He doesn’t really know what to do with himself once Ms. Pyrope leaves. Is he just staying put, out of danger? Is he technically babysitting Terezi who “isn’t doing too well?” Probably not babysitting, he thinks, even though Si seemed to be implying that when they’d spoken. Latula had been so careful about letting him know that he didn’t have to stay if he didn’t want to.
The Pyrope living room is stuffed full of bookshelves with furniture and an entertainment center shoved in as an afterthought. The books are a mix of mythology, criminology, sociology, mystery, history, fantasy, science fiction novels and roleplaying manuals. He grabs a book at random and settles on the couch. The book turns out to be about a prince who goes off to rescue his boyfriend, also a prince, and has various adventures while trying to unlock his Untapped Powers of Magic. Karkat’s up to the part where the prince rescues a fire elemental from a rainstorm when he feels that he isn’t alone in the room.
He doesn’t see anyone at first. It’s the same nebulous not-quite-there “shape” the other Gods assume when they aren’t bothering with a human form. There’s a sense of presence, limbs and dark green eyes arranged around a central column. His brain kept trying to make sense of what he wasn’t really seeing. One moment he saw a tree with eyes, the next he saw a winged lantern shaped like a skull with coiling tentacles.
Karkat set his book on the arm of the couch, open and face down to mark his place. “Hope,” Karkat says. “Hello.” He might have said “hey,” but he wasn’t sure how that would go over. He’d seen and spoken to Hope before, but only briefly. (And the last time he’d been pretty snarky so it might be a good idea to tone that down a little bit this time around.)
“Hello yourself,” Hope says in a voice that sounds like a smile. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your reading. I probably shouldn’t have been watching you so closely. I only meant to take a peek.”
“Why were you?” Karkat asks.
“I could hear you being uncomfortable and unhappy,” Hope says. “And well, you’re here.”
“Is that a problem?” Karkat asks, frowning.
“Oh no,” Hope says, brightening in an uncomfortably literal way. Karkat feels a sense of cheerfulness radiating from Hope, as if all the morning people in the world hopped out of bed and flung open the curtains and wished all of the songbirds good morning. “Quite the opposite, really. It’s good that you’re here, though the reason leaves much to be desired.”
“Yeah,” Karkat says. “So you’re here because I am?”
There was another sense that Hope was smiling. “That should go without saying. I may not be as forward as other members of my family, but rest assured we are all much taken with you, Mister Vantas.”
“As usual I have no idea of what to say to something like that,” Karkat says. “It’s kind of terrifying.” Karkat was willing to admit to something the Gods probably already knew.
“Due to circumstances, we weren’t able to reveal ourselves in a more gentle way,” Hope says. The column-shape pulses and contracts, then folds up into a dark haired boy with glasses wearing a yellow long sleeved shirt and green short pants with suspenders. Hope’s feet are bare and strangely shaped,more like paws than feet, with sharp claws.
“Circumstances involving me being chained up in a freezing cold cave,” Karkat says.
“Not the most romantic first meeting,” Hope says, sitting on the other end of the couch. “I would have preferred, oh, to be some strange and mysterious creature you followed into the woods or a stalwart chap drawing you into strange adventures.” He smiles. “Or you brought to Us as an offering instead of for judgment.”
Karkat can see what He means; Hope is showing him what He means. A gaudy and brilliant temple, and Karkat in gold chains and not much else, chained to an altar. The Gods appear in almost human forms to surround him on the altar. They bend to kiss him, Their hands sliding over skin that feels heated, electric as an aching urgency begins to build within him. He can’t stop himself from arching up, from making soft needy little sounds, begging for more.
Then he’s out of it, back in the living room and shivering with left over sensations and a sense of acute embarrassment. He’s breathless for a second, the sound of his heart beating loud and fast in his ears. “Is that how the wedding thing usually goes?” Karkat snaps when he can speak. It feels as if his entire body is blushing; a rush of embarrassed and aggravated heat.
Hope laughs. “No. But it might be fun to play at.”
“I think that’s a little too kinky for me just yet,” Karkat mutters. “Holy shit.”
“The marriage would take place in the Temple, that part’s true,” Hope says. “You walk to the altar, which is up on a little stage. You say your piece, and the High Priestess says her piece, and then there’s a party.”
“Do You say anything? Any of You?” Karkat asks. No one had really brought up the wedding yet. Not in any kind of detail.
“Not really. The ceremony is acknowledgement and blessing for the people, not the part that binds.” Hope wiggles his eyebrows. “We’re there for the wedding nights of course.”
“Nights?” Karkat asks, not able to help himself. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know about “wedding nights,” plural. At the same time, if he didn’t it would just be kind of lurking there in the background.
