkat was eating breakfast and minding his own damn business when the mostly peaceful chatter of the communal nutrition hall was interrupted by the unexpected arrival of the two Rangers Strider. Utensils clattered as one by one people turned to stare; in all the time they had been on the base, none of the aliens had set foot in the mess until now.

Not that anyone would have known it, seeing the two pale-haired beings swagger in like they owned the place. Karkat glared at them from over the top of his third bowl of baked grubflakes. He could have sworn Dirk nodded in his direction before jumping up onto the nearest nutrition plateau, scattering trays, crockery and food as he took up position where everyone in the entire hall could see him.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, sweeping his head from left to right- and fuck, Karkat was certain that he had tilted his head just so to get the light to reflect from those dumbass shades of his. “Get your tickets and passes ready and form an orderly queue, because as of right now your brand new, all-singing, all-dancing Jaegers are waiting for you in the hangar. Official pimping-out sessions to begin as soon as fucking possible on a first come, first served basis, so get up off your asses and move out!”

The communal nutrition hall burst into chaos, and not just on the pilot's floor. It seemed like everyone on base suddenly had urgent business in the hangar, pressing enough to justify shoving chairs over and clawing past the people they had been having civilised conversation with only moments before. Karkat saw Nepeta almost pull poor Tavros over in her enthusiasm to get her table moving; Equius forged through the crowd like a gargantuan finbeast through a school of flitting fish, and excited sparks of blue and red were coming from where Latula and Sollux shepherded a gabbling Mituna in the right direction. In the centre of it all Dirk stood like a demented ringmaster, hands on his hips and an empty circle of calm around him.

“Coming, Karkles?” Terezi asked, directly next to his ear. Karkat almost jumped out of his skin.

“Yeah, sure,” he said, hiding the sudden jump in his nerves by reaching out for his bowl to bring it with him. Before he could, a set of blue-painted claws grabbed the edge of the bowl and yanked it out from under his nose. Karkat growled and tried to slap the top of Vriska's hand with his personal nutrition scoop. She caught it, bending the metal slightly with her thumb.

“You stole it from me anyway,” she said, smirking.

“Hoofbeast shit,” said Karkat, giving up on his scoop in order to retrieve his hand. “That one was Aranea's, turd-breath.” He hadn't felt guilty about taking either breakfast. Vriska was an asshole, and if Aranea was going to display the reasoning power of an unpupated cocoon husk by worshipping his mutant ass, he had no problem with shamelessly exploiting her cull-worthy levels of dependency for a free meal.

“Vriska,” said Terezi, with impressive chilliness.

“Terezi,” Vriska replied, equally frosty. “Soooooooo nice to see you here. Shouldn't you be meddling in something that doesn't concern you, already?”

Terezi's nostrils flared. “C'mon, Karkalicious,” she said, tugging Karkat's arm. “I want to ask Dave about my new Jaeger!”

Something in Karkat's blood-pusher clenched up, but he bit down on it. There was not a single, lone fucking chance that he was going to risk screwing up what he had with Terezi by acting like a creepy stalker and being an asshole about who she talked to. Kankri was sickeningly awful in that regard as it was; the least Karkat could do was view him as an abject lesson, highlighted by neon warning signs.

“Yeah, you go ahead,” he said, reaching out for his bowl again. “I'll just wait back here and eat my own body weight twice or something.”

Eridan laughed as he walked over with Kanaya. “Pretty sure you already did, Kar.” He gave Karkat a lopsided smirk and jabbed an elbow into the mutant's thoracic struts. Karkat smacked his arm away.

“Who asked you?”

“See you there,” said Terezi. She leaned her head forward and pressed her nose affectionately against Karkat's. The gesture warmed him, but his sappy smile faded when he watched Terezi bound over to the two humans and start jabbering at high speed.

“Come on, Karkat,” said Kanaya, with a gentle hand on his shoulder. Karkat sighed and abandoned his bowl, grabbing a stray grubtart from a nearby plate and trying not to feel as unwanted as the chewed-up inedible mastication polymer that some gross asswad had stuck under half the seats in the mess. Craning his neck back to watch Terezi talking to the Strider assholes, he nearly walked into Eridan at the top of the ramp.

“Well, hey there, Kar,” said Eridan, with a smile that the seadweller probably thought was sultry but which Karkat was certain would only ever count as shit-eating. “Didn't know you were that into me.”

“Shut the hell up, Ampora, I swear you are this fucking close to being as creepy as your slimy-ass hatchclone.” Karkat took a deep breath and turned away from the communal nutrition block, trying to put it out of his mind. It didn't matter who Terezi was friends with, or how close they were getting. It didn't.

Eridan pulled back slightly and his hands fidgeted on the edges of his jumpsuit pockets. “C'mon, Kar, Cronus ain't that bad...”

“He is,” Karkat, Kanaya and Aranea said, in unison. Vriska sniggered.

“It is something of a mystery to all of us how you tolerate his constant overbearing advances,” Kanaya added.

Karkat was expecting Eridan to say something characteristically panless and douchey in response, but was surprised when nothing was forthcoming. Looking around, he saw the seadweller's head tucked down, a purple blush rising over Eridan's fins.

“Holy fucking shitmonkeys,” he said, as his mind cycled through the list of possible causes and came up image redacted, fucknugget. “You're pailing him.”

From the way Eridan's blush immediately deepened about three shades, he knew he was bang on target- a phrase that he immediately resolved never to even think again in the presence of either Ampora.

“Eridan!” Aranea was positively beaming at him. “Well, this is good news! When did you and he become an item?”

“We're not!” Eridan snapped. Seeing their sceptical looks, his scowl deepened. “We're not,” he insisted. “At least, not how you're thinkin'.” He stopped until the pause drew out slightly too long, gaping wide and sucking the words out of him with its nightmarish gravitational pull. “It started right after the first time we Drifted, okay? And before you ask, it ain't any quadrant, and it ain't ewer gonna be like proper romance or nothin'. It's just us.”

His mouth slammed shut and this time the pause hung even longer, before Karkat said: “Well, I guess we shouldn't be too surprised. Honestly, it would have been even more world-shatteringly unlikely that Eridan and Cronus wouldn't find a way to consummate their overwhelming and equally all-encompassing self-pity with one another.”

Eridan thumped him in the arm. All things considered it was probably intended to be a gentle, friendly thump. Taking into account the difference in muscle mass between Karkat and a seadweller, it fucking hurt.

"Holy mothergrubfucking ass-sniffing oinkbeast-molesting riftbandits what the fuck!?"

“No need to be an asshole on account a bein' jealous, Kar.”

Karkat growled at him, rubbing the sore spot. “Firstly, I am always an asshole. If you haven't noticed that by now then I am deeply concerned over your lack of observational skills and invite you to inject your ganderbulbs with a scalding hot dose of I don't give a shit.”

“I can certainly confirm the asshole part,” said Kanaya, with an almost affectionate degree of sincerity.

“Secondly,” said Karkat, ignoring her. “I am not fucking jealous of your scrawny webbed ass. Why in the name of the martyred legions would I be jealous of you being fuck-buddies with Cronus “my hand slipped” Ampora when I have an honest-to-ancestors matesprit?”

Vriska laughed. “Because she's cheating on you with the humans she keeps making eyes at!”

“Terezi does not make eyes at a fucking alien, bulgenozzle!”

There was an awkward silence, then Aranea coughed slightly. “Not that I think Vriska is right, precisely, but she does seem to rather enjoy the company of both Rangers Strider.”

“So?” Karkat scowled. “They bond over crazy gymnastics and having the sort of sense of humour that doesn't consider their day complete unless someone has been utterly bemused, humiliated, enraged and rendered speechless by their antics. Quite frankly I think I'm fucking lucky she has an outlet for that now.”

“Suuuuuuuure, we all buy that!” said Vriska, looking indecently smug at the idea. “And that's why you're not with her now, right?”

“Vriska-” Kanaya began.

“Fuck you!” said Karkat, cutting off Kanaya over Vriska's laughter and everyone else's silence. “You don't know shit about me and you don't know shit about Terezi, so you can shut your oversized flap-trap right now before the rest of us drown in the chute-waste spilling out of it.”

“Aww, Karkles,” said a familiar voice from behind him. “Defending my honour in my absence? I knew I liked you.”

Karkat tried to hunch up and look tough, but it was hard with Terezi draped across his shoulders. He was forced to slow down as Kankri joined their group; Karkat could only assume that he had mistaken Terezi or Latula from behind. Terezi gave Karkat an affectionate tap on the leg with her cane, and he batted it away.

“Didn't your lusus ever teach you it's rude to eavesdrop?” he asked. Almost snarled, really.

Terezi's face fell. “It's hard to teach anything when you're not hatched. I can't believe you'd make fun of me for that!”

“Not- what?” Karkat stared at her in confused horror. Vriska rolled her eyes. Kankri turned just enough to sneer at him before launching into a lecture.

“Karkat, you should be more sensitive to potentially sensitive areas of discussion,” he said. “Given the violent nature of Alternian life, it is by no means unusual for a troll to be triggered by such a comment, and there are more appropriate ways to bring up your concerns over Terezi's socially inappropriate behaviour which I of course understand could itself be a subject of no small anxiety for you. I could suggest some trigger warnings to apply to your discourse, including but not limited to lusal abandonment, invasion of privacy-OW!”

Terezi's cane jabbed into Kankri's lower back. “You are ruining my fun,” she said, before winking at Karkat. “Don't worry, Karkles, my lusus and I had an excellent relationship, even if she never did emerge from her egg.”

Karkat threw his hands up, gesturing towards the ceiling in despair at the sheer unceasing turd-storm of nonsense that was his life. “I suppose that at least explains why you're a socially disturbed freak of nature,” he said. “I mean, I know mine and Kankri's excuses, but it's good to know that you didn't turn out as a justice-obsessed slobbermonster by random happenstance. This way we should be able to work out how to avoid exposing future generations to cackling, cane-wielding maladjusts.”

A long, bony arm draped across his shoulders. “Aww, Karkles,” said Terezi, almost breathing into his ear. “I didn't know you cared.”

Karkat flushed a bright, cull-worthy red. “You know, this would be a shit-ton easier if you didn't pull crap like this.”

“Like what?” Terezi pulled away from him, and Karkat huffed.

“This! Messing with my head for kicks! Maybe Dave and Dirk like that sort of hoofbeast crap but I could do without you saying shit just to fuck with me.”

Terezi's mouth tightened into a sharp line. “Karkat, they're my friends.”

“I know!” snapped Karkat. “I just- how am I supposed to trust what you say when half the time you're messing about?”

Terezi wasn't actually staring at him and he knew it, but her blank eyes did a good impression. “Perhaps you could try just trusting me?” she said, and grub fucking damn it she sounded hurt. Karkat hunched over and looked away from her, not sure what he could say without either breaking down into an abject apology or a meaningless tirade.

“Terezi,” said Kankri, ignoring Kanaya's sudden desperate head-shaking and hand gestures. “Not that I wish to dictate your behaviour to you, but I really must caution you. Communication and trust are vital to any relationship, and given your social standing as a teal-blood you must remember that your actions towards a member of a less privileged hemotype carry a weight and meaning implicit within them that are not necessarily intentional yet which can still invalidate attempts to create a safe and welcoming space for Karkat to communicate his feelings-”

Karkat glowered at him, trying to ignore the almost tangible waves of cold anger he could feel coming from Terezi. “Did I ask for your fucking help?”

“No, but her behaviour towards you needed confronting as it displayed a problematic attitude towards interaction with-”

“Shut up, Kankri!” Karkat bared his teeth at his hatchclone. Kankri turned a particularly bright shade of greyish-red and turned away, storming ahead at top speed.

“Nice one, Kar,” said Eridan. Vriska threw back her head and started laughing, and Aranea looked away. Terezi walked beside him in stony silence. Only Kanaya's hand, resting on his shoulder, seemed to offer any comfort. Before Karkat could think of anything to say to his matesprit to make up for his Past Self's idiotic, paranoid ranting, they passed through a wide open doorway and onto the ground of the hangar.

It looks bigger, was Karkat's first, completely illogical thought. But it really did seem larger; looking up from the ground, outside of a Jaeger, the now-patchwork roof seemed impossibly far above them. He could see the Drivesuit Rooms trailing across overhead like a broken string, and the vast alcoves to either side gave the whole room the impression of an ancient temple, built by colossi.

Standing in the middle of the floor was a giant. Black on black, a drone-shaped behemoth hung dormant in the support scaffolding, its carapace unmarred and so sleek that Karkat almost expected it to be dripping wet. If he hadn't known better he could have sworn that it was alive, that at any moment its huge head could lift and open eyes that gleamed with inner light. As his eyes adjusted, he saw that it wasn't alone. Each of the alcoves held a different Jaeger, and to Karkat's surprise, although drone-like, none of them shared the same outline. He saw one with reinforced, back-bent knees; another had two heads and a surface etched with power channels like a starship; yet another had four extra armatures sprouting where grublegs might once have been if it were a troll. At the back of the hangar, an immense form towered over them all, a Jaeger so large that it didn't even fit in the alcoves and had been left by the door to impress upon everyone just how impossibly huge it was. Karkat stared in unashamed awe at the new Jaegers, turning slowly to take in the entire hangar and wondering just how so much had been achieved so quickly.

“Pretty cool, right!?”

Karkat looked back just in time to dodge the alien arm that was reaching out. On the other side of Ranger John Egbert, Terezi was not so lucky, and found herself grabbed into a sideways hug. Rather than flipping her shit, which was what Karkat would have done, she leaned over and licked a stripe up the side of the human's face.

“Ew, gross!” He jumped back, and Terezi snickered.

“Blueberry muffin,” she said, licking her lips with a look of deep satisfaction.

“You licked me!” John said, scrubbing at his face with his sleeve and looking so utterly astounded by this simple truth that Karkat wanted to grab him by the lapels and smack some sense into his ridiculous flat-toothed face. Not that it was an ugly face- now that he was more used to seeing the aliens, he could admit that some of them were actually fairly attractive- and the idea of kissing the idiot into silence was almost as appealing as slapping it that way... he shook himself and silently cursed his hormones. Give them a fucking inch and they'd take a mile, and he was not dealing with the fallout from their stunningly bad selection processes.

“It's entirely your own fault,” said another voice, and Jane strolled over to stand by her copilot, followed by the rest of the humans. “You were warned. Honestly, John, most humans don't appreciate your tackle-hugs, why would you think aliens would?”

“But hugs are great!”

The female alien sighed and wrapped an arm around his waist, giving it a squeeze. “I'm sorry about him,” she said, smiling at Karkat and Terezi. “He's not much of a cultural ambassador.”

John stuck his tongue out at her. Karkat barely resisted the urge to smack himself in the face. Instead, he looked around the hangar. His fellow pilots were splitting up in small knots, wandering towards the Jaegers and pointing. He could hear the echoes of their excitement reaching him, even across the wide spaces of the hangar. Two dozen grown trolls looked like wigglers who had just had Twelfth Perigee's Eve come early.

“Wvhich one's mine?” he heard Cronus yelling. Karkat was suddenly struck by the realisation that yes, one of these Jaegers was his- or, rather, his and Kankri's. He turned back to the looming shape overhead with a new sense of awe.

“What's this?” asked Terezi. Karkat looked around to see her holding up- oh, Condesce's bitter prongs!

Terezi had found something that looked altogether too much like a pail. A full pail, with bright red goop spilling over the edges.

“Oh, that's the Jaeger paint,” said Jane, with a casual flip of her hand. “We thought you might all like to give your Jaegers a makeover, or at least direct one. Be careful with that, though, it might be... slightly... toxic...” Her voice trailed off as Terezi dipped a finger in the paint and thoughtfully licked it clean. “Is she-?”

Karkat peeked out from between his fingers, trying to cover the blush that he was certain went all the way down to his toes. “She's fine,” he told the human. “If licking everything and anything was going to kill her, she'd be dead by now.”

Ignoring the excited noises John was making about look, how cool is this, they like them! Karkat made his way over to Terezi's side.

“What the fuck are you doing?” he hissed. “I have survived zombies, kaiju, and seeing Kankri get out of his 'coon, and this is fucking disturbing!”

Terezi finished cleaning off her finger and grinned widely. “Why? Because it's obscene?” Her grin faded. “Or because it's red?”

Karkat glared. He had had enough of her infuriating, cryptic bullshit. “Why does it matter? Do you have to mess with everything? I know I'm a fuck-up, you don't have to rub it in by mocking-”

“Karkat!” Terezi's free hand flexed like she wanted to grab something or someone. “It was not your fault! Your first kaiju fight was hard. That doesn't mean you did badly.”

“Right, we just have to let a bunch of aliens waltz in and take over everything,” snapped Karkat. “Do you think Wavescar would have let this happen if she hadn't had to? She hates having them here! I hate having them here! We should be able to save our own world without their help!”

“Why?” Terezi tilted her head. “What are you afraid of, Karkat? Why would it be such a bad thing if we needed the humans to save us, as long as we're saved?”

Karkat waved his hands in the air, trying to sketch out a threat he couldn't explain. “What if they don't go away afterwards?”

“What if they don't?” Terezi agreed, smirking.

“That's treason!”

Her face fell sharply, and not for the first time Karkat remembered that Terezi could change direction on a denar. “You're treason,” she said, her voice too low for anyone but the two of them to hear. “Walking, talking, scrumptious candy-red treason. What do you think happens to us- to you- when this is over?”

Karkat thought of Porrim and Aranea, and a conversation hidden in the dank bowels of a store-room.

“I'm not going to betray my entire species,” he said. “I might be the most abhorrent piece of trollflesh ever to squirm out of the brooding caverns, so low that I dropped off the hemospectrum altogether, but this is still my planet and my people and like hell am I going to save them from the kaiju just to hand them over to a swaggering posse of cocky mammalian chutewipes with the mental acuity of wigglers in a sopor bath.”

She snickered, but Karkat thought he must still be overtired because she looked almost fond when she said: “You're adorable when you're angry.”

“Fuck you, I'm not adorable,” Karkat snapped. Terezi laughed and brought a hand up to his face. Her knuckles brushed against his cheek, claws turned inwards and away from the skin, and for a breathless age all he could see was her smile.

“There you are!”

He almost jumped out of his skin, whirling to see Jade standing behind him, arms folded and face wearing an expression of exasperated triumph. Karkat nodded to her, scowling as he tried to ignore the way his blood-pusher jumped at her arrival. “Do you like your Jaeger?” she asked.

Karkat glared at her. She looked far too damn good for someone who wasn't even a troll. “My Jaeger?” he echoed. Jade grinned and waved up at the drone-like behemoth next to them.

“This one here!” she said, almost bouncing with excitement. “Yours is actually the most complete of them all, which is mostly because it was already in production before the accident. Dirk and I sent a few design alterations to the manufacturing plant early on, and we're going to tweak the mechanical loads and responsiveness using the physical data we've gathered, maybe add a supplementary power source and some additional armour, but you should be ready to go out really soon!”

“Yes, because being the first one to go and fight interdimensional monstrosities hell-bent on the destruction of everything that I love is absolutely what I wanted from my life,” said Karkat, but the words came out half-hearted. He was too busy staring up at the machine above him. It was so big, he didn't even come up to half the height of his foot, and now that he looked it had a vicious hooked blade on each arm. Sickle blades. It made the thing look less like a drone and more like crabdad. Karkat's blood-pusher got stuck in his throat and he swallowed, trying to push it back down with the rush of memories and regret that poured in with the memory of his lusus.

The sound of approaching haughty lecturing snapped him back to reality, and he shook his head to clear it, noticing that Terezi had slipped off while he was distracted. “It's alright,” he said, huskily.

“So, what are you going to call it?” asked John.

Karkat looked around, puzzled. “Call it?”

Someone cleared their throat beside him. “The usual procedure has been to refer to the Jaegers by the name of the pilots,” said Kankri, sounding unusually hesitant. “Which would make this the Vantas Jaeger.”

“Wow, Vantas Jaeger,” said Dave, wandering up behind Kankri. Karkat wondered if the aliens had a sixth sense that allowed them to know exactly when he didn't want to see them; if so, Ranger Dave Strider was using his powers for evil. “Real creative, there. Quick, Egbert, get me the phone. I gotta call the Louvre and tell them we got a bona fide Da Vinci here; motherfucking genius, blowing all our shit out the water with their mighty Vantas Jaeger. Truly, it will be the envy of all worlds. People are gonna make pilgrimages here just to sneak a glimpse of it. It’s gonna be bigger than Lolcats, I just know it. Trust me on this, I have a sixth sense for internet memes, it’s like I’m Luke Skywalker and the internet is the force, only without all that incestuous shit with my sister.”

“Dave, you don’t have a sister,” said John.

“Yes, because that is what is important here, and not the spectacular lack of awe at the truly original name of Vantas Jaeger.” Dave shook his head. “Besides, I think we all know that Dirk is a shoo-in for Princess Leia.”

Jade giggled, but nodded solemnly. “It’s true!”

“What the bulge-gnawing fuck are you on about!?” Karkat yelled. “Who the fuck cares what we call it? At what point in our exciting lives of fighting kaiju, fighting kaiju and fighting more kaiju is anyone going to give the most fleeting departed spirit of a shit what the damn hell our weapon is called!?”

“Because it's important!” said John, giving them a look so earnest that Karkat could see him trying not to bounce up and down on his heels. “Your Jaeger name is like, your statement of identity! It's who you are!”

"You pick something that's you," Jade agreed, nodding sagely. "Both of you, that is. It's like a shared purpose!"

“And then when we’re done modding it we can paint the name on and add decorations and stuff!” John finished. “That’s what we really got all the paints for, but we had to test them out.”

Karkat glanced at the colourful mural on the wall, then looked blankly at Kankri. His hatchclone stared back in equal confusion.

“Jaeger names are usually two words,” added John. “Like Ronin Steel, or Joker Wild, or Lucky Eldritch…”

“Cherno Alpha, Striker Eureka, Gipsy Danger,” added Jade.

Karkat gave them all a grin that was more of a grimace, grabbed Kankri’s arm, and stepped back five paces.

“Karkat!” hissed Kankri. “That was a clear violation of my-”

“Shut up and help me think of a badass name,” Karkat snapped, too low to be overheard. To his surprise, rather than complaining further, Kankri raised his eyebrows.

“You want to go along with this?”

“You don’t?” Karkat waved a hand towards the Jaeger. “Look, I thought we were going to end up driving some grey-edged second-hand piece of shit that looked the same as all the others, and that was fine because hey, we'd still be fucking heroes, but this? Kankri, people are going to see us in this. They’re going to recognise us. You think anyone's going to be impressed with an insipid designation like Vantas Jaeger when we could call it fucking Wrathful God?”

Kankri’s lips pressed into a thin line. “I would rather avoid any implication that we are in any way divine beings,” he said. “It is a misleading and potentially deeply problematic insinuation, and even if the idea of flaunting our- our nature, in the sure and certain knowledge that we have been given an opportunity to make a clear statement on the societal prejudices of our society from a position of influence, is on some level intensely satisfying I do not think that it would be a well-advised indulgence if combined with a fallacious evangelising of an inaccurate and abusable view of our mortal status.”

Karkat squinted at him. “Do you ever stop to breathe?”

“Yes.” Kankri folded his arms and tilted his head back, so he was looking down his nose at Karkat. “Do you?”

“Fuck you, I stop for breath,” said Karkat. “I leave entire pauses in the dispensation of my wisdom, so that ungrateful and inattentive fuckwads can spew their ill-considered toxic waste all over the conversation, throttle intelligent discourse into submission, and drown it in the bottomless cesspool of eternal ignorance. And if you want to flaunt the fact that we’re freaks, why not just paint the whole fucking Jaeger bright red? It would work better.”

To his immediate dismay, Kankri smiled. “An excellent suggestion, Karkat,” he said, looking downright gleeful about the entire shitty concept. “And for extra emphasis, perhaps the name of our Jaeger should reflect the colour- Scarlet Harbinger, for example.”

“You can’t call the Jaeger Scarlet Harbinger,” Karkat growled, poking him in the chest with one claw.

“Why not?” Kankri batted his hand away and pouted.

“Because people are going to think we’re the Condesce’s heralds, is why,” Karkat replied. “Scarlet’s the Imperial colour too, bulgebrain, and people are going to think of her before they think of genetic outlaws.”

Kankri's smile grew even more self-satisfied. "An excellent idea, Karkat, however inadvertent the suggestion. Really, you should work on that negativity of yours; it's hard to make any progress or push for meaningful collaboration in our relationship when your sole contribution to the discourse is to tear down my ideas-"

"What the screaming blue bulgesack are you talking about?"

Kankri blinked. "Other than your conversational habits? Scarlet Outlaw, of course. Although on reflection I don't believe we should paint the entire Jaeger red; that might prove somewhat visually overwhelming, and the name and accent colours should provoke sufficient debate on the matter without going to such extremes."

Karkat considered this. "You remember when I said you were completely grubfucking insane?"

Kankri's eyebrows raised again. "Which occasion are you referring to?"

"Any of them!" Karkat glared at him, and was infuriated to receive a cool stare in return. "Alright, one question, because against my better judgement I am now legitimately curious about this. Assuming that you do in fact think before you speak- which is a pretty fucking huge assumption, we're talking something about the size of a rage-pulsing pre-supernova here, but you've got to dredge all that kaiju-shit up from somewhere..."

"Karkat, I am quite certain that I have spoken to you before about being needlessly hostile in your interactions. If you take exception to anything I say in my lect- in our discussions, then you know that all you have to do is raise the matter in a polite and respectful fashion and I will be happy to provide whatever trigger warnings or content exclusions you require."

"Who are you, the fucking tone police?" Karkat shook his head. "Great, now I'm channelling whatever pieces of your thinkpan got lodged in my cranial protection bone. Look, all I want to know is: do you have a death wish? Because half the steaming musclebeast crap you come out with is perfectly tailored to royally piss off people who could cull you easier than they crawl out of their 'coon in the morning, a pursuit that I would happily cheer them along in like the Empire's number one taintlicker if it weren't for the fact that you're dragging me down with you! What the unholy nookbaiting fuckwaffles is going on in your head that makes you think we can paint we're mutants, come cull us! on the side of our Jaeger and get away with it!?"

Kankri was silent for a long time; in reality it was most likely only a few seconds, but it was enough for Karkat to become aware of the hangar bustling around them, the crowd that was keeping them alone with one another. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, restless before Kankri's blank, motionless face.

"We have a Jaeger, Karkat," said his hatchclone, slowly. "What is going on in your head that makes you think we've got anything to lose in the attempt?"

Karkat opened his mouth, paused, then closed it again. Slowly, he turned to look over at the immense black Jaeger that was casting its shadow over them. Their Jaeger, and even if all the alcoves were currently filled, it still wasn't as many as they needed. Slowly it sunk in what he had known dimly all along: while Alternia needed them, they were untouchable, and the moment it didn't, they were dead anyway.

"Scarlet Outlaw," he said, trying out the words and imagining the Jaeger, gleaming black and lined in brilliant red, striding through a city as millions watched on in hope. Oh, they'd suffer for it later, but what the hell. The kaiju would probably kill them before then anyway, and if they were going to die young whatever happened then he was going to burn bright first; bright like a star, like a supernova, like a tear into a dimension of pure shining light, and he hoped that they fucking blinded someone before they went down.

"I like it," he said, and for the first time he didn't care in the least that the smile on Kankri's face was like looking into a mirror.

