You were too young to remember getting your first pair of shades, but you can picture it. Tiny little Dave in your badass onesie, propped up on a soft stack of cushions or smuppets or whatever creepy stuff you had in your nursery, your bro crouching down to balance them on your nose. They’re a perfect replica of his, necessary paraphernalia for any fashionable Strider about town.
“You do know that wearing sunglasses indoors is the complete antipathy of cool, don’t you?” Rose says to you years later over chat, already possessed of her swelling love for psychoanalysis and serving up heaping platefuls of fresh, hand-picked bullshit. “Do you ever wonder what your brother is hiding with the shades? Or what he’s hiding from?”
Rose is paranoid and nosey, and the president of the Future Cat-Ladies of America. What the fuck does she know?
None of the people on TV have eyes like you do, but they are also all Hollywood perfect pretty, and they have parents and pets and live in houses that aren’t stacked on top of other houses, packed in tight beneath a low grey sky and ribbons of heat haze. They don’t talk the way you do. They’re fake, and you’re real. Even the people in your everyday life--convenience store clerks, teachers, pizza delivery guys--they’re not Striders. They don’t know how to be cool. That’s some intense master-level shit that your bro has passed down only to you.
The first time you pick up a blade it cuts you. You yelp and drop it and stick your fingers in your mouth. You shouldn’t have been messing around, but you’re only six and those things are hella shiny.
You are sniveling in the bathroom, sink awash with first-aid supplies, when your bro finds you. He has Cal draped over one shoulder, both of them looking dope in their matching hats. Your nose is running, and even with your shades on he’ll know you’ve been crying. He and Cal just stare for awhile, and then he reaches around and yanks the mess of gauze and medical tape off your fingers. You gasp and the boy in the mirror trembles with pain and shame.
Bro holds the gauze in front of you, hand almost the size of your entire face. Drops of blood splatter into the basin of the sink, washed down to pink as they spread and streak. He grins. “This is your color, kid.”
You go to school because that shit is compulsory and your bro sure as hell doesn’t have time to homeschool your ass, unless it’s in the fine art of handing it to you. The plebes get weird about your shades—don’t like that you can see their eyes and they can’t see yours—but you feed them a steady diet of dramatic, dire diseases you look up on Wikipedia. You photoshop doctors’ notes and forge signatures.
You keep mostly to yourself, because when you talk people tend to laugh at you, and when that happens you can’t just let that shit go. The dumbfucks in your class are too pedestrian to battle it out like men, freestyle, on the roof at high noon with nothing but a shitty sword and the sickest rhymes you can spit. You try not to hold it against them. A Strider has compassion for those not versed in the art of being totally sweet.
There’s this one particular kid in sixth grade who commits the ultimate taboo—snatches your shades like a huge bag of dicks and puts them on his own unclean face.
The classroom is a tiny cinderblock cell. Your face burns and your heartbeat doubles. There are people here and they’re all looking at your eyes, gasping and giggling. You want to scream and pull your shirt up over your face. You want to abscond the fuck away. You don’t do any of these things, because you’re a Strider and Striders stay cool.
The kid goes into a rap squat in front of your desk and says something to the effect of, “Yo, yo, bitches.”
Imbecile. You play it exactly how your bro would. “Dude, if you wanted to suck my dick so bad you should have just said something. I’d have just gotten it out for you. I’m a fucking gentleman like that.”
The room goes closed-ward quiet. Even the teacher’s got nothing, shocked silent to hear this coming out of an eleven year old’s mouth, in a voice that’s barely started to break.
The douche with your shades sneers at you. “Freak,” he hisses. “Freaky mutant fag.”
You brace your hands back on your desk and kick him under the chin. He squeals and your shades fly off his face, and then it’s fucking on. You’re a bony, seventy pound avalanche of bubbling aggression, and you love how easy he goes down, how he can’t fight back, how every time you strike out you get the satisfying thunk of connection, fists hitting skin and bone. It takes your teacher and a passing janitor to drag you off him.
They exile you to the office and call your bro to come pick you up, which is hilarious enough, but then you get to sit there and listen as the vice principal tells him you attacked another student and used absolutely disgusting language, things that she can’t even repeat. You have to bite your own lips, you have to stuff your fist into your mouth to keep from laughing as your bro nods and scowls, the kiss-ass fuck. When she’s done he turns to you and says something vaguely creepy and incestuous about you getting the spanking of your life when you get back home, just subtle enough for the V.P. to wonder and then feel ashamed at her own dirty mind.
Truly, your bro is a master of the craft.
On the walk back he’s as impassive as always, but you can tell he’s proud of you. You didn’t back down like a pussy. You taught that kid what happens when you fuck with a Strider.
Voices whisper freak in your ears, and your dreams are full of fire and clockwork and the cawing of a thousand crows.
Red is the color of scraped knees and the welts left by training swords. When you graduate to real blades, it’s the color of the cuts on your arms and face. You get yellow for fading bruises, blue and purple for fresh ones. You get the barren grey of early morning when you leave for school and the little flicker-flashes of black crowding your vision when you haven’t eaten in awhile. Some nights your bro is too booked to bring food home, and sometimes he doesn't come home at all.