“Nights,” Hope says. “At least eight. Maybe more. Like a honeymoon!”
He can’t help wondering how that would go. Would it be one of Them each night, or all at once? He’d really like to ask Kanaya or Si about what it was like. (This was in no way going to happen. He’d die of embarrassment before a word got out.) Where exactly would this “honeymoon” be taking place? His face heats as he thinks of the “temple,” image Hope showed him. The “temple” reminded him of old sword and sorcery movies from the eighties; villains with slave girls hanging off of them, or lounging around on cushions.
Then he finds himself in a big room with fountains, huge arched windows and a bed that’s mostly pillows and furs that he’s lounging in the middle of, naked except for an elaborate gold and ruby necklace, gold bracelets, and two panels of bright red fabric embroidered with gold thread, held in place by a jeweled belt. There’s also something resting on his brow, wrapped around his head. He takes it off and sees it’s a circlet set with diamonds and rubies, the Blood symbol suspended from thin beaded wires between the arches of stylized thorny branches. He blinks and he’s back in the living room. “The hell?”
Hope gives him a look that would be almost innocent if not for the thin, wicked grin that stretches his mouth a little too wide. “People who make virginity sacrifice and harem jokes shouldn’t be surprised to find that their words were inspirational.”
“So my honeymoon is going to be on the set of Conan the Barbarian?” Karkat asks, face heating up.
“It could be on the moon, if you wanted,” Hope says with a brilliant smile.
“What if I don’t want a honeymoon, or a wedding?” Karkat asks. “What if I don’t want any of this?”
“I’m afraid you’re a bit stuck with us,” Hope says. “As We’re a bit stuck on you. You could leave, but we’d follow after you.”
“That kind of showed up a lot in the spell Dad cast,” Karkat says. “You following us if we managed to leave.”
“Even if you wanted nothing to do with Us, never spoke to Us again, never touched Us or allowed Us to touch you, We would follow you,” Hope says.
“Is that even an option though?” Karkat asks. “The no contact thing.”
“It’s an option, though it would be unpleasant for both sides,” Hope admits. “Is that what you want?”
Karkat thinks about it. It wouldn’t be as if everything had gone back to normal. They’d still be there, and he’d be aware of Them. There’d still be figuring out his “Blood” powers. “What I want is that we hadn’t gone camping in the crow woods,” Karkat says carefully.
“Not ‘I wish’?” Hope asks with a grin. “I’m not a monkey’s paw, you know.”
“Yeah, I’m not taking any chances,” Karkat says understanding the reference after a second. He read the story in junior high. Wishing seemed to be something that was inherently dangerous. At least it was in stories.
“‘I want’ could be just as dangerous,” Hope says. “And we would have noticed you eventually, even if you hadn’t gone camping and stumbled onto an initiation.”
“Yeah but it would have been a completely different pile of bullshit. Not the pile of bullshit where--” Karkat breaks off, voice shaking. He scrubs at his eyes, which were watering now. “Someone I’m friends with leaves me tied to a rock so I can get ‘judged.’ She just left me. Like that was an okay thing to do. Like we weren’t friends at all.”
There’s a noise from the hallway then, a sound like a sob or gasp, and then a couple of thumps. Terezi. She had heard him, had been listening for who knows how long. Karkat scrambles off the couch, heart thumping away in his ears. It’s half guilt that she heard him, and half embarrassed that she heard him almost start crying that makes him head for the hallway. He gets there just in time to see Terezi running for her bedroom door in a blur of white robes and bare feet. She slams the door behind her, and shouts something incomprehensible, a series of sounds that he can’t chop up into individual words.
“She says, well, it would translate loosely, ‘he shouldn’t be here, why did you bring him?’” Hope says, coming up behind Karkat.
Karkat feels a chill at that, like ice down his spine. He knows how careful and respectful the Believers are about their Gods from what he’s studied so far. A flat “why did you bring him?” like that should have been unthinkable. Karkat glances back at Hope, more than a little worried about Terezi.
“She’s a bearcat, isn’t she?” Hope asks cheerfully. He doesn’t sound angry or the least bit insulted.
“So, no smiting?” Karkat asks cautiously. “Could smiting be a thing that doesn’t happen?”
“Why would there be smiting?” Hope asks with a sort of wide eyed innocence Karkat immediately doesn’t trust.
“It seemed kind of blunt. And from what I’ve read that kind of blunt usually results in someone becoming a greasy smear on the pavement,” Karkat says.
“There are a few who can get away with being ‘blunt,’” Hope says, a spark of amusement in His green eyes. “Or even irascible!”