An irritated huff broke the moment. Karkat whirled with irritation ready to fire, but it died on his lips when he saw Veteran Kharon standing behind them. Her cartilage nub was no longer bound up, but there were dark circles under her eyes, and the look on her face said that if she was given any shit then she would find a way to repay it a thousandfold.

Karkat wasn't scared of her exactly- it was hard to be after facing down three thousand tons of rampaging death-monster and surviving- but he wasn't quite dumb enough to deliberately piss off his grubsitter.

“Your presence is required in the Medical Assessment Block, on the orders of Commander Wavescar,” she said, her face so blank that Karkat knew she would rather have had any other job than this. “Ranger Strider, you and your copilot are also due to attend.”

“Oh, right, yeah.” Dave clapped a hand on John's shoulder. “I gotta go, bro. Remember me when the wind blows from the east.”

“What, are you kidding?” asked Jade. “We're coming along!”

John grinned and draped an arm across Dave's shoulders. The Strider shrugged.

“'Sup?” he asked Kankri, before turning his black-shaded stare onto Kharon. “So, we going or what?”

Veteran Kharon nodded. “This way,” she said. The five of them fell into step behind her.

“What is the purpose of this excursion?” asked Kankri. “I am certain we have the right to know your intentions with regard to us.”

“You'll find out when we get there, dude,” said Dave, as Dirk walked up and slipped into place on his other side. “Better if you get the explanation from Lalonde. She's got this shit straighter than I do.”

“And what, precisely, is that supposed to mean?” asked Kankri.

Karkat sighed. “For fuck's sake, no wonder they're not saying anything. I’d nail my wordflap shut if you were bugging me to tell you something.” He could have sworn that the faintest hint of a smile tugged at Veteran Kharon’s mouth, if only for a fraction of a second. It was unnerving, and to cover his disquiet he considered picking up his pace so that they would have to keep up. He discounted the idea; spending the better part of a sweep eating not enough of things that probably shouldn’t have counted as food anyway had stunted his growth, and he was already working to keep up.

After a minute or so, Kankri dropped back so they were both walking far enough behind Veteran Kharon and the humans to have a proper conversation. “So, I see you were discussing these developments with Terezi,” said Kankri, in the not-quite-haughty way that Karkat knew damn well meant I want something from you and I am well aware that this requires me to attempt politeness first. “I must congratulate you on your efforts to maintain a relationship which may not have necessarily been the most thought through at initiation. I am glad to see that you have been successfully forming bonds of friendship and camaraderie with others despite the obvious disadvantage of your trust issues- which are clearly a facet both of your upbringing and our hemoprejudiced society- and your offensive and aggressive vocabulary and presentation towards others. In particular it is encouraging to see you interact so positively with members of a caste that you might traditionally consider your natural enemies, given the tendency of cool-blooded individuals to engage in legal careers that might ultimately bring them into conflict with your status in the unbalanced societal structure in which we-”

“For fuck’s sake, if you want to ask about Latula, just ask,” snapped Karkat. When Kankri stared silently at his feet rather than replying, he added. “Or talk to her directly, you could do that. Are you worried that the more you talk to her the more she’ll be put off by you creeping?”

Kankri huffed. If he had possessed feathers, Karkat was certain they would have been ruffled. “I do not creep!”

“You do too fucking creep,” said Karkat. “The only thing preventing you from being the biggest creeper on base is the existence of Cronus Ampora, who I remain convinced would hit on an elevated meal plateau if it possessed genitalia.”

“That is unfair,” said Kankri, hunching his shoulders over and frowning ever so slightly. “On what occasions have I behaved in an improper manner towards Latula? Or anyone else?”

“I don’t keep a meticulous fucking record,” said Karkat. “But if you insist, fine. How about last week when you sniffed her hair at dinnertime?”

“She mentioned she had a new shampoo,” said Kankri. “And since she can’t smell it herself I thought she might appreciate the feedback.”

“For fuck’s sake, you want to talk insensitive, I can’t think of anything worse than deliberately sniffing her,” said Karkat. “And that’s without the whole getting up into her personal space and practically hanging off her part. But let's forget that individual instance and look at the larger picture, like how you keep taking her tray and bringing her food.”

“I’m her friend! I’m being polite!”

“Yeah, well, I have lots of friends and you claim to have other friends, and I’m pretty sure at least some of the other assholes around here like one another for some inexplicable reason, but I don’t see anyone else fetching each other food constantly. Not even Equius and Nepeta do that. And how is it polite to take her fucking tray and load it up with shit she didn't ask for and then drop it in front of her and expect some thanks? What if she doesn’t want it, globefondler?”

“Well, I’m sure she’d say something…”

“You mean like the other day when you followed her and Mituna around for hours and she kept dropping hints the size of the green moon that they wanted some private time to re-enact whatever X-Rated porn a skater reject and the world’s most pan-damaged asshole are inclined to watch? That kind of something?”

Kankri was silent.

“Which actually reminds me,” said Karkat. “Mituna. You’re an asshole to him. Which is fair, I guess, I mean he was probably bad enough before judging by Sollux and now he literally has no control over the vicious bile that he sprays at everyone in the general vicinity, but there’s a difference between being a fuckass right back at him when he vomits nastiness at you and actively following him around to criticise. You wanna tell me that’s because you’re friends with Latula, too?”

Kankri fiddled with his fingers. “My vow-”

“Doesn’t stop you from feeling attraction, does it?” pointed out Karkat. “Or acting like a jealous clingy fuckhead, wow, what a surprise, turns out you’re a troll after all. Not that I don’t know all about it anyway, having been inside your head. Here’s a thought; if you actually do want to be friends with Latula?” He jabbed his hatchclone in the thorax with one finger. “Get over yourself and then get over her. And if you want to be more than friends? Pick a different fucking quadrant. That one’s taken.”

Kankri's eyes narrowed. “If we're talking about things we have learned inside the Drift,” he said, low and sharp. “Then why don't we discuss Terezi?”

Karkat hissed at him then sped up, putting distance between them so Kankri couldn't talk his ear off and not at all because he was running away. He just didn’t really want to hear what Kankri had to say on the matter, that was all. Kankri didn't know about the pang of jealousy he’d felt in the hangar; he might know that Karkat liked Terezi, maybe even pitied her, and he might even know that deep down in the places Karkat didn't like to acknowledge he felt more than that, other things that he shouldn't feel because quadrant vacillation was ugly and unpleasant and he knew that, he really did...

Not a fucking chance.

He could have sworn he caught Veteran Kharon giving him an almost not-disgusted look when they arrived at the Medical Assessment Block, but he put that down to imagination. Stepping inside, he stopped just inside the door and stood to something vaguely approaching attention. The other humans were all inside, Rose chatting to Jane and Jake looking over Roxy's shoulder while she worked at a new machine. It looked suspiciously like a Pons setup to Karkat. He kept his eye on it while Dave went to hover by Rose and Dirk joined Roxy at the console.

"So these are our volunteers?" asked Rose, looking up from her conversation.

Wavescar, looming over the entire operation like a particularly peeved piece of statuary, glared at Karkat as if daring him to say otherwise. "They are."

Karkat snarled right back at her and pointed to Veteran Kharon. "I didn't fucking volunteer for anything! I was shanghaied without so much as a by-your-grubdamned-leave by this sorry excuse for an actual functioning troll, who by the way platonically hates my gastrointestinal organs and embraces every opportunity to treat me with all the dignity, respect and basic compassion usually shown to a venomous parasite attached to the inner wall of your nook!"

One of Rose's eyebrows rose. "I see," she said. "Commander Wavescar, I believed you had understood the implications of the phrase 'informed consent', but if you require some sort of refresher on the matter I would be happy to elucidate on the subject."

"Funny," said Wavescar, setting her hands on her hips. "I believed you had understood the implications of the phrase 'this is my base and I will decide what happens here'." She waved one hand towards Karkat and Kankri. "These two are your pilot test subjects, or you don't get any."

Karkat swallowed. Beside him, Kankri cleared his throat.

"If I might remind you, Commander," he said, in one of the haughtiest tones Karkat had heard him produce yet, "Karkat and I have clearly demonstrated our ability as Jaeger pilots, which can only make your view of us as expendable a reflection on your view of our non-standard hemotype. If I may suggest-"

"You may not, Vantas," said Wavescar. Karkat heard a suppressed snicker from behind him and bit down on the urge to turn and deck Veteran fucking Kharon. "There will be no suggesting, from either of you, because whether you like it or not you are genetically unacceptable to the Empire and alive only because this program requires it."

Kankri tilted his chin upwards. "And if that is unacceptable to us?"

"Then I can break your necks right here and pass your thinkpans over to the researcharnalists." Wavescar strolled up to them, looming with every extra inch of her seadweller height, and the stub of her one horn only made the other look longer. "I have let you have your freedom and comfortable living quarters," she said. "I have let you interact with the other Pilots, permitted you to speak freely, allowed you to get away with insolence I wouldn't accept from a regular recruit of any hemostatus. But when I give you an order? You will follow it, or you are worthless."

Kankri opened his mouth. Karkat caught his eye and gave his head a little half-shake, just enough for his hatchclone to stop whatever rambling diatribe he had prepared on how calling people worthless makes baby barkbeasts die or something and shut his rift-shitting word-trap. Wavescar gave a satisfied little huff and turned, striding towards the door with Veteran Kharon on her heels.

As the door swung closed behind them with a particularly final "clang", Kankri folded his arms and narrowed his eyes at Rose. "I presume that you will of course not be compromising your own ethical standards in the treatment of myself or my copilot," he said. "Much as I may be loathe to say anything that could be construed as cultural shaming, I find what I have learned of your species commitment to morality considerably more reassuring than the traditional approaches of my own people."

“What the fuck are we doing here?" asked Karkat, folding his own arms and glaring at the humans.

"Nothing you don't want to!" said Roxy, draping herself over the top of the cluster of alien machinery in a downright disturbing fashion. "We were totes not kidding about the informed consent thing. We will, like, fight to the death for your right to not do any hinky shit you don't wanna."

"Although your help would be greatly appreciated," Rose added.

“You have expressed that point,” said Kankri. “But we are still lacking the 'informed' part of informed consent.”

"If this is your idea of explaining things then you are fucking terrible at it," said Karkat, nodding agreement. "Because you know what? I am in the dark here. I am so far in the fucking dark that I am lodged up the asshole of the oldest black hole in the universe, fondly reminiscing about the eons past when all this vast fucking penumbra of light-destroying nightmares was merely ink black, that's how far in the shit-sticking dark I am!"

"Woah, chill your tits there, dude," said Dave, holding up his hands and somehow still perching on the edge of the medical bench. "It's not like anyone is jumping somersaults of joy about this. Except Rose, but that's because she's a mad scientist who likes messing about in people's heads. One day we're gonna go looking for her and she'll be in the middle of a lab with a hundred fucking brains in jars, hooking up the lightning." He jabbed a thumb at the other human female in the room. "Roxy will be Igor."

"You make no fucking sense to me, you know that?" said Karkat. "Oh, wait, that's right. You don't care. You just like the sound of your own fleshy word-hole flapping uselessly in the fetid sputum that you eject from your human breathing tubes!"

"Think he's got you there, bro," said Dirk. Dave's head turned briefly towards him, such a momentary motion that Karkat wasn't quite sure he'd caught it right.

"You're a douche, you know that?" said Dave conversationally. It occurred to Karkat that he was perhaps a little paler than usual. "You're not the one dangling on the hook here. Me'n Karkat, we're tight. Wiggling together on the line, ain't that right, bro?"

Karkat closed his eyes and let a low growl escape his throat.

"Perhaps a clearer explanation of our intent is in order here," said Rose, a little louder than strictly necessary. "Karkat, Kankri, you are aware, are you not, that Roxy and I have been working to improve the calibration of the Pons system for your species?"

Karkat opened his eyes again. "Yes," he said. "Not that I understand a fucking word of it, but Kankri does his level best to make my auricular sponge clots drop off from sheer boredom every time he gets back from having a conversation with you."

“I am merely trying to keep you informed,” said Kankri. “A full and detailed explanation of information that pertains not only to us, but to the future of our species, is something that I would have thought you would consider worthy of note. In particular the matter of engaging a lower cycle time for the initial neural linking phase in order to reduce contact shock could have remarkable implications for the compatibility problem.”

“See, that right there, that is what I meant,” said Karkat. “I have no fucking clue what you just said and I don't give a shit.”

"You should, bro, you might learn something worthwhile," said Dirk. He was playing with something between the fingers of one hand- a stylus of some sort, it looked like.

"Fuck you," said Karkat, almost reflexively.

Rose coughed lightly. "Before our enrolment in the Jaeger program, Roxy and I were employed by the PPDC in a research capacity, working primarily in the field of cross-species Pons application."

Karkat thought about this carefully, considered the equipment in the room and Dave's nervousness, and reached the inevitable conclusion at about the same time as Kankri. "Oh, shit," he said, as his hatchclone let out a whimper.

"Precisely," said Rose, a small smile underlining her words. She picked a workpad up from the bench beside Dave and scrolled down it. “We believe we have adapted the system to allow the creation of a safe neural bridge between human and Alternian minds. Our proposal is to perform two human-Alternian Drifts, and should those be successful, to meld them into a single four-person Drift.” She pressed something, then passed the pad to Kankri. “As we are not psionic, there should not be a psyche rejection issue, but we have taken great care to make the closest compatibility matches for each of the available pilots. Unfortunately, we cannot be certain that our modified Pons will function correctly without a test, and given how strongly adverse your species' reaction to a mismatched Drift can be, we preferred not to sacrifice vital elements of our ultimate strategy."

“It appears that I am considered compatible with you,” said Kankri, looking over the pad that Rose had passed him.

“Are you surprised?” asked Rose. Kankri shrugged.

“I... suppose not?” He sounded more confused than confident.

Karkat peered over Kankri's shoulder and found his name on the screen just under his hatchclone's. Then he spluttered. "I'm compatable with this nooksniffer?" he squeaked, pointing at Dave.

"Aww, come on bro, don't say you're leaving me at the altar now," said Dave. "Here's me all dolled up and blushing under my veil and you're just gonna leave me to the tender mercies of the best man? I'm gonna be a ruined woman, just you wait and fucking see."

Karkat snatched the pad from Kankri and threw it at him; Dave ducked. The device clattered harmlessly off the far wall. "You expect me to Drift with that!?"

"We are asking you to," said Rose. "You can, of course, say no. If you did then we would protect your right to make that decision."

Karkat frowned. "So what happens if I don't?"

"We just said, nothing, silly!" said Roxy, wiggling her fingers at him.

"Not to me, to your strategy!" snapped Karkat. "What fucking difference does me doing this make?"

Silently, Dirk picked up the workpad and brought it back over to him. “Hard to say,” he said. “Too many variables to pin down. But if the manoeuvre we're testing can't be done by the right people at the right time, there's nothing we can do to save this planet and we move to plan B. Mass evacuation. Eighty-three percent probability that the Mother Grub doesn't transplant successfully and your species takes a long, lingering saunter the way of the dodo.”

“The Condesce would never accept that,” said Kankri, as Karkat silently took the pad. “Even if the Mother Grub could be reclaimed successfully, it would require too many fleet resources to evacuate the entire population, and it would be unacceptable to allow further alien interlopers.” He flushed slightly. “Not that, ah, these views are representative of my own opinions on the matter. It is simply that Imperial policy is clear.”

“We quite understand,” said Rose. “Which is why we want to run this test. It greatly increases the chances that we will avoid an interplanetary war or genocide. If you are willing to assist us, then all you need do is sign your names on the base of the document.”

Karkat stared back down at the pad. "Informed consent? That's all you need?"

"Signed here," said Rose, leaning over and scrolling the pad down to the bottom. Karkat growled under his breath and grabbed the stylus.

“I am going to have to object,” said Kankri. “You are placing us under undue pressure to accede to your demands and the appearance of consent in this case cannot be assumed as de facto agreement to and consensus with your intentions-”

“Shut up,” said Karkat. Then, to Rose: “Is this going to make my thinkpan explode, or dribble out of my ears? Am I going to end up as Mituna mark two?”

“I cannot honestly make any absolute guarantees,” said Rose, no hint of an expression on her face. “However, I am confident that this will not be the case. I have personally entered into the Drift with far stranger and more hostile minds than those you possess; negative consequences occurred rarely, and have not to date had serious lasting effects.”

Karkat scowled. “I don’t want to know, do I?”

“Nope,” said Dave, popping the “p”. He tapped his forehead. “But if we go skinny-dipping in each others’ memories you might just catch it anyway.” His lip twitched. “Come join the PPDC today; giant robots and alien mindfuckery for our brave boys and girls!”

Karkat rolled his eyes. “I’ll do it,” he said. “Anything to shut him the fuck up.”

“You do realise that his mouth only works at forty-two percent the speed of his brain, right?” asked Dirk. Dave made a gesture at him without looking; Karkat had seen it often enough to be certain that it was the human equivalent of flipping someone off.

“If you are certain,” said Rose.

“You don’t have to do this,” said Kankri.

“Neither do you,” said Karkat. He scanned the document- it said pretty much what they had already covered about consent and what they were planning to do, only in more complicated words- then scrawled his sigil at the bottom and printed his name next to it as neatly as he could with shaking fingers. Kankri almost dropped the workpad when it was shoved at him, but after a slower and more careful perusal added his signature under Karkat’s. He drew their sigil more carefully. It certainly looked less like a random scribble when he was done.

"Right, let's do this before I change my fucking mind," he said, and started towards the nearest chair.

A slender arm stopped him. “Nuh-uh,” said Roxy. “Other chair for you, Karkie!” She looked ridiculously pleased with herself. Karkat would have been creeped out except she always looked that way.

Actually, no, scratch that, it was creepier.

“Don’t call me that,” said Karkat, letting her guide him over to the other, seemingly identical, chair. “It’s humiliating. I will literally keel over of embarrassment and the waves of shame emanating from my rotting corpse will corrupt this entire world. You will all become useless weeping crotchgazers from the strength of my posthumous mortification.”

“Yeah, but is toteds suiting you,” said Roxy, winking at him as she leaned over to strap him in. Karkat tried to look anywhere but at the large pair of alien rumble spheres that were nearly pressing into his face. “Bcos you are way cute.”

“I am not cute! I am a Jaeger pilot and a soldier of the Empire!”

“Waaaaaay cute,” Roxy repeated with a giggle. One of her fingers reached out and bopped Karkat on the nose. He snapped at it, but she pulled it back out the way before teeth could close around it and instead pulled down the head-piece, which to Karkat looked more like an unfinished wire skullcap than a Pons Helm.

“If you are quite finished tormenting our experimental subject?” said Rose, sharply. Roxy snorted and stuck her tongue out, but stepped back. Behind her, Karkat could see John and Jake giving him identical thumbs-up. Jade was grinning at him, but Jane was chewing on her lip. She looked nervous, although really, who could tell with aliens?

“Ready, dude?” asked Dave. His headgear was just as ridiculous as Karkat’s, but he sat back in his chair like he was lounging about his own hive. Karkat tried not to cling to the arms of the chair quite so tight, took a deep breath, and braced for the storm.

“Yeah,” he said. He hoped that nobody but himself heard the waver in his voice.

“Engaging Pons system,” said Rose, and flipped a toggle.

He had been expecting a maelstrom; what he got felt more like slipping into a warm ablution tub. The Drift rose around him and enveloped him, the tugging currents gentle and easily resisted. The flickers of memory and feeling were chaotic but the vicious undertow was absent, the howling, shredding winds nowhere. Karkat drifted down and down and down until he stopped, and was amazed to discover that he was still himself.

“It’s not that amazing.”

It wasn’t that Dave was suddenly there so much as that Karkat suddenly saw that he had been there all along, that the warm pull that had brought him here had been and had gradually become more and more Dave without him even noticing.

“I suppose it might be for you, weird alien Drifting shit and all…”

Images flashed past, hundreds of species, thousands of faces, countless worlds between here and blue-green-white-HOME Earth. Unfamiliar feelings fought for space in his bloodpusher; distant homesickness, stronger pride, the need to hide weakness and the need to connect with others. For the briefest moment he saw himself from the outside, small and fierce and abrasive, and a flicker of a Drift with a mind that was so sharp it was almost fractured, while an eerie voice spoke in tandem from too deep down the rabbit hole.

“…but this is how us normal species do it, just hanging out, keeping our shit cool like Frosty the fuckin’ snowman and not jumping straight to third base on a first date.”

More memories, flickers of image and smell and feeling that told Karkat about a pretend man made of ice and snow in a season of inner warmth, the feeling of smooth flesh- not just peach and brown- under his hands and pressed against his body, chaste kisses on the step of a home. Not too much, any of it, just enough to contextualise and explain the concepts. The strangest thing of all was how normal it all felt. The alien hardly felt alien at all.

And then in the flicker of memories he saw Terezi's smile, and with a jolt realised that the feelings of warmth and longing warming his thorax (his chest) weren't his own.

“Yeah, sorry about that,” said Dave, and even though he didn't really sound sorry at all Karkat could feel that he was, if for Terezi's sake more than Karkat's own. “We haven't done anything. Shit, I don't even know if she likes me that way.”

More memories flickered, Karkat's own memories of Terezi, heated kisses and hands hungry for skin, and he fought the urge to grab them back because he knew that would make a train wreck of the Drift. Then another coil of memories spread through them, milk-pale skin against deep warm brown, green eyes laughing and the hurt that could only come from fucking up, from fucking up so badly that you knew there was no way back, and a feeling of warm affection and heated desire that Karkat felt his own memories matching.

“Do not even start comparing this to your pathetic human mating rituals,” he growled, and he could feel the concept of quadrants forming in Dave’s head, flickers of his favourite movies, echoes of old loneliness because hey, mutant, guess what happens if you ever fill a pail…

He slammed down on the chain of memory, trying to snatch it back where he hadn't before, and the entire world dimmed.

“Karkat,” said another voice. Rose, it was Rose. Karkat opened his eyes and saw that no-one had moved since he last looked. How long had it been?

“You’re fighting the Drift,” said Rose, calmly. “I need you to trust Dave.”

“Yeah, dude, it hurts that you won’t let me see your collection of chick flicks,” said Dave, and although Karkat growled at him he didn’t miss the underlying meaning- not even a thought, it wasn’t clear or formed enough for that, so hazy that he wasn’t convinced Dave completely grasped it himself.

The human wouldn’t use anything he learned to hurt Karkat, because he understood. He had secrets too, parts of himself that he didn’t want put on show.

Karkat relaxed, and the Drift stabilised. A few more strings of mutant memories drifted past, but Dave didn’t chase them down. Karkat felt the echo of his emotions, though; empathy, guilt and anger- a flash of memory, a lecture on cultural differences, on alien social mores. Dave wanted to help him, all the humans did, but none of them would assume he wanted their help.

Want. Can’t ask, felt Karkat, and Dave Understood.

What’s it like? the human asked, and Karkat didn’t have to ask what he meant or even give a clear answer. The memories of his time spent in the Drift with Kankri surfaced, and this time it was Dave who made the Drift wobble by pulling away.

“Dave,” cautioned Rose’s voice. “Karkat is going to protect you.”

“Easy for you to say,” muttered Dave. “You aren’t seeing this fucked up mental hellscape…”

He started to mumble swear words, but stopped pushing back. Karkat reigned in some of the more intense parts of the memories but let Dave touch the maelstrom.

“That is freaky,” said Dave, and Karkat felt the wonder and the fear under his words, the respect for courage and even a slight touch of envy for the closeness. “How do you even get in a Jaeger when you know that’s going to happen, holy shit, I would piss my pants.”

“Damn fucking right you would,” said Karkat, but his real meaning- pride, begrudging thanks for the praise- escaped him. “I don’t know how you can pilot the way you Drift, it’s crazy, you’re two separate people. Your Jaegers should fall on their asses and roll around like upturned shellbeasts.”

“Yeah, that’s what basic looks like,” said Dave. “Roly-poly Jaegers all over the fucking place, it’s daycare for giant mechs. They’re installing the hundred-foot high playpens next month.”

If he’d said it outside the Drift, Karkat would have dismissed it as total bullshit, but here the words were underscored with a second message, one as plain as the memories of Dave's first time in a Jaeger, of the alien corridors and unknown skies of the worlds where he had been taught.

“I hope you’re not a typical example of your species,” he said, knowing full well that Dave would understand what he meant as clearly as what he was saying. “Because if you are, I do not understand how your people managed to make it into space with such a clearly limited intellect. In fact, it’s downright suspicious how you ever managed to stop fondling yourselves long enough to discover fire.”

The mutual exchange of definitions for “fondling yourselves” was something Karkat could probably have done without, but both he and Dave let it pass naturally. At least it counted as a xenobiology lesson, he supposed.

“Thanks for the xenobiology lesson there, dude,” said Dave, and Karkat wondered which one of them had originally thought it.

“It would appear that this neural handshake is holding stable,” said Rose. “I believe we can move to phase two.” She stepped back from the control console and Dirk slid into her place, resting his fingers on the edge. “Kankri, if you come with Roxy and I, we shall get ourselves set up.”

“You sure you’re ready for this?” Karkat asked Dave, inside the mindscape. The memory of his previous Drifts hovered, a warning for the human.

Dave shrugged it off. “You sure you are?” he asked. Karkat caught flashes of Rose- no, not Rose, something else in a Rose skin, looking out through deadened eyes. Fear, concern, impressions of kaiju and the moment of pure relief when her eyes had opened and it was her again.

Karkat latched onto the most important part of the story. “She Drifted with a kaiju? What the actual fuck, who is that crazy?”

“It was her job,” said Dave, and behind it dangerous, necessary, can’t trust them, have to, the only way to know. “You’re not supposed to go in alone, but the Precursors had just come up with a shiny new defence and Roxy got knocked out of the Drift.” He shrugged. “New protocol is to never go in with less than three. It’s not gone wrong yet.”

Karkat considered this, tried to imagine what it would be like inside the mind of a kaiju and failed. “What’s it like?”

“Ask her when she gets here,” said Dave. Except don’t, his thoughts added. Don’t, don’t, don’t…

“You two holding up alright there?” asked Dirk. Karkat opened his eyes again, and the human nodded to him from behind the console. “Don’t want to have to go in and drag you out,” he added. “Karkat, you’d better be treating my bro proper in there. I ain’t averse to a shotgun wedding to make an honest bride outta him.”

Dave, whose mind had been supplying just enough understanding for Karkat to follow, craned his head up slightly. “Dude, we’re fine. Or at least we will be until the Bride of Gothula gets in here with the other half of the mind-meld duo.”

The blend of amusement and irritation pouring off him was fascinating; Karkat stared, trying to fix the taste of it in his memory. The shape of Dirk in Dave’s thoughts was the same fracturing, sharp-edged one he had caught sight of earlier, but now he could tell how much of that came from the Drift. Around it were other impressions, older ones and less intimate ones, that clung to the other human. He was a mentor, and a rival; a true friend and a bitter enemy. Dave would trust Dirk with his life but never, never with his cameras.

It felt similar to Karkat’s thoughts on Kankri, in a way.

“DIRK!” yelled Roxy’s voice, from within the chamber that Karkat remembered from his first abortive Drift attempt. “WE’RE READY IN HERE!”

Dirk nodded and pressed some switches. “Ready here, too,” he said. “Anyone wants to back out, now is the time to make like a chicken and cluck.”

“Bite me,” said Karkat-and-Dave, together.

“Yeah, I thought so,” said Dirk, and pressed another switch.