That’s cool. That’s fine. You’re not a fucking kid. You chill at home and imagine him spinning at those rich douchebags’ parties, all of them being lame and all thinking he’s actually enjoying himself, like he’s serious about the shit he raps about. Sometimes Cal stays home with you, which is awesome—Cal is hells of sweet. Still, it can be kind of hard to sleep knowing he’s sitting out in the living room, baby blues never able to close, lying lifeless until he can climb back onto your bro’s shoulder.
Sometimes you feel that way, too. Like you’re a mess of twisted limbs and cut strings, broken pieces waiting to be slingshot back into motion. You learn to strike fast, to track the slightest movement, the barest disturbance in the air. Strifes can happen any time, anywhere. That’s one of the Strider rules.
You know what your life would look like to an outsider (you’re not an idiot) but they just don’t get it. Your bro is a hero, a master, the actual ironic real deal, and this is training for when you’re a hero too. If it hurts, it’s because you aren’t strong enough yet, and if the nightmares keep you awake and the loneliness pulses up from inside you like arterial blood, it’s because you’re too soft. You have to get stronger, cooler. You gotta roll with it.
Years later you’ll stand on a tiny grey meteor screaming through the void and you’ll understand what he was doing. Calcifying you, turning you flawless and blank. Another puppet for his collection.
GT: dude, puppets are so lame!
GT: i don’t know why you are so into that stuff
TG: says the guy whos got a shrine to nicholas cages dorito face above his bed
TG: perfectly positioned for the most masturbatory mileage
GT: nicholas cage is great!
GT: did you watch the movies i sent you?
TG: i thought about it but then i projectile vomited on my computer screen.
TG: the puke looked way better than cage so i watched that instead
Of course you watched it. You watch every movie John recommends. Most of them suck, and even when they don’t, it’s way more fun to mock John than to let yourself enjoy them.
Mostly the two of you just IM, but every so often you skype and you get to rag on him in real time, hear his goofy mock outrage in that slippery northwest accent, watch his overbite loom huge in your screen when he gets overexcited and moves in too close to the camera. He’s what most people would call your best friend, as weird as he is, and he introduces you to two girls who are even weirder. For the first time, you have something you can hold even if you can’t touch them, even if you never will. They’re yours.
One afternoon you’re perched on the edge of the couch getting your game on when your bro drags himself up off his futon, hair a puffy white cloud, wearing nothing but a pair of smuppet-patterned briefs that you’re pretty sure he made himself. It’s already past three, but he hadn’t gotten home till six that morning. When your bro crashes, he crashes hard.
You stare for too long, and you feel the exact moment when the record skips from casual onceover to awkward as hell.
Your bro is tanned from strifes on the roof, clean muscle up his stomach and across his shoulders. He’s got wiry gold hair where you’ve barely got fuzz. He’s a work of fucking art. His mouth curves, eyebrows hooking up over his shades.
“Like what you see, little man?”
That teasing croon you’ve heard him use on the phone, with potential clients or girlfriends or tax agents, the one that says that he’s looking for trouble and you just might be the one to give it to him. He even follows it up with a little flick of pink tongue across his bottom lip.
You give him the weakest brush-off of your career. “Oh yeah, you know it.” You unpause the game, but your face is burning and your fingers slip on the controller, sending pixel Tony Hawk careening off a guardrail mid-grind and into a poorly-rendered streetlight.
You’ve seen him naked before (your bro, not Tony Hawk); no way to avoid it when you share a space so small. But your gaze has never stuck like that before, caught on how his body is put together and the slow exchange of balanced energy when he moves.
Whatever. It’s not like you’re jerking it to the thought of him or looking up his solo videos on his websites. Lalonde has because she’s totally demented and has the hots for you something fierce, and unfortunately there aren’t any videos of you masturbating online so your bro is the next best thing. It’s not like you think about other dudes. You’re not gay or anything.
(and if you have the occasional dream or stray thought about guys at school or in movies, or if seeing a notification from John makes your guts all squirmy-weird, well, that’s what denial is for)
It’s probably just your own morbid brain flipping off the handle, but after that strifes seem to shift a fraction. Nothing too weird, just…little things, nudges, contact that lasts too long. Sometimes you forgo swords entirely and grapple in the dust on the roof, your bro getting you with full-body pins, flooding you with adrenaline until your heart is beating too fast and he is all you see, a solid dark mass that gets between you and the burning Texas sun.
He never touches you, not like that, and you don’t think he ever would. He just wants it to be clear that he can take anything he wants, and you would let him have it.
Occasionally a strife sticks with you, like a dry-swallowed pill halfway down your throat. You’re hitting the kitchen for some AJ and you are not as on-point as you could be. Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff scripts don’t write themselves, okay, that sort of ironic magnificence requires brainstorm time. Mostly with John, every so often with Rose. Not that you would ever tell her you’ve raided her pesterlogs for material. You are texting one-handed like a noob, and the open-hand slap to the back of your head catches you totally by surprise. So does the kick to the back of your knees that sends you clatter-smashing into the stove. Lucky you hadn’t turned it on. Ramen noodles are not worth burning your face off for.