Karkat stops himself before he can respond to the teasing. Hope is talking about him, Karkat’s pretty sure of that. He’s also pretty obviously hinting at something. It isn’t hard to figure out what He’s hinting at. Who generally gets away with being blunt? “Is.” Karkat pauses for a moment. “Is Terezi like me? A chosen bride or whatever?”
“You’re a bridegroom, not a bride. Well, if you identify as masculine you’re a bridegroom,” Hope says.
“How do you acknowledge transgender identity and still use the term ‘mongoloid’?” Karkat asks, distractedly.
There’s an odd sense of confusion coming from Hope, paired with a frown. “What you wear doesn’t have much to do with whether you’re masculine, feminine, both or neither. It’s an Outsider notion that Our People can’t help but be at least a little influenced by, but really it doesn’t matter.”
Karkat rubs his face with one hand. He had a strong feeling Hope was conflating terms, and if he tried to explain (when he wasn’t exactly an expert) things would just get more confusing. “Okay,” he says. “Is Terezi a bride?”
“We’ve been courting her,” Hope says. Hope looks toward the closed door, radiating affection and concern. “She and my priest found you, you know. She was ready to grieve, but you were alive, surrounded by flowers and marked by Our Favor.”
“Ready to grieve,” Karkat echoes. He remembers Terezi and Eridan taking him to the Temple. The way they talked about what was going to happen to him. Eridan trying to be sinister and the matter of fact way Terezi made sure he knew he couldn’t escape. He remembers hoping that Terezi would help him, and her saying, “You committed a spiritual crime, and the only way your soul can be cleansed is through sacrifice and the blessed intervention of the Gods.”
“You were friends, and she had to send you to judgment,” Hope says. “She did what she had to, and blames herself for what happened.”
“It wasn’t her fault,” Karkat says immediately. “It’s the fault of whoever set me and Dad up.” It felt strange to defend her so automatically. He was still angry--still felt the sting of betrayal-- but he couldn’t help defending her. It wasn’t her fault, and she hadn’t come to school or said anything to him since, but he hadn’t said anything to her either. Hadn’t tried talking to her, hadn’t even called her up to yell at her. (He wasn’t going to feel guilty about that. He wasn’t.)
“You could tell her that,” Hope says. (Hopefully?)
“I don’t think she wants me to talk to her,” Karkat says. Despite his words, he finds himself moving toward the closed door. Hope follows after him, silent now. As he gets closer to the door he can sense where Terezi is, in the room. She’s sitting on the floor in front of her bedroom door, leaning against it. He puts his hand on the door. “Hey Terezi. Um. Dad tried to cast a spell and it kind of backfired. Si sent me here while he and your mom fix things. Ms. Pyrope didn’t tell you?”
There’s a silence, stretching into several minutes. “I was asleep. I didn’t know you were here until I heard voices,” Terezi says, her voice muffled by the door.
“Yeah,” Karkat says. “Are you okay?” It was a stupid question to ask. Obviously she wasn’t okay. “I mean, do you want to talk, or should I go away?”
“You want to talk to me after what happened?” Terezi asks in return.
Karkat presses his forehead against the door. “Yeah. I mean, I’m still talking to Sollux after all.”
“Sollux didn’t leave you chained up in the dark,” Terezi says.
“But if he’d been there instead of you, he would have done the same, right?”
Terezi says “yes,” so quietly Karkat almost couldn’t hear it.
“Sollux was pretty sure I’d hate him, you know? Just because he was one of you guys. But I didn’t. I told him were still friends.”
Karkat hears a soft thump against the door. “But I actually did leave you for judgement, which could have killed you or worse,” Terezi says.
“Worse being hallucinations, dementia and permanent brain damage, which you don’t really try treating. Give me a minute; I can come up with a Dad-style rant about ableism,” Karkat says.
There’s another thump, a little louder against the door. “I don’t want to hear it.”
Karkat sighs. “Yeah, I’m not sure I could really manage it. I’m tired and apparently had a really weird Groundhog Day weekend.”
“Groundhog Day?” Terezi asks, as if she can’t help herself.
“Have you seen the movie? The main character keeps repeating the same day over and over. Dad tried some kind of ‘scrying’ thing I guess? It didn’t go so well. Breath pulled me out and I called Si and he sent me to get your mom. I could have gone to Sollux’s house I guess but…I wanted to see you.”
“Even after what happened?” Terezi asks.
Karkat swallows, throat suddenly dry. “Yeah.”
“That’s not what you said before,” Terezi says. “I heard what you said.”
“I figured,” Karkat says. He thumps the door. “Let me in? I don’t want to talk to the door.”
There is a pause, and then he hears Terezi get up. Karkat steps back as the door opens with a click. Terezi looked pale, her eyes bloodshot and tired, her hair tangled and sticking up. She's wearing the same kind of clothes that Feferi had worn when she’d gotten back from the Temple, and her feet were bare. She stepped out of the doorway to let him in.