The hurricane was familiar and when it hit Karkat was already holding onto Dave, steadying him as the ground beneath them broke away and they were tossed into the wild winds. Fear pressed down on him and he returned it with steady resignation and reassurance, showing the other being how to feed more and more of himself into the raging tempest until they were falling through and out into the eye.

Outlaw opened their eyes with two aliens hovering on the periphery of their thoughts, the humans unable to take the final step into the blend.

“Is this working?” they asked.

“Yes,” said the other two, mingled fascination and horror. Rose was thinking that it wasn’t too dissimilar from Drifting with a kaiju, apart from the strength of the human bridge. Outlaw wasn’t sure what to feel about the comparison. They didn’t like it, certainly, but they could see that the perception was not inaccurate.

“I think we have achieved proof of concept,” said Rose, and then the Drift pulled apart, the storm breaking and the waters receding until Karkat rose, choking and thrashing, back into his own body.

“Shit!” Beside him, Dave jumped out of his chair like it was scalding, throwing his Pons skullcap down where he had been sat. “Fuck, fuck, fuck me!”

“My line,” said Karkat, tugging off his own connection and running his claws through his hair until he felt like the last traces of gestalt had been scraped off his skin. “Eurgh. Please for the love of fuck tell me that we just accomplished something worthwhile, because otherwise I might have to go and drink cleansing fluid just to get the aftertaste of alien out.” He glared at Jade, who was already beside him. “You still owe me a lollipop, fuckass.”

“I'll get you one,” she promised, her eyes glittering green and- oh. Oh. New memories from Dave rose up, Karkat seeing himself from the outside, and he suddenly knew that he wasn't the only one trying to deal with jealousy, that Terezi wasn't the only one who lit up when an alien walked into the room.

“You did great!” John was saying. “It'll work, right, Rose?”

“I would certainly say there is a good chance,” said the other human, walking back in wearing a broad smile. Behind her, Kankri staggered along resting on Roxy’s shoulder. “In fact, I should go so far as to say that the data we just gathered will enable us to save your entire species from extinction.” She held out a hand to Karkat and he took it, letting her help him out of the chair.

“Yes!” Jade laughed, spinning gleefully. Her hair whipped around and her smile took them all in. “We can do it! We can close the Rift!”

Chapter Text

It was late.

Karkat's chin rested on the edge of his 'coon, eyes shining with the reflected glow of the temporal measurement display. The base was quiet in the daytime, but he knew that in the mess hall Kanaya would be waiting up, probably with Gamzee and whatever other unlucky asshole had found sleep impossible today. Part of him wanted to be there with them, although he wasn't sure which of his fellow pilots was tugging hardest at the sharp edges of his blood-pusher. Instead, his eyes flickered over to the other recuperacoon. Kankri was in there, he knew it, but you couldn't tell without actually going up and looking over the lip. Karkat's leg twitched in another abortive attempt to make himself grow some shame globes and just get over there already. Or maybe he needed to lose his shame globes for this. Fuck, he didn't even know any more, just that whatever the vast smothering gulf was between him and Kankri, it had reached the point where he had to either put it to rest or let it swallow him whole.

You could try talking to him. Rose's words, spoken days before, were still echoing in his ears. Karkat huffed, blowing a sticky bubble in the slime. Like it was that simple. Oh, he could talk, but actually saying something that held any meaning in relation to what was going on his own thinkpan, without flipping his shit and ruining everything- Past Karkat had never been able to do that, and he didn't really trust Future Karkat to manage any better.

He needed to talk to someone, though, and in the complete absence of a moirail there was only one person he had to turn to. He hauled himself out of the recuperacoon before he could have second- or hundredth- thoughts, shivering when his slime-covered skin hit air and riding the wave of stubborn refusal to quit all the way across the room in a trail of viscous footprints. It didn't take him long to towel off the leftover sopor and pull on some clothes; he dumped the used absorbent drying fabric in a heap by the door before setting off into the base.

His boots clacked against the metal floors, the sound seeming to echo further during the day. Cold air brushed against him and he shivered, walking more carefully through the corridors until he reached the respite block the Pyropes shared. Karkat was about to knock on the door when it slid open; he stood frozen, hand hanging in the air, as he found himself face-to-face with a half-dressed human.

“Hey, dude,” said Dirk Strider, and Karkat’s semi-hysterical thoughts took the time to note that even when he was wearing nothing but a tank top and short-legged undergarments the alien still had those ludicrous fucking shades attached to his face like a parasite. “I was just leaving.”

Karkat stared at him as he brushed past, strolling off down the corridor like he wasn’t the next best thing to naked. He came to his senses when Dirk turned the corner, and turned back to see Terezi standing in the door. She wasn’t dressed any more than the human had been; mostly she was wearing an oversized shirt which tumbled off her shoulder and showed a tantalising stretch of neck and shoulderbone. Karkat’s nutrition sac churned.

“Karkat…” she began.

“What the fuck?” he hissed, rage making his voice rough and raw. Prickles ran through his blood-pusher to match the ones stinging at his eyes, and the world took on a wobbly black-tinted haze. “Is that what you call just being friends!?” His hands slammed into either side of the doorframe, and he glared into Terezi’s shades. “I just… I thought… holy fucking kaiju-spawn on a hopping device, I trusted you! Even when you started hanging around them and everyone was telling me to watch my goddamn back, I fucking trusted you, and you were laughing at me this whole time?” One of his hands slammed uselessly into the door frame and he growled to cover a sob. “You- you come after me and ask for my blood-pusher on a silver platter and when I actually give it to you you claw your way into my thoracic cavity and just tear it the fuck out and leave me with this, this huge crushing hole where it ought to be, you treacherous backstabbing bitch!”

Terezi stared at him impassively, and he nearly choked. “Well? Fucking say something!”

Her head tilted and the hall lights glinted off her scarlet shades. “We were on a pile,” she said flatly.

All of Karkat’s anger drained away instantly, replaced by a cold, hollow feeling. “…Oh,” he said. His voice sounded distant to his own ears.

“In fact,” said Terezi, her tone still deadly calm. “Even if I was interested in him as a potential matesprit, he wouldn't reciprocate. If you had made enquiries with any of the humans they would have been able to inform you that Dirk is only interested in males for concupiscent purposes- it was a particularly challenging endeavour to explain the nature of pale relationships to him. But then, I should hardly be surprised that it is easier for you to suspect me of misdemeanour than to actually consider that maybe I can have other important people in my life.”

Karkat winced. “Terezi, I’m sorry, okay? Past Me is an idiot and an asshole and jumped to conclusions…”

“And Future You will do the same,” said Terezi, bluntly. “Karkat, I can’t keep watching you fight yourself over this. Over me.” She reached out and rested one hand against his cheek; Karkat did nothing to stop it but instead froze in place, swallowing to keep his tears from falling. “I pity you,” she said, and her voice was heavy with emotion. “You are brave and adorabloodthirsty and you care so much…”

“I pity you too,” said Karkat. “Fuck, Terezi, you’re insane and beautiful and-”

“And you don’t want anyone else near me,” said Terezi. Feeling him recoil slightly, her fingers tightened, pressing against his cheek. “I know,” she said softly. “I may be blind, but I saw enough. And I kept thinking that it would be okay, that you’d work it out in the end and settle into a quadrant. Maybe not the one I wanted, although I hoped... but you just screamed at me because you saw my moirail leaving.”

“I’m not going to fucking do it again! I know who he is!” Karkat growled.

“Really? What about my kismesis?” Terezi demanded. “Or my friends? How are we supposed to have a relationship if you don't know what you want?”

Karkat’s mouth fell open. “But I- that isn’t-”

“Goodbye, Karkat,” said Terezi, leaning forwards and pressing a kiss to his cheek. It had all the finality of a tomb door slamming, and he was stunned long enough for her to pull back and close her door.

The sound of it clicking to was enough to bring him back to himself. “Terezi, no, wait!” he screamed, kicking it. His foot connected with a dull thud that achieved fuck all and he cursed, hopping back before charging in to hammer on the door with his fists.

“Terezi, I’m sorry!” he yelled, not caring that everyone on the corridor could probably hear him- open doors or not. “Terezi! Open this fucking door and talk to me!”

The door remained resolutely closed and eventually Karkat’s energy ran out. Fists sore and blood-pusher aching he sank down onto his knees and buried his face in his hands, and let his heart break.

At first he had every intention of never moving again, but then it occurred to him that sitting outside his matesprit- his former matesprit's door for the rest of his mediocre life was utterly pathetic so he hauled himself to his feet and trailed back to his room. His thoughts circled like carrion birds; in trying not to think about Terezi, she was all he could contemplate, each iteration growing darker and more bitter. It wasn't until he stepped back through the door of his own respite block that he remembered what he had originally gone to talk to her about, and froze in place.

What was he going to say? Karkat contemplated just crawling back into his 'coon and forgetting the whole thing, and immediately rejected the idea. Fuck that. One utter, abject failure in a night was enough; if he was going to fuck up, he was going to do it head-on. He was a Jaeger pilot, a warrior and an Alternian, and he was not going to be faced down or defeated by mere words. He was a Vantas, for fuck's sake, and if there was one thing that he and Kankri had in common other than impenetrable stubbornness and the ability to be a complete and utter asshole in even the most delicate of situations, it was words.

Kankri's 'coon was identical to his and he shed his clothes again before he pulled himself up, looking down into a pool of translucent green. His hatchclone was curled up in the slime, hair drifting slowly with the small currents of the pod, and for a moment Karkat almost bolted back the way he'd come. Instead, he took a deep breath, and reached out to pat gently at the surface of the slime.

Kankri's eyes flew open. Karkat only just managed to pull his hand back in the nick of time as Kankri lashed out, shooting out of the slime with a snarl. His head snapped around, eyes almost glowing red, and Karkat quickly ducked down into the most ingratiating posture of submission he could manage while clinging to the side of a recuperacoon. As he had expected, it only took a few seconds for Kankri's face to slump out of the snarl of sleep rage, his eyes fading back to their usual peaceful gold.

“Karkat?” asked Kankri, words slurring a little with sleep. “I apologise if I have injured you in any way-”

“Shut the fuck up and listen,” said Karkat, pulling himself back up and settling into a cold but not entirely uncomfortable perch on the edge of Kankri's 'coon. “I didn't risk losing my real Rift-bitten arm waking you up just to hear a litany of self-effacing bullshit on how you should be immune to being a troll or some shit like that. We've got something important to discuss.”

Pushing a slime-gobbed hank of hair out of his face, Kankri kicked off the wall of the recuperacoon until he was sitting opposite Karkat, as much space between them as he could make. “I see. Despite the inconvenient timing, and the fact that you risked both your well-being and my vows in the process, I am glad to hear that you are willing to open a dialogue with me at long last. Perhaps we could begin with an in-depth recounting and analysis of our individual experiences and the commonalities that our shared ahemocromatism-”

“Do you want to pap me?”

Kankri made a strangled noise, and even in the crappy, blue-tinted light of the temporal measurement display Karkat could see him turning red from the shoulders up.

Swallowing the ball of nerves that had suddenly re-manifested in his throat, Karkat continued, the words tumbling over one another, fighting to be heard before he cluck-birded out. “I mean, I've been thinking about it, and it makes sense. If we're supposed to trust each other, I mean really fucking trust each other, not just this weird alien falling-over-backwards bullshit, then that means quadrants, right? Almost certainly red ones, because even if we might work well black that is not the quadrant for unconditional fucking reliance on one another, and it sounds like feelings jams might be involved, and honestly the thought of having your bulge inside me or putting mine in you makes me want to choke up my own guts in sheer disgust and use them to hang myself from the roof of the communal nutrition hall, even if you didn't have some sort of religious bullshit vow preventing you from fucking anyone.”

He drew to a juddering halt, shivered, and took a deep breath to try and stop the pricking sensation in his ganderbulbs. Kankri was staring at him with an open-mouthed look that was somewhere between mortification and horror. “Karkat, that's not really a fair question-”

“Why not?” Karkat demanded. His hands slammed down on the sides of the 'coon and he leaned forwards, pushing his face closer to Kankri's. “We've been in each other's heads,” he said, and fuck it all to the bottom of the ocean and out the other side, even whispering wasn't enough to stop his voice cracking on that one. “We've literally been the same fucking person and we're planning to do it again and I can't... how can I go to someone else? What am I supposed to say on the pile? Oh, don't mind that there's someone who knows me better than you, who will always fucking know me better than you, who I have to trust more than I physically can trust anyone else?” He shuddered again, and snarled a little as the first pair of tears rolled down his face and plopped into the slime. “If we're partners then let's be fucking partners, because I can't take this musclebeast shit every Drift and then just act like we're- like we're not anything, fuck, it's going to kill me from the inside out.”

There was another long pause, during which Karkat fought to get his rebellious ganderbulbs under control and cursed every tear that slipped out. He crouched back, using one slime-crusted hand to scrub viciously at his face while Kankri watched him with a look that was now adding a healthy dollop of regretful into the mix.

Karkat and Kankri in the Recuperacoon

Illustration by sarapsys

“Karkat,” he said, with a slow precision that was almost entirely at odds with the way he was still pressed up against the far side of the recuperacoon. “My vow covers conciliatory relationships as well as concupiscent ones.”

Everything went very still. Karkat stared down into Kankri's recuperacoon, very carefully not focusing on anything below the sparkles of light on the surface. “Right,” he said, blankly. “Of fucking course it does. Stupid of me. Just- just forget I said anything, okay? Past Me is a complete crackpanned moron, seriously, it's one of Gamzee's motherfucking miracles that I made it this far...”

He pushed back, ready to pull away and drop off the 'coon, when a hand wrapped around his arm.

“Wait,” said Kankri, and his voice sounded almost as hollow and unstable as Karkat felt. Karkat waited. A gentle tug on his arm drew him in- not pulling him, not dragging him, but leading him closer, letting him know he was welcome as he slipped off the lip of the 'coon and into the slime. It was designed for one troll, not two, and even if they were smaller than average it was still a tight fit. Karkat shivered from something other than the cold and leaned into Kankri, welcomed by another arm that slid across his shoulders and pulled his head closer. His knees settled down on either side of Kankri's legs, which made it an infinite number of times more awkward to be touching him skin-to-skin. The hand around his arm shifted, ran up to his shoulder, and met Kankri's other hand behind his neck. Karkat leaned forward until their foreheads were touching, and closed his eyes so he didn't have to see Kankri looking at him with his strange, earnest eyes.

“Is this okay?” asked Kankri in a whisper, his fingers running up the back of Karkat's scalp and into his hair. Karkat nodded and bit his lip, because it was okay. Not great, and maybe about half a thought away from freaking the fuck out, but as long as he didn't actually dwell on that it was okay.

It's just nerves, he told himself. You'll get over it.

Kankri's fingers scratched up his scalp, moving closer to his horns, and Karkat belatedly realised that he should probably do more than just sit there like a useless lump of decaying flesh leeching off Kankri's goodwill. He shifted just enough to slide an arm up between them and rested his palm on Kankri's cheek; there was a small gasp from in front of him and the fingers on his head stilled. Eyes still closed tight, Karkat shifted his thumb, running it across a smooth, slime-slick cheekbone.

Kankri thrashed, and Karkat's eyes flew open as the hands vanished from his head and pushed against his upper thorax. He fell back, ready to fire a curse that died on his lips when he saw Kankri huddled away from him, knees tucked up against his chest and face half-hidden by his hands.

“Fuck,” said Karkat, and then because it didn't seem sufficient. “Fuck. Kankri, are you- no, of course you're not fucking okay. What's wrong? What did I do? Oh, nuclear-powered shitmonkeys, don't tell me I fucking triggered you. That would be too stupid; it would be such a concentrated mass of stupid that it would actually implode into a terrible singularity of ignorance and general folly, and I can't deal with that right now...”

“Karkat.” Kankri's hands lowered to his knees, revealing a tear-stained and slime-smudged but otherwise mostly calm face. Only mostly calm, though, because Kankri's lip wasn't curled into his usual insufferable sneer of self-righteous moral superiority, and he was chewing on it with one fang. “I'm afraid that while I would like to respect your right to self-expression, I will have to stop you there. This is not your fault, and it is not because you did anything wrong.” Kankri shook his head and stared down at his knees. “I am the one who should apologise. I thought that if it was something you really needed- and you did make some good points, about trust and what the Drift means between us, and honestly I will admit to having some concerns myself about how to structure a reliable bond between the two of us- but I couldn't. I thought I could, but I couldn't.”

“Because of your vow?”

“Because I don't pity you.” Kankri looked up, head tilted slightly to the side as he examined Karkat's face. “Karkat, my vow does not reflect any nervousness about or lack of desire for romantic and sexual relations on my part. It is a strictly moral choice, and one that I felt was overridden by my new-found responsibility to try and ensure your well being.” His mouth twisted into a smile that showcased nothing but sadness. “It seems, however, that even that was insufficient to allow me to overcome the basic obstacle, to whit that I do not find you at all attractive in any quadrant.”

Karkat let out a breath that he hadn't even realised he was holding. “Oh, thank fuck.”

Kankri raised an eyebrow at him, and Karkat sighed, huddling over his own knees to make more room in the slime. “If that humiliating display of ineptitude just now managed to drill any iota of schoolfeeding into my thick skull, it's that I was bullshitting myself. A moirallegiance with you makes sense, it makes so much fucking sense, but I can't do it either.”

There was another pause, this one less fraught than the last. “Well, then,” said Kankri, after what seemed to be some deep thought. “I suppose it is a good thing that we didn't foolishly rush into an irreversible and binding commitment to one another. That would have been deeply inconvenient.”

Karkat stared at him blankly, and then they both started to laugh in quiet, muted snorts that they tried and failed to stifle with their hands.

“This does still leave the question of what we are going to do about our situation,” said Kankri, after they had both managed to wrangle their slightly hysterical amusement down to the occasional snickering hiccup. “Whilst I intend to maintain my vows, and thus have the privilege of not having to negotiate with a partner or indeed partners in an outside relationship, you still make a valid point about the degree of trust required for the Drift if we are to avert a disastrous accumulation of psychological damage, and the difficulty of maintaining such a bond outside of a traditional social framework which we both understand how to navigate.”

“Do you actually listen to yourself?” asked Karkat, squinting at him across the recuperacoon. “I mean, I can't tell if you're being a flaming douchebag by accident, or whether you're actually just making up fakeass words in a juvenile attempt to make me give up.”

“I can assure you, all of my language is perfectly coherent and recognised Alternian. It also happens to be chosen for its inclusiveness and to avoid the potential for offence to groups who are traditionally marginalised not only by society at large but within the language itself, as a form of aggression that specifically reinforces their status as-”

Karkat snarled and slapped at the sopor. “See, this is what I'm fucking talking about! Who the shitting hell is supposed to understand that? It's worse than trying to talk to Gamzee; he might talk nothing but incomprehensible clowntard but at least he changes inflection once in a while. With you it's like I've been hauled into the universe's dullest school-feed at a level about three standard grades over my last education assessment!”

“Well, if we're discussing language, I don't understand why everything you say has to be obscene in some way!” Kankri retorted, hauling himself up the side of the 'coon until he was sitting straight. “You present yourself in an extremely hostile and aggressive fashion almost constantly, and you seem to actively take glee from belittling others!”

“And you don't?”

“No!”

“You could have fucking fooled me!” Karkat raised a hand and started to check off fingers. “You're always antagonising the guards with your lectures, you tell people off in the most condescending way imaginable if they do something you don't approve of, you throw a shit-fit if someone interrupts you but you never fucking shut up otherwise, and you don't give a rocketing shitwheel whether you're being useful or helpful just so long as you can be right! So the fuck what if I swear and shout at people for being empty-panned dipshits? At least I know I'm a rage-spewing asshole ascending the highest echelons of intolerable douchefuckery!”

“That is not-” Kankri broke off, took a deep breath, and shook his head. “No. You have a point. Sometimes it is hard to remember that other people do not have the same level of awareness that I do, and it can become frustrating for me to be constantly surrounded by people who seem to be both wilfully ignorant of so many important things, and completely unwilling to allow me to educate them. I am afraid that I am not the communicator our ancestor was.”

Karkat ran a claw along the surface of the slime, drawing patterns that sank into the sopor. “You know I know about him?”

“Porrim informed me that she and Aranea had briefed you.”

“Ah.” Karkat watched another pattern fade. “I thought you didn't like the Suffering Signsquitter or whatever he was called.”

“It's a little more complex than that,” said Kankri, watching the patterns that Karkat drew. “It is a shame that we were not able to smuggle any copies of his Disciple's testament into this place. I am certain you would benefit from reading it.”

“Why?” asked Karkat, stopping his doodles to stare at Kankri. The other troll shifted, and rested his chin on his knees, staring over them at his feet.

“Our ancestor was without a doubt a visionary individual,” said Kankri, slowly. “His philosophies and his teachings are extraordinary, and I am filled with respect for the inspiration he provided. But as to how he conducted his own life and affairs...” Kankri pulled a face, scrunching his nose up. “The Signless Sufferer failed to live up to his own ideals, and failed even more dismally to regulate such undesirable behaviour in his followers, with the result that those who followed him are invested more in their doctrine and their rituals than in his actual teachings.”

Karkat snorted. “Doesn't sound like that stellar a communicator to me.”

“Perhaps not,” Kankri agreed. He trailed his own fingers in the sludge, then added: “You know, according to the accounts, his relationship with his Disciple transcended all four quadrants.”

“What the kaiju-fucking gloryshit does that mean?”

Kankri shrugged. “I can't say I'm entirely clear on the matter, either. Most of the elder scholars believed it meant they occupied all four quadrants together, at once.”

“Urgh,” said Karkat. “I'd say something about how it was nice of Porrim to mention that my ancestor was a perverted deviant, but I literally can't get my head around that. Like, logistically. I mean, you'd need another person for the auspice...”

“That's the main reason I took the celibacy vows, to avoid any chance of getting into a similar tangle and allowing people to draw even greater parallels from me to him,” said Kankri. “Although it did have the side benefit of discouraging a small horde of followers with aspirations to be my Disciple.”

Karkat gagged. “I take it back, that's even more gross.” He wrapped his hands back around his knees. The memories of his conversation with Terezi resurfaced, still fresh and bleeding, and he covered his face with one sopor-drenched hand. “Shit.”

“Karkat?” Kankri sounded hesitant. Karkat couldn't blame him. The word had come out shakier than even he had expected it to.

“Much as I can't believe I'm saying this, you might have had the right idea,” he said. He pulled the hand away and realised too late that not all of the dampness on his face was sopor slime. He remembered his own flashes of black hatred, the way he had just tottered off in her direction when he needed a moirail. He was still jealous of Dirk, even now, and that made no fucking sense except...

“I fucked things up with Terezi,” he said, and suddenly it was almost funny. He snorted. “Maybe it's a good thing you aren't interested in me, since I'm apparently a perverted deviant too.”

Kankri was silent for what felt like a full minute at least. Karkat's smile faded and he wiped away silent tears again.

“Karkat,” said his hatchclone, after a while. “Not that I think this is helpful, precisely, but from what I remember from the Drift, I think... I think I feel things the same way you do.”

“So we're both fucked,” said Karkat. “Great. Fucker had to go and pass that on through the genetic slurry, didn't he?”

“You could take a vow of celibacy,” Kankri suggested. Karkat glowered and splashed sopor at him in the absence of anything to throw. Kankri wiped it out of his eye with a pout of distaste.

“At any rate,” he said, clearing his throat. “Disregarding our Ancestor's romantic proclivities for the moment and instead contemplating our relationship, I do have one thought that may be of some assistance. How much attention have you been paying to the humans?”

Karkat shrugged. “I don't know. As much as anyone, I suppose. They're there. They do things. Those things usually make at least some sense, once you get your head around their crazy alien shit.”

Kankri nodded. “Well, I've been observing them, and I had a particularly interesting and, dare I say, enlightening conversation with Rose that I now think may prove helpful to our situation. You see, I had noted that while most of the human pairs appeared almost similar enough to be hatchclones, there were a number of differences between them that ruled out that theory. I also noted that the interactions between those pairs carried a curiously antagonistic or competitive bent which, while being far from intense enough to be described as caliginous, was seemingly at odds with the levels of trust they professed to hold for one another-”

“Okay, remember what I said about sounding like a fucking schoolfeed? Because if there's a shorter version of this, I will literally kiss your feet for the opportunity to hear it. I will utterly debase myself by making out with your hideous slimy toes if you will just for the love of the fucking Condesce make this take less of my tragically vanishing time.”

“That should not be necessary,” said Kankri, with a hint of his familiar cool archness. “Although I feel compelled to point out that your toes are both genetically identical to mine, and have spent considerably more time in environments that could lead to bacterial or fungal growth-”

“Kankri!”

“Yes, yes. Ahem.” Kankri resettled himself in the 'coon, his knees untucking from under his chin. Karkat, still feeling like he was sat on an emotional see-saw, had to fight not to laugh out loud at the sight of his hatchclone, stark naked and dripping in sopor, settling himself like a blueblood holding court. “In short, then, it seems that their species' method of reproduction often results in multiple genetically similar individuals with the same ancestor, who commonly share not only a significant proportion of their genetic code but a lusus during their formative years. As this is entirely normative in their society their language reflects this with appropriate terminology; these quasi-hatchclones are known as siblings, or brothers if male and sisters if female.”

Karkat frowned. “And this has what to do with us, exactly?”

“Karkat, by human standards you and I qualify as siblings, as do any two hatchclones. Now, I know this is a revolutionary concept, but we find ourselves in a revolutionary situation and as we have just established, the normative relationship models of our society are insufficient to our predicament. I propose that rather than attempting to blindly construct something that we have no native aptitude for, we take the human model of brotherhood as the pattern for our relationship.”

“That's completely fucking obscene,” said Karkat, flatly.

“Do you have a better idea?”

Karkat chewed on his lower lip and studied the ceiling. If the metal beams overhead contained any clues as to how they might sidestep the issue, they weren't sharing it.

“Okay, fine,” he said eventually, looking back down at Kankri. “I guess if I was willing to debase myself for a shot at making this pale, I can hold it together long enough to at least try out these ridiculous alien shenanigans. How does this brother-rood thing work?”

“Ah, well.” Kankri fiddled with his claws. “I'm not entirely certain at present-”

“You what!?”

“-but from what I have ascertained so far, the essential assumption of the relationship is one of unbreakable allegiance, such as one might display to ones quadrants but without any option to end the association.”

Karkat scowled. “Well, that doesn't make sense. What if your brother or sibling or whatever is completely insufferable, or can't be trusted, or proves that they're a complete fucking liability to even know?”

“As I understand it- and I do intend to engage Rose in a considerably more detailed interview in the event that we engage with this mode of interaction- the only circumstances under which a sibling relationship may be terminated is if one of the parties utterly breaches the allegiance, endangering their brother or sister. And even then Rose indicated it is more usually considered dormant conditional on an act of genuine contrition and reformation of character, rather than abolished utterly.”

“What about other quadrants?” Karkat asked. Kankri shook his head.

“I did not ask, I am afraid. I can make enquiries next time I speak to her, but given that she indicated it is considered normal for siblings to live increasingly divergent lives as they age I would suspect that the nature of sibling allegiance is such that, while it is expected to be consistent, it is not expected to be the only or even the primary source of assistance over their lifespan.”