You squirm into a roll on instinct when you hit the ground, then roll twice more to give yourself some space, before yanking your sword out of your sylladex and coming up in a ready-stance. Bro’s already flash-stepped across the room, just a silhouette of shades and cut shoulders in the dark. You're discombobulated from the whiplash and your parry is sloppy, his second attack vibrating up your wrists and into your arms, aching all the way down to the bones. Cal is clinging to his shoulders like a creepy fucking sloth.
The strife ends on the roof; no matter what happens, you always run up.
Maybe it’s because you didn’t get any of that sweet apple nectar, or maybe that smack to the head left you dizzier than you thought, but you can’t claw back any of the ground you’re losing. Your footwork is atrocious and your strikes hit nothing but air. Bro gets you to the very edge of the roof, dipping you back over the brickwork like this is a dance and he’s the gentledude you stood up with. He and Cal are smirking.
You had a push-up test in gym today. Maybe that’s it. Your arms shake. When a muscle seizes and you drop your sword, your bro doesn't stop, his expression doesn’t change. A scalding, uncomplicated spike of fear pierces you. Normally you can beat the fear, conceal it, wrap it up in amusement or annoyance or irony, until you get a nice safe sushi roll of emotions. But today you feel it smooth and clean as a fresh sheet of ice.
You think, one day he’s going to kill me.
It’s the shock of the thought more than its actual content that makes you crumple to the rough stone roof, folding under one punch. No big deal. This is fine. You can trap his leg and get him off balance long enough for you to grab another crappy sword from your strife deck. Instead you curl up like a fuzzy blond hedgehog, pushing your face into the protective curve of your arms.
Your bro kicks you in the ribs once, twice. Your face is wet. Huh. You must be bleeding. Or sweating. Twelve year-olds sweat a lot. If you don’t move, don’t respond, you wonder if eventually he’ll get bored and just stick his sword into you. It’ll hurt, but not forever.
“C’mon, kid. Get the fuck up.”
You are twelve years old and you are waiting for the world to end.
You are thirteen and it does.
You keep going, dropping off frayed pieces of yourself like molted feathers, dead Daves and doomed Daves and Daves that got erased. You throw your own corpse out of your bedroom window, spin your timetables to make perfect loops, and watch your friends die. You erase the world and paint it back over like a shitty mural.
You keep waiting for your training to kick in and the badass rush to finally sweep away the fear. Heroes face death with a backflip and two middle fingers, so eventually your hands will stop shaking, right? You’ll feel something besides slight nausea when you slice an imp in two.
You make cautious friends with the twisting in your guts and corrosive bile in your throat. You stay cool, weave and duck and land your hits, collect grist, haul yourself up your echeladder. You alchemize bitchin outfits and flirt with troll girls and sometimes also troll boys (ironically). You are a master in the fine art of babbling until things make sense again. You roll with it.
(and if you spend your first day in the Land of Heat and Clockwork curled up on your bed with your palms clamped over your ears to drown out the sound of ringing steel, screwing your eyes shut against the haze of crimson, well. that’s what denial is for)
Blood spreads across the broken stone, cracks filling in like clotted arteries. It’s as red as magma, as red as eyes, as red as everything else in your life that shouldn’t be but is. Turns out his insides are the same color as yours.
His eyes are half open and glowing, but near everything glows in John’s shadowy depression land. One leg is crooked up at the knee and both hands rest with palms up like he’s waiting for props from on-high. His neck is twisted stiffly to one side, veins bulging. You sit down next to the body.
Grief, anger, relief—you can see them all crowding on the deck of a ship and waving their asses off before it pulls out of port and immediately slams into an iceberg. You all go down into the freezing Atlantic. There are no survivors.
You’re a little tired. Kind of hungry.
Terezi trolls you. She’s abrasive, but that’s good. Weirdly satisfying, like running your fingers over rough brick. You try to break the sword pinning your bro to the smooth blue rock like a jacked butterfly in a polo, and all you get is dumped backward on your ass. Damn thing is hells of bendy.
You could just pull it out. Forgo any fancy flipping off the handle. But there is a part of you that is sure that if you did take the sword, he would get back up. Crack a smile and cock an eyebrow. Your cool, perfect, impossible brother.
You leave the sword where it is.
Years later, but not many, you sit on the edge of a roof and watch as an alternate reality version of your house is built higher and higher, next to a boy who looks like your bro but isn’t, talks like him but not really. All the hollow parts you thought were filled up are aching and you don’t want to get into it. You can’t.
But Dirk isn’t him. He’s dead and you’re not, and you have a sister and bros and a douchey cape that stays magically clean, and Karkat, who for the first fucking time in his life had listened to an entire story without once making a snide comment, and afterward held you from behind so you could hide your face in your hands. None of this will stop being true, even if you lose, even if you vanish.
Hazy green clouds drift overhead and you knock your heels against the brickwork. You suck in a sulfury breath. “Actually, maybe I will get into it.”