Karkat enters and looks around. Terezi’s bed was unmade, and her room was a mess of schoolbooks and looseleaf paper and binders. Karkat sits down at her computer desk, and Terezi sits down on the edge of her bed. Hope enters as well, a diffuse sort of presence that somehow seems to indicate both concern and a desire to not interfere. (Terezi’s shoulders hunch, and her fingers tangle and twist as she stares down at her feet.)
“I’m sorry I didn’t come see you sooner,” Karkat says after a silence that felt long, but might have only been a minute. “I was angry, and then I was trying to figure things out. There was too much happening all at once, and then psychic kaiju are looming over me and crows are screaming ‘Blood for the Blood God,’ at me.”
Terezi chokes on a thin little laugh. “So you’re okay with me almost getting you killed?” Terezi asks, her voice tired and brittle.
“No, that was pretty messed up,” Karkat says. “But it wasn’t your fault. You got set up.”
“I should have seen it,” Terezi says sharply. She look up, and her blood shot eyes are vivid, tear bright teal-green. “I should have seen you! I should have known!”
“You got set up, Terezi,” Karkat repeats. “Me and my Dad got set up. Neither of us blame you for what happened.”
“You should,” Terezi said. “I didn’t See anything about you. Even if a more powerful priest or adept interfered with the ritual and set you up, I should have known about you.”
“About me?” Karkat asks, a little surprised.
“If I’d known, if I’d realized what I was sensing from you, I would have told Feferi and she would have made contact, and this wouldn’t have happened,” Terezi says. “You and your Dad wouldn’t have gone up to the crow woods, and I wouldn’t have had to leave you for judgment.”
“Feferi’s enemies would have just done something else to try discrediting her,” Hope says. “They would have set someone up who wouldn’t have survived judgment at all, and that would have been worse.”
Terezi hunches her shoulders again at the words But I wouldn’t have hurt Karkat! ring in Karkat’s ears. For a moment he sees the line connecting him and Terezi, it pulses with a rapid, almost painful beat. She’s twisting it, it’s hurting her. (It’s hurting him.)
Karkat touches the line--
--he slips out of the chair settling on his knees between Terezi’s feet. He reaches out and catches Terezi’s hands. “Terezi,” Karkat says. “You know I’d be just as freaked out as I was when you left me.”
“I thought about it. I thought about it a lot,” Terezi says, her voice broken into pieces and full of tears. “I could have made it work. You wouldn’t have known.”
“Want to bet I wouldn’t have?” Karkat says. “I’m seeing a lot, just from here.” There was so much. Terezi’s mind was ticking along in tightly wound circles, trying to figure out where she went wrong. She saw him, over and over again, in the Temple, taking him to the Chamber of Repentance. In her mind she had ruined everything, destroyed the sacred marriage before it could even happen. Karkat would never come to love the Gods (the way she did). She had done the unforgivable; she was a false Seer, a false Beloved. She tried to pull away from him, wanting to escape him (her thought).
“Terezi. Terezi no,” Karkat says. “Terezi, stop it!” His throat ached with the force of the words. Terezi froze, wide eyed, staring. (There’s a sense that she’s fighting him. He has a sense that teeth are bared and wings mantled at him, a fierce and terrible something-that-is-her-and-not-her.) “Please, Terezi, it’s okay. Stop beating yourself up. You already did all the penance crap. You don’t need to do more.”
Terezi drew in a breath to start protesting, but Karkat squeezes her hands--
--and runs right over her with his own words.
“I mean it Terezi. You don’t need to fix me. You don’t need to fix whatever mess you think you made between me and your Gods. I probably would have been just as freaked out if Light gave me a tentaclehorror Valentine’s Day card, or I don’t know Hope put Green Mansions in my Netflix queue. I don’t hate you, I don’t hate Them, okay? What happened was fucked up and weird and I am not okay with it but I am also not okay with you holing up in your room like this because of me. I mean, you can hole up if you think you need to, but it’s been a long time and I’m worried and confused and I can feel how bad you feel about what happened.” He tries a spell, a small one, sending calm through the connection while he talks, half begging half bullying. He shows her how he feels. He visualizes the frantic pulse slowing, the tangles coming out smooth and straight. It was slow, very slow going, but he saw/felt the tension and misery fade, go hazy and blunt.
“I’m so sorry,” Terezi says finally in a small, miserable voice.
“I know,” Karkat says. He rises to sit beside her on the bed, and pulls her into a hug. “You want to get something to eat?” he asks.
“Yeah,” Terezi says.
She doesn’t move to get up, and he doesn’t move either for several minutes.