Karkat considered this. “So we pull each other's asses out of the fire, but we don't butt into anyone else's territory quadrant-wise?” Remembering the concupiscent platforms in Rose's office, he wrinkled his nose. “And we don't have to do anything that we're not- there's no obligations, beyond keeping the other person from turning into a thin smear of grubsauce, and not backing out?”

Kankri nodded. “I believe so.”

“I can live with that.” Karkat held his hands out to Kankri. “Brothers?”

Kankri's reached out, and his palms pressed against Karkat's. “Brothers,” he agreed. “Now, if it is not too much trouble for you, could you get out of my recuperacoon? This is an excessively awkward situation and I believe our immediate crisis is resolved, at least for the moment.”

“Fuck you, I was leaving anyway,” said Karkat, but there wasn't any bite to it. He hauled himself out of Kankri's recuperacoon and muttered curses as the air hit him and chilled the slime on his skin again. Not that he missed sleeping dry- sweet motherfucking grublickers, he would rather run bare-ass naked and bleeding through the Battleship Condescension than go back to sleeping dry- but he'd forgotten small things, like how much of a complete fucking pain it was to deal with slime on his skin and clothes.

He was halfway across the room when the klaxon went off. Karkat froze as the room flooded with bright lime light, pulsing in time with the shrieking wail of the siren that warned of an active Rift, then let out a single loud curse and stomped over to the garment storage unit.

Kankri's head popped up over the lip of his recuperacoon. “Should we be-”

He was cut off by the absorbent drying fabric that Karkat hurled at him; the thick cloth hit him in the face and almost landed in the sopor before Kankri caught it.

“Get that crud off and put some fucking clothes on,” said Karkat, already scrubbing at the crusting goop on his thorax. “We're the only trolls on this base with a fully-functional Jaeger and like hell are we sitting back and letting a bunch of aliens handle our shit for us.” And if he could just climb into the Drift and hurt something, maybe he wouldn't ache so much himself.

He turned away as Kankri climbed out, trying to scrub off the worst of the sopor. He wasn't going to get all of it, not without proper ablutions, but he didn't want his clothes to stick to him and he certainly didn't want to be the experimental subject for what sopor slime would do to the Drift. Once he'd managed to clear the worst of it from his body, face and horns, he grabbed his jumpsuit and shoved his legs into it roughly, not bothering with underlayers or doing it up all the way. It was only going to be changed for a Drivesuit anyway.

Kankri was still shoving his feet into his boots when Karkat started for the door, and he had to run to catch Karkat up in the corridor. “Karkat, are you certain this is advisable? Our new Jaeger hasn't been tested yet. Perhaps we should allow the humans to handle this event and join in after the full verification procedures have been run and we have had some time to become accustomed to our new brotherhood status.”

Karkat snorted, still setting a brutal pace towards the hangar. “The only thing that's going to change between now and then are the kaiju, and they're not getting any smaller. Scarlet Outlaw is ready, and if we're not then we've got the distance from here to the Conn Pod to fix our shit.” He turned his head, looking back over his shoulder at his hatchclone- his brother, he reminded himself. “Are you ready to trust me?”

For a moment Kankri's eyes widened, then his lips pressed into a narrow line and he gave a single, terse nod. Karkat nodded back, and the two of them hurried through corridors that were now boiling with people and lit with green.

The sound of the klaxon became much fainter once they stepped through the door to the hangar catwalk, the size of the room making it impossible for any speaker to blare at the same volume as the tight, enclosed hallways. Unlike the last time they had made the journey Karkat could easily distinguish the Jaegers that were being wheeled out, and his eyes fixed onto the black-and-red giant that was still tucked away in its alcove, dormant and stationary. He cursed and started to jog along the catwalk; they needed Outlaw prepped now.

Heads spun around in surprise as they burst through the door to the Drivesuit Room, and the part of Karkat that was viciously satisfied with the attention plastered a dark smirk across his face. Looking around and trying not to give in to the urge to goggle at the half-naked aliens all over the place, he caught sight of a familiar figure and pointed at the unfortunate form of Veteran Kharon.

“Get Scarlet Outlaw ready,” he snapped. “And tell Commander Wavescar that we're going out.”

He'd been expecting some argument, but the stunned silence was broken by Rose coughing gently and saying: “I believe the Pilot just gave you an order, Veteran Kharon. Conscript Juniss, why don't you see to the Jaeger while the Veteran talks to your CO?”

Everyone leapt into action, and as Karkat was dragged away he decided that anything that came next was worth it for the look of raw helpless hatred that Veteran Kharon gave him on the way past.

“Good luck, Veteran,” said Kankri as she stepped through the door, just loud enough for everyone in the room to hear. Karkat wished he could see her expression then, too.

By the time they'd been stripped down, cleaned off and wrested into their Drivesuits- it turned out that yeah, sopor and delicate biofeedback circuitry didn't mix, and also that having a sponge-bath in public was completely fucking humiliating and next time he was showering first if only to spare himself Kankri's bitching- Scarlet Outlaw had been moved into position and prepped for launch. Karkat looked down at the Jaeger and took in a deep breath; from this angle, he couldn't really make out the modifications Dirk and Jade had made, ordering about a small army of unfortunate techs to bring their designs to fruition. He could only just see the top of the paintwork that they had directed the application of; the scarlet stood out painfully bright against the black carapace of the Jaeger, and Karkat's digestion sac wavered between panic and glee at the sight of the vast, hulking pauldrons; in the centre of one was a brilliant red gash, a stylistic wound oozing false drops of blood. The other sported the symbol he had worn his whole life, picked out in the colour of his blood. The colour aside, nobody had batted an eyelid at its inclusion- the heresy went unrecognised and unsilenced, and now that it was time to wear it beyond the borders of the base Karkat was almost more jittery about that than he was about the kaiju. Glancing down at his Drivesuit, he saw the same symbol in the same colour picked out over his breast. It felt strange not to be a mystery, a cypher in grey. It felt like walking outside naked and into the dawn.

“Hey, Karkat, Kankri!” called a voice, and he looked around to see John grinning at them. “Glad you're joining us!”

“Yeah, try to keep up,” added Dave, from the other side of the Drivesuit Room. “Ain't got time to babysit out there.”

“I am certain they will do just fine,” said Rose, giving them an enigmatic smile.

“We shall certainly be doing our best,” Kankri agreed. “Which we have reason to believe is better than it previously was.”

“Jolly good, then!” said one of the other humans- Ranger English, if Karkat remembered correctly. He hadn't seen the guy about much. “Let's go give the great galumphing gits a proper what-for! Tally ho!” With that, he grabbed Jade's hand and raced forward into their Conn-Pod, laughing in a way that Karkat was certain couldn't be entirely sane and normal no matter how alien their species was.

“Good luck!” said Jane, and then she and John were stepping forward too. Karkat decided to take a leaf from their book and headed into his own Conn-Pod, Kankri walking along beside him. A couple of techs followed, and this time he didn't hesitate to step into the centre of the machinery, consciously choosing to take the same side as last time. At least this way if he lost his arm again, it would be the same one.

He looked around the Conn-Pod as the techs finished setting them up and strapping them in, mentally comparing it to the one from the destroyed Peixes Jaeger. It was almost identical; even the newness was alike, which he realised had to be down to how little the other machine had been used before its destruction. Looking up, though, he saw some differences in the rig holding him in place- most of them mis-coloured additions that had to be Jade's work.

The techs cleared out, and a moment later there was the awful stomach-dropping moment of freefall as the Conn-Pod dropped into place on the body of the Jaeger. Karkat landed in a crouch and felt the give of the machinery under his feet; it resisted more than last time, but moved more smoothly, and he wondered what difference that would make when they were piloting. Then it was just the two of them, alone in the silent Conn-Pod, and Karkat's hands were shaking as he reached up for the helmet that would drag him back into the mental maelstrom.

“Karkat,” said Kankri, and he paused to look over at his hatchclone. Kankri stared back at him with eyes that almost glowed as bright as the lines on his Drivesuit. “I'm here to catch you.”

“Same here,” said Karkat, and rammed the helmet down over his head.

The Drift yanked him over like an undercurrent and in an instant he was hurtling through the storm, being buffeted on all sides by the winds. The urge to fight it rose like a scream in his throat, the instinct to haul himself out before he was lost making his pulse race. This time, though, Karkat ignored it and let himself go, turning into the fierce current and letting it sweep him onwards. Memories flashed past and tried to drag him in but he let the Drift haul him away instead, surrendering himself to the chaos and trusting that he wouldn't fall forever.

Then the tempest dragged them together and they were both standing on stable ground again, a united self born in the eye of the storm. Scarlet Outlaw opened two pairs of eyes, let out a breath from two throats, and raised hands that clenched into loose fists under the smooth, arcing curve of twin sickle blades.

The external comm activated in a flicker of blue. “Vantas, this is Commander Wavescar,” said the familiar voice in their ears. She sounded irritated, but then what was new? “Report your status.”

“Nice try, Commander,” they said with both voices. “But we're willing to overlook the fucking passive-aggressive microaggression if you'll agree not to make such hilariously blatant attempts to erase our chosen identity in future. This is Scarlet Outlaw, reporting ready for combat. Sir.”

There was a pause, and then another light on the comm panel flashed. “Jesus Christ, that's creepy,” said Dave's voice. “Someone call up the Ghostbusters or the Winchesters or that priest from the Exorcist, that Jaeger is possessed by an evil spirit. Is it the devil, Ranger? No, father, it's far worse- it's two alien mutants going double-down on the psychic blender. Shit, better call in the big guns before we get ectoplasm in the Conn-Pod.”

“Fascinating, isn't it?” said Rose. “Commander, I assume you are recording the Drift data for later examination.”

“Affirmative, Eldritch,” said Wavescar, and the growl of anger in her voice faded slightly. “And congratulations. Your modifications to the Pons system are already showing a sixty percent decrease in neural stress for both Vantas pilots, and whatever you drilled into their head in training seems to have done the trick. Neural Handshake is holding at ninety-nine point six five percent; I've never seen it so stable in any of my Jaegers but Pyrope.”

“Having a properly adjusted system and a correctly adapted training regimen can make all the difference,” replied Dirk. “It's the shit when it works, right, Outlaw?”

Scarlet Outlaw raised an arm that gleamed black and red, examined it through cameras and screens and organic ganderbulbs. “No fucking kidding,” they said.

“That's enough, Outlaw,” growled Wavescar, and two mouths smirked in triumph at the word. Sadly they didn't get the chance to gloat before the hangar doors behind them creaked apart. “All Jaegers report status,” Wavescar ordered, and the external comm lit up.

“This is Joker Wild, ready and waiting!”

“Lucky Eldritch standing by.”

“Wolf Raider ready for action!”

“You have selected Ronin Steel as your player.”

They had already checked in, but it felt right to join in at the end and add; “Scarlet Outlaw, raring to kick some fucking kaiju ass already.”

“Patience, grasshopper,” said Dave. “All things in time.”

“Ronin, stop spamming the comm,” snapped Wavescar. “All Jaegers proceed outside and prepare for transport.”

Of course, the roof doesn't open any more. The thought didn't even echo; it seemed to spring full-formed from their conjoined mind, and Scarlet Outlaw refused to delve further into their inner unity. They followed the four alien Jaegers out of the hangar doors and into the ocean, wading out from the rocky shelf that the base rested on and into deep water that rushed around their waist before reaching their arms up for the suborbital lift vehicles and the cables that locked into them like trailing tentacle fingers.

“So, what sort of scrum are we headed into?” asked Jake's voice, the icon for Wolf Raider flickering on the panel. “Anyone know?”

“Three kaiju,” said John, and for the first time Outlaw could recall he sounded deadly serious. “But they're all Category Fives.”

There was a whispered curse over the comm, gone too fast to see who had spoken it.

“This planet is a complete steaming shitstorm,” said Dave. “You know that there hasn't been a Category Five event in a hundred years outside this hell-hole?”

“C'mon, though,” said a voice that Outlaw dimly recognised as being Roxy, the second Eldritch Pilot. “You can't blame them 'cos their pshyhic kajiggers make it so they can't punch out the Rift good and proper-like.”

“What's the matter, Ronin?” asked Outlaw, perhaps a little smug. “Surely you can't be scared to fight a few kaiju. A mighty human Ranger like yourself can't possibly be pissing his pants like a cluckbeast fledgling.”

“Fuck you too, sweetheart,” said Ronin, but it was Dirk's voice, not Dave's. Outlaw fell silent.

“That's enough,” said another voice. Wavescar; they'd almost forgotten she was there. “We've finished our course projections. The kaiju seem to have worked out that heading straight for us is futile and have decided to move around us instead. Their projected route takes them directly through a coastal city, and we lack the capacity to reach them before they get there.”

“How far within the mile are we?” asked Dirk.

“Projected interception is at point-oh-three-seven of minimum safe distance,” said Wavescar. “Evacuation orders have been implemented and Imperial Drones dispatched to protect the populace, but you will be fighting in an inhabited area.”

There was a slight pause, then Dirk spoke again. “Acceptable casualties?”

“Any and all,” said Wavescar. “Stop those kaiju, Ronin.”

There was a longer pause. “Yes, ma'am,” said the alien. His words dragged, reluctant to get out, and Outlaw could understand why. They remembered the chaos in a city under attack, the fear and the panic and the absolute certainty that death was everywhere, that nothing and nowhere was safe to run to but that staying still would kill you faster. He remembered shelters and rubble and Drones and looming titans fighting overhead, a monster that was ours and symbolised hope and was still a monster because it would slaughter anything that got in its way...

KARKAT!

An anchor grabbed him just before he was whisked back into the screaming maelstrom. He folded back into Them, and saw just how close he had come to diving into darkness after a memory.

I've/you've got you/me.

They examined the memories for the first time and the thousandth, considered the nightmares and the necessity, then turned their face towards the approaching smear of light on the horizon.

The city was squarely in view by the time they saw the three kaiju; the lead one was little more than a shimmer in the water, a long dark eel of blue-dotted death that was swimming at a speed that looked almost languid until you saw just how much ground it was covering.

“Adapted for speed?” asked Jane.

“It would be concerning if it is,” Rose replied. “The only purpose for such a design would be to evade interception, and that is not consistent with the Precursors' usual strategy.”

“Not to burst your bubble, chaps, but right now I'd be more concerned with the other two buggers,” said Jake. Outlaw looked down and decided that Wolf Raider's second pilot had a point; the other two kaiju were swimming in the wake of the first, using its speed to boost their own, but they were clearly of a different design. It was hard to make out details through the water, but the fact that they were both leaking acid blue into the surrounding ocean was unmistakeable.

“Shouldn't we be doing something about the impending ecological disaster down there?” Jake asked.

“Go ahead,” said Dave, in a tone that recommended the opposite. “We'll be up here making odds on that stuff dissolving Jaeger armour.”

Outlaw eyed the kaiju, zooming in on the group with one of their external cameras, and watched as a splash of blue-tainted wave hit a rock in the sea and washed away the resulting sand. “Fuck it,” they said. “It's not like anyone lives there any more anyway. How do we engage them in combat without turning into a heap of steaming mineral goop?”

“We'll take care of that!” said Jade. “You guys worry about the Roadrunner.”

“Seriously?” said Dirk. “You've gotta call it that?”

“Jade, no way!” said John. Outlaw thought it was another objection to naming the lead kaiju Roadrunner- which was a strange, dumb name, it wasn't on a road or anything- but then the human continued. “You can't take on two Category Fives alone!”

“I should say we bally well have to!” said Jake.

“Not at all,” said Rose. “Eldritch still has the Arc Wand in reserve. We can back you up.”

Chaos broke out over the comms.

“You don't have the range on that piddling little-”

“Rose, we haven't fully exhausted the current development stage! We can't accelerate the arms race-”

“Can we talk about this Roadrunner shit?”

Outlaw reached out an arm, one that still bore the scars of overloaded circuitry, and muted the comms. Blessed silence surrounded them, broken only by the hum of their own internal workings. A light on the console flashed lime; Outlaw braced as the clamps on the suborbital lifting vehicle released.

The world shook under their feet as Outlaw landed in the ocean, the shallow water barely thigh-deep on the massive Jaeger. They stood to their full height and then immediately ducked as an enormous glob of virulent blue acid shot past their shoulder. Behind them the water erupted in more splashes. Before it had even landed, Wolf Raider raised an arm and lock it into place; the band of tubes on its arm began to spin then abruptly halted, one sliding forwards moments before a burst of green-white energy erupted from the end and slammed into one of the acid-seeping kaiju. The other arm rose and the tubes spun, spitting white-hot projectile fire strong enough to push the kaiju back. An overlay appeared on Outlaw's ocular streams, labels naming the three Kaiju; Roadrunner, Romulus, and Remus.

Outlaw switched their comms back on, just in time to hear “Outlaw, with me!” from one of the two voices of Ronin Steel. Outlaw dodged towards them; Ronin was grappling with a long, thrashing whip of kaiju flesh attached to the Roadrunner label- a head or a tail, they couldn’t tell- moving faster and smoother than any Jaeger they had ever seen. Breaking into a run, Outlaw launched themselves out of the ocean and onto the lashing trunk; their arms swung down, and the vicious blades over their hands bit down and hooked on. The kaiju bellowed, an ear-splitting roar of pain and fury, and a maw of spines the size of entire hives appeared by Outlaw’s elbow. The Jaeger tightened their grip as Roadrunner thrashed, tossing them about like an old scalemate. The sickle blades scored two jagged blue lines in the creature before Outlaw lost all grip and flew backwards through the air.

Muscle memory- drilled into me/learned the hard way- took over and they shifted before landing, the armoured backs of their arms taking the brunt of the force as they plowed into buildings that were much less resilient. They skidded and demolished several more hivestems, rolling aside moments before one could collapse onto their head. Wreckage scattered as they got back to their feet and their external cameras scanned the debris. There were a few small figures darting away from them, but Outlaw’s blood-pushers sank at the sight of rainbow-bright smears and lost grey limbs amongst the rubble.

Before they could dwell on it too long, there was another pan-shattering roar, and a vast clawed hand reached up to wrap itself around the top of a building that was miraculously still intact. It was followed by a wide, blunt head and a body covered in bony nodules and a thin film of bright blue slime. The kaiju snapped off the top of the hivestem it was leaning against and lumbered forwards, letting out another bellow from a mouth that dripped toxic acid.

Outlaw backed up as the creature approached. “Raider, Eldritch, Remus is in the city. Not to call into question your competence, but where the everloving fuck are you?”

“Sorry about that, Outlaw,” said Jake’s voice. It sounded strained, and something in the background made a loud hissing noise. “We’re just a tad occupied at the moment- keep it busy for us, there’s a good chap!”

The comm flicked off before they could reply, and Outlaw took another couple of steps back and dove to the side when they saw the kaiju raise its head and make a gulping motion. They hit the ground and rolled back to their feet, well away from the huge gobbet of acid that splattered across the road and started eating rapidly into the semi-fluid road surfacing material.

“Keep it fucking busy,” muttered Outlaw, circling around behind a building. “Sure, why not? And maybe the next presumptive request to compromise our safety will be something simple, like delivering a bouquet of flesh-eating orchids to her Imperious Condescension or convincing an entire Subjuggulator Carnival that they want to accept the Signless Sufferer as their Lord and Saviour!”

The kaiju made another gulping motion and they ducked as the acid flew; it slammed into the building, which immediately started to crumble. Outlaw scrambled away from the toxic rubble and cursed when they saw the tiny blue droplets eating into their arm.

“This is Outlaw!” they yelled over the comm. “We need backup!”

No response was forthcoming, and as a stopgap measure they reached down and grabbed what looked like a small public recreation dome, ripping it out of the park it was embedded in and hurling it two-handed at the kaiju. Remus roared again as the building broke against its head, and charged forward with a surprising turn of speed for something so clumsy-looking. Outlaw barely managed to step out of its path, and noted that the stonework falling from its skin was steaming.

“Any time now!” they added. There was still no response, and the kaiju managed to stop by colliding head-first with a building. It turned, tiny oinkbeast eyes glowing with malice, and Outlaw was forced to dodge another gobbet of flying acid. They landed close to the ground, and froze; almost directly in front of them, sheltering in the broken remains of a hivestem, was a wiggler. It was barely out of the brooding caverns, its shirt too large for it even before it was torn and stained, and it stared up at them with wide grey eyes. Beside it, a large white body leaked yellow blood into the dust.

One grubby hand reached up and gently patted their metal face.

Their optical pickups saw Remus rear up behind the wreckage and the wiggler, mouth open for another assault. Time slowed, and in seconds that lasted for centuries two mutants stood in the heart of the storm.

As regrettable as it is, I can’t think of a single moral, ethical or logical argument that justifies briefly preserving the life of one individual over the potential salvation of the many, said the one.

How about this: try to fucking stop me, said the other. And don’t shit with me. You don’t know the meaning of the word regret.

I think I have the right to protest against a course of action that leads to my- I mean our certain destruction! Don’t pretend you’re not as scared as I am.

You know I am. Don’t pretend to not understand why we have to do this.

…You know I do.

Outlaw dove forwards, arching over the wiggler and slamming their arms down through the rubble, a protective shell falling into place as the globule of acid pushed its way up through the kaiju’s throat. They stared into it, daring it to spit and fall and burn them.

Lucky Eldritch rose up behind the kaiju, seawater pouring out of every joint and crack on the small Jaeger as it raised its arms either side of Remus' head. Outlaw barely managed to spot the long metal needles protruding from each of Eldritch’s hands before an arc of blinding purple lightning shot between them, burning clean through the kaiju’s neck. Its severed head tumbled from the cauterised stump, and its body slumped forwards, crushing rubble into dust.

“Didja miss us?” asked Roxy. Outlaw could hear her grinning and hit the comm meaning to reply, but their words were swallowed by bursts of hysterical laughter from both of their throats.

“Sounds like you broke them,” said Dirk. “Hope you can pay for a new one; Vantases are a rare commodity.”

“That’s enough,” said another voice, and oh yeah, Wavescar was still listening in, wasn’t she? “Outlaw, get hold of yourself. There are still two kaiju active.”

“Ha! Make that one!” shouted Jade, over the distant rattle of repeating projectiles and a crashing wave. “Romulus is down!”

Outlaw managed to swallow their laughter and slowly straightened, careful not to crush the wiggler underfoot. It stared at them in awe as they rose; two set of eyes rolled, and they pointed in a general away direction, stamping their foot slightly when the wiggler didn’t move. The shaking of the ground underfoot seemed to make the message sink in, and the tiny troll scrambled away. Outlaw looked back around into the almost quizzical gaze of Lucky Eldritch, which should not have been fucking possible on a faceless Jaeger.

“What?” they demanded.

“Oh, nothing that cannot be discussed later,” said Rose. Outlaw’s Drift shifted slightly as two completely different emotional responses arose, then flowed back to unity on the consensus that Kankri-Self could have that conversation and Karkat-Self could hide from the human.

“INCOMING!” yelled John, and both of the waiting Jaegers dove back as the immense slither-beast form of the final kaiju came flying towards them. Outlaw spun as they dove and managed to thrust the tip of one blade into Roadrunner's side, scoring a long bloody line across the kaiju’s skin as it slid past them. Roadrunner screamed and folded round, its spiny maw gnashing towards Outlaw, but Eldritch was there with a purple-lit needle plunging into its shoulder and distracting it with pain. Outlaw dodged the gnashing teeth and tried to duck in under its neck, only to be shoved aside by raking talons that scored deep scars into the carapace of the Jaeger. One of the bodies in the Conn Pod screamed.

“GERONIMOOOOOOO!”

A shadow overhead was their only warning, and then in a flash of grey and blue Joker Wild dropped in, immense fists smashing down like a hammer into the head of the kaiju. There was a loud crack and Roadrunner folded under the force of the blow. Immediately it pushed back up, sending the heavy Jaeger sprawling across the ruined buildings. A ripple ran down its body as it lashed out, the air becoming a mass of lethal puncturing spines.

“Pin it down,” ordered Dirk, over the comm.

“Where the shit are you?” Outlaw replied. “This thing is becoming seriously nooktonguing problematic!”

“On our way. Pin it down.”

Fuck. Their. Life.

Outlaw ducked under the deadly swiping body, pushing the flexibility of the Jaeger to the limit- and that limit seemed bendier than it had been in Peixes, better thank Jade later- to slide under the armoured but spineless belly of the beast. Almost lying flat on their face, they twisted their arms up back and around, hooking the sickle blades into the creature’s flesh and dragging down.

There was a roar that rattled their carapace, and the kaiju slammed itself down. The Conn Pod rang and gears groaned under the additional pressure, warning lights flashing on every display. Outlaw grit their teeth and pushed back, lifting the weight and sinking their blades in further. They almost lost their grip when Roadrunner let out another roar and jerked upwards, but tightened their grip in time, holding the long, lashing creature’s head down.

“We have the tail,” reported Rose. “But we are unlikely to hold it for long. Whatever your plan, I suggest you enact it now.”

A fiery streak of orange and red shot past the legs of the trapped kaiju. Outlaw caught a glimpse of Ronin Steel standing by its head before an honest-to-ancestors sword blade erupted from its skull and buried itself a good twenty feet into the ground, less than a handspan from Outlaw’s head unit. Then luminous blue blood gushed down onto the external optical recording devices, and Roadrunner went limp, its full weight slumping down onto Outlaw.

By the time the others dug them out, they had mostly calmed down; a single half-playful swipe at Ronin was enough of a physical expression of their displeasure. Their bodies were aching, and they were looking forward to making it back to the hangar.

All of that vanished in a single second when a lime alert appeared in the line of their vision, and an alarm started chiming.

“What the...?” they asked, just as the external comm crackled back into life.

“Tripwires are reacting!” said Wavescar, almost shouting. “One of them got past the perimeter!”

“How?” demanded Rose, immediately.

There was a brief pause. “Based on trajectory, it appears that it took a different route to the other three, but this makes no sense. It should have been picked up a dozen times before...” Wavescar's voice trailed off, and moment later they heard her shouting to someone nearby. “Scramble everyone with a working Jaeger! I don't care if the damn things have their bells and whistles, we need them on site now!”

Outlaw felt a cold chill run through them. “What's going on?” they demanded. “Where is it?”

Another pause, long enough for them to hear the background chaos at the Shatterdome. “It's reached the edge of the brooding caverns,” said Wavescar, flatly.

The world froze; for a small eternity, Outlaw's thoughts raced, passing through nightmares that their Karkat-self had been having, fears that their Kankri-self had never dared to voice. Working on an eerie, empty automatic, they checked the location of the alert on their global positioning system and plotted a course from their current location.

Half an hour. Not fast enough.

“We're on our way,” they said, and started to run. They were vaguely aware of one of the alien Jaegers reaching out for them and dodged around the grab; the buildings shook with their passage, the roads that weren't already ruined shattering under their steps.

None of it mattered if they couldn't stop the one kaiju that had slipped through.

How? they wondered, as they ran. Their legs burned, the effort of pushing the thousands of tons of metal around them more than their frail flesh-and-blood bodies were meant to sustain- except they could sustain it, could push through the burn and keep moving. They were out of the city in minutes, legs the size of small hivestems covering the sort of distances usually reserved for ancient, gigantic hoofbeasts.

How had a kaiju got so far?

“Outlaw,” said a voice over the comm. Jade. She sounded urgent, but not concerned, and Outlaw wanted to shake her and scream because didn't she know what was happening? “Outlaw, you have a secondary operating mode. If you check your operational setup and switch from combat to endurance, you'll use less energy getting there.”

Outlaw followed the instruction, and almost fell over as the resistance in their legs loosened up. The Jaeger immediately picked up speed, feet pounding across the desert and crushing a few unwary zombies.

“Thanks,” they said, terse and short of breath.

“Well, it's like I said,” said Jade. “You're good at endurance. I thought I'd add the option.” She paused. “We're following you, but our Jaegers aren't as fast.”

And we're not as desperate. She didn't have to say it, and Outlaw fought not to blame her. It wasn't her fault; wasn't her species, wasn't her fight. They'd helped as much as they could, and more than they had to.

“We've got this,” they said, half to themselves.

“Not, um, alone,” said a new voice, as five new icons lit up along the comm panel. Cowboy Hero, the Nitrams' new Jaeger. “We will arrive, uh, slightly before you...”

“But you can help us clean up if you like,” added Serket- no, it was Gambler Fortune now. “If there's anything left!”

“Stay focused,” ordered Wavescar. “We don't know how this kaiju avoided detection, and we can expect it to be a Category Five at least. It is absolutely imperative that you destroy it safely, with minimum pollution and collateral.”

“Our purrleasure,” growled Pounce Daring, both Leijons speaking as one.

Outlaw checked the map and the flashing lime dot that was slowly moving towards a new marker; Wavescar had added the brooding caverns to their guide, presumably so they knew what they were defending, but even without being told the mutant Jaeger could work out that the caverns spread further than that one glowing point. Fuck, they were probably spread along that whole coastal area...

“Vwhat kind a performance are vwe expectin' out a these Jaegers?” asked the fourth voice. Skipper Storm, Outlaw remembered, that was what the Amporas had called their new machine.

“You're mostly complete,” replied Dirk's voice. “Your primary weapons are all online, but your secondaries aren't; I'd also be very careful about pushing past an eighty percent power load, in case you stall out.”

“Like we need more than that to kick this kaiju's ass!” Gambler Fortune was using Vriska's voice; Outlaw wondered if they ever switched off, and what Aranea's role was in the gestalt.

“The creature will be disciplined sternly,” agreed the fifth kaiju, Monster Fucker. Outlaw didn't need to wonder whether Aradia or Damara had come up with that one.

“Vwait, guys, vwe think vwe see somethin',” said Skipper Storm. “Ovwer there, by the big spire.”

“Um, we don't see, anything...”

“That's because there's nothing to see! Quit being a dumbass, Skipper!”

“It's on infrared, you vwile bitch!”

Jade's comms lit up again. “Skipper, you're the only one with multiple visual overlays.”

There was a brief pause, then the seadwellers' Jaeger spoke again. “Shit! It's invwisable!”

There was a tirade of curses from various sources. For once, Outlaw wasn't one of them. Their breath was all occupied in running; their focus was narrowed to a single point on a map, and the five other points that were dropping in to surround it.

“Where is it, Skipper?”

“On your left! The other left, Cowboy, vwhat the fuck is vwrong vwith you?”

“It's not invisipurrle, it's clawmoflaged! Look for the tracks!”

“You look for the tracks! We're going to kill it!”

“It's, got our, leg!”

“We will intercept it.”

“GET IT! GET IT BEFORE IT VWANISHES AGAIN!”

They were pounding across a rocky plain, churning up dust and sand and shaking the ancient spires of stone that spiralled into the sky all around them. Outlaw could see the cloud of dust in the distance, the flash of sunlight on metal. It was raining, the falling sheets of water mixing with the light and dust to form a blinding fog. Everything had a bizarre, unreal quality to it, undercut by sharp flashes and the screams over the comm.

“WHAT THE-”

The five Jaegers fighting it went suddenly dark; a feeling not unlike slamming head-first into a wall hit Outlaw, and they kept running only because at this speed falling over was the only other option.

“Strike force, respond!” ordered Wavescar. “Someone, tell me what happened!”

“Sorry, boss, no idea yet,” said Dave, but as jovial as he sounded Karkat could hear the uncertainty underneath. “Shoulda bought the family plan after all.”

As abruptly as they had vanished, the five Jaegers reappeared in a cacophony of comm shouting.

“STOP THAT!” hollered Wavescar. The noise died down, and at a lower volume she snapped: “Report.”

Monster Fucker's icon lit up. “Kaiju has an energy attack,” the Jaeger said. “All power was drained. Effects were temporary. Now we shall be wary.”

“This is Ronin Steel,” said Dirk's voice. “Strike force, be aware that if you can see that attack charging, you'll restart faster if you shut your own Jaeger down before it hits.”

“We've got it,” purred Pounce Daring, just as Outlaw drew close enough to see them. The kaiju was in the middle of a ring of Jaegers, but it looked anything but trapped; Cowboy Hero was sporting a damaged leg, and Gambler Fortune was covered in deep gouges with one of their extra arms hanging limp.

Rather than trying to cut or control their speed, Outlaw picked it up, hurtling forwards to the immense mass of flesh that was the kaiju. It was long but low, its skin mottled brown-green and, as they found out on impact, slippery. Outlaw skidded off the kaiju and along the dirt until they were looking up into its blue-glowing maw. The kaiju hissed at them, dripping tainted spittle, then swung one of its legs towards them.

Outlaw tried to duck under the kaiju’s blow but they weren’t fast enough; an arm the size of their own thorax slammed into them and sent them flying back into one of the rocky spires that decorated this plain. Dust and sand flew into the air, blocking their vision almost completely as they staggered back to their feet and belatedly switched back to combat mode.

“Fuck this, vwe need help,” said Skipper Storm, their voice holding a panicked edge.

“We do not!” yelled Gambler Fortune. “Come on! We used to take down kaiju with half this many!”

“Category Fours!” Skipper Storm replied, as Outlaw hauled themselves back to their feet and shook off loose rocks. Damage displays indicated loss of structural integrity to the chestplate, but nothing that would put them out of commission. “This thing has gotta be Category Six! Vwe’re completely physically outmatched; backup is a sensible strategic request!”

“We can do it ourselves with the right tactics,” Gambler Fortune replied. “It’s just a matter of observing its weaknesses and then determining an exploit for them. And not being whiny baby cluckbirds.”

“Pragmatism ain’t the same as-“

“CHARGING!” hollered Pounce Daring, and Outlaw slammed down on the shielding controls and the emergency power switch at the same moment. The Conn Pod went dark not a moment too soon, as the kaiju opened its maw and howled. A shimmering wave of energy blasted out through the Jaegers in front of it and the remaining displays shorted out. The Drift started to unravel. For a moment Karkat was lost in the storm, tattered and torn and alone in the burning light.

Then the auto-restart kicked in. The Conn Pod lit up again and the neural handshake stabilised. External cameras came back online to show a rocky desert plain covered in sand, Jaegers, and trampled zombies but definitely no alien monsters.

“Where did it go?” asked Outlaw, spinning around. “Fuck, where the shitting hellpails is it?”

“Stay calm, Outlaw,” ordered Wavescar. Her voice was just as calm and controlled as ever, and they could imagine her- a still and steady point in the chaos of the Control Room.

“Easy for you to say, you have the privilege of not being stuck on a featureless plain with a terrifying voidbeast with more special powers than a warm-blood regiment,” they said. “Fuck, fuck, what happened to it?”

“It purrned invisfurble again,” said Pounce Daring. “There’s a vispurrble distortion, but we lost track.”

There was a moment of silence, then all of the Jaegers took a step away from one another.

“Vwhere-” Skipper Storm’s question became a shriek as, in a blur of sand and rain, they were dragged down to ground level. Outlaw broke into a run towards where they writhed with an opponent that seemed like nothing more than smoke and mist, but before they got there Skipper Storm’s arm cannon blasted white and threw the blur back across the desert where it promptly vanished.

“Great, now we lost it again!” yelled Gamber Fortune.

“Excuse us if vwe don’t vwanna be kaiju chowv!” snapped Skipper Storm. They listed to the side when they stood up, and Outlaw’s readouts told them that Skipper's outer carapace was compromised in no less than twenty places.

“At least that explains how it got so far inland,” said Monster Fucker. “This opponent will require passionate response.”

“Us and what army?” Outlaw grumbled, scanning the sand for any signs of movement.

“No, um, she is correct,” said Cowboy Hero. “We should make, uh, a strategy…”

“How about we stop attacking it one at a time like losers and actually gang up on it?” suggested Gambler Fortune.

Outlaw was about to reply when they saw the sand shift next to Gambler Fortune. “Watch out!” they yelled, diving forwards to tackle the air above the motion. With a heavy slap they crashed into thick scale and bone; their sickles hooked into the flesh on reflex and they dug them in further when the creature reared up, bellowing and shedding its camouflage.

“Pounce!” yelled Cowboy Hero. “See if you can, um, assist Outlaw, and also hold its belly open!”

With a yowl the feline Jaeger pounced into action, ducking nimbly past the blows the kaiju directed at it and drawing its attention with swift, painful strikes. The creature stopped bucking, but didn’t get any easier to cling onto. Outlaw slipped down its back, scoring bloody lines with the sickles.

A blur of black and brown hurtled inwards and with a tremor that shook gears and bones Cowboy Hero slammed head-first into the kaiju’s underbelly. The two metal horns on the Jaeger’s head gored the kaiju and acid-blue blood flew as the entire melee tumbled over. Outlaw’s elbow slammed hard into the ground and they rolled away, narrowly avoiding being crushed by the falling monster. It hit the ground with a deep rumble; long cracks webbed out from the point of impact, and then dark holes appeared as the ground fell away. From their belly-down position Outlaw had a good view into the caves that had been exposed, and the white-wrapped troll cocoons that were already smoking in the sunlight.

“The caverns are breached. This ground is weak,” said Monster Fucker, reporting in a tone that was far, far too cheerful for someone aware that the Mother Grub was in immediate and mortal danger.

“The battle sight has been evacuated,” replied Wavescar. “Focus on the kaiju. It must be stopped before it can reach the Mother Grub.”

Easier said than done, as the creature shimmered out of sight again. Outlaw scrambled back from the edge of the hole and got to their feet again, desperately scanning for any sign of where it had gone.

“We don’t see it!” they said, hearts pounding and heads screaming it should never have got this far. They’d caught the other three out in the ocean, Category Fives all, and called it a glorious bulgebiting victory when they managed to kill them without dying.

“We just need, to get it, to the ocean...” said Cowboy Hero.

“Yeah?” Gambler Fortune looked around, turning their blank stare on the other Jaeger. “In case you hadn't noticed, dumb-brain, it's headed the opposite way!”

The shimmer in the air was Outlaw’s only warning before they were tackled by a near-invisible mass. Their arms locked into place to defend their core and they remembered in the barest fraction of a second before the blow landed to turn their deadly blades away from the kaiju; if they cut it, if its toxic blood got into the caverns, then they could win the battle and lose the war.

“Outlaw, hold it!”

Hoping like hell that Cowboy had a plan beyond getting them gruesomely eviscerated, Outlaw hooked their arms up and around, crushing the thrashing kaiju closer to their chest. They tucked their head in close to its neck below its hungry jaw and grit their teeth against the jarring crashes as they were beat against the ground again and again.

There was another heavy impact from beyond their feet, a powerful blow that sent them skidding across the desert on their back. Metal screeched and tore, rock spires crumbled, and the Otherside creature hollered in rage as Cowboy used Outlaw like a goddamn kaiju four-wheel board.

“Charging!” yelled Pounce, and Outlaw was almost crushed as three other Jaegers jumped onto the kaiju, locking into place over it as the creature screamed and the wave of energy blasted into them. Outlaw’s Conn Pod sparked and spluttered, the displays spewing static and the Drift wavering as they raced to hook everything back online. For precious seconds they were waking up, surfacing, coalescing; one moment Scarlet Outlaw was breathing in and the next Karkat was breathing out, limbs shaking and head pounding with what it meant to share so much headspace with another being.

Don’t want to die don’t want to die shit shit shit get this working again you useless heap of scrap metal…

The displays flickered back to life and the Drift slammed them back together. Outlaw rejoined themselves just as the kaiju let out a mundane roar and threw them all off with a single full-body thrash. It reared up, skin shimmering against the dust and rain, and was hit full-on by Cowboy’s lowered horns. Kaiju and Jaeger rocketed off to the side and when Outlaw followed them they saw the shine of the sun on the ocean, even as the kaiju pulled itself up out of a long furrow of sand.

Monster Fucker and Pounce Daring raced past them, feet shaking the earth and flattening dunes. The two Jaegers took a diving leap and knocked the kaiju down onto the sand, pushing it closer to the ocean before it heaved them both off with a frenzied roar. Its legs- too many legs, fuck, Outlaw couldn’t keep track of them all- stamped into the beach in an attempt to hit Monster. One of them connected and the Jaeger’s shoulder was crushed, the metal pauldron ripping away and glittering as it spun into the sky.

Outlaw ducked around it as it plummeted into the ground and ran forward, past the steady thrumming pulse of energy bolts from Skipper Storm’s plasma cannon. Each one knocked into the kaiju’s side and sent it another step towards the water, but it was already turning to roar when Outlaw slammed into it, skidding into the surf. Blue poison seeped from the burning wound, and they growled.

“Don’t break the skin!” they yelled. “Polluting the oceanic currents around the brooding caverns will prove lethal to pupating grubs, you fucking moron!”

“Affirmative,” said Wavescar. “Try to kill it by crushing. Humans, what is your ETA?”

“We’re still ten minutes out!” yelled Jade over the comm.

“Screw that, we’re killing this thing now!” yelled Gambler Fortune. Suddenly there was another Jaeger beside Outlaw, grabbing the creature’s jaw and forcing it shut while their feet skidded in the sand and they forced the kaiju towards the ocean.

“Deep currents!” yelled Skipper Storm. “If vwe can sink the body far enough, the currents will carry its blood away!”

Outlaw grunted in response, rolling over the kaiju and wrapping their arms around its midsection. Every muscle in both of their bodies tensed as they squeezed, and the kaiju screamed again as its bones began to crack.

“Incoming!” Cowboy charged again; the other Jaegers jumped aside just in time as the ferocious blow knocked the kaiju out into the water. The creature howled and started wading back to shore.

“No, you fucking don’t,” said Outlaw. They began to wade into the surf, but were overtaken by a blur of black and purple; to their surprise, Skipper Storm tackled the kaiju and locked their arms around its neck. “Skipper, what the fuck? Work at range!”

There was no response from the seadweller Jaeger, and moments later the kaiju raised its head and howled again. Outlaw froze hip-deep in the surf, unable to do anything but watch as the kaiju threw Skipper off its back and tore at the helpless Jaeger. The chest plating scattered and sunk, and as their ocular feeds came back online Outlaw saw two tiny figures exposed in the core of the Jaeger.

“Ampora!” they yelled, pushing forward through the waves. There was no response, but the purple-edged Jaeger lifted its cannon arm as if in salute- and then thrust it forwards into the Kaiju’s mouth. There was a long whine, a whoomph sound, and a ripple ran through the kaiju.

Skipper wrapped their arms around the kaiju again as blue sludge dripped out of its mouth, coating the broken Jaeger and its pilots. Silently, the two titans sank below the surface, a solitary trail of glowing blue the only sign that they had been there at all.

“ERIDAN! CRONUS!” yelled Outlaw, cold horror forming a knot around them. Seadwellers could survive the ocean, but nobody could survive being drenched in kaiju blue. “AMPORA, THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO WITHHOLD A RESPONSE!”

There was a long, unbroken silence, and then Wavescar spoke. “We just lost the signatures of the kaiju and both Ampora pilots.”

Dread unfolded into grief like an explosion in their lower thorax; as the voices rose over the comms, Outlaw switched them off, choosing instead to stand numb in the waves and watch the spot where Skipper had vanished, expecting at any moment to see the Jaeger re-emerge. They were still standing and watching when the humans arrived, and they barely noticed Wolf Raider wading out to stand beside them.

Chapter Text

She found him sitting on the narrow walkway that led from the base corridors to the Drivesuit rooms, legs sticking out hundreds of feet above the hangar floor. Karkat was so snarled in his own thoughts that he didn't notice her until she dropped down next to him, at which point he let out a completely reasonable and masculine yell of alarm.

Ranger Jade Harley of the PPDC giggled. “You squeaked!” she said, showing all of her oversized, blunt teeth at once in what Karkat thought was an expression of delight.

“I do not squeak,” said Karkat, resting his chin back on his hands and pointedly ignoring the alien in favour of staring across the hangar. “I may possibly have let out an exclamation of surprise, like any normal person would who's just had an alien soldier sneak up on him when he was trying to get some peace and quiet away from the asylum, but it was in no way, shape or form squeak-like.”

Jade shuffled forwards, sticking her legs through the railing to dangle beside his. “You squeaked, buttface. Live with it!”

“Fuck off,” said Karkat, but he didn't look towards her. His eyes were fixed on the distant alcove where Scarlet Outlaw loomed, dormant and waiting. In the darkness of the sleeping hangar only the red flashes of the Jaeger's ornamentation were visible, but Karkat thought he could tell where the eyes were. He couldn't shake the feeling that if he stopped watching Outlaw, the Jaeger would start watching him.

Jade's legs kicked in the air. “Penny for your thoughts.”

“What?” Karkat scowled and slid his eyes sideways to look at Jade. She was resting her cheek against the rails and staring at him with her small, white eyes. Karkat quickly looked back towards Outlaw.

“It's a saying where I come from,” said Jade, and she sounded more thoughtful than cheerful, although really, who knew with aliens? “It means you look like you've got something on your mind, and you can tell me if you want.”

“I don't want to tell you shit,” snapped Karkat. “I came out here to be alone. Don't you think there are enough assholes picking my thinkpan apart in here? Or is it a biological imperative with your species to stick your cartilage nubs into everyone else's lives? Maybe that's why you invented the Drift; it wasn't the kaiju invasion, it was your insatiable desire to crawl horn-deep into crap that is absolutely, positively, none of your fucking business!”

He snapped his mouth shut and waited for a reply, but the silence that followed seemed even quieter than the hangar had been when it was just him and the Jaegers. He was just about to ask if Jade was really that easily befuddled, when she reached up to the rail and started hauling herself to her feet. The sudden panic that hit him was as unexpected as it was powerful.

“Hey, where are you going?” he said, and he didn't quite manage to hide the roughness in his voice.

“I'm leaving,” said Jade. “You wanted me to, right?” Without waiting for a reply, she started to walk off. In the space of half a second Karkat discovered that he wanted to be alone far, far less than he wanted her to stay with him in the large, cold hangar full of nothing but silently staring Jaegers.

He moved before he could second-guess himself. “Wait!”

Jade stopped and looked down at his hand, clenched in the dark green fabric of her jumpsuit. Her gaze moved up to his face, and to Karkat's surprise she smiled at him.

“Okay,” she said, and dropped back to the walkway. After a moment, she added: “You don't have to say anything.”

Karkat didn't intend to. For what felt like an age the two of them sat there, side-by-side in the dark. It was comforting, weirdly. The alien ran as hot as he did and he ended up leaning towards her, taking in the warmth.

“I fucking hate the Drift,” he said.

Jade made an odd little noise, which his treacherous wordflap took as encouragement to keep spilling everything he hadn't wanted to say.

“My thinkpan isn't my own any more,” he said. “I mean, sure, there's some psychics who can headfuck you and get at what you're keeping in your sponge matter, but there aren't that many and it's not the same thing.” He paused, staring down at his own feet and feeling his skin crawl under the silent stare of the waiting Jaegers. “There's things in my life I don't want anyone to fucking know, me included.”

The look on his lusus' face when he'd run. The kid who had cornered him raiding a hivestem. The things he'd eaten sometimes, when he was hungry and desperate and there hadn't been anything else edible...

Things he couldn't like himself for, even while he told himself there hadn't been any other choice.

“We all have things we don't want anyone else to see,” said Jade. “That's why the Drift takes trust. You have to have faith that your partner won't judge you.”

Karkat's hands slammed into the railing. “I didn't ask for this!” He kicked back, got to his feet, started to pace along the walkway. “I didn't fucking volunteer, I didn't fucking choose my partner! Kankri not judging? That's a fucking riot! Watch out, here come the marching masses, burning torches in hand, ready to impale Karkat on spikes for all the shit he's done! How am I supposed to live my life knowing that all my secrets depend on some mouthy asshole keeping his oversized jaw closed and his wrecking-ball of righteous ego locked away?”

Jade was looking up at him with what might have been alien sympathy. Karkat didn't need it. He kicked the railing just to make himself feel better, and waited for her to tell him that it was okay, because Kankri understood. Of course he understood; Karkat understood everything that Kankri had left in him, too, like it had happened to him in the first place. It didn't help him predict what Kankri would think. He hated Past Karkat, and anyone whose sponge matter wasn't rotten would feel the same.

“He can't spill your secrets without you spilling his,” Jade said.

Karkat froze mid-stride and stared at her, his jaw dropping. Not that he hadn't realised it, of course- he'd already promised himself that if Kankri ever let anything slip, Porrim was finding out that his Drift partner had been the one to make the thoughtless, spiteful mistake that had led the Threshecutioners to their home. But he hadn't been expecting the human to point it out.

“It's not like I knew that going in,” he muttered. He walked over to lean on the railing, staring moodily out at the Jaegers again. “And it's not just him.”

Jade looked puzzled for a moment, then her eyes widened. “Dave.”

Karkat snorted. “Dave and Rose and whatever pieces of their dumbshit Drift partners they brought in with them,” he corrected, without looking at her. “My thinkpan's a fucking railed transport passenger terminal these days. You know I sometimes remember what it feels like to be a fucking kaiju?”

Jade shook her head. “I'm sorry.”

“Yeah, you fucking should be,” Karkat said. His eyes were drawn away from Scarlet Outlaw to the empty alcove across the hangar, the dark space like a gaping wound. “You're the one who upgraded Gambler Fortune for the Serkets.”

He saw her head lift out the corner of his eye. “What?”

“The psionic supercharger upgrades?” he said, still staring at the place where Skipper Storm should have been. “Based on helm tech? Dirk helped you design them. I remember that. I also remember highlights from the psych profiles Rose put together for all the messed-up excuses for competent Jaeger pilots infesting this base.”

Jade frowned, furry black eyebrows clenching together. “So?”

Karkat growled. “So, you gave Gambler Fortune enough juice to punch out a Category Four kaiju with the power of their mind alone, and you didn't fucking think they might use it on their fellow Jaegers?”

He didn't have to know much about her species to know that the way her jaw dropped was a look of growing horror.

“You don't think-”

“I don't KNOW!” Karkat slammed his head into his forearms, resting on the railing. His voice was muffled as he spoke into them. “The Amporas might have just had a fatal attack of heroics! Fuck knows they always suffered from a surfeit of stupidity, and those idiots always liked to think they were grand, noble heroes. Tactically, Eridan wasn't a complete waste of space, and Cronus always did dream big. If they thought there wasn't any other choice, they would have done it, because going out in a dramatic act of self-sacrifice is exactly the sort of thing that would have made them cream themselves!”

“But it could have been Gambler Fortune,” said Jade. Her face was pale, with almost a greenish tint.

“Of course it fucking could have been,” Karkat snapped, his head lifting. “Vriska wouldn't even think twice about throwing someone else to the flesh-eating packbeasts, and Aranea doesn't give a shit who bleeds as long as she gets to write the glorious history and bore everyone else to death with it. She admires pirates and rabble-rousers- you know, assholes who get known for the trail of bodies they leave behind them?”

Jade bit her lip. She stared past Karkat to the empty alcove. “What should we do?”

“What can we do?” Karkat asked, bitterly. “We don't know what happened. The only people who know for sure are Cronus and Eridan, who are rotting at the bottom of the ocean, and Vriska and Aranea, who sure as fuck aren't going to tell anyone. There's no evidence either way. All we can do is beat ourselves up about all the shitty decisions that got us here.”

A hand brushed his arm. He turned his head to see Jade standing next to him, closer than he would have liked anyone but a quadrant-mate. He found that he didn't mind her in his space, and alien memories started to whisper in his head under a racing blood-pusher that was all his own.

“There is something else we can do,” said Jade. “We can make sure they didn't die for nothing.”

Karkat stared into her eyes, green and white and really not that alien, after all.

“How many did you lose?” he asked.

“Too many,” said Jade. Her hand left his arm. “Come on. I came to find you; we need everyone in the mess hall for an announcement.”

With one last, silent glance at the waiting Jaegers, Karkat followed her out of the hangar. They didn't talk on the way to the communal nutrition hall, but he appreciated the companionship. The corridors were all empty, the base eerily silent and still. Only when they approached the ramp that led to the mess did Karkat hear voices, the loud rumble of hundreds of voices all asking one another what was going on.

Jade slipped ahead of him on the way down the ramp, giving him one last smile of encouragement as she walked away. Karkat stepped out into the hall and blinked; the room was packed out, most of the base leaning over the balcony rails, the pilots all standing around the edges of the lower floor. The humans had commandeered a couple of the nutrition plateaus and shoved them together to make a stage of sorts. Dirk paced the perimeter of the surfaces while his fellow aliens stood on ground level like a mismatched honour guard. They nodded to Jade as she slipped into place beside them, greeting their companion.

Karkat made a beeline for Kankri, who was stood near the ramp. The air of expectation was thick enough to cut with a sickle, and he wanted the support of at least one ally, however that allegiance had been hatched. Kankri gave him a terse nod as he approached. It looked like Karkat was the last to answer the summons, and he hadn't missed Veteran Kharon glaring at them from one balcony up. Wavescar, standing by the humans, hadn’t so much as glanced in his direction. He couldn’t shake the feeling that her attention was directed towards him anyway.

“In the final analysis, it all comes down to one question: why the shit ain’t you dead already?”

Dirk's question rang out across the communal nutrition hall, and was met with silence. The human's head turned, taking in the listening trolls as he paced the floor below. His eyes, hidden behind his ridiculous triangular shades, gave nothing away.

“In theory, closing a rift is a cakewalk,” said Dirk. “By which I naturally mean a deadly obstacle course of convoluted traps, puzzles and mindfuckery presided over by an insane AI and ultimately predicated on a lie, but still, under normal circumstances there’s only so much the Precursors can do to stop us from blowing their shit to kingdom come.” He turned on his heel and paced back the length of the tables. “Of course, things are a little different here, because the Precursors found a system exploit for that collective psychic unconscious of yours and dropped in a kaiju to play Sword of Damocles like a DJ carrying his own bodyweight in ill beats. Which is where the survival question comes in; if your subaquatic siren could kill you all any time she likes, what’s stopping her?”

There was a rumble from the back of the crowd as Equius cleared his throat. “The Condesce. She first expressed rulership over all Alternians when she calmed the creature beneath the waves through the strongness of their bond.” Seeing everyone staring at him, he flushed blue and began to develop a sweaty sheen. “It is a matter of historical record.”

“Bingo,” said Dave, flicking his fingers at Equius. “Give the man a pony.”

“Gl’bgolyb’s bond with your minds is a two-way connection,” said Dirk, his expression unreadable behind the fucking ridiculous pointy shades. “Which gives us an opportunity to neutralise the threat without your entire species going the way of the dodo. All we need is a way in and then we’re exploiting what’s already there; it’s like finding a cheat code for kaiju.” He nodded towards the central entrance ramp, one over from where Karkat was standing. “So that’s what we’ve been busting our asses to come up with.”

Heads turned as footsteps sounded against the metal; despite his determination to remain impassive and unaffected, Karkat found himself craning to try and see over the crowd. Not that he had to in the end: the two pairs of horns that walked out side-by-side were distinctive enough.

A murmur ran through the assembled crowd like an electric shock, whispers and gasps filling the air with the white noise of utter surprise.

“Am I actually seeing…?” Karkat asked his brother.

“I believe so,” Kankri replied, in a voice that sounded just as faint. Both of their eyes tracked Meenah and Feferi as the two Tyrian-blooded heiresses arrived at the table, side-by-side and without bloodshed. Dirk held out hands to each of them; Feferi accepted graciously and let herself be helped up, but Meenah snorted and vaulted up unaided before giving the human a bizarre hi-five handshake hybrid gesture.

Dirk waited until the whispers had died down, fixing his blank-fronted gaze on a few stragglers until they fell into silence. He nodded to the two seadwellers and jumped down off the nutrition plateau.

“Right!” said Meenah, her voice carrying right to the top of the communal nutrition block. “Here’s the eel, grublings. You might’ve noticed me’n Princess Bubbles here got a whole new angler on co-existing with one another. That’s ‘cause a coupla hours ago we Drifted for the first time, with the kelp of our alien fronds here.”

She jerked her thumb over her shoulder towards Jane. There was another outbreak of murmurs, and Meenah stamped her foot hard several times.

“Hey! Was I done?” She folded her arms and narrowed her eyes until the room was silent. “Betta. Now, me and Peixes the Younger just got us a splash course on cross-species Drifting ready for the first strike of the battle. Our Jaeger is equipped with a Pons Spike, and we’re gonna use it to tide up our lusus in an epic mental battle for the lives of all trollkind.” She grinned, clearly thrilled at the prospect of mashing her mind up with a kaiju. Beside her, Feferi's expression was probably best described as shark-like.

“The experiment,” whispered Kankri. “Karkat, when the humans engaged us in a four-way cross-species Drift in order to test a potential strategy, do you think it is plausible that they were already considering this approach?”

We have our plan to close the Rift. Rose’s voice spoke in his memory and Karkat nodded, rocking up onto his toes to get a better view of the humans around the table.

Meenah glanced towards Feferi, who nodded and stepped forwards. “The assault on the Rift will be split into three schools,” she said, her voice ringing through the communal nutrition block. Before, she had always seemed naïve and wigglerish to Karkat, but now she looked every inch the empress- as did Meenah, uncharacteristicly solemn at her side. “The first group is our Defence Team; we can’t be inturboted while we’re in the Drift with Gl’bgolyb!” She glubbed, then frowned briefly before continuing. “Whale we do that, the second group will be the Combat Team. There are going to be kaiju pouring out of the Rift, and they have to be bettan or we’ll be overwhalemed. The third group will be the Strike Team. Their job will be to close the Rift.”

“It’s gonna be all hands on deck,” said Meenah, glaring around the room again. “Don’t think you’ll have nofin to do, becod everyone is going to have a vital porpoise in this battle.”

The sound of chatter rose again, but before it could grow out of control Wavescar strode forward. She ignored the impromptu platform of the nutrition plateaus and marched around to the centre of the room. The voices died down until the only sound was that of her boots making contact with the metal floor. Her steps stopped in the middle of the room, and she raised her head, glaring upwards.

“There will be further briefings tomorrow morning, but as it stands Captor, Maryam, Zahhak and Lucky Eldritch will be the Defence Team around Peixes,” she said, her voice ringing around the room. “Megido, Serket, Makara, you’re with Joker Wild and Wolf Raider on the Combat Team. Nitram, Leijon, Pyrope, you will be with Ronin Steel on the Strike Team. Vantas?”

Her eyes fixed briefly on Karkat; he straightened and did his best not to look like he was in the middle of cardiac arrest, although that was what it felt like.

“You’re carrying the bomb,” she said, and turned away. “I want all support personnel in positions and ready to go; our Jaegers may need air support or fast evac to deal with the kaiju rush, and we are going to be able to give it to them. If anything breaks down from a cause other than kaiju attack tomorrow I will personally cull the individual responsible for its maintenance.”

She set her hands on her hips and turned a full circuit, and Karkat could have sworn she met everyone’s eyes, if only once. “We are entrusted with the most precious and sacred of duties,” said Wavescar, and although her voice was suddenly and unexpectedly quiet it carried. “For ten thousand sweeps our Empire has stood, but today it stands on the brink of destruction. No campaign, no war, no battle in the history of our people has ever been so important as the one we fight tomorrow. No band of soldiers has ever had so much faith placed in them, or such a weighty task placed upon them, but I know that we will succeed because we are chosen!” Her voice rose to a bellow, the same steady fury that she used to bark orders. “We are chosen by the passions of our genetic donors, bonded by hate and pity! We are chosen by the trials we passed as grubs, survivors from our hatching! We are chosen by fortune, fate and our own damned wills to be here, in this place and at this time, and everything that brought us to this common ground is what will see us to victory!” Her eye flicked around again, the purple iris stormy as she raised her chin and smiled a sharp, uneven smile. “Tomorrow, we fight the most crucial battle in the history of our people, and it is a fight that we shall win!”

A roar tore itself from Karkat’s throat, joining the bellowing storm of cheers that had broken out. Feet stamped, voices howled, and hands waved. Here and there words and phrases could be heard, screamed as war-cries.

“ALTERNIAAAA!”

“FOR THE EMPIRE!”

“Wareware wa yoi monsutā o tsubureru!”

It took several minutes for the chaos to start to die down, and it was then that Karkat noticed Kankri was missing. A quick glance around showed that his brother was nowhere in sight; checking that Wavescar had actually finished her speech, Karkat darted up the ramp after him. The corridors were deserted and he saw a flash of a black jumpsuit turning a corner up ahead. Breaking into a run he followed Kankri, until he realised where they were going and slowed to a walk.

He’d lost sight of his brother by the time he arrived at the Pilot’s Lounge, but he hadn’t guessed wrong. Kankri briefly glanced his way as he stepped through the door, and Karkat joined him in the corner where his brother was frowning past a steaming mug of boiled leaf infusion at the Jaegers in the hangar.

“Hey,” Karkat said, sliding onto the couch next to Kankri. The other mutant didn’t even look around.

“He believed in wizards,” he said. “When he was a wiggler, I mean- I know that some trolls retain a juvenile faith in magic and miracles well past the point of mental and emotional maturity, and I would not want to disparage their sincerely held beliefs but I would also not want to mislead or innacurately represent Cronus’ personality or opinions…”

“He believed in wizards,” you echo, and for once in his life Kankri actually takes the hint and gets on with his fucking point.

“He thought that he was destined for something special; that there was a great evil for him to defeat.” Kankri shook his head. “Of course, one could argue that he was correct given that he later joined the forefront of the war against the kaiju and their precursor masters, but by the time he arrived here his faith was long since broken. I heard the tale from Aranea and Meenah, and any attempts to raise the subject of his past fantasies were met with strong refutation and self-disparagement on his part. I attempted to counsel him out of his nihilistic tendencies on multiple occasions, of course, but he was not receptive to my lectures.”

“Yeah, big surprise there,” Karkat muttered. He sighed and leaned back, resting his head on the back of the couch and staring up at the ceiling. “Eridan was a raging egotistical fuckass too; I would’ve sworn he’d sell his own lusus for a pretty scarf.”

There was a pause. Kankri's claws tapped on the sides of his mug. “You know, I have been in all the same Drifts as you.”

It took a moment for the implications to sink in; Karkat stiffened. “Serket-”

“Don’t say it!” hissed Kankri, and Karkat froze. His brother finally looked away from his drink, glaring at Karkat out of the sides of his eyes. “It is hardly a taxing exercise to deduce who could be responsible, and if we were to give any clue that we suspected deception- well, let us assume for the moment that I am well acquainted with the type of personality that enables, directs or ensures the heroic sacrifice of others for a greater cause, and that I have absolutely no desire to position either of us as an obstacle.”

Karkat’s blood, usually so warm, was freezing in his veins. “That’s murder,” he whispered back. “Straight up cold-blooded homicide. How could they hide that?”

“As I said, sacrifice,” Kankri said. His eyes were narrow as he sipped, and Karkat thought that his brother felt as uncomfortable as he did.

“Same fucking difference!”

“It is not,” said Kankri, his voice still low and his eyes back on his drink. “Criminals and wrongdoers murder. Heroes and the pious sacrifice. If you were to engage the perpetrators openly, proclaiming their actions without the proof necessary to ensure their swift detention, what role do you imagine you would be casting yourself in?” He leaned closer, lowering his voice to barely more than a breath. “The cults only need one of us alive to succeed our ancestor and they do not need that one to be cogent, coherent, or sane.”

Karkat jerked upright so abruptly that his neck ached. “Fuck! Jade!”

“Is everything alright?”

Anyone watching would have thought Karkat was psionic; he practically levitated from his seat, spinning around to face Aranea as she entered the room. The door clicked shut behind her- too quietly, the fucking thing always clanged when he tried to close it- and as soon as he saw her, blue-eyed and smiling, his words all died on his lips. Memories from Kankri’s head flashed across his thoughts, and he couldn’t help but mentally dress Aranea in the garb of a priestess. Sufferist, not Signlessist, but it was close enough and suited her far, far too well.

“We were simply contemplating the sad loss of Cronus and Eridan,” said Kankri. “As I would assume you have also been doing. Despite their numerous problematic behaviours in life, their final actions were above reproach, and I am certain that they will be remembered with, if not fondness, then at least respect.”

If he hadn’t been watching for it, Karkat wouldn’t have seen the way that Aranea’s face relaxed oh-so-slightly. Maybe he had imagined it. “Well, that is good to hear!” She shook her head. “It’s a terrible thing when I have to complete one of my testimonials, but at least there will be a detailed record of their lives for the benefit of future generations.”

“Testimonials?” asked Karkat, bemused.

“Aranea not only keeps track of the latest gossip and current events, she makes note of them,” said Kankri. He was smiling, but Karkat knew Kankri’s face as well as he knew his own and the expression was fake- a good fake, but still as real as gills on a land-dweller. “If I recall correctly, she has assembled a truly remarkable narrative surrounding the Jaeger group.”

“This is a significant point in history,” said Aranea. “It’s important that someone writes the story down as it unfolds, as an accurate point of reference.”

“As I believe I have stated in the past, it is simply not possible for your records to be accurate,” said Kankri. “As you would understand if you would only allow me to elucidate on the ramifications of misaligned societal norms, cultural baggage, confirmation bias and the effects of privilege on discourse. As you have not previously listed any triggers relating to cultural appropriation, hemoprejudice, linguistic aggressions and microaggressions, violence including torture and state-sponsored killings, lusal abandonment, lusal abuse…”

“And I’m sure that it will be fascinating!” said Aranea. “But I’m so busy right now- Vriska is distraught. I should really go and look after her.”

Karkat briefly thought of breakfast that morning, when he had borne witness to Vriska competing with Latula in a “how many rolls can I stick in my mouth at once” contest.

“Yeah, you do that,” he agreed. Aranea blushed and hurried off; Karkat waited until the door closed behind her, then leaned towards Kankri.

“You did that on purpose.”

Kankri shrugged. “Only partially. Although I suspected the outcome, I was entirely prepared and willing to deliver my entire lecture should she have been interested.”

“She and Vriska just killed Cronus and Eridan!” Karkat hissed the words, not wanting them overheard. And he had to find Jade and warn her, tell her to keep quiet what they suspected.

“Not necessarily, and even if they did it is no reason not to educate them if they are willing to listen.” Kankri’s face creased. “And I told you not to say that!”

Karkat leaned in close and spoke softly, words trembling with the force he wanted to put into them. “Shove it up your nook, you insufferable, self-righteous, narcissistic, lunatic windba-”

The door slammed open with a clang loud enough to make both of them jump.

“Ah, there you are!” The human in the doorway bounded over to them. He was one of the ones with black, trollish hair, and since his skin was brown rather than pinkish Karkat could tell that he was Ranger Jake English, Jade’s Drift partner and the extremely loud one that Karkat had been avoiding because meeting a human more insufferable than Ranger Egbert aka The Unremovable And Oft-Lamented Pain In Karkat’s Gluteal Muscle Cluster was an experience he would generally have preferred not to have.

“I’ve been scouring the place for you two,” said the human, dropping down onto the couch between them with absolutely no regard for personal space or the murderous glare Karkat was giving him. “I’ve a summons to deliver!”

Kankri pursed his lips. “If Commander Wavescar wishes us to attend on her…”

“I’m not here from the top lady,” said Jake. “Not that I wouldn’t deliver a message for her- bit of a battleaxe, isn’t she? I dare say she’d get along with a few members of the old clan.” Leaning in conspiratorially, he lowered his voice. “Keep this on the down-low, but a few of us are planning a covert jaunt off-base. Hardly kosher, but you know how it is. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die and all that rot. Fancy in on it?”

Karkat and Kankri exchanged a look.

“Wavescar would kill us,” said Karkat. “Actually kill us. The pure force of her rage will erupt out of her throat and into our thoraxes, and then she’ll leave our impaled remains hanging in the communal nutrition block as a warning to others.”

Kankri wrinkled his nose. “I really do not think it is appropriate to engage in any form of conspicuous consumption at a time when the entire planet- and the coastal regions in particular- are undergoing extreme rationing and shortages. To do so would only flaunt the preferential treatment of the military-industrial hemohierarchy and their lackeys and I would not want to trigger any…”

“Wavescar would kill us,” Karkat repeated. Kankri glared at him, but shut up.

Jake nodded thoughtfully. “I can certainly see that,” he said. “On the other hand, if you give her a heads-up on our little excursion, Jade and Rose will kill you, and I’d be a darned sight more afraid of those ladies myself. And if you’re not going to give her a heads-up and she works out you were in the loop all along, well…” He shrugged. “We have a saying where I come from: may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.”

Karkat scowled. “What the fuck do woolbeasts have to do with it? Actually, on second thoughts, don’t tell me. I do not want to know about your bizarre alien proclivities.”

“Actually,” said Kankri, eyeing up Jake carefully. “I believe he is expressing that we will be in trouble whatever we decide now that he has spoken to us, so we may as well obtain maximum enjoyment from our knowledge before the inevitable chastisement as we cannot conceivably make it any worse for ourselves.”

Jake nodded. “Good show!” He looked between them, hopefully. “It would really be a darned sight jollier if at least one of you were to join us, if you get my Drift.”

Karkat’s jaw dropped. “Grand Highblood’s shame globes, was that supposed to be subtle?”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about, old boy,” said Jake. One blunt-tipped brown hand slapped into Karkat’s back while the other patted Kankri’s, and then the alien was standing up and striding for the door again, hands in his pockets and whistling to himself.

Karkat glanced over at Kankri, who shrugged. I suppose we could go and see what this is about. I still don’t entirely approve of the idea.

Karkat tilted his head in the direction Jake was moving. We should go. Remember last time I didn’t follow someone who was being a crypic asshole and trying to set up secretive meetings?

Kankri’s nose wrinkled and he shivered briefly, before nodding. Yes, oddly enough, I do recall that event. Very well.

As they stood to follow the human, it occurred to Karkat that having a conversation entirely in little twitches of body language was perhaps a little tiny bit fucking weird. He just hadn’t thought about it; communicating with Kankri that way had felt natural, simple. He groaned as he realised that they were officially as pan-fucked as the Makaras now. Stomping after Jake, he kept his shoulders hunched defensively and a scowl on his face. He didn’t think for a second he was going to have fun wherever they ended up, but he sure as shit wasn’t backing down now. He wanted to know what the human was clumsily getting at that at least one Vantas needed to know.

Their journey through the Shatterdome was furtive, but hardly stealthy. Jake’s idea of sneaking about consisted of a lot of quick sprints, athletic rolls and dramatic peering around corners, but very little avoidance of busy areas and innocuous strolling. If nothing else Karkat thought someone could track them by following the low-grade grunts and huffs Jake made as a sort of obscene emphasis to his total lack of stealth. Karkat strolled after the human projecting an aura of utter embarrassment and frustration that drew a few snickers but no outright challenges; beside him, Kankri looked about as resigned as Kankri could look.

“Is this intended as some form of subtle mockery?” he asked Karkat in a low voice.

“I fucking wish,” said Karkat, watching as Jake rolled across another corridor and drew at least three glances from wandering personnel. “At least then I would be able to work out how Jade manages to Drift with his shrivelled-up bulgeless crotchpan of a thinking organ.” He watched Jake again as the human crept forward in a low crouch that did nothing but pull the eye down directly to the croucher. “Maybe I should ask her if he got hit on the head at some point. Or several points.”

“Hmm.” Kankri seemed to consider this as they thankfully left the populated regions of the base and started to climb. The stairwell was dark and narrow, but not damp as the ones going down tended to be. “It is certainly a mystery, although one that I must profess myself largely uninterested in solving. My experiences with Mituna have left me loathe to attempt ventures, theoretical or otherwise, into the world of the psyche.”

“Coming from Rose Lalonde’s bestest fucking friend, that is what I might kindly and nurturingly refer to as complete and utter hoofbeast shit.”

Kankri sniffed. “Rose and I simply find it mutually interesting to engage in dialogue regarding our respective societies and cultures-”

Karkat rolled his eyes as he pushed open the door Jake had just walked through. “It’s a good thing she talks to other people, because I don’t even want to guess at what someone would think if you were the only exposure they had to Alternian culture…” his voice trailed off as he stepped through the door and was hit by a blast of cool, fresh, night-time air. His eyes were drawn across the shimmering black expanse of water to the two moons just starting to roll over the horizon, and the sea wind ruffled his hair in passing. Karkat heaved in a deep breath, let it fill his lungs, and to his dismay and surprise found his eyes prickling with moisture.

He’d never thought of himself as an outdoor person, especially not after a sweep on the run. In fact, he would have said that never seeing the outside again would have been too soon. But standing here, atop a plain cylinder of cold metal and dark chitin broken only by the glass dome of the communal nutrition block in the centre, he felt alive in a way that he hadn’t for weeks, stretching outward in all directions after being crushed inwards.

Beside him, Kankri let out a deep sigh. “I… had forgotten.”

Karkat didn’t have to ask what.

“Whale, come on then!” yelled a familiar voice, and they looked around to see Meenah hanging out of the open door of a suborbital aerial troop carrier. The grav lifters were already pulsing, so Karkat broke into a run and charged over, accepting her hand to help haul him up into the vehicle. Kankri was right behind him, but Meenah let him climb in alone; Karkat caught the other mutant and pulled him up just as the carrier parted from the ground, and the two of them tumbled back across the interior where he was caught by a pair of strong, warm arms.

“Whoops! Careful there!”

Karkat looked up to see Jade smiling at him, and instinctively smiled back for a few seconds before realising what an utter fucking wreck he was making of his dignity and shoving her away to scramble upright.

“What…?” he began to ask, but his voice trailed off as he looked around the interior of the troop carrier. All of the humans were there- he’d expected that- but so were Meenah and Feferi, Sollux and Mituna, both Maryams and Serkets- Vriska was sitting in the pilot seat, which explained why the pilot was flying like a crazy asshole- and both Pyropes.

His eyes met Terezi’s face for a brief, silent instant.

“Welcome aboard, Karkles,” she said, and turned back to the Striders sitting either side of her. Karkat took another slow look around and tried not to freak out too much about the two cerulean-blooded pilots being in on this plot, whatever it was.

“What precisely is going on here?” asked Kankri, an edge of hysteria in his voice. So much for not freaking out; Karkat grabbed him and hauled him into a corner, pushing him to sit on the end of the bench.

“We’re going to let off some steam in society, around real people who also happen to be annoying wigglers rather than humourless, faceless soldiers of the Imperial War Machine or whatever other ill-advised insult you want to call our co-workers this week,” he said, ignoring the way his back prickled. “Now sit the fuck down and chill the fuck out before you humiliate yourself.”

“’S right, you tell him, Shouty!” called Meenah. Karkat smirked at her, then gave Kankri one last look- will you be okay?

Kankri nodded slightly towards Latula and Mituna on the bench opposite. I will manage.

Karkat let out a small sigh and walked back down the carrier. He cast a considering look towards Kanaya, but she seemed engrossed in conversation with Rose so he settled between Jade and Feferi instead.

“Karcrab!” squeaked the seadweller, grabbing him into a hug that had him freezing solid in seconds. “I’m so glad you came to kelp!”

Karkat tried to wriggle out of her grasp. “Help? Me? Who fucking told you that? Because whoever it was, they’re a filthy fucking liar. I don’t do help; I’m a lone packbeast.”

“It was me,” said Jade. “And don’t bullshit. Lone packbeasts don’t have Drift partners.”

“Kankri’s an exception,” said Karkat, colouring slightly. “What do you even know about packbeasts anyway?”

“I have a pet dog at home,” said Jade, and Karkat was surprised at the pang that shot through him. Home. He’d known the humans came from somewhere else, that they obviously had somewhere that they lived and considered theirs and would go back to one day, but it still felt a little like being abandoned.

“So where are we going?” he asked, just to move the subject away from things he didn’t want to talk about.

“The city we saved!” called John, from over behind the pilot’s chair.

“Oh, yes, great plan!” Karkat called back. “Let’s just go and parade ourselves through the ruined streets! I’m sure nobody will blink a fucking eyelid at the sight of twelve adults and eight aliens just strolling through kaiju central like they own the shithole!”

“We’re not landing there, stupid!” yelled Vriska, not turning around. “We’re going to somewhere that overlooks it where we can get some privacy!”

Privacy. That didn’t sound so bad. Karkat sighed and slumped back in his seat, half an ear on Jade and Feferi’s chattering. Part of him urgently chittered that he needed to tell Jade, warn her about the Serkets, but he kept his mouth shut tight. If either of them overheard him he would just be getting both of them killed, and Kankri to boot. Something bounced off his knee, and he jolted upright to see Dave smirking at him.

“Penny for them,” he said. Recognising the expression, Karkat growled.

“Do I look like I want to fucking talk to you?”

Dave pushed his shades up further onto his nose. “Do I look like I care? Come on, Karkles, you’re too much fun for me to not talk to you.”

“Can’t you just amuse yourself for a while?” asked Karkat. “I know you can hardly fondle your crotch in company, but humans must have wiggler games that you could play without subjecting us all to the ceaseless spew of radioactive garbage that you call speech.”

“Short attention spans,” Dave replied, settling back against the wall of the carrier. “It’s been the curse of my species since the Information Age. We’re practically mainlining Ritilin, it’s our biggest import after funny animal gifs.”

Karkat huffed at him, but there wasn’t much venom in it. Talking to Dave was- well, it wasn’t fun, exactly, but it was comfortable. Like talking to a version of himself that wasn’t quite frustrating enough to strangle.

“There! Land there!” said Meenah, pointing over Vriska’s shoulder. Karkat couldn’t see just what was so damn special about the unremarkable stretch of dust and rock she was pointing to, but Vriska just shrugged and slid her hands over some of the control nodules. The carrier descended, roughly enough that Karkat grabbed for handholds, and landed with an unceremonious thud.

“What’s the matter, scaaaaaaaared?” asked Vriska, grinning at him. Karkat glared back and dropped the ridge that he’d been clutching.

“Karkat, here!” said Jade’s voice, and he was distracted from Vriska as the human shoved a heavy cooler into his arms. “You can help me carry this stuff!”

“Did I fucking volunteer?” yelled Karkat at her retreating back, but she just flipped him a human swearing finger and picked up a cooler of her own, strolling off with it like it weighed nothing. Gritting his teeth Karkat stomped silently after her, pride refusing to let him complain like he wanted to. No pathetic soft-edged pink alien was going to lift more than him!

Feferi was waiting for them as they came out. “Up the hill, there,” she said, pointing to a nearby ridge. “I’m shore that’s the best plaice, it’s perfect!”

“If it’s perfect, why couldn’t we land there?” Karkat muttered, trailing after Jade. He heard a snicker and glanced over to see Terezi smiling in his direction- an actual, genuine smile. A few moments after he looked, she flushed and turned away. Discomforted, he put on a little speed, beating Jade to the ridge.

“Jutht put that right here, KK,” said Sollux with a smirk, patting the ground beside him. Karkat dropped the cooler with just a little less care than was necessary, forcing Sollux to snatch his hand back before it was squashed.

“Oops,” he said and turned away. He saw a flash of blue out of the corner of his eye, and didn’t manage to duck in time to avoid the small rock that Sollux flung at his head. “Ow! You absolute fucking shit!”

Sollux just snickered and went back to studying his screen. Jade frowned at him as she dropped the second cooler.

“Are you alright?” she asked Karkat. He nodded.

“Yeah, it just stung,” he said. “I already knew Sollux was an insufferable nooksniffer.”

“Love you too, fuckfathe!” yelled Sollux. Karkat made a rude gesture that the computer-obsessed freak completely ignored.

“Look at it,” said Jade, looking past him. Karkat turned to see what she was looking at and was met with the distant lights of the city; the ridge fell away sharply, giving them a near-perfect view. Despite the jagged hole in the skyline, it was surprisingly intact. Karkat had seen similar situations before; outside the admittedly large area of the fighting, the buildings were untouched, and people still got to go about their lives. The drones would have gone by now and the scavengers would have moved in to pull apart the massive kaiju corpses for valuable parts, but away from the devastation the only sign of the war were the massive bones being used as support struts for hivestems and public buildings.

From this distance, it hardly looked like the site of a disaster.

“How did it happen?” asked Jade, quietly. Karkat looked at her in confusion, and she clarified: “The no-adults thing. I mean, no aliens I get, but it’s so strange to imagine a world with only children.”

Karkat shrugged. “Fucked if I know. You want a history lecture, ask Aranea. I just know it’s a death sentence.”

“That’s it?” Jade seemed almost disappointed. Karkat sighed and glanced around, just to make sure nobody was watching.

“Okay, there is this one story,” he said, dipping his head closer so that nobody else could overhear. “It’s just a dumb wiggler tale, so it’s probably completely fake.”

“No, that’s fine!” Jade grinned at him. “I want to hear it!”

Karkat took a deep breath and checked again that there were no witnesses besides the two of them. “Okay, so, once upon a time there was a troll with wings…”

“Wings? Like an angel?”

“No and fuck no.” Karkat glared. “Who’s telling the story?”

Jade held up her hands. “Right! Sorry! Geez.”

“He had giant fucking flutterbug wings, which are the only sort of wings any self-respecting legendary troll would have, except unlike most those supposedly higher-evolved assholes this troll was a lowblood. So naturally he got shit on because Kankri actually sometimes has a fucking point about how much the hemospectrum sucks a massive diseased bulge.”

Jade giggled, but waved her hand for him to continue when Karkat gave her a suspicious look.

“Right,” he said, narrowing his eyes at her. “So anyway, being a lowblood, he had some bullshit psychic power which let him be best friends with all the bloodthirsty monstrous fauna that infests this lovely world of ours, and being an idiot he decided that the best use of his time was to raise an army and try to overthrow Her Imperious Condescension. They say that his power over beasts was such that he thought he could keep Gl’bgolyb pacified, which just proves he was a complete panless bulgebrain because with a lowblood’s lifespan our entire species would’ve been dead in a few decades if he’d succeeded.”

“So what happened?” asked Jade, moving a little closer. Karkat waved a hand in the air, gesturing vaguely towards the city.

“What the fuck do you think happened? He failed, a lot of naïve and gullible idiots died, and the Condesce threw a shit-fit and decided that if she couldn’t leave people on-planet without them trying to break it then we couldn’t have nice things any more.” He snorted. “Talk about a massive boon to population control. I think they had most of the mutants and rebels wiped out within fifty sweeps after that.”

Jade nodded. “And that’s just a story?”

“It’s a story for everyone who likes not being on the tines of a culling fork,” said Karkat. The two of them watched the glow of the city lights for a minute, quietly taking it in.

“Come on, you two!” Jake’s head appeared between them and Karkat almost jumped clean off the ridge when an arm wrapping around his shoulders. “Time for a pow-wow, chop-chop!”

“Is he even speaking the same language as the rest of you?” Karkat asked, as they followed him over to the side of a small campfire that had developed in their absence.

“Mostly?” said Jade. She smiled, and the firelight glimmered against her hair and eyes like it was trapped deep inside her. “You get used to it.”

Karkat’s eyes fell on Kankri, involved in a presumably deep and certainly awkward conversation with Latula while Mituna lay with his head in her lap. “Yeah, I guess you do.” He dropped down next to Kanaya onto a spread warmth conservation fabric and realised a moment too late that he had seated himself opposite Terezi and Dave. Jade sat next to him before he could think of a way to gracefully recover, and he was not quite surprised to see a mixture of relief and pain and fondness on her face as she saw the pair opposite.

“You and him?” Karkat asked. Jade nodded.

“He’s a good guy,” she said. “We’re still best friends. He’s just…” she sighed. “He’s never serious! I mean, he is, he has to be, but sometimes I wanted more than jokes and he was…”

“Unreadable?” suggested Karkat as her voice trailed off. “Frustrating? Cryptic? An enigmatic fucking asshole who acted like a wiggler when you wanted to have a sane, adult conversation for once?”

“Yes!” Jade grinned at him, and Karkat found himself returning the gesture with a slight smile. “That’s it exactly! It’s not that I didn’t love him, but he drove me nuts!”

Karkat glanced at Terezi again, and silently shoved down his bitterness and wished her well, although fuck only knew how that was going to be possible with an alien. The thought made him unexpectedly sad.

“ALRIGHT!” yelled Meenah over the chatter. “Listen up, peons, becod we’re not just here for the haddock it!”

Everyone fell silent and looked towards her. Meenah smiled, seadweller needle-teeth glinting, and folded her arms. Beside her, Feferi got to her feet so that the two of them stood side-by-side over their sitting companions.

“So, here’s the deal,” said Meenah. “If fins go like they’re currently planned, none of us here are gonna be alive this time tomorrow.”

The fact that nobody made any exclamation of surprise was probably the most telling thing of all. Karkat spent a good ten seconds peering at the faces around him in search of shock before it dawned on him that their reaction was the same as his.

They’d all been expecting it, and all planning to deal with it when it came up.

“We clam out here so nobouy could spy on us,” said Feferi. Her voice was a softer counterpoint to Meenah’s, but it was still backed with stormy purpose. “It is reely, reely important that waterever happens, what we say here, stays here.”

Dave threw off a lazy salute. “Understood and amen. Alien Vegas blows but these lips are stitched up tighter than the political rival of the mayor on election week.”

Karkat glared at him over the fire. “Would it kill you to make any fucking sense for a change?”

“Yes,” said Dave. “It would kill me. Dirk would be in mourning for years to come.”

“Black veils, tragic poetry, and an ironic brand of furry pornography dedicated to your everlasting memory,” Dirk confirmed.

Terezi licked her lips. “Hmm. Liquorice.”

Rose cleared her throat. “Perhaps we should resume our discussions?”

“Right.” Meenah nodded. “So wave got eight aliens who shelldn’t be here atoll, two challengers to Her Imperious Condescension, two mutants who are so fuckin’ culled when this is done, two psionics who are manatee be Helmsmen but are mega-unstable for it, two teal-bloods who are all up in the cullbait business of mutants, aliens and psionics like woah, and two lots of jade-bloods and cerulean-bloods who are rocking some heretical shit.” She nodded towards Aranea. “If I can fin out what your bling means, so can Wavescar. Call me crazy, but I’d shore like to enjoy the world once we’re done saving it.”

“If we can save it,” Karkat muttered. Across the fire, Kankri cleared his throat.

“Not that I am arguing with your conclusion that our lives will be in jeopardy should we survive the final battle with the kaiju- and in fact, I would go so far as to suggest that everyone connected with the Shatterdome and the Jaeger project is likely to be culled to preserve secrecy, especially given the remarkable latitude that we have been given and the typical attitude of the Empire to such leniency- but I fail to see what we can hope to accomplish long-term without considerably more planning and a significant support base…”

“We know, and we guaransea that we’ll fin them in time!” Feferi said, clapping her hands together. “But first we have to keep afloat, and for that we have a couple of things that we need to sort out.”

“First up is us two,” said Meenah, taking over the flow of the words without a missed beat. “Now, we said we were goin’ after Gl’bgolyb, and that’s true, but we ain’t stopping there. If we’re linked to her and the Condesce is linked to her, then we’re linked to the Condesce, and she might be older but we’re gonna be two-on-one.”

Everyone who wasn’t an alien stiffened at the pronouncement.

“So… you’re gonna challenge her in mind-space?” asked Latula, her hand stilling in Mituna’s hair. Meenah nodded, and the teal-blooded pilot grinned. “Totally rad!” She held her hand up and out towards Meenah. “Hi-five, sister!”

Meenah rolled her eyes and raised her own hand; Karkat caught her wincing as Latula slapped it with what was definitely excessive force. The sound echoed across the empty desert.

“Tho what if you don’t win?” asked Sollux, frowning over the screen of his husktop.

Meenah shrugged. “Then we all die. No biggie.”

“We’ll be shore to hold off Gl’bgolyb for everyone else,” Feferi added. “But this is the first and only time any Heiress will have the advantage.”

“Yeah, we’re gonna be boss rulers,” said Meenah. “But that’s our part. What we need you guys to do is be ready, becod we got no fuckin’ clue what’s gonna hit us if we manage to pull this off.”

“We hope the others will side with us, but we can’t offishally ask them to commit treason,” said Feferi. “And the ships in orbit might do something terribubble if we’re not prepared to stop them.”

“So in addition to a fight against the kaiju, you wish us to fight the fleet?” Porrim chuckled, the fire casting sinister shadows over her face. “Count me in. I have spent a lifetime awaiting the opportunity, and if I’m unlikely to get another I would like to seize this one.”

Beside her, Kanaya nodded, looking significantly more pale and considerably more terrifying. Karkat wouldn’t have wanted to stand against either of them. “I do not intend to be repaid with death, for myself or my friends,” she said, her eyes sliding to where Karkat sat. His cheeks warmed up and he shuffled around so he couldn’t see.

“You know Vriska and I are happy to assist you,” said Aranea, smiling. The shadows under her eyes made her look like a revenant, but not nearly so much as Vriska who threw her head back and cackled.

“We’re going to make so much history,” she shouted to the sky.

“Sounds dope,” said Latula. “Right, ‘Tuna?”

“FKUKU DA MAAAAN!”

Sollux stared at his hatchclone in silence, then reached up and snapped the lid of his husktop shut. “If we’re doing thith, then I’m recoding the Jaegerth,” he said. “Theriouthly, the control code ith garbage, I’ve been rewriting it for monthth but Wavethcar won’t let me load it in. Thayth it’th untethted.”

“Think we can swing that,” said Dirk. “Right, Jade?”

“Sure, that’s no problem!” said the other human. “I can load it in tonight when I do the final checks!” She knelt up, and Karkat had to crane his neck to see her face- all but hidden by the angle and the fall of her hair. “We’ve been preparing this for ages for ourselves, but after me and Jane Drifted with Meenah and Feferi we knew we had to help you guys, too! The good news is that once the battle starts we’re going to send out a signal, and you only have to hold out for a little while before our retrieval team shows up. The bad news is that all of this is making one huge assumption; we still have to beat the kaiju!”

She shuffled around, and Karkat almost fell over when she looked directly at him. “Karkat, you and Kankri have a really important job; you have to close the Rift! You’ll hear more in the briefing tomorrow, but the basic plan is that you jump into it carrying a really big bomb, set up the blast, and blow it after it crosses the threshold to the Precursors but before they can raise their defences.”

“What?” Karkat jumped back. “Why? What the fuck is wrong with just tossing the bomb in there on its own?”

“Because it has to be armed,” said Dirk, from across the fire. “The trigger mechanism is set to the Rift threshold, so if it’s switched on when it goes in it’ll blow on our side and all we’ll get is chunky kaiju salsa for a limited-time offer.”

“The usual procedure is to use the rescue pods to get out of the Rift after arming the device,” said Jade. “It’s no problem, me and Jake have done it before, but…”

The silence dragged out, filled by the crackle of wood on the fire.

“But what?” asked Kankri. Jade turned to look at him, her face solemn.

“Scarlet Outlaw doesn’t have rescue pods,” she said. “It’s a suicide mission.”

Karkat stopped breathing; his hearing blanked out, everything around him drifting loose. He’d thought… fuck, he’d thought all sorts of things. That Wavescar expected them to die in battle, or that she’d sabotaged their Jaeger to ensure it. That the Rift would kill them, or that they’d make it back alive and then face a firing squad. That one of the others had orders to kill them, that they’d be staked out for the sun, that they’d be chopped into pieces and fed to the fucking fish- anything, he’d expected anything except that, because he’d had faith that Wavescar would at least do them the fucking dignity of dying on their own hell-fucked shithole of a world.

He wasn’t even aware that he’d started shaking until two arms wound around his shoulders, one from each side.

“I can assure you, Karkat, we will not be allowing anything of the sort,” said Kanaya. He’d never heard her so fierce. Karkat looked over at her and was struck by two thoughts; that he wasn’t sure what he would do without her to watch over him, and that he had no intention of letting her get hurt, either.

“We definitely won’t!” Jade agreed from his other side. “Which is why I’ve modified your Conn Pod.” She withdrew her arm and let herself sink back down. “I’ve added a way to inititate the Pod Retrieval system while Outlaw is active; it’s one-use only, but you should be able to use the Conn Pod as a sort of escape rocket and make it back through the Rift. You’ll have to activate it early enough, though! Too far down and you won’t have the thrust to escape.”

“If we use that method, then we will not be of any use for the rest of the battle,” said Kankri. “We will have little choice but to await retrieval on the ocean floor.”

“We’ll come and fish ya,” said Meenah. “One of us. If we can.”

There was another long silence, during which Rose turned her head and looked back towards the distant city on the horizon.

“The architecture is fascinating,” she said, staring at the distant lights. “I didn’t get the opportunity to study it earlier, and I must admit it is rather surprising. Knowing that this world is inhabited primarily by children I expected far more standardised building structures.”

“Hive design is one of the first things we do as wigglers,” said Aranea, turning away from the fire. “Although the construction drones make amendments for structural soundness.”

Jade nudged Karkat’s elbow, and passed him something cold. “Drink? I don’t know what it is, we’ve got our own cooler and I can’t read Alternian.”

Karkat studied the bottle, then shrugged and took it. “What the fuck ever. Beats the hell out of being hunted down and slaughtered by Drones. Eat, drink and be merry, right?”

“Tomorrow we may die,” agreed Jade, holding up a bottle that was slimmer, shorter-necked and labelled in human. She tapped it briefly against Karkat’s and took a swig. Overhead, the moons were shining, and as he lay back to watch them Karkat thought that there were worse ways to spend your last night alive.

DAMARA TRANSLATIONS:
[We fuck up monsters good!]

Chapter Text

It was late in the day, the sun casting long trails of glittering light across the water. The world was far from silent- the thrum of the suborbital lift vehicles filled the air like a fog- but inside the Conn Pod, everything was quiet save for the soft hum of ready machinery.

Scarlet Outlaw wasn’t listening to the world outside. They hung in space, pulled tight to two fragile bodies that were all-important, feeling the brush of fabric on skin and the press of their fingers against metal while they watched fallen stars dancing on the waves. Around them were the darkening shadows of the other Jaegers; their head turned to look at Justice Radical, to their left, and the red-and-teal painted Jaeger swivelled its own head to look back at them. Their hearts were beating in time, their breathing slow and calm as they moved their gaze back down towards the ocean.

Today was the day when they saved everyone, or died trying.

The clamps released and they fell, a few seconds that felt like an eternity in freefall. Hitting the ocean was like slamming into a wall of relentless concrete, and time seemed to speed up again as it parted before them.

Cultists were full of shit. Destroy the world my painted metal ass-plate. We’re going to save this fucking hole of a planet whether it likes it or not.

They landed upright on the bottom of the ocean, the water forming a shimmering sky overhead, and waited as around them plumes of white crashed down and became their allies. They stood at the point of an arrow, flanked by two Jaegers on each side, but ahead of them two other formations bloomed into being. The last Jaeger to arrive was at the head of the crowd, slim and sleek and Tyrian-on-black as it straightened, one hand gripping a two-headed trident the size of an upended dreadnought.

The comms flickered. “If anemone wanted to back out, now would be a terribubble time,” said Punk Royale, in Meenah’s voice. None of the other Jaegers moved.

“Nobody is backing out,” said Wavescar, the comms lighting up again. “Proceed, Punk Royale.”

“Gladly,” said the twin voices of the Tyrian Jaeger. Making a come on gesture with their free hand, the heiresses began to march across the seabed, flanked by four attendants. The other two groups held back for a few seconds before following through the dark water. Although they could compensate for the lack of light, Outlaw’s visual receptors were focused on the dim red-blue glow of Electric Binary, striding just behind Punk Royale’s left shoulder.

Their comm panel flashed with a private channel, and seeing the sigil they opened it with a momentary pang of conflicting emotion.

“We just wanted to wish you good luck,” said Rainbow Grace. “And to urge you to endeavour to come back alive.”

“There’s no need to worry about us,” they said- and inside both of them were screaming because it was unfair, so very unfair that Karkat couldn’t talk to Kanaya, and Kankri couldn’t talk to Porrim. Rainbow Grace cared for Outlaw and Scarlet Outlaw cared for Grace and that would have to be enough to carry all of their wishes. “But… the same to you. Both of you.”

There was a pause. “Thank you,” Rainbow Grace said. “And we wanted you to know; whatever happens, we are proud of you both, and glad that you have been able to get this far.”

“Yeah.” The three groups were winding along the edge of a rocky ravine, the water plummeting down into impenetrable blackness. “Look, don’t- don’t die, okay? We know that’s a completely fucking absurd thing to ask and that you have no absolute control over the result of the events that are about to transpire, but… just don’t.”

There was an amusement they associated with a small smile in the reply. “We shall be endeavouring not to.”

The procession reached an outcropping and came to a halt.

“Alright,” said Punk Royale. “Noboaty follow us until it’s clear.”

The Tyrian Jaeger stepped forward- although it didn’t step so much as glide, artificial fins rippling in the water. Punk Royale had been built to swim and swim it did, passing over the thin finger of rock that stretched into the abyss and coming to hover in the water without anything firm beneath its webbed flippers.

Outlaw felt something- a soundless cry, an empty force- that reached into the Drift and pulled out memories of Crabdad and Porrim and Elders who sang sweet songs. They gasped like they’d been punched in the gut, and then froze solid as the darkness ahead of them started to move. Over Punk Royale an immense tentacle unfurled, the underside studded with a familiar blue light that chilled both of Outlaw’s bodies to the marrow and illuminated the surrounding mass of lusus-white flesh. If any of them had doubted what Gl’bgolyb was those doubts vanished as the ancient kaiju unrolled more limbs, lighting the ocean with a galaxy of blue stars and writhing, pale tentacles.

One of those questing limbs, large enough to dwarf their entire force, stretched out to Punk Royale. The heiress' Jaeger reached up and touched it with one metal hand. The bulk of the creature below shifted, and the lights spun; Outlaw took an almost involuntary step back as water rushed past them, shoving like a storm wind outward. The icy blue glow in the water was joined by a second light, a fiery orange that seeped out past Gl’bgolyb, and then the ocean ahead was blotted out by the rise of a nightmare.

Sharp fangs lined the edges of the kaiju’s beak, and blue-lit eyes peered out from between the feeding tentacles of its face. They roved around the entire group, blinking and taking them in, and Outlaw wondered exactly how long Gl’bgolyb had been at the bottom of the ocean, how old she was, how much she had fed and how much she had grown. They had to fight the urge to scream when Punk Royale’s hand reached out and brushed against the edge of the beak. The Jaeger was tiny compared to the monster, the size of a toy suitable only for wigglers of three sweeps and up because otherwise it would be inserted into unsuitable orifices.

Nothing came over the comms, but Outlaw was certain that Punk Royale said something, her hand resting against her mother’s beak. Then the Tyrian Jaeger moved, faster than Outlaw would have thought possible; for a moment she was invisible in the flurry of water moving around her, and then the world shook and the tentacles thrashed and something impossibly huge shrieked in Outlaw’s head. They stumbled, falling to their knees and clapping their hands uselessly to the sides of their metal skull. Inside the Conn Pod, blood was already seeping out of their cartilage nubs and auricular sponge clots. Ocular feeds dimly showed them the other Jaegers around them stumbling, some falling in puffs of slow-moving sand. They saw Punk Royale standing atop the monster’s head with the two-headed trident buried deep inside it, and as they watched the Tyrian Jaeger tilted over and let itself fall onto the other end.

For a dizzying moment Outlaw thought Punk Royale had impaled themselves, and then the terrible, deadly scream in their mind fell silent. Their vision cleared and they could see the slots that the prongs of the trident had buried themselves in, the inbuilt linkages of the Peixes Jaeger which had been built for one purpose. It was fulfilling it, slumped face-down and limp over the head of Gl’bgolyb.

“Pons spike is online and functional,” said Rose’s voice. “It is down to them, now.”

For an age they all waited, oxygen monitors blinking as they stared at the still, silent pair. Then, like one of Gamzee’s shitty miracles made manifest, the fallen tentacles began to slide back and the comm light flashed with Punk Royale's sigil.

“My children,” said the voice, and it might have been Feferi’s but it sounded different- more hollow, richer, older, younger, more. The words came out slow and lyrical, rising and falling like cresting waves. “My children. My people. My world.” The tentacles lifted, and the orange light that had gleamed before shone brightly. “Pass. Pass to life. Live. Victory.”

They all hesitated, and then two Jaegers moved forward- one light and lithe and predominantly white, one two-headed and lit with psionic radiance. Lucky Eldrich and Electric Binary walked side-by-side to the end of the rocky outcropping and stepped off the edge onto waiting tentacles, letting themselves be carried up and taking up guard positions on either side of the still-slumped Punk Royale. Archer Noble and Rainbow Grace followed, the immense Jaeger overshadowing the more delicate one as they too were lifted to Gl’bgolyb’s head. As soon as they were in position the other units moved. Outlaw watched as the combat team strode up to the edge of the abyss and over it, each dropping out of sight in turn. Gambler Fortune, Monster Fucker, Harlequin Mirth, Joker Wild and Wolf Raider. Their blood-pushers lurched a little when they saw Jade’s Jaeger vanish from sight, but they maintained a steady pace as they led their strike force to the edge of the ravine and looked down.

Below them the water shone with a light that might have been welcomingly warm if it weren’t for the crawling sense of wrongness that seeped through them like sewage. The dark shadows of the ocean floor gave way to another cleft in the rock, except this one glowed with an eldritch fiery light that had no place under the water- or anywhere else, for that matter. Otherworldly fire reflected across Scarlet Outlaw’s carapace and in the eyes of the pilots within as they studied for the first time the gateway their enemy had built. Overhead, a single white tentacle arched; it passed them in a slow trail of alien starlight and, as they watched, dipped into the Rift. The quality of the light pouring from it changed, shifted, brightened, and with a single deliberate step they left the entirely illusory safety of the rock shelf and let themselves plummet towards the seabed below. As they landed, all hell broke loose.

The Rift flared up, coruscating with infernal brightness. It was enough warning for Gambler Fortune and Monster Fucker to jump back, narrowly avoiding a massive clawed foot as it slammed down on the seabed surrounding the Rift. Water churned as the kaiju hauled itself up out of the hole, spines shifting along its shoulders as it dragged itself forward. One vicious paw lashed out with surprising speed, almost hitting Gambler Fortune before she jumped back and shattering a nearby rock to fragments.

“Contact is made,” said Monster Fucker, and the water glowed red as her Arc Wands slid out from her wrists. The rest of her team were already closing, Wolf Raider hanging back with its firing arms already locked and pointed towards the Rift.

“GO!” yelled Jade and Jake, and Outlaw started to run for the Rift, which was already disgorging another monster. Energy lanced past their shoulder and burned the new kaiju; external sensors flashed alerts as flash-boiled water washed over Outlaw’s flank. The ground thudded as they ran and they were just barely aware of the Jaegers to either side of them, protecting them and clearing a path. A flash of grey and blue was all the warning they had before a kaiju slammed into Cowboy Hero from the side. The burly Jaeger tumbled, unable to reclaim its forward momentum, and crashed into Outlaw sending them both sprawling. Pounce Daring was on it in a flash, titanium claws flashing, and toxic blue blood drifted lazily in the water as Justice Radical and Ronin Steel piled into the melee.

Outlaw scrambled back to their feet and almost immediately threw themselves to the side, narrowly missing being crushed by a grey-black tentacle that was covered in glowing blue pustules and ended in a heavy knob of bone. They found themselves face to face with a kaiju, two identical appendages sprouting from its shoulders and waving hypnotically in the water.

About to jump forwards, Outlaw was interrupted by a burst of pain and intense, icy fury. They gasped and around them every trollish Jaeger stumbled; water churned as Pounce Daring was dragged down by the kaiju they were fighting, and Ronin Steel’s blade flashed as the human-piloted Jaeger struggled to be everywhere at once. A second burst of pain had them stumbling, and the swinging weight on the kaiju’s tentacle slammed into their chest-plate and sent them skidding back across the ocean floor. Slumped against the foot of the ravine, Outlaw could see further, and every group was in the same peril. Lucky Eldritch stood alone atop Gl’bgolyb, wands flashing impossibly fast in defence of Punk Royale, and Wolf Raider fought to reclaim Harlequin Mirth from under a kaiju while Joker Wild held off another assault with heavy blows.

TRAITORS! screamed a wordless voice, and Outlaw was pushed down further, pressed into the rock. They couldn't breathe, the pressure was too high, and they could feel their thinkpans turning to mush in their skulls.

Shore, like you weren't expectin' us to come burst your bubble. Meenah was there, in their thinkpan, pressing in with the pain. Outlaw felt her grin, shark-toothed and sharp, all confidence and certainty and, deep deep down, screaming fury.

Did you reely think we would wait and do nofin whale you made plans to krill us? Feferi was as powerful as her sister, a presence the size of a planet echoing through countless minds. Her anger was closer to the surface, the line of frothing foam between boundless optimism and unbending steel. Somewhere in the far distance, Outlaw could hear the human pilots screaming over the comms, could see the water fogging with kaiju blood and torn metal.

...If that's the way you want it. The Condesce was old. Old as mountains, and oceans. Old as their civilisation. You brats had betta be ready!

The mental blow sent Meenah and Feferi reeling; the pressure inside Outlaw's head spiked up and they screamed, certain that their cranial bones were about to explode. Over the comms they heard more howls going up. An echo ran through their bones, the ghost of a sensation as all across the stars, trolls clutched their heads and wailed, helpless with the pain of their heiresses.

In the wake of the strike, calm reigned. Then, into the empty hollow, there fell a single chuckle from two voices. From the stillness Meenah and Feferi welled up, flowed into one another, spinning faster and faster until they were a twisting, roaring maelstrom. And underneath it, in the fathomless depths that propelled them upwards, there lurked another presence- old, and alien, and resonating with love and loathing in equal parts.

Gl'bgolyb's sleeping mind stirred, and was snatched into the Drift by her children.

Nice shot, said Punk Royale, regarding their imperial Ancestor with cold triumph. But how aboat we show you what we clam do like this?

A scream sounded, loud enough to shatter bone and melt flesh. The Condesce. Outlaw flinched as the attack screamed home, bracing for something that they couldn't stand against.

Between one pusher-beat and the next the pain evaporated.

The sudden silence was deafening, but there was no time to dwell on it. Outlaw pulled their legs up close and pushed off from the wall of stone behind them, alerts flashing in their vision about damage to their thoracic armour plate. They ignored the warnings and waded forward into the melee, which was growing larger by the minute as the Rift disgorged more and more monsters.

The ocean bed reared up in front of them to reveal a kaiju twice their size, its entire back covered in flat, gritty plates of armour. Its mouth opened onto a glow as hellish as the Rift and dazzlingly bright; Outlaw ducked aside as the water around them boiled, then charged forwards to slam a fist up under the kaiju’s chin. Layers of flesh rippled and they spun, bringing their other arm around to slash the sickle blade across the creature’s neck as it reared. The water glowed with kaiju blue and the monster shook, slamming its head down in an attempt to beat them to the ground. Outlaw hung onto the kaiju’s shoulder, feet slipping but barely managing to remain upright, and let both blades dig into the flesh.

A jet of searing heat struck their foot and started rising; Outlaw screamed and for a moment memories flashed- dreams of being staked for the sun, a fear born in a wide-eyed wiggler, an image of an adult who looked just like him burning...

In a flash of brilliant colour Justice Radical appeared on the creature’s back, the cable strung between her white staves lassoing its throat and hauling it back. The red-hot pain vanished and Outlaw staggered back; a streak of red and orange almost sent them off balance again as Ronin Steel’s blade impaled the roaring kaiju.

They wanted to stay and help, but from the top of the kaiju Justice Radical glanced up and made a shooing motion. Sick to the digestion sac with fear and knowing that they had a job to do, Scarlet Outlaw turned and ran, weaving through the knots of fighting back towards the shimmering Rift. Their melted ankle refused to move properly, giving them a stiff gait and a slower pace.

The comm light from the Shatterdome flickered. “Be advised, Jaegers, that whatever the damn hell you did to the Condesce, it has had consequences.” Outlaw spun past a lashing claw and wondered; Wavescar’s voice was tense, but they had never heard her less angry. “We are deploying our own personnel and support vehicles to try and delay them in the upper atmosphere, but they are refusing to respond to our communications and have superior armaments. We cannot guarantee that your mission will remain uninterrupted.”

The last word was cut slightly short, the comm light winking out. Outlaw didn’t have time to worry; two kaiju had intercepted their mad dash for the Rift and were charging them down. With only seconds to think they darted to the side and straight into a melee between Gambler Fortune and a two-headed kaiju. The cerulean-lined Jaeger was holding her own even with two limbs shattered, but when Outlaw crashed into her she stumbled.

“What have the heiresses been doing? We demand an explanation!” said Archer Noble, voices a low growl.

“EXTHPLAIN LATER!” yelled Electric Binary in response. There was a flash of light from overhead, but Outlaw’s view of it was cut off by a large kaiju head snapping towards them. They stumbled back and crashed into something too giving to be rock; looking up, they saw the armoured kaiju that had blocked their path earlier.

“SHIT!” They tried to get out of the way and claws hooked into the shattered scars in their thoracic armour, rending it open with a terrible screech. Outlaw spluttered as water poured into the Conn Pod- not much yet, just enough for a tropical rainstorm, but any more and it would become a whole lot worse than a deluge.

Gambler Fortune’s arms flew out stiffly, and for a fraction of a second the kaiju froze in an aura of deep blue light. It was long enough for Outlaw to slip out and start running again before the kaiju lurched back into motion.

“Someone needs to assist Gambler!” they yelled over the comm. “Before they’re torn apart by hordes of ravening monsters!”

“On it, brother,” said the eerie twin-voice of Harlequin Mirth, and a Jaeger painted with a shit-terrifying replica of an ancient subjuggulator mask dove past them towards the fray, hints of laughter drifting over the comm before it cut out. Outlaw didn’t dare turn back to see how they were doing; they were already accessing their operating modes, switching back from combat to endurance.

Their speed picked up as the Jaeger switched function, and even with their mangled ankle and tattered armour they raced across the final few hundred yards of the battlefield. The Rift was right ahead of them, a glowing maw of death and destruction, and they launched off a rock to dive towards it in a way that may have been graceful but which was most certainly not any kind of acrobatic fucking pirouette.

They jerked to a halt in mid-air and were yanked backwards, their undamaged leg screaming in protest and the water in the Conn Pod flying as they were hauled back to the ground. They slammed into it with a force that sent sparks flying from the already-damaged systems. The kaiju that had caught them while crawling out of the Rift was over them before they could react. Only their hastily-raised arms kept it from biting into the Conn Pod in seconds. The sickle blades were torn away by massive teeth, the hands slumping as the servos in the arms whirred and died, and their arms felt like bloodied shreds but they kept them up and screamed and yelled and kicked with their heat-welded foot into the unyielding belly of the kaiju.

Light flashed and in a burst of bubbles the creature lurched back. Outlaw tilted their head back to see Wolf Raider approaching, their arm firing a steady thuk-thuk-thuk of energy blasts into the kaiju. The water filled with a misty haze as they scrambled back to their feet.

“Go! We’ll cover you!” yelled Jade’s voice, raw and harsh from shouting. Outlaw spared a moment to glance at them and nod as Wolf Raider continued to approach, keeping up the fire and laying down a storm of scattering energy that held back the kaiju. Then Outlaw turned and ploughed through the tainted water, up the lip of the chasm and forward into the Rift.

The world flashed as they crossed the boundary, tumbling past by the wide white tentacle that held the way open, and then they were falling through a space of unimaginable size. Golden walls of flesh pulsed around them, raw light filled their lungs, and everything filled with silence.

Memory pulled on them, and they fell.

Karkat was standing in his respite block, wondering what to do with his sixth wriggling day. He tended to hate the anniversary of his pupation; it served as a perennial reminder that he was, to all intents and purposes, a prisoner inside the walls he had designed for himself. Another sweep of captivity over, and another sweep closer to his inevitable and unlamented demise.

His fingers drifted across the sickle on the table beside his bed, half-formed dreams and ambitions skittering through his thoughts before they were distracted by the news streaming across the visual media display device. Another Othersider attack. Fan-fucking-tastic. Maybe they’d known it was his wriggling day even on the sanity-forsaken oinkbeast swill hole on the other side of the Portal. Ha. Like he would ever be important enough to be targeted by giant murderbeasts out on assassination missions.

He was going stir crazy in here. The air was dead and stale, like something spewed out in the dying breath of a decrepit trunkbeast. Karkat tiptoed down the stairs, avoiding the angry squeals and chitters of Crabdad, and out of his front door. There was a breeze, barely; it whispered over the lawnrings in a way that Karkat might have gone to more trouble describing were he feeling particularly poetic but which, ultimately, was of considerably less immediate concern than the distant black smudge of approaching Drones in the near distance.

He practically teleported back inside, the door slamming shut behind him as his mind and blood-pusher raced. His first thought was to wonder how they had found him- this wasn’t an accidental visit, he was certain of it, he’d chosen his lawnring to be off the usual patrol routes between the inner deserts and the coast and even the upheavals of the Portal and the Othersiders hadn’t fucked with those enough to change that- but even as he grabbed his bug-out bag and started racing for the back door he knew that there was nothing. He hardly even set foot outside, everything he did was done in grey, it wasn’t a crime to be hemoanonymous before Conscription and he’d never, ever done anything suspicious beyond that.

Logic dictated that they weren’t there for him, but logic could take a running jump off a short plank into a pit full of venomous stingbeasts. Karkat had no intention of waiting to see how wrong he could be. Tossing a handful of roe cubes into the kitchen to keep Crabdad quiet, he snuck out of the back door and ran pell-mell for the treeline. He didn’t have to get too far away, just enough to not be immediately found if it was him they were looking for. A hollow shrub at the edge of the forest was a good enough hiding place to begin with, and he shoved his bag ahead of him before crawling after it and settling in to see where the Drones went.

He’d been meaning to conduct a cool-headed and impassive observation, but he couldn’t tear his eyes off them as they drew closer. Sleek and black and spiny, they marched down the street in pairs, six of them all together. No pails, so it wasn’t a reproductive call- thank fuck, because there was supposed to be warning for those and Karkat had nightmares where he woke up to find one of them unexpectedly hammering on the front door demanding his contributions. Curtains twitched and doors clicked shut as they passed, his neighbours clearly experiencing a similar terror but with considerably less preparation.

He held his breath as they reached his front door, and let it out again as they passed by. He was as safe as he could be for now. Still he couldn’t look away as they stopped by the hive two doors down from his own; vaguely he remembered seeing a gangly girl with spiralling horns living there. Her curtains were olive-green, so Karkat reasoned that was most likely her blood colour.

His fingers ran along his knuckles, claws almost drawing blood when he heard the crash of the door being kicked in. The noise was audible even from his distant vantage point- the Drones were hardly stealthy- and he grit his teeth when someone started to scream. An upstairs window shattered and things started to fly out of it, stacking up in a heap on the lawnring. Two of the Drones gathered it into a pile. It looked like a combination of husktop components and loose-leaf papers, although Karkat couldn’t make out what exactly they were.

Karkat.

The girl herself was carried out by all four of the Drones that had gone in, one to each limb. She was screaming incoherently in fear and fury, and from the way she was wriggling in their grip she still hadn’t given up on getting loose. Karkat wrapped himself around his bag and watched as she was held down on top of the pile of junk that had been removed from her hive. One of the two remaining Drones stepped up, and he could have sworn he saw her spit in its face before it calmly impaled her on its culling fork.

Karkat.

She didn’t make any sounds he could hear after that, although he didn’t think she was completely dead when they set the heap alight. Thick black smoke poured off the bonfire, smelling of accelerant and burning meat and metal. Karkat ducked his head and scrunched his eyes shut, but he couldn’t close out the smell.

KARKAT!

His eyes flew open and he saw Kankri crouched in front of him, an adult with his horns and his eyes and a suit of sleek black armour.

You don’t have to stay here,” he said, and held out a hand. Karkat took it and almost immediately the stench vanished; he looked around and saw that he was sitting on the floor of a cave, the walls carved and polished to an almost artificial smoothness.

Where…” Karkat stood up and he was an adult too, only rather than his Drivesuit he wore his old clothes- the grey pants and black polo-neck shirt he had left home in. Kankri was still in front of him, his Drivesuit changed for a bright red sweater that was slightly too long in the arms.

My home,” he said, and his eyes were fixed on a point behind Karkat. “This is the spot where- where they found us. Porrim and I.”

Oh.” Karkat looked back around at the corner he had been sitting in, and for a moment thought he saw the shadowy impression of bodies. They vanished, but he didn’t have to wonder beyond that. The memory was already in his head, locked away behind the same door as everything else of Kankri’s but indelibly stained into his thinkpan anyway. He looked back around, eyes searching for what he knew he would find, and walked over to rest a hand on the carving that filled the wall opposite.

I cannot advise that we linger here,” said Kankri. “We have things to do, and dwelling on the past is far from healthy for either of us. In fact, as I recall it, the humans had a significant number of warnings and admonishments regarding “chasing the rabbit”, and I suspect that without the aggravating factor of being plunged under dubiously consensual circumstances into a non-euclidean void between dimensions we would not be engaged in this particular escapism at all. We should return at once.”

Karkat’s fingers brushed across the rock as he studied the carving. “Why?”

Karkat, if we do not complete our mission, Alternia and its people will be lost!”

Is that such a bad thing?” Karkat glanced briefly back at Kankri before turning his attention back to the carving; above him, the blank eyes of the Signless Sufferer looked down in an expression of serenity.

There was a brief silence, presumably while Kankri took in his meaning. “Karkat, we are individuals with our own agency, not the puppets of some fundamental and incontrovertible destiny. We do not have to permit or accelerate the destruction of our world simply because our ancestor said we would do so.”

Karkat’s hand slammed into the stone. “FUCK OUR ANCESTOR!” he yelled. “This is about us, Kankri! This is about idiots burning on their own lawn-rings and dumbasses getting slaughtered while they pray and dying under someone else’s control and being scared all the fucking time! What the divine ass-delving fuckery has our miserable necrotic virus of a species ever done to deserve saving, can you fucking tell me that? What have we ever done?”

Well, whilst I can understand your anger and would certainly consider it a justified and understandable response to the discrimination and threats of violence both implicit and explicit that you have been exposed to, I think it is well worth remembering those of our people who have taken a stand against such aggressions by the hemohierarchy…”

You mean the people who get cut down? Strung up? Slaughtered while everyone fucking laughs?” Karkat snarled. “No wonder we’re fucking monsters! We culled all the half-decent examples of our species a thousand generations back!”

Is that what you really believe? About Terezi? About Kanaya?”

Karkat winced. “I don’t want them to die,” he said, voice cracking slightly.

Then save them!”

Karkat whirled, eyes hot and blurring. “I DON’T WANT TO DIE!”

Kankri stepped up until he stood almost nose to nose with Karkat. “THEN SAVE YOURSELF!”

I WILL THEN!”

GOOD!”

“GOOD!” The word burst out of his throat as he shot out of the Drift, the screens already showing the shutdown in amongst the glaring medley of lime-flashing warnings. He shoved the interface aside and ripped off his helmet, gasping as water rushed out of his hair and over his face. Next to him Kankri was doing the same, pulling out of the machinery and dropping onto the pitching, flooded floor of the Conn-Pod.

“Hey!” yelled Karkat, and his brother looked at him- bloodied, soaked, and with the dark rings of exhaustion that Karkat usually saw under his own eyes. “Don’t you fucking drop dead on me either!”

The smirk he got in return was all Kankri. “I can assure you,” he said, voice loud over the noise in the Conn Pod, “I have no intention to leave you to your own devices any time soon.”

Karkat snorted. “I’ll get the bomb!” he called back. “You deal with the Pod.”

Without even waiting for an answer, Karkat began wading towards the back of the Conn Pod. His hand grabbed for any purchase against the lurching floor and the swirling water. Step by agonising step he managed to haul himself to the door, his leg protesting its new circuit burns with every footfall. With an arm that screamed in protest he grabbed the respiration crustacean from by the door and jammed it over his mouth; its sharp-tipped legs pinched in, gripping onto his skin and sealing the shell over his face. He took slow, deep breaths as he stumbled out into the corridor, making certain to seal the door behind him again. The Conn Pod was pressurised, at least for now, but the rest of the Jaeger’s structure was not and like hell did he want to find out what passed for air in between dimensions. If he was obscenely lucky, it wouldn’t be corrosive.

The bomb wasn’t far, but every step seemed to take a lifetime. Jade’s instructions whirled in his thinkpan- it was simple, so fucking simple, no timing or special effort involved. Just switch the damn thing on then get the fuck out of there before it hit the next transitional barrier. He stumbled forwards as the Jaeger tumbled and drifted a little in the air before he caught himself; either the gravity here was lower, or they were approaching some sort of interdimensional Lagrange point. Either way, he didn’t have long.

The bomb was as human as the Conn Pod, metallic and angular. The silvery casing was marked with warnings in Alternian and presumably in human, and stripes of lime and scarlet ran down the sides. His fingers fumbled as tried to open the little hatch on the top and he paused to shake the damp off them. The panel opened easily on the second attempt and he jabbed at the large, red, solitary button inside without a second thought. Jade had told him the bomb would do all the work, that it was designed to activate and deactivate easily and that he couldn’t possibly get it wrong, but he still waited until the small screen next to the button lit up with alien symbols before flipping the panel back down and scrambling for the Conn Pod.

He felt the air rush out past him this time as he slipped back in, and didn’t bother removing the respiration crustacean. The second one was hanging loose in the storage recess; he grabbed it and limped back over to Kankri, thrusting it at his brother without a word. Kankri clamped it to his face, then pointedly grabbed onto a sturdy girder. Karkat followed suit, and his brother gave a single sharp nod before reaching over and tugging an odd square-headed level under the control column.

The Conn Pod lurched and they both tumbled; Karkat hissed as both his shoulders were wrenched. With a tortuous creak of metal the Conn Pod began to shift upwards, gathering speed at a rate that pinned both pilots to the ground and made their arms feel as if they were being torn out of their sockets. Karkat’s eyes were drawn upward to the flickering, static-spattered feed from their external optical pickups. He saw the body of Scarlet Outlaw falling away from them, tumbling through dim golden light towards a distant tear. Through that he could just make out glimpses of another world- a shimmering yellow ocean, the glint of a red sun off a sheer dome- and then another lurch of the Conn Pod nearly sent them both tumbling into a wall.

“What happens…” gasped Kankri, between tumbles. “If… the bomb goes off… before we have returned?”

“Stuck here?” suggested Karkat, gritting his teeth against a particularly vicious judder.

“Wonderful.” Kankri was pale behind the respiration crustacean. With his hair slicked down by water and his face thin with exhaustion, Karkat imagined they were hardly distinguishable at all. Then the fucking Conn Pod shifted again and he got a splash of salty, kaiju-tainted water to the face. He shook his head to try and clear his eyes- he couldn’t spare a hand, not with the steely death-grip it took not to be tossed about like the small metal sphere in a flippers-pins-and-lights gaming device- and kept them screwed shut as they continued to tumble.

“I think we’re slowing down,” said Kankri, voice undercut by worry. Karkat couldn’t blame him. His own food chute went icy cold at the thought of stopping before they reached the Rift, of tumbling back down helpless to be trapped in this endless limbo until they ran out of air.

As if in answer to their fears, there was a sudden heavy impact that sent them both sprawling, and the Conn Pod rang like a bell. They both yelled and grabbed and clung to one another as they were thrown upwards, the Conn Pod shaking and rolling around them, and Karkat almost missed the moment when the entire world seemed to turn inside-out and they emerged from the Rift.

Gravity was the first thing to hit them, a wall of force that slammed them down and sent the Conn Pod rattling over rock and sand. Both of them were drenched as the Pod rolled and Karkat could feel bruises forming with every blow. Something caught his hand below his armour and he felt his flesh tear; cracks and metallic screams from the Jaeger told him about more near misses. Then in an abrupt halt he slid into the side of the Conn Pod, his legs pressed up against what was once the ceiling and his back resting against a wall. Beside him Kankri groaned and pushed himself over so that he was no longer lying on his face.

“That,” said Karkat’s brother, in a tone that brooked no argument, “Was deeply unpleasant.”

“No shit, genius,” said Karkat, but he didn’t have the energy to snarl it or to be anything but astonished that he was alive and relatively intact. Then his eyes fell on the wall overhead and the first thought that passed through his thinkpan was: of course.

The Conn Pod had already been breached in the earlier battle, but the recent damage had widened the cracks. Water was pouring in from a visible line in the metal, adding rapidly to the depth of the pool they were lying in. Karkat’s breathing quickened and he forced himself to slow it; the respiration crustacean would last longer that way.

And then I get to chose between suffocation and drowning. Assuming the pressure doesn't crush me first.

Fuck his life.

He rolled his head over towards the consoles, and was utterly unsurprised to see them all dark. Only the emergency lighting remained, dim and blue, pressing down around them almost as thoroughly as the water was going to soon.

“So, back there,” he said. “Was that- was it me, who thought that?”

Kankri’s head rolled over to face him. “About whether it was worth it, and not wanting to die?” His brother sighed. “In all honesty, I have no idea any more.”

“Me neither,” said Karkat. He stared up at the pouring water, and shuffled his way upright to keep his head out of the growing lake of water. He offered a hand to Kankri, who took it; soon the two of them were sitting side-by-side, leaning against one another’s shoulders. “Pretty fucking certain I don’t want to die now, though.”

Kankri nodded, regarding the water with hooded eyes. “Do you suppose we were victorious?” he asked.

Karkat squinted at him. “In what?”

“Closing the Rift,” said Kankri. “Stopping the kaiju. Overthrowing the Condesce. That is what we set out to do today, is it not?”

“Yeah, well.” Karkat leaned back against the former ceiling of the Conn Pod and watched the water slosh over his knees. “Either way, we were raw fucking badasses.”

“That is hardly a productive attitude,” snapped Kankri.

“We’re trapped in a leaky metal cylinder at the bottom of the grubdamned ocean with limited breathable air and absolutely no way whatsoever to contact anybody,” pointed out Karkat. “What the holefucking shitwads would you call productive now?”

Kankri fell silent, and Karkat was almost sorry.

“On the plus side,” he added, after what felt like an age, “We’ve not been picked up and cracked open by a kaiju looking for the tasty troll treats inside the gooey centre, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say that our world is not currently being invaded by horrorterrors from another dimension.”

There was another long pause. The water lapped around their hips.

“That is a very pertinent point,” said Kankri. “I think that we can die reasonably well assured that the complete extinction of our species is no longer imminent.”

“Are you being fucking sarcastic?”

Kankri’s eyes narrowed at him. “I do apologise. I was not aware that you had exclusive rights and access to the use of exaggerated insincerity as a means of expressing your dissatisfaction. Please allow me to remain utterly unmoved by your shock and disapproval given my completely natural discomposure in the face of our impending and thoroughly unwelcome demise!”

Karkat gaped. “You choose now to act pissy? Now? What the- you are grubfucking insane!”

“I believe you have mentioned something to that effect, yes! And I am not ‘choosing’ anything, I am simply finding it hard to maintain an appropriate level of patience in the face of my current emotional distress!”

“Well, whoop-de-fucking-do!” Karkat snapped, shifting away from Kankri. His arms sank over the elbows in the deepening water. “Welcome to my world!”

“Oh, please, you get unduly emotionally distressed about everything!”

“At least I’m honest about it when I do!”

“Good manners and self restraint are neither dishonesty nor dissembling, and you would be well advised to-“

“If you lecture me right now I will hold your fucking head under the water and drown you!”

“I’d like to see you try!”

Karkat lunged forwards, launching a brief but energetic bout of splashing that ended with them both slumped back against the wall watching as the water rose up towards their necks.

“Well, that was fucking stupid,” said Karkat.

Kankri shrugged, sending ripples through the water. “At least nobody will ever discover how immaturely we acted in our last minutes,” he said.

Karkat snorted and splashed a hand through the water. “Kankri?”

“Yes?”

“Thanks.”

There was a brief pause. “My thanks to you, too, Karkat.”

Karkat shifted as the water pushed against his chin. “I still don’t want to fucking die.”

The response was a whisper. “Neither do I.”

A hand reached out and grasped Karkat’s as the water closed over their heads. He squeezed it, eyes stinging with the polluted water, and wondered how much longer he had before the respiration crustacean died and took him with it. His hair drifted in the rising water and when he saw Kankri floating beside him, he found himself imagining what it would have been like to have been born seadwellers instead of mutants. Not that different in the end, he supposed, except bigger things would have tried to eat him earlier in life and he and Kankri wouldn’t be dying right now.

The world shook and tilted and Karkat came back to himself with a shock. They slid the length of the Conn Pod as it was righted, picking up a few more bruises but spared more damage by the water that flowed around them. The entire Pod quivered, the fluid shaking and a deep boom echoing through the walls. Karkat looked over at his brother, who shook his head, eyes wide.

Something or someone had picked them up. After a negligible degree of thought, accompanied by a less inconsiderable dose of abject terror, Karkat concluded that it was not a kaiju because they were not dead, which could only mean one thing. Rescue.

He squeezed Kankri’s hand again, and received another squeeze in return. Karkat hooked his free arm around an outcropping of the machinery in the centre and used it to anchor them as the Conn Pod trembled; whoever was carrying them wasn’t doing it very smoothly, but they were travelling fast. Karkat closed his eyes and dared to hope.

They stopped an indeterminate amount of time later, and despite the speed of the journey Karkat was struggling to breathe the air his respiration crustacean was feeding to him. Next to him Kankri drifted silently, his grip the only sign that he was still conscious; the water was cold and Karkat could hardly feel anything in his limbs any more except a stiff, weary heaviness. Slowly he turned his head towards the door, wondering if it was worth pushing his way over there and opening it just on the off chance that whatever was outside was survivable, but before he could make his decision the Conn Pod creaked alarmingly.

Kankri sprang back into life with a panicked flail that jolted Karkat loose from his grip on the machinery. They both sank down as the metal over their heads buckled and tore; metal fingers the size of subterranean drainage pipes punched into the Pod, and with a great heaving sound of tortured metal the entire top half of their Conn Pod was ripped away. Karkat found himself looking up into a nightmare of a face; bone-white, almost featureless, with a skull-like nose and a pointed, insane grin that was made all the more horrific by the empty dark pits where there should have been eyes.

Harlequin Mirth.

He didn’t have the strength to kick off from the bottom, but the water swirled around him as the indigo-trimmed Jaeger moved their hands around, holding them out to someone. A second Jaeger appeared, jade-green on black carapace, and from its outstretched hands a pair of ropes dropped. Two small figures slid down and landed in the water with a splash that echoed deep in Karkat’s auricular sponge clots.

The two moons were both high, their light spreading through the water, and so Karkat had a perfectly clear view of Jade when she landed in front of him. Her hair was tied back but it still tried to float in the water like a dark halo around her head. There was something round and black over her mouth, clenched between her teeth, but the corners of her grin were showing around it as she reached out her arms to him. Karkat glanced over at Kankri, and saw him being similarly lifted by Jake; with a sigh that used the last of his air, he let go of his brother’s hand and wrapped both of his arms around Jade’s shoulders. His head sunk down onto her shoulder as she pulled them both up, and past her he caught glimpses of Kankri being lifted in between long, tired blinks.

They reached the distant platform of Rainbow Grace’s hands and were dumped on their backs. Jade’s fingers were already scrabbling around his mouth and Karkat helped her, his hands closing over hers as he pulled off the respiration crustacean and threw it aside. His thorax heaved as he took deep, blessed breaths of real air, and water dripped on him from Jade as she pulled off her own respiration device and started to laugh, still crouched over him. Over her shoulder, Karkat could see stars falling in the sky- no, not stars. Spaceships, the remains of a space battle, burning up in the atmosphere.

“What…” he coughed, his voice still rasping and hoarse. “How…”

“You didn’t think we were just going to leave you down there, did you?” Jade studied his face and saw that he, in fact, had thought just that. Karkat couldn’t have stopped the slap she gave his head if he’d wanted to, but it was gentle- almost a caress. “Dumbass! We didn’t come up with this whole plan just for you to die on us! You’re supposed to live and get medals or whatever it is trolls get when they save the whole world-”

“I'd settle for that fucking lollipop,” said Karkat. Jade stared at him for a moment, then burst out laughing. Karkat watched as her face crinkled up, no longer strange and alien, but warm and familiar and the most beautiful grubdamn thing he had ever seen.

Giddy on oxygen, victory and life, Karkat grabbed the collar of her Drivesuit and hauled her down for a kiss. From the way one of her hands came up to cup the back of his head and the pressure she pushed back with, she liked the idea as much as he did. He closed his eyes; she was almost lying on top of him, but through the Drivesuits that didn’t mean much. What he could feel were her lips, impossibly soft but still strong. The tiny hairs on the surrounding skin brushed against him, the blunt fingers winding into his hair, the taste of salt and metal on his mastication muscle. A pair of green, green eyes, half-closed, hovered over his face when he opened his own to look.

“Hi,” said Jade. Karkat leaned up to press his forehead against hers and ignored the little voices screaming in the back of his head that everything about this was impossible.

He’d just closed the fucking Rift. Impossible was nothing.

The thought reminded him of Kankri, and he turned his head to see his brother smirking at him less than one arm’s length away, Jake crouched over him with a cocky grin of his own. Karkat flipped them both off and Kankri’s smirk grew wider.

“You are finished then, I assume?”

“Fuck you too,” said Karkat. He rolled his head back around to Jade. “So what did we miss while we were rolling around at the bottom of the ocean?”

Jade sat back and shuffled off him, pulling him up to sitting as she did so. “Well, not so much,” she said, her eyes twinkling. “Just us liberating the whole Empire!”

“It was jolly exciting!” said Jake. “You should have seen it! We ended up in a bit of a pickle with those bedevilled spaceships, but I rather think the buggers got the message in the end.”

“We ended up fighting the kaiju and some of the Alternian Fleet for a bit,” said Jade. She pouted. “And Raider got wrecked, because they got pissy about us shooting back! If Rainbow Grace hadn’t picked us up we’d have been goners!”

Karkat looked up at the face of the Jaeger looming overhead. “Thanks.”

The Jaeger nodded back.

“But it all worked out okay in the end. Gl'bgolyb died and Feferi and Meenah officially claimed rulership of the Empire,” finished Jade. She reached into a pouch on her uniform and pulled out a pair of small buds, passing one to Karkat and one to Kankri. “There’s someone who wants to talk to you both.”

Karkat followed her gestures and slipped the small black device into one of his auricular sponge clots. “Hello?”

“Vantas.” Wavescar sounded less than pleased. “You survived, then.”

“You sound disappointed,” said Karkat, smirking a little.

“I have my orders from the Imperial Throne,” said Wavescar in a surly growl. “Directly from Her Imperious Benefaction, who assures me that whatever Her Imperious Domination says regarding the ‘sucky Vantas’, you are both to be considered full citizens of the Empire and your mutation stricken from the cull lists. Congratulations on no longer being anathema to trollkind.”

Kankri cleared his throat. “Whilst I appreciate the form of your apology, Commander, I must pull you up on the tone in which it has been delivered. You are being markedly confrontational…”

“You still disgust me, Vantas. Please recall that I still have command over military forces and a service history of insubordination and treason.” There was another brief pause. “So. Report, Vantas. Has the Precursor threat to Alternia been eliminated?”

“Our mission was most definitely successful,” said Kankri, at the same moment as Karkat said; “Hell fucking yes, what the shit do you take us for?”

Wavescar was silent for a moment, but Karkat could hear cheering over the comm. “Congratulations,” said the Commander, and for the first time she sounded like an actual troll. “And… thank you.”

The communication fell silent, and Karkat slumped back so that he was lying on his back, looking up at the sky. Overhead the clouds were shifting, reflecting pink and green and letting glimpses of stars shine through. He watched them until he heard Jade and Jake shuffle off and start talking in the staccato, liquid tongue that he knew was their native language, then rolled his head to the side.

“Kankri?”

His brother’s head turned slightly. “Hmm?”

“We just saved the fucking world.”

Kankri chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip. “In actuality, Karkat, I think you will find that we just assisted in the liberation of the Empire, and that our task is far from complete. There will be extensive rebuilding work to be done, of course, but I find my personal objectives revolve around the somewhat loftier aim of restructuring our society to eliminate the hemoprejudice that currently pervades our entire culture, a task that should be considerably more achievable now that we have a sympathetic Imperial Duo- although I maintain that an inherently feudal system of governance is itself an invitation to tyranny…”

Smiling, Karkat let his head flop back as loose and weak as all his other extremities, and turned his face up to the moonlight. Something bubbled up through his thorax, something warm and expansive and absolutely, completely unstoppable. One of his hands found its way to Kankri’s arm, and his fingers wrapped around it as his brother’s lecture continued unabated.

Eyes closed, body sore and blood-pusher light, Karkat began to laugh.